The Spell

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
Abso­lu­tum dominium.

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).