“Look what they did to me,” the girl from the drugstore cried. “He won’t leave me alone for a minute. He’s taken all the locks off, even on the bathroom door. I can’t sleep or eat, because he’s always watching me. He wants to fuck me constantly. I’m sore inside and out.”
Sally took two steps backward, nearly stumbling over Gillian, who was clinging to her still. This was not the way people ordinarily spoke to children, but the girl from the drugstore obviously didn’t give a damn about what was right or wrong. Sally could see that her eyes were red from crying. Her mouth looked mean, as if only bad words could come from between those lips.
“Where are the witches who did this to me?” said the girl.
The aunts were looking out the window, watching what avarice and stupidity could do to a person. They shook their heads sadly when Sally glanced at the window. They did not wish to be involved any further with the drugstore girl. Some people cannot be warned away from disaster. You can try, you can put up every alert, but they’ll still go their own way.
“Our aunts went on vacation,” Sally said in a breakable, untrustworthy voice. She had never told a lie before, and it left a black taste in her throat.
“Go get them,” the girl shouted. She was no longer the person she used to be. At choir practice she wept during her solos and had to be led into the parking lot so she wouldn’t disrupt the entire program. “Do it now, or I’ll smack you silly.”
“Leave us alone,” Gillian said from the safety of her hiding place behind Sally. “If you don’t, we’ll put a worse curse on you.”
The girl from the drugstore snapped when she heard that. She grabbed for Gillian and flung her arm forward. But it was Sally she slapped, and she struck her so hard that Sally lurched backward and trampled the rosemary and the verbena. Behind the window glass, the aunts recited the words they were taught as children to hush the chickens. There had been a whole pen of scrawny brown-and-white specimens, but by the time the aunts got through with them they never screeched again; in fact, it was their silence that allowed for them to be carried off by stray dogs in the middle of the night.
“Oh,” Gillian said when she realized what had happened to her sister. A blood-red mark was forming on Sally’s cheek, but Gillian was the one who started to cry. “You horrible thing,” she said to the drugstore girl. “You’re just horrible!”
“Didn’t you hear me? Get me your aunts!” Or at least that was what the drugstore girl tried to say, but no one heard a word. Nothing came out of her mouth. Not a shout or a scream and certainly not an apology. She put her hand to her throat, as though someone were strangling her, but really she was choking on all that love she thought she’d needed so badly.
Sally watched the girl, whose face had already grown white with fear. As it turned out, the girl from the drugstore never spoke again, although sometimes she made little cooing noises, like the call of a pigeon or a dove, or, when she was truly furious, a harsh shrieking that was not unlike the panicked sound chickens make when they’re chased and then caught for basting and broiling. Her friends in the choir wept at the loss of her beautiful voice, but in time they began to avoid her. Her back had become arched, like the spine of a cat who has stepped onto a burning hot coal. She could not hear a kind word without covering her ears with her hands and stamping her foot like a spoiled child.
For the rest of her life she’d be followed around by a man who loved her too much, and she wouldn’t even be able to tell him to go away. Sally knew the aunts would never open the door for this client of theirs, not if she came back a thousand times. This girl had no right to demand anything more. What had she thought, that love was a toy, something easy and sweet, just to play with? Real love was dangerous, it got you from inside and held on tight, and if you didn’t let go fast enough you might be willing to do anything for its sake. If the girl from the drugstore had been smart, she would have asked for an antidote, not a charm, in the first place. In the end, she had gotten what she’d wanted, and if she still hadn’t learned a lesson from it, there was one person in this garden who had. There was one girl who knew enough to go inside and lock the door three times, and not shed a single tear as she cut up the onions that were so bitter they would have made anyone else cry all night long.
ONCE a year, on midsummer’s eve, a sparrow would find its way into the Owens house. No matter how anyone tried to prevent it, the bird always managed to get inside. They could set out saucers of salt on the windowsills and hire a handyman to fix the gutters and the roof, and still the bird would appear. It would enter the house at twilight, the hour of sorrow, and it always came in silence, yet with a strange resolve, which defied both salt and bricks, as though the poor thing had no choice but to perch on the drapes and the dusty chandelier, from which glass drops spilled down like tears.