Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
MADAM'S CURSE
b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~   M A R G I N

I -- ESTELLE Irene Hochhalter -- am a fake.

I openly admit this to you, someone I do not know, a stranger to my parlor. Maybe, someday, you'll convey the truth to my friends, who I imagine will be riffling through my cards and crystals after I've passed on, seeking evidence that I'm truly touched by The Gift. You see, no one dares question out loud whether my visions are authentic. But I know folks would like to peek inside my wig, examine the firing -- or misfiring -- of what they imagine is a magical circuitry. Rest assured, though, that for more than thirty years as a small-time Seer of Futures and Gazer of Crystals, I have never sold, not to any person, a fortune borne of real clairvoyance.

I'm not telling you this to absolve any guilt for pursuing what must seem like dishonest work. After all, taking folks' money and telling them about their lives is not so different from being a psychologist. I daresay, I'm a great deal cheaper and far more entertaining! The real reason I write is because I have, in fact, had a vision.

The truth is this: I saw Madam Walks-On-Needles find the Great Green Pearl, and I divined the coming of Tornado Fever. For this I do feel a great deal of guilt, for I didn't do anything about it. Mea culpa, but I just thought I was sleepwalking.


Honestly. If you ever sleepwalk and remember just a haze of it, then you know how it happens. I think of it as having two sets of eyes in the night. One set's for keeping me from jumping out the window or tripping down the stairs, the other's for seeing through the illusions.

The night I had my vision, I assumed later that I'd been sleepwalking, because there was calcium silt between my toes and kelp snags in my hair. Yes, it's possible I could have wandered the oyster flats without being fully conscious of it. I know it may be hard to believe, but folks have done stranger things during their own personal twilights.

Though I must confess, it was a strange dream.

Somewhere in the night I saw a hand, cupped to hold something small. I knew the hand wasn't mine. Drawing back, I found myself standing along one of the coarse beaches near the East Bend Cannery, where the Chukwinninuk Indians rake oysters for a wage.

It was over a dark shoulder that I first saw that pearl. Green. Not as in glow-in-the-dark green, though it did glow. Like satin glows. It was luminous and radiant, perhaps the green-gold tint of a gilded olive. And big enough to stop a throat.

In the dream, I noticed how that pearl was cradled, not inside a hand at all, but inside a shell inside a hand. The bottom scoop of an oyster, to be precise. It was a Salishan oyster. I could clearly tell by the way the lip crinkled and the inside shimmered that pale blue. Anybody in town can identify a Salishan. It's what put our town on the map, after all. Which means that anybody in town can tell you this, too: That the Salishan oyster from this dream was no ordinary Salishan oyster.

You see, the Salishan doesn't produce pearls. Not even misshapen clots of calcified muck trying to be pearls, so efficient is its filtering mechanism. The Salishan is prized for its flavor, mostly because of this perfection in its design. So, you see, this dream pearl was nothing less than an anomaly.

It shifted, that pearl, the shell, the hand. In that moment, I saw Madam Walks-On-Needles standing there, poor decrepit woman, picking that pearl out with those scarred and bony fingers. Indeed, it was her shoulder I'd been looking over the entire time.

I saw how her good eye took in the wonder of such a find, rolling in its socket like it does. Her other eye, of course, it's all dried up so that her lids pinch against the hollow. With complete nonchalance, she wrapped that pearl in a rag and stuffed it somewhere inside her flannel, then resumed what I guess was some midnight scavenging.


Here I am, telling you all this, assuming you'll know who Madam Walks-On-Needles is. Well. Let me fill you in. She's the grand matron of the Oyster Coast, a worn-out dishrag of a woman, older than ninety, spine bent like a hemlock's tip, her skin the color and texture of ragged bark. She drinks -- dare I say it? -- like an Indian, when she isn't working at the cannery or giving folks the evil eye. Not many around here have much good to say about her. Me, I'm an empath. Wicked as she is, I suffer for her shortcomings.

Madam prostituted Indian girls to the logging crews who'd come to the Hills after Hurricane Freda blew down thousands of acres in timber that windy Columbus Day in 1962. It was rough business, salvaging. Many a timberman suffered with White Finger or crushed his legs under errant snags in the name of Weyerhaeuser, Simpson or Utne. And all that time out in those woods -- the darkness, the thickness, the wildness of it all -- can make a man needful of pleasurable things, which Madam simply obliged.

Most of the girls were just reaching puberty, already hard on the facts of White life but soft to the ways of Madam, who'd made back-door deals. Some of the girls were to go to the camps and clean for the men. Some of them weren't, assigned other "special duties." The sinister truth of it didn't spill over for quite awhile, probably because Madam had even enlisted her own granddaughter, Awanata. None of the Chuks wanted to believe that one of their own might surrender and sacrifice to that sort of commerce. When Awanata ended up pregnant with twins, though, it was like a slap in the face had echoed around the bay.

Madam didn't exactly survive unscathed her bald retailing of souls. The Chuks are landless Indians, so all they have to their name is their lineage and proprietary rights to oysters, which they acquired through more standard and capitalistic means. Though they proudly fly the oyster crest, it's their living history that Madam had blemished. After all, the fastest way to kill a tribe is to dilute its bloodline, and back then, blood was already thin as the leftover tide. So when the twins were born, it wasn't Awanata that had to stare at all those turned backs. No, it was Madam.

The truth be told, her granddaughter loved that Texas-fed Irish-Mexican boy at first sight, and not just for his muscle. In Salish, we now know him as Jorge O'Neill, the father of two beautiful girls and a migrant-turned-landowner who, during the treaty scandals of the 70s, was an important mediator between Chuk and white leaders.

I imagine there are silver linings inside even Madam's darker clouds.

Of course, now Madam only works oysters like the rest of the Chuks. The timber salvage mission petered out in the early 80s, leaving Salish, Washington empty like every other boomtown in the Pacific Northwest.

Tourism's the game now. It's how I earn my bread and butter, what keeps me tethered to this tired little town. There's just enough business here to remind me how folks, no matter from what walk of life, need my third lens to understand their own lives.


But I digress.

When I woke from that strange dream, I noticed right away the odor. I don't mean to seem provincial here, but the room had filled with the reek of rotten oysters. After throwing up the sash and running the fan, I realized with horror it wasn't the smell of something dead within the room at all. Rather, it was something which I exuded.

I wondered then whether Madam had passed to the Other Side. I've been playing medium long enough. I know there's always that chance, that I might be the vehicle for something otherworldly. I do believe in the spirit world, even if I am a fraud.

Taking baths only partially corrected this curiosity. Through the night, I gargled and douched, lit incense and drank gallons of water flavored with lemon, and then I was rubbing lemon all over myself, until my eyes stung, my skin burnt. Finally, it took an hour of weeping in the parlor to rid me of that horrifying stink. The antidote, it seems, had been in my tears.

Oh, it gets worse.

I wasn't sick in the sense that I'd eaten bad shellfish. No, it was more like a tornado, the way it hit me. One moment I'm thinking about Madam's ugly good eye. The next, my head's swelling with fever, I'm trembling against my will and my stomach's heaving without warning. Immediately the purging was followed by a deep, hot, thick sleep which I couldn't ward off. As I awoke, the tornado would hit again, a violent seizure lasting a minute at best, leaving me helpless to yet another bout with oblivion.

Tornado Fever possessed me for the course of the entire next day and into the following morning, when, finally, it took the decoction of a third of an elderberry plant steeped in boiling water to cure me.

There'd been a visitor during that first morning. I heard the bell, saw the shadow of a face through the colored panes of leaded glass, watched the knob twist without catching. But in my state, I couldn't answer the door. I was a shivering abomination in my damp robe and unwashed hair, and I could barely lift the kettle to my cup.


It took me only ten minutes with my gossipy girlfriends later that day to find out my dream had been a premonition. They'd let themselves in through the back door and found me dozing, sprawled and half-dressed with my arms embracing the base of my potted elderberry bush. It was all they needed to figure out why I hadn't made it to Monday Night Bingo. Funny how folks don't question weirdness when they find it in my parlor.

But about the premonition...

"Estelle, you no longer corner the market on good luck" was how Dolpha put it.

I asked her if somebody had won the Big One. Usually it is me or nobody. The girls are always amazed at the way in which I manage to win the big money at Bingo, crediting some connection they imagine I share with the world of good fortune. I dare never point out it is simply because I buy more cards, it is as simple as odds.

But Dolpha ignored me. Instead: "You haven't heard about Madam?"

I felt a spasm in my gut.

"She found a pearl in a Salishan oyster two nights back. A green pearl. We heard she'd come to see you about it."

Of course, she had.


To make pretty ribbons of an old dress, I never did speak to Madam about that pearl. As I pieced things together for myself, I grew less interested in coming anywhere near the woman, as if the remotest association might bring on another case of Tornado Fever. Certainly one can understand why I should dread such a thing.

But I do know this much: Madam held onto that pearl for two weeks, squeezing from it cash, favors and commodities until finally somebody did her in.

Well, the newspapers said she died in the night of liver failure. Even Coroner Leakey concurred that her cirrhosis had met critical mass. But I know the truth, and it had nothing to do with her drinking.


Maybe I need to backtrack.

There was the reporter from Tacoma (Engelking was his last name) who'd been camping out in the woods adjacent to the Coast, on the other side of Old Slash Road. One of dozens here to cover news about that pearl. He'd been harassing Madam to no end -- watching her through binoculars -- so Sheriff Kaino finally deputized the volunteer firemen so they could go out to the Coast and keep an eye on him. Tourists, appraisers, reporters, scientists had flooded Salish in the meantime, so that the Sheriff's staff was already working at maximum capacity to keep the town in order.

Most of the folks hanging around the Coast, though, were making offers. News spread fast that one appraiser -- a Japanese jeweler from Victoria -- had given the Great Green Pearl a six-figure worth. Nonny Grayfeather, who delivers the rural mail, told Dolpha that folks had been asking her to leave gifts on Madam's doorstep in hopes they'd persuade her to sell her pearl to them. Reporters were even trying bribes to lure her onto the porch for quotes, especially the reporter Engelking, who kept telling folks how he wanted to feel that pearl between his fingers, to make sure it was real.

Here's where I want to say: "Who's to blame him?" At the time, that pearl seemed to stand for all that was impossible, including the terrific economic impact it was having on our community. Folks began feeling rich around here without quite knowing why.

But Madam held onto it, becoming leery of nosy appraisers and other lookyloos. But instead of being intimidated by the attention, she took a more conventional approach. Something more typical to her style of problem-solving:

She began a contest.

"Give me a deposit," she announced. After she'd received enough offers, she'd hide that pearl. The bidder who guessed where it was hidden would win; all losers would forfeit their deposits. If more than one contestant guessed correctly, she'd simply consider the best bid of the two. (She may have been a miserable old bitch, but nobody could deny Madam her business savvy.)

If a prospect balked, she'd consult relations. "What do you need?" Delia Dee, young thing that she was, asked for dishes. "Melamine would be nice." So Delia Dee got Melamine dishes enough to serve the entire Coast.

The bartering continued. Joseph To'okseh got two hundred dollars, a weed-eating device and sunglasses for his blind father. Wally Firefoot landed himself a trolling motor for his fishing boat. Madam's granddaughter, Awanata, walked away with a fancy new shotgun. Jimmy Jim Beam got himself three pairs of Levi's and a hundred bucks, which we all know went to liquor and women in all of one night.

Folks in town frowned on the way Madam appeared to capitalize, though I don't condemn her. She was buying amends the only way she knew how. I believe she used her luck to redeem a life built upon filthy debts. I don't mean to suggest that a satellite dish here or a pair of Nikes there could ever be enough to call things even between Madam and the Chuks. Her effort, I believe, was made not in greed, but with an earnest soul and a lifetime spent staring down the blackness of rotten deals made with equally rotten devils. The way I see it, it was the least she could do.


Madam's contest made for an interesting circus.

She had this collection of ships in bottles, the ones that come from kits (though she'd probably found hers assembled and abandoned at flea markets and garage sales). There's twenty in her collection to match the twenty offers made on her pearl. When enough deposits -- cash or bartered -- had been made to satisfy her family's material needs, Madam pulled the shades. When nobody could see, she dropped that pearl inside one of those bottles that final night and shook it so the sand covered it up. She made her great-nephew Joseph witness the entire thing, in case she forgot which bottle held that pearl.


So you're probably wondering who won the contest.

Nobody.

That night, Madam died in her sleep. The next morning, before a jury of reporters and locals officiating the event, young Joseph dumped out all the sand from all the bottles.

That pearl was gone.

The newspapers reported that Madam Walks-On-Needles had lost the Great Green Pearl. (I'd bet you every crystal I own that no one outside Salish ever questioned that story. I mean, folks assume all Indians are reckless drunks, so a story like that only lets them sleep better at night.)

But that isn't the end of the story, nor the end to my premonition. That same morning, folks all around town started getting sick.

It started with the reporter Engelking. He was the first one to arrive at Madam's that morning to see the revealing of the hidden pearl. So anxious was he that Engelking stepped in to help poor, confused Joseph look for that pearl. As soon as it had been determined it was gone, the reporter Engelking quietly excused himself, went outside and threw up.

After that, Dr. Wooding's office was as packed as Free Cheese Day along the peninsula. A few Salish residents were afflicted, but the vast majority of cases reported in the two weeks following the disappearance of that pearl had been out-of-towners of one kind or another.

A new tide of experts flocked to our community to study what the newspapers finally came to call Tornado Fever. Some guessed it was a variation of Legionnaire's Disease. Others thought it was some new strain of hepatitis. Finally, this young aquatic biologist, with some medical students out of Portland, blamed the disease on oyster consumption. I'll never forget that biologist's proud statements, how they leapt off the front pages of The Beacon, revealing his proud ambition in having crossed disciplines to arrive at such a discovery.

Naturally, Mayor Olin grew quite worried that this year's oyster harvest might be to blame for the Tornado Fever epidemic. Salishan oysters aren't just the town's pride; they represent a substantial portion of our livelihoods. And the annual Oyster Festival was just two weeks hence. But that biologist showed statistically that some ninety percent of the afflicted had eaten Salishan oysters previous to the outbreak. Everyone seemed to believe that Whiz Kid, despite his awful conclusions.

Then the reporter Engelking died.

His was the only death during the time of Tornado Fever, though not a death medically related to the disease. But one death was enough. It scared away thousands of tourists. Though Mayor Olin requested additional studies, the truth came too late. The oysters, the water, the sand, the spawn all tested negative to toxins, pathogens. It turned out the oysters weren't to blame for Tornado Fever after all.

The Indians now call Tornado Fever "Madam's Curse," and to tell you the truth, I don't think they're far off the mark. After all, word came from officials at the East Bend Cannery -- who control all harvesting rights to the Salishan variety -- that none of the Chuks had come down with Tornado Fever, and they were eating oysters. There'd been no reports of Red Tide for weeks before or after the epidemic. And the girls and I got together one night after Bingo to tick off our own list of locals, and not a single one...

It got me to thinking about the reporter Engelking.

Though he had been afflicted with the disease, it was an obstruction in his esophagus -- what Coroner Leakey said was likely the result of chronic vomiting -- which had simply choked him to death.


How might I have prevented this domino of events?

Please. If this. Maybe that.

Having the vision didn't really matter. Not that I'm ashamed to say I've had one. Oh, I'm still sorry for the people who had to suffer. Sorry for the reporter Engelking, though not for his death. Mostly I'm sorry I didn't open my salon to Madam that day. Oh, but for the things I might've learned --

Though, while I can play the happy headshrinker with relative ease, I have never been -- and will never be -- able to turn karma from its orbit.

Any psychic who believes she can is a bigger fake than I.

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