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Chapter 18: Chapter 18

Beans in Georgia; My next assignment after I polished, printed, and filed a copy of my Umeracha article for my records. I faxed and e-mailed the other copy to an eagerly awaiting Helen in Miami and moved on to the next adventure.

Benedetta ended up being quite taken with the idea of a weekend getaway before school started. The afternoon caught us driving up north, leaving the ocean and the pets safely lodged at the pet sitter's place.

I had spoken to Gabe earlier in the week, and although the distance between us was a stretch, it seemed we both had our minds set to make it work.

I did miss him. A lot. Every time I heard his voice over the phone, I questioned my reasons to come back home. A tiny, resonant voice kept on telling me to throw all caution to the wind and pack a bag to join him in Australia for the rest of my days.

I knew I was going to get the phone bill from hell. We used e-mail as well, but it didn't cut it. I didn't like the impersonality of it. I have a weird phobia about electronics and modern gadgets-I just don't trust them. I even call the magazines every time I fax my articles to let them know my stuff is on the way. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the sound of another human being's voice replying to me instead of a metallic beep-beep. I don't even own a cell phone. I refuse to.

Gabe, on the other hand, didn't seem to mind electronics at all. And here I was, struggling with the several phone numbers and e-mail addresses he'd given me. He was getting all sorts of semi-funny, frustrated messages, loving every single one of them. He asked why I didn't have a mobile and how would he get in touch with me while I was on my way to Georgia. I gave him Benedetta's cell phone number, and she began calling it a mobile as well. She got all worked up at the thought of receiving a phone call from the legendary Gabe Miller.

"How should I answer?" she wondered aloud as we drove through green pastures where cows lazily brushed flies from their sides, sending us pungent whiffs of country life.

While fidgeting with the radio, I shot her a puzzled look. "What do you mean, how should you answer?"

"Oh, just kidding. I'm a little apprehensive at the prospect of talking to him, though." She looked out the window. Low vegetation and straw-scented pastures edged the way. "How are we gonna know that we're in Georgia? It all looks the same to me."

"They should have a sign that says welcome to Georgia," I told her. I smiled as the wheels in my brain clicked with the idea of a potential prank. "By it they're going to have a little stand with a person offering peaches and information to folks driving up. Just like when you come to Florida they give you oranges ..."

"Wow!" she said. "I sort of knew about the oranges, but I didn't know they did that in all the states."

I nodded. "But of course. Cheese in Wisconsin ... corn in Kansas ... barbeque in Missouri ... suntan lotion or avocados in California-they've got to be different over there. Mardi Gras beads in Louisiana ..." Hmm, what else? "Potatoes in Idaho ... clam chowder in New England ... lobster in Maine ... peyote in Arizona ... chilies in New Mexico ... salmon in Washington ... lines of credit and condoms in Nevada ... hair spray and steaks in Texas-"

She hit me.

"Ahia!" I yelled, rubbing my leg where she had smacked me with her flip-flop. I noticed her toe polish. "Benedetta, that's a nice color," I said, admiring a pretty shade of pearly coral that set off her tanned feet.

She forgot all about me fibbing and lifted her foot up on the dashboard, gingerly admiring her pedicure. "It's called Vulva Peach."

Who was kidding whom here?

We drove in silence for a while, munching on some dried-fruit mix and listening to some depressing honky-tonk whining. I wondered if playing the songs backwards would make things better for the poor country fellow who lost dogs, women, jobs, and precious belongings; all in less time it would take them to spit a pinch of chew.

Benedetta opened a bottle of water and noisily gurgled some. I laughed, pointing at the approaching road sign welcoming us to Georgia. "Look." I slowed down. "We can stop and snap some pics if you'd like."

The water bottle gurgled and bobbed in agreement with her head.

The sun hung low in the western horizon beyond a grassy field where a distant pine forest ran endlessly along the road. Spectacular hues of purples and oranges streaked the sky against the solid black wall of trees. On our right, a waning moon rose, dragging along a darker mantle of dusking skies. We parked on the side of the road, and I snapped several photos of Benedetta hugging the Georgia sign. She does everything with the enthusiasm of somebody who almost died and was given a second chance. I love her dearly. I love her even more knowing that a few years back I might have lost her forever.

While in college she worked at a convenience store. One evening, during a graveyard shift, an idiot decided to rob the store. He hit Benedetta in the head with a jumbo beer can. He hit her really hard. She lost consciousness and was left for dead until a customer walked in and called an ambulance, saving her life. They caught the robber with the help of the security camera. He wasn't new at this; third strike and he was out. Benedetta followed the trial from her hospital room. Nevertheless, even knowing that he had been locked behind bars, she still struggled with safety issues for months afterwards. Hence, Eros, her trained Doberman killing machine. Once in a while she gets horrible migraines, but most of the time she's busy feeling, tasting, absorbing life, and hugging Georgia signs. And she discovered Wicca.

"Ready?" I asked her, before she would decide to get frisky with the sign and start licking it.

"Yeah," she said.

She jumped back in my car and landed on the forgotten water bottle on her seat, smashing it. "Uh-I think I just had an accident," she whined in a childlike voice. A dark stain spread like a shadow under her yellow shorts.

"Have you got a change of clothes?" I asked, assessing the damage.

"Yes, in my bag in the trunk." She hopped out of the car, dripping water as she went.

I popped the trunk open and heard her rummage through her stuff, whistling softly under her breath. She's an incredible whistler. We would have to hurry or the entire Georgia state bird population would soon show up to accompany her.

*

She was still whistling when we pulled into the well-lit parking lot of Aunt Delilah's Roadside Café.

The place buzzed with lively energy. I had to drive around the ample parking lot twice before I finally managed to squeeze my car in between two monstrous pick-ups, one of them sporting a huge rebel flag and a bumper sticker that read, "Fight violence, shoot back." Indeed.

We stepped out of the car, filling our lungs with the breezy evening air and a strong whiff of whatever was cooking inside. With watering mouths we walked up to a spacious front porch where customers chatted. One tickled a guitar and lazily rocked on a swing. I couldn't tell if they were waiting for tables or if they liked the food so much they had separation anxiety issues. Just like me a week earlier in Adelaide, but I was supposedly leaving the love of my life behind. These people had bean soup issues; but then, I hadn't tasted the soup yet.

Framed in ancient wood that must have been painted light green circa the Civil War, a mosquito screen introduced itself to us as the front door. Amazingly, it didn't squeak when we opened it. But who would have heard it anyway? The kind of southern blues that grips your soul reached our ears while our nostrils filled with the teasing aroma of smoked ham swirling weightlessly, directed by several ceiling fans working overtime.

The dining room was full. Packed.

As we entered, the entire room turned to look at us, and we stood there, a bit uncomfortably, taking it all in. I was wondering where to go from there when an older man wearing a stained apron welcomed us with a genuine gap-toothed grin. With a strong hand on my shoulder, he moved us to a table in the back of the restaurant by an open window.

"Welcome to Aunt Delilah's. What cannah get you to drink?" A crooked smirk hooked his ageless face, reminding me of a well-tanned Popeye.

Benedetta often and randomly reads my mind. "Nice to meet you, Pop. My name is Benedetta, and this here is my friend Porzia." She introduced me with her hand. "What do you recommend?"

Pop smiled. He patted Bene's head lightly and mumbled something about leaving it up to him. In less than two minutes he reappeared, out of nowhere, with two jumbo, frosty mugs filled to the rim with ice-cold beer, and a platter of fried okra.

He winked at Bene, then turned to me and asked if I was there to meet Delilah.

I nodded, dipping my nose in the beer head.

"She's in the kitchen, brewing tomorrow's stock," he said. "After you eat, I'll take you back there." He left us to tap our feet to the crescendo rhythm of the music.

I sipped my beer. Caspita! One of the best I'd had in a while.

By the time Pop came by, we had drained the mugs. He placed two bowls of the renowned bean soup in front of us along with a basket full of corn muffins and a crock of whipped butter.

It smelled heavenly, if heaven smelled of smoked ham and hearty beans.

He grabbed the empty beer mugs. "Ready for another round?"

We nodded.

In no time Pop brought us the second round and grabbed a chair from a nearby table. He sat on it backwards, using the chair's back as a support for his elbows, wiping his forehead with his stained apron.

"How'd you like it?" he asked, pointing at the mugs.

"It's excellent," I answered. "What is it?"

He grinned and balanced the chair closer on two legs. A conspiratorial look spread across his face. "Delilah's own secret brew." He shifted his shrewd eyes to Benedetta. "So-your parents thought you were a blessing?" he asked as if it were the most natural thing on the planet to find an old grandpa at a truck stop able to translate Benedetta's name.

"Yes, they did." Benedetta lifted her head to answer. The soup had steamed up her glasses.

One would probably think we were nuts to eat hot soup on a sticky, warm August evening, but with my job's deadlines I'm used to it, like models get used to wearing bathing suits in January. Besides, an entire dining room agreed with me this evening. The ice-cold beer married superbly with it, like Parmigiano e maccheroni.

Benedetta took her glasses off to wipe off the soup steam and smiled at Pop with her nearsighted, angelic blue eyes. She's cute with her glasses on. She's not of this world when she takes them off. I suspect the gods made her nearsighted so humans could handle looking at her, and vice versa.

"Hey, Dad, are you so busy charming these pretty young ladies you've forgot the rest of the room?"

Pop turned his head to look at an incredibly handsome man with chiseled features.

Did he just say "Dad"? I wondered. My eyes darted, all unglued, between Pop and the black Adonis towering right behind him. It was like thinking of Geppetto manifesting the David instead of Pinocchio out of a piece of wood.

No way.

Benedetta's glasses dropped in her soup.

"Ladies, may I introduce to you my son, Jason," Pop said, grinning proudly, not without a hint of sarcasm. "Named for the leader of the Argonauts and Medea's main love disaster." Pop tugged at Jason's shirt trying to make him take a bow.

I was speechless. Pop a mythology expert? Oddio, what next?

Jason swatted a rolled kitchen towel at his astute father. He then shook hands with us, offering Benedetta another bowl of soup. She nodded, hastily wiping her glasses so she could take a better look at him.

Pop got up with a look that told us he wouldn't be long and followed his stunning son into the kitchen.

"Benedetta, stop staring at his butt."

She turned around. "Can't help it." She grinned and reached for her beer. She took a long gulp and smiled at me, curling up a white, foamy moustache. "This is a hell of a place." She cast her arm out in a vague general direction. "Your mailman told you about it?"

I nodded with chipmunk-size cheeks grinding beans. "Uh-huh. He always has great tips."

"I bet Pop's real name is Aeson," she said knowingly.

"Why do you say that?" I asked, busy counting the different varieties of beans in my bowl. So far I had recognized seven-no, eight-I had just noticed the black-eyed peas.

"You know I'm fascinated by Greek mythology. The Argonaut Jason, his father's name in ancient mythology was Aeson, then the Medea disaster and blah, blah, blah ..."

"When did you start learning all this?" I interrupted, curious.

She reached across the table to dunk half a corn muffin in my soup. "I was taking it in college when we met. Then continued researching on my own, among other things. Did you know that the philosophers called their narrations myths? Look how we've distorted the meaning of the word now and relegated it to something invented, fable-like." She brought the soaked muffin up to her mouth and took a bite. Amazingly, it didn't crumble. It made me want to do the same. I reached for the breadbasket as Jason approached the table carrying a professional camera and Benedetta's soup.

"I should have known you were from Gusto. Dad just told me." He extended his hand. "I'll be taking the photos for your article," he added, smiling.

I raised an eyebrow and shook his hand. "You're the photographer?" I asked, not quite believing him.

He nodded. "They should have told you at the magazine that Delilah doesn't allow strangers to take photos in her establishment."

I liked that word: establishment.

I suddenly recalled my conversation with Oscar, the editor in chief of Gusto, the magazine that commissioned me for this article. He had mentioned something about Delilah's voodoo belief that pictures could steal souls.

"So here I am, at your service." Jason bowed gallantly.

"So why are you so special?" Benedetta asked him.

Jason grinned somewhere up around a thousand watts and made matters even more intriguing, telling us that Delilah not only was his mother, but also his generous benefactor. She had paid for his art school tuition.

Benedetta and I exchanged a look. That made Pop Delilah's husband. I couldn't wait to meet her.

Skimming the livid glare of a row of Carmen Miranda look-alikes at the bar, Jason escorted us into the kitchen through a multicolored beaded curtain that tinkled like chimes as we passed through. We stepped into a spacious kitchen with industrial-sized appliances. On the walls chilies and garlic garlands held hands, festively hanging between wooden shelves stacked with jars of spices, herbs, legumes, and rice. I believe I saw frog legs and lizard's tails. Or maybe a hint of voodoo fueled my imagination.

A back door opened onto a small courtyard allowing a cool breeze to ventilate the space and tousle the beaded curtain behind us. On a miniature altar, a porcelain Virgin Mary looked down on a tiny vase of fresh daisies. A fake snake coiled by her feet, strangling a shot glass filled to the rim with what I suspected to be spiced rum.

Holy Mother, may I introduce to you Damballah?

The mouthwatering aromas of steaming bread pudding tickled my nose, and my eyes landed on an ancient black woman standing on a small stool stirring a large pot. She smiled at us as we approached her, then, without missing a beat of her stirring, she called over her shoulder in a raspy voice, "Delilah! Your guests are here!"

Framed by the open back door, a silhouette appeared. A ghostly line of smoke rose off a cigarillo hanging from the naked lips of Ezili's human manifestation. The Haitian goddess stood in front of us dressed in a brightly flowered sundress. A jet-black braid crowned her head, and yellow tiger-eyes smiled at us warmly above flawless mocha cheekbones so high and sharp they could cut through glass. She pushed off the doorframe, extending her arms. Now I knew where Jason got his looks.

"Welcome," she purred, taking both my hands in hers. "You must be Porzia."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Delilah." I wondered if I ought to curtsy.

"And this must be your ... blessed friend." She let go of my hands to take Benedetta's.

"Hello," Benedetta said in her cool, friendly voice.

"Hello," Delilah answered. "I dreamed about your visit." She stared at Benedetta. "Evil has been lingering. I dreamed a blessed soul would come and restore balance."

Delilah's words sent shivers down my spine.

"This night calls for a celebration. Aeson, honey, would you fetch some of Mama's agua?" she asked her husband in a purr.

I gasped silently. Benedetta had guessed right about Pop's name. What the hell was going on?

From beans I had been catapulted into Congo Square. I could feel Marie Laveau oozing in from the afterlife. It was happening quite often lately; I kept finding myself in the midst of some sort of esoteric endeavor. I shook my head and trailed behind Benedetta and Delilah out the back door into the small courtyard.

Aeson followed with a tray holding three small shot glasses and an old bottle filled with a foggy liquid. He left us as we sat around a cast iron table on matching chairs covered with floral-print cushions.

Night jasmine and honeysuckle sweetly scented a gentle breeze. A tall brick wall surrounded the courtyard, giving us a sense of privacy and the feeling we were all alone.

"Gerome called. He said you'd be coming up to write about some of my recipes," Delilah said as she poured the liqueur. "How is he?"

Gerome is my mailman and second cousin to an innumerable amount of culinarily dedicated relatives sprinkled throughout the Bible Belt.

"He's doing pretty well," I answered distractedly. My eyes widened as she lit a match and set the contents of the glasses on fire.

"What are you doing?" Benedetta at her best, mincing no words.

"This is Mama's aguardiente. A distilled, mystical concoction I won't divulge." Delilah looked at us. "Once the excess alcohol burns off only the concentrated essence remains. That's when you drink it, but we must wait until it has cooled a bit. Patience is everything."

We settled thoughtfully to wait while the ethereal flames danced and died.

An irreverent breeze tousled my hair, bringing the notes of a blues guitar to my ears as if from a distance. High above, the moon had reached her peak and lingered, curious, to wait with us before resuming her descent.

Benedetta is not good at waiting. "So, what am I supposed to do for you?" she asked Delilah bluntly.

Overhead, I thought I heard the moon sigh in exasperation. Maybe it was me.

Delilah's amber eyes swept us. She frowned, struggling to find the right words. "Evil has been meddling with my ingredients, spoiling things up." Her subtle accent told me Jamaica wasn't that distant in her past.

Benedetta pushed her glasses up her nose. "Uh-could you be a little more specific?" she pressed.

"Humidity. This year it has been impossible. My saffron, for example." Delilah paused dramatically, making a rubbing movement with her thumbs and two fingers, like sprinkling a pinch of salt on a dish. "Or my cayenne. Or cinnamon. Not silky dry, but pasty." She paused again, dramatically. "Fungus-like."

Her words had such vivid impact I actually visualized the saffron clotting.

"An oath has been spoken," Delilah whispered, as if saying the words out loud would enhance the evil powers. Her eyes sparkled like topaz. She picked up her shot glass and gulped the agua down, throwing her head backwards. Amazing how her braid remained in place against such a sudden jerk.

We tried to follow her example. She had made it look so easy, like a shot of regular water.

It was fire. It burned down my throat. It stung my eyes and seared my lungs. It blazed in my stomach. I had just swallowed liquid lava. I coughed, I cried, I grabbed my stomach. I wanted to roll on the ground in agony. I wished I were a dragon to spit fire back at her.

Benedetta fared no better. Her nose ran mercilessly, and her eyes glowed red. Her entire face was red. Smoke came out her ears.

"Oddio!" I wiped my eyes.

"What the hell was that?" Benedetta choked.

"You said it right, sistah." Delilah looked at Benedetta. She refilled our glasses and lit them up once again.

Was this woman out of her mind? Frantically I searched for an acceptable reason to refuse the second shot.

I have faced difficult situations before, mostly in foreign countries where etiquette requirements differ and where offending your host is a matter of professional life or death, but to cross a voodoo believer in her dwellings-even though she offered us liquid hell-called for extreme caution.

"Here, the second one is a lot smoother," Delilah said, raising her tiny glass to toast us. There she went, throwing her head back again, enjoying every drop of it.

Benedetta had more guts than me. She took the second shot and held a napkin on her face, crying into it. Screaming into it. Biting it.

Oddio! I thought she said the second one was supposed to be easier.

"This was as painful as losing my virginity," Benedetta mumbled into her napkin.

"Not as bad as childbirth," Delilah observed, settling back in her chair. She lit a thin cigarillo and looked at me, waiting; her friendly tiger-eyes glittered, bemused.

I pinched my nose, lifted my glass, and drained it. My tonsils burst into flames, and I closed my eyes for fear my eye sockets might detach like parts of the space shuttle skyrocketing into the universe. They were going to make a saint out of me after this. I momentarily toyed with thoughts of people crawling from far away to witness my miraculous remains, preserved in a crystal case for posterity, defying decay thanks to the agua I had been pickled in. The devoted pilgrims, totally unaware of such chemical mysteries, would babble miracle in a cacophony of foreign languages I couldn't hear in the safety of my crystal cocoon.

Devotees un corno. It was Benedetta's babbling. She was trying to shake me back to life by shoving a glass of water down my throat.

I drank like there was no tomorrow. I hoped tomorrow would never come. I couldn't begin to imagine how my stomach would punish me come morning.

"Are you back, Porzia?" Benedetta asked. She cradled my head in her hands.

"Yes. I'm fine," I lied. I focused on her and noticed that, other than her flushed cheeks, she looked normal.

How come?

I must have asked that out loud because she answered me. "You'll be fine in seconds. The effects fade really fast."

I looked at her and decided I wanted to crawl back into my crystal case. I wanted to trade places with Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, either one, it didn't matter ... and then my head cleared. Poof! The fog lifted. Miraculously, I was back in my skin, in Aunt Delilah's courtyard in Savannah, Georgia. All was cool, the night air included. I suppressed a shiver. I glanced at my watch; it read midnight.

"Come, sisters. Let me show you my spices," Delilah said, tipping the ashes off her cigarillo. She pushed off her chair and led us back into her kitchen.

I stood and followed her, somehow managing to keep my dignity. I glanced at Benedetta; she seemed fine, actually enjoying herself.

Compared to the courtyard's breeze, the kitchen tickled and moistened my nostrils like an aromatic yet stifling sauna. By the main sink, Jason wiped sweat off his brow with the back of his hand and continued stacking a dishwasher, while the raspy-voiced older lady Delilah introduced as her mama cleared the counters.

"Dad's got it under control out there. He's closing down," Jason said, pointing toward the dining room with his chiseled chin. Frowning, he cast a disapproving look at his mother. "You shouldn't bother these ladies, Mom-"

"Thank you, hon." With firm authority Delilah silenced her son and reached for a jar on one of the shelves. She pulled the cork lid off and sniffed the contents. Disgust twisted her features. She offered me the jar to sniff at. "See what I mean?"

I took a look inside and noticed how the cinnamon had clustered into wet spots resembling melted wax. Its pungent odor tickled my nostrils, bringing to mind the early stages of autolysis; that jolly revolt-post-death occurrence-when the digestive juices begin to break down the gastrointestinal tract. Odd for cinnamon, I thought, it being a spice with one of the longest shelf lives.

Delilah continued on, showing us her spoiled vanilla beans coated with a gray fungus; her saffron, carefully wrapped in cotton gauze had stained the pure-white material with red, bleeding streaks. Her cayenne had lost all its zest. Her bottom lip quivered and her eyes welled with tears.

I had no idea how to help her. The only thing I could think of rationally was that the cork lids might have caught some sort of moldy virus that had spread to several of her jars. I suggested that she toss out the affected jars and buy brand-new ones. Jason seemed to agree with me. He wiped his hands on a kitchen towel and told me he had already suggested something similar to her a few weeks back.

Delilah believed it was a curse from an envious acquaintance. She had asked for divine intervention and dreamt about a blessing soon to be delivered.

The blessing in question was busy entertaining naughty mythological thoughts with Jason as the unquestionable protagonist. Jason certainly seemed to be enjoying the attention.

Oh, this ought to be interesting, I thought. I had never seen Benedetta practice The Craft. I crossed my arms and leaned against the immaculate stainless counter. I kicked Bene's shin, bringing her attention back to the present. She shot me a resentful look, recovered quickly, and asked Delilah if she knew the name of the person who had started all the trouble. Delilah nodded. Benedetta pushed her glasses up her nose and cleared her throat. "Well, it's an auspicious time to get rid of negativity, for the moon is indeed waning out there ..."

I had no idea what she was talking about but felt awed and afraid to interrupt.

"Delilah, you'll need to write the name of the person in question on a piece of paper. You then fold the paper four times to have the sealing of all four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Then, you take the ruined spices, jars and all, and you go out there." She pointed toward the courtyard and tugged Delilah's arm, drawing her closer. She cupped her hands around Delilah's delicate ear and whispered the rest of her spell.

Delilah kept on nodding as if what was being told to her made perfect sense.

"... And make sure you're beneath the moonlight the entire time," Benedetta finished, stepping back. A look of satisfaction spread across her face, like light returning to the dark sky after a lunar eclipse.

Jason and I had been completely forgotten.

Delilah hugged Benedetta in gratitude and asked me if I would now care to talk about the recipes I came to write about. I told her I was ready and asked her if my work would intrude with her curse-riddance plans.

"Oh no! Now that I know what to do I can take care of it later when everybody's gone." Her eyes moved up and left, as if repeating a well-memorized lesson.

Jason invited Benedetta to follow him into the dining room to take photos, promising to return to shoot the display of ingredients Mama was setting up for us on the spotless counter. I began to take notes of her Smoked Ham and Bean Soup and Traditional Corn Muffins recipes.

"The secret of the soup is to make sure the ham hasn't been de-boned, and I usually sauté some of the juiciest morsels with a little butter and onions, until the onions are translucent. About ten minutes on low heat," Delilah told me. "That releases the ham flavor and infuses the stock much quicker." She paused, running her hands through a heaping bowl of multicolored dried beans, her crimson-varnished nails a vivid contrast.

"How many varieties of beans do you have there?" I asked, still writing.

"About fifteen. I soak them in cold water for at least eight hours, but it's best to allow them to soak overnight. You have to change the water at least three times." She moved to another bowl where beans of all shapes and sizes swelled happily in a water bath. Delilah drained the bowl and refilled it with fresh water, covering the beans by at least two inches. "Another secret is to use cooled ham stock to soak the beans with. When you change the water the third time, replace it with the stock. That allows the beans to absorb the flavor." It makes perfect sense, I thought, jotting notes down.

I suddenly realized that we were alone in the kitchen. "Where is everybody?"

"I don't know," she answered. "Mama?"

Mama appeared from behind the counter dragging a twenty-pound sack of corn flour. "Yes, dear?" She reminded me of a tiny ant struggling with an oversized cargo.

"Where is everybody?" Delilah asked, glancing at a big clock on the wall. "Did Aeson close down?"

"He sure did. He's counting down at the register," Mama croaked.

I wondered how much agua it took to reach such a hoarse timbre.

"Jason and The Blessing are outside taking photos of the front porch by moonlight," Mama said teasingly.

Aeson raised his head from his bookkeeping and silently pointed out the windows.

Benedetta and Jason sat on the swing. He sang, softly tickling a guitar along, while Benedetta followed the melody whistling. The combination of his smooth, low voice and the lightness of my dear friend's whistling coiled around the anguished notes of the guitar. And then she switched from whistling to singing in that low Astrud Gilberto voice of hers. The effect sent chills through me, stretching my human abilities to grasp such a heavenly melody. Emotions replaced the flow of my blood, boundaries faded, and time vanished.

We stood motionless, Delilah and I, listening in rapture.

The slow notes pierced the silent night like the cry of a tormented soul. It crushed my heart and squeezed ancient drops of undiluted pain from it.

Behind me Delilah sobbed quietly. I thought of Gabe so far away yet so close, deep in my heart. I shed my pain and metamorphosed it into pure love, and cast it to him on the wings of the poignant music. Such magic was bound to find every enamored soul out there.

Eventually, I had to tear Benedetta away from him. Morning was fast approaching, and we still had to drive into town to get to our hotel. I asked Delilah if it would be possible to resume our interview the following day. Both Jason and Benedetta lit up at the thought of being able to see one another again. Delilah invited us for lunch, and we agreed to be back at the restaurant by noon.

A feeling of melancholy drove away with us knowing that the evening had drawn to an end. The entire family waved good-bye from the front porch; I watched them getting smaller and smaller in the frame of my rearview mirror.

I gave Benedetta time to recover, then asked, "You OK?"

"Yes. Thank you, but I'm fine. I guess that agua stuff had a weird effect on me."

"Bene ... how did you know how to help Delilah? I mean, what was that business with elements, waning moon, and so forth? Which goddess did you invoke?"

"Why put a human face to magic?" she frowned. "You know I've been learning about The Craft for a while now. Even as a solitary practitioner, I knew how to help. It sort of came naturally."

"Wicca and voodoo mix?" I asked rather dumbly.

"Magic, when used in love, has no boundaries."

Maybe I ought to introduce her to Evalena. "What is magic, Bene?"

"Magic is willing energy operating on a level that our minds know nothing about. It streams from our hearts, Porzia."

"And Jason?"

"He didn't drink any agua," she yawned.

"That's not what I meant," I said, stifling a yawn myself.

"I know what you meant. But I'm too tired to talk about it."

"What was he singing out there, Bene?"

"I have no idea. He said something about a lullaby, and I just made up words to follow."

"It was beautiful, but you're right, that agua did have a weird effect."

Dark shapes of gnarled, arthritic oaks shadowed the moonlight with their heavily mossy branches, looking like stylized souls ready to stir and jump on us at the first provocation. The dashboard clock read 1:00 A.M.

I caught myself breathing more softly than usual. Next to me, Benedetta was just as silent until rounding a corner we, skimmed a graveyard. Talk about spooky. I heard her intake of breath and her shoulders sank lower in the passenger seat. "I can almost feel the Confederate ghosts' mournful laments," she murmured.

"Confederates? I'm thinking of pirates."

"The pirates wouldn't be mournful. Their victims might." She had a point.

"We're almost there," I told her, recognizing the street sign for our destination on our left. I turned, passing a lonely bench, and saw a lit sign straight ahead. I drove head first into a parking spot in front of the main entrance.

Our room featured a garret ceiling sloped all the way to the floor. Two full-size beds beckoned us, inviting us to jump on the multi-flowered, quilted bedspreads. Open, round windows allowed the cool night breeze to flow in. Our feet sank in a plush maroon carpet.

Benedetta jumped on the far bed by the windows. "Ahhh, I'm so tired," she sighed, tilting her glasses on her forehead to rub her eyes.

"I guess that's your bed choice?" I pulled my suitcase onto a chair and began to look for my nightclothes.

"Yes, it is. You sleep close to the door in case the pirates decide to pay us a surprise visit. They'll get you first, and I'll have time to escape through the window."

"You'll end up stuck like Winnie the Pooh." With my cosmetic bag, I headed for the bathroom. An antique claw-foot bathtub stood by another round window, this one large enough for Benedetta to climb through. Loads of fresh towels were piled up on a pine table next to a wicker basket stuffed with a selection of herbal products. I took a quick bath gazing over endless Savannah roofs and the occasional patch of trees. The moon lay low on the western horizon, resigned to the imminent arrival of a brand-new day. Lazily, I wondered if Gabe ever looked up at the sky and realized that, no matter the distance, we did share the same firmament. I slid underwater and held my breath like I used to when I was a child, when I still believed wishes may come true. With my eyes shut tight and my lungs ready to explode, I tried to last until my effort materialized my hope into reality: "Gabe will be sitting in the tub with me when I open my eyes."

I emerged from the water gasping for air, my rush of breath louder than the water's splashing. I adjusted to my disappointment in the darkness of the empty room. If only I could have lasted another second or two. I almost tasted Gabe on my tongue. I turned toward the window and blew him a silent kiss before I finally grabbed a towel to dry off and get ready for bed.


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