(For Mrs. Q)
“You look just a little bit ugly,” her daughter ventured.
“Miss, I’ve had it to here.”
They glared at each other. Her daughter’s eyes were like two cool jewels on the Snow Queen’s icicle crown while her own were hot and blurred and stinging. It was not easy to dress for a Pampered Chef party she did not want to attend under the gimlet gaze of a choleric tween.
“Mrs. Burbanke won’t be wearing dead birds,” sniffed her daughter.
The Shaw Witch smoothed down the raven at her shoulder.
“Melisande Burbanke drinks protein shakes,” she replied.
Lilith had mastered derision by the age of two; at nine, she was the gold-star-holding belted galactic champion of contempt. It was a trick of the mouth. A tilt at one edge, like a smile but sharper, and her native aloofness flashed out and bled what it cut.
“She drinks protein shakes made out of unborn babies,” the Shaw Witch clarified.
“You just don’t like Mrs. Burbanke ’cause she’s better at magic than you.”
In answer, the Shaw Witch smeared a vicious red onto her mouth. It was a shade, she had recently been informed, that women over forty wishful of preserving a frazzled cantlet of their dignity should surrender to a younger generation. The mirror wisely refrained from announcing out loud — as was its habit — that she looked tired. Rather, it focused its cruel attention on Lilith, whom resentment had gilded in a charming glow.
“They’re all going to laugh at you and be scared.”
“Lil,” said the Shaw Witch, “go downstairs and bother your father before I single-handedly bring poisoned apples back into vogue.”
“I don’t want to go to a Pampered Chef party.”
Her husband glanced at her. “Coward.”
Dark gods below, she sounded like Lilith. They had more in common than the Chinese-chopstick length of their fingers. That’s what made living together so difficult.
“Avoidance tactics are for lesser women, Eris.”
“I can be a lesser woman.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on, Nid.” The dead raven wobbled with her shrug. “Alice Lulkin does not need two witches of the western suburbs fighting a pitched battle over pan scrapers and avocado peelers.”
Nid sat calmly in his cage, reading a collection of plays by a dead Hessian. She was about to go out into the open, into the night, into public, vulnerable to attack from a very formidable sorceress with a glittering black chip on her shoulder the size of the Amsterdam Diamond, and he was reading Woyzeck. Again.
“Lilith hates me.”
Nid sighed and closed his book. He kept his finger in between the pages, which made her want to kick him. Her long fingers clenched around the bars of his cage.
“Lilith doesn’t hate you. She just misses Janice. And wishes she’d never been born of your loins.”
Seeing her expression, Nid let his book fall to the floor, reaching to caress each of the three knuckles on her forefinger. The scales leafing his wrist glinted gold and silver as her rings.
“Speaking of loins,” he said.
Hope made the grackle feathers on her breastbone flutter.
“I don’t have to go out at all. We could set the kids up with a movie…”
“No.” He pried loose, not without regret. “You need to get out more.”
“I don’t come from a long line of agoraphobic cannibals in candy houses. My pedigree is not suspect.”
He stopped her huffy reply with a surprise flick of his tongue. It forked out between the bars and caught her squarely on the ear.
“Be nice to Mrs. Burbanke,” he admonished. “You were best friends not two weeks ago.”
The Shaw Witch stomped out of the basement.
Leaving aside minor differences like the cage in the basement, telekinetic children, and the fact that the gnomes of this garden were only ceramic, the Lulkins’ house bore a strong resemblance to her own. Their lawn was nicer though. The Shaw Witch did not do lawns.
Eight vehicles crammed bumper to bumper along the curb. Lights blazed behind sparkling windowpanes. The Shaw Witch crossed her arms over her steering wheel and leaned forward to mutter, “These people clean their windows. Oh, help.”
Under nervous smoothing, the feathered corbie corpses on her dress melted into a classic black cocktail get-up. Green Gucci slingbacks materialized on her bare feet.
“That’s it,” she announced, realizing she was talking to her daughter, who was not there but who might be listening in anyway. “That’s all I’ve got.” And she slid out of her red Dodge Caravan and marched up to Alice Lulkin’s front door.
Alice greeted her with every affectation of warm delight. She may even have been sincere.
“Eris Shaw! I’m so happy to see you.”
The Shaw Witch felt her face fever up. “Hi. Am I late?”
“Oh, fashionably,” Alice assured her. “Fabulous shoes.”
The Shaw Witch grimaced. “Thanks.”
“Red or white?”
“We have a lovely Pinot — or a Chardonnay?”
The Shaw Witch plastered an expression of good-natured insouciance over her anxiety. If it didn’t work, Alice didn’t notice. She had already turned her back and was trotting her perky and perfectly clad self to the bar in the living room. Alice wore a yellow sundress that showed off to stunning effect the results of tanning booths and power yoga. The silver chain around her ankle dangled a solitaire diamond.
With a slick of sweat on the upper lip so carefully Naired earlier that day, the Shaw Witch followed in her hostess’s wake. Everywhere around her the walls were pale beige with large framed Kincaid prints. The air smelled of legitimate Pottery Barn potpourri (a far cry from the sort the Shaw Witch made for her customers, for protection or prosperity, for fertility or to assist in communion with the dead). Glass cabinets glittered with prismatic menageries and shepherdess figurines. No one looked up when the Shaw Witch entered the living room.
These were nice people, she told herself, nice people who attended church and PTA meetings and block parties. Nice, sophisticated people of the twenty-first century, who would not set her house on fire and subject her children to the rack and candle. Nice, suburban, middle-class, well-dressed, well-heeled, housewifely type of people.
Then Melisande Burbanke spotted her.
“Shit,” said the Shaw Witch.
Melisande’s pretty, blonde, Michigan-born, Indiana-bred, Chicago-finished, housewifely face wore an expression not unlike the wild Russian Vodyany as it sits wetly by the millpond waiting to beat small children senseless with its cudgel, thereafter to drown and eat them. In a flicker unseen by the rest of the room, Melisande was standing before her.
“Still peddling your cheap talismans to the Brownie moms?”
“Still sending your night hags to drain their dreams?”
Melisande smiled with all her teeth. Very white and hygienic, that smile. Several thousand dollars of dental work had smoothed every fang, bleached all the bloodstains. The Shaw Witch could barely bring herself to admit that Melisande’s smile might be a natural phenomenon, or that only a few weeks ago they had met regularly for tea, to compare grimoires and walk their kids to school. But that had all ended when Janice quarreled with Lilith Shaw over the beheading of an American Girl doll.
The doll belonged to Lilith — a Kirstin, solid and blonde and blank-eyed as a Valkyrie — but Janice loved it like her own, fawned over and cooed at and doted on it every time she visited for a play date. The day of the incident, Lilith and her brothers had spent a productive morning in the basement with their father, constructing a miniature guillotine and learning all about the French Revolution. By the time Janice arrived, dressed up and ready for a long afternoon of potion making and pretend, Lilith was eager to employ the guillotine.
“Citoyenne Kirstin, thy fate awaits thee! Liberty! Fraternity! Equality! Death to the aristos!”
Janice cried and ran home to carry tales to her mother. Melisande, exasperated by emotional upset of any kind, forbade further interactions of the Burbanke/Shaw households. She telephoned the Shaw Witch to tell her so, and the Shaw Witch had not reacted politely.
“Mutilating dolls, in my opinion, is a natural threshold of girlhood. Maybe if your daughter paid more attention to the history channel than Barbie.com, she’d toughen up some.”
Lilith Shaw had not been invited to Janice Burbanke’s birthday party. Everyone else in the whole fourth grade had been.
It was war.
“I didn’t think you’d come tonight,” said Melisande Burbanke, sotto voce. “I didn’t think you’d dare.”
“Afraid I’ll bring this house down around your ears?”
Melisande gestured to the women chatting around the hors d’œuvres on the coffee table.
“Their ears, too.”
The Shaw Witch licked her lips and croaked, “Collateral damage.”
“They’d deserve it,” whispered Melisande almost winsomely, “all these hooked-on-colonics granola crunchers. I’ve seen you sneer at their Birkenstocks, Eris, their all-natural fibers and organic grocery lists. They deserve every shag-bottomed hag I throw at them. They deserve to have their dreams sucked dry and their chests crushed at midnight by the grinning weight of demons.”
The Shaw Witch refused to return the smile. “So long as you keep sending your toggelli, your ill-wishes, and your wasters-away to the women of this community, I will sell my counter-magics to dispel them.”
“Swiss Army knives stuck under the mattress?”
The Shaw Witch flushed. “Cold iron. It pays the mortgage!”
“Used gym socks to distract my ghouls from their intent.”
“Amulets of jet and diamond,” the Shaw Witch shot back. Melisande flinched, so she pressed on. “Jewels painted in menstrual blood. Wolf skins stuffed with St. John’s wort…”
By this time, Melisande was cringing, covering her eyes with one hand and making ward with her other. There were times when even speaking the ingredients of a powerful counter-curse harmed the original ill-wisher. The Shaw Witch kept tabs on all Melisande’s transactions for business purposes. Breaking her enchantments was creating a nice little nest egg for the Shaw household. Nid had recently mentioned wanting to repaint the twins’ bedrooms.
“Call off your toggelli,” she commanded, before Melisande could recover. “Abrogate your night terrors. Draw the needles from your fetishes and dabble no more in blood crime.”
With visible difficulty, Melisande straightened from her hunch. “I don’t crumble so easily, Eris Shaw. Besides,” she tossed her lustrous hair, beaming for their hostess. “I need a new mortar and pestle.”
With a shy smile, Alice joined them, handing the Shaw Witch a glass of Pinot Grigio. “Here you go, Eris. So, how are you? And how is your husband?”
“Just fine, thanks.”
“And what is his name again?”
“No.” Melisande toyed with a pearl button on her lacy collar. “Nid. Short for Nidhogg. Perhaps you’ve come across the name in your classic Norwegian studies?”
Alice did her best to look bilingual. “It’s an interesting name. He must be an interesting man to have married — I mean, if you married him, Eris, he must be interesting. What does he do?”
The Shaw Witch began, “He’s a—”
“Dragon,” said Melisande.
“Avert,” said the Shaw Witch.
Alice’s eyes glazed over.
“May I have another glass of wine, Alice?” the Shaw Witch asked. “It’s nice. I can taste the strawberries.”
Alice wandered away to the kitchen. Melisande smirked.
“A bit low for you, don’t you think? And you so high on your horse, talking about blood crimes.”
The Shaw Witch reapplied her lipstick. “You and I are not finished, Mrs. Burbanke.”
Melisande brushed a flea-sized mote of lint from her perfumed breast. “Eris, dear. Didn’t I tell you that shade of red is a bit…young for you? But I won’t say anything more about that. How are your children? Beautiful children, your brown boys, so sturdy, so small. Have they learned to fly yet? Have you put bars on their windows? Little boys do get around. And then there’s your daughter. Turning out to be quite the ghoul, isn’t she?”
The Shaw Witch took a quick bite out of her empty wine glass and spat the shards into Melisande’s face. She spoke quickly, without bothering to lower her voice:
“Loosened teeth and twisting tongue
Bruise the tissue, squeeze the lung
Pharynx, larynx, trachea
Halitosis, tonsillitis, sinusitis, et alia
So mote, so be, FIAT!”
Melisande left the party, bleeding from nose and eyes and unable even to choke out her excuses. No one but Alice talked to the Shaw Witch after that, and Alice was soon too busy with her presentation to socialize. It included preparing a cold pizza, which the Shaw Witch did not eat, as some of the glass she had swallowed was dancing havoc on her ulcers. She ended up purchasing a cheese grater, a six-inch stoneware muffin pan, a carving knife and a bamboo cutting board. She helped Alice clean up afterwards, by way of apology.
“He’s a teacher,” she said as Alice walked her to the door.
“My husband. He teaches stagecraft and stage combat at the university. Adjunct faculty.”
“Oh.” Alice blinked at her. “That’s nice.”
“Yes,” said the Shaw Witch. Her feet hurt. The high heels threw her gait off.
“Mmn,” Alice said. “Well, thanks for…”
“You should come over for dinner sometime,” the Shaw Witch blurted. “I’ll make puttanesca. My grandmother left me this recipe, involving lots of garlic, and octopus, and the neck bones of swans.”
“Oh,” Alice said again. “I’ll have to talk to my husband.”
“Right, well, whenever.” The Shaw Witch began to turn away. Alice put a hand on her arm.
“I’d like to meet Ned. And your kids. It’s just…”
“I know. Forget I said anything.”
The spell was instantaneous.
“Lilith? Tigris? Leo?”
The floor beneath her bare feet was tacky from the June humidity. Her high heels had vanished. Her crows had returned to her gown, dead-eyed and indignant at having been concealed for so long. The house felt abandoned.
Dashing to the kitchen, she threw open the basement door and clattered downstairs, yelling as she went, “Nid, Nidhogg — where are the children?”
The twins crouched with her husband in his cage. Tigris was painting a Fighting Uruk-Hai from his Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game, while Leo, occupied gluing down real turf on the playing board, paid no attention to her entrance at all. Nid glanced up to greet her. He had a paintbrush in one hand and a glue gun in the other.
“Lilith,” he said before she could ask again, “has gone on a play date with Janice.”
“The Burbankes arrived about an hour ago and invited Lil over to their house to play. Our daughter levitated. Literally. She was that happy.”
The Shaw Witch wanted to stamp or throw something or change her husband into a gerbil. But the twins were watching, and her husband was impervious to her magic.
“I can’t believe you let Lil go off with that woman.”
“Eris.” Flames briefly limned Nidhogg’s nostrils. “It’s like this. Janice likes her dolls with heads. Lilith doesn’t. Let them work it out, with fists or spells or tea parties. It’s nothing for us to get so worked up about.”
“Nothing? And all the vile magic Melisande’s been stirring up in the neighborhood, that’s nothing too, I suppose?”
Nidhogg shrugged. “That’s business. She, like we do, has a mortgage. Besides, she keeps on like she’s been, we’ll be able to paint the boys’ rooms by next month.”
“Nid!” The Shaw Witch threw up her hands. “I’m going out.”
“Do that, witchwife.” Her husband’s eyes glinted goldenly. “Break me out for a real emergency. On that night, I’ll let you ride me across the sky.” His mouth glowed scarlet, like lit rubies or living coals – and she scowled at him, unsure if she wanted to stick her tongue down his throat or a silver spear through the one soft chink in his armor.
“You’d better hope everything is butterflies and puppy dogs at Chez Burbanke, Mr. Nidhogg.”
“Don’t worry so much, strega.”
As the Shaw Witch climbed out of the basement, she turned all of her blackbirds into doves and egrets and snowy owls. This sort of visit required a white dress. But she did reapply her red lipstick, with interest.
Melisande waited on the curb, arms akimbo, pale skin jaundiced in the sodium light. When she noticed the colors of the Shaw Witch’s surrender, her mouth curled, parting to spew curses or contumely, but the Shaw Witch rushed her before even one syllable could be uttered, kissing her full on the mouth. Red lipstick smeared, forming a seal of silence.
Melisande’s eyes widened, then narrowed, then rolled in resignation. For the second time that night, the Shaw Witch had stolen her speech.
“That’ll keep,” said the Shaw Witch, “until I see my daughter is well. Then we’ll talk.”
Janice and Lilith were practicing alchemy in the backyard. Quantities of empty shampoo bottles, eye-droppers, perfume vials, milk, vinegar, dishwasher detergent, talc, bath salts, cups of flour and pails of sand surrounded them in heaps and rows like a faerie feast Unseelie in quintessence.
The Shaw Witch watched them unobserved. Lilith Shaw, thin and bony and graceful, with the long, oddly-jointed fingers of her ancestresses, behaved with painful politeness, almost a subservience, to Janice Burbanke, who by nature was far less bossy. The Kirstin doll’s corpus had been reattached to its cranium by means of an incantation, a red ribbon, and some crazy glue. Beatifically, it presided over the twilit idyll.
“Try some of this.” Janice Burbanke offered Lilith a packet of active yeast. “Mix it with your aqua-sour potion and it’ll foam up.”
Lilith’s sea-glass gaze flashed over her mother. The Shaw Witch felt her bones turn invisible. A horror and a marvel, how one’s daughter could reduce one to wind and dust. Then Lilith smiled and the Shaw Witch made her retreat. She rejoined Melisande on the front lawn. As one, they plonked down on the curb and set their chins in their palms.
Melisande raised her plucked eyebrows. A tired flick of the Shaw Witch’s fingers, and the seal wiped itself from Melisande’s lips.
“Lamia,” spat Melisande.
“Beldam,” said the Shaw Witch.
“All right–pax!” The Shaw Witch angled her body toward Melisande. “Look. Lilith needs Janice. She’s her best friend. One of her only friends.”
“My daughter is…sometimes overly sensitive.” Melisande blotted her mouth until the red lipstick was no more than a few murderous smears on tissue. “Lilith’s Reign of Terror upset her.”
The Shaw Witch struggled to keep her voice fair. “Has Janice never been inside your workshop?”
Melisande shrugged. “Janice is inclined to the company of kittens and guinea pigs and…bunnies.”
Well did the Shaw Witch know what Melisande thought of bunnies. She kept their severed feet strung up on a laundry line in the garage.
“Nid wants to have a barbecue Friday,” she invented.
Nid would not mind having a barbecue. He never did. It gave him an excuse to come out of his cage and set things on fire in a socially acceptable fashion. He and Mr. Burbanke, no first name, would drink beer and mourn the Cubs.
“Oh, yeah?” Melisande narrowed her eyes. “What’s the occasion?”
“Solstice. Bring your broomstick and a nice dry white.”
“You can’t be serious.”
The Shaw Witch shrugged. “Truce ’til Equinox?”
Melisande made the sign of the horned moon with her pinkie and index finger. Her nails were sharp, manicured, could tear open a dove for entrails or unpick a spell knot in seconds. The Shaw Witch mirrored the sign, feeling apprehensive. Her own nails were quick-bitten and only occasionally painted. She held her breath, willing the abatement of their mutual aggression. At least for now. At least for the summer.
Melisande turned the horns to face her own body.
“Fiat,” she said.
C.S.E. Cooney lives in a Chicago garret with no pets, no plants, but a very nice cross-breeze. Her work has appeared in Subterranean Press, Goblin Fruit and Doorways magazines. She has two stories appearing in future issues of Black Gate, and occasionally writes theatre reviews for Killer-Works, an online repository for all things disturbing. He says:
“I wrote Oak Park Eris for my friend Stephanie, who tells me funny stories about life in the Chicago ‘burbs (some of which may or may not include witches, dragons, dead Hessians and guillotines). This one’s for you, Mrs. Q.”