The thunderous rain nearly drowned out the doorbell’s ring as Joe Yazzie walked into the pawn shop. The trader, James Tanner, hurried from the rear stock room with an expression of calm, comfortable greed that faded the moment he saw his sole customer.
“Ya-ta-hey,” James muttered from beneath his dirt-brown moustache; his hazel eyes traveled over Joe’s dusty jeans and weathered face. An expression of dislike replaced his calm demeanor, and he carefully sniffed the air—alcohol and vagrancy went hand-in-hand here in the heart of Indian country. The natives did little more than drink their reparation checks and beg for money. No, he wasn’t in the mood to deal with that today. He had the local police on speed dial.
Joe nodded but did not meet James’s eyes. At best it seemed Joe could barely lift his eyes above the enclosed glass cases of Navajo pottery, Zuni silversmiths’ jewelry, and Acoma bowls. His ragged clothes and filthy hands didn’t try to touch the display case, for which James was glad.
He had just cleaned that case.
James let out a slow breath of air and said, “What can I do for ya?”
The Navajo man reached into his worn sack and with grime-encrusted hands, removed a humble, old piece of pottery. The bowl, no taller than a can of soda and slightly warped, looked even shabbier under the overhead fluorescent lights of the pawn shop. The pot’s lip was chipped, and around its body were crudely carved lumps of clay which seemed to resemble faces, twisted and contorted into painful, even tortured expressions. James grimaced beneath his bushy mustache, his upper lip buried in the bristles.
“This is it?” James said with a smirk, hardly hiding his contempt for the piece. Why do these people continue to come here with shit?
Joe shuffled and mumbled something that sounded like Navajo.
If you’re going to live here, at least speak the language, James thought as he felt his blood start to rise. He raised his voice. “What? I didn’t get that.”
Joe suddenly jumped back as if startled—as if the English somehow assaulted him. He crept back from James, more than an arm’s length distance, and shoved his hands into his pockets.
Despite himself, James looked down at the pot. Ugly in its simplicity, he decided to purchase it, or in other words, the words of four generations of traders before him, trade.
“I’ll cut you a break.” His voice melted into the sugary kindness of a salesman. “I’ll give you, uh, four dollars for this. Take it or leave it.”
Joe’s eyes, a dark, muddy brown, stared at the floor as if the answer resided in the worn foot patterns in the carpet.
Again, James took in a hasty shot of air and let it out slowly. He didn’t have all damn day. Freakin’ people always late and slow…slow as molasses.
“Listen, you want the money or what?”
Joe nodded, again not speaking, and not for the first time, James wondered if the Navajo was too drunk or too simple to be doing business with. But the pot, although not his usual standard of workmanship, would fetch a retail price of at least a hundred dollars. He could sell it to tourists as authentic Navajo pottery—maybe even tell possible buyers the imperfections added charm to the piece and proved it wasn’t mass produced. Yeah, that will work out nicely.
James went to the register and removed four, oily one-dollar bills. He reluctantly slapped them down on the table, greedily picked up the pot and hurriedly headed back to the stock room. He didn’t hear Joe Yazzie leave, and he didn’t care. His mind had already moved on to more important things like getting the new batch of kachinas to his retail stores in the Four Corners Area, Wild Sage, and Las Vegas.
It was well after six o’clock when James Tanner finally closed up shop for the night. The traffic on Route 66 had trickled down into a few mud splattered cars and trucks here and there. The train barreled through downtown as usual and it was the humming of the Santa Fe train that greeted him as he reached his own truck-a black F150.
Most of the other traders who had neighboring stores, had also closed up shop and the few that stayed open past six did so only on the hopes of snagging some tourists that were late getting into town.
He reached into his jeans pocket and took out his keys. To his surprise, he found the Navajo pot sitting upon the hood of his truck. He frowned. He knew he’d put that pot, that homely thing, on the stockroom shelf, while he pondered how best to sell it to the public.
But yet there it was—sitting on the hood of the truck as if demanding to be taken with him. James shook his head to clear the cobwebs and decided that he must’ve taken it out of the store with him without remembering.
He opened the doors, removed the pot from the hood and placed it in the passenger seat.
As he drove down Route 66, past the historic El Rancho Hotel and numerous other dives, the pot kept catching his eye, making him look at it for a few seconds before putting his gaze back on the road. He nearly wrecked twice and almost ran the curb when he finally turned off of Highway 66 and onto Aztec Avenue.
He made it home safely, but the pot kept drawing his attention. Amongst the multicolored turquoise, pink and orange patches there seemed to be a certain strangeness to it. It was almost as if expressions on the crudely carved lumps changed with each glance. They shifted, rearranging, and then doing it all over again.
James decided it was the setting sun that tricked his eyes…nothing more.
He reached his house and pulled into the driveway. Shoving the truck into park, he twisted in the driver’s seat toward the pot. It was a hideous thing, now that he got to thinkin’ about it. How did he ever allow that Navajo to talk him into giving him four dollars for it?
But then another voice spoke up. He could hear it whispering in his ear and felt the words reverberate inside his skull. You can sell it for more, like always.
He laughed. Sure. Like all good traders, he never paid the natives anything near the actual retail price of their work. James knew he could get at least a hundred dollars for it. Yeah, that’s the thought he had early and had somehow forgotten. What was getting into him?
He climbed out of the truck, leaving the pot inside, and happily went into his well-furnished, ranch-style home. The profit margins were excellent so he could afford certain luxury. Most of the pottery he did buy or trade for, he bought terribly low and sold incredibly high. Such was the nature of capitalism and if the Navajo and the Zuni hadn’t caught up with the times, then, well, too bad for them.
It was this motto that had fueled traders for decades, hell, even centuries. Of course, there were some honest ones, but James knew that they too bought as low as possible and sold the product very, very high. Tourists, especially those from Europe, ate it up with a thirst that didn’t show any signs of being quenched. The higher the cost, the more turquoise, the more people thought the item was of value. Never mind that James had only paid fewer than twenty dollars for what he had sold for over a hundred.
James ate dinner (cheese enchiladas), watched the local basketball game and crawled into bed to sleep. He had plans for the pot tomorrow. The sooner he got rid of it the better. It gave him the creeps, but he wasn’t willing to admit that to himself, or anyone else. The pot scared him on some deeper level, that crawled across his heart, and up into his mind.
After a few twists and turns, James finally slept.
Around midnight, a little bit after, James awoke. He sat upright in bed and with his eyes closed—listened.
He could’ve sworn he heard something.
James climbed out of bed, shoving his feet into well-worn slippers. He could’ve sworn he heard something that sounded an awfully like chanting—Indian chanting. Damn drunk Indians stumbling down Aztec singing that unintelligible shit they call a language again…James thought angrily.
Shuffling into the kitchen, he took two fingers, slipped them between the blinds and carefully peeked through. He secretly cursed. He looked out the windows and saw no one. No one passed out—no one wandering around the grounds, in fact, nothing moved at all. He let out a slow breath of relief. The police didn’t need to be called. It was nothing.
Puzzled, but growing sleepy again, James started to turn back to his bedroom, but thought he’d better check the front of the house as well. He parted the blinds in the living room, noted how dusty they were, and peered across the front yard.
A shiny sliver of light caught his eye. He opened the blinds more and saw that the light came from his truck that was parked outside the garage.
He must’ve left the side door ajar or the interior light on.
“Damn it!” he hissed as he went to the kitchen, claimed his keys from the key holder and headed out into the cool night air.
As he reached the passenger side door, he heard chanting—a loud, hypnotic noise that drew him closer—not repelled him. Inside his inner voice screamed warnings, but James proceeded to unlock the door.
The pot’s beaming glow only intensified the chanting. It grew louder and louder until James was sure the neighbors heard it. Still, he could not cover it up or smash it to the ground. He leaned in close to the item, the light forcing him to squint against its power.
“What in the hell?” he asked, to no one in particular.
The chanting of a thousand voices burrowed into his ears, into his heart and into his head. The dashboard, the glove box and lastly the pot itself began to swirl around and James gripped the passenger door, his fingers turning white.
The light dragged his upper torso further into the car like he was a puppet. The words, the chanting became clear as he stared at the now clearly contorted faces on the pot.
Thief, thief, thief…
James frowned. Minutes before the language hadn’t been anything close to English, more like—like Navajo, but now it had become painfully clear the word the faces spoke over and over again. Angry and unanimous the faces’ chant continued to accuse him… thief… thief… thief…
Pulling back, James took in huge gulps of air as terror circled around his heart.
What was this thing? Whatever it was, it had to be destroyed. Freakin’ Navajo witchcraft! Damn medicine men!
Carefully, his hands trembling, he picked up the hideous pot. As soon as his hands touched the bottom’s clay base, burning pain shot through them. James screamed. The searing pain rushed into his psyche, blinding any logical thoughts, and shooting the agony out into his entire body. He couldn’t free his hands from the pottery— they were seared to the piece!
James screamed so loud and for so long he could no longer hear his own voice as the blackness swept onto him and pounced…like a thief.
At the corner of Aztec and Ford Canyon, Joe Yazzie stood with his head bent to the windy gusts that hurled from the New Mexican skyline—tossing even more dirt onto his already dusty clothes. Beneath the layers of dirt and grim, a smile shone from his dark, tanned face. The brim of his hat covered his midnight hair and his cowboy boots tapped on the sidewalk. The night’s air was filled with petrified screams of terror that curled the toes and froze the heart.
Slowly, Joe walked over to the spot on the ground where the pot rested. He picked it up in his calloused hands and admired it under the moonlight. James Tanner’s twisted expression of horror and angst stared blankly back at him.
Joe removed the four wrinkled dollars from his pocket and tossed them into the wind before removing an old, canvas sack from his jacket and placing the pot inside.
He laughed as the screams increased. He peered at James’s terror-filled face. “Nice trade.”
With the cackle of pure enjoyment, Joe vanished into the breeze.
Nicole Givens Kurtz’s short stories have appeared in over 40 anthologies of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her novels have been finalists for the EPPIEs, Dream Realm, and Fresh Voices in science fiction awards. Her work has appeared in Bram Stoker Finalist, Sycorax’s Daughters, and other fine publications. She’s a member of SFWA. Support Nicole’s #OwnVoices stories by becoming a patron of her Patreon.