Conjuring

by M. Thomas

Sarah begins each day with twenty-two repetitions at the light switch in the bedroom.  Twenty-two seems the right number somehow.  Begin at one with "on."  End at twenty-two with "off."

She waits until Jonathan has left for work -- he despises this ritual -- and then on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on off, on, off.

She moves into the kitchen, which is the closest sink to the back door.  Washes seven times.  Up and down the sides of each finger five times.  Turn hands under the water five times to rinse.  Another dollop of soft soap.  Repeat.  From there it is a safe trip to the garage, and the ritual of locking and unlocking the car door.  Seventeen times.  Except for the bedroom light switch, odd numbers are the preferred pattern.

The maid won't stay.  She is very kind, but doesn't speak English much.  She gestures to various things.  The light switch.  The sink.  The remote control on the key chain.  She wrinkles her brow, puts out her hands to plead for the right word.  She only knows how to say "Diablo."

You are bedeviling yourself.

Sarah knows this already, knows that her mind substitutes repetitions for a sense of safety. 

The new maid is old.  She has a thick accent, but speaks English well. In this age of accuracy, Sarah thinks she should recognize the accent from TV or a movie.  Is it the cockney of a PBS Presents "David Copperfield"?  Is it the Russian shtick from the latest spy movie?  It is undefinable.

The maid's name is Gert.  Perhaps German.  Although one day she mentions New Zealand.  She wears flowered dresses like the type seen in old photos of World War II.  Pulls her hair back in a bun, and nary a lock escapes.  She is a bustler, like Sarah's mother was when she needed to be busy enough to forget.  Gert bustles to and fro, always looking busy, busy, always with a rag in her hand, dusting anything that happens to lie along her path.  And she watches Sarah, who is used to being watched by maids, watches her at the light switch, at the sink, in the garage with the car, brushing her hair (seventy-seven strokes), rearranging the silverware, turning a vase when it has been replaced on the shelf slightly to the left of where it should be.

Finally, after three weeks, Gert says, "How you conjure!  I haven't seen this type of conjuring since I was a very, very young child."

It stops Sarah in her tracks over by the couch.  The TV remote is not set quite right on the table, but it will keep a moment.

"What do you mean by that?  What do you mean about the conjuring?"

Gert smiles.  She has small, harmless teeth.  (Teeth are brushed three times, eleven strokes top and bottom.)

"This, with the light switch, and the washing of hands.  This is conjuring.  My grandmother did this, after our Paw-Paw was killed.  Oh, how she conjured him!"

Sarah reaches down and moves the remote two inches to the right.  She will not ask the how or why.  She knows them already, as if they were secrets she was keeping from herself.  "And did it work?" she says.

Gert shrugs.  "There was a day we could not find her, and then she didn't come back.  I always wonder, wherever he was, was he conjuring her too?  And in the end did she go to him, rather than bring him back to us?"

"Have you ever conjured?" Sarah asks.

"I'm not lonely for the dead," Gert says, then moves on to the upstairs bathroom.

That night, Sarah tells Jonathan, "Gert says it's conjuring."

He rolls his back to her.  "That's good.  I'm glad the maid is feeding you some nonsense like that."

"What if it isn't?"

"What if you just took your pills like the doctor said, and it all went away?" he replies.  "Oh, I know.  Then you wouldn't have anything to do all day."

Jonathan sleeps.  Sarah gets up to wash her hands.

*    *    *

Tildy was a pretty thing, Sarah's little doll, except that she fidgeted too much and even at four only spoke in grunts, and she had a wide face with glassy eyes that seemed only to notice the shine on things.  They never took Tildy to events where Sarah's father needed to be seen with family.

There was a day they were hosting a special business dinner, and no sitter could be found to keep Tildy upstairs, so Sarah was left in charge.  Tildy slipped away, slippery eel, grunting and pointing and wide-eyed, and appeared in the doorway of the dining room drooling happily at her cleverness.  One of the women shrieked.

Sarah's father grabbed Tildy by the arm and dragged her into the hallway, with Sarah watching like a silent fetch near the stairs.  Her father shook Tildy, and shook Tildy, and shook Tildy until her head bobbled -- "Don't you do that!  Don't you do that!"  Later, Tildy threw up, and her eyes bled.  After-dinner drinks were ruined by the arrival of the ambulance.

Sarah remembers this until it is deep night, and the soft soap is all gone.  Her fingers are cold, her flesh red.  Something moves in the corner of her eye.  She looks up at the kitchen window, across the long, green lawn.  Something slips away behind a tree, a little bare foot, the edge of a summer dress.  The cicadas, which had fallen silent, swell up like static.

Now she knows.  For the first time, she begins to flick the switch for the back porch light.  Thirty-seven feels like the right number.  She turns the deadbolt.  One, two . . .fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven.  There are many light switches in the house.  Many sinks.  Many locks.  When Gert arrives, she has not slept.

"How long did it take your grandmother?" Sarah asks.

"Fifteen years," Gert says.

And so, she conjures.

 

Copyright M. Thomas 2004

Photo Copyright Eric Marin 2004

About the Author:

M. Thomas lives in Texas.  Her fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Strange Horizons, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.

 

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