First published in the May, 2005 edition of New Witch Magazine, this short story was written as a gift for my friends one year for Christmas.
Conjuring Johnny Depp
“I hope you’re not planning anything too elaborate.” Olivia’s voice crackles and pops over the cell phone.
“What did you say?” I scream into mine. “GianCarlo wants you to pick a date?” There’s no way I’m going to let a milestone like my best friends fiftieth birthday pass without some recognition. Olivia knows this and suspects I have something planned, which of course I do.
However, her attention these days is easily distracted by her latest conquest, an international businessman who so far has flown her off to meet him in Bali, Monaco and Marrakech. He tends to show up unexpectedly, always bearing wine and exquisite gifts, settling in for days of endless and exotic sex.
There’s something shifty about him that we all sense, something that plagues Olivia herself with a vague sense of unease, which, on some level is partly why I decided on this particular present. There are lots of reasons, of course, but GianCarlo is definitely one of them.
“You know perfectly well he hasn’t asked me to pick a date. I said, I don’t want you doing anything EE-LAB-BOR-” The rest dissolves into static fuzz and I smile and put the phone down.
If she’s in traffic, which is the only place in the world Olivia ever uses her cellphone, she might babble on for minutes before she even realizes I’m not there any more. It isn’t nice of me, I know, but there’s too much to do before the coven meeting to waste a minute of it lying to the guest of honor. Besides, I know once Olivia realizes the birthday surprise I’m planning, she’ll be too speechless to object.
I hurry the dogs, Buddy Love and Duffy, out to the poop-patch and back, then shut the door firmly, murmuring the traffic spell I only use when I need life to flow especially smoothly. Consequently, I run through my list of chores with the efficiency of someone whose elementals have achieved harmonic congruence. At least those are the words Olivia uses to describe the world when things are going particularly well for her. As they appear to be now.
The word I would use to describe Olivia is glorious, I think, as I turn the corner into the parking lot of the Weirdly Ways and Curious Goods shop that Olivia’s ex condemned regularly from his pulpit. A lesser woman might have broken beneath the weight of the wave of condemnation that rolled across the congregation when the first accusations began.
Olivia’s become the woman I want to be when I grow up (assuming i ever do) because she's strong-minded and independent and passionate about everything. Including her love life, which, unfettered by bonds of matrimony, censure or community standing, she’s littered with discarded men like the bowlfuls of tissues and unpopped kernels left on a coffee table after a long night of girl-talk. On the one hand, GianCarlo seems perfect.
But on the other... It’s not for me to make the decision, of course. It’s just I think I’ve hit upon a way to help her.
I enter the shop with my list in hand. Dark red candles, of course, like Olivia’s Scottish heroine hair, and purple, her favorite color. And black for protection and pink to help manifest a miracle in service of the highest good.
Which is what we’re going to need, I think, if this is going to work. I buy new smudge sticks of white sage and sweet-grass, incense in jasmine and patchouli, and essential oils in every type of rose I can find. And honeysuckle, to bind the spell. I tuck all my purchases in the dainty willow basket and take them to the register.
“Hey there, girlfriend,” says Clarice behind the counter. Her blue eyes are huge and fringed with long dark lashes. “I thought this was a half-century celebration. This stuff looks more like a love spell. What are we doing, conjuring up some sex god to give Olivia a birthday thrill?”
“Something like that.” I smile. I don’t want to give too much away, for there’s power in secrets. If there’s power in the words that get spoken, there’s even more in the ones that don’t. The fact that it’s a paradox tells you that it’s the truth.
At least that’s what Olivia says. She’s the one who introduced me to the coven. I’d been a stumbling solitary, reading every Cunningham and Conway that appeared on a Barnes & Noble bookshelf, when I happened to meet Olivia at a psychic fair. She saw me for the poor lost lamb that I was, and taking me under her wing, taught me more about the Craft and my own spirituality than all the nuns at Mount St. Joseph Academy combined.
And tonight - tonight, I’m determined to show her exactly how much she means to me.
I say goodbye to Clarice and head toward the town cemetery with a renewed sense of purpose. The story in the newspaper last week made me think that such a thing as occurred to me when I saw the movie might be possible. An ancient Englishman had shown up at the Town Hall, claiming a woman who’d everyone had known as Letty Kosloski was really his sister, Elizabeth, Lady Batstow. Apparently, the gamekeeper on their estate in pre-World War Two Britain fell for Elizabeth in a bad way, and when he’d been banished here, along with whatever else they did to gamekeepers back then who weren’t in D.H. Lawrence novels, he somehow managed bring her to America.
In England, it seemed that she’d vanished into thin air.
But her youngest brother had never forgotten his oldest sister, and he’d traced her at last to our quiet corner of Connecticut. The fact that she was dead didn’t deter him; he’d come armed with an order for disinterrment. The whole town was abuzz with the story, for Letty Kosloski appeared as ordinary as an old shoe. Aaron Kosloski was Native American on his mother’s side, and a shamanic practitioner, solitary as they come.
I’m here to take some dirt from Letty’s grave. Just yesterday the Press announced the results of the DNA testing. Letty Kosloski, whose weather-beaten face and accentless American offered no suggestion of a lineage any more storied than Olivia’s rescued mutt, was beyond all shadow of a doubt an English lady to the manor born.
I trudge up the path that winds between the graves, and it’s easy to see Letty’s. The opened grave is a dark gash against the green, and beside it, a muddy mound sags sadly into the long grass.
I peer into the empty hole. Rainwater’s pooled in the bottom, and I feel the soft edge give way beneath my shoe. I stumble back and nearly trip over Aaron’s headstone. Reading between the lines, I’m sure I discern some accusation of foulplay involving the “black” arts. Their children staunchly maintain their mother never mentioned a life in England, and in fact, never even claimed to be English. But no one really knew the Kosloskis, and there always was all that talk about Aaron and his ways. It was Aaron who first taught Olivia. She credits him for saving her soul, and if that’s true, then he just as surely has had a hand in saving mine. So he’s my spiritual grandfather, in a sense.
I pluck a bright yellow sunflower from the bunch, and place it gently in front of Aaron’s stone. “Grandfather,” I whisper. I ask for his assistance, and assure any spirits that might be listening that I intend nothing but the highest good for all concerned. I feel a little swell rise up from the ground beneath my feet and the air surrounding me thickens almost imperceptibly. I feel a gentle stroke like a feather down the back of my neck, and the softest kiss of a breeze on my cheek. “Thank you,” I say.
I whisper a similar little prayer over the hole where Letty’s body rested. Enough of her essence has gone into the earth, after twenty years, I think, to be effective. She’d been buried in a plain pine box that had almost splintered apart when it was raised.
I gently place a trowelful in a zip-lock freezer bag. I throw the flowers into the grave, and they land at the bottom with a splash, and float for a few moments before they disappear. It pleases me to think my offering’s been accepted and as I turn to leave, I think I smell the scent of burning sweet-grass on the wet wind.
"And I told you not to do anything elaborate,” says Olivia the minute she walks into the house, and smells the fifty-one roses in all shades from vermilion to coral to cream that are artfully arranged in the living room amidst the fifty-one white candles. "You’re a dear, you know that?” She grabs me in a fierce hug, and for a single moment, I wonder if there’s ANY possibility she might be less than happy about what I have planned, and then I dismiss the thought.
The doorbell rings. I hurry to answer it. The rest of the coven is right on time. They know I’ve got something special planned, and since most of them have found an excuse to either phone or stop by Clarice’s shop, all of them have heard about my purchases.
Even Leslie, a lawyer who gave up her career as a prosecutor to represent abused children, arrives on time, tearing off her threadbare power suit as she heads into the bathroom to change. She’s the only one who ALWAYS wears comfy sweats. The rest of us tend to dress according to whatever mood and weather seem to dictate, and tonight, all of us are in black, with touches of scarlet and gold, fuschia and orange, as if by prearrangement.
Marnie and her sister Karen come together; Jasmina, our wise-woman herbalist, who teaches belly-dancing at the JCC and Clarice nearly trip over each other when the porch light inexplicably bursts over Karen’s head just as she crosses the threshold. “The energy’s jumping right out the door,” says Jasmina. “What exactly do you have planned?”
“Just a little birthday present,” I say, as I retrieve a new bulb. I swirl it in salt and rub a little honeysuckle oil on it, whispering my intention that only beings of love and light should pass beneath its gleam. A sudden gust of wind sets russet leaves swirling at my ankles and the candles in the jack-o-lantern flare and spit. Jasmina’s right, I think. The energy is jumping.
Leslie comes back from the bathroom in black sweats and pale pink socks. “Are we doing gifts before or after?”
“After, right?” says Marnie. “With the cake.” I used to think that Marnie was just a control freak, and then I realized that structure gives her security and she just feels better when she knows what’s coming next.
“Well,” I hesitate. I know I have to tell them sooner or later and it seems better to explain things before we begin, rather than during. Incredulity can stop a ritual cold. “I think we better do gifts first.”
“Then I’ll be right back,” says Leslie. She dashes off into the night in her stocking feet and I know she’s probably forgotten shoes and can’t stand the thought of shoving her swollen feet into her work pumps. I remember there’re sneakers in the closet she can wear home but Marnie is demanding to know why custom should be breached, and Olivia is looking at me even more closely than before.
“Come on in, everyone.” I lead the way into the living room, where I’ve arranged lavender and pale pink satin and velvet pillows inside a carefully chalked pentacle. Between the candles and the flowers and the fire in the fireplace, the whole scene elicits oohs and aahs. “I’d just prefer to do gifts first, if you don’t mind. The ceremony itself - that’s my gift. I wrote it just for you, Olivia. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to finish with it.”
"Why, sure,” says Karen, always the mediator between Marnie’s moods and the rest of us. She smiles deliberately at her sister and Marnie subsides. The front door slams and Leslie comes in, looking cold.
“The wind’s really picking up out there,” she says. “Feels like something big’s brewing. Kelly, how likely it is one of those trees is going to come down on a car?”
A sudden gust roars down the fireplace and the flames leap up. “Feels like something big's brewing right here, Kelly," says Olivia. "Come on,what gives?"
“Okay,” I say. “You’re right. I do have something special planned." I hesitate and take a deep breath. This is beyond anything we've ever attempted as a coven.
Jasmina, on my left, gives my forearm a gentle nudge. “What’re you up to, Kelly?” Her soft Jamaican lilt intensifies. “You look like the goose that wants to lay the golden egg. So do it, before you burst, woman.”
I look around the circle, each woman in turn. When I get to Olivia I smile. “I’m going to conjure Johnny Depp.”
To be continued...