“I just don’t know.” Genny sipped at a glass of Argentinian merlot – spicy with a hint of fruit. “I’ve tried everything.”
Mandy wiped a stray drop of water off the tabletop. “I heard there was this new site. Uses better match criteria.” She waved a hand, vague.
“No. I’m done with that. No more two minute date sessions either. Or mixers.”
“How about that new club over on twenty-third?”
“The club is new, the men are the same.” She frowned out the window of the restaurant. “Always the same.”
“I’m sure you’ll find someone. Someday.” Mandy glanced down at her phone, eyes widening and mouth opening in preparation for her normal Oh-No-Look-At-The-Time excuse.
“Where did you meet Jimmy?” Genny said, quick.
“Jimmy. Where did you two meet?”
“Well. Uh.” She pushed a strand of yellow blonde hair out of her eyes. “Actually, we’d known each other for a while.”
“Oh.” Another sip of wine while she considers that. “But what made you start dating?”
Mandy fidgeted. “I went to see this woman.”
“A woman? Like a matchmaker or something?”
“No.” She licked her lips. “A witch.”
“That’s hardly fair. She helped you find love and you call her a bi…”
“Witch. Not bitch.” Mandy gulped an indelicate swallow of German chardonnay, a golden drop dribbling from the corner of her mouth.
“A witch.” She raised her own glass, then set it down. The room was already swinging around them.
“Yeah. She does things with herbs and voodoo.” The last word was whispered low.
“No.” Mandy had never looked so serious, and she was always a solemn type. The girl with the Mona Lisa look.
Unlike Genny’s artistic cynicism. Her mouth curled with doubt, sarcasm boiled on the back of her tongue.
Mandy has never looked so serious.
“Okay.” Even that acknowledgment almost choked her. “What did she do? Was it a love potion?”
“Forget it.” Mandy slid her phone into her purse, eyes already fixed on the door.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” Genny swallowed hard; pride hurt going down. “Please, Mandy. Tell me.”
She sat, reluctant. “She did this thing and…it’s difficult to explain, but it’s like I was just aware of the possibilities.”
“It was like I was seeing Jimmy for the first time. And maybe like he was seeing me the same way.”
She shrugged. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Genny took a few deep breaths. “You think she might do the thing for me?”
Mandy laughed. “No.”
“Why not?” Anger scorched her cheeks.
“Are you serious?”
“Of course.” She fiddled with her wine glass, unwilling to say exactly how desperate she was and knowing it showed on her face, in the nervous tremble of her fingertips.
“Because if you’re not…”
“I am.” Sincerity was less familiar than cynicism, but she clung to it. “Please, Mandy.”
A sigh, exasperated. “Fine.” She pulled an old receipt out of her purse and scribbled a name and address on the back. “There. Happy?”
“Sure. Now, really. I have to go.”
“Same time next week?”
Mandy bit her lip. “Maybe. I’ll have to make sure I’m not busy.”
“Oh. Right. Of course.” Her hands knotted under the edge of the table, unseen. “I’ll call you.”
“Okay. Later.” She didn’t even wait for their usual faux Italian kiss good-bye.
Genny settled back on the brass backed stool and ignored the pinch of aloneness in her chest. The waiter hovered nearby, eager to seat new patrons at her table, and visibly sighed when she raised her hand, indicating she wanted a second glass.
She lifted her head, stubborn. “And a slice of tiramisu as well.” She might as well enjoy her evening out, even if she was alone.
• • •
Abigail Price was in the garden trimming back the rosemary. Such a useful herb, but once it takes hold it’s like the thing that ate Chicago. Warm sunlight hugged her shoulders and caught in her hair despite the early hour of the day. Midsummer in the South – it would be ninety degrees before the clock downtown struck noon.
“Huu.” She pushed a frizzy curl of hair back out of her face with a thick hand. That’s about it.
The bell by the gate jangled. Abigail stood, wiped her hands on the apron wrapped around her square waist. “A bit early for visitors,” she said to the neat rows of tomato plants. They bobbed gently in agreement. The bell rang again, less hesitant that time. “Better see who it is.”
She plodded across the thick grass, patting her hair nervously as she went. The garden had called to her in the dewy grey of the early morning, demanding her attention. And she had buttoned up the plain dress, tied a scarf over the grey bush of curls and gone out. “Must look the hind wheels of death’s chariot.” A final tug at the scarf and Abigail opened the gate with a broad smile. “Yes?”
The woman looked up and her mouth flapped a little. Her hands, busy twisting the strap of her handbag, stuttered to a halt and then she made the sign to ward off misfortune. “Your face,” she said with what Abigail decided to accept as a refreshing lack of tact.
“Yes.” Abigail nodded and smiled. “Don’t worry. Ugly isn’t catching.”
“I’m sorry.” The woman’s face reddened. “I didn’t… I shouldn’t stare.”
“It’s hardly the worst I’ve come through.”
“I’ve heard… stories.”
“Mostly true. Now, why have you come to my gate?”
“I require your services.” She lifted her head, brushing the last of the embarrassment from her cheeks with slender fingers. “Genevieve Lane.” She put her hand out and grasped Abigail’s knobby one without hesitation. She was a stern woman, dressed in a plain grey suit with only a single ruffle at the shirt collar to soften the hard lines of her face. Silver glinted in her hair – delicate combs that gripped the stern coil of her hair with wide teeth.
“Abigail Price,” Abigail said. She rubbed her lips thoughtful and turned her head to gaze at the woman with her spirit eye which was, as usual, chasing some nonsense and nothing off to the right. Miss Genevieve Lane had a bright glow about her, though there was a shadow over her hands and her mouth glinted with crimson. “You’ve a hard tongue,” Abigail said. “And I daresay you’ve taken a thing or two that weren’t yours to have.”
Genevieve’s eyes widened, but she didn’t try to deny it. “Yes, ma’am. But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Well.” Abigail stepped aside. “Come in. We’ll talk for a little.” She led the way through the garden, past the crook-limbed apple trees, into the rough shed clinging to the roots of the massive oak in the back corner of the yard.
Genevieve looked around, eyes sliding nervous under thick lashes. Her elbows were pulled in tight, hands knotted firmly on her handbag and mouth clamped shut. She paled a little when she saw the shelf with dusty jars, but leaned closer to inspect them anyway. “Just herbs,” she muttered.
“That’s right.” Abigail settled into her chair and slapped her broad knees. “Just herbs.”
“I expected… well. Candles and creepy things.”
“Most do.” Abigail pointed to the chair opposite her own. “Sit and tell me what you’re after.”
The woman sat. Licked her lips. “Mandy Settle told me you fixed her up with her man.”
“I suppose you could say that.” She looked at the visitor again, first with her plain eye and then with the spirit one. In the dimmer light of the herb house there was more detail to be seen, colors that washed out in the sunlight. Threads wound ’round the woman’s heart; blue and purple, a few green ones and a long silvery one that wound around and around. In the middle there was just a hole. “You think a man will fill that?” Abigail asked, soft.
“I hope so.” The handbag was twisted nearly into oblivion. “I’ve been stubborn. There were times when I was younger…” A moment of regret in her green eyes. “But I didn’t want to compromise certain things.”
Abigail watched her silently.
“I thought,” Genevieve said after a moment, “I would be less of myself if I were joined with a man. A husband.”
“I think now that I could only be more.” A flush filled her cheeks. “It’s silly, but I’m tired of being… independent.” She licked her lips. “Alone.”
“I see.” Abigail nodded. “You must know there is risk in what you want.”
“Isn’t there always risk?”
“With magic? Yes.”
“I meant with love.” Genevieve looked at her, anxious.
Abigail blinked. “Yes,” she said. “With love too.”
“I will accept it. I think I must accept it, magic or not.”
“Huu.” Abigail reached back and dug on the shelf for the blessed candle stubs and the melting pot, the scissors and pincushion. “I will need a bit of your hair.”
Genevieve nodded and took the pair of embroidery scissors without hesitation. She pulled the combs from her hair and it fell across her shoulders, rich and chocolaty. A quick snip and a long strand came free. “Here.”
“Lay it down there on the table.” Abigail had the little cauldron in her hands. Her shoulders still tingled with the sun’s warmth and she moved that energy through her body to flow out of her palms and into the iron vessel. The wax inside softened until it was malleable.
She scooped it out, quickly forming the warm, slippery stuff into two little figures. Picking up the long hair off the table, she wound it around the two dolls, skillfully tying them at neck and waist. She turned them back and forth, inspecting the knot to make sure it was secure.
“Now,” she said, and pulled a gold needle from the pincushion. “You are certain?”
“Yes.” Genevieve nodded.
“This magic will not bring you the love of your dreams or your fantasies. It will only open your eyes to the love you deserve. Are you certain that is what you want?”
“Yes.” She held her hand out and only a tiny quiver ran through her when Abigail drew blood with the gold needle. She stuck her finger in her mouth and watched silently as the needle was pushed through the hearts of the dolls.
Abigail pulled a larger cauldron forward and swiftly filled the bottom with twigs from the bunches of herbs dangling from the roof. A little rosemary, some lavender, a thorny branch from a rose bush. She blew on it gently and flames licked around the leaves sending a fragrant waft of smoke curling toward the window. She bent over the little figures, murmuring softly, and then dropped them into the fire.
Genevieve shivered as the dolls melted and burned. “Oh.”
The flame died and there was nothing left but the smell of herbs and sweet wax.
“It is done.” Abigail looked at her visitor closely. “Are you content?”
“Yes.” The woman nodded and smiled and there was something brighter in her eyes. She picked up the combs and held them out. “Keep these as payment.”
Abigail looked at the silver and shook her head. “That is too much.”
“It is just right.” Genevieve pressed them into Abigail’s calloused hand without pause. “It’s just right.” She stood up and pushed her hair back over her shoulders. The sternness was gone and her face softer than before. “Thank you.”
Abigail nodded and dropped the combs into her apron pocket. When she looked back up Miss Lane was already out the door.
“Oof.” Abigail squeezed back out the door and stood for a moment. The garden was warm with the smell sun and grass. She pushed a piece of hair back out of her face and picked a sliver of wax from under one yellowy fingernail. “Now. Where was I?”
• • •
Genny walked home, slow. She wasn’t sure if she truly felt different or merely thought she felt different. The tightness around her heart was not so tight. Eased by magic. Or the placebo of perceived magic. As if I’d know the difference.
She stopped short. “Don’t be stupid.” Her own voice startled her. A glance over her shoulder and left to right to see if anyone had noticed she was talking to herself. Heat coiled off the pavement in surrealist waves, otherwise the street was empty. Silly.
“No.” She said it out loud deliberately. “I have been down that road and it is lonely.”
Across the street a sparrow flickered to rest, pecking at a crack in the sidewalk, eager.
Genny waited for the hard little voice to throw in two cents more, but there was silence. “Good.”
“You all right, Miss Lane?” The voice was low and heavy with centuries of Southern culture.
She twitched, embarrassment flooding her cheeks as she realized she was not, after all, alone. “Good morning, Mr. Johns.”
“Are you all right?” He rubbed his fingers through his sandy hair, nervous. “I thought I heard you say something.”
“Ah.” She cleared her throat. “Yes. I have decided that I want to be happy after all.” It sounded ridiculous as soon as she said it, but there was no taking it back. I won’t take it back.
Johns nodded, thoughtful. “Good for you, Miss Lane.” He glanced toward the house. “Would you like a glass of sweet tea? It is a scorcher of a morning.”
Genny opened her mouth to put him off. She always did. But the excuses that usually came so easily escaped her. “Well.” A breath of wind lifted her hair. For a moment she caught the smell of herbs and sweet wax. So that’s how it will be. She smiled. “That does sound nice.”
A.G. Carpenter spends her day herding cats and a lively toddler. By night she writes fiction of (and for) all sorts. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming from Daily Science Fiction (Insomnia) and Stupefying Stories (The Collections Agent). Her favorite color is black.