“The Love Spell” – Fiction by Tom Stephan

The Hut of Dead - Nicholas Roerich, 1909
The Hut of Dead – Nicholas Roerich, 1909

“We always recognize the evil we make,” says the narrator of “The Love Spell,” Tom Stephan‘s chilling yet heartfelt tale from our Winter 2015 issue.

{ X }

I TOOK IN THE CABIN. Sundown streamed through small, sturdy windows, caressing dust motes crazed in the agitated air. Warped pine floor, black as the stove that pierced the roof like an ancient pylon. Refrigerator, stovetop, sink, all lined up in martial order against the wall. In the opposite corner squatted a comfortably broken-in bed with brass head and footboard, perfect in patina, covered in a bright, threadbare quilt. To the right, a claw-foot bathtub old as the Wild West, visible plumbing jerry-rigged together with plastic pipes and curtain rods, suspended by chains and ropes.

“This is my cabin,” he said proudly, holding me tightly from behind. “Turn of the century. Some of the wood is a hundred years old. See that beam above the bed? A hundred years!”

I breathed in the smell of the potbellied stove, wet wool, undertones of pine and unwashed clothes.

“I’ll start the pipes for the water. You have to drain them in the winter or they’ll freeze,” he said, running for the door like a teenage boy, pausing only to grab a wrench. “If you need to use the bathroom, let me know and I’ll stand outside.”

When he came back I took his hands and pulled him in for a long kiss. When he leaned back for air I said, “This is perfect.”

His face lit up like Christmas. “It is?” I nodded, smiled, and kissed him again.

{ X }

We spent four days in that cabin. In the mornings I woke up early, pulled the scorching feather quilt off my legs and stepped lightly onto the frozen floor. Dressing hastily, I would re-light the stove, grab my coat and go out to walk the ridge.

He had neighbors on the hill. The Chicken Man was out every morning with his pail and his flock. His wife was fat and he was lean, both with smiling, achingly sweet faces like dried apples. I would wave and march up the hill to the cemetery, the bench in the middle and the gorge beyond. I would bunch my fists in my pockets and watch the sunrise pull color into the gray fields of snow. It felt like freedom.

About an hour later, I would see him poke his head up the hill. “What are you doing here?” he’d call in mock surprise. “Hanging out with dead people?”

I would laugh, and he would laugh, and together we’d march back down the hill into town, to the tiny diner/grocery for coffee and eggs. Then we’d tour the town and retire back to the cabin for an afternoon rest, where we ended up having no rest at all. Spent and delightfully exhausted, we’d laugh at the sweat on our bodies and explore silence with our fingertips.

The first afternoon was a torrent of want and hunger. On day two, we tested the limits of newfound pleasure zones. Day three, we laughed at the silliness of it all.

“I could spend a hundred years with you,” I said, wet with his sweat and the heat of the potbelly stove.

“That’s a long time,” he said, running fingertips across my toes. Tickled, I pulled myself up into a protective ball, pushing my toes under the quilt and making a face at him.

“What do you love?” I asked.

“What do I love?”

“Yes!” I demanded childishly. “Do you love reading or writing or acting or singing? What inspires you?”

He looked around the cabin with a lover’s eyes. “I love this place. My home. Where I can be myself.”

“It’s very much a part of you,” I agreed, staring at the socks on the floor, the plastic sheeting on the window behind the bed. “But don’t you want more than this?”

“More?” He looked confused. “Sure, I want to explore the world and see new things and be more like that…but I don’t need more than this.”

“Maybe fix the plumbing?” I teased, but he didn’t get the joke. He stared at the pipes, unfazed.

“They work. One day I’ll put some sheetrock in, but mostly they’re out there so they won’t damage things if they freeze. Everything here is this way for a reason.” He smiled and pulled my leg to his chest, resting it atop his tired penis. “Do you like it?”

“I do,” I said, too quickly. “I mean, I like its potential. A lot.” He smiled and reached for my other leg, pulling me into him and curving overhead for a kiss.

“Well, I’m glad to share my home with you,” he whispered.

{ X }

The morning of the third day I woke up very early. The Chicken Man wasn’t awake yet. I marched up the hill to the cemetery, but instead of heading to the bench I turned back and looked at the town, 800 sleepy souls and twelve brick buildings. It used to be the capital of a territory, until the gold ran out, along with the desire to tame a wild place, and it faded, leaving only the stalwart behind.

I looked at his broken-down cabin. The roof sagged. The porch was stuffed with junk. The wind blew through my fingers, but I wanted them cold.

I headed into town, nodding hello to the diner folk just unlocking the doors, and strolling past the old Victorian stone library, the wooden post office, the summer stores still shuttered against the winter in this not-yet springtime.

Occasionally I would look back up, searching out the shack on the hill. It was inescapable.

I trudged back to the house and found it empty. A shout further up the hill sounded off and I watched as he came skittering down the path, coming to rest in front of me. He put the toes of his shoes to mine and breathed minty morning mist in the air.

“Whatcha doin’ here?” he’d said, breathless. “Hanging out with dead people not fun anymore?” He took my fingers and winced. “You’re freezing! Come inside and get warm.”

{ X }

There wasn’t much to pack. We would be on the road in less than an hour. I shuddered through a lukewarm bath as he sang nonsense songs, then dressed for the long car ride home. He kissed me lightly on the brow. “I’m going to run to town and forward my mail. Promise you’ll be here when I get back?” I promised.

After he vanished down the hill, I grabbed the all-purpose knife on the stove and surveyed the room. The floor was like stone. The walls would be too obvious. The ceiling would have to do.

Standing on the corner of the bed, I reached up and dug the knife into the wood.

“May you travel,” I said as I began to carve the symbol. “May you range far from here.” A second cut, this time more sinuous. “May this place never be enough for you.” Two more marks and it was done. I stumbled back and nearly fell from the bed. The knife tumbled out of my hand and fell, stabbing itself into the floor. I scrambled down and snatched the knife up just as he opened the door, holding a brown paper sack.

“Honey I’m home!” he bellowed, then stopped short at the sight of me. “Well if you want to stay, you don’t have to get violent.”

“Sorry, just…housekeeping.”

{ X }

I strapped into the truck and watched in the rearview as he snapped the bed cover into place, then eased into the cab. He looked tired.

“You alright?” I pressed a hand into his shoulder but he pulled away, with the smile of a parent hard-pressed to deal with a young child.

“I’m okay, beautiful, just–” He looked at the cabin through the foggy windshield. “You’re right, I have to do a lot of work on this place. Maybe this summer,” he sighed as he put the truck into gear.

{ X }

A lot of things could have factored into our ending a few short months later. But ultimately it was this: He was kind, pure-hearted, soulful. And I couldn’t even comprehend that it was love. Like session players we packed our bags, shook hands and departed the stage as friends. I moved to the sea; he stayed in the mountains. We would call and write, write and call, and laugh about mutual friends.

During one call I asked, “How’s the cabin?” He fell silent for a moment.

“I haven’t been up there in months. I need to get back there.”

“It’s a great place.”

“It’s just hard, you know. I’m working up and down the mountain line this summer, and then it’ll be too cold to do much there. Maybe in the fall I can take two weeks. It’s the only place I ever called my own.”

My heart twisted into an ugly knot.

“You know I have a plot in that cemetery?” he said, weirdly cheerful. “I’ll be buried there with all the folks from history one day. And I’ll always be near my cabin. And the mountains, and that week we spent…”

 

“It was a wonderful week,” I said, struggling to loosen the threads that bound my heart to my throat.

{ X }

The calls were less and less for a few years. He was busy working, in California, then Oregon, then Washington. He’d always talk about the cabin, how he needed to get back up there, how he’d been there for two weeks but had to leave right away for something more important.

Land lines became cell phones, and we exploded into the world of texting. He wrote me novels about lumberjacking and guiding backpackers. I sat at my cubicle and read each one greedily, like a prisoner denied sight of the sea.

One fall he texted me: “I HAVE A CAMERA PHONE!”

“Awesome! Send me a photo, plz.” Moments later his grinning face, too low and out of focus, sprang up on my phone. I laughed until I cried.

“AT THE CABIN LOVE YOU MORE PICTURES SOON,” followed by more vaguely framed snapshots. There it was, that beautiful wreck. Ten years had hardly changed it: the roof just a little more bowed, the yard slightly cleaner, the truck more rusted.

The phone rang. “I have fat fingers!” he moaned. “This is easier.”

“Ha! I see from the greenery it’s still summer there.”

“Yeah, but it’s getting cold. I came up to spend the winter but I don’t think I’ll stay. Been here two weeks and I’m just not ready to hibernate yet.”

The knot in my heart tugged at my throat again. “You should spend the winter. You’ve been saying for 8 years how you want to fix up that cabin. Make it happen.”

“I know, I know, but I get here and I’m just restless. Like I can’t sleep here…” He trailed off.

“Tell you what: I’ll cast a magic spell that’ll make it easier for you.”

“You wise and wonderful wizard, you!” he rumbled. “Cast your charms on me and make me hibernate through the winter!” I laughed, and closed my eyes, and wished hard that he would be at home again. “Love you very much! Talk to you later!”

“And I love you!” I said, wiping a tear. “Send me another picture!” I shouted as the phone cut out.

A second later the picture popped into the phone. This time his face was clear and sharp. He had laid the phone on his lap and was looking down on it. I saw the edge of the brass bed, a corner of the quilt over his bare shoulder, and there, above the bed, something that froze the tears on my face: The mark.

Two dots, two arcs, one sinuous curve, cut deep into the old wood. But from the gouges a black stain had oozed out, like an inkblot. Spidery lines ran across the beam, inky lines of something horrible spreading. It looked like a bruise, dark fading to yellow. It could have been shadows, or a trick of the camera to anyone else, but we always recognize the evil we make.

I texted back with shaky hands: “Looks like you have some rot on the beam,”

“I’M NOT THAT UGLY HA HA” he replied. Then silence.

{ X }

The cabin’s windows were busted out. The yard was clear; the locals had chipped in and removed all the junk. His family came up to clear out the rest.

They found him with blood frozen on his wrists, and in pools on the floor around the bathtub. The bathwater had frozen around his body, according to the Chicken Man and his wife.

“Never thought he’d be the type,” The Chicken Man sighed. “But I hadn’t seen him for weeks, and his car was out here, so I stepped in to look.” He held the pail on his hip and looked at the snow-piles thawing around him. “Winter can get to you.”

“Did they bury him in the cemetery?” I asked, brushing away wind tears.

“The family took his body away and cremated it right away,” he said. “Pity …he always wanted to be buried up here. Loved to tell you about it.”

“I remember.” I stared at the cabin. Without something to feed on, it had starved to death. There was no horror in it except for the thought of blood on warped pine floorboards.

“Funny thing, he’d’ve been right next to my folks up there,” he said, pointing up the hill. “The monument with the eagle, that’s our plot. He’d’ve kept my Mama company.” He pushed his glasses back on top of his head and rubbed his eyes. “You look familiar.”

“I spent a weekend here once, long time ago.”

“That’s right!” he snapped his fingers. “I remember that. Happy times.”

“Happy times.”

{ X }

Standing over the empty plot, I pushed the blade of my pocketknife into my forearm until the blood welled up, thick and fast. Shallow but long, the blood streamed down my arm and into the snow.

“I give you this place to rest. Where it will always be enough. May you always be home.”

Two dots, two arcs, one sinuous curve.

The wind picked up and I felt it shout around me. The knot in my heart loosed itself and I cried, clutching my bleeding arm and mixing tears into the snow below. I’ve never been back.

{ X }

Tom Stephan
Tom Stephan

TOM STEPHAN is a Texas native who has spent a little time being a bit of everything: teacher, actor, playwright, writer, traveler. When he’s not doing any of those things he’s living in Austin and eating well. He has a BA in English, an MFA in Acting and has a curious collection of hats and suspenders. His website is medium.com/@dyer9380.

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