The Sleeping Spell

I should have been in love with Imbie Logan, but I wasn’t, even though I sometimes tried to be.

Her brother Ivan had very dark hair. When we were younger, I hadn’t paid attention. It hadn’t meant anything. Ivan and his dark hair, and when he stood outside in the afternoon, his skin seemed almost transparent. Sometimes I thought about it when no one was around. Ivan standing in the garden, hair so black his skin looked like nothing at all, like you could see all the way inside him.

Imbie was a scrawny thing, with a sharp nose and cheekbones like razorblades. She wasn’t charming. That was Ivan, the charming one. Imbie was more like a pet, small and serious. I should have loved her anyway. I should have loved her secretly, because it’s how these things go, open windows, the boy in the story sees the girl next-door changing her shirt behind the curtains. It wasn’t like that.

Ivan was the charming one. The charmed one. He always made it look like you could know everything about him. Transparent Ivan. But then, that was his best trick.

*****
When Ivan died, Imbie just fell down. She was standing in the back garden, holding the cordless telephone against her ear with both hands.

Watching over the fence, I couldn’t hear what she was saying. But I saw the look on her face, the way she wandered barefoot over the flowerbeds and the borders like they weren’t even there.

She walked into the rose bushes, stumbled onto the path again. There was a juicy smear on the back of one heel where the violets had bled their color out onto her skin, bruised-looking. The shape of her mouth looked like Ivan.

He died at seven o’clock on a school morning, after thirteen hours in intensive care, of an overdose that would have killed anyone else in three minutes. Maybe two. But at the time I was watching Imbie fall down, I didn’t know that. I only heard about it later, and when I did, I couldn’t stop thinking how she should have been at the hospital, and not alone in the garden. I would have taken her, but we didn’t talk much anymore. If she’d asked, I would have taken her, but like I said, I didn’t know anything, just that she was falling.

She sat down hard in the middle of the path and the telephone fell with her. The casing made a brittle sound when it cracked on the cement. One strap of her undershirt had slipped off her shoulder, but she didn’t push it back up. Imbie’s face was always so freckled, I was surprised to see that her arms and neck were white.

Slowly, she reached for one of the big store-bought rocks her mother had used to fence in the flowerbeds. Using both hands, she pulled the rock up out of the bed, then raised it above her head and slammed it down on the telephone. From where I was standing, I could see the broken pieces catch the sunlight and flash as they exploded all around her.

I wondered if her mother knew she was outside in her undershirt. Mrs. Logan didn’t like Imbie leaving the house with bare shoulders. I waited for her to come banging out the back door, adjusting her sweater and calling, “Isabel! Isabel, what are you doing?”

But the door never opened.

*****
Imbie pricked her finger. That’s how they’d say it in a fairytale. She pricked her finger. Only it wasn’t her that did the pricking and it wasn’t on a spindle, it was on a hypodermic, and it wasn’t really her finger. It was Ivan’s arm. The whole house fell asleep.

The shades came down and stayed that way. Mrs. Logan stopped coming out into the garden. She stopped coming out of the house. Mr. Logan still opened the front door in the mornings, gently, like not to wake anyone. If I was up early enough, I’d see him when he left for work, cutting across the grass, leaving wet footprints on the driveway.

Then it was summer, warm and sudden and still. I sat on the porch and waited for basketball camp to start and even when it did, that was only four hours in the afternoon. I mowed the grass, and then because I had nothing to do, I mowed it again.

The Logan’s backyard started to grow wild. Weeds shot up, filling the gaps in the flagstones and choking the beds. One by one, the roses wilted and fell. Even when they began to cover the path, no one swept them up. The trumpet vines crept over the fence into our yard, exploding in clusters of orange flowers. Dandelion clocks covered the lawn, white like the halo around the moon.

From our back porch, I could see into the shade of their arbor. Imbie stayed there all day. On the patch of ground under the arbor, she took a gardening fork and a hand trowel and began to dig.

*****
In memories, Ivan was always grinning. He’d swipe at his hair, shoving it out of his eyes. He could walk nickels over his fingers, holding them between two knuckles. When he bent his head, I could see the back of his neck. I remembered how much I’d wanted to touch him. How it was scarier than wanting to touch anyone else.

How could I have looked at his hands, his arms, and not really seen them? How could I have not seen his future there? But the Logans had shared a house with him, and none of them had seen it either. Or else, they hadn’t wanted to. Now, Imbie was sitting in the garden under the trellis, a future no one had foreseen. Imbie in the garden, Ivan underground.

On the second day, she got tired of the trowel and the fork and started digging with her fingers, legs stuck straight out in front of her. She scooped up the dirt in handfuls, piling it on her knees, burying herself. She patted it in place until it covered her legs. Then she lay down, closed her eyes.

Roses opened bright red, dripping down onto the path as their petals turned black. They fell and stuck, crumpled, to the flagstones and rotted there. The air smelled sweet and decayed. In the afternoons, the sun slanted in under the arbor, lighting Imbie like a torch. Her shoulders turned dark and freckled and her hair glowed reddish. She sat there, not looking up, scrabbling in the dirt with her fingers.

At night, I dreamed about Ivan. I dreamed his skin was cracking and peeling off his bones in raw, gruesome slabs. I would wake up whenever I stopped breathing.

He might have fallen apart for years, leaving his pieces scattered around the house, but no one saw. In the garden, he would move dollar bills between his fingers and pull them from his sleeves. He was very good at hiding how he did it. Imbie and I watched as paper flowers unfolded in his hands like birds.

*****
Once, the fall that I was fourteen, he showed me a trick with the queen of hearts. He flashed her from palm to palm, then made her disappear. His father was burning leaves in the yard. Everything smelled like a forest fire and the air stung my eyes.

Imbie had been drifting near Ivan’s shoulder, but then she turned away. She stood with her back to us, looking up at the house. The leaves kept coming down, swirling around her, yellow and brown. The air smelled burnt. Mr. Logan kept raking the leaves and setting them on fire, even though they weren’t done falling. The smoke made things hazy and I wondered what Imbie was looking at. The window was her own.

“How did you do that?” I asked Ivan, even though I knew that magicians never revealed their secrets.

He shrugged and looked at me sideways. “It’s not hard. It’s mostly just misdirection.” He held up his right hand. “When I vanish it, you keep looking here, right? But what if the
card was never here? People decide they know where the card is and then when it’s not, they think it disappeared.”

And I’d known that it wasn’t magic, that it was just a trick, but still I was disappointed that the card hadn’t really been in his hand.

He fanned the deck and held it out to me. “Pick one and don’t let me see.”

We were standing close together, and I leaned closer, reaching for the deck. I could have moved three inches, touched his cheek with my mouth. In three inches I could have kissed him. I imagined it. The warmth, the electric shock of it. But mostly, I imagined him stepping back.

I looked at the card I’d taken but the picture had stopped making sense. It was black and white. There was a number on it. It was hard to focus and I was standing so close to Ivan that I thought something would catch on fire. The smoke from the leaves made it hard to breathe and I shoved the card back in the deck when he told me to.

He shuffled and held up the nine of spades. “Is this it?”

I nodded, even though I wasn’t really sure.

*****
Between the slats of the fence, I could see Imbie’s back. She was holding a chunk of broken flowerpot, using it to carve a bigger hole under the trellis.

I was careful to make noise as I walked up, afraid that if I didn’t, I might scare her. The look on her face was like she was sleepwalking.

“You’re getting burned,” I told her, leaning my elbows on the gate.

She raised her head slowly, gave me a long look. “It doesn’t matter.” Her mouth was painful, dry and cracked. Her nails were broken off.

“Do you want me to get you a drink or anything?”

“James, go away.”

I felt like I was choking suddenly, like a wire was wrapping around my neck until I couldn’t breathe or swallow. I spent every afternoon at basketball camp, smiling, acting normal, while Imbie was at home lying in a grave. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and make her scream out loud. I was holding onto the fence so hard my fingers made dents where the wood was starting to rot. Imbie just dug and dug.

*****
Then one evening, it began to rain. Not a drizzle but an electrical storm, wind rocking the trees in huge gusts.

I went out to look for Imbie, covering my head with my hands.

She lay in her hole in the back garden, arms at her sides, like the rain didn’t matter. Her legs and feet were streaked with mud, and leaves blowing down from the trees had stuck all over her skin. Her eyes were closed.

Above us, lightening slashed down and for a second, the garden looked bright and terrifying. The thunder came right after, rumbling through the ground. I could feel it in the soles of my shoes.

“Imbie,” I yelled over the fence. My voice sounded tight in my ears. “Go inside!”

She didn’t act like she’d heard.

I tried the side-gate, but it had been years since anyone opened it and the roses and trumpet vines had grown over the hinges and the latch. I pushed it an inch and gave up.

A second bolt lit up the sky and the rain came harder.

My hands slipped as I pulled myself over the fence, getting one foot tangled in the trumpet vines, bumping and stumbling into the climbing roses. The thorns caught at my T-shirt and my skin and then let go, leaving raised scrapes.

Imbie lay perfectly still, rain springing up in drops where it hit her cheeks. Out in the garden, it was coming down hard, but the weave of the trellis kept it to a steady patter against her face.

Her body had settled in the wet dirt, like she was starting roots, her hands spread out, fingers sinking in. Lightening flashed again and when I knelt to pick her up, her eyes snapped open so sudden and so wide that I stopped moving.

She stared at me. “What do you want?”

“Imbie, we need to go inside. This is crazy.”

“I can’t,” she said, with her hair sticking against her face.

“Why?”

She rolled on her side, turning her face into the mud and pulling her knees up. “I’m too tired.”

The wind dropped suddenly and rain came in steady sheets, seeping through the arbor, running into my eyes. I could cry if I wanted and no one would be able to tell. It would be a secret, but everything inside me was stuck down in my throat where I couldn’t get to it. Thunder cracked and I hunched up my shoulders.

I thought of Ivan in all my dreams, the way his skin flaked off him. How I woke myself up choking.

“He’s dead,” I told her softly, with the rain running down my face. “He’s not in the house.”

It was a lie though. At night, in dreams, Ivan came to me, his real self and not the one I’d believed in. He was always rotting right in front of me.

“James.” Imbie held out her arms. “Would you kiss me?”

In the garden the rain pelted down, rattling the surface of the fishpond.

“I can’t—it wouldn’t mean . . .”

“I know,” she said. “I know that.”

“I’m sorry.”

She shivered hard. “Just tell me that you loved him, then. I want someone to say it. Or else, I might be the only one.”

“I loved him,” I told her. My shirt was sticking to my back and it felt good not to lie.

She smiled, lying in the mud. Her hair was wet, spread out around her. Her face was like a white lily under the dirt, and she looked too pretty. Much too pretty for any of it.

“James.” She reached for me again, pulling on my shirt. “Lie down with me.”

The ground in the garden was soggy. I could feel it welling up, soaking into my clothes. Mud seeped into my hair. I thought I might sink down into the hole and keep sinking, that it would swallow me.

“It’s nice down here,” I said after a minute.

“I know,” she said, sounding very tired.

I closed my eyes, feeling the water on my face. It dripped down on us from the roses, but the rain was stopping. Imbie pressed her head against my shoulder. Her hair was wet and smelled like the garden. Everything smelled like roses. Her skin felt cold against my arm and rough with goose bumps. We lay very still and the air got dark under the arbor, and humid. The dusk was sudden, and the garden was full of frogs, the whine and screech of crickets all around us. Water was dripping from the trees. Imbie’s breath was slow.

Her hand clutched at the collar of my shirt and I held her. She was heavy suddenly. Soft, and I knew she was dozing. My eyes were closed and behind them, there was nothing. Not even Ivan, and he’d been there for days. The frogs were everywhere now, and Imbie sighed and held on. I knew someone would find us. They come for us eventually, but when I finally dreamed, I dreamed we never woke up.

Photo by pareeerica

18 thoughts on “The Sleeping Spell

  1. One of the first things C.S. Lewis says in A Grief Observed is that he never know how much grief was like tiredness. This seems like a bittersweet antidote, a rest in a makeshift grave. Beautifully melancholy.

  2. Yeah, extremely slow and heavy which tied in with the grief etc- brilliant description- I now *feel* heavy, everything feels heavy. Simply amazing 😀

  3. Thanks! (though in retrospect, it seems wrong to use an exclamation point when talking about grief and sleeping in holes. never mind, i’m leaving it.)

  4. Ooh, I really like C.S. Lewis’s observations (regardless of his various personal philosophies), and that’s a nice one.

  5. Thanks! I’ve already admitted to obsessions with water and weather, but I suppose I should probably add gardens to the list . . .

  6. Thanks–I am all about atmosphere, though I’ll admit I get carried away sometimes (It could be because the weather here is hideous right now.)

  7. Oh gawd, that was so terribly depressing and beautiful.

    The way you described the garden, the love and longing, and the breaking down of human resolve in the face of death…It was all so heavy and melancholy and yet somehow still…uplifting in the end, I think.

    Just superb writing!

  8. My heartbeat is taking its sweet time to slow, as if it had to make up for the languid pace of the story and how my limbs sank into the ground with James and Imbie. So beautiful and sad and yet, somehow, uplifting. Because he didn’t look away from her grief and she recognized his. Thank you for this.

  9. Thanks–I think it might be uplifting at the end, too. Sometimes I have a hard time telling, but I think this is that temporary hiatus before they come out of hibernation and start living again.

    (sorry for the absurdly late response–your comment is so thoughtful and articulate, and it completely got by me)

  10. Thank you for your beautiful response–it’s so incredibly gratifying when someone connects with a story.

  11. This absolutely broke my heart in the most deliciously beautiful way. The imagery alone, is enough to make you shiver and the sadness – the grief – it reminds me of a quote in a book on a shelf filled with many quotable quotes “you have to feel with me, else you would never know.” And I think that’s part of what Imbie was trying to get James to do with her, where Ivan was concerned.

  12. Oh, that’s a beautiful quote–I love it! And I totally agree that Imbie is really desperate for that connection, that having someone else feel it too.

  13. Thanks, I had read it somewhere a long time ago and it’s stuck with me sense, although I hadn’t thought of it recently until I read your short story and it actually stirred me thinking. 🙂

    Exactly and I think you executed it perfectly, can’t wait to read more of your written work.

Comments are closed.