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.

The Guest

We’re pleased to have you for a visit, Mr. Landau.  It’s not often we have a man of letters in these parts.  I hear your stories are quite popular in some sets, though I’m not much of a reader, I’ll admit.  You look tired, though. I hope the train ride wasn’t too long? Now, mind that step, bless you.

These stairs are narrow and a mite crooked, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of them soon enough. Now, what is this?  I’m sure I told that girl to sweep up here. Well, old houses, you know. Now, this is the garret, as you can see, but we’ve given it a lovely sprucing up.  You like the color? Mother was worried that it was too green, but I said it made the place seem quite sunny, though I don’t suppose the rug goes very well now that I look at it.

The windows stick now and again, if we’ve had rain – which you know is often out in these parts – but if you give the casing a good whack, they’ll come open fine.  This one has the best view. Oh dear, mind your head, Mr. Landau.  It’ll take you a while to get accustomed to the ceilings, like as not. You are a tall one, I’ll say that, and willowy.

See out there? Isn’t that nice? Just below is the lake, which I’ll grant you looks a bit bleak just now, but in a few weeks, it’ll be surrounded with flowers – purple and blue and little ones of yellow that you only see when you’re down walking through them.

Now that, out there, is Grandy Mountain, which’ll wear that bonnet of snow all the year, even in July, when we’re all broiling like pigs over a spit down here.  There’s paths up, but some safer than others, so you’ll need to ask around before you set off on any exploring.  But then, I suppose you might not be the sporting type.

Now, here I’ve been gabbing away and not telling you where to put down your trunk. Oh, but then so you have and over there, too, in that spot. Oh dear. Well, I don’t see why not. I suppose if it crimps the edge of mother’s rug, we can somehow smooth it out. Maybe over the kettle.

Oh and so you’re moving it, are you? Well, it might be for the best. I’d recommend putting it there, in the front gable.  That way you can walk straight up to it as you need and not bump your head.  Is it as heavy as all that, sir? You do look a mite strained, Mr. Landau.

In Dr. Dransfield’s letter, he said you were sick from exhaustion, so I imagine you’ll be needing plenty of rest. Well, as you can imagine, sir, we have a surplus of quiet out here in our little corner of the world. Mother has the preacher – and sometimes Anna, that is Ms. Galvistan – out for Sunday supper every week, but generally it’s just the two of us, so you shan’t have to worry about the noise of comings and goings.

Now, I’ve put this table here for your typewriter. It’s mother’s sewing table, but the contraption’s been on the fritz, so we sent it to London to have it looked at.  It’s quite a sturdy little table, though not very big.  You could open the top to make it a little bigger, but then there’d be the hole and what good would that do you, I ask?  I’d only request that you leave this bit of oil cloth in place, so as not to scratch the wood.  Mother thinks it’s walnut and very fine, though I suspect it’s only the finish.  Still, she’d be so heart-broken if it were gauged by your typewriter.

You look so fagged, poor Mr. Landau. I shall get out of your hair in just a moment, but first I ought to point out one or two more things, so as you’ll feel absolutely comfortable and need me no more to feel right at home.

I will admit to knowing a little something about you besides that you’re a writer, Mr. Landau.  A little something which has made mother and me very sympathetic to your plight.  It was Mrs. Whitticombe, who does over our bonnets, who told us about it. She’s a terrible gossip and that son of hers, Jimmy – the one who up and went off to work in the theatre – well, he’s the one who told her.  She says that Jimmy’s getting very important in London, but Mrs. Whitticombe likes to put on airs, so there’s no telling the truth of that.  She tried to sell me feathers for my autumn bonnet once; said they were ring tail pheasant, but I could tell she’d marked plain ones in with paint. It didn’t look natural, at all.  Still, out here in the provinces, when there is only one woman who’s any good with hats, you have to make do and put up with the prattle.  Isn’t that right, Mr. Landau?

Well, I only wanted to say, mother and I are very sympathetic, dear man.  I blessedly have never had the misfortune of falling in love – indeed, I think I’m missing the part that fancies men very much.  Not that I mean to say… Well, I mean, I think love is a rather foolish thing.  That is all.

I think people like you must take it all the harder, isn’t that right, Mr. Landau? I mean, artist, they say, are quite sensitive people really. Mother says they take things harder than other folks. So, we’ve made a pact – mother and I have – to be sure you’re not bothered by a soul while you’re up here. You shall have as much peace and quiet as you need and before you know it, sir, you’ll be right as rain.

Now, enough of that, Mr. Landau. I can see you’re getting all the more strained by the minute. I know I shouldn’t have brought it up, but I just thought you’d like to know you have our sympathies. It’s always the delicate ones who the girls throw over for men with charm and swagger.  We’re terrible, fickle creatures, mother always says, and not to be trusted. Oh, dear, you have got a look about you, sir. Quite pale, you’ve gotten.

But to business, sir. I’ve cleared out this wardrobe for your things.  It smelled of mouse, I worried, so I hung some lavender in it.  Then mother said gentlemen didn’t like to smell of sachets, so I had the girl take the lavender down and scrub it good with lemon oil.  It turned out quite nice, if a bit pungent.  I hope it’ll do.  Oh, I see you’ve found the bed. My goodness, you’re a quiet one, aren’t you?

Well, I had wanted to point out that mother volunteered her favorite coverlet because it’s so pretty, but she did ask that I show you the lace along the edge, so that you’d be extra careful of it while you stayed.  No, no, sir. Not that edge. It’s here, under your boot. Oh heavens, and it’s so delicate.  I think it was rather extravagant of mother, poor dear.  I don’t think you’ll be able to relax at all, knowing that lace will be ripped to shreds by the time your stay is over. I have a nice wool blanket, plain but sturdy, that I shall bring up before supper.  Never fear, sir. We’ll have everything sorted soon enough.

I did want to tell you about dinner, because mother is very strict about sitting down, only because she’s rather cross if the cabbage goes cold.  When you hear the bell, it means five minutes until we sit down.  If you prefer to take dinner in your room, you may let me know earlier in the day.  I don’t suppose you’re much of an eater, but I hope our chilly air will enliven your stomach.  Hot meals are the best way to keep the bones warm.

Oh sir, I hate to see you getting up if you’re so tired. I told you I would tend to the coverlet later.  You are a dear.  Mother was given that coverlet by a very fine lady who stayed here many years ago.  A shy enough creature, delicate like yourself, who cut her summer short quite out of the blue.  She sent us a letter, weeks later along with the coverlet, apologizing for her hasty departure.  I think she was the type who enjoys the city more than the countryside.  It seemed her nerves only got worse the longer she stayed with us.  Poor dear.

Now, if you open the window today, Mr. Landau, it may get a bit chilly by sunset.  The draft is the devil.  Oh, my! What a whack you’ve got on you, but as I said, that is the only way to get it open.  That is rather a lot to open it, dear sir.  It may stick if you open it so far. I had wanted to have the girl take some beeswax along the case, but you know she said she needed to get home for supper and I thought perhaps that was a hint that she thought we ought to offer her some of ours and I hadn’t made very much that day.  Well, and the girl is a rather large creature with a big appetite. I think her people are Welsh and you know how they eat, sir.

Well, and so you’re putting your trunk on the sill.  Sir, is that wise? Well – oh my! There it goes! If I didn’t know better, Mr. Landau, I would have thought you sent that out on purpose. Mr. Landau, what in heavens name are you up to? Do you need air?  My goodness, you’re far too long legged to try to fold yourself through that opening.  My goodness, it’s like watching a spider coming out of the drain. Mr. Landau, have you quite lost your senses? Oh!

What madness!  I hope he hasn’t fallen on mother’s hydrangea.  She is terribly particular about them and they barely came back last year, what with all them mites and then the mildew.  Mr. Landau? Mr. Landau, what were you thinking?  Oh my, and now he’s up and over the hedge.  How peculiar.

Revelations of an Abandoned Homestead

In the middle of the night, long after the witching hour, the traffic thinned and the highway quieted.  Then and only then could he hear the sounds that came from the other end of the house.  Some nights he glowered into the shadows and decided it was racoons nosing through the plaster, peering up from under the broken floor boards.  Other nights he rolled as quietly as he could over the floor, until he flattened along the wall, hoping to disappear into the shadows.  Those were the nights he thought it was madmen searching the empty rooms for him.  He was afraid even to breath, but his mouth moved in prayers he thought he’d forgotten.

He caught a glimpse of himself one full moon night, weeks ago, reflected in a shard of broken glass.  The eyes were shadowed like a skull and the hair and beard made him think of murderers people talked about when he was a boy.  Murderers in the news.  Murderers with a glint about them, who talked about themselves like they were making a mad poetry.  The face that passed the shattered window and then peered back once more was his own, he knew, but it was a face he’d hate to find hovering above him in the dark of the night.  His mother used to stroke the side of his face and call him her handsome boy.  He remembered it, though it was hard to believe.

One night when he was sure there were other men in the house – dark, brutal souls with evil in mind – he got himself in such a state that he started to cry.  His whimpers were terrifying sounds in the empty room.  When dawn finally broke, he was so relieved to see it, he bolted straight up and leaned out the window, drinking in the light on the distant mountains.

“Morning has broken!” he said, startling the birds out of the brush. There was thunder in his voice that made him think of preachers he’d known.  The words were from a song they learned in church.  He wept as he remembered the little white church in the valley, the murmur of women talking in the yard after service, the aftershave of the men, their deep voices and shiny shoes.  That had been a million years and sins ago.

He went to a corner mounded high with spray paint cans and beer cans and bottles, recalling nights he’d hidden under the house while the kids drank and flirted and fucked in these dark, forgotten rooms.  All his life he’d been a silent witness to ugly things, hiding in the shadows, watching and listening.

“Never again,” he boomed.  He loved the sound of his voice today, the way it had gone so deep and forceful.  It was the voice of prophets in his ear.  He found one can, tossed aside when headlights broached the drive one night and the kids ran out into the woods.  A cop had walked the front of the house, shining his light in the busted windows.  No one ever checked under the house.

He went to the wall across from the door, the door closest to the drive, the door that was no more – only a casing with marks where hinges had hung.  His hands shook as he wrote the words on the wall, but as each letter formed, he felt more sure of his purpose.  The paint was silver and shone in the light in a way that seemed holy to him.

“Blessed art those who keep my commandments.”

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