They are twelve. No one knows where they are.
“What were we thinking?” Frankie says, peering out of the smeared windows of the Downtown 15A. Jane looks and sees: stores, signs, doors, windows she’s never seen before. Hadn’t they just passed Katz Drugs? Hadn’t they? How had they missed the customers volleying between Styx and Famous, the competing department stores with their planes of glass, their glittering, mica-silted entries?
Jane pulls the cord. It feels lax and damp in her hand.
“Where are we?” Frankie says. Jane can see the guilt and panic in her reflection, how in an instant their plan to take the Bi-State bus across the river has gone from bold to foolish.
When the bus swerves and lurches to a stop at the curb, it is more spite than service. Jane grabs the smudged chrome pole and swings down into a cloud of summer poison, Frankie right behind.
Later, Jane will wonder at both her initial fear and at the calm that followed. As they stand together in the settling belch of exhaust while the bus pulls away, a line she read once is working on her brain: The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you… Who was it who wrote that? The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you… So that when Frankie again says “Jane, what are we going to do?” in that querulous voice, it irritates her. She’s still young enough to believe there is a way back from anywhere; the thing is simply to figure out what you did and undo it.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost …
“Come on,” Frankie says, taking her elbow.
“O-kay …” She feels around in her shoulder bag for her glasses and puts them on. They are greasy with fingerprints. “Okay, we can figure this out. We can figure this out. We’re smart, or anyway, we’re supposed to be.”
“So they tell us,” Frankie says, raising an eyebrow.
Jane glances up and down the street. “Right … so okay, if the bus went that way, then the bus coming back must go by here, too. That’s the way it works, right?” She looks and sees a vacant lot, a gas station, a liquor store. “See? See, Frankie? There’s a bus stop right across the street.”
Behind it, a row of storefronts, a short, solid man looking at them.
Jane feels his stare like a current, looks down at her feet, then up again. But no, she is being dramatic. His glance is casual. He turns away, then, pushes the door open behind him. She can see the hand-lettered sign from here: Papa Legba’s.
She repeats it in her head. Something to squirrel away. Something to keep.
“I don’t ever want this to happen again, Jane,” Frankie says some minutes later, collapsing on the red leatherette bench behind the driver, whose bulging neck creases are visible through the scratched plastic partition. “Let’s not ever, ever do this again.”
Jane watches their afternoon reverse itself through the partly open window, four inches of scalding city air abrading her face. “It’s not like we meant to miss our stop,” she says. “Anyway, nothing happened, not really.”
“We had a little adventure, that’s all.”
Frankie takes a deep breath, holds it, then lets it out slowly like a tire deflating. Then she smiles. “An adventure, right. We had a little adventure.”
They don’t say much on the way home, deciding without discussion to forgo the towering department stores and what small treasures they might find there, Frankie with the dollar bills she stole from her mother’s beige princess wallet and Jane with the quarters she scrounged from the sofa cushions and the pockets of her parents’ winter coats; to forgo the tall wedges of cream pie and milky coffee at Pope’s Cafeteria, the till-then predictable pleasures of stolen freedom.
On the bridge, the driver chooses the narrow outside lane, its waist-high rail no real protection from the blind air, the fall, the churning, brown Mississippi. Jane closes her eyes. Maybe adventures are what happen when you don’t pay attention, she thinks. She would like to cultivate a deliberate inattention, the kind that clings to the skin like fog. She does that already, in a way, by not wearing her glasses except when she needs to see. It makes the quite specific ugliness of the world beautiful and whole, a bolt of velvet against which her mind, in its solitude, shines.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you … Who only has at heart your getting lost … Robert Frost, it comes to her suddenly, happily.
And on the red screen of her eyelids, she remembers the shop, sees the man waiting for her. One stop past.
THE YELLOW CURTAINS at the window above the sink tremble slightly. Already the sky has received its drop of ink and the yard and everything beyond are deepening toward twilight.
Crickets. Still she sits over her plate of cold meat.
Through the window, she hears her sister Robin playing horses with the neighbor girl. Robin likes meat, likes tearing the steak right off the charred bone.
Her mother comes periodically to stand in the doorway. “Honey, just go on and eat it. Can’t you just eat it?”
She shakes her head and whispers, “It makes me sick.”
She knows her mother feels she is being melodramatic, and that this is something her mother wishes to discourage.
Sometimes her father leaves her there with her cold sausage or roast beef or pork chop. Sometimes she’s still hunched over her plate as darkness falls. Usually, though, he makes her clean her plate before leaving the table. It starts with him insisting that she’ll like it if only she’ll take a little fat for flavor, but it always progresses to the raised hand, the threat.
She can’t help it. When she looks at her plate, all she can see, all she can think of are the animals. She wonders what her father sees when he looks across the table. A different kind of animal?
When she’s in her room, finally, sprawled on the bed, all she can feel is pity for the boy who, unlikely as it seems, is her father. Somehow, she manages to swallow her hatred, just as she finally choked down the meat, and then all that remains is pity, a film of salt on her tongue.
And then all that remains is forgiveness, though he never thinks to ask it.
ROBIN HAS A PLANTAR WART on her left thumb, an odd, botanical looking sprout of flesh with tiny, otherworldly seeds at the center. She picks at them when she’s alone or with Jane.
Not around him, though.
Not around him because he doesn’t tolerate picking of any kind, or nail biting, or knuckle cracking, or sniffing, or nose blowing. No messing with or tending to the body in his presence.
“What are you doing?” Jane asks. Robin has found her in the dim basement where, hours before, she fled the midday August heat with a book for company. Robin has been playing outside the way girls like Robin do, one game, then another, escaping the brute sun periodically on someone’s breezeway with a jewel-toned aluminum tumbler of weak lemonade.
“Right,” Jane says. “What’s that for?”
Robin has a baby food jar, the kind her father uses for bolts and screws, and is sitting cross-legged, her boyish knees gray with dirt, the jar wedged into her crotch. “Just something,” she says.
“Yeah?” Jane puts down her book, an old one she bought for a quarter at the St. Louis Book Fair, browned and crusted like a roast and smelling of basement. It has a simpering child heroine much victimized by the world, and she doesn’t want to like it, the book, she doesn’t like it, not really, it’s trash and she knows it, trash from another century, even.
“I’m going to get him,” Robin says. She has tweezers, Jane sees now, and she is plucking at the seeds of her wart, trying to pull them out.
“I am. You’ll see. I got one.” Robin takes the tweezers and drops the slender, flesh-colored seed into the jar. “Are you going to tell?” She looks up then, looks Jane straight in the eye the way she does when she’s dangerous.
“Why would I?” she says, carefully.
“I’ll tell if you do,” Robin says.
“About St. Louis, about you and Frankie. I know, you know. I know you took the bus.”
Mostly, her sister requires her to be a particular sort of fool, and mostly she obliges, though without meaning to. In exchange, Robin gives Jane exactly what she thinks she deserves.
“You don’t know anything,” Jane says, trying to regain her advantage.
“I always know.” She stops looking at Jane then, and goes back to her delicate operation.
“You know I won’t tell,” Jane says finally. “I never do.”
That’s right—she sees it register on Robin’s face—she never tells, what an idiot for never telling, for never using what she’s got. Her expression resolves and sticks. “These things are con- they’re contagious, right, the doctor said? So I’m going to take these little, these little—yuck—things, whatever they are, seeds or something, and I’m going to drop them on his head. You know, when he’s not looking, so he’ll get warts, gross warts where everyone can see.” She makes a snorting sound, somewhere between a laugh and a cry.
“I don’t think it works that way,” Jane says, a tiny thrill nevertheless sweeping her body. Goosebumps rising on her skin. Imagining his gleaming bald head sprouting growths he cannot govern, something he can’t control.
“Why not? It might.”
“It might.” Jane looks at Robin, whose force of purpose never fails to take her aback. No facts or arguments or pity to bog her down, no hand-wringing.
“It might, you know,” Jane concedes. “It might just work.”
Robin smiles, then. A real smile, not the other kind, the kind she uses like a hammer to nail her in place.
Jane loves her sister, however she might have been fashioned, of whatever she might be comprised.
HOW JANE HATES the girls in those books, the old books she sucks down like Vess soda, twelve for a dollar, all summer long; hates their blanched, long-suffering faces, their cheerful piety. Always it seems, the mother dead in childbirth and the stricken father brought low then taken by business reversals, malaria, native uprisings; always the accustomed comforts of home stripped from the orphan who is cast into a monstrous world that invites despair; and always, always, the triumph of her preternatural goodness and devotion, which brings love and protection, the press of a whiskered cheek…
Well. Pathetic stuff, clearly. Jane always cries over these books and loathes herself for crying in the damp, dim basement, far from the sun’s interrogations. Loathes herself even as she reaches for the next one.
At the bottom of the bag there is a book different from the rest, a ragged paperback that found its way into her hands as she and her mother wandered the aisles between the folding tables beneath the yellow tent.
The White Way, it says, and in smaller letters, curled and shrunken as if held to a match, A Guide to Witchcraft.
HER MOTHER’S MOUTH is pinched tight against ugliness. She sucks on her own unsaid words, the ones she hoards like hard candy. They never dissolve, just fill her mouth with her own saliva, her glands aching with the false sugar of it.
Jane knows the satisfaction of hoarding a grievance, saving it for later. It’s enough to acknowledge it for what it is: thisone’s cruelty, that one’s true colors. Now I see, you think. Now I know. And finally: You won’t fool me again. And so you tell yourself it’s enough to file it away for future reference so as not to be caught out again, you’ll be ready next time. Soon, though, your mouth is so full of bitterness, you can’t speak. It pools on your tongue. It has its own weather.
Jane knows this and feels sorry—sorry for her mother and sorry for herself for knowing.
Though she hates her for it, too.
“Eat your damn meat,” Jane’s father says across the tiny kitchen table in the tiny kitchen, the four of them crowded together so that their knees almost touch. Tears run down Jane’s face and fall on her stomach, which clinched tight at first sight of the fuchsia ham with its yellowish rind.
“Please,” she says. “I can’t—I can’t swallow it. I’m sorry …” She sees their eyes, the animals, she hears—
“You know, don’t you?” he says. “You know the only place you’ll find sympathy in this house—?“
She lowers her head. She knows. She knows.
“In the dictionary,” he says, like a recitation.
Robin used to trade her, under the table, a Brussels sprout for a bite of ham, a carrot coin for a piece of roast. But it’s too late for that. “May I be excused?” Robin whispers above her empty plate. When he nods, she escapes through the door to the garage, through another door to the backyard, to the green alleyway with its rusted, fragrant trash barrels, its neighborhood kids out trolling for partners to play hide-and-seek or Gestapo.
Her mother gets up and wordlessly begins clearing the table. Her mouth working.
“I’m going to count to three,” he says, his huge hand raised.
Her mother keeps moving, without a word.
Robin stands behind him, one hand on his shoulder, pretending to look at his cards. In the other hand, the open baby food jar and its harvest.
Across the table, Jane clutches her cards, tries not to look as Robin tips the jar and the first seed falls.
“What’s the name of the game?” he asks, flourishing his hand on the Formica table.
“Gin,” she says, dutifully.
Another seed—then another.
IT’S NOVEMBER when she wakes in a welter of blood, on her nightgown a dark stain spreading.
The curse, Frankie calls it, though Jane doesn’t know why exactly. Louise, too—her sister, away at college—Louise says it in the same voice she uses to say boobs. A coarse word, Jane thinks, crossing her arms across her chest.
The blood seems like a miracle. She has waited so long she can’t imagine feeling anything but joy.
Yet, somehow it’s come wrapped in shame. It doesn’t seem possible to speak of it to them—not to Louise, who is away after all, or to her mother, who seems perpetually angry lately, or to Robin, who might find some way to use it against her. Certainly not to him, who makes fun of what he calls her “bee-stings,” her “mosquito bites,” who suggests that Band-Aids might do as well as a bra.
And so she locks the door to the bathroom and with a bar of soap and the salt she has seen her mother use, scrubs the blood out of her nightgown, then carries it with her other clothes to the washing machine in the basement. Her mother doesn’t notice, she is on strike, she says, and Jane has learned to do her own laundry in the five months since this bewildering announcement.
The sheet, though, is a different story. The sheet must be burned — smuggled out to the rusty, chest-high can in the alley and burned, along with the waxy milk cartons, and the sticky Styrofoam meat trays that give off thick smoke and an odd, unpleasant smell, and the rest of her family’s trash. She stands shivering without a coat as she pokes the mess with a stick. Burning scraps and sparks fly up, then die in midair, and it is as if she is watching a city burning and falling in on itself.
ROBIN’S EXPERIMENT has failed. No warts have sprouted on their father’s head. They look closely as they pass him at the dining room table, where he tracks household expenditures and records data for his investment club. Neither speak of it, but it is there between them, a childish fantasy they would rather not own.
One Saturday afternoon in late November Frankie comes over and they hang out in the knotty pine basement, dangling upside down off the stiff brown sofa, trying to imagine that the ceiling is the floor and what it would feel like to step over foot high door jambs or stoop to peer through floor-level windows at a grassy sky. Frankie doesn’t come over very often; none of her friends do, especially now that Jane’s mother is on strike. Jane deflects every suggestion.
Frankie says “bye” politely, but lets the screen door slam behind her. On Saturdays, they eat an early supper in the kitchen and there is tumult in the tiny room—chairs scraping linoleum, hamburgers sizzling, tomato soup ladled into bowls—so she hopes no one notices.
After a few moments of silence, her father says, “I finally figured it out.” He is dressing his hamburger.
“What’s that,” her mother says, still moving from stove to table.
He takes a bite and chews.
“What, Dad?” Jane asks. “What did you figure out?” Why is she so eager? They are all looking at him now, Jane and Robin and her mother, who is filling their glasses with iced tea.
“I’ve finally figured out why you have the friends you have, Jane. Why you chose them.”
“What do you mean,” she says, alert to danger. She waits while he picks up his soup spoon and stirs (once, twice, three times), then pulls the spoon toward him as he has taught them. They wait while he brings the spoon to his mouth, they wait as he swallows. He rests the spoon on his plate and as he reaches for his glass, he says, finally, “because next to them, you don’t look that fat.”
A mere observation is how he presents it. Nothing to get excited about.
She smiles. Her first instinct is to smile, so that’s what she does.
All the while thinking about Frankie, who had spoken so politely, so innocently. Was she fat? Her other friends, are they fat? Pudgy maybe, but the fat girl is what he’s saying, don’t be it. You’re this close.
Frankie, who laughs at the same things she does. Frankie, who insists he’s your father, Jane, you don’t really hate him.
She pushes her plate away.
SHE READS The White Way by flashlight, turning the brittle pages carefully but as quickly as she can. She is looking for something, though she doesn’t know what. Some way to stop him.
Candles and bits of paper. Incantations—poorly written, in her opinion. Forced rhymes, hokey images. She could do better, herself.
Just another version of Do unto others, then, no more useful to her than Sunday School. I’ve tried all that! she thinks in frustration, throwing the book aside. She has tried to be virtuous, sympathetic. She has tried to be nice…
Hungry only for what she’s allowed to swallow.
SHE FEELS SO TIRED, and she keeps forgetting things. Homework she was supposed to do, notes she was supposed to pass for friends. During class, she is preoccupied with what’s going on in her body, the ebb and flow of blood. She worries that it hasn’t stopped. She worries that the telltale blood will seep through her underwear, stain her dress, and then everyone will know.
THE MAN WATCHES as she gets off the bus. She stands on the sidewalk, shivering; she almost turns back, but this time she’s come on purpose, and she crosses the street to where he is waiting.
“Little woman,” he says. “Little woman, you want something.” It is not a question.
“No, ” Jane says quickly, wrapping her jacket more tightly around her and taking a step back. “I just—that’s okay, I’m sorry….”
“You want something,” he says again. And waits.
He is short and solid and he smells like smoke and something else that Jane has never smelled before. She looks past him at the hand-lettered sign on the door: Papa Legba’s in black marker faded to brown, the same brown as his skin. He turns abruptly and pushes the door open.
After a time, she follows.
It’s dim inside, like a cave, but candles flicker on shelves and countertops and set wild color, like cave paintings, on the walls. She stops inside the door, but he beckons her further and she follows until she faces him across the wood and glass display counter.
“So?” he says.
“I need something to take care—to take care of an enemy,” she says.
He raises an eyebrow. “In one so young?” She says nothing and he smiles and nods slightly, once. “But I remember. I remember. Who is it, a boy, perhaps? Or maybe a girl, someone who is unkind to you at school?”
Jane grasps her elbows with opposite hands and pulls them in so tight, they ache. Shakes her head. Whispers, “Father.” Then, louder, “My father.”
“Oh?” he says. His forehead wrinkles and he looks at her with sympathy. “You have … some problem with him?”
Obviously, she thinks. Don’t you listen, either? she thinks, but says nothing.
He looks at her closely. “But surely he is not your enemy.”
“Yes he is,” she says. “He wants to, to….” But the man’s kindly face suddenly infuriates her, enrages her, and she begins pacing around the shop, looking at things, picking them up and examining them in an agitated way. “What’s this?” she asks, picking up a small bottle with a label on it depicting a woman in a turban on her knees. Essence of Bend-Over it’s called. “Or this, this Louisiana Van Floor Wash, what’s this supposed to do?”
“Please put that down,” he says sharply. “You are not even looking at it.” The knife point in his voice makes her jump, a little, but she replaces it carefully, then turns to face him, breathing hard. “Annihilate. That’s what he wants, he wants to annihilate me.”
“He hits you?”
“No, but he threatens to.”
“He doesn’t come into your room….”
“Only when he wants to kick things around and break them.” She looks at his face and understands, then, what he means. “But no, he doesn’t touch me.”
“Then he is not your enemy, he is simply your father.” The man wipes his hands on his trousers. “Now, then. I think a sweet jar. That is what you need.”
Papa Legba, if that is his name, begins moving purposefully around the shop, gathering objects. “It’s a simple spell to sweeten your relationship, make it go more smoothly. It works very well.”
“I don’t want our relationship to be sweetened,” she says. “You don’t understand … I want—”
“He is not your enemy, little woman.”
“I want to get rid of him. Annihilate him. I want him to stop forcing food down my throat and ridiculing me and making me feel like— like—”
“I don’t do that kind of work here.” He holds his hands up, palms toward her, as if warding off her energy.
“What, you too? Is that all you have to offer? I read about their Threefold Law, their white magic, and it’s not good enough, you hear me? Anyway, you do that kind of work. I can tell just by looking around. What’s this?” She picks up a candle in a glass cylinder. “Inflammatory Confusion? That doesn’t sound all goody-two-shoes and ‘As ye harm none, do what ye will’, does it?”
“The Threefold Law is Wicca, not Hoodoo.” Papa Legba says, coming around the counter to stand right in front of her. So close, she can smell him.
Suddenly, she is ashamed. How could she have spoken to him in that way—as she would not dare speak to any other man? Is it because he is brown? Tears fill her eyes. “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m sorry,” she says.
He puts a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Listen. Listen to me. What you read? I agree with you. Garbage.”
She looks into his face. “Then—?”
He shakes his head. “Regrettably, I cannot help you. There are powers that are beyond your understanding, and you are too young to take them on, do you hear? Do you understand?”
She feels what energy she has left drain out of her, feels the blood, again, between her legs.
“You have all the power you need, little woman. You don’t need my help.”
HER FATHER SCRAPES their teeth with his nail, testing for scum. That’s what he calls it: scum. It is important to scrub the teeth, hard. After brushing, they stand in the small brown and yellow bathroom, their heads tilted backward, faces turned up to his scrutiny. They open their mouths and wait.
Except today. Today, she sits down, hard, on the toilet seat. She is dizzy and she can’t make her legs work.
“What’s the matter with you?” he says. “Stand up. Stand up right now.”
Ah, but she can’t stand up. How lovely it is to ignore him. Her vision is burning black at the edges, like a piece of paper lit from all sides, consuming the perimeter, moving in…. She feels herself slither off the toilet to the floor. She feels a surge of blood crest and run down her legs.
THEY KEEP HER at the hospital for five days. They give her something called a D & C, and they give her many pints of blood. The men who work for her father line up to donate. The doctors and nurses tell her sometimes this happens. They ask why she never told her mother her period had started. Didn’t she know that it was normal, a natural part of life?
Robin comes once, and when their mother leaves to smoke a cigarette, she smirks and says, “I knew you were up to something.”
Frankie comes, too, bringing her some library books and a giant get well card that her friends have signed. When she asks Jane how she is, she says “I’m a woman, now, haven’t you heard?” They laugh.
Her father doesn’t come. He’s too busy, her mother says, but Jane knows he is afraid of hospitals.
When she’s alone, when the floor is quiet and the light is dimmed, she remembers: the joy she felt when the blood came, too sharp and solitary to entrust to anyone; the tang of Papa Legba’s skin and the radiant warmth of his body; the fire both contained and distributed across a dozen cylinders, their wicks flickering, flickering.
And the last thing she saw before she blacked out—her father shrinking against the bathroom wall.
She leans her head back and closes her eyes. Her power makes her dizzy. So she thinks. So this is how it’s going to be.
▪ ▪ ▪
Connie Corzilius has an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa, and her work has appeared in Big Muddy, Stonecoast Review, Calyx, Willow Review, Mississippi Review Online, small spiral notebook, Another Chicago Magazine, and storyglossia, among others. She was awarded the 2018 Women’s National Book Association Fiction Prize for her story, “For Want of Other Worlds,” and she’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Million Writers Award. A writer/editor for the bookselling and publishing trade for many years, she was born and raised in Granite City, Illinois, and currently lives in Augusta, Georgia. Read her commentary on the story.