The storm clouds returned to empty their contents over our town. Barely the size of coconut flakes, most of the snow melted before reaching the ground, and could only be seen floating within the halos of two streetlamps outside my house, one of which was erratically flashing, its bulb on the verge of going out. We left the warmth of my house and descended down the steps onto the deserted street, the marks of our footsteps letting through the raven-blackness of the asphalt that matched the color of the sky.
Passing by a neighbor’s house, I turned to the girls. “I left a burning candle a couple of nights ago on this street corner,” I pointed. “I wonder if it’s still there. Mind if I check?”
The girls nodded and followed me to the area where two ends of a fence joined at a right angle, pausing a few steps behind me as I squatted down to investigate.
“Why would you leave a burning candle here?” Marta asked.
“Long story,” was all I was willing to say in an effort to sidestep her instinctual nosiness. I moved a thin film of snow and clumps of grass to the side, and took off my gloves to feel for remains—a frozen puddle of red wax. Even though strong winds had raged through our town the night before last, the candle managed to burn itself to the ground. Peeling its edges with my bare hands, I retrieved the hard shape in one
“Let’s see the shape it casts on a wall,” Paula suggested. We were nearing Andrzejki, the eve of St. Andrew’s Day, a holiday Polish people celebrated at the end of November. That evening, females of all ages would gather together to melt candle wax, then pour the liquid through a keyhole and into a large bowl of cold water where it would instantly solidify. The shadows created by the shapes of wax would be carefully examined on a wall illuminated by a lamp, and were believed to foretell the future of the young women related to their matrimonies.
We spotted a suitable place where a halogen lamp illuminated a stack of large, empty water pipes waiting to be used in one of the neighborhood’s construction projects that usually commenced in springtime. I held up the wax and angled it, my hand freezing in midair, the blood draining from my face.
The shape revealed the profile of a man. He had a long slanted forehead, a pointed nose, high cheekbones and long jaws; the back of his head was swathed in long disheveled hair. Without a doubt, it was a profile of the serpent man from my dream. This version of his image was twisted and grotesque, menacing even, and yet I was able to still recognize him.
“Does anyone else see what I see? Or is it only my sick imagination?” Paula broke the silence.
“I think it is pretty clear to all of us,” Marta divulged. “This face is unmistakable.”
“Eve?” Paula began.
“Your candle made the face of a devil.”
What was terrifying to them was mesmerizing to me. Seeing it so close ignited a flame, melting the frost of fear that had been collecting over the glass of my perception, turning it into crying droplets of dew. My breath sped up and a subtle trembling overtook my body. Memories were returning and assembling into patterns. Some may have been fragments of dreams, others of things real, maybe partly imagined.
I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter. The fire grew, making me feel naked and exposed. I wanted the girls to go and leave me there with his image. Sure, his face looked demonic, but their reaction was overblown. They didn’t know what I knew.
“It’s this satanic music you listen to!” Marta was quick with her verdict.
I swallowed and slowly lowered my arm.
“Do you think the black book may have something to do with it?” Paula asked.
“Definitely!” Marta said. “I’d give it back to Ben right away if I were you, and destroy the wax.”
I shivered, considering the weight of her words that reawakened my fear.
“I don’t think it’s as serious as you make it,” I said, running my bare fingers across the effigy’s rugged surface.
“Break it up, Eve!” Marta said. “Look, your hands are shaking.”
Holding the object with both hands, feeling cracks furrow across my heart, I broke it into two pieces. Just then an intense stabbing pain in my abdomen nearly made me fold over. But the girls insisted so I kept on breaking the wax into smaller pieces watching the little red fragments fall onto the carpet of snow like drops of blood. With each piece that fell, I grew colder and more rigid inside, until only a mere shadow of sensation lingered on the surface of my empty hands.
“Do you want me to go back and get the book?” Marta asked.
“Sure, why not,” I shrugged, feeling the pain slowly recede.
While Paula and I waited for Marta to return, I tried to put some order to my thoughts. If the girl’s suspicion was correct and the book helped manifest the effigy, I could use it to bring him back.
“Maybe you should pray tonight,” Paula suggested and I nodded. Arguing made no sense.
When Marta returned, she held the book in one hand and a cookie in the other. “Please get this thing away from me.” She nearly threw the book at me. “It’s making me dizzy.”
“Can we go now?” Paula asked, after I stuffed the rolled-up book into my pocket. None of us said anything; the sounds of our footsteps and Marta’s rhythmic chewing were the only noises that filled the night’s vacuum.
As we turned the corner, the contours of the gray theater building came into view, people sticking to its stone steps like black clumps of tar. I quickly spotted three towering figures. Seeing me approach, Ben broke away and began his descent. Marta pinched my arm. I jabbed her with my elbow. A moment later he was within an arm’s reach.
“What happened to you?” he asked, ignoring the girls. I knew he could barely tolerate Marta. In his view, she was the epitome of sensationalism and gossip.
“It’s a long story…”
“I have lots of time,” he replied.
“She made a devil out of candle wax,” Marta couldn’t help herself. The girls giggled and I wished I now had a spell that would make them vanish.
Ben looked at me. “Why don’t you and I go on a walk? Alone,” he said, pulling me away. I heard them depart in whispers.
Ben and I walked until we reached a nearby children’s playground. Before we sat on rusty swings, I turned once more toward Paula and Marta, feeling our glances brush against each other.
“New friends?” Ben brought me back.
“Nah. Just needle work.”
“I see. But seriously, you look like you saw a ghost.”
“It’s not that far from the truth,” I said, and recounted what had occurred. “You heard them, they said it looked like the face of the devil.”
“Are you scared?”
“I was a little earlier. But not anymore.”
Ben drew in a breath. “Maybe it’s because of the candle?”
“It was not the best idea, was it?”
“Told you so.” He did ask me to think twice. Even Art had muttered something under his breath about the lunacy of my decision. But in those moments when I wanted to do whatever I set my mind on, I didn’t listen.
“Right. What idiot takes candles off people’s graves?” I tried to make light of the situation, but neither of us laughed.
The red candle had rested atop a German soldier’s crypt. It came to my possession the night of All Saint’s Day, when the four of us went roaming the cemetery.
It was almost midnight when we had reached the necropolis, meandering in silence through a labyrinth of graves and catacombs, the smallest of which made me shiver. The burial grounds were set ablaze with thousands of flames carrying prayers across dimensions. Passing by a war tomb, I spotted four candles lining its edges, and had decided to take one with me to light my way home. I glanced into its flame all the way there, reciting made-up words as I traversed the last portion of the path alone. “Good luck!” the guys called out after we split at the fork. Even Ben hadn’t proposed walking me home that night.
By the time I reached the bridge, warm winds were picking up strength and rushing clouds obliterating the face of the waxing moon. Less than a finger in length, the candle had
continued to burn, the wind occasionally tugging on its flame.
Rounding a corner to my house, I set it down, wary of taking it inside, convinced that the gale would put it out.
“Maybe it’s the candle, but maybe there is more to it,” I said to Ben.
“Here is one,” I said, handing him the rolled-up book.
Ben took it, rolled it back into a compact tube and stuffed it in the pocket of his coat. “I told you not to take it, Eve.”
I froze, marinating in shame. “I meant to give it back sooner. I’m sorry.”
He jumped off the swing and started to walk.
“Are you mad?”
“No, just disappointed. You’ve been making bad choices lately. First the candle, and now this. What else have you done that you are not telling me?”
His comment stopped me in my tracks. “Nothing. I’m just confused,” I said, well-aware of the secrets I’d been keeping from Ben. “Everything has just been strange lately.”
“How strange? Come, let’s keep walking.”
“I’ve just been feeling . . . odd.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“It’s like some foreign force has entered my life. I just can’t put my finger on it,” I said, and quickly added, “Do you think that this book has something to do with it?”
Ben shrugged. “Remember our talk last night about what’s real? The more power we give to something, whether it’s a thing, a thought, or a belief, the more power it will have over you. It works both ways.”
“Great, thanks. That makes me feel like I am the ruler of my life,” I said, “forever at the mercy of thoughts and objects.”
“That’s not what I said. Thoughts maybe, but not objects. But objects can tell us something. They are like mirrors, reflecting back parts of ourselves that otherwise would remain unconscious.”
“As above, so below. The outer reflects the inner,” he said.
“How do you know all these things?” I said, trying to match his pace.
He shrugged again. “I don’t know. It just came to me. Although I admit, I too have been feeling strange lately. Everything seems easier.”
“It’s been the opposite for me.”
“Sounds like it.”
“How has it been easier for you?”
“I’ve been acing all my tests, for example. You know I don’t study. I don’t even go to the damn class or open a textbook, but my tests get perfect scores. My teachers are baffled and so am I. I only hope it continues.”
“So, if you know so much and have gotten so clairvoyant, what do you think is causing all these things to happen to me?” I asked as we made an arc around the theater, sidestepping the chattering clusters of youth.
“I don’t think they are so much happening to you, but rather that you are creating them. You didn’t have to take the book or the candle. But you did. Free will. The question is, what’s been motivating you? And you should be the one answering it.”
I shrugged, searching for words that wouldn’t betray what I knew about him. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
“I could help you,” he cleared his throat, and turned to look at me. “If you let me.”
We passed the swelling crowd and entered a side street. It had stopped snowing and whatever had fallen on the road before had already melted. Moonlight cast a silver pillar in its center. The night was calm and the sky had cleared in a few places. The moon’s partly unveiled face hovered higher, giving the black sky a hint of blue. The air smelled of moist earth.
“What do you mean if I let you?” I asked.
“I could tell you. But it will be better if I just show you,” he said, slowing us down.
The theater was out of sight; only sleeping houses with dark windows surrounded us. Ben turned to face me. The air sighed, tickling my face. He reached out his hands to move the hair off my cheeks. His warm touch lingered on my skin. I looked up at him and once more noticed the radiance emanating from his face, a light blue tone on the backdrop of the night sky. How come I’d never noticed it before? Cradling my head with his palms, he leaned his face closer. An avalanche of thoughts poured through my head before everything came to a standstill.
“I’ve been wanting to kiss you for a very long time, Eve,” he whispered, and touched his lips to mine, soft and tender.
I gave in to the caress, hoping it would melt the wince off my face and thaw my icy lips. His breath warmed my face as the wind continued to blow through my hair, oblivious to my inner battle. Ben’s open palm pressed into the small of my back, sealing all spaces between us, the metal button of my jeans pressing into my stomach. I gripped his shoulders. Crowded with curtains and smoky mirrors, I ran across the labyrinth of my mind until I thought of the blue-haired stranger, and an electric current jolted my spine. I gasped and peeled away.
“Are you all right?” Ben asked, still holding me tight.
“Yes,” I said in between breaths. But I wasn’t. My surrender to Ben was a lie.
“Good,” he said, and pressed me toward his warm chest. “I’m glad you now know how I feel about you.”
His words sizzled my brain before guilt twisted my gut. I lied to him, I betrayed him. But he couldn’t hear my soul’s desperate calls. From this point forward, I knew that things could never be the same between us. With great sadness, I realized I had just lost a friend.
“Everything will be all right. Just trust me,” he said, cradling me in his arms. “You have had way too much on your mind lately. You are simply stressed and trying to hold it all together. Plus your grandfather . . . I mean it is easy to make things into more than they really are when you are under this much pressure. But this is also why I like you so much. Because you are so sensitive and vulnerable. It makes you impossibly beautiful.”
“Stress? You really think it’s that simple?” I asked, on the verge of crying.
He nodded and released me. “Yes, I do. I really do.”
I touched my hand to my mouth. The space between us seemed impossible to cross.
Ben smiled. “We should go. It is already half past ten,” he said, and seized my hand before I had a chance to hide it inside my pocket. I felt Ben’s grip tightening around my lifeless palm as we approached the theater and could swear I saw heads turn and the wave of conversational noise died down, only to pick up again ringing with a new intonation. Nobody said anything directly; they just kept whispering and flashing glances at us.
Two cars with headlights and engines turned on were parked by the stairs. Ben pulled me in the direction of a black Audi, inside of which Art and Rock sat fiddling with the stereo. Then I saw Mila, my music teacher’s younger sister and a talented pianist, and asked Ben to let me go so I could talk to her, in an effort to liberate myself from his grasp.
I approached her with relief, as if finding a family member in a crowd of strangers. But upon seeing me, the girl threw her locks to the side with dramatic aloofness and walked away, sending me a cold glare. Surprised, I strolled past her until I was alone in the dark shadow of the theater’s windowless sidewall, walking blindly toward the back.
“Eve, c’mon! We’re waiting!” I heard Ben’s voice trailing behind me.
“I need a moment alone. Please.” I curled my hands into tight fists and continued to walk toward the void. In the distance, I heard muffled voices. Something portent was brewing, almost ghoulish.
“I don’t think it is a good idea for you to go there!” Ben called.
“Those kids, they can act stupid sometimes,” he warned me. But I kept on. “Eve, please. Turn around and come with us!”
Making my way around the building’s corner, I could make out about a dozen moving shadows next to the stairs where the blue stranger had me sit this morning. Some had their cigarettes lit, the light from their embers hovering midair like orange fireflies. Someone threw a glass bottle to the ground, shattering it into pieces. Then someone else started to howl and dissonant shrieks followed. The cacophony anchored me in place. Ben caught up to me and lightly tugged on my sleeve, but by then our presence was known.
“Is this a girl? Am I smelling a female?” one of them said, his voice growing louder with each approaching step.
Ben was right. It was a mistake for me to have come here. My breathing became choked with fear. “Because if you are a girl, you couldn’t have picked a better place to visit.”
“Hey, guys! It’s Ben and I’m with her.”
The voice turned toward Ben. “But girls can appreciate beauty much better. They were made for it. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Ben said.
“Stu-pid?” the voice answered slowly, accenting each syllable. I recognized whom it belonged to and my body trembled. “Who said stu-pid? Nobody would ever think of such a thing! No, not stu-pid, my friend. What we have here is something so spectacular, it begs to be seen. Something meaningful, which says a lot in a world that suffers from its lack, am I right?” he asked, casting the question over his shoulder toward his companions. They cheered on Crass’ ghastly spectacle. “Have you ever witnessed a ritual? Not candles and holy water and shit, but a real ritual with real sacrifice?”
“Okay, enough. Let’s go, Eve. Now,” Ben said to me.
I knew I should’ve left right then, but I couldn’t move. Crass came closer until I could feel the force of his exhale. It smelled of alcohol. If I reached my hand, I could touch the greasy blond hair falling down his shoulders.
“She wants to see it. Let her see it,” he repeated with a
growl, stepping behind me and placing one of his hands over my eyes and slipping the other under my arm.
I was annoyed at Ben for not intervening more strongly. But didn’t I just want him to back off and let me be moments ago? What was wrong with me? I realized I was filled with conflicting thoughts and desires, which made me reconsider Ben’s proposition. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was overstressed and should just trust him.
Crass nudged me forward. His hand on my face smelled of cigarettes and something akin to a mixture of dirt and iron. I opened my mouth to avoid the repugnant scent. We took about two dozen steps, with Ben shadowing us. I felt the space around me with my free arm, wary of where I was being taken, but all I could feel was empty space. Crass took away his hand.
“Open your eyes,” he said in a husky voice.
Moonlight poured into my eyes.
Crass spoke in a hushed tone. “No matter how hard you try, you cannot turn back time. You can scream and shout in protest, but ultimately there is only one thing you can do to feel peace again. You must accept it. You must accept death. Passive acceptance. So feminine, so dark, so beautiful,” he said, pulling me closer.
The orb of the cold November moon became the backdrop for the cat’s hanging silhouette. It dangled on a rope attached to a tree by its neck. The sight triggered a chill similar to the one I had felt upon having the coated man’s gaze fall upon me. I felt a rage rising in my heart, difficult to restrain.
“Please, tell me it was dead before you did this,” I said. “Or that a car ran over it, that it was diseased! Tell me that!”
“But that wouldn’t be a proper sacrifice, would it? That would be wrong. That would make the spirits angry. The animal before you was healthy and strong and it fought well for its life. Its fur glistened in light. Its body lean and supple,” Crass said, his words inciting a wave of nausea.
I turned to Ben, “And you knew about this? Why didn’t you do something?”
“Eve, let’s go.”
Tears burned my cheeks like hot lava. “You are sick!” I screamed and turned to run.
“Sick?” Crass laughed. “Obviously you know nothing about rituals,” his words stomped on my heels. “You know nothing of invoking the fallen.”
Rock and Art were in the car waiting, the engine still running. More cars were coming, loading people and departing. I crawled onto the back seat and saw Ben chase away some kid who wanted to hitch a ride. We drove off with a sharp squeal of tires. Ben put his right arm around me. I was sobbing and trying to hide it. Rock turned on the stereo and soon the familiar sounds reverberated out of the speakers:
Well it’s a righteous dream, out of my mind.
A righteous dream, out of my mind . . .
Art lit a cigarette and opened the window. I shivered from the cold wind that whipped across my face, drying my tears. Ben squeezed me tighter and with his free hand brushed away a wisp of hair lashing my face. He tucked it behind my right ear and brought his head closer to mine.
“I want you,” he said. But my heart was cold.