It was a Saturday like any other: Phoebe’s day off, chores done, restless to get out of the house. She decided to go out and browse her favorite antique shop, which nestled in a row of many such shops on Spring Street.
The shop’s dim interior belied the bright sunshine outside, and her eyes took a few moments to adjust. The owner acknowledged her with a nod and let her be. He knew by now that she was a looker, not a buyer, so declined to waste a good sales pitch on her. That suited Phoebe just fine.
She wandered idly past the kitschy old lamps, Fiesta ware, and orphaned china teacups. She only glanced at the glass case of aged jewelry, knowing there were no treasures there. The really interesting items were in the back of the store, where it seemed no one ever went.
She enjoyed looking at the collection of masks. Some were Kabuki, some African, and there were a few she couldn’t identify, made of some leathery material which peeled and cracked with age. She pretended they were made of human skin, provided by some unlucky sacrifice to nameless, forgotten gods. She felt gooseflesh rise on her arms and giggled at herself.
That’s when it caught her eye, sitting on a shelf beneath the wall of masks. She’d never seen this piece before, and she leaned in to study it.
It was a stone idol, a long-legged female figure. Her arms were upraised and carved snakes coiled around them, their heads resting in her hands. Her face consisted of two huge eyes that seemed to stare intently at Phoebe. She couldn’t resist picking it up.
It was quite heavy, though it was only the length of Phoebe’s hand. It felt warm against her palm, and she wondered what kind of stone it was, where it came from, how old it was. It must be ancient. How had such a piece ended up here in this dusty shop, when it surely had archaeological significance?
The idol went on staring at Phoebe, and she briefly entertained the notion it was alive somehow. As soon as she thought that, a scent of wildflowers drifted around her, making her a little dizzy. She heard drums beating far away. An image of bonfires in a starry night filled her head, and she heard a young woman’s voice say, “The spring equinox is coming. All is ready. Fulfill your oath.”
Phoebe shook her head to clear it, steadying herself against the shelf.
“What was that?” she whispered to the idol still lying in her hand, staring up at her. “I think you gave me a little daydream there, old girl.”
She gazed around the shabby store. The owner stood behind the counter, watching her. He gave her an expectant smile. She looked up at the strange leathery masks again, and they seemed to shift in the dim light. The idol lay hot and heavy in her hand as if it belonged there.
Phoebe went to the counter and set the idol down.
“I’ll take it,” she said. The owner kept smiling.
“You truly buy today? Pleasant surprise.” His voice carried a thick accent which she couldn’t place. There was no trace of surprise in it.
“You sure this is piece you want?” he continued. “Maybe nice silver tea service is better for young lady. This is old, only gather dust. Too much clutter, too much trouble.”
“No, thanks,” Phoebe said. “This is the one I want. I’ll take good care of her.”
He rang up her purchase and wrapped the idol tenderly.
“Be sure to take good care,” he said. “If don’t work out, you can bring back, no problem.”
He handed the package to her. She turned to go, then stopped.
“Hey, by the way, do you know what the date is today?”
“Is March 19,” he said softly. “Spring equinox tomorrow.”
“Is that so?” A shudder snaked up Phoebe’s spine.
“Yes, is so. In my country, in old days, was big festival. My ancestors, they sacrifice to the gods at equinox to make crops grow. Your little god there, she is mistress of sacrifice. Authentic piece, very old. Young lady respect her, yes? Take good care.”
“Yes, I promise to take good care of her,” Phoebe said, smiling. “My word is my oath.”
“Then she take care of you, too. Have fine day, miss. Will see you again soon.”
Phoebe nodded and walked out into the sunny day, giddy that she’d found such a treasure for such a great bargain. And the fairy tale that went with the idol made it that much better. It didn’t matter whether it was a real legend or the owner had invented it. It would be a great conversation piece when she had friends over. And maybe someday she’d have a museum look at it. It might be a real treasure, after all.
You never knew.
* * *
He never opened the shop on the spring equinox or the day following, as he faithfully observed the ancient holy festival. It was Tuesday when he returned to work.
When he opened the shop’s front door, a strong scent of wildflowers engulfed him. He grinned and went to the wall of masks.
There, on the shelf beneath the masks, sat the sacred idol, his beloved goddess, the Lady. Her arms and the snakes winding around them bore new rusty stains, and her eyes gleamed as she gazed at him. He fell to his knees before her.
“Thank you, Great Lady,” he prayed. “You accept my offering, you return home. You have blessed. Thank you.”
A new mask hung on the wall above the idol. Its pale leather was smooth and supple, its features delicate. It was the finest one yet.
He rose and went to open the shop for business, confident that this would be a most profitable year.