“I Am a Being Under Enchantment” by Patricia Russo
“I am a being under enchantment. This is not my true form.”
“Go away,” Valeria said. “I’ve got my own problems.”
She had come to Adams Park to smoke a couple of cigarettes in peace and quiet and have a little cry. Back at the house, Jasmine and Wat were probably still hurling the furniture at each other and screaming the sort of words that hurt worse than blows. Again. Any time Valeria tried to get them to dial that shit down, they’d both turn on her. She hadn’t been in the room when it had started, but she’d heard she’s your fucking sister, you tell her! among all the rest, among all the endless rest, and she’d decided to get the fuck out, get away, until the pair of them ran out of steam, or killed each other. The poor kid upstairs, her nephew, two years old — she’d just been about to check on him when the crashing and bashing started. The neighbors wouldn’t call the police unless a body actually came flying out a window. No escape for little Gilbert. And if the excuse for the fight this time was money, it wasn’t Valeria’s fault at all. Her supervisor had promised her more shifts, then said, sorry, dear, change in plans. How was that Valeria’s fault? At least she did things around the house, unlike either of them. Took care of the kid more than they did, too. And all they did was give her shit, when they weren’t hurling shit at each other.
“Er, excuse me. I am suffering from an evil enchantment. This is not my true appearance. As you might guess, it’s not anybody’s true appearance. Ha. Heh.”
“I heard you the first time.” Valeria wiped the heel of her hand across her cheeks. “Go away.”
She had been off the bad stuff for almost two months. Bad stuff for her; some people could do it for years, not get so much as dry mouth when they quit. Lucky her. The fourth and fifth weeks were always the worst. She’d known they would be, known that was the stretch when she’d feel she couldn’t get through one more hour, one more minute, and she’d also known it would pass. And it did. It had. Just like all the other times. She still had a few shaky moments, tremors in her left hand, and the fogginess in her head, when she’d lose a word, or make stupid little mistakes, but that part hadn’t been as bad this time. Her brain hadn’t clouded completely over, as the dopamine transporters, or whatever the fuck they were, slowly ground and hitched themselves up into gear. She’d looked it up once on the internet. She thought it was dopamine transporters. Could’ve been something else. Anyway, it had been a lot worse other times. Headaches, sure, plus that wonderful sensation that her head wasn’t really attached to her body, but at least this time she hadn’t walked around for days on end feeling like she was going to fall over. And the tremors had stayed confined to her left hand. First time, damn, everything shook. Arms, legs, everything.
Almost through it now. Almost done with it. Ninety percent there. She told herself that each morning. Soon she’d be saying, ninety-five percent there.
This thing in front of her now, something like a diseased boar, with most of its hair fallen out and its skin covered with seeping purple-black lesions, red piggy eyes and tusks — for god’s sake, tusks — she didn’t need. And little baby feet instead of hooves, that was nice. With all the toenails broken and the toe-knuckles bleeding. Feet like that were much too small and delicate to support such a massive body. She supposed that was the point. Punishment. Make every bit of it hurt.
It stank. That would be due to the seeping sores, she shouldn’t wonder. The liquid they oozed was yellowy-orange. The thing had left a trail of drippings behind it, all along the walking path and up to the bench she was sitting on. And she’d picked this damn bench because it was out of the way.
“Pardon me,” it said. It shuffled its bleeding baby feet. “It’s part of the enchantment that I have to tell people about it. Sorry to disturb you, but I really can’t help it. I have to walk up to strangers — well, if you can call this walking — and say I am a being under enchantment. I don’t usually make it much past that, to be honest. It’d be a relief to get the whole speech out for once.”
“Leave me alone,” Valeria said. “Go bother someone else.”
“You’re the only one here.”
Valeria looked around. She was. Well, she’d wanted an isolated place, away from the cyclists and the kids and the junkies. Her own stupid fault, you could say. Wat and Jasmine would say so, if she ever told them about it, which she for damn sure never would. Tomorrow she’d put this enchanted diseased boar-thing down to the last dregs of withdrawal, combined with stress, combined with barometric pressure and sunspots or whatever the hell sounded good, or simply to the fact that she was sitting on a bench in Adams Park. Shit happened in Adams Park.
“I bet you deserved it,” she said. “Somebody did it to you for a reason.”
“Now, that’s just classic. Blame the victim.”
“Sure. Now you’re going to tell me you were just walking down the street, minding your own business — ”
“I was in the park. That was the only thing I did wrong, if you want to call jogging in the park wrongdoing. I didn’t insult any squirrels, or refuse to share my sandwich with a beggar. I didn’t even have a sandwich. I had a bottle of water, but nobody asked me for a sip.”
“You wouldn’t have given it to them if they had.”
That’s besides the point. And how do you know, anyway? You don’t know me.
“Because nobody would. Some filthy old homeless guy staggers up to you, wants your bottled water? You wouldn’t give it to him.”
“Maybe I would have. I used to volunteer at a soup kitchen when I was in high school. Anyway, that’s immaterial. All that happened was, I was in the park, and this big huge woman — ”
“Here we go.”
“Wait. Just listen. I didn’t do anything. She asked me a question, and I didn’t know the answer.”
“Let me guess. ‘What do women really want?'”
“No. It was nothing like that. You’ve got the wrong idea completely. You think I said something awful to her, so she — but I didn’t say anything. I don’t know, that’s all I said. What do women really want? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind,” Valeria said.
“Oh. It’s the boar-shape, isn’t it. Sexist pig. I get it. Well, how do you know I’m a man? Or was a man, I mean.”
“The penis sort of gives it away.”
It paused. It blinked its red piggy eyes. “Judging by appearances,” it said, after a moment. “All right. See how far that gets you in life.”
“Are you going to tell me you were a woman?”
“Ah. Well, no. All I said was, how did you know? You see, you keep making assumptions.”
“I knew because I told you to leave me alone three times and you’re still standing there.”
“I told you, it’s part of the enchantment.”
“All right, all right,” she said. They always had some kind of an excuse. “So what was the question, then?”
“I can’t remember.”
Valeria laughed. The enchanted being shivered, sending a few more droplets of gummy pus splattering on the gravel path. Back at the house, Wat and Jasmine were probably just getting ready for round three. Or four. She’d wanted to call her friend Car to ask if she could stay over for a night or two, then remembered that Car had gotten mad at her the last time she’d asked, some stupid crap about three yogurts in the fridge, and she’d be damned if she’d beg, even if Jasmine and Wat completely lost their minds and burned down the house or something. Besides, she’d heard Car had moved. Nice of Car to tell her that. Nice to hear it from the acquaintance of a friend of a neighbor, when Valeria had been the one, the only one, to sit with Car for two days after her procedure, when she was crying and wanting to drink, even though the doctor said she shouldn’t, and yelling and wanting to phone her mother, even though Car specifically said, Whatever I do, do not let me call my mother. Two days she’d put up with that, and Car got mad at her over three yogurts. Valeria’s mind skipped to little Gilbert upstairs in his rickety crib, which he could climb out of easily now, plus it was a miracle the damn thing hadn’t collapsed on him so far. They hadn’t even started toilet training him yet, hadn’t even gotten him a potty chair to look at yet — Say Hello to Mister Potty, Mister Potty is for big boys — so it was still all diapers all the time, and if she wasn’t there to change them they wouldn’t get changed, so Gilbert was screaming his head off by now, too. You’d think the neighbors would call the cops for that, a screaming kid, but not where they lived. Plus Jasmine left her lighters lying around just anywhere. Gilbert was going to get hold of one and set fire to the whole damn place himself one day, and Valeria wouldn’t blame him a single tiny bit. She laughed.
“So you’re screwed, then.”
The boar-thing shivered again. “I am a being under enchantment,” it said, miserably. “This is not my true form. I am charged to wander these woods — well, this park — until a kind, pure-hearted soul takes pity and unworks the bindings fixed upon me.”
“Good luck with that,” Valeria said.
“At least I said it. That’s the first time I’ve actually said the whole thing. Thank you for not running away.”
Valeria shrugged. It was a public park. Why should she have to leave, when it was the boar-thing that had no business there, and besides which she didn’t have any other place to go? And besides besides which, she’d already run away from one place today. That shit got old.
“You see,” it continued, “it has nothing to do with answering the question. I don’t think the question has an answer, even. It was just, like, you know, an excuse.”
“It wasn’t a riddle. It was just a question. An ordinary kind of question, really. I just can’t remember what it was.”
“Oedipus answered the riddle.” Valeria thought a moment. “Not that it really did him much good, in the end.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I used to read a lot.”
“Oh. That’s good, I guess.”
“Yeah. Really got me places.” Valeria glanced around. They were utterly alone in this section of the park, and had been ever since the boar-thing had limped out of the trees and onto the gravel walking path. That was a little odd. “Okay, now, if you’re trying to make me part of this enchantment, you can quit it right now. I told you. I’ve got my own problems.”
“I have no power to enchant. If I could enchant, I would have enchanted people to listen to me. You think you’ve got problems. I’ve been stuck like this for months now.”
“What do you eat?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Valeria looked at the seeping sores, the tiny bleeding feet. “Does it hurt?”
“Take a wild guess. Go on.”
Valeria gave a half-shrug in acknowledgement. “Yeah, stupid question. But I still think you must’ve done something.”
“So you must have done something to deserve your problems, whatever they are, right? Crying on a park bench, all alone. Pretty pathetic. Why don’t you go to a bar or something, cry into a beer. You’ll still look like a loser, but it’s a notch above this.”
“But whatever happened to you, you deserved it, correct?”
“You have no idea,” Valeria shouted. “You haven’t got a fucking clue.”
“So tell me.”
She stared at it.
The boar-thing cocked its head to the side. “What?” it said. “You know how boring it is to have no one to talk to for months? Tell me.”
Fuck it, Valeria thought. Why not. When she was finished, and had wiped her face again, and lit her last cigarette, the boar-thing said, “Sounds tough. Sorry.”
“Yeah. Thanks. It’s not like there’s anything you can do to help me, though, is there?”
“You’re right about that. But you can help me.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“To lift the enchantment. To unbind the bindings. All that stuff.”
“It’s easy,” the boar-thing said. It shuffled forward a bit, on its battered baby feet. “Really. All you’ve got to do is kiss me.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“No. Swear to god. Has to be on the lips, too.”
Valeria looked at the boar-thing’s lips. What she could see of them behind the tusks. The lips were thin and black, and the tusks were sharp and dingy yellow. Not in a million years, she thought. Even if the thing didn’t stink like a pile of amputated, gangrenous limbs. “And then you’ll turn into a prince.”
“No. Just back to the way I was.”
“Which is what, exactly? What did you look like before?”
The boar-thing sighed. “I can’t quite remember.”
“That big huge woman really did a number on me, I’m telling you. I can’t even remember my name. I was a man, you were right about that. I can remember that. I know I went to high school. I know I grew up in this town. But who I was, where I lived, what I did for a living, if I had a family or anything, it’s all blocked. It’s there, I can feel it in my head, but I can’t reach it. I don’t remember how old I was, or how tall I was, or what color my eyes were. All right, listen, it’s not like I’m asking for a long-term commitment here. One kiss, and you never have to see me again. So what difference does it make if I turn out to be ugly, or as old as dirt, or the biggest son of a bitch on the planet?”
“You’re disgusting, you know that?”
The boar-thing seemed to contemplate this. “You mean the shape I’m in now is disgusting. Yeah, I know that. I’ve seen myself. The equipment shed behind the basketball courts, they put in new windows. Went to take a look at my reflection. So I know.”
“Believe me,” Valeria said, “a reflection is nothing compared to the real thing.”
“Can you think about it, just think about it for a minute? You know that thing I have to say, about a kind, pure-hearted soul? Well, I figure you don’t have to be all that kind, or all that pure-hearted, just to do one little favor.”
“Kindness.” Her voice rose. She was almost screaming. “When is it my turn for a little fucking kindness?”
“I don’t know,” the boar-thing said, after a moment.
“Never, that’s when.” Valeria said. “You’re an asshole, just like every other asshole I’ve ever met. And if you turn back to what you were before, you’ll still be an asshole. Because everybody is an asshole.”
“I listened to you. Doesn’t that get me some points?”
“No. You didn’t do that for me. You did it for yourself, so I’d feel you gave a shit about my problems. So I’d figure, Hey, maybe this disgusting enchanted asshole isn’t so bad after all. So I’d feel sorry for you. I don’t get anything, do I, if I do what you want. Not a damn thing.”
“No, you don’t,” it admitted.
“I’m done with this,” Valeria said. “And I’m out of cigarettes. And it’s getting cold and I don’t have a jacket. So I’m leaving. If you try to follow me, I swear I’ll pick up the biggest rock I can find and bash your head in.”
“Please. You’re the only person who’s listened to me. You’re the only person who hasn’t run like hell as soon as they saw me. Help me. If you don’t help me, I’m going to be like this forever. Imagine being like this forever. I swear I won’t bother you, afterwards. I won’t call you, or try to see you, or even thank you if you don’t want me to. I don’t even know your name.”
“And you never will know it,” she said. “Not even a thank you, huh? That’s lovely.”
“Oh, I will thank you, if that’s what you want!”
“I don’t! I don’t want anything from you!”
“That works out, then, since I don’t have anything to give. Only think about this. You’re in a shitty situation, okay? But I’m in a shittier one. You know, people say that one way to feel better about yourself is to help someone worse off than you are.”
“I changed my mind,” Valeria said. “I do want something. I want you to fuck off.” She didn’t move from the bench. “I can’t kiss you. You’re too gross. You’ll probably infect me with whatever you’ve got and I’ll turn into a dripping sack of pig-shaped pus too.”
“I swear you won’t.”
The boar-thing started to cry. Its tears were as red as blood. They probably were blood.
“Oh, you can stop that right now.”
“I can’t. And why should I? You cried. You cried a lot. So I’m not allowed to cry?”
“You make me want to puke!” Still, Valeria didn’t rise from the bench.
“No pity? No pity at all?”
Valeria looked away. Her left hand trembled. Her left leg trembled, too. Shit. “You’re the sorriest thing I’ve ever seen. All right? Okay? And I don’t believe your bullshit story about jogging in the park and some big woman just deciding to fuck with you, but nobody deserves — ” She flicked her right hand at it. “That.”
“Thank you,” the boar-thing said quietly.
She wouldn’t look at it, wouldn’t. She didn’t want to see hope in its squinty red eyes. “I can’t,” she said. “You think it’s a little thing. It isn’t. I can’t even — just imaging, like, picturing — Oh my god, now I will puke.”
“I expect that’s part of the enchantment as well,” the boar-thing said.
“No,” Valeria said. “It’s me. I’m just fucking useless. Can’t do anything right. Can’t get a decent job. Can’t find decent friends, never mind a decent relationship. Can’t find a place to live that’s not a hellhole, or full of crazy people, or both. Can’t even fucking get my hair to look the way I want it to. Everybody I know thinks I’m worthless, and they’re right.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” the boar-thing said.
“This morning I couldn’t even find my favorite pair of socks. I think I lost them at the laundromat.”
“You’re not going to cry about socks, now, are you?”
“Why not? Why the hell not?” She blinked hard. She had to blow her nose, and didn’t have a tissue. And she was out of cigarettes, goddamn it.
“You’re not worthless. Nobody’s worthless. Or useless.”
“Shut up. Just shut the fuck up.” She wiped her nose on the back of her hand. Yeah, now who was gross. “How about hopeless?”
“That should be me, then, shouldn’t it?”
“Shut up,” Valeria repeated, weakly.
“Seriously, what do you estimate my chances are? Of getting one single other person to listen to the whole spiel, even, let alone to actually kiss me. Not great, right? As in, just about zero. And I’ve tried everything, you know. Drunks on the verge of passing out, students reading philosophy textbooks, this kid I thought for sure was like, you know, developmentally challenged — don’t look at me that way. I figured he might not be scared, that I’d be just one more strange thing he didn’t understand. Kid ran like the wind.”
Valeria tried to imagine being trapped in the boar-thing’s existence forever.
Valeria tried to imagine being trapped her own existence forever.
Seemed to her that they were both screwed. But it also seemed to her that he had a point about him being more screwed than she was. At least she didn’t have to go around stinking and dripping pus and hissing words out through tusks. Or be stuck with four little baby-sized feet.
“I’m sick of my life,” she said. “And don’t say ‘try mine.’ I get it, okay? I get it. But I can’t help you.”
“What are you going to do now? It’ll be getting dark in a couple of hours. You don’t want to be in Adams Park at night. Not alone. You going to go home?”
“What else can I do?”
“Not a great place to have to go back to, from what you were telling me.”
“It’s the only place I’ve got.” If she still did. She’s your sister, you tell her. They’d do it, too, the pair of them. Chuck her out. Probably give her some excuse like they needed her room to store the crap Wat had been collecting to sell at flea markets. If they even bothered to come up with an excuse.
“I was thinking,” the boar-thing said, and it shuffled its tiny feet, “that you could take a break from it for a while. A couple of days, maybe. As a sort of breather.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I know a place,” the boar-thing said. “It had its head down now, not meeting her eyes. It’s in the park, but it’s safe. No one else goes near it. It’s where I sleep. Not that I would sleep there when you were there. I would stay outside. Naturally. I mean, of course. And, and, I can’t claim it’s very comfortable, it’s just a shack type of thing, on that little island, you know, in the middle of the lake? I think kids must’ve built it. Or maybe birdwatchers. But no one’s come near that place, ever, not in all the months I’ve been there.”
“If you’ve been sleeping there for months, then the shack is going to stink just like you stink, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the boar-thing admitted, after a moment. “It would have to, wouldn’t it. Stands to reason. Sorry. Of course you wouldn’t want to set foot in there.”
“I know exactly what you’re trying to do. Don’t imagine you’re fooling me the least little bit, okay? You’re not my friend. You’re not sympathetic to my fucking plight. You’re not trying to help me out. You just want me to stick around so you can keep working on trying to convince me to, what, just fucking hold my breath and kiss you.”
“Couldn’t it be a little of both?”
“No, because people don’t really care about other people. They only care about themselves. They pretend to care about other people to sucker them into getting what they want.” She drew her knees up, and wrapped her arms around them. “If I had any guts, I would’ve called social services about Gilbert. They don’t take care of him. They barely notice he’s there at all. But I’m afraid to, because if they find out it was me, they’ll throw me out on the spot. See? I won’t do anything to save my own nephew, because all I really, deep-down care about, is my own stupid ass.”
“Maybe — don’t get mad now, okay, just listen — maybe I was just trying to make myself feel better. Like what I said before, about helping someone worse off than you. Hear me out before you start throwing rocks. Of course you’re not worse off than me. Anybody could see that. It’s just that how helpful and useful and worthwhile do you think I feel, stuck like this? I thought…a couple of days away from that family would give you the chance to get your head straight. I thought I could help with that. The place is safe, by the way. I swear. And I’m safe. I’m not, like, dangerous, at all.”
“And you think the longer you jabber at me, the better your chances of getting me to do it.”
“To be honest…”
“If you thought about it a little more. I know it’s a shock, the way I look, the way I smell — though I can’t really smell myself that much now, I do remember how the stink hit me when I first found myself in this shape…”
“If I thought about it a little more.” She almost laughed again.
“One day,” the boar-thing said. “Give it one day. To get used to the idea.”
“A year and a day wouldn’t get me used to the idea. Seven years and seven days wouldn’t do it.” She unclasped her arms, and thumped her feet down on the ground. “I can’t.”
“Just because you can’t do something today doesn’t mean that you can’t do it tomorrow.”
“You read that in a self-help book?” She stood up. “You know, the whole kissing thing is bullshit. Look at the real stories, the original texts. It was all cutting off heads and burning skins and smashing frogs against walls.”
“All I know is what the big huge woman told me.”
“I need cigarettes,” Valeria said. “And I’d better get something to eat. There won’t be anything at the house, that’s for sure.”
“Would you like some money? Don’t look at me that way! I mean to buy cigarettes! Hell, I can’t say anything right. I find money sometimes. You know. People drop their change. So that’s all I meant. I’ve got a little heap of change and a few one-dollar bills.”
“Which you keep in the shack on the island in the lake.”
“No. I have more than one hiding place. I figured if I ever returned to my true form, I’d need bus fare at the very least, so I pick up the lost money I come across. But you can have it. No strings.”
“There are always strings,” Valeria said. In its mouth, she thought. Anything it picked up, it would have to carry in its mouth. Picturing that made her feel queasy, but also sad. The thing gathered up the dropped coins out of hope, and hope was the most miserable emotion in the world. That last thing in Pandora’s box hadn’t been put there out of pity, to ameliorate suffering. It had been the cruelest trick the gods had ever come up with.
“I was only trying to be nice.”
“You’re wasting your time being nice to me.”
“Okay. All right. Forget it.”
Jasmine and Wat wouldn’t even notice that she’d been gone. The last time, when she’d stayed with Car, she’d gone back to the house after a week, and Jasmine hadn’t even blinked at her, and the only thing Wat said was, Will you quit standing in front of the TV. Gilbert had been happy to see her, even though the first thing she’d done was give him a bath.
“You got enough change for a pay phone?”
But you didn’t even need change to call 911. Disturbance and such-and-such an address, child screaming, child in danger…But they’d know it was a pay phone, and a pay phone more than a mile from the address she was calling in. They wouldn’t take her seriously, think it was a prank, a crank, a banger laying a trap, even. And they recorded the calls, too. She supposed she could disguise her voice, but computers could always tell. They could on TV, anyway.
But they’d have to check it out. That was the law. They’d have to send a car. They’d take their time, but they’d have to do it.
If she waited too long, all the cops would find would be some smashed up furniture, expired crap in the refrigerator, and Gilbert with a full diaper. Jasmine and Wat would put up a united front. The cops would take a cursory look around, inform them there’d been complaints of a disturbance and that they should keep it down in the future, eye Gilbert with a little suspicion, maybe enough for someone at the cop shop to submit a routine report to Child Protective Services. Which would get lost among all the hundreds of other such reports.
If she did it now, there was a good chance the cops would see a nice bit of havoc. Enough to call CPS on the spot, maybe. Enough to get Wat and Jasmine in trouble.
“Foster care is crap,” she said, softly. “I’d probably just be making things worse. What do you think I should do?”
The boar-thing was quick on the uptake. “It’s a risk,” it said. “You’re right about that. But if I was your nephew, I think I’d be grateful that someone cared enough to try.”
The boar-thing dripped. It shivered. It hadn’t moaned, not once, though Valeria had no doubt that on a scale of one to ten, like they asked you at the hospital, its pain level had to be something on the order of a hundred and fifteen.
“Is there a pay phone in the park?”
“A couple. Sometimes they work.”
“Can you show me?”
“Sure. No problem.”
“Because if I don’t do this today,” Valeria said, “I won’t do it tomorrow. I probably won’t ever do it.”
“This island of yours,” she said. “If it’s in the middle of the lake, how do you get to it? You swim?”
“I do. You could wade, most of the way. The lake’s shallow. It’s an artificial lake, you know.”
“I’m not promising anything,” Valeria said.
“One day. Twenty-four hours.”
“And if after twenty-four hours, I tell you I can’t do it, you have to accept that. No begging, or arguing, or trying to get me to stay longer.”
“Yes. Yes. Agreed.”
“You’re going to be disappointed. I’m warning you right now.”
“I’ll risk it,” the boar-thing said. It quivered. Its quivering was not the same as its shivering. Already she could tell the difference.
“All right,” she said. “First take me to a pay phone. Then show me where this island of yours is.”
“Absolutely. Right away. Follow me.”
Maybe I’ll get used to the smell, Valeria thought. They said people did. She had to force herself to follow the boar-thing as it slowly limped over the gravel on the walking path. She was shaking again, her left hand, her left leg. She’d never felt so afraid before in her life. But she would make the phone call. Whatever happened after that, she would have done that one thing. For better or worse. And today. She would do that thing today.
Is this what it’s like to be brave? she wondered. It felt more like jumping off a cliff and hoping you’d sprout wings before you crashed into the rocks below.
The boar-thing began to whistle.
“Stop that,” she said.
“I can’t help it. I’m happy.”
“It won’t last,” she said. “Believe me.”
“You’re probably right. But I’m going to enjoy it as long as I can.”
Whistling, the boar-thing proceeded down the path. Tears filled Valeria’s eyes again. She brushed them away. She straightened her back. She couldn’t whistle; her mouth was too dry. She didn’t know how to whistle, anyway. But the boar-thing kept going, and she continued to follow.
|Patricia Russo’s stories have appeared recently in Fantasy, Chizine, and Daily SF. Visit www.shiny-thing.com to find out about her first short story collection.|