Into Something Rich and Strange
By Barth Anderson
29 November 2004
As soon as I realized that the rapacious, rot-sucking revenant would not stop till I was dead, I changed my phone number. I changed the locks on my windows, my doors, I let my beard grow out, and I changed—
Wait. Let me rewind. The story of how I came to be known as the Great Bringweather really starts with the muffin—a luscious punk rocker with a strong geek for the guitar. Worse for me, he was a sullen misfit with placid brown eyes and soft hands.
In short, he spun my heart like a pinwheel.
I met the muffin at a Chinese restaurant slash dive called the White Monkey-Tiger. Lank, wax-black mohawk draped over half his face, he sat in a red vinyl booth surrounded by a cadre of what appeared to be either the members of a band or too-old-for-D&D boys (they were both, I later learned), all of them tilting a pitcher of beer into their glasses and conversing with an irresistible intensity that alerted me to the presence of the Holy Fire.
I was in my early seventies, young by the standards of my craft, but shy about leaping across the gulf between our years. It took several Fridays of sidling nearer, like a natural scientist earning the trust of lowland gorillas, but eventually, Devin (lead guitarist, Dungeon Master, and delicious muffin-to-be) invited me to drink with them. I needn't have worried about my age. We found a wide field of things to talk about: Norse mythology, Malcolm McLaren, skateboard technology (I mostly listened), and Wagnerian opera. Over the next few weekends, I became a regular at their corner table.
Then one Friday, Devin's band of musician-adventurers didn't show. It was just me and the muffin, and soon we were knee-deep in his favorite topic, his yet-to-be-performed punk opera about King Arthur. Though he'd been invited to submit it for a grant, he felt his libretto was too breezy, didn't carry proper mythic weight.
"Ahem. You're greedy," I teased. "You want to tell the whole Arthurian cycle in forty-five minutes, when you should focus, er, on one relationship—Mordred and his estranged father the king—imply the rest."
Devin picked up a bar napkin and tore into the paper with his pen. When he finished his notes, he lit a cigarette and gave me a cagey look, like I was the last truffle in the box. "So do you have, like, a job?"
"I'm not, ahem," said I, "'employed' in the, shall we say, conventional sense, no, my dear young man."
Puff. Puff. Slight clench of his chiseled jaw. "So are you on, like, disability?"
"I'd sooner take money from a bank than the government," I said. "Wait. Same thing." I laughed, cleared my throat. "You mean, how do I get money for beer and sweet and sour pork every Friday? Well. Yes." I'd never learned to lie well about street witchery. "Let's just say I don't need much, and besides, ahem, there are, er, 'forces' more generous than employers and bankers."
I watched our hands on the bar as we spoke, his smooth fingers holding his Camel straights with confidence, mine fidgeting and obsessively ashing my cigarettes. "You're into something strange, I bet," Devin whispered. The bartender gave last call and I was about to put down my share of the bill, but I froze when Devin asked, "Are you a witch?"
I'd practiced in solitude for years, scraping together what spells and lessons I could while looking for a master, or even a colleague that I might call friend. "Very well. If you insist. Yes," I said. "And you are too, or will be, one day, my friend." I blushed. "A witch, I mean, not my 'friend.' Though, I would like you to be more than my just my friend. I mean, if you're—"
I shut my mouth and winced.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to be in this—incarnation," Devin said, with such sadness and regret for someone his age. He slipped a hand beneath the lip of the bar to rest on my thigh and quoted Mordred from his opera. "Should not the old teach the young?"
My thought couldn't easily voice itself with his hand on my leg, but I dearly wanted to teach him a few things.
Devin turned his profile to me and performed a magnificent French inhale for my amusement. Then he said, "You keep the Holy Fire."
His bluntness was disarming. "I keep the Fire. Yes. Ahem. I do."
Cool blink. Smoky smile. "Will you show it to me?"
"I would love to show you," I said, unpocketing my wallet to settle up with the bartender. Next to me, T, the noted barfly and poet, was sprawled on the bar in white muscle shirt and ratty knit cap. He watched me hand my money over and then wrote something on a bar napkin, passing it to me. T was known as a drunk oracle in my niche, so I pocketed the napkin, and slid a five over to him. "You the king," T slurred at me as I left with Devin.
I wouldn't read the bar napkin for months. I wish I'd read it right then. It said, in his befuddled scrawl, we unRoll our redDest carpEts 4 the caPtains of Hell.
White Monkey-Tiger was on the edge of my niche, a five-square-block neighborhood located in the old flood plain between the interstate and the river. This section of town had everything a street witch could want: ancient warehouses, abandoned lots filled with weeds gone to seed, sidewalks alive with disorderly urban mix. Nickel bag, dime bag, three-card monte. Hooded graffiti taggers. Local churches fed the local homeless, and well-heeled men cruised behind polarized windshields. Elderly white couples owned old bungalows from a time when the neighborhood was more gentrified, and young artists lived cheaply in dilapidated mansions. There was a chichi wine bar and, yes, a crack house, but a window factory too, and a Russian gang, and a dollar theater, and in the mornings, after my niche's midnight bedlam went to bed, kids played in the Thomas Jefferson Park fountain. Maybe to some my neighborhood was a scary, inner-city nightmare. But nature and I hate homogeneity. To me, this niche was a well-attended watering hole, and I its tender.
Devin and I stepped out of the restaurant into the mania of Jefferson Avenue at bar time. A group of angry young women were fighting with a pride of prostitutes. Cop cars were rolling in with red lights on and sirens off. Pimps moved to intercept the police while Devin and I wove through the gathered prostitutes.
Some witches keep little indoor compost heaps, but not me. At that point in my career I needed, ahem, volume, so I built a cage out of a couple rusty metal gates and slats from old peach crates, and stashed it in the back of an abandoned mechanic's shop near the White Monkey-Tiger.
Standing before my compost heap—a mix of rotting produce from the Italian restaurant, lawn clippings donated by my neighbors, eggshells, coffee grounds, manure from the city-farm store—Devin raised his hands as if to a campfire. Lord. My witchy little friend could feel the Fire in there, and he wasn't just sensing the physical heat, either (the microbial oven in my compost burned at a crucial 180 degrees, at which temperature the primary elements, birth and death, do dance). He was sensing the exhaust from Cosmic Animus that all witches sense, the power released from yeasts budding, bread rising, beer brewing, opposites attracting, neighbors screaming on corners, urban culture gelling. Devin knelt and pulled back the bottom slat, where one could remove the composted organic material. Volunteer oyster mushrooms and string bean creepers seemed to claw at him through the wire mesh of the gates. He pulled out a handful of crumbling black dirt and smiled up at me. "Perfect, isn't it?"
It was, of course, and I was glad he appreciated it.
"Show me," Devin said.
If I'd been less smitten, I might have wondered at how much he seemed to know already, but I held out my hand and he turned his wrist, placing the wad of humus in my palm.
Our hands touched.
Behind us, we could hear the upper registers of angry women, and male voices shooting through bullhorns.
I closed my fingers around the humus and shut my eyes. Some witches compose elaborate Gaelic poems for their spells, but that always seemed like pre-Inquisition frippery to me. The intent matters more than the words, anyway, so I used literature for great acts and garage bands for messing around. I quoted a favorite. "Birth, death, rot! Birth, death, rot! Whine like a baby, but it's all you got!"
"Hey." Devin grinned, illumined red by swirling police car lights. "You're quoting Death Throe Prisoner!"
So true, but I couldn't respond in that moment. Cosmic Animus discharged from the chunk of humus into my soul, my Anima as we say, and I felt like a torch for a second.
I'll never forget the look on Devin's face: lustful, proud, and avaricious. "How does it work?"
"Come around to the front," I said, recovering. I led him up the shop's dandelion-riddled driveway. From there, we could see the veritable free-for-all on Jefferson Avenue. In the spotlight thrown from a patrol car, a screeching transvestite hooker squirmed between a large white cop and a pimp in trench coat carrying a cane, hurling herself at two Latina teenage girls, screaming, "You got problems at home, don't come looking for me with a knife, OK?"
The girls lunged for the prostitute, kicking and slapping her. "Chinga tu madre en la cabeza, Señorita Chi-chis con Pinga!"
Normally, I wouldn't interfere—a strong niche gets stronger on its own, without my help—but I had the muffin's full attention, so I squeezed the humus until it crumbled between my fingers.
Just when it looked like the cops were about to lose control of the situation, the transvestite's pimp hauled his prostitute away from the Latinas. One cop, though white as Donny Osmond, reeled off a whirr of street Spanish to the two young women and afterwards seemed surprised at himself for a heartbeat.
Devin gave me that cagey, sidelong look again.
The cop's words didn't totally satisfy the Latinas, but they crossed their arms and stepped back from the fray. The transvestite hooker raised an index finger. "I ain't gotta go looking for they men," she said to Officer Donny. "I stand one place—men swarm all over my ass!"
Laughter fell like rain, and the patrol car's spotlight dowsed itself as the crowd unclenched.
I was dizzy and excited from contact with the Holy Fire. "See? See how that worked?"
Devin flicked his lank mohawk out of his eyes. "Did you make that happen?"
"I merely made it possible," I said, elated, "drawing to a situation the power it needed."
"But how?" he asked with an impatient edge.
"Incongruent elements form a battery," I said, "Pasteur was wrong and the Copenhagen Circle was right: a spontaneous generation of life does exist! Use it to feed a living culture, like this niche, and you compound—"
"But what does that mean?" Devin all but sneered. "'Life'?"
I gave Devin a hard, dissecting look. But all I could see were pretty eyes and a heroic jawline. "Come home with me." I put my arm around him. "I'll show you life."
"No." He shrugged out of my embrace.
I froze, wounded.
But then Devin put his arms around me. "You've done enough work tonight," he said. "You come home with me."
Devin became my pupil, my lover, and the companion I had been hoping for. Lessons in composting began immediately, the base of all witchery, along with making yogurt, sourdough starter, and lessons in using the exhaust from such microbial feasts for conjuring or predicting the future (D's unique talent). Devin learned quickly, which made his teacher vain.
Having a tall young man on my arm made me feel vain as well—powerful in ways that the Holy Fire could simply never do. We worked on his opera (I loved Arthur's story), and I let him shave me every morning, the feel of his silky hands on my face stronger than any drug.
I don't know music, but I do know Arthur, and Devin allowed me to rewrite his libretto. I made Arthur a detached father-king, Mordred a caring son vying with the condescending Lancelot for Arthur's love. I was mythologizing Devin, turning him into a sympathetic prince on paper and in my heart. I was also excising all of Devin's horrid rhymes ("Lancelot" with "romance a lot"; "take it farther" with "kill King Arthur") and together we cast spells over his Neo Opera Fund grant application, the new draft of the libretto, and the demo tape for the grant board.
But while I lingered in Devin's studio, listening to him create sharp-edged punk leitmotifs for Mordred, I failed to notice the changes creeping into my niche. Boarded windows were replaced with panes. Beat up low-rider wrecks slowly vanished, and cars with dealer stickers in the windows drove down these boulevards now. Street folks retreated to the margins of my niche and then slowly they disappeared altogether. A Gap appeared. An Olive Garden. An Urban Outfitters. Then—gad, the shame—a Starbucks. My neighborhood's idiosyncratic flavor was becoming the homogenized taste of any other city with the same stores, same signs and logos. Same, same, same. But I was more concerned with the muffin.
The night of Mordred and Arthur's "sponsors' performance," when Devin, his band, and the singers were asked for an initial run-through for Neo Opera's grant board, I dressed in my ground-score tuxedo and sat in the back of the warehouse theater, which was filled with the performers' friends and their polychromatic heads of hair. The overture kicked in as Devin and his bandmates in a cool blue spotlight bashed the audience with the main Camelot theme, a victorious guitar line that drove Wagner straight into Sid Vicious. The audience as a single person rocked their upper bodies, and I eagerly scooped up the Xeroxed program, scanning it.
Next to "libretto" on the program was Devin's name and Devin's name alone. My name wasn't mentioned. Not even in the "shout outs."
Mordred sang the opening aria, while I sat there steaming. When it looked like Arthur would bequeath Camelot to Mordred in the watershed third act, the audience was spellbound (quite literally—that was my doing). And when the performer who sang Mordred also sang Nimue's triumph over Merlin, conflating the double destruction of Arthur's kingdom and his magic, the grant board stopped taking notes.
But it was all lost on me. When the final note stopped reverberating and the spotlight dimmed, I edged around the crowd to the stage, leaning against an exposed brick wall, waiting for Devin.
"You have something wonderful here," a woman in turquoise from her silk wrap to her heels to her Santa Fe rings was telling Devin. "Tone down the Sex Pistols and bump up the Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I can get you some killer ink on this opera."
I rolled my eyes but Devin said, "You don't think the punk elements will play?"
"For a very narrow niche, sure," she said, "but I'm thinking bigger and so should you." She squeezed Devin's arm, whispered something that made him grin, then tapped away on her turquoise shoes.
When Devin came to lean next to me against the bricks, he said, "It's in the bag. She said so. They're going to fund M and A."
I handed him the program.
He turned to me. "What?"
"You gave me absolutely no credit on the bill."
His sculpted face, normally angelic when he looked at me, now scowled in contempt. I'd never seen this expression of his before. "My name represents both of us," he said with sweetness.
"I want, er, to feel part of this, too, D."
He flipped his mohawk back from his eyes. "Oh," he said, "you were."
I felt petty and egotistical, but who was being pettier? All I wanted was my name on his stupid little Kinko's program. "Will you list me as a contributor when the show finally goes up?"
He shook his head, looking at me. "You'd give me your last drop of blood if I wanted it."
I frowned. "Sure I would, D."
That's when he slapped me. My brain went blank and shiny and all I could think was, I shouldn't have bothered. I shouldn't have pressed. I couldn't stand to lose Devin. When I remember this moment now, I recognize that he slapped his voice right into me. As my mind unfogged, I looked down at my fingers, which had just touched the place where he slapped me. Blood.
Devin slipped his hands under his armpits but not before I saw his long, curling fingernails. He couldn't have played guitar with those nails. That's when I realized that something insidious was afoot. I lurched away from him and walked/ran out the front door, so dazed I didn't know where to go. What was happening, I couldn't figure, though the clues were literally right in front of me. Outside the theater, the avenue was bustling with shopping bags, cellular telephones, Gap jackets, and (shudder) Tommy Hilfiger shirts. New awnings and weeded sidewalks were spreading into my niche like a pestilence.
A few days later, Devin finally phoned me at my apartment. He was the only one who ever called me, so I answered, "Yes? Devin? Is that you?"
His normally sullen voice now sounded strange, strained. "I fucked up, man. I was so stressed out about getting funding for this opera. I treated you like a dick, and I'm so sorry."
"You should be," I said, glad to hear him say it. "You were a dick."
"Have I wrecked everything? I hope not," he said, and I thought I heard a catch in his breath, a little sob. "I need you. I've always needed you and I probably will forever. I'm in deep. I need— I need—"
"Will you give me credit for the libretto, Devin?" Days had gone by, so I don't know why it still mattered. I missed him, I think, and I just wanted something that forced him to admit I was special.
"Yes. Sure. Anything." The edge in his voice sounded like commitment, strength to me. "Will you let me come over. Right now?"
"Anything for you, boy," I teased in my most fatherly voice.
I put on my running shorts in case he wanted to go to the gym and straightened the rug in the front hall. When he arrived at my door, I saw that Devin's mohawk was gone. He'd shaved his head and wore a black turtleneck, black dress pants, and black boots with an ankle zipper. Devin used to say only suburbanites wear all black. He looked wonderful and I told him so, but I missed his gutter-punk look. "Why'd you shave your 'hawk?"
Devin walked into my bedroom and flopped onto my futon. He looked so exhausted his face seemed mummified, skullish. "I'm in deep. They want so much from me. New songs. A record deal. Then a tour. It was supposed to be all about King Arthur. It was supposed to be about—" He shook his head in disbelief or maybe disgust and looked out the window at a massive structure that was going up in my neighborhood, a store or something—a sight which seemed to exhaust him even further. "I need . . ."
"What?" I asked and put a hand on his thigh. "What can I do for you?"
His exhaustion froze into a face of bitterness suddenly and he looked at my hand. "You just keep giving."
I laughed. "Ahem, well. For a select few."
He raised his forlorn, bloodshot eyes to mine. "I need more," he said with a little laugh. "Get me a beer, lover."
I went to the kitchen and got him a Leinenkugel's.
"See a Starbucks is going in on your street?" called Devin.
From the kitchen window, I could see the green and black Starbucks sign. It was like a toothache I'd been ignoring for months. "I know. Well. They're quite cancerous, yes," I said, uncapping the bottle as I came back into the bedroom. "But, indeed, who cares? I'm so glad you came to—"
I felt an unleashing of energy, like someone releasing a drawn slingshot in my direction. Surprising me as I entered the bedroom, Devin knocked the bottle out of my hand without lifting a finger, sending the beer spinning across the floor. My eyes followed the foaming bottle, so I didn't see Devin lunge for me. He knocked me down, shoving me face-first against my futon, and grabbing a fistful of my long hair, his suddenly claw-like fingernails raking my scalp. "D," I grimaced in pain, "what are you—?"
"I just want— I just want—" he said, unbuckling his belt behind me.
When I realized this wasn't one of his games, I tried to twist out of his grasp, get my arms around him. I'd been working out (for him), but a strong septuagenarian is no match for a twenty-year-old body. He shoved me back down and got on top of me, pressing his chest into my back as he tugged down his black jeans and underwear. A second later, he yanked down my running shorts.
I tried to tap the Holy Fire, but I couldn't feel its presence in my room, my apartment, which was scarier than anything Devin could do to me. I tried to draw power from my niche to sweeten this moment, fill the air with romance, charm Devin. But something wicked was blocking me.
I cried out with his first lunge and kept still while he vented himself. He panted wet breath into in my ear.
Time moved like a choppy movie.
Devin and I lying on my futon, my legs draped over his, Devin tracing his suddenly short nails over my skin.
Me standing, post-orgasmic and dizzy, going to get us more beer.
The door slamming shut as Devin left me alone in the apartment.
A puddle of beer. The smell of dying yeast. An empty brown bottle.
Looking at my harried reflection in the bedroom window with brooding night beyond, I knew things had changed from awful to terrifying. Sure, sex was always coarse and rude with us and I'd planned on giving him exactly what he'd taken, but Devin had broken something in me. Why hadn't the Holy Fire answered my call? What happened to my niche? I felt miles and miles from finding a circle of witchy companions or a master. Worse, the whimsical affair between sweet guitar-boy and the old gentleman had mutated into something sinister. And I wasn't sure I was strong enough to stop it. I was ashamed to realize I still wanted Devin.
I got up and went to my library (fifteen cardboard boxes marked "books"). While reading about different ways that witches could lose their power—like the last century's Great Rift when the followers of Louis Pasteur's New Science forced the governing coven at Carlsberg Beer underground, and street witchery was born—I came across the word "revenant."
Revenants, said Nils Longren in Art of the Impossible, are fearful witch souls who eddy and whirl at the moment of death, recoiling from the next step in the Wheel of Life: birth. "To sustain their unsustainable 'unlife,'" the great Longren said, "revenants devour the rot, the Animus, in a strong witch's niche, and if the parasite gains purchase, it will prey on this same witch for generations, draining the witch to death, incarnation after incarnation. Worse, due to the fact that the revenant knows its prey better than the prey knows itself, the revenant will make itself irresistible, and extraction will take great will at best or, at worst, a calamity."
Longren fell from my hand back into the cardboard box. I had to scrape what power I could manage to protect myself from something treacherous, base, and undisciplined.
So as soon as I realized that the rapacious, rot-sucking revenant would not stop till I was dead, I changed my phone number. I changed the locks on my windows and doors, let my beard grow out, and put a different name on my mailbox. I went to my neglected compost heap, hoping to find some old strength there. But behind the mechanic's shop, which was being remodeled as a T.G.I. Friday's, my compost gates and slats had been yanked down, the pile of black grass and crusty produce kicked all over the lot.
No compost. No Holy Fire.
I walked home, crushed, and for the first time in months, I looked at my niche as it really was. The corners where street singers sang and tattooed transvestites waved to passing cars were empty—no foot traffic now. Abandoned lots where thistle and mint grew wild had been paved under for chichi restaurants. It didn't used to be this way, I thought. Once, my neighborhood would have digested this gentrification into itself. But how could it now? The local culture had been wiped clean. Worst of all, I realized that the monstrous structure rearing its head over my niche was—I can barely admit it, even now—a mall.
Northdale Mall. Egad.
A greater humiliation to an urban witch even than Starbucks, malls are life without her dancing partner: death. No true culture exists there. No one is forced to bump into their seeming opposite, to negotiate, and nothing in malls changes or adapts to the world outside. All the "unsavory" elements have been moved out, making way for bland commerce. Without shouting, crazed laughter, passion, or true culture, a mall is Pasteur's coven of sterility taken to maddening ends.
My niche was inert, I realized, standing in the middle of Northdale's vast, well-swept parking lot. I was totally defenseless.
When I got home, the phone rang. I went rigid in panic, and caller ID proved my worst fear: the revenant had found my new number.
What was left of me to rot away, I wondered. The sunny sky rapidly darkened, and the air smelled of rain. (Who was calling a storm? Devin? By the Fire, why?) A moment later, he was ringing my apartment buzzer. "Last time was just a game," Devin said, his young voice a spell at my door. "Come on, you know that." He knew I was on the other side, leaning my head against the door. He filled my mind with images of how sweet he looked when he played his song "Six Pack of Nimue" on his Fender. "Come on, lover," he cooed. "I owe everything to you. Let me in."
I wish I could say I resisted, but addicts never refuse. When I opened the door, Devin's face was sheet-white, his once-shaved head was thready with old hair, a skull-smile, and his long, cracked fingernails grew longer while I stood there staring. You'd think this visage would make it easy to slam the door, but my instinct was to help. "You shouldn't have come," I said, backing away from him.
He stepped inside. He closed the distance between us quickly, and immediately began unbuttoning my shirt. My vision blurred with the fear of giving in to him again, and I pushed his hands away. Devin gave me a sultry head to toe as if he could freeze me with that sexy look. And he did. I froze. That look made me want him to just do it, just take and erase me so I wouldn't feel shame for not resisting. Then his fingers went back to my shirt.
A team of round-flanked fjord horses. The wagon bouncing on a fallen body.
A spray of blood.
"This isn't right," I said, lifting Devin's hands from my shirt. "Stop."
The revenant slapped me, but this time, the slap sharpened me, and I saw that he expected me to slap him back.
No. This game had to end. I grabbed him around the throat and shook him once, hard, without letting go. "I said, stop it!"
Lightning illumined the side of Devin's frightened face. I glanced at the window and saw a broiling front roll toward the city at an unnatural clip. Then I realized. It was me. I was bringing the weather. My heap was gone, my niche drained, but I still had power somehow. Devin's eyes bulged at me as I held him. He wanted me to see something, I could tell. He wanted pity.
Horses, again. Red fjord horses tugging this way and that on their carriage harnesses, then bolting riderless into a Copenhagen market. I was buying something (pickled beets in a jar of vinegar and dill?) so I didn't see the accident itself, but I could see the blood, red as beets. "You died," I said to Devin, still gripping him by the throat. "I saw you die."
He clutched at my wrists. "Yes."
"You were my student, then, too."
"Yes. You were like a father to me." I still had him by the throat, though I'd softened my hold to hear him speak. "But I always come back. Just like you asked."
Thunder split and boomed overhead. "I asked?"
As if I was wringing it from his body, water leaked from his right eye. "And I always did what you asked."
It's us, I realized, looking down at the guitar-boy-cum-leering-thing. We basic, disparate elements of life and death danced and sparked the Holy Fire together. The Holy Fire was here, with me and Devin (and had been for generations, it seemed), and it raged in this moment, while I choked the revenant and the revenant pleaded for its unlife. A compost heap of two.
I tightened my grip on Devin's throat. While he gagged, a great heave of thunder rolled over the city and wind beat against my windows. The wrack of the storm was right over us now, and the air felt dense with storm, and it was mine. My storm. He had a handful of my hair and a grip on my shoulder as I reclaimed the magic he'd siphoned from me. "Birth, death, rot," I quoted.
The revenant finally shut its beautiful eyes in terror. "But when I come back next time—I won't—be me."
"I'll remind you of your strengths," I whispered. "You'll see the future again. You'll be a prophet. Or a prophetess. It won't matter to me. I'll watch for you." I continued my spell. "Birth, death, rot—"
"No! No! No!" cried the revenant. "I did what you asked! You did this to me. You have to help me!"
How many lives of mine had he drained? How many more would he take? He'd already taken everything of mine—lyrics, dignity, magic—and put a mall in its place. "You'll never change," I said.
Lightning struck outside my apartment and rain fell in astonishing sheets, like riot hoses turned on the town. I slammed Devin down on the floor and leaned on his windpipe. The stench of so much pent-up rot rose into my face, as I strangled two, three, five, twelve unnatural lifetimes from him, my eyes tearing from the smell and fury and regret.
The torrent came, not a mere downpour but a rushing flood of water from the sky. Watery laughter gurgling in the sewers burst out in hysterical fits and a flood ran over the streets.
There was no body—that had rotted away years ago—just a dense, disgusting reek that filled my living room. It was unbearable, as was my broken heart, so I fled my apartment and climbed the back steps in bounding leaps to my building's roof.
No sorrow up here: just my raging storm. Like a Halloween witch's hand, lightning reached across the sky. Thunder churned, and clouds piled overhead. I looked down at the rivers roaring through the streets of my ruined niche, then across the neighborhood at the greater humiliation silhouetted in the rainy murk.
"Well, well . . . ," I muttered, wiping my eyes in the rain. "Hello, Northdale Mall."
It was time to clean up after myself. Pine-Sol wouldn't do, and I needed something weightier than Death Throe Prisoner for this release.
"Full fathom five my body lies," I shouted, pimping Shakespeare badly, fists raised, "and of my bones are coral made! These are pearls that were my eyes!"
Water began to rise toward windowsills.
"And nothing of me doth fade but that suffers a sea change into something rich and strange!"
Below, standing on the roof of a BMW with a newspaper over his head, was the poet T. He had a soggy cigarette in his lips and he saw me standing over him and shouted, laughing, "You old son of a bitch! You did this!"
Shoppers scattered from the mall for their SUVs, Range Rovers, and Lexi, arms loaded with waterlogged shopping bags, but it was too late for that. "Fly! Fly!" I screamed, wind whipping through my silver mane. "This niche is mine!"
"Azz right, bring the weather down!" shouted T, dogpaddling up Hancock, cigarette and chin just above water. "You freakin' bring it, Bringweather!"
Through the night, the thirsty river crept out of its bed and drank the city near its banks, namely, the streets of my niche. Erected to take advantage of my neighborhood's booming economy, hastily constructed buildings collapsed first. Then a whole section of the mall slid into its parking lot like a wedding cake at a rowdy reception.
One night of rain turned to two, then three, then four. My neighborhood, located so near the river, took the brunt, while the rest of the city looked on in shock.
But during those rainy nights, I slept hard and fast and dreamed of a transformation. It is a dream that I still dream now. Redwing blackbirds call from the kitchen of the Olive Garden. Traffic signals poke through the surface of a lake, red stoplight winking just above the algae. And standing on the brim of a baseball diamond's pond is Devin, as I first knew him: mohawk draped over one half of his sculpted face and smoking a cigarette. He's looking across the scum-covered water at me, and Mordred's opening aria sounds so beautiful that I start myself awake.
Even after he returned to me years later, albeit as a woman in her thirties with a prickly attitude, that dream still awakens me with a drumming heart. Even after the price I paid for my old man's foolishness, I long for the nights when I was special to Devin.
These days, I wake from that dream in my recovering niche, and I walk down to my compost heap with carrot shavings and lettuce leaves from dinner the night before, then I head to the corner bakery where I can get four day-old rolls for under a buck. The old Gap and Urban Outfitters stand shuttered with sheets of plywood, and I stop to read the gang graffiti that has bloomed there overnight, seeing whether the Ukrainians or the Guatemalans claim my niche today. In Jefferson Park, I play a hand of euchre with the poet T and his fellow drunks, then I visit Starbucks on the corner.
Yes. I admit it. Starbucks is still here. Did you know that these Starbucks coffee shops are the same all over the country? All over the globe? It's the same Starbucks floor plan, everywhere. Stunning. Same comfy Starbucks chairs and Starbucks spider plants by the Starbucks plate glass windows. Why would I allow this homogenous horror to remain in my niche? Well, imagine my delight: the same microbes burning in my compost heap thrive in the Starbucks spider plants, and the same actinomycetes dwell in the the Starbucks dumpster, the Starbucks bathroom floor drain.
Same, same, same.
My Starbucks stands adjacent to the White Monkey-Tiger, and the baristas, Sheila and Sharna, work at both establishments. When I enter, I greet them largely and order my usual (double decaf iced Frappuccino) and while Sharna clangs espresso grounds out of the metal filter, I take a trip to the bathroom. The smell of antiseptic soap doesn't fool me for a second. "Rot, death, birth," I whisper-chant while I have a pee, calling to the Fire hiding in the bathroom grout, where mildew has survived the sponge. "Dance, you freaks, for all you're worth."
Then I leave the john and grab a seat in the comfy Starbucks chair by the Starbucks window, which looks out at the North Sea merging in mist with a bright, grey sky.
"Velkommen hen til København, heksbroder," says an old dude with hair as gray as mine, though cut into a stylish crew. He's wearing his white linen shirt and folding up a newspaper riddled with slashed vowels and dotted As as I sit.
"Tusind tak," I say, loving his name for me, heksbroder—brother witch. I ask if it's just him, or if the others will join us this morning.
The old witch nods to the front door as a group of young people in Munji jeans and Mecca shoes pushes into the café—remnants of the old, broken Carlsberg Circle, but now, so many generations later, a cohort of heksen seething with new Fire. As the kids queue for coffee, boisterous and overly loud as always, the café suffuses with a subtle light and heat. The music gets louder. The coffee, no doubt, gets stronger. It makes me close my eyes in gratitude for being so lucky as to find this café, these witches, and their lovely burn.
"Her ovre den er," says a voice. It's Gustave, the handsomest of the male baristas working today. I open my eyes and he's smiling at me from under dark eyebrows. "Jeres Frappuccino."
They only offer me service like this at the Copenhagen Starbucks, though the ones in Moscow and Jerusalem are good, too. Grinning up at Gustave, I say, "Tusind tak, mig kun lidt muffin."
He pats my shoulder. "Jer erlykkelig over at anrette jer," Gustave says in his sultry voice of cigarettes and promise, "mig Bringweather."