She walked through the automatic door into the climate controlled Wal Mart, waving off the old man offering shopping carts and picked up a grocery basket. As she walked away, his fake smile fell and he just stared as the trail of her musky scent faded. Perusing the produce section, she selected an orgy of fruit. She lined the bottom with sturdier items like apples and oranges, placing avocados and papayas on top. Smaller items she slipped in the cracks, several sizes of batteries, razors, a roll of twine. Crouching down in the house ware department, she left the basket on a shelf behind some towels and headed toward the camping gear before checking out with some water purification tablets.
“Survivalist?” asked the young man ahead of her, who was buying a large trashcan.
“I guess it depends what you mean by surviving,” she answered stonily.
She paid with cash and left, scowling at the old man and she went. She walked across the muggy parking lot and stopped at the edge of the strip mall at the bus station. Before long the young man with the trashcan pulled up beside her, and she got in the car.
“No trouble, then?” she said, kissing his bristly cheek.
“Nope. What did you get? I didn’t get a chance to look.”
She reached into the back seat and stuck her arm in the trashcan, pulling out her basket. “I got you mangoes. They look good, don’t they?”
He nodded happily, then braked, keeping the car barely above the speed limit as he merged onto the expressway. Their squat was outside of town, the edge of somebody’s property, dead or gone or uninterested. They had been there for a few weeks. If people came by during the day, they might not have even noticed the area was being used. The boy pulled the car off the dirt road, between some trees. It would have been hard to see from the road, but not impossible, she reminded herself as she arranged a dark sheet over the windshield.
The coals were still hot where she had kicked dirt over them that morning, and she kindled them with scraps of cardboard while the boy brought out their mess kit for dinner.
Later, eating quietly, he asked, “How long do you think she’ll look for us?”
Chewing thoughtfully on a piece of browned plantain, she said, “I have no idea.”
She’d been semi-homeless for some time when she met the witch, sleeping on people’s couches, or taking naps in back rooms of one or another’s university’s libraries. She liked the libraries, though the librarians scared her. She read novels like a child, without deconstructing, only interested in the characters and the resolution of the plot. She liked the man in “The Old Man and the Sea,” and smuggled the book out of the library to read it in her favorite grassy clearing on the edge of the river, over a berm from the expressway. The day was warm, and she dozed with the book over her face until she decided she wanted to swim. Inhaling deeply the smell of soured water and mud, she pushed her body out into a newer, ancient frame, green and scaly and angular, then lumbered into the water. Floating like a log, adjusting for the current with her spiny tail, she looked back on her campsite contentedly. She rolled over and scratched her long belly between the scales, watching a strange white bird spiral above her. The bird unsettled her, and she swam back to shore.
It was twilight when footsteps woke her, and in her human body she lay still as a fawn in the grass as a female form came to stand between her and the setting sun, its face obscured.
“I saw you earlier,” the woman said neutrally.
“No. I saw you climb the embankment. And I’ve seen you walking this path a few times.”
“Is this your land?”
“No. I have a home though. You can stay with me, if you want”
The girl’s eyes had adjusted, and in the hazy light, she could see her. The woman was dressed simply, in a clean white dress, with red leather boots. She didn’t look menacing, or crazy, but something was wanting about her. “Maybe she is lonely. Maybe I remind her of someone,” the girl thought. Her campsite was private, but uncomfortable, a fire would have kept the pests away and made her feel less alone, but it would have been visible from the road. It was a long march into the city, and there were snakes in the water. The girl grabbed her backpack, shoved the book into one of its pockets, and stood up to leave.
Dappled light came through the canopy of trees above them, and she woke up on their tarp as the sun started to rise, slightly damp from the dew. They slept curled up around one another, like tangled roots, and she had to extricate herself gently so as not to wake him. Their mess kit was still soaking in the bucket of soapy water, and she tried not to make noise as she rinsed the pot clean in the bucket of treated rinse water. It was getting murky, she’d have to go to the reservoir soon and get more. The fire had gone out, but the wood was dry and caught easily, and soon she had a pot of coffee with powdered milk, one egg each, and fruit for their breakfast.
Sipping her coffee from a chipped tourist’s coffee mug, she unclasped the lid off the one garbage can they’d kept and pulled out the small silk screening kit the boy had built. It wasn’t difficult once they’d pilfered the essentials from an art store in town. The screening process infuriated him. He picked up the screen and made one pass of color, then became disgusted and threw the works onto the leafy ground when the design smudged. Watching him from the corner of her eye while checking the oil in the car, the girl waited for him to withdraw to the reservoir to swim and sulk, lost in his world of endless repetition and hegemony leftover from before they’d escaped together. Once he was gone, she picked up the screen and the print, realigned the frame, and set paint to paper, setting precedent.
Now he outlined the designs he wanted on thin plastic sheets, for her to cut out along the permanent marker lines and make into stencils. He drew Blue Rider-worthy scenes that she did not recognize as any style but his, the angular backgrounds were stark and deeply colored. These she applied to rigid pieces of paper, for him to finish later with images of white crows and alligators and monstrous pressing machine looming over vulnerable figures. Once the loose narrative had been told, he signed his name and they bound the sheets of paper into chapbooks and sold them for gas money. In this morning, pressing the thick ink through the screen, she was industrious and quiet as she waited for him to wake up. All in all, it was a very domestic scene.
She’d lived with the woman for a few months, earning her keep by cleaning the house and tending the woman’s extensive garden. They drank teas the woman made from herbal infusions of catnip before bed, to share dreams. The witch had many concoctions. Some of their ingredients weren’t legal, but were kept in clearly labeled glass mason jars on the counter, both common and taxonomical nomenclature, “Damiana, Turnera aphrodisiaca,” “Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria.” A few were sensitive to light, and stored in the cupboard in ceramic pots. Others had to be stored in a lipid, and were encased in tallow in cubes in the refrigerator under the counter.
This was the woman’s trade, and in her all of the science and mysticism attendant to witchcraft collided. Women of all description came to her doorstep, sometimes crying at night. Middle-aged women came during the day, while their husbands were at work, they complained of neglect and loneliness. The girl waited on them, serving lavender cookies and pitchers of tea, and fetching the appropriate books from the witch’s library. The library’s inventory spanned many genres, from chemistry and psychological warfare, to guides on the finer points of tarot, and anthropological reports on hoodoo.
In time she learned how to read the witch’s formulas, and started measuring out powders and oil while wearing surgical gloves, weighing the individual elements on a small digital scale in metric units, before sifting the mixtures into glassine envelopes. The witch wrapped the envelopes in red fabric before walking her customer to the door with explicit instructions. “Mix this into his alcohol,” she prescribed, and her customer, still blotchy in the face, would understand until hearing the crux of the advice, “then ignore him.” The women didn’t understand at first, but the ploy always worked. She gave them spells to inflame a man, and the unique power to satisfy that craving at their leisure. Some came back with bruises, black eyes and split lips, but they smiled graciously, having won back their desired, and asked for another dose.
After, the woman would sit at her rolltop desk and count the payment, bills of varying degrees of wear and the occasional check. “Nothing magical about that,” the girl thought, and the woman’s fares were not cheap. Nothing magical, as well, about the welfare she collected every month from the state, or the accountant who visited from time to time. The accountant would come after work, in his suit. The women had her mix cocktails of infused liquors, then, and change the sheets on her bed from her usual stark white to burgundy with white flowers cascading down the panels. The sheets would still smell like him when she crawled into bed with the woman at night.
He woke slowly, and she didn’t speak to him until after he’d had his first cigarette. She had made progress on the chapbooks, and set them aside to dry. After he lit his cigarette, his rolled her one from her mix of damiana, passionflower and marshmallow root, with a small amount of marijuana. Some substances are harmful in large amounts, but beneficial in therapeutic doses. She’d learned the recipe from the witch, and liked to smoke it in the mornings to retain the dreamfulness of sleep, and encourage him to fall back into their nest with her. He sipped his coffee as she crawled up to him, pretending to be a cat, and when she put her head on his knee he placed the joint between her grinning lips and they smoked together. He cut a piece of mango for her and she ate it from his hand. Their bodies smelled healthy and dirty and happy, and their faces were covered in fruit juice, which they licked off in kisses. Close, reeking of life and woodsmoke, they rolled in the blankets, skin against skin with her indigoed fingers woven into in his dirty hair. His leg between hers, then insatiable, she rolled on top of his hips and leaned back into the columns of warm dappled light. He pushed curls of blankets under her knees to protect her from bruises, then pushed her hips down as she crumpled to kiss him again.
The girl grew lonely at the witch’s house. On days it rained, she worked at the broad wooden kitchen table, coaxing various toadstools into releasing their identifying mosaic of spores onto stiff white paper. She then taped over the spore fingerprint and filed the tiny portrait in a photo album, as if engaging in some ancestor worship for the alienated and orphaned. When she could, from the kitchen she spied the witch counsel less successful animals in the wiles they should have been born with. She had the dreams of a traitor, seeing the witch with blood on her hands, butchering rabbits and leaving them in a trail behind her. The girl walked behind her in the dream, picking up the rabbits, but they bit her hands even in death so she threw them on the ground.
After that dream, she woke up sleeping at the foot of the bed like a dog and was fearful. Had the witch been privy to her dreams? Had she been cast down to sleep like a dog as punishment? The girl spent more time alone, transcribing spells and potions into chapbooks; her longing for the witch to requite her devotion caused her to be both more lonely, and more wary. In the back room of the witch’s house, she surreptitiously lit a stick of incense and prayed the column of resinous smoke into a beacon.
Since dropping out of art school he had been working at a small grocery store and also at a printing press, staying after closing to print his artwork off the record. The work didn’t allow much time to himself, and his employers sometimes didn’t pay him, or paid him late. His shared room in a small apartment near a community school campus was slowly filling with cigarette butts and vodka bottles. He drove long errands in his own car for the grocery, wearing out his tires and burning off his oil, the unfairness of which was a constant intrusion into his mind. He carved stencils of stags with machine guns for legs and on some nights, he spray-painted the design in black on pale colored cars with luckier owners.
Frustrated, he had dreamless sleep between shifts, not gaining rest from the formality of unconsciousness. As if to compensate, his waking experience grew more feverish and hallucinatory. Lately he’d been transfixed by the face of a girl. Not a young face; dark with doubt and dirt, with leaves in her hair. She spied him though his work, suddenly appearing in the condensation on his window, or standing between two cars, right before the impact of a head on collision. He drew maps of places he’d never been in childish style that wasn’t his. Late one night, he drew a curascuro piece of the girl standing in a doorway, fox-like, with cold light and warm shadows, before heading to his pre-dawn shift at the grocer’s.
They stayed in bed all morning, reading to each other excitedly out of the array of books and magazines splayed among their bedding, then making each other come with their fingers and mouths. He dozed with his head resting on her hips, and his hands under her fuzzy thighs, as she flipped through the magazines he had found her. She’s seen all the pictures before, but they were still good. Soon, though, the sun was high and hot, and they dressed and locked their things in the car. Dumping the dirty wash water out a few yards from their campsite, they tossed their dirty clothes and rags into the bucket with the twine she’d stolen the day before. She put on a pair of denim cut offs as a hat and he wore her low cut top on his narrow torso, and put his lighter in the space where the empty cups gaped. Haphazardly dressed in the manner of individuals who did not expect to encounter anyone, they headed to the reservoir for a swim and a wash.
“Why do you want me here?” the girl asked the woman.
“You are my student, I want to teach you.”
“Is that all?”
“You were sleeping beside the expressway when I met you, you smelled like a swamp.”
“You knew I was fine sleeping on the riverbank. It was warm, besides, you don’t need me here, anyone could do the work I do. Why did you take me in?”
“Isn’t it enough just to be here? You’ve learned so much. You can influence others with what I’ve taught you, just like I knew you would. You can change a person’s mind.”
“No. Not mine.”
“But is that all? You want me to stay in your yard and be an apprentice, and sleep at the foot of your bed. It’s doglike.”
“You know that’s not true. You should be grateful to be here. Besides, you know you are going to stay here with me. That’s all there is. There are no alternatives.”
The girl had known it would end like this. She’d been living in the witch’s house for several seasons now, and had seen the dynamic play out with her customers. The witch had her hooks in her, she didn’t need to argue, any appeal would met with obliquely effective influence. She’d slept in dry culverts beside train tracks, and out run rail police, but the woman and her charms had enslaved her and made her servile and complacent. In hopeful preparation for her deliverance, she had already packed her bag, filled with notebooks of alchemical knowledge, written in small, neat writing on both sides of the page, her clothes. She’d compiled a makeshift compendium of hard-to-procure chemicals and herbs in a first aid kit. The woman stood in the doorway, not blocking her physically, but holding her there with her subtle power. The air felt electric, and against her will, she put down the bag. Her face went slack. She was losing, and would have been confined there forever if the tension had not been broken by an intervening knock at the door. The girl ran past the witch with her bag in her hand, and opened the door to the grocer’s delivery boy standing outside with a crate of groceries and seedlings. He dropped the box and they ran out to his car and drove. His drawing was strewn over the floorboards, and she recognized the arc of the reservoir’s boundary and the spindly trails branching out on graph paper. She was too afraid to look back as they escaped together.
Walking to the reservoir, he carried the heavier bucket, and she lit another of her cigarettes. She could smell their detergent; she’d cut block soap apart and treated it with lavender and tea tree oil. Their clothes never became infested. Mosquitoes did not bite them, even when they stood next to the water’s edge, and started laundering their things. Naked in the water, they swam and washed themselves as their clothes dried in the sun. She submerged herself, and opened her eyes, looking for her lover’s naked body. She saw his feet as he pulled himself out, then turned her face up to surface, and saw the witch’s face above her.
The witch’s white hair fanned out like some deadly moss as she reached out, pressing the girl deeper under the water. The surface of the water was like glass, despite the struggle beneath it, and the light coming in was an opaque, milky eye looking down on her as the witch’s hands wrapped around her throat more tightly. The girl wrenched at her throat, trying to get a handhold.
Furiously, she fought the witch, flailing at her, as the water started to move differently around her. Her face stretched to fill the spaces in the water, elongating into a snapping snout, and crackling as her bones accommodated the form and the smell of dirty water filled her frantic mind. Snapping at the witch, with her extended snout, she clipped the witch’s arm at the crux of her elbow, and wrenched her through the water. The witch made herself into dead weight, and she scraped the bottom like a sunken ship as the girl ground her out of the water. Reptilian and scaly; he knew her at once. He’d etched her body in his stories, fighting the witch, pushing the scene onto paper a hundred times a day, like a prayer. Once on the bank, the girl took her long, black nail and, splitting open her abdomen in a horrible grimace, spilled red blood onto the bank and into the reservoir.
The witch lie on her back and gaped open, her impassive face blindly watching the pair before her. Shell shocked, transfixed by the withering body before them, they did not speak. Nor could she speak as her jaw realigned itself along her skull, and the sour smell of stagnant water escaped through the cracks. The witch’s body lost blood with less intensity, but did not cease to move. Little spasms of motion centralized, the witch’s fingertips clawed into fists and stilled, but her chest heaved unnaturally. The young, naked pair stepped back fearfully from the witch’s body as a white thing shouldered forth, some tumor pale and rounded like the knob of a bone. Edging upward, pushing apart the borders of the wound, a white head breached its way into the air and unhinged its pale beak from the confines of its wing. Big and white and stark, streaked with the witch’s blood, it perched for a moment on the corpse and fixed its bituminous gaze on them. Betrayed, misguided, jealous and alone, it took off with a start and flew away.