I place red rose petals into an antique cologne box, wooden and hinged. I add pink stones, a paper clip for binding, a silver ring I bought at Woolworth's, and Bela's autograph.
When he signed it, I didn't have the nerve to say anything to him, felt silly standing in line with people holding posters and T-shirts. When my turn came and I handed him the slip of paper, I couldn't look at his face. His hand hesitated for half a second before he took the heart-shaped paper. "To anyone in particular?"
I shook my head, silently lying.
He signed only his name, Bela Shroud.
I burn a red candle beside the cologne box and read about Bela in the paper, talking about his wife and son, how he tries to forget how happy he is when he writes songs because, "Happy songs are all right, but they don't say enough about the human condition, which is what interests me—how we can relate to each other, though our lives may be different. And often, what binds us is very sad." I'm glad his wife isn't his son's mother, as if this is going to work, as if casting this spell is going to make him leave her for me. But it makes me feel better doing something, anything that feels productive, like how I imagine writing a song or creating a painting would feel.
It would be easier if he were an asshole or racist or something counter to my fantasy of him. It would be better if he lived in a different town than me, if he wasn't so physically close. It would be better if I wasn't an idealist or whatever it is that makes me so susceptible to obsession. This hurts, and I only want to make it go away.
I burn the candle for eleven minutes and pinch it out.
On the second day, I don't slip into daydreams as much. I ride my lawnmower in spirals and figure eights around the stones in the grass. I eat lunch and catch up on paperwork, make some calls. But by dinnertime, when the sun fades, the funk hits me. Halfway through a bottle of Gewürztraminer, I open the box and light the candle.
In the picture of him on the inside cover of his newest CD, he's reclining on a couch, looking sleepy, a lazy smile on his lips. I read some of his lyrics: You can't make me disappear. I keep it hidden, but I may feel like this forever. So your telephone makes me lonely.
He must have really forgotten he was happy when he wrote that.
On the third day, visitors wander the cemetery. I don't get visitors much. Brokenhearted people bring their dead pets to me. I hold services for them, put them gently into the ground. But after a few weeks or months, people learn to love other animals, and I become the only one who tends the little graves. Relationships with most pets are like that, quick, because their lives usually go by so fast compared to ours. Maybe animals move through time more rapidly than we do. At the end of our lives, don't their lives seem like blurs? Do we seem like blurs to the animals who outlive us? If I had a giant tortoise for a pet, I wonder how long it would grieve for me after I died, whether it would bury me and set off immediately looking for another human.
I'm sure the melancholy will come after sundown, and I hope to stave it off with this amateur philosophy or physics or whatever the mash in my mind resembles. I walk through the cemetery, imagining it's a small planet, inhabited only by me and whatever spirits may be attached to these small bones.
A little Shiraz may help this tiny planet fantasy along, so I open a bottle. At eleven, I find myself lighting the red candle, opening the box as if I had faith in such things.
The days and nights go by like this until I stop counting, until the night when the red candle burns out and I empty the box's contents into my hands and carry them to the cemetery's edge. I slip the ring from Woolworth's onto my finger and put the stones, petals, and paper heart into the ground.
Just after autumn starts to flirt with the breezes and leaves, I look out my front window to see my love-spell-intended and his son wandering up my wooded lawn. The boy holds a shoebox between his palms. I pace in front of the door and remind myself to breathe, waiting for them to knock.
The knock startles me, anyway. I open the door with my eyes trained at boy-level.
"I have to bury my bird," the boy named David says. "He died." David's eyes cloud with the seriousness and understanding of a boy who has seen his mother die. I wonder why his stepmother isn't here.
I also wonder why his father isn't saying anything, but I'm too nervous to look at him, afraid he's recognized me as the weird woman who made him sign a cutout heart.
"How old was your bird?" I ask David.
"I had him for two years. But he was eighteen when I got him." David's sad eyes turn up to his father. I make a silent wish that he won't remember me, and I look into the devastating brown eyes of Bela Shroud.
Not only does he not seem to remember me, he looks ashamed. "He wanted the old parakeet." He shrugs. "I offered him any pet he wanted."
"I wanted Scott," David says. "I loved him."
I try not to smile at the thought of a parakeet named Scott. "I'll bet he really loved you, too," I say, moving out of their way. "Come on in." Two minutes later, I'm sitting across from the man I've been dreaming of since junior high school. He's on my living room couch with his seven-year-old son, browsing a catalogue of pet coffins.
"What's the smallest animal you've buried here?" Bela asks. His eyes drop for a moment, as if he may be looking me over, and I feel self-conscious.
"A skink." I hold up my hands to show how long the little guy had been, about three inches. He'd been the first pet of a rich girl David's age who'd insisted on the most elaborate ceremony for him.
Bela stares at my hands. "How about the biggest?"
"A couple of horses."
Bela looks away, and his gaze locks onto the antique cologne box on the end table beside him. It's probably the most interesting thing in the room, etched with an ornate spiraling pattern that draws the eye. I study Bela's tall frame, his square shoulders, his narrow thighs and hips. I wonder at the reality of him, linger on the details I didn't allow myself to observe before—the shape of his fingernails, the creases on his lips. His tangibility attracts me more than his ideality did.
"This one," David says, pointing to a picture of a yellow coffin with gold handles. "The same color as Scott."
My legs tremble as I walk to the boy's side. Bela watches me cross the room, looking at a spot at about the level of my hips, and I realize he's looking at the Woolworth's ring on my left hand, on the same finger he wears his gold one.
"I can have that one delivered in two days," I say. "We can keep Scott here until it comes."
"Do you have a freezer or something?" Bela asks.
I glance at David, afraid the mention of the freezer might upset him.
"I know," he says. "So he doesn't rot."
"Let's go outside and choose a spot for him." I motion to the door leading directly to the cemetery. Bela seems to leave the room reluctantly, his eyes back on the cologne box as he follows his son. I walk behind them, touching Bela in my mind, slipping my arms around him and feeding on how unfamiliar he'd feel.
As children do, David leaves us, running to the most wooded area to read the stones there. I know the names on them all.
"Do you live out here alone?" Bela asks me, watching his son.
To anyone else, I'd lie, for my own safety. But, "Yes," I say.
Bela nods, looking around at the tombstones, the woods. "Seems like it might be kind of nice."
The spot where I buried the spell box's contents looks like a fresh unmarked grave. I wonder what would happen if I dug up Bela's autograph and lit it on fire. Would David change his mind and decide to bury Scott in his backyard? Would Scott flutter back to life inside the shoebox?
"Strange day," Bela says, squinting in the afternoon sun, on a day when anyone else would have remarked on how beautiful it was.
I fight a compulsion to touch his hand to see if it's warm or cool.
"Do you have any hawthorn growing around here?" he asks. "It has an odd effect on me." He sounds like he's in a trance. David, head hung low, wanders from stone to stone. I mourn Scott as if I'd loved him, too, and I think of the falseness of some things, of plastic trees and empty graves and how hollow they feel.
"I'm afraid," I tell Bela, "that I may have indirectly killed your son's bird with magic. I didn't mean to." I feel so much smaller than him than I really am. "And I'm sorry."
A fascinated frown is on his face.
"I think I can undo the spell," I say, "but I'm pretty sure it won't bring the bird back."
His voice is quiet. "If it won't bring the bird back, why undo it?"
More slowly than I've ever moved, I raise my hand to Bela's. His skin is warm. It makes a hollow spot in my soul, but only the size of a pinprick. I look for David, who kneels before a carved stone, the grave of Sunshine, a yellow lab who's been dead nine years.
When Bela's fingers close around my hand, I know in my heart that it's the spell affecting him. My hollow spot dilates to the circumference of pencil lead, and I wonder how big my soul is, how much hollow space it can hold before it disappears.
Still clutching my hand, Bela looks for David, who has moved on to the stone for Imp, a tiny black and white cat I buried in the spring. "I knew it," Bela whispers, looking down at our hands. "As soon as you opened your front door, I knew it." My hollow spot grows again, but it feels good, and I know I won't be the one to stop it.
I move an inch closer and the breath comes out of him as if he's been squeezed.
"I have to take my son home," he says, and I think he'll escape after all, that my fantasies have run away with me, and I nearly laugh. "And then," he says, "I'll come back."
When the hollow spot grows again, it feels like scratching an itch, like a drink of wine at sundown.
David is watching us now. Bela notices, but moves still closer to me. What am I doing to all of us? And who do I think I am, believing I've managed to do anything at all? It's far more likely that he's a flirt and a cad than bound to me through a spell.
But there is a way to find out.
"How are you at digging holes?" I ask, gesturing to the patch of dirt where I buried the spell box's contents. "It could set you free."
He shakes his head, tilts his face toward the maple leaves that have begun to yellow. "I'm not digging up a dead animal, am I?"
"Reversing the spell."
He follows me to the shed to get a shovel. The cemetery must have eyes to witness this. Maybe the maples have only today begun to turn color.
David joins us at the mound of dirt. "Is it a grave?" he asks.
"No," Bela tells him, plunging the shovel into the earth. "Magic."
"Oh," the boy says, as if he's familiar with these things. He sits in the grass and watches his father dig.
The maple leaves seem to grow paler as the soil turns over into the grass. The lightness I feel would make me float slowly to the ground if I let myself fall. When the shovel dings against the pieces of rose quartz I buried, Bela drops to one knee, scrapes his fingers into the dirt.
"It's a piece of paper you want to find," I tell him, and a second later he pulls the autographed heart, wrinkled and smudged, from the ground. He shakes the loose soil from it and holds it in both hands. From the worried expression he gives me, I can see that he remembers me now, that he knows who I am.
He stands, and the spell is broken.
Bela gives the paper to me. I wonder what he expects me to do with it. He reaches his dirty hand for his son's clean one. "We'll call you in a couple of days," he says to me. "About the coffin."
I don't believe he will, but I nod, looking hard at him, hoping to burn his image onto my retinas. I can't see David at all now. I don't want to know how he's looking at me.
When Bela turns away, I close my eyes. I keep them closed until I hear car doors shut, until I hear an engine sound recede until it's gone. My hands reach out toward nothing.
Everyone I know regrets something. I regret opening this Beaujolais, but here is the glass in my hand. We certainly choose what we do, no matter how much the fatalists argue otherwise. Fatalists probably have more to regret than others, and can only forgive themselves by training their ideologies to tell them they've had no choices.
I have made choices. And from the moment I cast a spell I thought I didn't believe in, I doomed myself to feel regret, no matter what might have happened.
So your telephone makes me lonely, I think, staring at my phone.
"Be honest with me," Bela says when I answer. "Did you bury that paper heart again?"
"No." But I did put it back in the cologne box.
It sounds so quiet where he is. I suppose it sounds quiet here, too. It's one thirty-three in the morning.
"Can I come over?" he asks.
I feel light again as I answer him, and it occurs to me that this weightlessness may be due to the hollowing-out I felt earlier. Maybe my entire soul has disintegrated like limestone reacting with carbonic acid, turning into a cave.
Rather than Yes, I answer, "Please."
Bela hangs up.
I wait for him on the dark porch, the cologne box on my lap. I think I'll tell him about the box, give him the choice of taking the paper heart out, swallowing it, setting it on fire, whatever he wants to do with it.
But when his headlights sweep between the trees and blink out, I then think that I'll place the box beside the stoop, in a cold corner, let the spiders build their webs around it until they all go to sleep in November.
Some decisions can't be based on what we will and will not regret. Sometimes we have to make a heavier choice—deciding which of two things we believe we'll regret less.
When Bela arrives and parks down on the road, when his tall silhouette moves up the hill toward me, I feel so empty that I can almost tell myself it's only my hand and not me who pushes the box along the cement step behind me, into the deeper shadows.
Copyright © Sandra Maddux-Creech 2007.