By J. E. Trayer
all rights reserved
“I am so sorry you had to go through that,” said Hepa.
“Unfortunate,” said Betty, staring off into the darkness, her fingernails absently wearing a groove in the old wooden arm of the rocking chair. A moth hit the flame of the citronella candle on the table between the sisters, sparking and sizzling – dead in seconds. The death-fragrance soothing.
Hepa sighed, looking out into the darkness beyond the back porch. “Now what do we do? You lost.” She turned a violet glittered bracelet absently on her wrist. Silver bells and charms tinkled sweetly.
“I certainly did lose!” huffed Betty. “And they told me to shut-up! Three different times!” She pounded on the arm of the rocking chair three times for added emphasis.
Hepa slowly leaned forward, her violet-sneakered feet planted firm on the wooden porch floor. “What? They told you to be quiet? To shut up? You? The Betty? I can’t believe it!”
Betty nodded. “Three times, I tell you! And you know what that means! Sanctimonious pricks. That woman attorney was the worst of them, too. Imperious little mouth with red lipstick. One of those bitch-pushing-forty bullies. Had that zoning board by the nose, she did. Kept telling them that the cell phone company would sue the township if they didn’t grant the variance. Kept plying them with fear.”
“Why did they tell you to be quiet?” asked Hepa.
“Roberts Rules of Some-Dumb-Fucking-Bloody-Order.”
“Oh.” Hepa began rocking again. She tilted her head to one side and played with a curl at her temple. To the right, out in the dark, out in the woods, an owl hooted. Hepa cocked her head toward the sound and looked at her sister who was so busy fuming she didn’t appear to notice. “I didn’t think anyone used that antiquated system anymore,” mused Hepa.
“Duh! Where do we live? Rural stupid zone?” snapped Betty. “Bunch of no good, thieving pack of dog toodies! The lot of them!” mumbled Betty, rocking back and forth, hugging herself against the memory of being embarrassed in public.
“Yes,” said Hepa. “They are thieves. Especially that Bitemier. He’s the worst. If he hadn’t agreed to lease his sliver of land that runs behind our property, none of this would have happened. I don’t think dog toodies is a word, Betty.”
“It is now,” fumed Betty. “I can make anything so.”
“I know you can,” replied Hepa. “That often worries me.”
“I found out at the zoning meeting tonight that there were available properties they could have chosen– not near homes like ours. Further out. One’s even better in line with the other towers; but, the owners wanted more money to lease. I tell you, Hepa. One of the most boring, god-awful evenings I’ve ever spent in my life, listening to a pack of liars, cheats, and greedy bastards – and they couldn’t even be interesting. Do you know that the cell phone company didn’t have one single shred of evidence to support the need for a tower? Just bull shit, smoke, and mirror talk.”
“Such a shame,” replied Hepa. “No honesty in the world anymore.” Hepa’s charm bracelet clinked softly as she raised and lowered her hand in a dismissive gesture as if the whole world just needed to be slapped up the side of the head, and then everything would be fine.
Betty made a growling sound. “And you know what really made me mad?”
“The cell phone company representative said that our back yard was “heavily wooded” twelve times to the zoning board – like we don’t live here. Like we don’t exist! I counted. Twelve times he said it – heavily wooded — mind you! Twelve times!” shouted Betty, her fingers clawing at the air at the injustice of it all. “And when I wanted to show the picture of our house? That the area isn’t heavily wooded? They told me to shut-up!” roared Betty, pounding the arm of the rocking chair once again. “Those son-of-a-bitching-bastards!” She took a deep breath and dropped her voice, almost to a whisper. “I have this ball of hatred in my heart,” said Betty softly. “It is this wild animal that I wish to set upon these people. I seem to have no shame in hoping for their demise. My wish is that their selfishness brings them evil, as well it should. He said it twelve times, and you know what? Twelve people stand against us, Hepa. Yep. Twelve.”
Hepa said, “We all feel that way sometimes, Betty. You know that. All of us. But, we just can’t go out there and shoot the lot of them, this being a civilized world and all. We must be intelligent about what we do. And we must think of why we are so outraged. Often, it isn’t the surface material. It is what lies beneath, festering.”
Betty slumped back in her chair and sighed. “Am I angry because someone once again in my life who I don’t even know feels it necessary to tell me what to do and force me – us really — to conform? Is it because some dumb group of mindless, greedy bureaucrats receive sadistic pleasure in pushing little old ladies around? Because some shithead wants to ruin a living organism and all its dependents just because they desire riches of some sort? Money? Power? Prestige? Because they want to do it at our expense? Surely the drilling so close would hurt not only the foundation of our own home; but, the aquifer as well! And the snide, dismissive way they rejected my questions about the safety of ourselves on this property. The fact that they just don’t give a rats ass about you and me, Hepa…”
“And because they told you to shut up three times in the meeting,” replied Hepa. “In public. For all to hear.”
Betty nodded rocking furiously back and forth, pounding her feet on the porch with each forward movement of the chair. “No one ever tells the Betty to shut up,” she muttered. “No one ever shakes their finger at the Betty. Not if they want to live a peaceful, uneventful life. The Betty does not be quiet just because you say so. Not ever.”
Hepa eyed Betty. This was definitely not going to be good for someone. Hepa knew her sister’s thoughts as if they were her own. Family now…what was it? Fifty years? Hepa the youngest. Betty the oldest. Others in-between – but not the symbiotic unit these two had become. Ten years between them. Lives between them. Dead husbands. Beater boyfriends. Cheating spouses. Children. Gardens. Pets. Good times. Sad ones. Graduations. Marriages. Apart. Now together by choice. Cheaper living and the house was certainly big enough. They actually owned it together; but, Hepa let Betty have her way most of the time. It made things…peaceful.
Hepa valued peace.
An unnecessary cell phone tower in their backyard was not going to facilitate peace.
Not at all.
“We could curse the land,” offered Hepa.
Betty shook her head. “Won’t work. I mean it would – but, it isn’t the way to go. Remember Margaret Merriment?”
Hepa nodded. “Oh. Yes. Right. We don’t want that to happen.” Her violet and silver charm bracelet tinkled as she clasped her hands together over her heart. “Margaret’s the one that cursed the property behind her house because they were going to put in a housing development.”
“That’s right,” said Betty.
“They didn’t build the development, so she got that part right.”
“Yeah, but she went bonkers. Totally off grid. Bat shit crazy. Husband left her. Daughter married one of them rabid preacher types, and then he murdered the poor girl. Nasty stuff. Margaret died before her time, screaming on her way out to the other side. Septic. Awful.”
Hepa sighed. “Yes, a reminder to self — don’t ever curse the land.”
“Right. Don’t piss off momma by harming her children!” said Betty.
“Amen,” said Hepa. Her bracelet tinkled in acknowledgment.
They rocked in silence for several minutes.
“Curse the deed,” whispered Betty.
“Curse the deed,” echoed Hepa.
“Curse the deed,” they said in unison, eyes closed against the night, viewing only that which lay within.
The owl hooted. This time Betty heard it and smiled. “You gonna do the packing, then?”
“Naturally,” replied Hepa, who rose from her chair and went inside the house.
At sixty, Betty ruminated, one does not flit through the woods like a nubile nymph in the dead of night – not if you have half a brain in your head. It takes preparation to ask the woods to help you level a curse at your enemies. You must have your sturdy shoes. A Walking Stick. You should blend in with the surroundings so that you aren’t a spectacle for the public eye. After all, you could get shot at – or worse! She looked down at her old sweatshirt and blue jeans. They would do.
Betty continued to rock in her chair. She could hear Hepa talking to herself inside the house. Packing. “Let’s see…One should have a lantern, so you don’t break your fool neck,” she heard Hepa say. “Water. A spade. And the names of those responsible for the deeds you wish to curse written on a piece of paper. Do you have that Betty? The names?”
“I do,” answered Betty, remaining on the porch in her chair. “Are you bringing a basket or a backpack?”
“Neither,” we don’t need it, drifted Hepa’s voice from deeper in the house.
“Wearing your jacket, then?” asked Betty.
“Your jacket! Your lavender field jacket!”
“Yes. Already wearing it.”
Betty nodded. Hepa’s field jacket was a wonder – a garment with a compendium of pockets large and small, suitable for the shortest of rituals or the most magnificent of enchantments. Unfortunately, it was lavender with silver sequins, and her walking skirt was white doe skin stitched with purple glittering seed beads and white rabbit fur. Betty truly hoped she would not wear that loonie get-up tonight. “You’re not wearing that stupid white skirt, are you?” called Betty. “Somebody will see you and shoot you for a deer. It is hunting season you know.”
“They aren’t supposed to be out there in the dark,” Hepa’s voice floated onto the porch. “Illegal to hunt after dusk. Against the law.”
“When did that ever stop the numbnuts around here?” reminded Betty, irritated with her sister. Above all else, Hepa adored flashy embellishments and bells of all kinds. Everything Hepa owned either had to catch the light or make noise from her eyelashes to slouchy violet socks.
All the damned time.
And it had to be violet, or purple, or lavender. Or have violet in it. Or somehow allude to the color violet.
Which is why Betty did not take Hepa to the zoning board hearing. It would have been far worse if that was even possible, had the members of the board seen Hepa in her daily attire of over-the-hill-violet-crazy. The violet streak in her white hair was a bit much for even Betty to handle. And although the sisters tried very, very hard to keep a low profile since they moved here four years ago. Hepa’s flamboyant choice in dress had drawn more than one nasty comment at the local grocery – which was why Betty started taking Hepa into the city to do all their shopping, an artsy-fartsy place where Hepa fit right in. That, or there was always Amazon, savior of the agoraphobic, which suited Betty’s preferred manner of shopping – lazy.
However, if you needed any supply when you were doing magick, Hepa always had double of whatever you required in one of her many lavender pockets. You simply had to exercise the patience necessary for her to find what you asked for through her gateways of buttons, zippers, and Velcro. This lag time could break the power at a critical moment, so Betty learned long ago to be somewhat of a minimalist in magick or ritual when the situation was direly important.
All she really needed was her mouth, her memory, and her hands. That would be plenty. The rest merely icing. Tonight she must be very careful and cast her circle well. Observers could ruin the magick if one’s circle wasn’t erected properly. Unfortunately, given Hepa’s normal choice in attire, Betty had to learn early to manifest one hell of a strong circle. People said that when Betty cast a circle? You could see nothing within – it was as if the air had become water that eddied and swirled the vision of colors and sounds – protecting the individuals within the magick sphere.
Hepa came out of the back door wearing her lavender field jacket carrying a gleaming purple Coleman lantern. “Do you need anything before I lock the door?”
“No. I’m good. Let’s get this done,” said Betty, flexing her fingers as she rose stiffly from the rocker. She grabbed her walking stick with the carved snake head from beside the door, then picked up Hepa’s fox handled cane and handed it to her. The screen door slammed shut behind them.
“Did you check the stars? Will there be help there?”
“Actually. I checked the planets and the alignments this morning. I had an idea we would be doing this tonight. I had hoped not; but…” Betty shrugged. “Yes. The transits are somewhat conducive. Could be better. Could be worse,” said Betty as the two women walked slowly through the back yard, the many bells on Hepa’s fox-topped cane tinkling softly with every careful step. They paused at the edge of the woods, each looking up to locate the moon.
“Hunter’s Moon,” said Betty.
“Frosty Moon,” said Hepa.
“Perfect,” they said together.
Both women knelt before entering the woods. Both women prayed. Hepa nodded. They stood up. Betty strode into the darkness first, her sister hurrying after, the light from the lantern she held wobbling with her catch-up gait. The bells on her cane chattered as she moved. “Why can’t we do this on our land?” whispered Hepa.
“I don’t know what the hell you are whispering for,” growled Betty. “You’re wearing enough musical instruments to wake the damned dead. Why is it that the concept of stealth never seems to make it through your violet brain?”
Hepa sniffed and curled her lip at Betty, who couldn’t see the expression in the dark but darned well knew what Hepa had just done. “To answer your question,” said Betty, “we can’t do this on our own land. Has to be Bitemier’s. We have to awaken that land. The land he wants to destroy. Like patient zero. We have to heal and strengthen that place.”
“But, all the land is connected.”
“Yes, it is. However, we have to go to the root, Hepa. We have to go to the will. The source of the problem and the will of the words began on Bitemier’s land with Bitemier and that nasty, gossipy wife of his. We have to go there. If that land is poisoned, it will send the sickness into our territory, and into the protected state game lands that are all around.”
“What if he catches us?” said Hepa fearfully. “He has guns.”
“Well, I’ve told you a million times not to wear that stupid white skirt. Black. Green. Brown. Sensible, Hepa. Sensible. Like a good pair of blue jeans. And no damned bells!”
Hepa frowned. “I like white. I like music. I do not care for sensible.”
“Then be prepared to die because you’re wearing your goofy stuff one of these days.”
Hepa rolled her eyes and snorted. “Do you always have to be so dramatic?”
“Did you hear that?”
“No. What? The owl? What?” Hepa stumbled and bumped into the solid Betty. “Is it Bitemier?” she whispered fearfully.
“Nah! I just wanted you to shut up.”
Hepa punched her sister in the arm. “Jerk!”
“We’re almost there.”
“How do we know where there is?”
Betty lifted Hepa’s arm holding the lantern and shined the light on a surveyors stake with yellow ribbons attached to it. “It’s right here. Where they want to erect the tower.” She lifted the lantern higher and several stakes with reflective tape and ribbons winked in the light around them. She lowered the light. “I think we are far enough away from Bitemier’s line of sight from his house that he shouldn’t be able to see us. That was his point. Erect the tower on his land where he can’t see it, and it won’t affect his health – but, the tower will be right on the edge of our back yard. Unless he’s out here wandering around for some godforsaken reason tonight, we should be good to go. But, to be safe, I’m going to put out the light, Hepa. There is enough moonlight for me to do what I need. Fetch me twelve sticks, and then I’ll put out the lantern. And for pity sake, sit still when you’re done, so you don’t jingle so much! You ready?”
Betty found the nearest tree to the central stake and cast a magick circle, intoning the words slowly, feeling the vibration of the woods around her sing in tune with her breathing. When she was finished, she put her hands on the bark of the tree. She estimated the tree was about twenty years old. A tulip poplar. She ran her hands down the bark all the way to the ground, whispering to living wood beneath her hands. There was just enough light filtering through the trees from the moon that she could see to dig down by the side of the tree with the spade. Her breathing grew slightly labored. The sweet, musk aroma of the woods encompassed her senses, and her conscious mind seemed to float away. The night was uncommonly warm, but she could feel the cold coming – it was mid-November, after all. The frost would be here soon enough.
She lost herself in picking through the dry soil and bits of stone at the base of the tree. She could hear Hepa humming softly, preparing the twelve sticks. The deeper she dug, it became easier due to the moisture content to remove the earth. In the end, she began clawing at the dirt with her hands. Singing. Rocking back and forth. Whispering to the woods. When she reached a good root of the tree, she stopped, pricked her finger with a sharp pin, then tightly wrapped her blood-smeared fingers around the exposed root. She poured blessed water on the ground to her left – and put her left hand in the puddle.
And she talked. She breathed with the woods. Her nostrils distended. The tingling from her heart, to her hands, to the tree root, and back again.
A circle within a circle. Without beginning. Never ending.
She told the woods of what was to transpire.
Of the tower.
Of the new road.
Of the loss of life of the animals.
Of her fear of the destruction of the aquifer.
Of the change, Bitemier and the others planned to bring down upon them all.
She told them of the twelve who conspired to kill the woods.
Hepa moved from the outer rim of the area and sat beside Betty, handing her the twelve short sticks, each about four inches in length. Betty held each stick, intoning the full names of the offenders aloud, three times, with Hepa echoing her words. Betty’s fingers pressed each stick so hard her fingers thumped. With the announcement of each name, she laid the stick beside the exposed root of the tulip poplar tree.
Stick one — There was the attorney. Two — The old man to the counsel’s left, who hung on every damned word she said, who stared at Betty with dead, blank eyes. Soon for the grave that one, thought Betty. Stick Three — The man in the middle who had told Betty to shut up, eager to verbally abuse the old woman who didn’t want to look at a cell tower in her backyard every day of her life. Sticks Four and Five — The two men on the other side of the table – saying nothing – doing nothing. Staring at nothing. Yet, they voted to allow the tower. Stick Six — Then, there was the one who slept. Yet, he too voted to permit the variance. Of course, let’s not forget the representative of the cell phone company – Stick Seven –and the man who made the deal between the company and the Bitemeier’s – Stick Eight. Stick Nine — The man who said that drilling would not hurt the foundation of Betty’s house, although no studies had been done to prove his claim. Stick Ten – the transmission operator who claimed without any data that the coverage in the area must absolutely be strengthened. Betty would invoke the ironstone of the land to jam the signal. Sticks Eleven and Twelve — Bitemeier and his wife. Twelve names in all.
Twelve names said three times, as is the rule.
Twelve names sealed in blood and dirt with an iron tool.
Twelve names sacrificed to the living woods.
Twelve names, laid to rest by the roots of the tree, covered in dirt from graveyard’s three.
Twelve names whispered across the top of the water.
“Curse the deed,” said Betty.
“Curse the deed,” whispered Hepa.
“Curse the deed,” they said together.
They covered the sticks, exposed root, and blooded names. Betty spit on the dirt to seal the work. “May this spell not reverse,” she said, “nor place upon us any curse!”
“May all astrological correspondences be correct for this working,” added Hepa. “It is done. There is no going back now.”
“No,” replied Betty, stamping on the dirt with her foot, envisioning ramming her toes into Bitemier’s larynx. She ground her heel back and forth for good measure. “No going back. I am grateful that the woods will take care of this problem.”
Hepa waited until Betty was finished, then she reached into one of her many pockets, pulled out a vial of purple glitter, which she quickly uncapped and poured on the dirt by the tree. “An offering of light to destroy such a dark deed,” she said.
Betty shook her head and sighed. “Glitter. Really?”
“It isn’t magick without glitter,” said Hepa with defiance, relighting the lantern and holding it high. “I am grateful,” she said, “that the woods will answer our request.”
Betty raised her arms, breathed deeply, and sucked in the magick circle, running the energy into her snake-headed staff. With the third pound of the end on the ground, a shot rang out and the violet Coleman lantern exploded in Hepa’s hand. She squealed and jumped back, pounding at the flames as they zipped down her arm and encircled her doeskin skirt.
Betty stepped forward, her voice booming and her arms held high and wide as she rolled the words over her tongue: “Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera, Rotas! I command and compel thee fire to desist and abate! Water, Vapor! Be thy fate!”
The flames immediately extinguished.
Not a leaf.
Not a bug.
Not a frog.
Not a rabbit.
Not the idiot with the gun.
“I told you not to wear that damned white skirt and all those stupid-assed bells!” hissed Betty. “Obviously some less than intelligent person thinks you are Santa’s reindeer! With all those magickal supplies in your pockets, you’re lucky you didn’t explode.”
“Yeah! I even have a big bag of vesta powder!”
“Why the hell would you bring vesta powder? We weren’t planning to blow up the woods, you know.”
“I thought it would have a pretty effect – this stuff burns purple.”
“You almost burned purple, you twit!” said Betty.
“Do you think they will shoot again?” asked Hepa, stooping to pick up the broken lantern, looking cautiously into the dark over her shoulder.
“Not if they know what’s good for them they won’t,” said Betty loudly. “One does not shoot at the Betty and live to tell about it!” she yelled at the darkness. She blew into the carved mouth of her snake staff and set it down on the ground.
“But they weren’t shooting at you, Betty, they shot at me!”
“So I’ll let ‘em live this time. Come on. We’re done here.” There was a great crashing in the woods, off to their right, moving quickly away from the women. A muffled scream. Silence. “Then, again,” said Betty, picking up her staff. “Maybe not.” Betty took Hepa’s arm and they walked together, side by side, back to their own property.
The horn sounded as Betty knew it would. Long, low, loud. Reverberating all around them. Seeming to come from above, then down below, far off, and quite near. In the distance, they could hear Bitemeier’s dog barking hysterically. The sisters stood on the back porch, watching the mists of dawn rising in the east. An odd sight. Fog tinged with violet, pearl and peach hues – not quite solidified, not quite …real. The red-gold glow on the horizon peeking out from behind black tree trunks and crooked branches marching across the top of the hollow like silhouettes of a dead army rising to defeat the enemy. Blood red leaves from the glorious red maples across the ridge scattered on the ground as a burst of air traveled over the land. Those leaves left on the trees whispered like the dry hands of an old lady rubbing her palms together to make her magick.
The horn sliced through the silence of the woods once again –three short bursts — another blast — long, low, loud. Finally dying as the mist rushed across the ground, billowing up as if rearing like a wild animal ready to attack. They watched as the fog rolled toward the Bitemier property.
“He’s coming,” said Hepa, leaning against the porch rail, straining to see, her fingers excitedly gripping the railing. “Do you think it will be Bitemier first?”
“Possibly,” said Betty. “We do not rule the woods. It will do as it must. He may be the first. Then again, he may not. Might be the wife. Might be the attorney. It will be as it will be.”
Hepa licked her lips. “What do you think will happen to them? To the twelve?”
“What is meant to happen,” replied Betty. “We are not the judge. As angry as I am, I know that it is best that we not carry out the sentence. The woods will do that. Justice will be done – of that, I have no doubt. The more they struggle – the worse it will be for them, I do know that for certain. The further they try to plod ahead – the more terror they will experience. Personal failures. Family problems. Loss of income or job. Perhaps even death, if they don’t drop it. I just don’t know.”
“Done in three days,” said Hepa.
“Done in three days,” echoed Betty.
“Done in three days,” they whispered together, “and no turning back.”
The dog continued to howl. More frenzied. A buck emerged from the mist, jumped over the garden and past the tree line. “Maybe we could give the dog a home when it is all over,” said Hepa. “I’m sure he will be much happier here.”
Betty looked at Hepa. “You can have the damned dog as long as you don’t put glitter on it.”
Hepa clapped her hands and spun around, her violet shoes catching the first rays of the sun.
Lights in the shoes.
“Do you have purple lights in your sneakers, Hepa?”
“You just now noticed?”
Betty shook her head, rolled her eyes, and bowed her head.
Sisters. Gotta love ’em.