VERSES ON ST. ANDREWS – BERRIEN C. HENDERSON

1

At 6396 St. Andrews Street lives a witch.  She likes giving hard candy treats to boys foolish enough to step across the ivy-tangled bower at the head of the flagstone walkway to her house.

The witch lurks behind faded curtains adorning sad-glassed windows in a colonial home marked with a patina of green mold on cream siding.  Each day, her jade eyes leer at Feeling as she mutters word-glamour and fashions arcane symbols in the stale air of her home.

Feeling’s mother had given him a pouch for protection because he always walked down St. Andrews to go to school.  He could sense the weight of her spells upon him, then the gust of wind, which would dissipate her fell magic.  Thankful for his mother’s pouch, Feeling would hurry along.

But the pouch would not protect him from a fall off the monkey bars, nor the pug-faced, bucktoothed man-child Slug who teased Feeling about the shock of white hair at his widow’s peak—-perhaps someday, but not now.  He could only open the pouch once—-and only once, so help him—-under the direst of circumstances.  That was the rule.

“Poisoned hard candy from the witch on St. Andrews does not constitute an emergency,” said Feeling’s mother.

“Then what does?”

“You’ll know when the time comes,” she replied cryptically, smacking a heart-shaped cookie cutter on a sheet of sugar cookie dough.  “Besides, you don’t have to accept others’ gifts, nor invite them into your world.  Invitations have power.”

She smacked the cookie cutter down again.

“Remember, Feeling,” she said.

2

He had asked his mother once whether or not the pouch was magical.  She denied it on grounds that would make her a witch.

“Then what does that make you?” Feeling had asked.

“Clever.” She had laughed, kissing him on the forehead and rumpling his hair.  His white lock fluffed up.  She kissed him again.

“Go on and do your homework.  I’ll be along when I’m done,” she said.

“Are we going to read?” He hoped so.

“Of course.”

In his room Feeling sat at an old rolltop desk his mother had bought at an auction.  She had made him help strip the old varnish and refinish it.  The bottoms of the drawers had cedar panels in them and maintained that dry-sweet aroma that spoke of calm to Feeling.  On top of the desk perched a reading lamp with its curiously crooked neck and cyclopean eye-bulb glaring down.

When he sat down, his chair creaked in acceptance of his weight while he leafed through his Language Arts notebook and found the portfolio for his poetry project.  He’d already found four of the requisite five poems (any length, any subject) and had gone so far as to cut and paste them with clip art (ten extra points for visuals).  A lamb and tiger.  An eagle on a cliffside.  A snake parting shin-high grass.  One more he’d let his mother help with tonight.

When his bedroom door opened, it whispered over the shag carpet.  Barefooted, his mother eased across the room and to Feeling’s desk, where he poured over his poetry portfolio.

“How goes it?” she said, placing her warm hand on his shoulder and patting it.

Feeling shrugged.  “Fine.  I just need one more poem, and I don’t know what to put.”

She accepted the folder from him and leafed through it, smiling at the clip art he’d interspersed among the selections.

“Hmmm.  Frost.  Blake.  And Blake,” she said.

“My teacher said that companion poems could count as individual entries,” said Feeling.

“Nice of her to do that.  Tennyson.” An eyebrow arched.  “I’m impressed.”

“I like eagles, you know that,” said Feeling.  “Still need another poem.”

His mother walked over to Feeling’s nightstand and the small bookshelf beside it.  She pulled out a small blue clothbound hardcover with a red ribbon place marker.  Collected Works of Emily Dickinson.  “Let’s try this one, Feeling.  Ms. Dickinson is always good for inclusion in a poetry project.”

“She wrote about the fly, right?”

“And many other creatures, including death.”

“Why write about death?”

“She grew up by a cemetery.  What would you write about?” She thumbed through the edition and stopped.  “Let’s try this one.  ‘Witchcraft has not a pedigree . . .’”

Feeling listened closely as his mother plucked words off the paper and hung them in the air.  He smiled and nodded, asking her to read some more poems, but deciding to copy the first.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to borrow this collection and read myself to sleep, Feeling,” she said.

“That’s fine, Mother.  Thank you for helping me find what I needed,” said Feeling as she bent down and kissed the white shock of hair at his widow’s peak.

He stood and walked her to the door and watched her glide down the hallway and back into the living room.  Yawning, Feeling shook his head and plodded back to the rolltop desk and shut off the reading lamp, then trudged to bed.

Verses dangled in his mind as his head hit the pillow, and his thoughts bounded to stresses and rhythms he wouldn’t know for several years to come.  He didn’t know they were iambs.  Tetrameter would be alien.  Lines tumbled through his dozing head and stuck together, and Feeling dreamed of snakes and bees and Nobody.

In his sleep, Feeling smiled.  And hummed.

3

Fridays are pizza day at Cochran Elementary (“So Grow the Children, So Grows the Community”).

Most weeks, Feeling takes an extra fifty cents to school so that he can buy an extra slice of pizza, which he sneaks into his backpack (in order to conceal the smell he brings a Ziploc bag).  Feeling furthers his clandestine culinary endeavors by spiriting the pizza to second recess, the one at the end of the day, right before pick-up by parents and buses or the walk home for some.  Usually he sits under the old pecan tree in the playground’s far corner where solitude and two-hour-old pizza dovetail.  Then, the obligatory trip to the monkeybars.

But today, Slug, pug-faced and bucktoothed, has come to school with a black eye and blacker temper.  He has been quiet, like the space between heartbeats or the Euclidean line between the primer and the powder.  He did not eat last night, nor did he eat lunch today.  Slug’s gray eyes scan the playground and find two victims, together under the old pecan tree.

“Hey, faggot,” says Slug, looming before Feeling.

The epithet stings—-Feeling knows what it means, knows it is merely a colorful tactic to provoke him (“Low words.  Emotional words,” Feeling’s mother has instructed him, “nothing more than the rusted tools of the lowest fumblers of language.”)

Feeling reaches down, absently brushing the useless pouch.  A proven thing, it dispels the rumor of the witch’s magic; it fails against the reality of playground politics.

Puffing himself up like an adder, Slug says, “I want that goddamn piece of pizza.”

So, Feeling stands.  He will regret the decision.  It would be, though, the last time Slug ever attempts to take from Feeling and the last day he would ever antagonize the boy.

“You want the pizza?” says Feeling, his voice impassive.  The breeze tousles his hair and puffs at the white-lock birthmark.

Slug’s eyes flash greedily.  “Yeah, shunkhead.”

He thrusts out a pawlike hand with grimy fingernails.  His long sleeve hikes up, and Feeling sees the angry spot, a circular crater scabbed over and ringed pinkish, and Feeling’s heart becomes smaller for his having seen the ugliness done to Slug, yet he struggles against the complementary ugliness being brought against him.  Slug is becoming what was done him.

Feeling drops the pizza in the dirt and grinds it with his heel; he tingles from the exuberance of the act.  He feels a breath of lightheadedness.  This is what “No” feels like, he thinks, grinning at Slug.

The man-child rushes him, trounces him to the carpet of pecan leaves.  His rage is wordless, a snarling thing as he straddles Feeling’s chest and pins his arms to the ground with his knees.

“Eat this,” Slug hisses, grabbing a handful of crackly pecan leaves and summarily shoving them into Feeling’s mouth.

And as suddenly, Slug dismounts the boy because a teacher has noticed something on the fringes of the playground.

Once Feeling stands sputtering and spitting leaf bits from his mouth, Slug cuts him with his eyes, and in that heavy-lidded stare Feeling sees emptiness.

“Bell’ll ring soon,” he says.  “Run.  I’ll still beat hell outta you.”

“All because of pizza?” says Feeling, spitting once more.

“You shoulda never stood up, faggot.”

Slug saunters away, tugging at the cuffs of his longsleeves.

The bell to go back inside rings.  Feeling knows he has ten minutes to develop a strategy for surviving the trip home.  He has seen the anger of Slug, experienced it firsthand like so many of the other children at school, but today is different for two reasons.  Feeling has stood up to the boy and denied him the satisfaction of easy victory.

And today Feeling has seen Slug’s darkness.

The boy’s eyes changed colors—-from flint-cold irises to the space between stars.

4

The shortest distance between two points is a line.

So began the mantra as Feeling’s bouncing backpack kept counterpoint rhythm with his hurried footsteps.

The shortest distance between two points is a line.

He surveyed the deserted street.  Fallen leaves scraped over the sidewalk, and the headlights of parallel-parked cars stared in catatonia through Feeling.

The shortest distance between two points is a line.

He reached the 6000 block of St. Andrews Street.  Four blocks from home.  The specter of Slug’s threat hovered over him.  Slug would, in essence, have to go half a dozen blocks out of his way to intercept Feeling, who did not discount the promise made him.

Long-armed, loping Slug appeared on the corner behind Feeling.  The boy picked up his pace.

A line.

Slug’s worn boots scudded the cracked sidewalks and broke grannies’ backs with each inevitable step.

Line.

Then it struck Feeling—-a wash of vertigo.

Two points.

Two

. . .

points.

The mantra had fragmented, and dizziness nipped at the fringes of Feeling’s mind; absently his hand dipped to the pouch tucked in his back pocket.

He looked behind him, then beside him.

He stopped and stared at the specter of the ivy-fringed bower with its tongue of wobble-down flagstones running back to the red-brown brick steps of 6396 St. Andrews Street.  A dirty curtain moved back into place surreptitiously.

Feeling knew the witch had cast a spell at him, but the pouch had befuddled her magic.

“Oh, no, don’t stop now, not while it’s getting good,” taunted Slug.

A shiver insinuated itself through Feeling as he decided to enter the witch’s property.  He sprinted to the front porch steps and waited for Slug, who advanced interminably like some automaton.  Feeling pulled the pouch from his pocket and gripped it, knowing it useless against Slug, but already sensing it repel another round of glamour tickling his back.

Slug stopped at the edge of the yard.

“Come here.”

Feeling shook his head.  “You come here.”

The boys stared at each other.  It wasn’t lost on Slug that Feeling stood firmly entrenched on the witch’s property.  The only thing Slug feared was his father, not some crazed-ass shut-in folks called a witch.  He advanced.

Then he tripped on some sunken flagstones, and as he scuttled to his feet, creepers detached themselves from the trunks of the oak trees dimming the yard from the sharp lances of afternoon sunlight.  Fluttering leaves mutter-rasped ophidian warnings.  The bower trembled as the ivy vines slithered lightning-fast along the ground and seized Slug’s ankles.  He grunted and tugged, but more vines caught him and lifted him several feet off the ground.

Eldritch spells seeped over Feeling and toward Slug.  He blanched as the vines jerked Slug back and forth like demented arms cradling a baby to sleep.  A vine wrapped around Slug’s mouth, muffling a string of curse words.  Equal parts fear and rage gleamed in Slug’s eyes as he stared at Feeling.

“Both of you are trespassing,” came a soft voice.

The witch materialized from the shadows of an azalea hedge along the edge of the porch.  Feeling reached down and clenched his pouch.

“And I wouldn’t worry about that,” said the witch, pointing a slender finger at Feeling’s pouch.  Her raven tresses shimmered in the dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy of oak limbs.  Cold green eyes appraised the thrashing form of Slug.  She glanced only briefly at Feeling, rooted to the front steps.

The witch stopped midway between Feeling and Slug.  With practiced, effortless finger gestures, she signed in the air and mumbled under her breath.  The vines tightened.  Slug whimpered.

“What are you doing?” asked Feeling.

“What does it look like?”

“Hurting him.”

“Isn’t that what you want me to do, boy?” said the witch, grinning at Feeling.

He shook his head.  Something cold and heavy bloomed in Feeling’s stomach.  “No.”

“Yet you came onto my property knowing that I can’t do a thing to you, correct?”

Feeling set his jaw.

“Now that I have him, your problem is solved,” she said, waggling her fingers at Slug.

Another whimper.

The front of Slug’s pants darkened with urine.

“I thought he wouldn’t follow me,” said Feeling, desperate now that Slug was hurting.  He didn’t want this.  He didn’t.  “I only wanted to be left alone.”

The witch snarled at Feeling.  “Funny.  That’s all I’ve wanted since I’ve lived here, and just when I think I’ve got the whole damned community convinced it’s not worth breathing past my place, you two roosters come strutting onto my property with your problems spilling over into my space.”

Feeling wished he couldn’t see Slug hitching with sobs that wouldn’t come out.  The boy’s hands were beginning to purple from the vines’ constricting his wrists, and Feeling imagined the same thing was happening to Slug’s feet.  He thought he smelled excrement now and felt greasy inside; he never wanted it to come to this.

A wave of glamour washed over him, rocking him on his heels, and the pouch warmed from soaking up magic.  He drew some comfort from the witch’s having no power over him, but she convicted him with those slivered green eyes.

“I know this boy likes to hurt you and other children,” said the witch.  “I’ve seen it, right, boy?” She turned to Slug and walked over to him and took his chin between her thumb and fingers to force him to look at her.

“You are a torturer of cats,” said the witch.  “That, too, I have seen.  And they have told me.”

Muffled words came from Slug, whose eyes glazed over with a thousand-yard stare to insulate him from her words.  He would have spit on her if he could.  His embarrassment renewed his vigor, and he thrashed more vehemently.

A new vine crept along Slug’s back and caressed his throat while the witch studied him.  Cold sweat and panic gripped Feeling as he watched the vine slink loosely around Slug’s throat.

You’ll know when the time comes, came his mother’s words.

“Let him go,” said Feeling.

“No.”

“Please.”

“Your problem became my problem.”

The pouch turned leaden in Feeling’s hands.  He opened it while the witch focused her signs and muttering on Slug.  Inside the pouch lay a slip of worn paper, folded and closed with a piece of transparent tape.  On one side was written in his mother’s hand

Open and read aloud to her . . .

Feeling broke the tape, opened the paper, and studied the words.  He cleared his throat.  Then:

“’Water, is taught by thirst.

Land—by the Oceans passed.

Transport—by throe—

Peace—by its battles told—

Love, by the Memorial Mold—

Birds, by the Snow.’”

The witch stopped in mid-mumble and turned to face Feeling.  She walked up to him and tried snatching the poem from his hand, but a gust of wind accomplished the task for her and whisked the paper out of her yard to skid along the sidewalk with a smattering of leaves.  Like a curious puppy cocking its head askance, the witch stared unblinking a moment at Feeling.  She lifted a hand to sign a spell at him, but dropped it, knowing the pouch would stay her efforts.  Behind her, the vines suddenly relaxed and dropped Slug with a whoomp on the flagstones, and the boy jumped up running.

At the sidewalk, he turned briefly and shouted, “You bitch!  I hope you burn in hell!” Sniffing rivulets of snot from his nose, he loped down the sidewalk as fast as he could.

Feeling’s lips moved wordlessly, repeating the lines of the poem, the one his mother often read to him at night.  He thought of the small clothbound hardcover of collected poems, and he had marked that poem down.  He didn’t understand all of it, but he understood enough.  Sometimes, to know a thing, we need to see its opposite, drifted his mother’s wisdom.  Her name was Emily, and she understood.

“’Peace—-by its battles told—-‘“ whispered Feeling, stepping forward.

“Get off my property now, boy,” said the witch through clenched teeth.

Feeling walked off the front porch, and the witch drifted aside.  He felt a breath of magic sidle up to him as she attempted one last spell.  The pouch throbbed in Feeling’s hand.

“’Peace—-by its battles told—-‘“ he repeated, walking the bumpy flagstones to the sidewalk.  The vines reared up and whipped at him to form a writhing verdant mesh barrier.

“Come in for some juice and candy,” lilted the witch.  “Please.  I . . . I forgive you.” She sauntered toward Feeling, and her features smoothed away years with each step until she could have been twenty years old, mouth slightly open, tongue peeking between rows of pearls.  Her midnight hair seemed to push her cheekbones higher, mold them into sharp knobs below those jade eyes.

“No, ma’am.” If he didn’t accept her invitation, he would be all right.  She couldn’t touch him with her magic, but could tempt him with her words.  And beauty like the night.

Soothingly, she said, “I was too harsh.  Please.  A boy of your . . . talent deserves something.”

“To be left alone.” Feeling drew a deep breath.  “I think I understand now.”

Her green eyes galvanized.  “This is the most I’ve talked to anyone in years.” Contemptuous laughter fluttered through the air, and the seasons rippled in quicksilver runnels over her face until its uncanny, older handsomeness returned.

“I’m leaving.”

Fury churned the witch’s face.  “I protected you from that boy!  Ingrate!”

“I apologize for using your property to scare Slug.”

“Yet you helped him.” Frown lines writhed like snakes between her eyebrows.

“You were hurting him.”

“I have watched you, too, boy.  Watched you walk by.  Seen you seeing me behind my curtains.  Felt my spells fade the moment they touched you.  That doesn’t happen.” Chewing her lower lip, she said, “Well, I suppose it does now.”

The vines fell to the ground and retreated to the bower and the tree trunks.

“Go.  Study the words taught you.  They are powerful,” said the witch.

Feeling watched her vanish in a blade of sunlight.  The witch’s voice floated to Feeling as he stepped onto the sidewalk.

“I’ll still be watching.”

In the evening’s fading glamour, Feeling hurried home, and the pouch lightened the farther he got from 6396 St. Andrews Street.  He saw the note scuttle and pinwheel with the breeze along the asphalt while lingering echoes of verse scattered themselves among autumn leaves.

 

Berrien C. Henderson lives in the deepest, darkest wilds of southeast Georgia. He teaches high school Literature and Composition with a Southern accent. Berrien’s writing has appeared in such diverse venues as The Journal of Asian Martial Arts, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern literature, Abyss & Apex, Kaleidotrope, and Bloody Knuckles: The MMAnthology. His mini-collection of Southern magical realism, Old Souls and the Grammar of Their Wanderings, is available from Papaveria Press. In his not-so-copious free time, Berrien teaches and practices martial arts.

 

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