The Flustered Husband’s Guide to Spices
by Rhonda Eikamp
There’s a sticky bottle of something up here inside his wife’s spice cabinet that his hand knows to avoid, then a matchbox that rattles, dead-insect chuckle. He closes his eyes and keeps reaching. He’s climbed on a chair to feel around the back of the top shelf only because he recalls Rissa being up there like that, hiding what Tyler assumes was her latest concoction. His wife has power, always did, one fucking enormous ball of power that can pull the come out of him at twenty yards, but it got the best of her a while back and he had to send her to Heaven. Now he wants that potion that he figures she was working on—no, he needs it. He’s got it in his head it’ll solve everything, bring her back.
Another inch. Something bites him. Little vagina dentata thing going there, but he keeps his hand in and tries to relax. Just a twist tie poking his thumb. The plastic baggie he pulls out is filled with what looks like a salt seasoning mixture, yellows and grays over flakes of ocher, but it’s nothing he recognizes. Near the end she had some crazy ideas—that the water caught in the bottoms of upside-down cups in the dishwasher had magical properties, that a pair of her white panties washed with the reds would take away her sins. Tyler knows all about her sins. She told him everything after the miscarriages started. He senses his neighbor across the way watching him through the window. Like every Saturday, Bob’s out in the driveway polishing his Kia Soul, a car which guessing from its shape has the soul of a hyena. Polish the soul out of that fucker, Tyler thinks. He wants to jump up and down on the chair and wave the baggy at Bob, show him some monkey business, look, it’s the guy with the nutso wife, rooting through his cabinets like he’s jonesing. Still up on the chair Tyler opens the bag and takes a whiff, wood rot and a hint of lime or blood, and he suddenly remembers that when he saw her putting this away Rissa was not standing on a chair at all but floating three feet off the floor.
His cell phone buzzes on the counter below him and he picks up. It’s Heaven, calling to tell him they’ve had to put his wife in the closed ward because she attacked another supplicant and can he come talk about it.
There’s a suspicion Tyler’s had for awhile that Heaven’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It sits off the service road that heads toward Carlyle, a three-story drizzle-stained redbrick, dying azaleas fronting a circular drive. The lobby’s painted a yellow that tries for sunny but only makes it to pissoir. Tyler wants to go straight to Rissa—he’s imagined her four-pointed to a bed while they play it by the rules, releasing her limbs one by one only once every hour for massage—but the angel at the desk tells him he’s got to see God before he can see his wife.
Tyler met Rissa in their college biology class. Larissa Hayes wore no lipstick, which made him wonder, such a popular potion among women, with its minimal and yet undeniable effect. But Rissa Hayes apparently eschewed it for other tricks, like being drop-dead gorgeous. Buster, she nicknamed him when she heard his last name was Keaton. In his dorm room a week later she stripped and he stripped, so fast and smooth he suspected some funky velcro magic, and then her unlipsticked lips connected with his cock, bungeed up and down, and the bare essentials of her mouth on him imported something that wouldn’t have been there through the mediating power of a potion. It got inside him. Flames engulfed the universe. He could feel bass pounding next door, so low he couldn’t tell what band it was, his lughead neighbor banging on the wall even though Tyler wasn’t making a sound and Rissa couldn’t. He fell down the black hole, drank the potion that made him huge and then one that made him tiny. That’s when he first smelled the spice.
Now here they are, twelve years down the road or maybe it’s the suburbi et orbi circle lane. They’ve kept up with the Mankewiczes, if not the Joneses. Done their part. Until he found his powerful wife using her power to set one of her thongs on fire in the back yard after it’d turned pink in the wash and soaked up her sins. A burnt offering to get her into Heaven. It worked.
He finds God sitting in His office, shuffling through files. God’s wearing faded jeans and a Cannibal Ox T-shirt that’s probably supposed to make the supplicants feel relaxed around Him but only makes Him look desperate. “Mr. Keaton, have a seat.” Files to left and right, the universe sorted. God’s moustache needs trimming. He looks spun. Tyler feels the black hole open up, but it’s different this time. It’s the knowledge that he’s losing Rissa, that it will kill him when he does.
God flips a file around on the desk to show him words, the new potions they’ll be putting into his wife. Tyler’s wife, God explains, attacked another supplicant, scratched her face, after the woman spilled a salt shaker in Rissa’s lap. She said the woman had been trying to dry her up.
“Understand, Mr. Keaton, some punishment is due your wife. She’s let the side down pretty badly.”
Not that again, battles that are real, yes, but that he can’t give a rat’s ass about. “This is the warlocks’ fault to start with,” Tyler tells Him, though he’s got a notion it’s all in her file or should be. “What they did to her back when she was younger …”
“Mr Keaton.” God shifts in His seat, then looks uncomfortable. Probably hemorrhoids. “Please understand. We’re in a war, whether we like it or not. Every one of us has to hold up their end to keep reality in place. There shouldn’t be anything like warlocks in the universe, they’re a mistake, but if we don’t all work to prop up reality, if we let it collapse, then the warlocks win. Most of us don’t have to be told this. We’re happy to do it. We don’t think about it. But there are those—our supplicants—who’ve given up on that battle. It’s our duty to remind them of their duty. Your wife has to be reminded. These potions will do that in the medium term.”
Medium term. From his chair Tyler can read the names of the potions in the file. The names all end in –am. I am. She is. Reminders. Like an idiot he wonders for a moment if there’s a world somewhere not ruled by potions.
“What if they just make her go away?”
God’s smile is unsettling. “If she’s here with us she can’t get away, Mr. Keaton. Sign here, and here please.”
“I wanna see Rissa first.”
“You’ll have to …”
There’s a dayroom full of lounging supplicants, some of whom are not fully in the world, Heaven having transubstantiated large portions of them. The TV blares. Rissa’s in an armchair by the barred window, wrapped up in a dun-colored afghan in a way that reminds Tyler of his great-aunt Iny, but when he catches sight of that freckled aquiline nose and the smart eyes that brighten when they see him, fingers that seem too long to belong to humankind tapping at the armrest like it’s her synthesizer, all he can think about is how relieved he is none of her stayed strapped down back there in the seclusion room. She’s all here. They’ve apparently decided she won’t try to teach the other supplicants a lesson anymore. The relief cum fear, the knowledge that there’s no one to save her but him, is like an ice-pick to the balls. Makes him weak in the knees and he ends up half-falling into the chair beside her.
“Hey, Buster,” she says. She hasn’t used the nickname in years. “You’re late for the freak show.”
Tyler turns to where she inclines her head, expecting to see a supplicant pulling a stunt, but it’s only a gaggle of nurses by the door. Rissa drops her voice. “That one got new eyes over the weekend.” He’s got to admit the nurse in question has an ears-laid-back, angry-pony look that only deadly potions shot beneath her skin could conjure. Rissa points to a male aide with a buzzcut dyed the exact gray-blue of Concord grapes. “That one’s screwing God. But don’t tell anybody. He could get in trouble. I think they’re in love.”
“I won’t.” He never knows how she knows these things. Leave it to his wife to know where the real show’s going on. “Listen, Rissa, we need to talk about how long you want to stay here.”
When she looks at him, he sees that something’s poured out of her eyes, in only the time it took him to bring up the subject, and the fear kicks him in the nuts again. Eyes so drained, he ought to see blood tears tracking down her cheeks, but he understands it’s all gone inside, some jism that keeps her herself in this place drained inward, secreted away inside her before someone can take it away again. She lays her head back on the armchair and tilts it toward him at just the right angle to evoke intimacy without leaning on him and he feels the hopelessness of watching a beloved house burn.
“Did I ever tell you about the warlocks who held me captive when I was fifteen?” she asks. Three times since the miscarriages, but he shakes his head, the past always a new place. “There was this cop. Mean bastard.” Her voice stitches the air, fervid spelling, and he tries to catch it and hold it down.
When Rissa was fifteen she ran away from home, for reasons that have remained unspecified. Two nights on the streets of her mid-size city, half-frozen, and then a cop by the name of Robert Travers found her and befriended her. He agreed with her that she didn’t have to go back home. He knew people she could stay with, drove her to a house in the gray part of town while she kept her head down in the back seat of the patrol car per his instructions. He kept turning to smile at her. The house was full of warlocks, though Rissa hadn’t understood that at first, never having seen one. The warlocks all had long white hair and barbed-wire tattoos around their necks. They spent their days buying and selling the potions that the people who want to crumble reality need. Officer Rob Travers was one of these and she understood then that she was his money. The warlocks kept her tied to the bed, only coming in to etch their magics on her, which hurt. They would let Travers have a go at his own castings on her whenever he was around. He was in and out all the time; she got used to the gun-oil reek of his cock, the special dirty magic he’d write on her face with it before flipping her over. Whenever he was there Travers saw to it Rissa was given water to drink, and each time she drank the small desiccated stone inside her bloomed into a spiky plant. Now and then she would hear the warlocks in the next room all chanting together, casting a major spell, and it would make the reality of the house tremble. Always inching a little closer to the destruction they craved. The warlocks kept her captive in their house for ninety-nine years.
“One day one of the smaller ones had a razor blade.” Rissa has shifted and Tyler can smell her unwashed armpits, but it’s comforting. “He was sitting on the bed beside me and he kept bringing the blade up close to my skin. He’d press the edge into my cheek, just under my eye, without breaking the skin, or he’d try to sort of comb my hair with it. There was light coming from the closed blinds and it made a glint on the razor and the reflection woke something up. I realized I could cast my own spell with words and so I started weaving, some of this and some of that. First him that day, then the others. It was funny to watch it go in their ears. They’d get such a confused look. They let me up after that, I had the run of the house but I couldn’t walk out the door even when it was open, because they could see me. A little like this place.” Rissa’s staring up at the ceiling, where there’s no door for damn sure, but Tyler gets it. “I started ransacking the cupboards when they weren’t paying attention, though there was never any food, just a grungy plastic shaker of seasoning someone left behind and brown crumbs on the shelf. Mouse-shit de provence.” Tyler grins. His favorite part is coming. “I was so new to power, but I didn’t want to be there another ninety-nine years. I knew I’d have to give back some of the water that had saved my life, and so one day I mixed the dust and the crumbs and the seasoning in my palm, spit into it and rubbed it on my eyelids. It made me invisible and I walked out between them while they were mumbling and mixing and the doorway opened for me. ‘Cept there was Rob Travers just getting out of a car that wasn’t his patrol car. I think when he saw me he knew it was no use giving me back to them. He took me home, told everyone how he heard through informants about a girl being held and went looking for me and rescued me. The papers picked it up. He was a hero.”
Except. Tyler rubs the back of her fingers with his and electricity shoots through the hairs. Except she’d been pregnant and had to have an abortion. Doing-away magic. Her mother arranged it as soon as it became clear. No warlock was Rissa’s mom going to be Nana to, but Rissa knew the baby would have come out with a badge on. Cut to years later. College, love, marriage, a glance at each other across the dinner table on her thirtieth that said, Let’s start trying, followed by three miscarriages. The first two, Tyler recalls with a fruit-rot taste in his mouth, were bloody skirmishes, fought in the night, in her body and on hospital sheets soaked red, while sleepy annoyed staff kept watch and Rissa stared at him, shaking her head, powerless. The third was quieter, discovered by ultrasound in the twelfth week, only the doctor shaking his head this time at the silence issuing from her, that absence of a heartbeat saying everything. “It happens,” the doctor told them. “With no bleeding, you wouldn’t know. Just doesn’t want to come out.” Tyler had imagined the fetus in there clinging to the rafters with a death grip muttering No.
Spontaneous abortion, the doctor had said then. Medically correct. Said it right out loud, and Tyler had watched the popping mushy sound of it curl like smoke across the room and enter Rissa’s eyes.
It was after that she started combining strange spices any time she cooked—anise and bear’s garlic, onion-saffron honey. When the powders she mixed seemed strange enough to cause sparks, she’d hide them. Tyler would catch her turning nonchalantly from slammed cabinet doors whenever he entered the kitchen. Voices in her pillow were revealing the formulas to her, she confessed to him, but only when she laid her left ear against it, never her right.
“Listen,” Tyler says.
Rissa kisses his lips, just a peck, an impulse both ebullient and solemn. They’re conspirators, unquestioning of each other. The afghan slips from her arm and he sees a bruise on her wrist that can only be from the four-point strap. “What?”
“I asked God about this last time I was here. He’s a doctor, so he should know.” She nods, prepared to take his theories under advisement. “He said it’s unlikely the abortion was what’s causing the miscarriages.” Tyler withstands the temptation to gloss it up here, pretend it’s completely impossible, because he wants to be honest. “They’re not your fault, Riss.”
Rissa watches him for a long time. He can see the tendrils of smoke in her eyes. Then she kisses him again, slower. “Do you remember what I said I learned from being held prisoner?” Her gaze snaps over the nurses and back to him. “How I could never make the mistake again of not recognizing a warlock?” She leans in, grasps his arm. It’s his turn to take her seriously. “Tyler, they’re all warlocks here.”
Back in God’s office Tyler takes the commitment form and scrawls a giant No across the signature line. God purses His lips. It takes a while before the door to the world opens for her. There’s a discharge interview, then Rissa has to pack her things, which seem to consist of nothing. A plastic bag holding a pair of sweat pants and some sheet music. Tyler and Rissa stay close to each other, arms touching. In the lobby God says, “Mr. Keaton,” and Tyler turns back for a moment while she steps out into the windy day. “Please understand, Mr. Keaton.” Tyler tries to remember how many times God’s asked him to understand something in the course of the morning. “We are all either makers or destroyers.”
“So I should let you destroy her?”
He’s shaking His head, watching Rissa leave, and Tyler notices for the first time how white God’s mane of hair is. Shaking His head, caught in a loop. “Straight back to Hell, Keaton.”
There’s a way to fly that Rissa’s taught him, so they’re home in a minute rather than the hour it would take to drive. Fuck you too, he wants to say to the neighbors when he sees what they’ve prepared. Bob the Kia douche has raked leaves into a waist-high pile at the curb, innocuous enough, but Tyler knows what it hides and he can hardly breathe through the sudden scent memory from last fall, willow ash and the screams. The two women who’d lived in the corner house for years, kids dancing around the flames like fourth of July. Rissa’s not under Heaven’s protection anymore, but he thought they’d have a little more time.
Bob leans on his rake and watches them go in.
Upstairs to put away her things Rissa pulls a pair of black panties from the highboy drawer and stares, then grins at him. He’s replaced all her underwear with black. There’ll be no more dyeing for her sins. Her laugh catches him up in it until they’re half-collapsed against each other. “You did the right thing,” she tells him after they grow quiet. “Bringing me back.”
“God didn’t think so.”
They sit in the kitchen. Her eyes keep strafing the window. She knows. The back of his brain feels the crowd congregating there.
“I had to experiment, you know.” Rissa’s dusky fingers play with her latte. “I was really close, Ty. Just a few more ingredients.”
“I figured you might have hidden it.” In the corner of his eye a light is dancing, not flames, they wouldn’t light the pyre early. The fear is a high reverberating wail inside him, like a sound only dogs can hear.
“We still could –” she begins. He doesn’t find out what they still could because the doorbell rings. Someone’s beating on the door. No time at all. Rissa’s up and answering before he can say Don’t. Before he can say I love you. As the neighbors flow into the entrance hall they divide around Rissa and Tyler until they’re surrounded. Bob or Rob is there with a length of rope in his hand. Through the open door Tyler can see the pyre’s been moved to the middle of the street where the scorching won’t matter. No one wants a lawn care crisis. In his chest there’s a sway of flames, the coil of a stench. He’s shouting, but Rissa spits into her palm, wetting a mound of salt there she must have removed from the kitchen. She wipes the paste across her eyelids and then Tyler’s, and the neighbors break and flow around them, moving on to peer into the kitchen or the living room with pouting frowns on their faces. Bob or Rob is spinning in place like a tail-chasing pup, searching behind himself. Rissa takes Tyler’s hand and leads him up the stairs, stooping to draw a line of salt across the bottom step as they go. Men fight, he thinks, but this is a woman’s trick, walking out between your enemies while they’re blinded. On the bed he strips and she strips, Velcro magic, and she pulls out the half-finished spice he’d never been able to find. A baggie taped to the bottom of the nightstand drawer. He hadn’t turned things upside down enough. The powder glimmers in colors Tyler has no words for.
“Roll your own,” she moans.
“Make a baby.” One that will stick. “Makers, not destroyers.”
She’s shaking her head. The shouts from downstairs are louder. “We need to escape this place first.”
She adds the last ingredients. Up on her knees, muscled calves spread, and he’s reminded of some ancient arch formed by lions, their mouths meeting there where she rummages with her fingers and brings back menstrual blood just started. They always loved doing it then, fucking in a red ocean, the ebb of a salt orgasm, before the sight started making her sad each month. So many ingredients. There’s cobwebs from their wedding photo on the nightstand, vinegar from her breasts. Pepper in his eyes. She takes the first pearl of his come to wet it all and draws a door with her fingertip on the headboard. She opens the door to reveal a tunnel. It smells of the spice.
God was wrong, he realizes, it’s sticking to reality too much that lets the warlocks win.
Pounding on the stairs now. Behind them someone bursts in.
The door in the headboard is just large enough for them to crawl through. Rissa goes into the tunnel first, moving away fast until Tyler can only see black, and he doesn’t hesitate.
Issue #3 Contents
ART & PHOTOGRAPHY
Kirsten Imani Kasai
A Heart So Pure
Slips of Yew
The Anointed One
The Flustered Husband’s Guide to Spices
The Gallows Tree
The Gardener Estate
When You Love Someone
Rhonda Eikamp grew up in Texas and now lives in Germany. Stories of hers have appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Phantasmacore, The Colored Lens and The Journal of Unlikely Cartography. She recently helped annihilate science fiction in the special June issue of Lightspeed “Women Destroy Science Fiction.” You can read her blog and a list of further stories available online at writinginthestrangeloop.wordpress.com.