by Linda Thornton Peterson
Opening it was her first mistake; the second was reading it: an ad for a house. The picture and description seemed perfect. She shivered, then ignored the uneasy feeling that came over her when she looked at it. How that ad happened to be sent to her personally, she didn’t know; but she called immediately.
Her job required international travel and after living in ten countries in thirteen years, she thought she’d seen it all. This assignment was for five years; finally, a chance to make a home of her own.
When she was shown the house, the agent told her the owner had lived in it for ninety-eight years. After buying it, the agent said he was glad she’d taken it off his hands. Then, he revealed that it had been vacant several years—no one had wanted it because, they said, they didn’t like the feel of the garden. Feel of the garden? Probably some superstition or local belief, she thought. It was the garden that had attracted her in the first place and with all the rain, no watering was necessary. She’d hire someone to do the weeding.
But, it turned out she couldn’t hire anyone to weed. When they saw the garden, they suddenly said they had more work than they could handle. So be it; I’ll let it go wild, she said to herself. In this country, no yard was manicured with the same obsession as in some other countries. Nature was appreciated as it was. That suited her; so the garden would continue as she’d found it—probably kept that way all along. The weeds, wild flowers, had grown higher than most of the plants. She loved the French doors that led to the back porch overlooking the garden. With the climate so hot and no air conditioning, she could leave the doors open night and day.
Her friend and coworker, Eduardo came often to dinner. He, too, was on this assignment and had grown up in this town. He was glad to be home again and educated her on some things that only a native might know.
“Come on Ed, confess; you mailed the house ad to me. Who else could it be?”
“Not guilty. I promise. I had no idea the old man was dead.”
If Ed hadn’t sent it, was someone watching her? The agent, who spoke perfect English, said he hadn’t done any advertising; certainly no costly mailings.
After a year, she felt at home for the first time in her life. But, then came a feeling of uneasiness–the same feeling she felt when she’d seen the picture in the ad. She’d lived alone before; it wasn’t that. Just a slight feeling of uneasiness, nothing more—until the time she thought she saw a shadow of someone in the hall. Another time, she felt someone was watching her in bed. But, she was just waking from a dream, so thought that was all it was
One night, she was startled when she caught a glimpse of a smoky, transparent figure looking toward the garden through the open French doors. There was no denying what she saw. Odd though, because in that instant it appeared vaguely familiar to her. Maybe she needed to have her eyes checked or, she chuckled, her head examined.
Having lived in many cultures with many beliefs, she was amused at the possibility that she may have her own belief, rather— peculiar experience. And now they were becoming many experiences, as the figure was appearing more often.
She wondered if this could be a cultural phenomenon. Was it possible, she wondered, to experience a cultural phenomenon if you’d never heard of it? She’d learned that many cultures believed in the evil- eye. A superstition that a person, with just a look, could put a spell on another that they envied. But, there were counter-charms to repel such looks. Time for a test, she thought. Where had she put her evil- eye charms? She’d collected one, each unique, from Greece, Turkey, and Mexico. I’ll string all three on one chain around my neck—safety in numbers, she thought. Perhaps their uniqueness was designed to deflect more than envy, maybe even, ghostly beings.
After work, as the sun dipped behind the hills, she would come home to the garden, change into a tie-dye sundress, sandals and pile her long black hair off her neck, high on top of her head. She sat on the porch and let the soft light from the lamps inside filter over her. A cold drink, usually a mimosa, and the flowers kept her company. The weeds took over more and more.
Late one night, she smelled something familiar coming from her garden, just a whiff of a perfume, not the flowers. Each night the perfume scent came from the garden, stronger and stronger— until she recognized it as the scent of her once favorite perfume.
Eduardo and their friends came to dinner when the night blooming jasmine was heavy with scent. They sat contentedly with drinks on the porch, breathing the humid, floral filled air, admiring her garden. When asked, they said that all they smelled were the flowers. She didn’t mention the figure. And with Eduardo’s acceptance of the unexplained, he told her that the garden was hers now and whatever she smelled was for her alone. “It is your home; you have made it so,” he declared.
As the months went by, a wispy figure appeared out of the corner of her eye, in the house, in many rooms, and at different times. More curious than afraid, she questioned—was that why everyone had refused to work in the garden? Was that why the house had been vacant for so long? And why did she see and smell things that her friends did not? But, there’s no use dwelling on these questions now, she told herself. Eduardo was right; this is the home she’d been looking for all her life.
Then, one moonlit night, she saw the figure in the garden for the first time. It morphed under the wisteria and stayed there. The long blossoms that hung around the figure’s head looked eerily like its hair and she caught the scent of her old perfume.
Watching it carefully and feeling brave, she confronted it. “Who are you? Why does no one else see you? Why do you live with me and why do I smell my perfume?”
The figure looked directly at her and said nothing. Maybe it can’t speak, she thought. But no sooner had she thought that, than it said, “I am you.”
Bio: Linda Thornton Peterson retired from Northern Illinois University as a psychotherapist and teacher. Three of her short stories and a poem have appeared in The Green Silk Journal. Her poems have been published in other literary journals, including The Hanging Moss Journal and Colorado's Western State College journal. She founded a local writer's group that also welcomes artists. As a former photographer and art teacher, she continues to paint as well as write. Her art can soon be viewed
by Kathyrn O'Donnell
It was Saturday afternoon in early fall. I had a taste for beef barley vegetable soup. It just sounded good. With hot dinner rolls and apple cider. It had been years since I made barley soup, and I mentioned the idea to my husband.
“I’d rather have potato soup,” he muttered, “with big chunks of onions.”
Oh, what does he know?
Stretching above the stove to reach the cupboard where I keep the dry goods, I shoved aside the flour and sugar canisters, crusty with the remnants of batter from all the cakes I’ve made in the last decade. No barley. I moved the cornstarch and instant rice and picked up the spaghetti, egg noodles, and half-empty boxes of elbow macaroni. Nothing.
I stepped up on the rickety chair I bought for $12 at the antique store when I remodeled the kitchen. It was dangerously wobbly and, I held onto the hood of the range fan to keep from falling. On the top shelf, way in the back, I found two boxes of expired tapioca pudding. There was also a brick of paraffin wax I used in making strawberry jelly heaven knows how long ago. I pitched the pudding boxes to the floor. There was just no barley to be found.
With my stomach beginning to growl, I needed to think fast.
“Honey, I’m going to the store,” I said, grabbing my keys, checking my hair in the reflection of the microwave, and straightening the garbage toppling over the wastebasket. “Want anything?”
“No. I’m fine.” His faint words reached me from the couch where he was engrossed in a college football game. He wouldn’t miss me for at least three hours.
WalMart's super store was sure to be packed this time of day so I decided to make a mad dash to Harding’s Friendly Market instead. I wasn’t familiar with the layout of Harding’s, but how hard could it be to find barley?
When I stepped on the rubber mat of the store, I was greeted with the “ding” of the doorbell announcing my entrance and the evocative aroma of chickens roasting. The store smelled like my grandma’s house on Sundays after church. My stomach started having labor pains.
In the main walkway of the store were two stock boys sitting on the floor. The area around them was littered with Halloween decorations they were attempting to sort.
In an empty checkout lane, a middle-aged cashier wearing a blue apron leaned against a cash register. Standing with one ankle loosely draped over the other, her arms folded across her ample front, she absently watched the stock boys.
“Excuse me, ma’am, can you tell me where to find the barley?” I asked the clerk.
The cashier flinched and nearly lost her footing. I had startled her. She straightened herself up and pointed toward the left corner of the store.
“Go see the woman in the cage,” she directed.
Cage? What cage? This isn’t the zoo. It’s a friendly market.
I walked past the checkout aisles around a girl carrying bagged groceries for a customer and found “the cage.” It was a small area hemmed in by a wide wooden counter, designed purposely to keep teenagers from stealing the liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets.
Behind the counter was a wall lined with cartons of cigarettes, meticulously arranged by brand. Kools, Marlboros, and generic brands all stacked in perfect columns. At the edge of counter, next to the cash register, was a bank of lottery machines, one with a pencil on a string taped to its top. A tongue of tickets drooped out of each machine like a dog panting on a summer afternoon. It wasn’t summer, and I’m not that lucky with lotteries, so I didn’t pay much attention to the ticket dispensers.
When I looked at the counter and really studied it, I figured out why the enclosed area was called a cage. The cashier looked like she belonged in a cage. Her inch-long fingernails were curved like a tiger’s claws. They were sharper looking than any animal I’d ever seen in the zoo. Her eggplant colored hair was wild and bushy like a lion’s mane. I might have named her turf a “den” or a “lair.” Meek and mild parakeets are kept in a “cage.”
“The check-out lady said I could get barley here,” I half whispered, not wanting to arouse the animal in her.
Without saying a word, the tigress slinked out of view behind the lottery machines. She was gone about ten seconds. When she returned, she plunked a fifth of Jim Beam whiskey on the Formica countertop. Her fuchsia-painted claws were still wrapped around the neck of the bottle like a huntress holding freshly killed quarry.
“It’s bourbon,” she said, still proudly choking the bottle, “but there’s barley in the process.”
“I didn’t mean barley for drinking,” I sputtered. “I’m looking for the kind you cook with.”
“Honey, drink about half this bottle and you will be cookin’,” she said suggestively.
“I’m sure,” I answered and walked away, half worried she’d come across the counter, grab me by the hair, and drag me into her lair.
Continuing past the den of vices, I found a young man with his arm buried up to the elbow in the pop can recycle machine recessed into the wall. The bottoms of his gym shoes were nearly glued to the sticky floor. He smelled like cola. Above his head, an amber light was flashing and a siren screaming throughout the store “reeeooo, reeeooo, reeeooo.”
The scene brought to mind the old black and white movie, Roman Holiday. Gregory Peck tried to frighten Audrey Hepburn by sticking his arm in some legendary stone icon’s mouth. The mystery behind the famous idol dealt with truth. Mr. Peck soon pulled out a handless sleeve. My modern Gregory Peck was wearing the standard-issue blue apron and was having quite a time dislodging a Pepsi can that had wedged itself in the machine. I figured he would relish the opportunity to think about something else besides life without an arm.
“Where would I find barley?” I asked above the blare of the warning signal.
The teenager scrunched up his face, nearly popping a pimple on his forehead, and let his brain mull over my question a few seconds before he blurted out an answer.
“Aisle Four, at the end near the yarn and lamp oil,” he responded loudly and confidently as he continued quarreling with the can.
I had no doubt he would do just fine with either one arm or two.
“Thanks,” I snickered, resisting the temptation to tell him about the movie.
Yarn and lamp oil? It seemed an odd place to keep barley. It must have been longer than I realized since it was on my grocery list.
I looked up to get my bearings. The aisle numbers were marked with white signs hanging from the ceiling on chains. The red lettering on Aisle Four said Household and Hobbies.
Rounding the corner ahead of me was an elderly woman pushing a grocery cart. Her walking stick hanging on the side of the cart protruded like a peppermint candy cane on a Christmas tree. The woman wore a babushka, and tufts of gray bangs curled over her eyebrows. She reminded me of my Polish grandmother.
I bet she knows where to find the barley. I didn’t ask her.
Aisle Four. I found the yarn, skeins and skeins of it. Like the cigarettes, yarn was neatly arranged by color, a prism of afghans waiting to be crocheted by some lonely widow. And there was the lamp oil. The selection was limited--a large bottle or a small one.
I walked up and down the aisle, past an array of soaps and other cleaning items. The store must have been arranged by a woman. These were the things my mother had on the bottom shelf of her pantry. Ma’s soap jugs and bottles were separated from the jars of pickles, peaches, and jellies she canned each year, but the colors and neatness of display were the same as the friendly market’s. It was like a walk down memory lane.
By now, the pop machine had settled down and the store had normal store noises again. I decided to go back and get a second opinion from “Gregory Peck.”
“Excuse me. I couldn’t seem to find the barley,“ I said. “It’s not in Aisle Four.”
“Oh, sorry. I thought you said Barbie--like for little girls,” he said. “The Halloween display at the very end of Aisle Four has Lady Gaga dolls dressed as witches.”
“I don’t need a Barbie,” I offered, enunciating clearly to the young man with both arms intact. “I need barley. I think it’s a Quaker product.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” he answered in his friendly movie-star tone. “Quaker. That’d be Aisle Two.”
“Thank you very much,” I said forcing my best Audrey Hepburn sweetness on him. It was hard. My blood sugar was getting low and I was getting punchy.
“No problem,” he said, oblivious now to anything but sponging the soda from his sticky shoes.
I took a different route to Aisle Two this time past the fresh produce. Waxed fruits and vegetables were mounded in perfect pyramids, so different from my great Uncle Leonard’s roadside farm stand in Bad Axe. He sold everything in wooden baskets—by the bushel and the peck—right from the field, dust and all.
Famished, I stopped and snapped up a slice of a freshly peeled McIntosh apple, a sample offering by the woman wearing the famous blue apron.
I crunched into the apple. Juice scattered as I broke the piece in two with my front teeth, and a droplet of the sap landed on my cheek. My mother used to give me slices of apple like this when she made pies on chilly fall days. How long had it been since I tasted those apple slices, sweet and spicy from the sugar and cinnamon she dipped them into?
Still savoring the McIntosh, I found Aisle Two. The white sign above said Crackers and Cereal. The faces and advertising on the boxes stood out like television sets in the appliance store clamoring to get my attention. Take me. Take me. No, take me.
For some reason I couldn’t acclimate myself to the grocery store. Perhaps it was the neatness and order of the merchandise, or the colorful holiday decorations, or the smells coming from the deli’s kitchen. Everything was certainly eye-catching and appealing and stocked for women on the go.
Wasn’t I a woman on the go? I came in for one item to add to my soup, and then I’d “go” home and make it. Maybe real women on the go don’t make soup; they conveniently open cans.
The store was just too modern for me.
Eventually I spotted the familiar round container of Quaker oatmeal, but I never found the barley. The Gregory Peck pop can kid steered me wrong again. Or had he?
My mother always made beef barley vegetable soup during the coldest months of winter. Ma said it stuck to the ribs. But, when was the last time I made it? I couldn’t remember. It was my favorite soup, but my husband hated it and grumbled whenever I suggested it for dinner. He called it mystery soup because of all the strange lumpy things floating in it. No sense torturing either of us.
Having second thoughts, I did an about face, grabbed a frozen pizza for my husband, and headed back to the cage.
“Get what you came for?” the tigress behind the counter asked as she rang up my purchase.
“Yeah, I did,” I said as I handed her a twenty.
My next stop was Ma’s. After the friendly market, I wanted a good dose of home—and Ma’s barley soup.
Bio: Kathryn O'Donnell is a self-employed CPA in Galesburg, Michigan, a small town in the midwest. She and her husband grew up as next-door neighbors in Galesburg and have stayed there for all of their 37 years of marriage. She loves gardening, fishing, golfing, and dancing. Her stories are filled with the interesting people she has met while living and working in her little community.