The Voodoo Shell
Photo by Unsplash+

I hold the tarot card in my hand and stroke the silky surface, studying the illustration. It’s a colorful drawing of a woman seated on a throne. She’s beautifully dressed in a red billowy gown with a crown of moons on her head. I rub my fingers over the image as if using a paintbrush, imagining I’m the artist creating it. Mom’s voice interrupts my dream drawing. She directs me with her sweet sing-song upbeat tone. Put the card here on the table, face up, and then take another from the stack and flip it over next to it. Mom smiles and looks me straight in the eyes. Her cobalt blue eyes glisten and sparkle. I’m mesmerized. She points out each element on the first card and explains its significance and relationship to the card next to it. The crown of moons; they represent... I drift off as her voice grows faint, half listening to her melodic voice lulling me away.

Through blurred eyes, I see Dad enter the room. Mom excitedly reports that my future success as an artist is certain. Dad’s eyes smile as he winks at me and makes a pronouncement. That’s great news! After all, you are lucky thirteen this very day. It was as if Dad and I had a secret between us. It’s unspoken, although I recall him once saying if it makes one happy, then what is the harm in believing?

 Growing up, there were many behaviors steeped in superstition, like this one. Other times there were psychic readings, astrology, good-luck charms. Dad didn’t accompany Mom on her forays into the dark arts, but he never discouraged her from doing so. Fortunetellers. Tarot card readings. Magic. Dad would say it’s not unlike religion; all based on faith. It made sense, but I never realized just how much until a few years ago, after a series of incidents originating around a trip to the tiny island of Grenada.

Our daughter Genevieve would attend medical school on the island, beginning in August. I started planning for the trip in March. My husband Matthew and I were excited to help her with the move. I went online to get our airline tickets, first checking our passports to make sure they were unexpired.

Then three days before departure, I realized I only looked at the year on the passports. I didn’t notice my husband’s passport expired in July. Ours were good through December. Now what?

I take in a deep breath. Calm yourself. It’s all going to work out. Studying the internet, I find no passport office in my vicinity. Wait. An online service in Philadelphia can expedite the passport in three days. It is exactly three days before our first flight out. There is one problem. The passport service will deliver the new passport to our home address, and our flight is super early and we won’t be home. Ready to cry. I stop. I’ve got an idea. If I can get the passport delivered to a friend in Miami, the second leg of our flight and have it brought to me at the airport in between flights, this could work!

The only caveat is our Grenada flight out of Miami is only a ninety-minute layover. What if the flight’s delayed? I’m feeling desperate. I run into the bedroom in search of a good-luck coin my mother gave me years before. Ranting out loud. Am I losing it? Maybe. I find the coin. I hold the silver coin and study its design, a beautifully embossed, stylized four-leaf clover on each side. I rub the coin for good luck while repeatedly chanting. It will all be okay.

Sitting down with my head in my hands, I cover my eyes. My Walter-Mitty escape, which never fails me, takes hold. I feel a veil of serenity take hold. My eyes blur, and I am transported to a beach on the island of Grenada. The warm sun permeates my skin, and I twirl to the hypnotic lilting of the waves on the shore. I’m in between here and there, melting into the glimmer of the rippling water. I awaken, mellow and refreshed and know now it will come true. That’s what Mom always says. Say it. See it. Believe it. I put the good-luck coin in my purse, strategically placing it next to my passport. I jump into action to get the replacement passport going.

The morning of our flight everything goes well. All flights are on time. I turn to Genevieve and Matthew. Let’s not discuss the plan. It could jinx us.

Our flight leaves on time, and we land in Miami as scheduled. I track the passport on my phone. It’s delivered! I look out the window; we are sitting on the tarmac, not moving toward our gate and now have only fifty-eight minutes until our next flight.

I wiggle in my seat. My face burns, and I feel beads of sweat build on my forehead. Panic overwhelms me. I want to start my primal cleansing scream. Nope, out of the question here. A feeling of anxiety engrosses me, and my mind enters overdrive because I’m seated in the middle of the plane. How will I get off in time? I reach into my bag and pull out the lucky coin and rub it like a madwoman between my forefinger and thumb. The coin becomes comfortably warm. My voice of assurance spontaneously chants my assertion. It will all work out perfectly. It will. The man sitting next to me shakes his head in the affirmative, smiles, and lightly touches my wrist and in a soft soothing voice, he whispers. Yes, I think it will. It’s the encouragement I need.

My friend texts me: Passed gate where we plan to meet. Security says no stopping. Going around the circle again.

The plane starts to move, and I go over the plan in my head, this time contemplating the immediate hurdle. When we stop at the gate, everyone will jump out of their seats, and I’ll never exit in time. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I hunch over in my seat and begin to moan loudly, grabbing my stomach with one hand and cover my mouth with the other as if preventing myself from vomiting. I jump up and start sprinting up the aisle to the front of the plane.

I’m zipping forward, nearly at the front, when suddenly I feel the plane stop at the gate. One flight attendant, with her back toward me, prepares to let first class line up as she pulls their curtain open. I run faster when the other flight attendant sees me. She furiously begins motioning me to stop. Her aggressive hand motions escalate, and I pant while blurting out words of desperation. I’m going to puke all over. She yells. No! Stop! Then, just as the exit door of the plane opens, a woman from the first-class line behind the flight attendant chimes in a southern, slow drawl. For goodness’ sake, she is sick. Have a heart.

The flight attendant angrily waves me out of the plane. I feel like an addict needing my fix in a trance of determination. Quickly reaching into my pocket, I pull out my lucky coin, raise it eye level in front of me, and run.

I reach the designated gate and bolt through the door just as my friend is passing and wave my arms overhead, chasing after her vehicle. Her driver's side window is down, and she slows to a crawl. I run up alongside the open window, and she passes the envelope containing the passport to me without stopping. She drives off, waving. I wave back, leaping airborne. Chanting loudly. I have it! I have it!

As I re-enter the security area, my cell phone rings. It’s the gate for the Grenada flight. Where are you? Stuttering, I get the words out. I’m going through security. They caution. You’d better hurry. We are about to close the gate. Beads of sweat form on my forehead and my hands shake as I’m waved into the metal detector. The security officers look triggered and take me aside, wave their wand over me, and a woman pats me down. Pleading through tears, I explain. My flight is boarding and they are closing the gate. The woman attendant directs me. Go, but do not run.

I shuffle my feet in between walking and running while calling out for anyone in front of me to please move out of my way. Again, reaching for the magic coin, I twirl it between my fingers and hold it up as I believe it guides my way. Out of breath, and a nervous wreck, I nearly reach the gate. I see my husband and daughter just yards away. They look stunned.

Like an acrobat, I leap over a chair on my way to them and ceremoniously hand the passport to the attendant at the counter. He is a tall, thin Grenadian man, and as he holds the document, he looks me straight in the eye. Gently shaking his head from side to side, his buttery, alto voice spills out in a slow, comforting manner. Ma’am, there’s no reason to hurry. Ma’am, you be fine. Take a deep breath. Relax. This is Grenada style. No worries, no worries. He hands the passport back to my husband. I slump to the floor and drop to my knees, exhausted. My husband and daughter help me up and surround me in a group hug. Enthusiastic, they announce in unison. You did it! You did it! Outstanding!

A young woman quickly ushers us onto the plane. I look around the cabin, mesmerized. Many of the passengers have dogs sitting next to them. Beaming with delight, I tell everyone around me I love Grenada already.

We land on a small tarmac in Grenada and exit the plane down a flight of stairs. The warm island breeze sweeps over us as if to say welcome. We enter the tiny air terminal and the scene inside is pure chaos. At least, that is what my initial reaction is. I later dub it organized chaos. We finally make our way through customs and move Genevieve into the dorm.

We all fall in love with the island and embrace the slow pace, letting the instant gratification life back in the states melt away.

We know Grenada for its nutmeg and on our last day, we visit the outdoor spice market to purchase some. The overwhelmingly soothing aroma inside the market further lulls me under the spell of the island. I glide over to the booth with the nutmeg. A woman as bronze and charmingly scented as the spices in the air smiles as she holds out her hand, palm up, dusted in nutmeg. Her voice floats on the salty-sweet air. Smell our island gold. I whiff its bouquet and tuck my nutmeg treasure away in my bag. There’s an alluring feeling of calm that envelopes me when I exit the market. As I step out, I am dazed by the blazing sunshine as the beauty of the sapphire tinted water touches the blonde sandy shore in the distance. The view enchantingly glows.

Daydreaming, I ponder the island’s serenity, close my eyes, and cement both the feeling and the scene in my memory. I open my eyes and spot two goats. Curious, we walk toward them to investigate. Matthew remarks. They are keeping the grass short in the old graveyard. He clambers up the rocks to a stone wall that surrounds the graveyard. I pass through the opening in the wall, following him. I stop, cold. A feeling of dread overwhelms me as I enter the graveyard. A moist smell emanates from the steamy gravestones. I am saddened that many of the gravestones look dilapidated, with haphazardly scrolled writing in black paint. The forsaken stones stand in direct conflict with the backdrop of the pristine, sandy beaches just outside the graveyard walls. I study the few legible names and dates, reading some out loud as I honor their forgotten memory. Then one noticeably positive element reveals itself. There are handsome shells left on top of some gravestones. I instinctively pick up a shell, holding it over my ear to listen for the sound of the ocean waves, which I remember doing as a child. My grandmother had a large conch shell. She said you could hear the faraway ocean, and I believed her assertion. I hold the conch shell over Matthew’s ear. Can you hear it? He contently smiles. Yes, yes, I can.

As we walk hand in hand back to our hotel along the beach, we stop to remove our shoes. Standing in the cool water, the warm sea air caresses my face, the wet sand and salty tickle of the waves roll over my bare feet. I giggle like a child, as if all is anew. As I stand facing the radiance of the burnt orange-pink sky of the setting sun, I am again under Grenada’s charm. The gloomy graveyard disappears far away into the vast distance of the luminous honey-tinted sky.

The next morning, we bid our last farewell and head to the airport. As we check our bags, Matthew reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out a small conch shell. He looks surprised as he studies it further. I become apoplectic. You didn’t get that shell off of a gravestone, did you? Matthew’s face looks puzzled. As if in a daze, he whispers. I didn’t mean to take it.

Our flight is boarding and returning this shell is not possible. I sense the shell having some sort of power, and in my heart, I know it’s bad luck to have removed it, or to leave it somewhere it doesn’t belong. We make our way onto the plane.

Sitting on the plane, I further contemplate that the shell that belonged on a gravestone in Grenada was coming home with us. I unwrap the silk scarf and study the shell. It is indeed beautiful. I rub its lustrous surface. I hold it to my ear and listen to the sound of the ocean waves inside. I shiver. Matthew looks at me questioningly. Are you okay? Head down, I cannot look at him as I whimper. I cannot believe you took this shell. It’s probably dangerous to have this on the plane. Matthew gently clasps both of my hands. We will send it back when we get home. I promise. He kisses my forehead. I feel better.

Three hours later, we are still on the tarmac. Major delays due to lightning. We know we’ll miss our second flight in Miami and will have to wait until tomorrow to return home. Things are not going as planned, but I don’t mention the shell again. That would be further bad luck.

When we finally arrive home, things are fine. For the first week. Then we notice there is something amiss with our bull terrier, Owen. He is limping. Our veterinarian reaffirms our worries. I cry when she tells us Owen has a sciatic nerve injury. A few weeks later, the nerve injury leaves him with a paralyzed leg.

Less than a week after Owen’s diagnosis, my mother falls down a flight of stairs. Badly bruised, she comes and stays with us. I am feeling spooked. I know something sinister is at play. Then, a few weeks later, it’s determined that my mother’s blood disorder that had been in remission has returned.

I’m convinced it is the shell. I dub it a voodoo shell. Matthew and I both decide it must go back sooner rather than later. Yes, both of us. He subsequently goes online and uses Google maps to find the graveyard we had visited. There on the computer screen were the gravestones, and he thought he remembered where he picked up the shell. I’m pretty sure it was the largest gravestone in the center of the graveyard. We print out the map and Matthew marks a red X over the spot for Genevieve to return the shell.

We did not want Genevieve to worry, as she had her finals coming up. So, there was no elaborating on the series of unfortunate events, especially leaving out the fact that Owen had now passed away. Instead, we told her our plan for the shell’s return. We are worried about having the shell. I have packaged it carefully and wrapped it in rosary beads for good luck on the journey. We need you to return the shell back to where it rightfully belongs. Dad marked the gravestone on the paperwork, and I’ll enclose it with the shell. Genevieve thought we were insane.

I head to FedEx, fill out the customs information, and give them the package. I keep waiting to find out when I’ll receive tracking information. A few days later, I contact them. They say it’s on route, but it could take weeks and to check again later. After three weeks, I become concerned that they lost it. Nope, they say it shows up as being in Trinidad, further explaining it is likely sitting on a shelf waiting for pickup. At first, I am worried, but then I remember island time and feel better.

Six weeks later, and exactly on the date of November first, the package arrives in Grenada. My mother, who was doing better, said it was an encouraging omen. I asked her what she meant. She whispered. November first is All Saint’s Day, which is when the good spirits appear and overshadow the evil ones released the day before on Halloween night. I felt a strange sense of relief.

When Genevieve retrieved the shabby, worse-for-wear box containing the shell, something was gravely wrong and decidedly creepy. She unwrapped the glass jar containing the shell. Mysteriously, the shell had a tarry, black oil all over it. The rosary and instruction paper were both intact and clean. Genevieve became alarmed and decided she needed back-up at the graveyard and coaxed her roommate to accompany her. They made their way to the graveyard.

Genevieve called us later that evening. She sounded upbeat, but her mood shifted as she described the shell’s return. We did it. The shell is back in the graveyard. It wasn’t easy. I felt nauseous when I held the glass jar containing the shell and saw the black tarry substance again. I really did. That’s why I unscrewed the lid of the jar and tossed the shell out toward the gravestone Dad marked. I just couldn’t bring myself to touch the shell or go close to the gravestone. We both watched it land at the base of the large gravestone outlined. I’m relieved it’s over now.

When Genevieve returned home for winter break a few weeks later, it devastated her to find that Owen had died. Her opalescent eyes flickered as she held back tears. Needing a reprieve, we stepped outside onto the open porch. The wintery moon-lit night sky framed the shadowy clouds above us. The icy air transformed our palpable sadness as we watched each other’s breath rise upward. We trusted the vast darkness, believing our very own ghost story. We hugged each other and did not speak of Owen or the voodoo shell again.

Matthew and I returned to Grenada to visit Genevieve a few months later. The warm breezes welcomed us back, and once again we were under the spell of the island. We spent our days walking along the sandy beaches as the sun’s sheen radiated off the shimmering, hypnotic sea water. We never went back to the graveyard. And although I knew the power of the voodoo shell was gone, I kept my lucky coin with me, secretly hidden.

The voodoo shell incident is many years ago now, but when I think back to it, it’s fresh in my memory. I haven’t needed my good luck charm and go upstairs to find it. It lies tucked away in a special drawer in my art studio. I retrieve it and sit at my easel, studying the silver coin already warm in my hand. It’s weighty and twinkles as if with a knowing smile. That makes sense as Mom gave it to me. I feel sad acknowledging she is now gone. Unexpectedly, the coin radiates a positive energy as I clasp my hands around it gently. I am not alarmed and instead feel enveloped by an uplifting presence and become drawn further inward. The surrounding room seems to fade away. Suddenly feeling swathed in a warm breeze, I inhale the intoxicating fragrance of sea air mixed with a hint of nutmeg. I swiftly rouse, shaken, yet invigorated, and quickly put the coin away.

As I begin a sketch for a new painting, I contemplate my mother’s prediction all those years ago, wondering aloud. Is everything fate, good luck, or magic? I guess it’s safe to believe all three, just in case.

About the Author

Marianne Dalton

A fine artist in painting for much of my creative life, my inspired focus in recent years is writing and fine art photography. I describe myself as an ex-city-dweller gone feral as I spend a great deal of time trekking the landscape in and around my rural home in upstate New York. I am a published author of several creative nonfiction stories. In addition, my fine art photography is published in numerous literary journals. Please visit my website for more information.

Read more work by Marianne Dalton.