Fiction / Vishwas R. Gaitonde
:: The Spell ::
Ricky chuckled when the lawnmower’s drone smothered his sister’s yells. She stood on the porch of their house shouting and thrashing her arms at him, but the mower easily stifled her raised voice. Ricky rubbed his hands on his shorts and continued to mow, his bare torso shining in the late afternoon sun, flicking his head now and then to toss back the damp clumps of hair that fell over his eyes. A grim smile lingered on his face. Let Kayla shout with all her might, as though being a couple of years older gave her that right. Now if he only could ratchet up the noise on the mower. . . .
He abruptly turned off the machine and turned to stare hard at his sister. Two magic words had filtered through the racket.
“What did you say?” He cupped his hand behind his right ear, brushing his hair aside. His eardrums still vibrated with the ghostly remains of the mower’s sounds.
“Harry Potter!” She yelled the magic words again. “Want the latest Harry Potter novel, don’t cha? I have it.”
“You do not.”
Ricky, ruddy and sweaty after his brisk exertion on this sultry day, reddened one more shade. Kayla had no regard, no respect whatsoever, treating a revered name as though it was some cheap moniker like the names of the mayor of the town or their senator.
She had got hold of the latest Harry Potter novel? His sister Kayla, who could effortlessly out-muggle the stodgiest of muggles? Gross! The injustice made his heart burn, smolder, burn, smolder with each alternate heartbeat. He was the sole Potter devotee in the house, the zealous Pottermaniac who wanted every new novel the day it was released (or earlier if any magic spell could help). He read each one at least six times and then lost count of further readings. Even since the new novel had been released last week, he’d been half out of his mind and in danger of losing it completely unless the book was in his hands within the next few hours. His parents had promised him as much if he did his chores.
His parents were going into town that evening, and he hoped they would stop at a bookstore. He mowed the backyard—a chore he had been putting off—before his parents started out, making sure they saw him hard at work. But some of the grass had grown so high a cat could get lost in it. The mower got choked, so Ricky slunk into the kitchen to “borrow” his mother’s scissors and snip off the blades of grass.
The extra work soon made him hot and clammy, and he peeled off his shirt before starting on the front yard. Summer had crawled toward its end, but the days were still not perceptibly shortened, neither had the heat abated. The dark clouds barreling over the horizon heralded the approach of one of those swift summer thundershowers, forked lightning and all. Ricky raced up and down, anxious to shave the front yard before the clouds moved overhead and disgorged their water. How like Kayla to choose this exact time to taunt him.
“Liar!” Ricky yelled back. “Dad and Mom have gone to town to get the book.”
“They have not.” Kayla shook with amusement. “They’ve gone to have a good time. Drive on the waterfront, a candlelight dinner without you and me, mostly without you. Dad asked me to hold on to the book. You’re not to get it till you do your chores.”
“Well, I’ve finished.” Ricky glanced at the small patch of lawn left. “I will be, in ten seconds, anyway.”
“Well, we’ll talk when you’ve really finished.” Kayla swung around and disappeared into the house, ignoring Ricky’s “That sucks.” Ricky tore his way through the rest of the lawn. He dashed into the house, feverish. Kayla lay curled on the couch in the living room, her face chiseled with anticipation.
“Where’s the book? Gimme the book!”
She uncrossed her legs and lazily hauled herself up.
“In a hurry, are we?” She wore a crooked smile. “Not so fast. Let’s check how you’ve done.”
She inspected the backyard with the sour face of a critic and then scanned the front yard.
“Hmmm. . . . Not a bad job. But that patch looks tacky.” She pointed to the area Ricky had rushed through. “Trim that spot a little more.”
“Yeah, right. You’re not Dad or Mom, Kayla.”
“No, I’m not. You can wait for them to return, and if they think it’s okay, I’m sure Dad will give you the book.”
She walked back into the house, smiling at her brother’s sullen shout: “All right, all right, I’ll do it.”
He slouched in slowly after a few minutes, more subdued, but before he got a word in, Kayla said, “Go to your room, Ricky. You’re in for a treat. This is the day you’ll never forget. Ever. Your life’s gonna change.”
She ignored Ricky’s look and pointed him to the stairs, and then gave him a little shove to propel him onwards and upwards. She followed him up to his room.
“Lie down on the bed.”
He turned and gave her a furious look. “What—”
“On the bed, Ricky. On your back. Do as you’re told. I’ll let you on to something, but you’re not to tell a soul. I’m a wizard. Shocked, huh? Surprised? Those who think they know it all are the ones who know so little. I have to cast a spell on you before I give you the book.”
“You’re wacko. You—”
She gave him another shove, and he fell onto his bed, grimacing. “Now what?” he was about to ask, but she bounded out of the room. A few minutes passed, long minutes, when he felt as limp and helpless as a beached whale. He would not play along anymore, book. The book was likely on the desk in his father’s study. He would go right in and take it.
As he was about to rise from his bed, the door flew open and banged against the wall. Kayla was back, flushed and breathless. And brimming with an eerie inner fury, too, thought Ricky, the way she slammed the door shut. The shutters of the window were drawn and the slats at an angle so the sunlight that streamed into the room made odd yellow patterns on the floor but was otherwise diffuse. Kayla had cloaked herself with a large black sheet and wore a loose black hood. She held a brown cardboard box, a box that was noisy, alive, and agitated from within.
“See and believe,” cried Kayla, her voice high-pitched, screechy. “You are about to be transformed forever, forever, forever. The journey begins!”
She overturned the box above his body and something strong and hard and wriggly plopped atop him. He raised himself on his elbows. A large grey rat nestled on his crotch. Ricky sucked in his breath, lying perfectly still, feeling his flesh curdle into goose bumps, even feeling a wave passing over his body stiffening each individual filament of hair.
He eyed the rat. The rat eyed him. They saw the shock in each others’ eyes. Neither of them moved a muscle. The smell of rain seeped into the room, and from the way the light brightened and dimmed, Ricky knew the clouds were struggling to blot out the setting sun while it fought back. In the patchy half-light, the fur of the rat was half grey, half gold.
Then Kayla, standing at the foot of the cot, swaying in her black robe, started an incantation in a singsong voice, fluctuating between harsh and musical, between fortissimo and sotto voce:
Rattus rattus, res nullius,
Unus multorum, ultra vires
Ricky was aghast. Where had his sister learnt these ancient spells? His heart bounded and his spirits sank. She may not have been kidding when she taunted him. How had he overlooked the signs pointing to her true nature? She grew her fingernails until they were as long as a witch’s. She used weird words. She never caught a cold. She was always mean. A single look at her face, and babies burst into tears. There must have been other red flags he’d overlooked. His sister, so plain and so commonplace, and now. . . . But then, didn’t Harry Potter grow up in an ordinary way among ordinary people? For a good many years, nobody (including all the people in his neighborhood) had suspected Harry of being anything but a poor little orphan brought up by his uncle and aunt.
His sister was no Harry Potter. She clearly belonged to the Dark Arts. The shadows in her eyes infiltrated the room even as her malice marinated every syllable that she flamed out, slowly, passionately, deliberately:
Servus servorum Diabolus
Vaticinium ex eventu
Venisti remanebis donec denuo completus sis!
What was she saying? Whatever the words meant, the rat responded by moving forward onto his belly and crouching there, its claws digging into his skin. He felt the coarse trail of its tail leaving the mark of Satan on his body. He thought of rolling over in one swift motion and dislodging the rodent, but what if the motion made the rat dig in deeper? Weren’t rat claws poisonous? He tried not to move. The effort left him trembling.
Scabbers! Ricky suddenly remembered Ron Weasley’s pet rat, who was really the evil wizard Peter Pettigrew disguised as a rodent. Pettigrew, who had betrayed Harry Potter and his parents to the evil Lord Voldemort! Was some evil accomplice of Kayla’s hiding in the form of this rat? It certainly seemed so, for the rat had fluffed up its fur and appeared to double in size, each thread of gold and grey prickling like the quills of a porcupine. Or had it actually grown? Were his eyes playing tricks? New sweat broke out on Ricky’s brow, and he was sure Kayla glimpsed his naked fear, just as he saw the mocking glitter in hers, a glitter now perfectly mirrored in the golden eyes of the rat.
Tu fui ego eris!
Victoria aut mors!
Acta est fabula plaudite!
Kayla’s intonations rose like banshee wails, shrieks that rent themselves from within, and they nudged the rat forward, inch by inch. The beast stepped over Ricky’s belly button and its snout reached out for his chest. Ricky went limp as he spied the rat’s wet lips drawn back, its two front teeth gleaming like miniature machetes, its eyes boring into his, its whiskers ominously stiff. He lowered his gaze immediately.
Kayla hoisted herself up on her toes as her voice notched up the decibels, mounting higher than Ricky thought the human voice ever could:
Rattus rattus! Rattus rattus! Rattus rattus!
Then she crashed back to earth on her heels, out of breath and elated, eager to appraise what she had wrought. But Ricky no longer saw her clearly, and the rat’s face also swam before him, distorted, disproportionate and dangerous. The sweat from his brow had streamed into his eyes, and he dared not raise a hand to wipe it. He blinked rapidly, but this only brought more trickles of sweat. He screwed his eyes shut.
Tap-a-tap-a-tappitty-tap. The steady patter of rain intensified and the wind rattled the shutters, but far from producing a cooling effect, the air became more humid, oppressive. Ricky felt something like a slender tape, abrasive as sandpaper, repeatedly scraping his chest. His chest muscles stiffened like cardboard, his nipples turned rigid. The spell was working. The rat had injected something into him, something noxious, something creepy. He cautiously opened an eye, hoping he could see through the film of sweat, and then realized what was happening.
The rat was thirsty. It was lapping up the sweat pooled in the slight hollow in the center of his chest. As he relaxed a little, the rat gave a bound and landed on his face, its soft belly squashing his nose, smothering him. At the same time the rat’s slim, prehensile tail stroked his lips, its sharp tip poking around, trying to get into his mouth.
Loud gurgles and chokes broke out—Kayla’s laughter. For the first time, rage overcame Ricky’s fear. Undercurrents of dread still lurked, fear that the rat would gouge his eyes with its two front teeth. Then he remembered his hero, Harry Potter, who was always brave; he seized the rat and yanked it off his face. The rat slipped from his grasp and leaped over his head. He heard it thwack on the floor and scurry away.
In a flash Ricky was on his feet, but his knees were wobbly and it took him a few seconds to steady himself, enough for Kayla to drop her cloak, zip out of the room and down the stairs. Ricky caught up with her as she flattened herself on the door of their father’s study. He was panting, and he yelled out at his sister: “Gimme that book! Where’ve you hidden it?”
Kayla gave him a sweet smile. “Oh, the book? So sorry, no book for you. Dad’s not gonna go to the bookstore either, so don’t hold your breath. He ordered your book online and it’ll come in the mail, so keep an eye open for the postman every day.”
Ricky gulped. He didn’t know what to say. But his sister did not grope for words.
“Go take a shower, Ricky.” She wrinkled her nose, and her nostrils curled up as she looked him up and down with scorn. “Take a shower. You stink.”
Ricky lowered his head, but instead of slinking away he charged and head-butted his sister in the midriff. Kayla gasped in astonishment and pain and staggered aside, and Ricky sailed through the door into the study. As he had suspected, there was a fat book on his father’s desk. The room was dark but he didn’t need light to know that it was the book. He reached out, then paused. His palms were sweaty. He wiped them on his shorts and then picked up the book with reverence.
From the writer
:: Account ::
This story looks at two types of power described by the Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado: “Power Over” and “Power To.”
“Power Over” is the ability to dominate another person or group: “I can make him (or her or them) do what I want him to do.” “Power Over” usually involves force and threat. If the subordinate fails to do what he or she is asked, force of some kind can be exerted to make the person comply. “Power To” is the ability to do something on one’s own, using intellect, stamina, and other resources. These resources give some people the boost to accomplish things.
While considering “Power Over,” one must take into account the submission of those who are subjected to the power. A rich tycoon is powerful because his wealth gives him power; he can use it to seriously hurt or damage those who do not do what he wants them to do. But his only son despises him. The son doesn’t mind living like a hippie or a hermit and doesn’t care about his inheritance. The father’s coffers are powerless to help him in this case because not only is his son not submissive but the son is also exerting his “Power To” live his life as he pleases and not according to his father’s dictates.
Kayla uses Ricky’s overwhelming love for Harry Potter and his fanatical desire for the new novel to exert “Power Over” him. So subsumed is he within J. K. Rowling’s world that he is even ready to believe his sister might have secretly been a wizard all along, and one that practiced the Dark Arts at that. It is only when he is goaded beyond endurance that Ricky exerts his “Power To” and breaks free of his sister’s control.
Vishwas R. Gaitonde’s writings have appeared in publications such as Mid-American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Santa Monica Review, The Iowa Review, and The Millions. One of his short stories was cited as a “Distinguished Story” in Best American Short Stories 2016. His awards include residency fellowships in fiction at The Anderson Center, MN, and Hawthornden, Scotland, scholarships to the Sewanee and Tin House writers’ conferences, and a fellowship to the Summer Literary Seminar (Montreal, Canada).