Robert Lowell Russell
The white stone hung on the tree like an ornament. It swayed on a length of twine as if blown by the wind, though the forest air was still.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said to the stone.
In a nearby bed-and-breakfast, a woman slept on the bed we’d once shared in a bliss of skin and sweat. Lately, though, we’d hoped to wake to alone. Aiming at an open window, I blew a kiss. See? Wishes do come true, my beauty. Never said I was a prince.
The smell was faint at first, a cloying scent mixed with the stink of ash.
“Do we always have to do this?” I asked the stone.
The odor grew, invading my nose, seeping down my throat. When the witch’s screams came, as they always do, I clapped my hands over my ears but couldn’t keep her agony from my mind.
“Stop! I want to go!”
I snapped the rock from the string and rubbed it in my hands, improving a little on the polish of sand and time. I closed my eyes as a roar grew, filling the air, drowning the shrieks. Then came the laughter, a cackle like crows arguing over a meal. I ground my teeth until the laughter faded, then blinked in the morning sun. A 747 soared above, contrails streaking the sky.
I fought the compulsion to find whatever it was I’d lost. The stone would have me search for eternity. Instead, I watched the scars on my hands vanish.
Who was I this time? A thousand names whispered in my head. I nodded. Abram. A name as good as any.
The buildings nearby were painted in pastels. Conversations buzzed in English, Creole, and Spanish. No . . . not proper Spanish.
I sighed. Cubanos. South Beach. As the stink faded, I smelled the lightly salted air and the scent of sex, money, and cafecito.
A flyer plastered to a wall read: Room for Rent.
The wooden house was pink, not the pale pink of so many other homes in the suburban Miami cul-de-sac; it was the color of bubble gum and cotton candy. Chalk drawings of animals, flowers, and abstract patterns of dots and squares, swirls and stars covered its walls.
A boy, maybe ten, stood on the porch. “Are you here about the room?” he asked. He was blond with freckles.
“Is it still available?”
He stepped off the porch and came down the walk. “Yep. Come on in, I’ll give you the tour.”
“You’re here by yourself?”
“Course not.” He shook my hand and said, “Use a firm grip and always look into their eyes. My father says that shows sincerity. I’m John.”
“Abram. You do the decorating?” I indicated the drawings.
“Those are Pearl’s. They drive the neighbors nuts. The drawings wash away when it rains, but Pearl puts them right back up.”
“I like them.”
He smiled. “We buy chalk by the ton.”
The boy led me inside. The room, like the house, was small but clean and smelled of potpourri. The furniture was an eclectic mix of antiques and IKEA. A portrait of a woman in an Indian headdress hung on the wall.
Tiger Lily had been little more than a girl when she’d married Peter. He didn’t deserve her. I’d told her so, even as she held their son to her breast. She just smiled, that same sad smile that made me want to hold her. I played peek-a-boo with her boy as Pan bitched about something in the camp. He was always bitching. Time had scarred his mind, if not his body.
I noticed the stone in the clear water of a stream as I washed. Time to go.
As I reached for the rock, Lily said behind me, “Farewell, Atticus. I hope you find her.”
In the kitchen, a young girl, about eight, sat at the table. John, who’d excused himself from the room, stood behind her braiding her golden hair. The boy weaved three lengths together into a thick rope as the girl kicked her legs and sketched a castle with a purple crayon. Peanut butter toast and a half-eaten banana rested on the table.
“So you’re the artist of the house?” I asked the girl.
She beamed and nodded.
“Pearl,” said John, “I’d like to you to meet Mr. Abram.”
“It’s just Abram.”
“He’ll be staying with us a while,” said John.
“But, your parents — ”
Pearl held out her hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Abram.”
I smiled and took her small hand in mine. “It’s just Abram. John, where are your parents?”
He shrugged. “No idea.”
“How is that possible? How are you staying here?”
“A house fell on the lady who used to live here, so we moved in.”
“Yep. It was all over the news.”
“Pearl,” continued John, “you need to finish your breakfast before the bus — ”
A rumble and screech were followed by a loud honk outside. John sighed and handed Pearl a paper bag marked with her name. She hopped off her chair and gave a little wave before scampering out the door.
“Pearl likes school,” said the boy. “I don’t care for it myself. It’s just the same thing over and over.” John pulled up a chair and motioned for me to join him. “So, Abram, what do you do?”
Bewildered, I sat. “A little bit of everything. I like to work with my hands.”
“You ever do any carpentry?”
There’s nothing quite like the whine and clang of a circular saw and the smell of fresh-cut lumber. John ripped worn planks from the fence separating the backyard from the canal beyond, then hammered new planks in place as I cut a stack of 2x4s for the frame. We sweated together in the morning air, telling jokes.
During a break, I sipped sweat-salted water.
Eurus had spat sea spray from his mouth as we pulled the heavy oar together, our backs screaming at the relentless pace, like all the other men around us.
“Pater, my brother,” he said, “We’ve crossed the world for one man’s wife. We cross it again so Odysseus can return to his.” Eurus grinned, the smile that made me cold, the one he wore in battle. “My wife is no great beauty, and she’s a bit plump, but by the gods, the things she does to me in bed. Come with me to my home. My wife has a sister who’d be a woman now. We can build houses instead of horses and fuck our fat, ugly wives and play with our fat, ugly children!”
Eurus roared with laughter.
“I think I’d like that,” I said.
His smile faded. “Aye. But it’s not to be, is it, brother?” Eurus grimaced. “I cannot abide the thought of dying as food. Why must everything seek to eat us? The one-eyed giant. The witch and her pigs. Now these monsters beneath the waves.”
“We should shit ourselves as they swallow us,” I said. “Maybe they’ll spit us out.”
Weeks later, as Eurus and the others floundered around me and salt water filled my mouth, I found the stone in the mud of the sea floor.
In the afternoon, Pearl bounced through the front door as the school bus lurched away.
Pearl’s bag thudded to the floor, and she rummaged through it, presenting a spelling test with two gold stars.
I whistled. “Two stars? Congratulations!”
Pearl led me by the hand to the kitchen, explaining she was inviting me to dinner.
John and I sat at the table while she dumped packs of orange powder into a massive pot of mac ‘n cheese, refusing every offer of assistance. Pearl shoveled dinner onto our plates, and we ate together, laughing at Pearl’s diagnosis of Jeffy Fitzer, long absent from school: cooties, had to be.
After we finished, Pearl excused herself to do her homework. John said there was some old beer in the fridge and I could help myself. We talked as I downed a beer, then a second, then two more. Later, head throbbing, I swayed to the bathroom, images flashing in my mind.
“You OK, Abe?”
I vomited over the side of the bridge, then the troll handed me the bottle of single malt scotch. I took a drag and handed it back.
“Do you remember if you’re married, Abe?” she asked. “With your condition?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
The troll took a swig. “When I’m finished here, I’m going to go home and have babies.” She swayed in place, waggling her hips. She winked. “You know how much I love kids.”
I rolled my eyes.
I remember she looked so old waiting on that bridge, waiting for the goats, waiting to die.
“Are you OK, Abram?”
I wiped the tears from my eyes. “Sure, John. I’m fine.”
When I went to bed that night, the stone was there on the nightstand. I ignored it, gagging at the growing stench as I crammed a pillow over my head, trying to drown the screams. Eventually, I slept. The rock was gone by the morning.
In the glorious Saturday sun, Pearl searched for fairies around the flowers and trees. She pushed the plants apart, held still, then pounced, scrambling to catch whatever it was she’d seen.
“John, we should paint the fence now that it’s finished,” she called over her shoulder. “Maybe red and white stripes? Like candy canes.”
“The neighbors will hate it,” he said. “Sounds perfect.”
The boy and I sat together, watching the hunt.
“John, I need to tell you something,” I said. “And it’s going to sound a little strange.”
John held up his hand as Pearl approached us, her hands hidden behind her.
“Whatcha got there, little sister?”
“Open your mouth and close your eyes, and I’ll give you a big surprise,” she said.
“No way! I’m not falling for that again. Last time it was a snake!”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ve tasted all kinds of awful things: bugs, worms, the gingerbread man. How bad could it be?”
Pain lanced through my head and my teeth ached. I felt like I’d swallowed cement.
“Think he’ll be OK?” asked Pearl.
John nodded. “I think so . . . I can’t believe we finished the whole thing.”
Walls’ “Great Wall of Ice Cream” was now a thin film of vanilla with traces of fudge. We sat at umbrella-covered tables outside the ice cream shop watching cartoons projected against the building. A crescent moon rose in the darkening sky. I closed my eyes, breathing the warm night air.
When I opened my eyes, the stone sat on an empty table.
“I like it here,” I whispered. “Leave me alone . . . please.”
I screamed as my skin burned and crows cackled.
I jolted from bed. The Indian woman in the portrait gazed at me with pity. The pink house again? How? A film of dried ice cream flaked from my face. The stone waited on the nightstand.
“You win,” I said. I’ll go.”
I took the rock and closed my eyes, waiting. Nothing. I rubbed its surface. Still nothing.
The kids were in the kitchen when I rushed in. “I won! I beat — ”
“Just a little longer,” Pearl said to John.
“She won’t stop laughing,” he said. Sweat glistened on the boy’s face.
I set the stone on the table.
When Pearl saw the rock, she said, “Oh, thank God. Now we have them all.” She pointed to the stone. “That’s not yours, Abram, it’s mine.” She dug in a pocket then placed a second rock next to John. He produced a third, pushing it my way.
“Now we weave ourselves together faster than the stones can pull us apart again,” said Pearl. “Abram . . . I’m sorry I made you eat that bug.”
The children stood, clasped their rocks, and pressed their hands against mine.
“Wait! — ” I screamed.
The world melted with the sweet stink, then the screams, then the cackle.
Doc blew his whistle. “Over the top, boys!” he yelled. “Give ’em Hell!”
Bergmanns rattled in the distance, slapping rounds into the mud. Dwarves barreled over the trench wall. One fell back, then another, and another. The air reeked of gas and gunpowder, piss and fear. I shook my head. White always got what she wanted: apples, a charming prince, genocide.
Something tugged my arm. Children?!!
John and Pearl shouted, “Abram, where’s the stone?”
The stone! I’d held Happy’s hand as he died, promising I’d mail the letter he had in his pocket, the pocket where I’d found the stone. The children and I scrambled through the muddy trench. When we ducked around a corner, I found the little man’s body, just where I’d left it. Three stones fell from his pocket.
Pearl pointed at the rocks one by one. “Mine. John’s. Abram’s. Are we ready?”
“How do you know about the stones?” I asked.
“I just do.”
The children clung to me as we took the rocks.
When the laughter faded, a small house appeared around us. A girl in red hugged a gray-haired woman. A wolf lay split jaw to tail on the floor. A bloodied man held an axe as he steadied himself against a wall. Pearl swayed where she stood.
John touched her arm. “Pearl?”
She blinked and shook her head.
“Greta! You came back!” said the red girl.
Pearl smiled. “Hi, Red. May I see the basket you brought?”
In the basket three rocks waited for us.
Pearl pointed. “Mine, John’s, Abram’s.”
We took the stones and the world twisted.
Soot coated a jumble of buildings. A gray haze colored the sky. I wondered aloud, “London?”
Pearl nodded. “A Dickensian interpretation of London, anyway. Can you feel the misery?”
“I’m not eight, Abram,” she said. “Not really.” She put her hand to her face and blushed. “I’ve kissed boys.”
John swayed in the cobblestone street. A filthy, bearded man stalked toward him. “There you are, Johan,” said the man. He tipped a tattered hat my way. “Beggin’ your pardon, guv’nor. He’s a wicked boy.”
John jolted. “Under the hat,” he said, pointing. “They’re under his hat!”
The man’s eyes grew wide as I rushed him and hurled him to the ground. I pressed my foot against his neck as Pearl removed the hat. Three rocks clattered to the street. Pearl pointed. “Mine, John’s, Abram’s.”
When we took the stones, there was still the smell and the screams but now no laughter. “Stop! Stop! Stop it!” the witch raged.
In the swamps near Tanganyika, I helped the children through the waist-deep water. Near a house built of brick, a mud-slicked mountain of tusks and pink flesh waited on a patch of dry land. The pig had bought my silence with a stone the night he’d betrayed his brothers to the Big Bad.
Now he held out a trotter, hefting me from the waters. “You’re younger, Ibrahim,” he said. He took three white rocks from a pocket, then touched his jowl with a sigh. “A pity they can’t turn time for me.”
The children and I jumped again, and again, weaving our way through our journeys. Where once there’d been the one stone, we found three: three under a sleeping dormouse, three more in a pirate’s treasure. We pried rocks from the mouth of a desiccated god in Cairo and argued with a grumpy elf for another three.
In time, we found ourselves splashing across a shallow stream toward a fence striped like candy canes. The gate stood open, and beyond sat the back of a pink house, its walls decorated with images of flowers and animals and pictures of candy and swirling lollipops. The tang of ginger filled the air.
I remembered the day Pearl and John — but those weren’t their names — had come sprinting from the candy house. I’d run toward my children as the witch screamed inside. Just before I reached them, the witch’s voice had knifed into my mind. “Curse you. Curse you ALL!” And the world had blurred.
Now, we ran into the kitchen, our stomachs roiling at the stench of burned flesh. A golden cage dangled from the ceiling. A blackened, skeletal arm jutted from a roaring oven. The arm cracked, broke off, and then smashed to embers on the floor. A white stone skittered from the charred fingers then turned to ash.
“Is it over?” asked Hansel.
“No, we have to find her!” called Gretel as she ran through the house. Crows boiled aloft outside, arguing over crumbs strewn along a path disappearing into a wall of trees.
“Hurry,” Gretel beckoned us. “Before we lose the trail!”
We bolted after her, hurdling lichen-covered logs, slipping and scrambling on the mossy path, shooing crows as we followed the meager trail. The forest smelled of decay, but the air rushing past my face was exhilarating in the dappled light. The trees were ancient, familiar.
In little time the crumbs were gone, but now we remembered the way. We charged past a pile of rotting logs and a worn stump, a rusted axe head still stuck in its rings. We came to a clearing with a small stone cottage at its center, the thatched roof in ruins. And through a crumbling doorway lay bones.
We’d found her at last.
Gretel rested wild flowers on a grave we’d piled high with white stones. The marker I’d carved read: Beloved Mother and Wife.
“I’m so sorry, children,” I said. “Your mother wasn’t well. I should have never let her send you away.” I held them to me. “Why didn’t you just tell me who you were?”
“The stones would have forced us away again,” said Gretel.
“My father told me about witches, once,” Hansel said, smiling. “When you’re in a witch’s house, take care what you touch.”
“And you don’t break a witch’s curse,” I said, nodding. “You unravel it.”
ROBERT LOWELL RUSSELL, a native Texan, lives with his family in southeastern Ohio. He is a former librarian and current nursing student. He once aspired to be a history professor, but found writing about the real world too constraining. Rob likes to write about all sorts of things but frequently includes action and humor in his work. Not satisfied with writing stories of questionable content for adults, he’s also started work on series of middle-grade books incorporating his love of not-so-super-heroes and toilet-humor. For links to more of Rob’s stories (or to see him dressed like a ninja) visit: robertlowellrussell.blogspot.com.