The Sandalwood Spell

Mrs. Lowell died today.  She was ninety-one.

We remember her fondly.  There was a time when she taught us lady-like things, spidery handwriting and the proper way to serve tea.  She belonged to another world.  In her little cottage, there were relics of that bygone place and time.  A fan open on a marble table top, carved of wood and bone, with a rose tassel, rotting despite all her clean and careful ways.  In the hall, a collection of walking sticks from all over the world marched along the wall.  One had the fearsome face of a tribal god.  She taught us the name, but it is long forgotten.

Her husband was English, the last of the keepers of the empire, she said.  They married late in life, when his diligence in the name of a young queen was no longer needed, and they came to her home place in America, the cottage on the bend in the road near our house.  Somehow she fit everything they’d ever loved from their life in Africa into those four small rooms.

Once, she gestured to the parlor, saying, “When I was a girl, there was only a stove and a pair of armchairs.  The reverend and mother sat side by side, so many years the velvet wore through, and all of the little ones sat on the floor.  Now there are more seats than people for sitting.”

She didn’t sound lonely too much when she said that.  The colonel, her husband, was long dead by that time.  She was used to her singular existence, one supposes, or as used to that as any child of God can ever be.  We are never alone, if one thinks about it the right way.

Her hands were slender and pale, the nails always pared just so, though they yellowed in the late years.  She tutted over them with a frown, trying to remember something she used to know.  White rice vinegar, she said, but there was something else.  Her gaze moved out the window, to the soft green brightness of the yard.

“Well, it will come to me,” she said at last.  Her eyes were silvered over gently with cataracts. “The vinegar and something else, something hard to get.  He brought it from town for me and surprised me.  Mother Superior soaked her hands in it and they turned as white and soft as a girl’s hands.”

We sat and listened.  The house smelled like old things, old roses.  In the pauses, one heard the wood pop now and again, as if the walls were cracking their knuckles absently.  Mrs. Lowell drew a breath.

“One mustn’t think she was vein, mind you.  Mother Superior.  It was only that her hands itched from the dryness.  It was meant to make them soft.  When it made them young again, it was only a little blessing more.”

On the walk home, we speculated about the other ingredient.  But perhaps it was something African, some exotic oil from a flower unknown to us.  Perhaps she had only imagined the outcome.  If it were possible to find it, we asked ourselves, and there was only enough to fill a small basin, what part of ourselves would we wash?  Our hands were already feeling age, mine more than yours.  You said you’d prefer your feet, because if they felt as they had when we were young, you’d walk out more, long distances away.  Your eyes went a little dreamy.  It sounded nice to me, too, and neither of us said we’d wash our faces in the basin.  Perhaps we would have just a few years before.

It is sad to think that Mrs. Lowell is gone, the last lady of another era.  I never quite learned the knack of her fine calligraphy, but when someone talks of the old British empire, I can think of many relics out of Africa, ones that I touched with my hands.  I know what Indian sandalwood smells like when it’s been captured in a rosewood box for thirty years and is released onto the limpid air of a Virginia summer.

A letter fell out and I bent to pick it up her her.  Mrs. Lowell trembled as she glanced at the words written on the pages.  I recognized the hand, glanced away as one must do.  The sandalwood was a spell between us, though only she knew the words.  Then she said in a voice that sounded richer and rounder and smoother than her age, “We surround ourselves with old romance, but forget we were ever romantic ourselves.  I’m glad you asked to see the box, child.”

I recall we went into the garden then and she told us the names of flowers she’d brought over the ocean, the ones that survived our native soil and even the ones that did not.  Mrs. Lowell described them with glistening eyes and color in her cheeks.  To hear her, there were shades of scarlet and of yellow we had not yet seen in this world.  In these bright spirits, she took us under the oaks and pointed to violets in pots she had nestled among the roots.

“I bring them inside for the winter.  They’re beautiful but awfully delicate.”

I fetched three folding chairs of bamboo from the house while you stayed with her and we sat in the shade until the sun set and the fireflies came out, sparkling on the dark green field.  The stories she told are forgotten to me, except in bits and pieces, but these are my treasures, crowded in my mind like all the things of her little home on the bend.

Good night, Mrs. Lowell.

My Thundercloud

She didn’t bring in no wood this afternoon, but I don’t give a shit.  Most days, she don’t do nothing I ask, so today ain’t no different. But it got warm all of the sudden, after that little rain shower, and almost humid like summer.  Here in October. So there ain’t no need for stoking the fire and I guess that means she gets a pass, like most always.

Funny how Carrie always skates on this side of luck.  It’s always been that way.  When we were young, when her Daddy was beating up everything he weren’t feeling up, her Ma got in trouble with the law and she went to live in Indianapolis or some such shit with her grumma.  She was away all them years that man was terrorizing the rest of us.  The girls got tits and the boys got whiskers and the one made that nasty son of a bitch get a hard on and the other made him itch to fight.  The meanest bastard ever tore hisself out of a woman.

Then the year she come back to live on the block, he got sent to prison for something or other.  It wasn’t for putting it to the girls and it weren’t for beating up boys under age.  Probably selling pot.  So she comes back and gets to move in with Aunt Sally and it’s just the two of them.  Aunt Sally just works and sleeps, like she’s always done.  She never paid her brother no mind.  If she weren’t holding down the counter at the video store, she was taking NyQuil and passing out in front of the TV.  She loved herself some Golden Girls.

With Junior out of the picture, Aunt Sally was glad enough to have another body around that nasty place. They had fly ribbons all year round, thick as lumps of raisins hanging by the door.  Well, it’s gone now, torn down cause of black mold.

Queen bee got the royal welcome.  A new set of sheets and a trip to the mall for some new clothes.  Carrie primped in front of the mirror, tossed all that black hair of hers around like a princess in a cartoon movie.  Aunt Sally came in and was like, they forgot to charge us for your jeans.  More luck.

She’s lucky about timing and weather and people falling out of harm’s way before they get to her.  She makes me think of them old cartoons where somebody bends over to tie their shoe right before a piano would’ve landed on them.  So it ain’t no shock it got warm today when I said to bring in more wood.

I never had no such luck.  If I let someone cross the road on the way to work, the light turns red on me and then there’s a train coming after that and I got to idle at the track, worrying about what the foreman’ll say.  If I give some dummy my last smoke at the end of my shift, the store is closed when I stop to get more. It happened once, just like that, and a 7-fucking-Eleven, to boot.  Something about faulty wires.  I stood outside the door reading the sign and I was like, hell, you gotta be kidding me.  I ain’t making this shit up.

The first time I can remember knowing my luck was bad luck was when my grandpa died. Don’t start welling up with tears, y’all, because I didn’t give a rats ass about that old fucker.  He come to live with us when I was seven.  Smelled like cigarettes and whiskey and that cream you rub on your ass for hemorrhoids.  Or maybe like some kind of peppermints to cover the whiskey.  But it didn’t work.  His first order of business was ratting me out for wearing Carrie’s skirt around the house.  He told my daddy and I got whipped good.  Fucker.

Well, it weren’t like I was a faggot. I was just curious and I liked the way it felt. I ain’t going to lie. You get a lot more air on you in a skirt. Stand in front of the box fan, saying shit into it so you sound like a robot, letting the wind blow up nice and soft from underneath. That was the end of that.  I found an old smoking jacket Grandpa had brought with him, kind of fancy, black and silver with a sash. I had to ask what it was and now I look back on it, why’d he have it? Old redneck probably didn’t know what it was. He weren’t like those men in the movies, sipping out of them glasses that look like they’re for wine, but with a short stump and all kind of fat at the bottom like a balloon.  Probably got it in a flea market grab bag; they say my granny used to buy shit like that.

I wore that silver and black thing all the time.  It was long on me like a robe because I was a kid and I felt just as nice in it as I did in that purple skirt of Carrie’s that I worn.  But no one cared because it was made for guys; it weren’t a skirt.

What was I saying? Oh, luck. Hell, I ain’t got none.

So one night I got left at home with the old buzzard and that’s the night he went and died.  Out there in the kitchen, cooking peas or something, fell over and had hisself a heart attack. I was in my room and I didn’t know till I smelled something burning.  What a mess. Piss on the floor, smoke in the air.  He was too far gone. Purple.  You don’t forget skin what turns that color.

This is how I come to know luck ain’t for everyone.  I had a choice not to be home that night.  My friend Bart asked me to come over, but he’d been bragging about his new Nintendo and making rules about who got to play and how and for how long and I’d been about sick of that shit for well over a week.  So I said, no thanks, I’ve got stuff to do.  And all I did was sit in my room. I was so bored.  Then I smelled that smoke.

If I’d have gone to Bart’s house, I wouldn’t had to seen that old thing die.  I know it sounds heartless, but I just didn’t care. I told Carrie that once, when we started to date for real, and she said, well, why does that mean you ain’t lucky? You didn’t care that he was dead. And then she said besides, if you hadn’t been there, the house would’ve caught on fire and that would’ve been worse still.  She’s always got one more point to make than you asked for.

But then I said, yeah, but now I got the nightmares.  She looked at me, her hands dropping to her sides.  And I said, well, I got these nightmares.  They started the night before his funeral.  I’m always walking down our street and it’s just about dark.  When I look over my shoulder, cause you do in my part of town – all the fucking time – there he is, walking behind me, purple as the night he died on the kitchen floor.  And he don’t look mad and he don’t look happy, neither. He just looks kind of calm, like he knows something.  He’s watching me and whatever he’s got to say, it ain’t good, I can tell.  Twenty fucking years.

It don’t happen every night or else I’d kill myself, probably, and it don’t happen so much I can take pills or pot around it.  Not that I ain’t tried.  Carrie looked at me all funny when I told her about the nightmares.  It’s just a nightmare, she said, it don’t mean jack.  But she never saw his eyes, dark and gentle like they never were before, with something real sad and heavy in them.  It’s like he’s a weatherman, coming to say it’s gonna start raining but it ain’t never gonna stop, neither.  That’s bad luck, something Carrie just don’t understand, and it hangs on me, my thundercloud.