Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Ghost Flames
by Diane Fleming

She calls him "Dearest Bewitched Cupcake Soulmate." I donít know why. There isnít much to him.

He mumbles when he speaks. There is spit in the corner of his mouth. His nose is stuffed from allergies and he canít breathe. His mouth is always slightly opened and filled with saliva. I canít imagine kissing him. I guess she can.

She kisses him now, here in the yard behind their little white house with the picket fence. I look away and stare at the pink flamingo attached to a wire. The wire is planted deep into the ground. The flamingo will not be leaving Florida anytime soon.

To call someone soulmate seems so permanent and radical to me. In fact, it is an idea I do not understand or even believe in -- especially when I see him pile newspapers in the corner of their living room or when I hear how heís run up phone bills to the psychic hotline. He works at home as a computer programmer and he wears the same outfit for weeks -- brown corduroy cut-offs, flip-flops, and a white dress shirt -- but this does not drive her crazy.

I wear the uniform of a divorced woman who is probably too old to have any kids: I look tired and agitated at the same time, all the time. I look like I need someone to step in.

We sit in their backyard. Itís some special moon night. They are practicing witches, which they donít try to hide. They donít advertise it either -- they look normal enough. I see her at the library -- where she has worked for the last ten years -- wearing gray gabardine pants, striped oxford shirt, and loafers. I try to recall how I met these people: I realize it was at a town council meeting the night they passed out flyers to force the town to provide recycling bins to residents. Back then, I thought these people were well-intentioned and innocuous. But I am reminded of their occult leanings whenever I walk through their house past pink and gold angel statues and clouds of incense.

She tells me something about a waning or a waxing moon. Sally and Bill (their real names) have arranged candles on their white plastic table. They light the barbecue. Flames leap; itís chilly outside, especially now that the sun has gone down.

"Are you ready to release the intentions?" Bill asks through his spitty mouth. Iím not sure if heís addressing Sally or me, but I nod yes.

They call what they are doing intentions, but I know they are really putting spells on people. I have some ideas about this -- the ethical implications of manipulating other people -- but I guess this is no different than a Christian prayer, which presumes to know what is right and good. Prayers are one of those things -- like asking "Howís it going?" or picking up your own garbage -- that are only considered good.

She has nebulous names for things, everything except Bill, to whom she says, "Dearest Bewitched Cupcake Soulmate, can you hand me my lighter?" And he hands her a Bic and she flicks it and lights the purple candle in front of her. Thereís a white candle for later. Thereís a red candle too -- thatís for me.

It sends chills up my spine -- that name. I know it began as a joke. Like when I called that guy in college "Frank Zappa," though his name was Rob. And, later, when I forgot I was still doing it, Iíd yell across the courtyard, "Frank, Frank Zappa!" And people would turn and look at me funny. But he would turn and say, "Hello." And he did look just like Frank Zappa. And I guess Bill does look like some form of cupcake -- at least to Sally. To her, he has dark chocolate icing and rainbow sprinkles. To me, he looks stale.

"Bill has an intention for his father," Sally says, straightening her short red skirt around her skinny legs. She has bitten her fingernails down to nubs. I like that about her.

But their vague ways of describing things is starting to annoy me -- I know they put spells on people. But their impreciseness is not an effort to disguise anything; they are unspecific because they donít know what they are doing. They read about witchcraft in a book -- a manual they bought at the Home Depot for Wiccans. And having learned the basics, they now divine the future. Sometimes they see things.

I wonder what Dearest and Sally wish for? And why do they have to ask someone magical to deliver it? I, myself, am a survivor of 12-step programs. There is no magic in recovery -- not that I ever saw. There is just painful hard work with occasional peeks at joy; the latter because my higher power is a sporadic listener, just like my ex-husband.

Bill recites a prayer or a chant or an intention (or a spell). The prayer includes words like, "North, East, West, South, pain relief, no harm, for the greatest good, no longer a need for pain." Itís a request for his father. His father is a smoker and is dying of cancer. Bill asks for relief from pain.

Sally has tears in her eyes. She grabs Billís hand. He has long fingernails.

I am quietly cynical, and later Iíll be loudly cynical, but for now, they are safe from my total lack of comprehension about things like soulmates and asking for and getting what you want.

Sally looks at me. She points at the red candle. "You light this one," she says.

"Wait a minute," I say. I canít believe itís my turn already. "What is this prayer youíre offering about me?" Iím stalling.

"You know already. Iíve shown it to you three times. Weíve talked about it for weeks. You agreed it was time."

"Maybe itís not a good idea."

"This is no time for cold feet," says Bill, whose own blue-veined feet are naked in the cool wet grass.

"Who knows what the repercussions will be?"

"Hey look. Look what I got when I did this." And she glances at Bill as if this will suddenly fill me with hope and assuage my doubts. I look down at the patio stones with long grass growing between each pentagon. I donít want to laugh.

But I am laughing inside and I suddenly think -- Ok, Iíll try this. She told me before that you could undo spells.

"Ok," I say.

"Light it."

I light the candle. It does look beautiful outside in the dark with candles flickering, even if Billís long face has an eerie yellow glow and he is surrounded by a purplish halo, which makes him look like some bruised suburban Satan.

Sally reads, "Öand we ask that June be open and available to give and receive love and that through this request, her true love finds his way to her door."

It sounds different than it did the first three times she read it to me, when all I could do was laugh hysterically. Tonight, it sounds really sincere. I almost believe it myself.

Bill coughs and scratches his forehead. Then he tweaks the lobes of both of his ears at once. I donít know if this is just a bad habit or if this is part of the spell.

I feel something twitch against my foot. I look down. Something runs beneath my feet. I jump back.

"Oh my god, itís a mouse!" I scream.

Sally smiles and looks at Soulmate. "A field mouse!" she yells.

Bill grabs the paper with the intentions written on it. At the bottom of the page, he points to the words "field mouse."

"We write a sign at the bottom of the prayer. This sign shows that weíve been heard."

"Why did this sign ran under my feet?" I screech. "What does that mean?"

Dearest Bewitched Cupcake Soulmate throws the paper into the barbecue. It sparks and burns.

"The magic is now sealed, " he says.

"What about the last intention?" I ask, feeling a little frantic that itís over. I thought maybe thereíd be another sign showing them (and me) that thereís no way Iím ready for love. Surely, the gods, goddesses, and universe know that. I know that.

"What was it for anyway?" I ask, pointing to the white candle, still unlit.

"That was for a clearing away the negative energy around here," says Bill.

"Yeah, I think that was taken care of through the other intentions. Sometimes that happens." Sally has her hands folded in front of her. She looks like a self-satisfied school marm.

"And the field mouse -- heís come and gone. So itís pretty much over for tonight." Bill picks up the white candle and the Bic lighter.

Sally and I sit in the dark for a minute. I donít know what sheís digesting, but I feel queasy.

"Hey honey," yells Bill from inside the house, "Do we have any more beef jerky? Iím in the mood."

"Let me check Dearest," she yells back. She swirls out of her plastic chair and rushes back to her soulmate. And Iím more than just a little worried about the future.
Diane Fleming has published a book of poetry, Trip to Normal, and recently won first place in The Austin Chronicle's Short Story Contest (2001) for her story, Valium.  She is currently a technical writer at Vignette. She is grateful to her writing teachers from SWT and Austin Community College, to her writing group friends, and to her once and future therapists. Originally from the Northeast, she found her true home in Austin six years ago where she lives
with her son, her boyfriend, and her hairy dog, Buddy.