“Oh! take me from the scornful eyes,
And hide me where the cruel speech
And mocking finger may not reach!”
John Greenleaf Whittier
We are surrounded by stories of magic. Children know that all princes are handsome, stepmothers are evil, wishes come in threes, and we have a fairy godmother who shows up just at the right moment.
As we get older, belief in magic becomes a bit more cynical. I have never actually met a prince. Are they all handsome? Probably not, if we can judge by photos of the Prince Charles of England. I go to Heritage Academy, where many of my classmates have stepmothers who seem more frazzled than evil. Wishes may come in threes. However, there is no guarantee that they will all be granted. So, it is a good idea to make your wishes in multiples, because if one out of three is granted, then that would be considered pretty good odds.
I do have a godmother. Aunt Fleur is not exactly a fairy. She is not exactly my aunt, either. She is my mother’s aunt, my great aunt. I sometimes get confused about relationships. But, I love her and claim her as my own. She is great company for me during this summer when school is out.
Hell must be something like summer afternoons in Columbus, Mississippi. The heat is liquid. It shimmers off the sidewalks and blacktopped streets, distorting images only a block away. Colors pale into watery pastels. The air is so dense that it seems to drown me. I feel like I’m walking through syrup.
I tell my mom that I am going to the library, which is almost true. I am going toward the library, but really making a stop, a long stop, at Aunt Fleur’s cottage. I don’t lie, exactly. But, I sometimes omit parts of the whole story.
For some reason my Dad can’t stand Fleur. He does not say much, but gets quiet when I talk about her. He gives my mom pained looks when her name comes up. He ought to be happy that I am hanging around with an old lady. Believe me, I could choose company that is a lot worse.
Aunt Fleur’s house is bright pink, with a wrap-around porch, and railings of white gingerbread. The front door is painted lavender. It looks like something a princess would live in. In the front yard is a sign that has her address written in a curly script, “400 Genevieve Street”. This strikes me as a bit strange, because she lives on 6th Street South.
Aunt Fleur makes what she calls “tea cocktails”. They are concoctions of different teas with fruit juice, and who-knows-what in them. Unfortunately, none of the secret ingredients are actual alcohol. She bakes wonderfully, and never eats meat.
“Welcome, Truly!” She is bigger than almost anyone I know, with a deep voice inflected with an enthusiasm that always sounds as if she has just discovered something amazing.
I love being called “Truly”. She is the only person in the world who calls me this, since it is not actually my name.
My parents named me Gertrude. How horrible is that? For some reason they thought it had dignity. Well, it might have been a good name when covered wagons crossed the continent. But, in my generation, it is just awkward, and too, too ugly. I refuse to be called “Gert”, or “Gertie”. For heaven’s sake. I’m only a high school student, not someone’s grandmother.
(Note to parents. PLEEEZE chose your children’s names very carefully. If you must give them an embarrassing name, make it the middle name. No one uses that one anyway.)
Aunt Fleur tried out “Trudy” for a while, but somehow, that didn’t feel right. So, my name evolved into “Truly”. I wish everyone called me that.
“What adventure is in store for you today, Miss Truly?” Aunt Fleur wears a scarf around her hear, twisted into a sort of turban, and a caftan made of sari fabric. Her house smells like cinnamon and citrus.
“Oh, not exactly an adventure, just headed toward the library.”
“Well, dear, that sounds a bit aimless. What are you looking for? A book on the renaissance, or perhaps some poetry?”
“Nothing really. I have a crush on the college boy who works there for the summer.”
“Ah, a romance novel, then.’’
“I guess so.”
“It’s a good idea to know what you want. Vague dreams seldom come true. We must create our own magic. Specific magic. ”
Fleur sets the table with delicate cups covered with blue roses. Her big hands make them look like a toy tea set.
“And what are you doing today, Aunt Fleur?”
“A million exciting things!” On one end of her table is a mess of sparkly debris. Scraps of shiny cloth, glitter, some herbs, and a couple of cheap-looking charms (like the sort of thing you might see on a child’s bracelet) are scattered across the wooden surface.
Her two black cats Jimmy-James, et al, and Michael-Ray, et al, are jumping across the table, hitting the bits of papers and baubles producing an even greater mess. She pulls a round ball out of a box that is well-padded with colored tissue. It seems to be a Christmas ornament, but clear and hollow.
“I am making a ‘Witch Ball’.” Aunt Fleur has only lived in Columbus for a couple of months. So, I don’t really know her too well. She moved back to her home town after living in California, and New Orleans, and Mexico. It is hard to understand why anyone who had so many options would settle here.
She must see that I have never heard of a Witch Ball. “It’s very simple magic,” she says. “It attracts good spirits to the home. Sometimes they grant your wishes.”
I still don’t really get it. This city is pretty boring for humans. It must be mind-numbing for a spirit who can live anywhere.
The ball has a latch on one side. It pops open with a click. She fills it with carefully chosen clutter from the table. This involves some selection from the assembled objects. Evidently, this sort of magic requires specific trash, and possibly a sliver of claw or tuft of fur shed by “the boys”, as she calls the cats. When she is through, she threads a silver ribbon through a loop on the top, and hangs it in her kitchen window.
“There!”, she says, “Fabulous!”, as if it were an object worthy of hanging in the Louvre.
“Well, I hope it works,” I mumble into my teacup. I am skeptical.
“So, what about this young gentleman? What is his name? Why do you like him?” Aunt Fleur wears an armload of thin vibrantly-colored bangles. They clatter and clang when her wrist hits the table. It is as if she has some odd rainbow-hued percussion accompaniment to everything she says.
“His name is Eric. I like him because he is sooo cute.”
“UMM. Cute. A start, I suppose.” She is holding the cup close to her fiery red lips. I’m not sure if the “UMM” is for my answer, or for the fragrance of the tea.
“I guess you had a lot of boyfriends when you were young,” I said.
She is far away for just a moment, then flashes her heavily-lined eyes at me. “Oh, yes, many. Hence the names of my cats. They are named after some of the ‘gentleman callers’ from my past.”
“I can’t understand how someone as wonderful as you never married.”
“My dear, Truly, there is so much in this world to understand. No one person can ever grasp it all.”
“But, were you ever really in love? Did you ever want to get married?” I like to get her talking. She had experiences that are so much more interesting than my boring life. I could listen to her all day.
“Certainly. Why right here in Columbus, Mississippi was where I met the love of my life. He, too, was ‘sooo cute’.”
“What happened? Why didn’t you marry him?”
“Oh, dear, there were complications. My father hated him. One day he caught us holding hands. We were sitting in the gazebo in that little park on 5th Street.”
“You mean Leadership Plaza?”
“Yes, there. Papa became enraged! He took off his belt. Right there in Leadership Plaza.”
“He actually hit you?! In public?” There are a lot of things that make my dad angry. But, I can’t imagine him ever beating me, and never in public. “So, then what happened?”
“The police were called.”
“And they stopped him. Was your father arrested?”
She laughed, or snorted. I’m not sure which. “No. The deputy knew us well. Columbus was a much smaller place then. He just told us to go home.”
“That’s all? Just ‘go home’?”
“Just about. I remember it well. He said to my father, ‘Clyde Thomas, you need to work this out at home.’ Then he bent close to my father’s ear and said, ‘Everbody in town knows your kid got snakes in the head. That one just ain’t right. Never has been.’ ”
“So he took your father’s side. But, you were the victim.” This information needed some processing. “And what about your boyfriend? Where was he through all of this?”
“Oh, James? He ran away when he saw my father staggering toward us in a rage. I don’t know if the policeman saw him, but I suspect that he did. James’ father was the city attorney. The policeman probably didn’t want to make too much of a stink. You know how those good ol’ boys protect each other”
“But, then you had to see him secretly. It was true love. No one can stand between people who are meant to be together.”
“Not all fairy tales end happily ever after, dear. I never saw him again. I packed a bag and left home the next day before dawn.”
“Just like that? No goodbyes to anyone?”
“Just like that.”
“But, now you’ve come back to Columbus. . . .Maybe he is still here!” The wheels in my head began turning. “Have you tried to look him up? I’ll bet he would love to see you again.”
“He would probably be shocked to see me now. I have done a bit of detective work. He is married, and a respectable officer of the court.”
“Why don’t you call him, you know, just for old time’s sake?”
She gave me a small smirk and said, “Isn’t it time get going, young lady? The library closes in an hour.”
I put my cup in the sink and gave the witch ball a spin. Maybe it will attract Fleur’s old love. He is probably good, if not exactly a spirit.
The library is cool, over air conditioned. I stopped to get a drink from the fountain. The water is so icy it makes my teeth hurt.
Eric was pushing a squeaky cart between tall shelves of books. I watched for a moment as he slipped books onto the shelves, then planted myself in his path on the floor.
“Oh, hi,” I said, as if he was the last person I expected to see. He smiled and nodded.
“Whadda you doing?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes gave me with a look that said, do you really have to ask? “I might ask what you are doing. You do know we have tables and chairs.”
“Just lookin’ for something to read.” I sat crossed-legged in the aisle, sure that he would notice how my white shorts created a beautiful contrast against the dark tan of my thighs.
Eric had a halo of tight, ebony curls. The fluorescent lights above him illuminated sparks of olive and brown. Even with my tan, his skin was much darker than mine. I thought he must have been an Arabian prince in another life.
“Really? Not many girls spend time in the science section.”
I had not even noticed what section I was in. The whole point was for him to discover me by surprise.
“Oh guess I’m just a different sort of girl.” It isn’t easy to be clever while sitting on the floor.
“Well, the library is closing in a few minutes. Why don’t you take you book to the desk and check out?”
“OK. I’m kinda’ thirsty. Maybe we could go get a Coke when you get off?”
He looked slightly confused. I was convinced he had noticed me hanging out in the library this summer. Maybe I was wrong.
“Yeah, sure. Meet me by the bike rack after the doors are locked.”
I waited by the bike rack. He came out with Mother Goose, the children’s librarian. That isn’t her real name, but, everyone calls her that. She has become the character, and plays it well.
They were laughing. “Good-byee! Good-byee!” she sings almost everything she says. Everyone in town loves her. Eric smiled at her with such affection that it made me slightly jealous.
He turned toward me, as she walked to the parking lot and got into her car.
“I don’t have a bike,” I said when he finally noticed me.
“I guess that limits the places we can go. How ‘bout Coffee House on Fifth?”
“Sounds great!” Of course coffee in this heat did not sound at all great. But, we were having a date . . . sort of.
The coffee house smelled wonderful. The aromas of roasting coffee and muffins blended into a sweet fragrance. I got an iced caramel latte. Eric ordered a bubble tea, something I had never heard of. It had a creamy appearance with tiny pellets at the bottom that looked like little berries. We each paid for our own.
“What’s your name?” he asked. My heart dropped a bit. I had tried to learn as much about him as I could. He hadn’t even noticed me.
“Cute. I like unusual names.”
Columbus is a very small town. It is the sort of place where people grow up and never seem to leave. Every family has a history that is public knowledge. There are no secrets. Evidently, (big surprise) I was a secret to him.
“What are you studying?” I asked him. I actually knew the answer to this because I had been asking around. He is a history major at The W.
“Oh, I like history. It won’t be much a career path. I’ll worry about that later.”
I find history a big bore. “You could be a business major. Then you would be sure to have a job when you graduate.”
“Yeah, but I’m thinking of college as a time to learn something. I’m the first one in my family to go to college. It’s a big deal.”
“I get it. My mom says we should all go to college. It is the best place to meet you husband.”
“I’m not exactly looking for a ‘husband’ – or a wife. But, good luck with that.” I became aware that I was not charming him, as I had expected. “I gotta go,” he said and he walked out of the door into the miserable heat. There was no mention of seeing me again. But, then he stuck his head back into the door. “Nice meeting you, Truly”, he said. Yes! He remembered my name.