"There are only two tragedies: One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."
Most of the year it was just an empty lot. Little ever grew there, and no one ever tried to build anything on it. It was dusty, ugly, and overlooked. But still, the people knew, deep down, that it was a special place, and they treated it with deference. It was a place of power. They all felt it.
Jezibaba knew it better than anyone. Her little house crouched just across the alley from it, and that night she drew her curtains aside and peered through the gloom in its direction. Yes, this was the night: the first new moon in October. Darkness was best for these things. When the clock struck half past, she went out. Alone, at night, she did not stoop or hobble, as she normally did when other people may be watching. She carried her old rocking chair with her, hefting it easily with one skinny arm. She hesitated, as always, before crossing the threshold onto the lot; this was her own place of power, but even she needed to respect it. Especially tonight.
Jezibaba set her chair in the precise center of the vacant property and arranged an old quilt on her lap. She muttered to herself in a language no one else in the world spoke anymore, and her thick fingers retrieved something that had been rolled up in the hem of her skirts: a seed. It was an unwholesome color, blackish-purple, and it smelled like a bad wound. Perhaps it even squirmed a little in her grasp, like a grub.
Or perhaps not.
She held the seed up, she said the words, she kissed it with her withered lips and then, telling herself there was no sense putting it off any longer, she cast it into the dirt. And then waited. She rocked back and forth, and she watched, and she waited, and at first, of course, nothing happened. That was always the way.
The wind picked up and the branches of the old trees rubbed together, but nothing happened. Jezibaba paid it no mind. She rocked some more. Clouds rolled over the night sky, darkening what had been dark already, and still nothing happened, and Jezibaba found herself wondering whether, perhaps, this year it wasn't going to work...
And then it started. First the soil shifted, and the earth groaned, and then something shot up out of the ground, like a sapling bursting into life all at once. But it was not, in fact, a whole plant: It was a wooden post, grown whole and intact, the progeny of that sown seed, and then, a few feet further on, there came up another one, and another, and another, and soon the lot was full of them. And then, tiny at first but growing with each second, the creeping green vines twisted around each post, curling up out of nothing and spreading out. Jezibaba nodded. It was good.
And then they grew, springing full-grown and fat and round and ripe into life. How many were there? Hundreds, maybe. Each of them came into the world already waiting for the eager hands that would pick them up and carry them home. Each of them was special. Each of them was a treasure. Each of them was a little life that Jezibaba called her own.
There, in the middle of the night, at the witching hour, the pumpkin patch grew, and Jezibaba rocked back and forth in her old chair. And she watched. And she waited. It would be a good year.
Sonia was waiting.
Mr. Palmer was considering the pumpkins one at a time, lifting them and hefting them and feeling all around the surface of each. He'd been at it for fifteen minutes. Sonia smiled as politely as she could. Come on already, she thought, come on...
"This one," Mr. Palmer said.
"And that one. And the other one. I'll take all of them. ...except that one." He nudged one gourd with the toe of his shoe. "All the rest I'll take."
Sonia's smile stretched the corners of her mouth. "Sure thing, Mr. Palmer. Let me help you get these to your car."
It took a few trips to cart all seven of them over. Sonia stopped to wipe her sweaty brow on her sleeve. Mr. Palmer closed the trunk. "It's nice of you to help Ms. Marzanna with the pumpkin patch this year," he said.
"It's the least I can do, since she was always so nice to us as kids."
"Was to me too."
Sonia blinked. "Was she doing this even when you were a kid?"
Mr. Palmer nodded. "Every year. You know she was old even then. Can't imagine what the neighborhood will do when she finally passes on. Halloween wouldn't be the same without her."
She took Mr. Palmer's money and watched him drive off. It was Halloween day, and she was 18 years old, and this would be her last year in the old neighborhood. Her last year to pick over Ms. Marzanna's special pumpkins. And her last year for a lot of other things too.
There had only been a dozen left that morning and now they'd all sold but one, an oblong gourd of moderate size. Sonia dusted her hands off on her jeans and stooped to touch it. It felt cool. I guess this one is mine, she thought, hefting it with both hands.
The smell of the old hay on the ground followed her as she made her way across the lot. Ms. Marzanna was waiting for her on the other side, leaning back and forth in her rocking chair. So she'd been old even when Mr. Palmer was a kid? Could it really be true? Looking at her now, hunched and brittle, like a drought bush, Sonia almost believed it.
The old woman cleared her throat. "It's the last day. That means it's time for your payment. Is that the one you want?"
Sonia held out the pumpkin. "All the other ones were sold."
"Then this is the one for you," Ms. Marzanna said. She pried it from Sonia's hands with her stubby fingers. "There's power in being the last of a kind; the last of a family. Yes, this one will do for you." She stood. "Come with me. Bring the chair."
Sonia lifted the old rocker. It took two hands. She followed Ms. Marzanna to her little, funny-shaped house across the alley. Sonia had known Ms. Marzanna all her life but had never visited her in her home. She rarely even saw Ms. Marzanna at all, except around Halloween when she minded the pumpkin patch, as she always did. Each year she had a helper, too. An old woman couldn't cart all those pumpkins and drive all those posts into the ground herself, after all. Although she hadn't asked Sonia to do it either. She wondered who'd helped with that part?
The kitchen was small and it smelled like incense, and library books, and time. Ms. Marzanna set the pumpkin on the red-checked tablecloth and sized it up. "Yes, this one will do," she said. "You've been a helpful dear for me and I want to make sure you get what you deserve." Sonia couldn't shake the funny feeling that she might be talking to the pumpkin rather than her. Then Ms. Marzanna began talking to herself, or maybe singing to herself. Sonia did not recognize the language. Slavic? German?
Tools were laid out: knives of many sizes, a spoon with a serrated edge, and a great ceramic bowl. Ms. Marzanna picked up the largest knife, the size usually reserved for chopping the carcasses of animals or menacing people in movies, and drove it into the roof of the pumpkin. It made a juicy sound. Sonia watched the old woman slice a lid, pry it off, and begin scraping the insides with the spoon. The moist scent of pumpkin entrails filled the kitchen.
Sonia shifted in her seat. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she said.
"Sit there and think about what you want. It helps." Ms. Marzanna paused. "You do know what you want, don't you?"
Sonia nodded. "Yes, Ms. Marzanna."
"Don't call me that," Ms. Marzanna said. "Silly name. No point in using it now of all times. Call me Jezibaba."
"Is that your...maiden name?"
Ms. Marzanna cackled. Sonia felt embarrassed, for some reason.
"I do know what I want," she said when Ms. Marzanna finally stopped laughing.
"Good. Be a dear and throw these out into the compost heap." She handed Sonia the bowl teeming with pumpkin innards. "They won't do much for the soil, but as the old woman said when she pissed in the sea, every little bit helps."
Sonia navigated the narrow hall of the little house until she found the rear door. The backyard smelled faintly like a chicken coop, though no birds were visible. The compost was piled high with clippings of strange plants, and--was something moving in there? She emptied the bowl as quickly as she could and went back inside.
Ms. Marzanna was busy with the smaller knives, working away at the surface of the gourd. Sonia tried to peer over her shoulder but Ms. Marzanna waved her away. "Don't pester me, there's nothing you can do to help with this part. It's a lost art. Just sit there and think about the thing you want. Think as hard as you can. Concentrate!"
So Sonia sat. She thought about blue eyes, and a velvety voice, and strong hands. She thought about drowsy afternoons of daydreams, and the many times she'd "accidentally" walked by a certain house, and even about the jealousy, like a needle in her heart. She thought about the nights she'd stayed up, not able to sleep but dreaming while she was still awake and wondering if he was--
"Finished," Ms. Marzanna said. Sonia blinked; the clock said an hour had passed, but she'd barely noticed. Ms. Marzanna turned the freshly carved jack o' lantern for her to see, and Sonia flinched. It was fantastically ugly. She couldn't believe that Ms. Marzanna, with her stubby fingers and skinny arms, could have carved so much detail into its face, nor invested such a degree of leering malice in its eyes and smile. It looked, she reflected, like a real monster, and she found herself afraid of what it might look like when lit from within. She thought about that ritualistic moment when flickering, ghostly candlelight would first spring into its features and she shivered. Could something this awful really help her?
Ms. Marzanna was digging in a kitchen drawer, pulling out odds and ends: an old bone with a leather thong tied to it, a tiny bottle of yellow sand, a bit of dried leather with a strange letter branded on it, a jar full of the teeth of some animal--"Ah!" Ms. Marzanna came up with a stubby purple candle. The wick was singed from previous use but most of the body was intact. It felt warm when she put it in Sonia's hand. Not hot like a flame, but warm, like living skin.
"Tonight, when you're alone, take this candle and put it inside the jack o' lantern," Ms. Marzanna said. "Don't put it in there before you're ready to light it, and certainly don't keep it in there while you carry it home. Got that?"
"Good. When you light the pumpkin think about the thing you want most in the world. As long as it stays lit, and as long as it's Halloween night, your heart's desire will be yours. But once the sun comes up or the candle goes out, the spell will be broken. Nod if you understand."
Sonia nodded three times.
"All right. And it goes without saying you oughtn't tell anyone where you got this. You've done me a good turn and you've got your payment and I wish you well with it, but don't go hanging around my door mewling like a kitten and asking for more once it's finished."
She actually pushed Sonia to the porch. Ms. Marzanna paused as Sonia wavered, a little unsteady, on her front step.
"And by the way dear..." she said, smiling ear to ear. "Happy Halloween!"
She slammed the door.
Halloween night. Sonia was alone in the house. The phone was off the hook.
Her parents were out and her friends would be wondering where she was, but she didn't care. She had more important things to do than go to parties. The evil-looking pumpkin sat on her nightstand, grinning. She felt like it was watching her. She wanted to throw it out, but she didn't dare. Tomorrow, when she didn't need it anymore, she'd smash it to bits with a shovel and then go throw the pieces off a bridge. But that was for then.
With trembling fingers she lifted the lid, placed the candle inside, and fumbled with a match. The smell of sulfur flared up, and then the scent of burning tallow, and then the horrible goblin face came to life, glowing with that flickering orange funeral light. She backed away, as if the thing were going to bite her.
She waited. She fretted. How would she know if it was working? Maybe she should call...no, she should just go over there. Go straight there and don't wait.
She grabbed a plate of cookies from the kitchen and headed out. She was so anxious that she didn't bother to lock the front door. The night was dark and clear and still, full of the voices of children as they scampered through the streets, the shadows distorting their masks and costumes, making them look unreal. She walked the route she knew by heart. She came to the little yellow house with the old fence and the beat-up sports van in the garage. A pair of fiendish jack o' lanterns glowed on the porch and for a heart-stopping moment she swore she saw the awful demon face of the one Ms. Marzanna had made for her plastered across the front of each, but when she blinked it was gone, replaced by more benign images.
She tried to calm her beating heart as she pushed the doorbell. This is it, she thought. Then, a horrible idea came to her: What if he wasn't here? What if he'd gone out hours ago? What if the candle burned out before she found him and she never knew if--
Mr. Valeri opened the door. Smiling as wide as she could, Sonia held up the cookies and said, "Trick or treat!"
She held her breath, waiting for him to say something or at least to react, but for an agonizing instant all he did was stare, as if confused. Sonia felt a twitch of pain in her chest. Then he broke into a smile.
"Sonia," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"I realized I was going to be passing by your place tonight, so I thought I'd drop off some treats for your son. It's Halloween, after all."
"Yes, it is. But Ivan's out trick-or-treating, with Sharon."
"Gee, that's too bad," Sonia said. "I really wanted to see him. He must be getting so big now. Well, I'll stop by some other time--"
"Wait." Mr. Valeri touched her arm and Sonia's heart leapt up. "They'll be back soon. Why don't you come in and wait?"
Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God, Sonia thought. She stepped inside. The house was homey and warm. It was the perfect little neighborhood house, the one that looked exactly the way on the inside as you'd imagine it did from the outside. Sonia set the cookies on the coffee table. Mr. Valeri shuffled around for a moment, as if he didn't know what to do with himself. "Please, sit," he said. Sonia sat. She nudged the cookies toward him.
"Try one?" she said.
His fingers touched hers as he reached for the plate and he jumped back as if he'd been shocked. Sonia was nearly squirming in her seat. She smiled at him. He looked to the side.
Mr. Valeri cleared his throat. "What a nice surprise to see you. How are your classes this year?"
"They're fine. They're good. I'm a senior now."
"I guess you are, aren't you? Your parents must be proud. You know it's funny, but I was just thinking about you when you knocked."
Sonia bit into a cookie. "Now Mr. Valeri, don't go telling me you think about me."
"You just popped into my head all of a sudden, and then you were here. It was like..."
Sonia patted the spot on the couch next to her and he sat. She inched a little closer to him, but was careful not to touch.
"Shouldn't you be out with friends?" he said. "It's Halloween..."
Sonia shook her head. "I was going to go out, but...I'm kind of bored of parties, you know? They're all the same. I think I'm too old for it."
"Old before your time?"
"Just grown up."
The house seemed very quiet, and very close.
"School's really not as good without you, you know," Sonia said.
"That's very flattering. But I'm enjoying the time off."
"Writing your book?"
He seemed to choose his words carefully. "Yes. Of course. But mostly looking after Ivan. We tried both working for the first year, but he really needs at least one of us home with him."
"You must be a wonderful father." She inched a little closer. "Tell me what the book is about?"
He cleared his throat. "It's partly autobiographical. It's about a trip I took to Prague when I was a little older than you."
"And it's about... I really shouldn't be telling you this."
"You're a student."
"Not anymore; you're not a teacher." She grinned, and he seemed to relax.
"It's about a woman I met there. A...much older woman. Whom I had a short but...memorable relationship with."
"Mr. Valeri! Mrrowrr!" She giggled and felt warm and a little drunk inside. "What does your wife think about that?"
His face fell. "She, um, hasn't been all that supportive."
"Uh huh. Is that why she's out with Ivan tonight and you're home alone?"
"Yes..." He stood. "I was going to fix a drink. Do you want one?"
"Whatever you're having."
He came back a few minutes later with two hi-ball glasses. "I never used to keep liquor in the house. Felt irresponsible, somehow. Isn't that silly? They gave me this bottle at the retirement party."
"But you're not really retired? You're still young."
"There's not a lot of teaching jobs in the world. If I try to come back in a few years there might not be a place for me." He pondered the single ice cube in his glass for a while. "It really is remarkable you showing up now. I was thinking about you tonight for no reason. You were always a favorite student of mine, you know that?"
Now Sonia blushed. "You were my favorite teacher..."
"I guess you'll be going away to college next year?"
"A lot's going to change for you. A whole lot. I wonder...you're not drinking anything?"
"Call me Stefan, please. We're not in class."
"Stefan...I'm not really old enough to drink." She set the glass on the table.
Mr. Valeri looked stunned for a second. "Oh my God, of course. I didn't think...that was incredibly irresponsible of me."
"It's all right." Sonia stood, and she put a hand on his arm. "I should probably get going. Unless you don't want me to?" She looked up at him. His eyes were very, very blue. "I can stay. I can stay as long as you want." She rubbed his arm. "What do you want, Stefan?"
He exhaled. "I'm a married man," he said.
"I know." Their faces were very close together.
"I have responsibilities. I've...never done anything like this. I never even thought about it. And I don't know why I am now."
"But you're not telling me to leave."
Sonia almost jumped when she felt his hands on her waist. "No," he said. "I'm not."
They fell over each other, kissing, touching, feeling. Sonia landed on the couch, and Mr. Valeri (Stefan, she reminded herself) landed almost on top of her, and a moment later she lost her balance and slid down to the floor. She coiled around him, arms and legs wrapped tight about his body, lips locked against his. Is it really happening, she thought? Is this a dream? She ran her hand over the rough shag of the carpet. It felt real enough.
His lips were soft, just as she'd always imagined the. And she had never realized he had such strong hands. Hands like that could do anything they wanted. She pushed herself against him and he squeezed. Sonia almost whimpered. Everything about him felt good. She reached between his legs and he grunted in surprise. Then she broke off the kiss and pushed him away. He looked confused, so she whispered in his ear:
"Take me to the bedroom."
He hesitated. She kisses his earlobe. "Take me to where your wife sleeps. I want to do it there."
He carried her, like newlyweds crossing the threshold. He dumped her on the mattress and she bounced, laughing. She tugged his shirt off and ran her fingers down his naked chest. Then, slowly, almost reverently, he loosened the buttons on her blouse, unwrapping her like a present. She stretched out on the comforter, the bedding cool against her hot skin. This is really the bedroom, she thought. This is where another woman has him every night. And now this is where I have him.
She sighed, content. Such strong arms. She felt safe and tended to in them. His lips tickled her neck and she combed her fingers through his hair. His mouth moved down her and her body molded against his. The flickering tip of his tongue sent thrills up and down her. She guided him with her words: "There...there...ohhh, there..."
She eyed the bulge in his underwear. Cupping it, she squeezed, and again he looked startled. "It's okay," she told him, rubbing it. "I won't bite."
"It's just...I'm not sure...have you ever...?"
He looked cute and flustered. "It's not my first," she said. "I don't want you to think about me, anyway. Just do what you want. This is your night." Again he seemed hesitant, so as she slid her hand down the front of his waistband she said, "Would it help if you think about your wife?"
He started. She stroked him. "It's all right. I don't mind. I'll be just like her, but better. It'll be my Halloween disguise." She pulled him down for a kiss, tongue tangling with his, while she removed the last of his clothes with her free hand.
"Do whatever you want," she said again. "Call me her name...and do whatever you want."
The headboard was old and wearing out, so it creaked and strained as Stefan rocked back and forth above her. She tried to grab onto it, but it was too wide and her palms were slippery from sweat. Her hair had grown damp and hung in her eyes, so she rolled her head back and saw the web of light splaying across the ceiling through the window, black lace on yellow. She felt him in the close, tight confines of her body, and her mind swam in a warm sense of relief. Finally, she thought.
This is a husband and wife's bed, she thought. And here we are, as good as a husband and wife. No, she thought: better. And to prove the point she twisted underneath him, turning her hips to one side and exposing the smooth curve of her behind, so that he was almost entering her sideways. A throbbing feeling stimulated everything below her waist. Yes, even better than real, she thought.
She ran her nails up his back andgripped his forearms, pulling on him. She wanted to touch him as much as possible to make sure he was really real. There he was: his skin, his muscles, the real, tiny hairs on his body, and the smell of his sweat. This is it, she thought, arching her back. This is the moment when it all changes. Nothing will ever be the same--
Then he stopped. Confusion passed over his face. He looked like a man awakened from a particularly troubling dream.
"Sonia?" he said. "What are you...how did...?"
Sonia's heart stopped; the candle!
She bolted out of the bed, for a moment meaning to run out of the house entirely. She backed into the corner. Mr. Valeri sat on the bed, dazed, like an accident victim. He had picked up one of his socks from off the floor and looked at it as if it might hold answers. "What happened?" he said. "How did we..."
She opened her mouth. Nothing came out. She tried again: "I...I'm sorry. I'm sorry." She began gathering her clothes in a hurry.
"Sonia," Mr. Valeri said. "You're...you're Sonia, right? I remember you. But why are you here? Why did we...?"
"I'm sorry," she said again. She was crying. He was too. "I didn't mean to...I'm just so sorry!"
And she ran. She ran the entire way.
She found the darkened jack o' lantern right where she had left it. The hollow face stared at her. She fumbled with the matches, but they wouldn't light. One broke in her hand. Then she dropped the box and they scattered across the floor. She held the last one between her fingers, but as she went to light it a hand closed over her wrist.
"That won't do you any good," Ms. Marzanna said.
Sonia screamed. The old woman grinned. Her teeth glittered.
"What are you doing here?" Sonia said.
"Finishing our bargain. You got what was yours, didn't you?"
"But the candle burnt out."
"You knew it would eventually. You knew he'd come to his senses."
"I thought... I thought things would be different after we..." Tears pricked her eyes. "I thought he'd change."
Ms. Marzanna laughed. "Ah, to be that young again. Now, hold still and don't squirm. This last part is important."
Sonia saw the knife but she didn't have time to scream again. The tip of the blade sank into her palm and hot blood ran between her fingers. Ms. Marzanna squeezed her wrist while Sonia cried out. A few drops of her blood dribbled onto a bowl on the table, and then Ms. Marzanna let her go. The old woman plucked something from the red pool: It was a pumpkin seed. But it looked strange now. It had turned purple and unhealthy, and it seemed to throb. Sonia held her bleeding hand and backed away.
"What is that?"
"The last seed from the last pumpkin in the patch, seasoned with your misery. It'll make a good harvest for me, come next Halloween."
The old witch tucked the seed away and shrank into the shadows. Only her eyes were visible, lit up like two orange candle flames.
"Don't take it so hard, dear," Jezibaba's voice said. "After all, if you want him again, you can always come back to me next year. The price is high...but you've already paid it."