By Janis Bultman
Published in Eureka Literary Magazine, Fall 1988
In the hot late afternoon, when the sky above the subdivision turned the color of lemonade, Petra went looking for the stone. She knew where to search—on the narrow ribbon of property that separated her house from Ray’s. Their small, ranch-style houses were close, maybe ten feet apart, and mirror images of each other. Each was an L, one inverted. Together they formed a disjunctive T, with driveways tucked inside the right angles and three pairs of opposing windows along the vertical rift. With these windows open, Petra heard everything that happened in Ray’s house. She heard the laugh track on the television, three-year-old Chloe splashing in the bath, Ray’s wife practicing for choir. Her name was Bethany, and she could really sing.
From her house, Petra monitored the cadences of Bethany’s moods, the caustic anxiety that accompanied breakfast with Ray, the fierce, soaring soprano that burst loose with his exit. She looked forward to the quiet hour before dinner when Bethany read to Chloe in the room opposite Petra’s—Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella. Petra would lie back on her bed, absorbing the lessons that suited her own particular view: Love conquers all. Even the most devoted father can be blinded by love. No good can come of abusing the power of magic.
Petra knew magic. If love conquers all, then she could use her magic in its service. The rest would follow.
Petra began her search under the fence that linked the houses at their back corners. Here, the ground was in almost perpetual shadow, but there was no damp. The soil was dry as talcum powder, and the thirsty grass needled Petra’s insteps. No one watched her. The houses were empty. Her mother, agreeing that Petra was old enough to stay home alone, had gone away with her latest companion. Bethany had taken Chloe to visit relatives. Ray stayed behind to teach metal shop to summer school delinquents. He would be at the high school for two more hours.
With painstaking care, Petra worked her way up the side of the house. At the front corner, she crossed to Ray’s side and worked her way back. Nothing grew against Petra’s house. The windows and stucco walls were bare. Her mother couldn’t be bothered with landscaping, and who would see it anyway? But Ray had planted night-blooming jasmine, and it had grown up to frame his windows. On hot summer nights, when her window was open, the heavy smell kept Petra awake.
She found the stone under the middle window, Chloe’s window. It was yellow sandstone, round and smooth with one ragged edge—exactly right. It just fit the palm of her hand.
Petra carried it around the front of her house and into the two-car garage, pulling the door down behind her. She slid the stone between the slats of her father’s bench clamp, protecting the rock’s fragile edges with rags from the bin. She slipped a slender bit into the hand drill, pulled goggles over her eyes, and pressed the drill’s trigger. The drill whined as she touched the bit to the stone. She pressed and released, pressed and released. The bit smoked. A shallow depression appeared on the surface of the stone. Gradually, it deepened. When she judged she had gone halfway, she removed the stone from the clamp, turned it over, and re-clamped it with the unmarred surface facing up. She restarted the drill and held her breath. She had to complete the hole without cracking the stone.
When Petra thought the drill was about to break through, she switched it off and removed the stone from the clamp. She was satisfied. A few flakes had chipped from the smooth surface on the second side, but the stone hadn’t broken. She found a nail in the rubble on the workbench and settled cross-legged on the cold floor of the garage. With intense patience, she scratched at the center of each depression, turning the stone at intervals until a small hole appeared and then until it was large enough to slide her pinkie through. She sandwiched the stone between her palms, bringing the tips of her fingers up under her chin as if in prayer.
Sometimes, when Petra worked in wood shop at school, Ray came in from the adjoining metal shop. If he passed by her the small hairs on her arms raised up. Her skin seemed to shrink. Every now and then, because they were neighbors, Ray dropped a hand on her shoulder and stopped to see what she was working on. He would say something she couldn’t quite hear, and she would nod dumbly. Outside class, in the hall, she’d seen the other girls watching him covertly until he passed, after which they widened their eyes at each other with smiling lust. A year ago, Ray bought the house next door to Petra’s. Shortly afterward, Petra acquired several new friends. Then, one by one, these friends found other interests, and she was alone again. She’d been careful to invite them only when Ray was out, for Ray’s sake, and Bethany’s too.
Lately, on weekends, when chance permitted, Petra sunbathed topless in her backyard. She arranged herself and listened in fierce suspense for the muted whoosh of Ray’s sliding glass door. If it came, she waited a beat before tipping her knees and adjusting the tilt of her pelvis. He watched her through the knotholes in the fence.
Petra stood and dusted sand from her legs. She went up the two steps that separated the garage from the kitchen, passing through the kitchen and hallway, and into her bedroom. A thong cut from a piece of rust-colored suede lay ready on the bedspread. She threaded it through the hole in the stone, tied the ends, and slipped the loop over her head. Finally, she removed her clothes and tossed them on the floor. The stone hung flat between her small, naked breasts.
Ray would be home soon. Facing his house, she sat cross-legged on her bed, her knees pressed open against her wall. She reached out to touch her fingertips to the metal window frame and rested her wrists against the sill. Position, expression, state of mind—all were essential. Her light was on. Her curtains were open and so were Chloe’s.
The narrow band of sky between the roofs had darkened to luminous gray. Petra closed her eyes and wrinkled her nose against the rising smell of the jasmine. She cast her spell, and she waited.
Ray eased himself onto the Nova’s warm hood and hooked his heels over the fender. He balanced the metal box on his knee. It was small, no bigger than a child’s building block. He’d made it from scraps, in odd moments. When Joey Bondini didn’t need help with that teetering pile of junk he called sculpture. Or Sally Dickinson wasn’t using the torch to take off her nail polish. He felt himself grinning and made himself stop. He wouldn’t joke about Sally. She’d lost her grip on the torch, an honest mistake. Really, the girls were his best students. They screwed up their pretty faces and hung on every word. Not like the boys, who goofed around and broke his rhythm.
Ray wiggled the lid of the metal box with his forefinger. He’d had trouble with it. The weld gave twice before he got it to hold, but he’d been patient. He would fill the box with green M&M’s and leave it on Bethany’s pillow for her homecoming. He was what he was, no apologies. He didn’t intend to be subtle.
Ray raised his head and stared at his recessed front door. Bethany had hung a wreath on it. The flowers had papery petals she said were silk, and yellow plastic stamens. She refused to tell him how much it cost and hung it without his permission, pounding a nail into the perfect door he had installed and varnished just weeks before. In the haze of dusk, the wreath looked nice, almost real. He picked up the box and slid off the hood.
Fitting his key in the lock, he bent to sniff Bethany’s flowers. They hardly smelled anymore. Bethany hung the wreath, and then she saturated it with her perfume. She held the pearly pink bottle up in front of his eyes and stared him down, raising a virulent mist in the door’s direction. It was a nasty, cloying concoction, and he wondered why she liked it. Eau d’Oleander he called it once as a joke, making her run from the room in tears. A bad memory, all around. When she was a child, one of her friends had almost died from eating oleander. It was a beautiful plant, with narrow, spiky leaves and clusters of star-shaped flowers. Deadly, but popular for landscaping. A hedge of the stuff had lined the back fence when they moved in. He knew it worried Bethany, so he pulled it up and hauled it away.
She hadn’t said thank you. Not then and not when he took Chloe for long walks so she could practice her singing and not when he brought his paycheck home, fatter than ever because of the study halls he’d taken on. But that was okay. She complained that the sulfurous smog clogged her lungs, that fairy tales and vast, fluorescent supermarkets oppressed her. Hormones, he thought. Some kind of female thing. It would pass. He would wait it out.
Ray rubbed a silky petal and touched something damp. Someone had tucked a sprig of jasmine in amongst the silk flowers. Bethany, no doubt. Another one of her coded messages. The jasmine was bruised and wilted. He sighed and pulled it out and took it with him into the house.
Flicking on the hallway lights, he passed the kitchen and wandered into the living room. He stood uncertainly, twirling the stem of the limp jasmine. Finally, he swung around to face the hall. Light filtered from Chloe’s open door. That morning, he’d opened Chloe’s curtains and cracked her window—to keep the house from getting too warm. Maybe Petra was in her room. No harm in looking. He tiptoed down the hall and eased his head around the jamb.
He jerked back and pressed his shoulder blades flat to the wall. Had she seen him? He dared a second look. No, her eyes were closed. What was she doing, sitting there like a naked Buddha? Meditating? No telling with kids today.
He ran his knuckles down the fly of his jeans. His penis was hard. Just like that. He slid down the wall and sat on his haunches, punishing himself with the inset seam. He put the metal box down on the rug beside him and pressed his fingertips into his eyes.
He thought of Bethany, tried to imagine her face as she found the box, opened it, and discovered the M&M’s. He loved her. She loved him too. He knew she did. But why did she turn away from him? Over and over again, she picked up Chloe and walked to the back of the house, humming under her breath. Church songs. He never followed. He would go straight to the living room and put on the television. After a while, Chloe would bring in her Barbies and line them up naked at his feet. He was certain Bethany told her to do it. A bevy of cold, hard women and, above them, his daughter’s sweet, round face. He did the only thing he could think to do. He got down on the rug and dressed the dolls. Chloe kneeled beside him, laughing with delight. How many fathers played Barbies with their daughters? Some of the dolls had belonged to Bethany. He would pull on a Cinderella gown, trying not to touch the peaked breasts, and wonder for the thousandth time why little girls so loved these weird plastic things.
Carefully, Ray laid the jasmine alongside the box and stared at his arrangement. He recognized the symbolism, saw the message in it. It was as clear as the line of naked Barbies. But he was a weak man. He was going to stand and go into Chloe’s room. He wanted to see what Petra would do, what she had in mind. He was curious.
He stood and stepped inside. Halfway in, he stopped. The room swelled with the scent of the flowers outside—tiny white blossoms like miniature pinwheels with waxy leaves. Moments after they were picked, the flowers curled and turned brown, but their scent was miraculous. He’d planted them for Chloe, when she was born.
He said her name. Hadn’t he? Hadn’t he whispered it?
Petra opened her eyes. Ray stood in the window, slim and dark against the light from his hall. It wasn’t at all as she’d imagined it. He should have filled the frame, larger than life, and suddenly she wavered. She’d planned for everything, but not his vertigo. She could hardly resist the urge to cover herself. She pressed her wrists against the sill to anchor them.
Ray froze in the center of Chloe’s room. He’d gone too far. He couldn’t retreat and keep his dignity. He couldn’t go forward. Buoyant with shock and hope, he wanted to press his face against Petra’s breasts, to slink to the safety of the hall.
Petra forced herself to speak, hoping the sound of her voice would help her reclaim her dignity. She cleared her throat. “Do you want me to come to you?”
She flushed with embarrassment. She wanted to die.
An electric chill pricked Ray’s skin. Her come-on was odd and childish, but it was clear. She wanted him to make love to her and, of course, he couldn’t. Slowly, reluctantly, he turned away. His eyes teared. He grabbed his thumb and squeezed it for courage.
Seeing him turn, Petra took hold of the stone and pulled down on it hard so the thong bit into her neck. She’d written a spell for this. Just in case. She didn’t think she spoke aloud, but Ray turned back. “What?” he said, and cranked the window wide.
Petra didn’t answer. She climbed on the windowsill and jumped to the ground, landing hard. The impact winded her. She crouched a moment to catch her breath and straightened, extending her hand. After a moment, Ray reached out for it. He grasped her wrist and pulled her up, wincing as she used his jasmine for a toehold.
When she was inside, Ray cranked the window shut and closed the curtain. He crossed the room and shut the door to the hall. He couldn’t breathe. In the dark, she was a wraith. This helped, to think of her as something not quite real. He went closer, touched her collarbone. He could barely see her face.
Just once. Bethany will never know.
With Ray on top of her, Petra lay inert, gripping his shoulders. She hadn’t intended to stay so still, but it hurt. She couldn’t wait for it to end. When at last it did, she slipped out from under him. Sitting up, she took the stone from around her neck and held it out to him. “I made this for you. For good luck.”
He took the stone and rubbed his thumb across it. He sighed and pressed a forefinger to the tip of her nose. “We can’t do this again,” he said. “I have a wife and a child. Nothing to offer you. Responsibilities you can’t imagine. I’m sorry.”
She nodded and agreed with him, but she knew how simple it would be to change his mind.
She left, pushing the curtains aside and cranking open the window. She jumped, and he heard her struggle up the stucco on the other side. He sat on the edge of the bed and examined her stone. What was this about? A labor of love, and he was touched, but it would be dangerous to keep it. He wound the cord around it and, opening Chloe’s closet door, tossed it into the far corner of the top shelf. Magic. He smiled. He threw back his head and would have laughed aloud, but the gap between their houses was so small. Petra might have heard.
Petra got into bed and opened her legs wide so the cool sheets soothed her tender labia. She crossed her arms on her breasts and sent a querulous look into the darkness of her room. It will be better next time, she reminded herself. Everyone says so. It always hurts the first time.
She closed her eyes and began to plan for the future. She’d make a potion to bind Ray to her. Oleander, she thought. It was Bethany’s perfume. Ray hated the stuff. She’d heard them arguing about it once, though they were in a distant part of the house, and she couldn’t quite make out the words.
Petra knew the oleander was poisonous, but she would be careful. She didn’t want to hurt anyone. Lots of people grew oleander. There was some in her yard. An infusion of oleander would surely do no harm. She would look up the pharmacology of oleander, just to be sure. She knew she would understand it. She had a feel for these things.
Her recipe began to take shape: A certain shade of oleander. A bright, shrill pink, to represent Bethany. The flowers would be just past their prime and come from a cluster with a certain number of blooms. A multiple of two, for the two to be driven apart. She’d research the numerology.
As the details coalesced, Petra laced her fingers behind her head and smiled up at the dim textured ceiling. This new magic was more sophisticated than the stone. The night had matured her. It would take time and patience to find what she was looking for, but she was certain it would work. To infuse the oleander, she’d need a liquid with special significance. Pure water. Maybe Evian, her personal favorite. From one of the small bottles she held in her hand when she jogged, a weight for upper body strength in the first mile. Or rainwater, collected in a receptacle placed in the narrow corridor between the houses, their common boundary, hers and Ray’s. But she would have to wait for rain, and she didn’t want to wait too long. She wasn’t sure about the liquid part, but it would come to her.
The time for mixing and steeping would also be critical. I’ll mix my potion while Bethany sings. I’ll steep it on the windowsill while she reads to Chloe. I’ll whisper my spell and leave it on the doorstep after dusk, during the hour when Ray comes home from school.
Ray will understand. He’ll know what it is, and he’ll drink it down.
No good can come of abusing the power of magic, it’s true. But this is love.