Ms. Whitaker did not believe in magic, the way she did not believe in Chicago or in planets circling other stars. Belief seemed to her to be a condition reserved for personal values or direct experiences, and everything else was a hypothesis. However, one of her values was allowing other people to cultivate their own beliefs, and so when Nina Gaddy suggested yet another useful magic spell, Martha smiled courteously, nodded, and took the brass bowl and black beans in the spirit in which they were offered.
Ms. Whitaker also did not believe in promising to do things and then not doing them, so she took the bowl and the beans home with her at the end of the school day and put them on the counter. That way she wouldn’t forget to use them after dinner.
Nina had said, “I know your mother’s spirit is still hanging around your house moping, and I thought of this the other day. I really works. I did it when Tiger passed, and that was how I was able to even consider getting another dog. After I did it, Tiger stopped scratching at the back door in the middle of the night, and I didn’t see him out of the corner of my eye any more. Here’s the directions,” and she handed Martha a scrap of hand-lettered paper. “You can give me back the bowl when you’re done with it. I’m not using it for anything.”
“Thank you,” said Martha. They were in Nina’s scrubby little math classroom next to Martha’s English classroom. Nina was a work friend, and they often chatted like this in the spare minutes between things, as if they were close.
“Promise me you’ll give it a try. It can’t hurt. I know you’re a skeptic, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“Did you know that phrase was first found in the Canterbury Tales?” asked Martha.
“Promise and don’t go all English teacher on me,” said Nina, because she believed that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, which was a very useful belief for a math teacher.
“I promise,” Martha said reluctantly.
At home, after supper, she sat down and read the directions. As with all such things – recipes, knitting directions, and some of her spam emails – there was a motivational paragraph, a list of required materials, and a step by step procedure with some ambiguity. Unlike a cooking recipe, there were also directions for what to say out loud, and for how to move.
Martha was quite sure her mother’s spirit had moved on. Her mother’s spirit had boarded a plane for a direct flight to the valley resort of Gehenna or some other shadowy hot springs in the after-life, not looking back. Martha’s mother had always wanted to travel and had never been particularly fond of spending time with her daughter. No, her shade wasn’t haunting Martha’s house any more.
What was haunting her, what she kept seeing out of the corner of her eye since a very difficult Christmas break, what awoke her in the night as if calling from another room, was not her mother, not grief, but the inevitable regrets one accumulated at Martha’s age. They weren’t even regrets she took seriously. They were just wishes that she could have done a few more things with her life besides take care of her mother and teach English to eighth graders.
It would do no harm to banish regrets, even if a brass bowl and a bag of beans was involved.
The brass bowl needed polishing. After she finally found the Brasso in a disintegrating box in the basement and applied some elbow grease, there was still a dark splotch in the wall of the inside. She spilled the small black beans into the little container nonetheless, hearing the rattles as an interruption to the peace of her small bright kitchen, but appreciating Nina’s good intentions.
Then she flattened the plastic bag they came in, and put the bag neatly into her trash can, so she wouldn’t be tempted to save the beans afterwards. She did not make bean soup, or anything else requiring hours of cooking. A single person could not eat that much bean soup without getting tired of it.
It was dark and cold, but she put her puffy coat on, leaving her hands bare because of a vague idea that skin should be involved, and latching the door, she went out the front door and stood on the front porch. At least it wasn’t snowy or muddy. She stepped carefully out of her shoes because she believed in following directions the first time and it said to take her shoes off. The spell didn’t say her feet had to be bare, though, so she was wearing the socks with grippy spots, the ones she used to put on her mother’s bony feet in case her mother managed to get out of her recliner and fall down again.
“Well,” she said, considering the mental list she had prepared before she left the house, and then she stepped off the porch and into the yard, heading counterclockwise. She took a handful of beans out of the bowl, and tossing them over her shoulder as she walked, said, “Mother, I send you away, I claim my house, I claim my life.” She heard the beans fall behind her and hoped they wouldn’t sprout in the spring, because the man who used to maintain her lawn for her had gotten old and moved into a retirement home.
She had put her mother on her list after all, because of the stain around the toilet that wouldn’t go away no matter how much Martha scrubbed. Her mother had been incontinent even before Martha moved back in to take care of her, and a stain was a good enough ghost to banish. It occurred to her that she should try the Brasso. Or perhaps look up “urine stains” on YouTube. She could even replace the floor tile in the bathroom instead of scrubbing. People did that. She didn’t know anyone who could do it for her, but she could at least investigate the idea.
She saw a flyer on the ground, picked it up, and put it in her pocket. She might as well multitask while she was outside forcing her way past the forsythia. The yard was a mess.
Then she was at the side of the house, rounding the rhododendron, so she flung another handful of beans behind her and said, “Graduate school, I send you away, I claim my house. I claim my life.” Her mouth turned down as she said it, as it always did when she thought about what she had really surrendered, not the degree but the illusion that it would allow her to enter into the life of the mind. She had honestly started grieving graduate school from the end of the first semester, even before she had to leave to take care of her mother, because she had discovered that linguistics was not the secret knowledge she had hoped for. It was mostly diagrams, terrible texts, and memorization. There was a poem about that desire, wasn’t there? “My mind to me a kingdom is,” she said, the first line drifting unannounced into her brain, and decided she would look that poem up when she got back inside. Martha read a good deal of poetry.
At the back of her house, in the dark yard cluttered with twigs and the various deflated toys the next door neighbor’s boys threw into it, she stumbled over a rock and said, “Oh dear,” but managed to say out loud, “Whoever you are that I never loved, I send you away, I claim my house, I claim my life,” She had put some effort into defining this particular ghost, because Martha had never really found herself subject to the impulse of romantic love. However, if ghosts were the things that woke you up at night, then the sadness of not having someone around to argue with and share expenses, so that you weren’t always talking to yourself, was up there. It still felt awfully muddled when she said it out loud, though. She should have spent more time revising her list.
She stumbled over something bigger than a rock, and bent down to see it was a fallen branch from her twisted dogwood tree. She looked up and saw against the sky that it had another branch dangling from a split. A tree surgeon would probably make her happier right now than any lover could, she realized. She was not about to get herself up on a ladder with a saw.
On the right side of the house, where the pavers had surged off-kilter from the tree roots beneath them, she almost forgot the next item on her list. Oh.
“Katie Higgins, I send you away, I claim my house, I claim my life,” she said, and then because she had mumbled it with embarrassment, she said it again, louder, and tossed an extra big handful of beans over her shoulder.
Teachers always had someone like Katie, often more than one. A student they cared about, too much, a child whose future seemed so bright, but the child couldn’t see it. “Oh, Katie,” she said wearily, and thought of an angry face and the familiar voice saying, “I don’t care about English. I don’t care about school. You can’t make me.” And then, later, hearing the most awful things about Katie, and wondering if one more meeting, one more talk with parents, one perfect book, could have made the difference as it did with so many others. Why Katie deserved a handful of beans she didn’t really know. No, she knew. Katie certainly wasn’t Martha’s biggest failure. But she definitely was the one Martha woke up and thought about at 1:00 am sometimes.
Inside the house, she heard the phone ring, but she had to see this idiotic spell out, no matter how awful it was making her feel. She rounded the corner and came back to her front yard. “Pumpkin,” she said, and her eyes stung absurdly, so she had to start again. “Pumpkin, I send you away, I claim my life.” And she scoured the bowl with her fingers and flung the beans behind her, hearing the “tsk tsk tsk” of their impacts on the ground. She drew her mouth together and stood with tears leaking out of her eyes. How foolish of her to be so sad over a dog. But Nina had started it, talking about Tiger.
Something dark passed through the pool of light from the street lamp farther up the lane, and she was startled. A robber. No, that was absurd. A tree, moving in the wind. No, there was no wind. It was a still cold night. She had heard there were coyotes moving into the area, and of course there were always deer roaming the suburbs. Or it could be her neighbor Mr. Miklos, who walked at all hours, talking to himself. Oh, dear, this whole spell thing was not good for her mental attitude, was it?
And why was she still crying? Pumpkin had been a very long time ago. Martha’s mother had not liked dogs, but young Martha and her brother had nagged long enough to get the terrible creature moved into the house on the promise that they would feed him and walk him. Lawrence never did anything, but Martha was just as conscientious then as she was now, and every day, twice a day, before school and after, she took Pumpkin for an ill-mannered walk (or a lunge, or a drag) around the neighborhood. She fed him his cheap food and put up with his gas. She hid the things he chewed, and even replaced them, shoplifting dishtowels once because her mother didn’t believe in allowances.
One day, Martha came home from school and Pumpkin was gone. Her mother said, “I opened the door and he ran away,” but Martha knew he hadn’t. He wouldn’t. He was awful, but he loved her. Her mother had undoubtedly taken him to the pound, to be killed. Martha still woke up from time to time, decades later, convinced that he had snuck into her room again and climbed into her bed, where he wasn’t allowed.
She looked up at the dark sky and down again at the wintry yard. Her feet were absolutely freezing. “There,” she said. “That’s done,” and went inside. She peeled the grippy socks off, looked at them, and tossed them into the trash because they were worn out and she didn’t need them any more now that her mother was dead. She hung up her coat, checking the pockets and taking out the flyer.
“Handyperson. All those pesky tasks done cheap,” it said ungrammatically, and then a dense and ill-punctuated list of things like yard clear-up, going to the dump, pruning, household cleaning, putting up shelves, and even walking dogs. “Call Joan,” it said at the bottom, and Martha flattened out the creased paper and put it next to the phone, which was blinking. Oh, yes, someone had called while she was traipsing around the house in her stocking feet throwing perfectly good food over her shoulder.
She would call Joan tomorrow. Who needed a husband when you had a handyperson? How fortunate she had found the flyer.
The phone blinked again, but when she picked up and listened to the voice mail, all she heard was, “Hello? Hello?” and then a hangup. But it was a woman’s voice, and Martha listened to it three times before erasing it, her skin prickling with unease because it sounded familiar. It was undoubtedly a parent who had gotten her home number from someone and wanted to complain.
How old would Katie be now?
No, that would be ridiculous. The message was a coincidence, nothing more. Martha did not believe in the significance of coincidences. Coincidences existed, yes. They happened. But they didn’t mean anything. Nina had explained statistics and probability to her, and it made sense that random things seemed meaningful. Human brains saw connections everywhere, that was all, and Ms. Whitaker was just as human as the next person.
She still had the bowl in her hand, she realized, and in the bottom was still one hard round black bean.
Oh, dear. Martha hadn’t tossed all of them. Nina would be annoyed with her. Ms. Whitaker wasn’t sure whether she should throw it out the window or just put it in the trash. Both seemed dishonest. Finally, she got out a plastic bag and put the bean in it, then took it down to the basement and put it in the box where she had old key rings, carabiners, nuts and bolts, and twist ties.
Her feet were still bare and she was shivering, hard, not from cold but from, she thought, superstition. It was a powerful force in human beings, and Martha could disapprove of it all she wanted to, but she understood that her mind was just as subject to its forces as any baseball pitcher or addicted gambler. She just refused to give in to superstition, that was all. Refused.
She took a shower before she went to bed, and in the morning before the students arrived, she gave the bowl back to Nina.
“Did it work?” asked Nina distractedly (she was queuing up today’s topic, the Pythagorean theorem, on the display board).
“As far as I know it did,” said Martha. “I followed the instructions.”
“You would,” said Nina with good humor. “I know you don’t believe in things like that, but spells are really useful for putting the mind at ease.”
“There are many things in life I don’t believe in that are extremely useful,” agreed Martha. “Did you know there’s a stain in the bowl? I couldn’t get it out.”
“Oh, yeah. I picked it up at a flea market for a dollar. I was just going to put paper clips in it after I exorcized Tiger, but the spell said a brass bowl, and I thought of you. Brass oxidizes, you know. Turns into a different substance entirely. Francisca told me.” Francisca was the 7th grade science teacher, and knew all sorts of useful things, and both Nina and Martha took her pronouncements on faith. “Anyway, I hope it helped.”
“It was instructive,” said Martha. “While I was doing it, I remembered a poem I liked, and I ended up reading poetry all evening.”
Nina laughed. “You’re such an intellectual,” she said, and Martha departed to get herself ready for her own first period.
Martha did not tell Nina, because it wasn’t relevant, about the last black bean. And she most certainly did not tell her about the large shadowy creature that shoved her bedroom door open at 1:00 am after she had fallen asleep. It hesitated inside the door, then with its claws clicking on the hardwood it trotted to the bed, jumped up, turned around three times, thumped against her side, and passed a gas so noxious it nearly made her awaken completely. She had slept all night afraid to turn over in case she woke it up and the dream creature snarled at her, yet she had woken up in a cheerful mood.
Martha did not believe in ghosts. It was not necessary to believe in ghosts for them to exist, just as bioluminescent creatures could perfectly well exist at the bottom of the ocean if you had never seen them. Just as radiation followed the inverse square law. Francisca the science teacher was reliable about such things, and Martha was perfectly willing to accept Francisca’s belief in science and Nina’s belief in ghosts and mathematics.
She put the flyer in the center of her desk. She was going to call the handyperson Joan to see if Joan would trim the dogwood, replace the bathroom tile around the toilet, and get the loose toys out of the back yard. And during her first prep period, she was going to go over to the Alumni Office and ask if anyone had heard from Katie lately.
She would not throw out that last black bean, though. Not until Pumpkin was ready to move on. He would eventually move on, in his own time, when he had gotten over leaving so abruptly for the pound. Dogs had a very sensible attitude that way. They were a good deal less complicated than human beings, after all.
copyright Delia Marshall Turner May 11, 2022