powder

A Rare Kind of Magic
by Hannah Harlow

My mother sent me to the Sumners’ for some baking powder but I went to the Nestors’ instead because I knew no one was home and I wouldn’t have to run into anybody that way. But then I saw Sarge doing tai chi in the yard next to his ragged brown tent. I’d just assumed he’d left already. No one said he was still around. I stood in the browning grass and watched as the light faded from the sky.

After a while, Sarge said, “You can join me, you know.”

I hadn’t realized he’d seen me. “I don’t know how.”

“You can do anything,” he said mildly. I almost laughed. I used to think so.

He kept on with his positions, like a statue come to life, and I continued to watch. For a fat, old guy he moved pretty gracefully. He wore blue hospital scrub pants and a thermal long-sleeved shirt that used to be white. Santa Claus as mental patient.

Five years ago, before I knew who Sarge was, he approached me in the woods while I was hiding during a game of Kick the Can with my brothers and the neighbor boys. He asked for food. I gave him a box of Cheez-Its because I thought giving him what he wanted would prevent him from breaking into our house later than night and murdering us all in our beds. I never slept the same after that. I only found out it was Sarge—an old family friend of the Nestors’, a Vietnam vet, a widower and father to a dead daughter—much later, too late to do any good. I was afraid of everything.

We’d never really talked about it.

When he finished he turned to me and said, “Have you ever shot a gun?”

“Nope.”

The night had grown so quiet now; the birds had all gone to bed.

“Oh, good,” he said. “I’ll teach you.” He disappeared into his tent and came out holding some sort of handgun.

My heart felt big in my chest. I stood up. I put my hands up.

He must have seen the look on my face. “I’m not going to hurt you!” he said, stricken.

I put my hands down. I felt like crying.

“I would never hurt you,” he said. “I thought you knew that.”

I shook my head. I closed my eyes. When I opened them I forced myself to smile. “It’s okay,” I said. “Is that thing loaded?”

“Not yet.”

“I really don’t want to do this.”

“Don’t you want to be able to protect yourself?”

“From what?”

He seemed surprised by that. We stared at each other. When he didn’t say anything, I continued, “Hasn’t that always seemed antithetical to you? Doesn’t having a gun put you in more danger? How does a gun protect me?”

A smile appeared in the middle of his snowy beard. “I knew it,” he said. He shook his head and chuckled to himself while he ducked back into his tent to deposit the gun back amongst his things.

“Knew what?” I called.

I pulled my hair off my sweaty neck. It was already August. I waited. Finally he crawled out, stood up, and dusted off his knees. He was still smiling. “I just knew there was something about you.”

“I have to get some baking powder,” I said.

“Let’s go,” he said and swung his arms in a happy way as he walked.

“You’re just going to leave that thing in there?” I pointed back at his tent. “Is it locked up or something?”

“No. Who’s going to come take it?” He spread his arms and swung around to indicate the mass of woods, our solitude. There was no one around for miles, he seemed to say.

“You never know who’s out there,” I said, meaningfully. He just chuckled again and I joined him for some reason.

A mood had descended on me, like everything was going to be okay, like caring wouldn’t change things, like c’est la vie, and sometimes the world responds to that with a wink or lets you sail along for a little while.

We let ourselves into the house because that’s the kind of neighbors we were—even if Sarge hadn’t been sort of staying there—and I helped myself to the baking powder in the kitchen while Sarge rummaged in the refrigerator. I waited for him to emerge, but he kept scrounging around. I didn’t really know what was happening between us, if we were hanging out or if I should just go. I had so many questions, but didn’t really know where to start. And part of me was thinking, what’s the point? What’s the point anyway?

“I guess I’ll see you later,” I said.

“Wait, wait, you have to try this.” He bustled a few brightly colored bowls to the kitchen table, then grabbed a serving spoon and some forks out of the drawer and a couple of plates off the counter. “It’s a panzanella using some of Rita’s vegetables from the garden. It’s divine.” I didn’t know what a panzanella was but it seemed rude to say no.

In the green ceramic bowl were vibrant red and greens and yellows from the different kinds of tomatoes and yellow from peppers and green from herbs and purple from onions and I could smell the olive oil and vinegar. My mom was waiting. I was surprised she hadn’t come looking yet.

“Did you make it?” I asked.

Sarge nodded. He pulled out a chair. “You fed me once,” he said. “Let me return the favor.”

Only once?

I sat down. He dished food onto my plate. I chewed slowly and let the flavor soak into my tongue and it felt a little like life, like he could actually return the favor. We ate.

“Why were you there anyway?” I finally asked. It was the question I’d wanted the answer to for a long time. “And why didn’t you ever say anything?” No one knew about our encounter in the woods—not my parents or brother, not any of the neighbor boys, or their parents. I hadn’t told anyone because I thought there would be repercussions. For some reason I thought that man in the woods would slice me neck to navel with a giant knife while I slept if I told anyone. I thought by not telling, I was protecting my family and friends. But why hadn’t he told anyone?

“The real question is: why did you help me?” I could see greasy spots in his beard from the all the oil. His eyes were brown, brown like an otter’s or a beaver’s. That’s what they made you think of, some sort of aquatic mammal.

“That’s not the question,” I said. “That’s not the question at all. I was scared, that’s all.”

“I don’t think that’s all of it.”

“No, I was just scared. I left more food out for you, you know. I left more food so you wouldn’t come into our houses to steal it. But you never came for it, did you? I put food on stumps and behind rocks, but it only got eaten by squirrels and birds. Right?”

He just looked at me, and I remembered exactly how it had been when I had hunkered behind that fallen tree; when I saw Sarge’s eye emerge amongst the debris of the forest and realized they had been there all along; when my brother and the neighbor boys were all out there somewhere, with me, but I wasn’t sure where, close but not close enough; the last time playing in those woods had felt like freedom.

“Right?” I repeated.

He didn’t say anything. I’m not sure he remembered how.

“So the real question is: why were you there?” I went on. “What brought you into my woods like some crazy person out to murder me?” The angrier I got the more Sarge withdrew from me. I could see him shutting down. The light went out of his eyes. The smile went back into hiding in his beard. But I couldn’t stop. “What’s wrong with you?”

We sat there for a while. I wanted to eat another tomato, the ripeness was perfect, what you wait all year for, but it felt wrong to eat now. Disrespectful, somehow.

“I get sick sometimes,” he said, so quietly.

I speared a red-purple tomato with the three tines of my fork, but didn’t put into my mouth.

“I didn’t mean it,” he said and it sounded like a little kid.

“Are you sick now?” I asked.

He shook his head and as he stared at me he had this look on his face and I started to get uncomfortable. What was that in his eyes? What did he see when he looked at me?

It looked a lot like hope.

“My mom’s waiting for me,” I said. I grabbed the baking powder and stood up.

“Wait,” he said. “Let me help you.”

“How?”

“Tell me your greatest fear.”

Jeez, where to start? But I knew, deep in my bones. I knew the one that stopped me in my tracks. There was one thing that could change everything. It wasn’t even the worst thing that could happen—it wasn’t like death or maiming or anything physical—but it would take my whole world away. “That my parents will sell our land to those condo developers. Or that we’ll just move. That I’ll lose this place.”

“Would that be so bad?”

The Nestors’ house was like a jungle, a jungle of plants, a jungle of ornaments and souvenirs and relics and art from trips to India and Tibet, Laos and Thailand and the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore. Rita loved eastern cultures. She was a Buddhist and an herbalist and believed in sustainability. Andrew had a cushy position at the university teaching one Art History course on ancient Eastern art a semester. He also consulted with the museum regularly on their acquisitions and maintaining their permanent collection. And that jungle in their house was part of the jungle of the hill on which we lived. It had the magic. So when I lifted my arms to say “this place,” I meant all of it, all of this house and all of our house and all of the Sumner’s house and all of the woods and all of the hill, the whole jungle of my world, and I said, “Magic like this is rare. Don’t you think it would be wrong to let is just…disappear?”

“Magic like this is fleeting,” Sarge said.

“Does it have to be?”

The smile reemerged in the beard. It was perfectly silent for a few moments but in my head I could hear a symphony playing, the crescendo rising. Maybe he would understand. The cellos played deep and slow, I loved their soothing bass line. The violins, with their sweet, high sound, moved impossibly fast for being so smooth.

“Speaking fears aloud gives them less power,” Sarge said.

The strings halted. The way he said it kind of spooked me out. Was that all I had to do to change the course of events? If you know all of a person’s greatest fears, did you know the person?

“I’ve got to go,” I said.

I paused at the door. Sarge looked so sad sitting there, alone. “That salad really was divine.”

When I got outside, I realized I’d left the baking powder on the table. It was full dark now. You don’t realize how noisy the woods are until you stop and listen. Animals lope through, birds rustle leaves, pinecones and other things drop from the trees. Or maybe that’s not an animal but a person. Maybe that’s not a bird but a stranger rustling his clothes as he comes nearer. Maybe that’s not an acorn dropping but a man dropping the sheath of his knife. This was all I’d ever known.

I couldn’t go back in the Nestors’ house, so I ran across the gravel drive that connected all of us, over to the Sumners’, where I could grab some baking powder from them, like I was supposed to do in the beginning, and it could be like none of this ever happened.

Hannah Harlow‘s fiction has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Day One, Synaesthesia Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her online at hannahharlow.com.

Photo: Joe Mabel via Creative Commons.

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