crowded
Crowded Magazine, September 2014: Whistle Pig and Ale by Erik Bundy
Whistle Pig and Ale by Erik Bundy

Jaella was translating Arabic ghazals into English when she felt Nagdaddy's cringing terror, the spasm squeezing through her stomach. With her hands pressed against her belly, she crept to the room's window--its lace curtains rippling inward on the warm breeze--and peeked outside.

Rolf squatted like a fireplug beside the right front chrome wheel of his orange Camaro. "Come on, cat. Get out of there."

He lifted a hand halfway to the shadow under his car's fender . . . and stopped. Nagdaddy had switchblade claws.

"Okay, road splatter, have it your way." Rolf stood up and kicked a Pirelli tire, then strutted around his short-butted coupe and got in.

Jaella closed her eyes and lasered a thought at the wheel well, Run now.

Nagdaddy leapt out from under the fender, darted over the pebbly sidewalk, and skimmed across the front yard with his belly an inch above the clipped grass. He slipped into a row of sprawling rhododendrons.

The Camaro's starter chirred and its engine rumbled, the deep-throated sound bouncing between the street's two-story homes. Its rear tires chirked when it sped away.

Jaella continued to stare at the street, now quiet, lined with crape myrtles, their trunks flaking cinnamon-colored bark, their crowns resplendent with white blooms. She had to do something about Rolf, but like her, he was learned in the Ancient Lore and cast no shadow. If allowed the chance to counterpunch, he might kill her. The previous month, Rolf had ended a misunderstanding over a property line by turning his neighbor into a leper.

Her only advantage was that she had Nagdaddy, while Rolf was between helper spirits. A stray cat had caught his last familiar, a snarky crow.

He owned the Victorian house they lived in; it was his place of power. Rolf occupied the entire downstairs floor, except for one common room and the cellar. She had the second floor, and Vonda lived in the attic apartment.

But his house advertised Jaella, as did her black hair, black leather biker outfits, dark eyeliner, Medusa piercing, and black cat. Her clients came for potions or spells or foretellings and judged her more competent because she lived in a house appropriate for a witch, one that might even be haunted. Jaella knew she wasn't moving.

#

The following morning, she heard two raps, a pause, then two raps--Rolf's signature knock. Jaella let him wait twenty seconds and answered the door after he knocked a second time.

He sneered at her, his bulk filling the doorway, his eyes hooded, a diamond stud sparkling on his left earlobe, his black hair slicked back with a part sliced through it left of center. Rolf checked for threshold spells before he pushed past her into the narrow foyer, its wallpaper busy with thorny vines and yellow roses.

He turned and crowded Jaella back toward the open door. "So, I clean and wax Voland, and this morning I find paw prints all over its hood and windshield."

"I would think a muscle car named Voland could withstand the pitty-pat of cat paws."

Rolf squared his jaw. "Don't disrespect me, not in my own home. Look, when you signed the lease, you didn't say anything about owning no cat." Seeing Jaella's Rider-Waite tarot cards on her hallway table, he idly picked them up and shuffled them.

"Don't treat me like I'm stupid," she told him. "You knew I was a witch. Witches have familiars." She put her hands on her hips. "A familiar you tried to kill yesterday."

"Tried to kill," he mocked in a soprano voice. "Listen, there's no try with me, either I do it or I don't." He stalked into her living room and searched for Nagdaddy. "Boy, when I turned this place into apartments, I didn't know the kind of grief I was giving myself. Anyway, why I'm here is to tell you to get rid of the cat. You've got three days."

He smirked at her. "I also wanted you to know you didn't do Vonda a favor when you sold her that love potion. Got her hopes up for nothing. No way was I going to let you throw a loop on Cory." Rolf tapped his chest with a thumb. "We share a pedigree. He's my first cousin."

Jaella gritted her teeth. Oh, if only she could scratch blood lines down his hateful face. "You countered me?"

Rolf looked behind her sofa. "Cory and I go way back together. Anyhow, I thought it friendly to warn you I neutered your potion. It's now bogus." He twisted his mouth to one side and clicked his tongue. "Besides, Vonda lives here, and I don't want her to look foolish. Can I have one of these?" He picked an orange from the clay bowl on her coffee table. "Didn't get my carbs after my workout this morning. Thanks. I'll catch you later."

After Jaella closed the door behind Rolf, Nagdaddy slipped out from under her awning-striped sofa. Rolf's fuse was now lit. She had to act within the next three days.

Something was wrong, missing. She glanced at her hallway table and realized Rolf had walked away with more than an orange: he had stolen her professional deck of tarot cards.

#

The next morning, Nagdaddy didn't come home tail up and ravenous for tuna fish, as usual.

Jaella drank two cups of hot chamomile tea spiked with honey and a soothing herb. Relaxed, she swished a silk Shiraz carpet aside in her living room and sat cross-legged on the bare oak floor. She lit a juniper-berry candle, sketched a charcoal circle around herself, and gentled herself into a fragrant trance. Her thoughts reached out to find Nagdaddy.

The cat's terror threw her, gasping, out of the spell. Rolf had marooned Nagdaddy's spirit in a nightmare.

"Just stay alive," she whispered. How was she going to rescue Nagdaddy's spirit from a dream dimension? And where had Rolf hidden her cat's comatose body?

She heard a thump on her ceiling. Vonda was a gossipy, generous, rouge-cheeked blonde with a South Carolina twang who waitressed at Sourwood's only caf. Her brother was in prison for shooting a police officer and her toothless mother sold meth, so not only were witches no problem for her, they made her feel safe.

Jaella put her worries about Nagdaddy on hold for the moment, got dressed, and climbed the narrow stairs. She needed to warn Vonda that her love potion was compromised.

"I came to that idea," Vonda said sourly.

"I'm sorry. I'll refund your money. I didn't know Cody was so close to Rolf or that Rolf would find out."

Vonda patted Jaella's shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, hon. I spoke out before the love part came true, not bragging really, but I did tell on myself. And that was all Rolf needed. Want some sweet ice tea? You take lemon?"

When they were both seated, shoes off and feet under them, at opposite ends of a slick leatherette couch, Vonda whispered, "Rolf's not here, is he?"

"No, I just saw Mr. Beer and Barbells go for his morning workout." Jaella bit her bottom lip. "He's hurt Nagdaddy."

"That's terrible. You know," Vonda said without pause, "why he can't abide cats, don‘t you? Cody told me a Gypsy woman up in Asheville predicted that a cat would someday take the breath out of him. But I don't know how that's ever going to happen because he can't die. Cody says Rolf has got no heart."

Jaella laughed. "I second that."

"No, I mean he really has got no heart inside his chest cavity. Keeps it hidden away somewhere safe. And you can't kill what ain't exactly alive, can you?"

Jaella had to unclench her jaw to sip her iced tea. Rolf was more powerful than she had imagined.

Vonda slapped a padded arm of her couch. "Oh, honey, you don't know the half of it. Did I ever tell you about his red Porsche? I didn't? Well, he wrapped it around a tree good and proper. Totaled that puppy. Hurt him? Not enough to even slow him down. Just got out and walked away. Looked like a National Geographic war casualty, but he never went near a hospital. Set his own broken arm. Devil knows how he healed his face. It bristled with glass splinters, but there's nary a scar to show for it now. Cody said he felt faint on first sight of Rolf."

"Faint?" Jaella stood up.

"Yeah, but don't tell nobody that. You going already?"

"You just gave me an idea. Listen, I'll make another potion, and we'll try again."

"Won't do no good, not with Rolf around. I thank you for trying though. You don't have to give me back my money or nothing. Maybe you could just tell me my future sometime."

Jaella grimaced. "I can't without Nagdaddy. Foretelling is one area he helps with. First I've got to cure a nightmare."

"Oh, honey, you are in a fix. I'm sorry for you. But don't you move out on me. You're the best downstairs neighbor I could ever have."

#

Jaella chanted a rhyme over a disk of obsidian, and the chalky image of her mother, a wise woman living in Cullowhee, appeared on the glassy black surface.

They gossiped two or three minutes before her mother said, "I sense you have a question."

Jaella told her about Rolf countering her love potion and his trapping Nagdaddy's spirit, then asked, "Will you teach me an exchange spell?"

"I know one that might work for you."

"Might?"

"With your familiar gone, you'll have to use your talisman and call up Hecate's power. Remember, if Rolf catches you spelling against him, sparks will fly." Her mother sighed. "Listen and hear." She taught Jaella the transfer spell.

Two hours later, Jaella sat in a wicker chair on the porch when Rolf thumped up the front steps carrying a dead groundhog by its hind legs. Its rough brown fur shone, and one tiny ear was ragged from an old battle. Even now it had an inquisitive expression--its final emotion as it slunk into Rolf's trap.

He held it up for her inspection. "Young and fat."

Jaella remembered a childhood tomcat showing her its trophy mouse. "I can cook that for you."

Rolf's eyebrows lowered in distrust. "You will?"

To fake him into believing she wanted to trade favors, she said, "I'll even clean it for you if you'll stop countering my spells and allow me to keep Nagdaddy."

He signed a small upside-down cross over his heartless chest. "I won't interfere with your spells as long as you don't lay them on friends of mine."

Jaella could live with that because he didn't have friends; the only person who tolerated him was Cody. All of the women Rolf had seduced with his witch voice were now snarling enemies. It wasn't so much that he was bad in bed as what he did there.

"And my familiar?" she asked.

He smiled and held up his palm in false surrender. "You can keep the one you got, but if anything happens to him, you have to forego getting another one."

Jaella looked away for two seconds while she mastered her anger, then rose and took the groundhog from him.

He sniffed his hand. "You can keep its scent glands for your potions."

She chuckled as if he had found out the real reason she was willing to cook it. "Come to dinner around eight. I'll serve it with sweet potatoes and collard greens."

He snorted. "This evening? It's got to be cured for at least three days."

She looked at him with disdain. "I'm a witch, remember?"

He conceded the argument with a shrug, then tilted his head. "You sure are going through a lot of trouble to be nice."

"I'm always nice. You just don't notice. Maybe that says more about you than me."

He chuckled. "That's more like it. Okay, eight it is."

Jaella took the groundhog carcass to her kitchen, and imagining Rolf, chopped off its head, feet, and tail with a meat cleaver. She gutted it, skinned it, and removed the scent glands from under its forelegs and the small of its back. Groundhogs were aggressive animals--their body fluids made potent potions and salves.

Jaella cured the meat with an aging spell, then cut the carcass into four pieces and removed the fat, which always tasted rancid, probably like Rolf's kisses. He had tried twice to kiss her, but she had escaped both times with his mouth only brushing her cheek.

She cast a time spell to marinade the dark meat immediately, then boiled it in water and baking soda, skimming off the froth that rose bubbling to the top. She glanced up at her kitchen's beautiful French Scroll cornice molding and shook her head. Sometimes human scum also rose to the top; sometimes they inherited a beautiful home.

After frying the meat in an iron skillet with bacon grease, Jaella prepared the sweet potatoes and collard greens. She didn't poison any of the food. Rolf would catch that.

When he arrived a little after eight, the table was set with a white damask tablecloth, china, silverware, and stemmed glasses. He frowned at a bottle of red wine on a silver coaster. "What kind of wine goes with whistle pig?"

"Pinot Noir."

"No, no, dear." He flashed a cocky smile. "They'd kick me out of the beer drinkers' society. Be back before you can lay a curse on me."

Her hands trembling, Jaella put the quartered groundhog on a platter and spooned the sweet potatoes and collard greens into serving bowls. She had known he wouldn't drink her wine. She prayed to Hecate to make her right about everything else too. She didn't want to join Nagdaddy in a mad-carnival world of permanent nightmare.

Rolf returned carrying three cold bottles of Gaelic Ale. "This is more my style."

Jaella put two of the bottles in her refrigerator and poured him a glass of amber ale. Rolf carefully sniffed the food, testing her meal for spells and poison. "Smells scrumptious."

Jaella smiled sweetly to cover her relief.

#

An hour later, Rolf lay paralyzed on her kitchen's oak floorboards. Jaella had palmed powdered bloodroot into his dark ale, something he had brought, so hadn't bothered to check.

After sliding her silk Shiraz carpet aside, she dragged Rolf by his thick ankles into the center of her living room, careful not to bounce his head overly much on the waxed floor. She didn't want the body to have a headache after the paralysis wore off.

Jaella pulled the diamond stud out of Rolf's earlobe, undressed him, and arranged his sweating, burly body in a star shape. Fear glistened in his eyes. She kissed the air above his face. "Don't go away."

Less flippant in her kitchen, Jaella moved aside Rolf's plate with the groundhog bones on it and put her face in her hands, her elbows on the green table. If this didn't work, Rolf would kill her or worse. She drank a gulp of Pinot Noir from the bottle.

Jaella hurried to her bedroom and stuck a toad-shaped silver earring into her left lobe. With luck, this talisman would infuse her with Hecate's black power.

Jaella fetched a cat-grooming brush, gathered other needed items, and carried everything to where Rolf lay stricken. She drew a quicksilver circle on the oak floor around him and shaved hair off his muscular right forearm.

Her hand trembling, she lit four herb candles: yarrow for the north, dandelion for the east, sage for the west, and chicory for the south. Jaella then centered herself, the blackberry taste of the Pinot Noir still thick on her tongue.

Silver light glowed at the left side of her face, and Jaella knew Hecate's power had entered the toad earring and come to her. In the quiet candlelit room with Rolf's head heavy in her lap, she began chanting the transfer spell in Latin. After the thirteenth repetition, she sprinkled a few cat and man hairs into each candle flame. The stink of burnt fur mixed with the odors of herbs.

Rolf's body lost its paralysis and began jerking. He mewed. The smell of urine rose from between his hairy legs.

Jaella held his head firmly. In thirty seconds, the seizure was over. She rubbed tiger balm on his temples, cooing, "Relax, relax."

He rolled his neck. Candlelight threw a feline shadow from Rolf's human body across the oak floor.

Jaella raised her arms, hands open, palms upward. "I thank you, Hecate."

Now in Sourwood, only she walked without a shadow, and no one in the county had the power to counter her.

She patted Rolf's bristly cheek and told him, "All of the groundhog is gone, dear. And you need to eat something after your ordeal. Tuna fish?"

Rolf purred.


© Erik Bundy 2014

As for myself, I live in a magical forest where mice claiming to be cousins move in for the winter then take the towels when they leave in spring. I am a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and a grand prize winner of the Sidney Lanier Poetry Competition. More than thirty of my stories and poems are in print, and Untold Press published my paranormal mystery, Magic and Murder Among the Dwarves last month.

Crowded is on Facebook, isn't everyone?