August 29, 2018KR OnlineFiction

Love Charm

In the summer of 1931, Dina Vulpescu from the University of Bucharest went out into the field collecting love charms. It was that brief moment, between the two world wars, when Romania had expanded to its largest state, like a snake that had taken on more than it could digest, but for an ethnographer, it was ideal, more folklore than could ever be digested and more university funding for quirky projects than she would ever have again and less oversight, either of finances or of the ideology of her methods.

Love charms didn’t fit well into either capitalism or communism. The idea that somebody could buy love might fit into a business, a cross between prostitution and matchmaking, but not the magic part, or the desires that could not be stifled. As for the spirit of the collective, one comrade should be pretty much as good as any other, and using a charm is an unfair advantage.

D. Vulpescu spent the autumn of her career looking for fairy tales and folk songs that served as easy metaphors for evils of the bourgeoisie and the virtues of the clever peasant. In her career’s spring, though, she looked for exactly what she wanted. She liked love charms because they were words made actual. They were like scientific experiments within the field of storytelling, artists dabbling in not just telling pretty stories and painting pictures, but altering the world around them, an alchemy of the spirit. She liked their audacity.

Later on, with her students, she often talked about the years of the ethnographic campaign, the most beautiful of her life, not just because youth is always beautiful and she had been young, but because her mission appeared clear to her then, her only limit her perhaps over- passionate longing to make herself useful as an intellectual.

Her life in the villages couldn’t be more different from in Bucharest, where she shared an apartment in student housing with two other lady researchers, spinstering, as they joked, transforming it into a verb, which it wasn’t. It was like they were making their own kind of reverse love charm.

In the village, she’d stay wherever they could put her, an extra bed if they had one, in with the children if they didn’t. She ate what they fed her, pretending she knew next to nothing about cooking whatever they were making, so she could hear about it in their own words. Only when she seemed to learn to cook alongside them would they trust her enough to start talking about love charms.

If she had encouraged the women she encountered in their practice of love charms, into wilder and more graphic enchantments, she certainly hadn’t meant to. The case of Ileana X. in the village of C was one she wished she could forget. It started out so well and ended so horribly. Dina recorded the love charm while the charm was still in the works. She didn’t yet know not to do it, not to write down in the present a charm for the future. Sometimes thinking about time and order by the end of her career made her head hurt. The charmwomen she was working with were all illiterate, and they didn’t know to warn her.

The charmwoman in the village of C demonstrated a how-to for D. Vulpescu in her own kitchen, acting out the part of Ileana, acting out what she’d advised Ileana to do at the start of the charm. The figure she sketched out on the brick with her best knife was little more than a stick figure, and she kept stabbing at it.

On a new brick, you draw a human image that resembles the fateman, and while saying the charm, you keep pricking the brick with a knife. You charm in the evening, at the hearth. When you finish, you put the brick in the fire and say:

Let him not want to sit
Let him not want to eat
Till he sets out for his destined one

Vasile wasn’t a man who ever liked to sit down. Even when he gathered with his friends to smoke and talk, they’d stand together in a circle until they’d eventually start squatting, but never sitting. When they drank rakiu down in the cellar, Vasile would always be quick to offer his stool to others. You can say many things about him, but not that he was lazy.

He did always want to eat, though, and not just in the time of the famine, when everyone wanted to eat, when everyone was reduced to a single, vibrating hunger. Vasile always had a voracious appetite for meat, for soup, for women. Without appetite, Vasile was nothing.

Destiny? Vasile was in no position to think about his destiny. He wasn’t the youngest son, so he wouldn’t inherit the house or the flock. All he knew was that he would try almost anything in order not to be a shepherd. He was the kind of man who likes a war, being a soldier an easy way to give him a destiny, fodder for bullets or medals and money to buy his own land. He could barely read, so the priesthood wouldn’t be his path, or figure, so shops wouldn’t have him as a clerk, even if they trusted him, which they wouldn’t, not a man with his appetites. Vasile was a man who needed to marry well, and he wouldn’t be the one to do the choosing. If he was vain about his appearance, if he shaved too regularly and well, if he combed his hair and looked in the mirror at the same time, if he combed the wool on his hat and tied red ribbons through the laces of his boots, he couldn’t afford not to think about the niceties.

Bring him through the woods helplessly
Through the village shamelessly
And asking for Ileana

It wasn’t that Vasile didn’t like Ileana, but that he didn’t notice her at all. She was plain and little, mousy-haired and meek, and if she was there at the Sunday dances in the square, her skirt and blouse newly embroidered, her hair clean and fluffy from the Saturday night bath, he didn’t see her as he whirled in the hora with the best dancers and the chesty girls. He liked fast dancers who were so buxom that he wondered how they could keep their balance. So many opportunities to bump into breasts! Nothing about Vasile was shy; everything about Ileana was.

Ileana was the youngest daughter, and the man who would marry her would inherit her house and land and care for her parents with her in their old age. If Vasile knew what was good for him, he would have set himself up to be her fateman.

Nobody went through the village roaring about Ileana. Most people didn’t notice she was there, like a door, a bucket, the dirt under your feet. Even her own mother would forget about Ileana, saying, “Oh, it’s you again,” when Ileana came back from the well. Once when she was at the Sunday dance, her father bolted the gate before Ileana came home, and she slept curled up in the road like a masterless dog.

Nobody asked for Ileana.

The charmwoman didn’t even recognize who she was when she knocked at the gate. Ileana had to tell her whose daughter she was, whose granddaughter, which house she belonged to. The charmwoman didn’t want to take her money, and maybe it would have been better for everybody if she hadn’t.

As his mother couldn’t rest
Until she birthed him
With her hair down her back
With the shades drawn
With doors locked
With skirts drenched
With bloody thighs

Vasile’s mother had started going into labor in the fields, out at harvest time, a scythe in her hands when she had to stop and squat and catch her breath. Vasile was her first, and there had been time to go back into the village, into her house and lock the door. Her aunt acted as midwife.

Make it stop, Vasile’s mother said.

There’s no stopping it, said her aunt. There’s only one way out of this, and that’s to go ahead and have the baby already. I’m bored, and it’s time to get back out to the fields.

Vasile’s mother squeezed her aunt’s hand, and Vasile slid out in a river of blood.

Ileana liked the idea of Vasile as a helpless baby, mere minutes old. She liked that the charm would make him that helpless again.

She liked the idea that once the charm started, there was no stopping it, and it was going to end in what she wanted, which wasn’t so much Vasile himself, but a baby sliding out of her in a river of blood. She didn’t have other uses for Vasile. She didn’t desire him so much as think of him as a tool like the charm itself.

She’d picked Vasile not because she wanted him, but because the other girls wanted him, and for once, Ileana wanted to win, not her heart’s desire, but theirs. She was full of spite in her shyness.

So may he be unable to rest
Or to calm down
Until he comes to Ileana

When Ileana went to purchase her love charm, she was particularly pleased at the idea of Vasile agitated. Vasile was a man who glided elegantly from task to task, whether he was working at the fields or squatting in the cellar or twirling at the center of the hora. He wasn’t lazy but gloriously relaxed in his body.

Ileana wanted him to feel flea-bitten, the way she was, itchy and patchy in her own skin.

She wanted to be his only cool comfort.

I’m not thrusting the skewer
Into the hearth
Or into the chimney
I’m thrusting it into Vasile’s heart

When Ileana thrust the skewer into the hearth, at the exact same moment the charmwoman was telling D. Vulpescu which words to say and used the real names of Ileana and Vasile, not blank names, or letters, or sample names from another village, Ileana’s mother said, “What ridiculous thing are you doing now?”

Her sister said, “Silly Ileana thinks she’s going to get a fateman. It’s going to take a lot more than a love charm to make that work.”

Her other sister said, “Tell us, Ileana, who is it for? Slavic the drunk? Vanya the fool?”

“Maybe the priest,” said Ileana’s mother, and how they laughed and laughed. The priest already had a wife, a grim slip of a girl who never left the house and had baby after baby. Ileana, though, was known for her religiosity. She liked to go to the church, to light candles and kiss icons, even on days that weren’t saint days or Sundays.

“Because she can’t kiss anybody else,” her sisters said.

As Ileana thrust the skewer into the chimney, at the exact same time the charmwoman thrust her skewer in her kitchen under D. Vulpescu’s admiring eyes, D. Vulpescu wrote the charm down into her graph paper notebook. Before all of the words were down, across the village of C in the cellar of that night’s drinking, Vasile clutched at his chest.

“Give him another drink!” his friends cried.

Roast him
Skewer him
Through his kidneys
Under his kidneys
Through his belly
Under his belly
Through his liver
Under his liver
Through his lungs
Under his lungs

This list reminded Ileana of nothing else than slaughtering a pig, which was what Vasile was to her, a real porker. She took the skewer and poked at the imaginary belly before her, finding the kidney, finding the liver, organs and locations she knew well each winter. Her family slaughtered their pig come Christmas, and she felt frost in her nose and a howling wind in the hearth as she stabbed. She was excellent at dissection. In another time and place, she could have been a doctor.

Across the village, in the cellar, Vasile was getting hotter, temperature rising, although there was no fire and this cellar had been chosen because of its notable coolness. He grabbed his belly as if he’d been punched in the gut. His mouth opened and closed, gasping for air. The world that Vasile moved through as if he were indeed swimming, the most graceful man in the village, had turned against him, down to the very air itself.

Across the village, in the kitchen, neither the charmwoman nor D. Vulpescu were thinking about Vasile’s fate as if he were a person who lived and breathed, who processed what he ate and drank in his kidneys and liver, who took in air with his lungs and pushed it out again. The charmwoman was showing off, rattling off the charm as fast as she could, ahead of Ileana herself sometimes. D. Vulpescu was riveted, recording the words for her graph paper notebook and reciting them in her head. Maybe that alone would have been enough to distort the process, once the charm was wound up.

How many women were the authors of Vasile’s demise? Ileana, the charmwoman, D. Vulpescu, all of the above? The maiden, the crone, the spinster?

Through his fat
Under his fat
Through his heart
Under his heart
Through his navel
Through his blood vessels

There was hardly any fat on Vasile, thought Ileana as she poked. To skewer through his fat, under his fat, was the most delicate of her tasks so far and required her intense concentration.

His heart, in spite of the way his body was twisting, kept beating so loudly the other men in the cellar could hear the pounding, the counting down of the last minutes of Vasile’s life.

The skewers, that of Ileana and of the charmwoman, pushed through his navel, the one that once tied him to his mother when he was still a part of her and she was working in the fields. The blood vessels burst as the skewers traveled briefly along their paths.

The men in the cellar began to scream as Vasile passed out dead at their feet, his blood gushing out of his navel as if it were a kind of reverse birth, which, in fact, it was, from the world into the space of the charm. The doubling of the charm, though, from both Ileana and the charmwoman, and the tripling, if you count D. Vulpescu’s writing the words down, had made the metaphorical literal.

The men’s screams in the cellar drew the women out of their houses and down into that space that, although they went down into the cellar a thousand times to put the canned salads on the cool shelves and bring them up again, was a forbidden place for them in times of drinking. But the drinking that night was over, and it was women who knew how to prepare a body in death, even a body as badly damaged as Vasile’s.

“What have you wrought?” cried the women of C when they stormed the house of the charmwoman the next night.

“How did they know it was a charm gone wrong?” Dina asked later, when she was visiting again from Bucharest the next summer.

“They knew,” she said. “I’d gotten them all husbands. I’d also given many of them charms to win back their straying husbands, or at least keep the women sleeping with their husbands barren. They knew my power. What else in the village could kill a man in his prime?”

“Were you scared when they confronted you?” asked Dina.

“Not for me, but for Ileana. They all owed me too much. They were unable to unbraid my life from theirs.”

“But Ileana?”

“She’d always held herself apart from the village, and they’d turn on her in a minute.”

“How did you keep her safe?”

“Finished off the charm. Gave her what she wanted. She wasn’t dangerous anymore. Everyone forgot about her and Vasile and went back to their own lives. You’re the only one who keeps poking about.”

May I dream of him
See him in the flesh
Remember him
And talk of him at home

Ileana didn’t know what had happened to Vasile. Her mother and sisters were among the ones running around the village trying to find out the gossip. They were among the crowd at the charmwoman’s house. But Ileana didn’t join them. She rather liked having the house to herself to finish the charm. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been alone, indoors. Maybe it had never happened. Sometimes she pretended she was alone in the church, but she couldn’t tell when the priest was busy in the sacristy and when he wasn’t, and there were always old men and women chanting at the candles. Also, the eyes of the icons followed you everywhere. The whole point of the church was not to be alone.

Outside, sometimes, before the cows came home, it would just be she and they in the fields, their huge brown eyes regarding Elena. She felt she could do better as a cow than as a person.

She finished off the charm at the hearth and dreamed that Vasile shrank to the size of a mouse, burrowed into her cunt, then swam up into her womb and stayed there, snug in his den. In the dream, the pressure of the little mouse paws running up against the innermost parts of her gave her an intense pleasure, and she shuddered in her sleep. When she awoke, the first thing she did was to pat her belly, to see if something was there. She felt changed. In the space of a dream, she’d exchanged virgin for woman, maiden for mother.

She didn’t see Vasile in the flesh for four days, until the day of his funeral. There he was, in the coffin on the table of his father’s house. He’d exchanged the red veil of the blood from his veins for the yellow cast of death. Vasile at rest, the rest he’d earned after Ileana skewered him to death. She ate the rice pudding for him. She accepted a handkerchief and embroidered towel from his mother. She followed the coffin to the graveyard behind the band playing off-key in his honor.

The charmwoman hadn’t given up Ileana. All she said was, “How can I give you a name? Every one of your daughters wanted Vasile. Some of you might have wanted him yourselves as well.” The women were silent because it was true. It was as if they’d all killed him with the power of their collective desire. It wasn’t just Ileana who remembered Vasile now. They all did. He came to all of them in their dreams, even more than he had alive, his mouse paws clawing at them until even the oldest crones turned moist down below. Remember him? They’d like to forget him, if only they could.

D. Vulpescu remembered him, too. The Ileana/Vasile love charm went down in her notebook and into her fieldwork, but now she added a cautionary warning: don’t use real names. That’s what X, Y, and Z are for. Build composite characters. Smaranda plus Veronica equals Dorina. Above all, don’t record the charms while they are still taking effect.

With time, though, their memories started to be reworked. They remembered the night Vasile died vividly, but they began to remember a marriage. At first it was a blur, a dream, Vasile and Ileana in church at the altar with the crowns upon their heads. Vasile’s brothers kidnapping Ileana and selling her back cheap to Vasile. How valuable could Ileana of all people be, after all? Vasile and Ileana leading the hora, the mousy girl with her little mouse man, Vasile shrinking as the wedding night wore on. Ileana draped in the apron at the end of the evening, ready to start her life as a housewife, sitting on Vasile’s lap. The courtship must have been so quick that none of them remembered it because Vasile must have gotten Ileana pregnant, and, because of her family’s flock and her status as heir, decided it would go better to make due on the promise of his advances.

How had the mouse caught the village’s most elegant man? His desire to sleep with her must have come over him suddenly, like a fever. He was stopping by the well when she was coming out of the church, and he had her then and there, pulling up her skirts and pinning her up against the wall of the churchyard until his peculiar urge was over. She wouldn’t have resisted because it was her only chance to have her a man. She’d squirm to fit her virginal absence around his promiscuous presence, stifling her cries by biting her lips until she drew blood. If he drew blood from her, which he must have, because nobody was putting it to Ileana until Vasile did, she’d wipe it on her skirts and go home to wash herself with the buckets in the corner. If anybody saw her in the kitchen, they’d think it was her month blood. Nobody counted days for Ileana. There never was any reason to worry.

In the shade of the evening, if any passersby had seen them rutting up against the church wall, they’d never believe it. They’d think it strange if they even saw Vasile and Ileana talking, let alone touching. Maybe she tripped, and he had to steady her. Maybe he dropped something at the well, and she raced to hand it back to him, and he owed her a proper thank you.

It was to Vasile’s credit that he had married her, and Ileana’s credit that she had caught him, and it was a shame he died before he could enjoy being the lord of her house and before she could enjoy him in her bed instead of up along the wall.

As Ileana grew rounder and rounder in her pregnancy, she also grew more confident in discussing Vasile. Remembering his preferences: for food (pork), for colors (red), for songs (always sirbas, the faster the better, until you could barely see his feet as he danced). Her time as a spy allowed her to talk about him with assurance. She was the village of C’s happiest widow.

“What do you think?” the charmwoman asked D. Vulpescu on her return trip to the village, verifying and checking her notes from the summer. “You didn’t believe me before, about the charms working?”

“But this charm didn’t work. Isn’t that a problem?”

“For Vasile, yes. But I’d dare say that everything worked out well enough for Ileana.”

A man died. He was skewered. Who should be tried for the murder? All of them? None of them?

D. Vulpescu returned to Bucharest, her notebook full of scrawled warnings and with a renewed commitment to her spinsterhood and life as a scholar. The charmwoman continued to be charming, exchanging her charms for food, money, treasures, or secrets.

Nine months after Vasile’s murder, Ileana had her baby. Just as Vasile’s own mother couldn’t rest until she gave birth, Ileana couldn’t rest, her braid unraveled down her back, the curtains drawn in the kitchen, the doors to the house locked, her sisters grabbing a hand each, Ileana’s skirts drenched when her water burst, her thighs bloody when little Vasile, Vasya came into the world, the charm done. Vasya suckled at the breasts his father never had put his lips upon. As a widow and a mother, Ileana had the esteem of her family and guaranteed her family’s position within the village. She set about the business of interesting Vasya in the priesthood, one icon at a time.

At first, Vasile’s mother wanted nothing to do with Ileana. She couldn’t figure out why she had an aversion. Considering Ileana would be an heiress, it was no great harm that she’d trapped Vasile into a marriage. Still, there was something Vasile’s mother didn’t trust, maybe simply the fact that Vasile was dead and Ileana was alive. But when Vasya seemed a complete copy of his father, nothing of Ileana involved, Vasile’s mother relented, and the boy moved freely between Ileana’s home and the house of his dead father.

What the charmwoman, Ileana, and D. Vulpescu had stumbled upon was, if it didn’t involve murder, a kind of ingenious early experiment in fertility treatments. It was reproduction that still required the body of a man but not his desires or lusts. Vasile was little more than a meat puppet, animated by his murderers, once the figure was sketched into the brick, scratched and stabbed, and left in the hearth to burn and shrivel up, like paper, like the charms in D. Vulpescu’s book, like the whispers from the charmwoman into the ears of the women of C.

Decades later, with her students in the University of Bucharest, when every piece of D. Vulpescu’s methods and research were analyzed, when every one of her actions or thoughts revealed her to be suspect to the state, in the 1950s, when the idea of folklore itself was political, D. Vulpescu dusted off her love charms. The selfishness of the desire recorded therein stunned her, including her own desire to learn. In the village of C, Vasya, Ileana’s little Vasile, was a man by then, married himself and taking care of his mother Ileana in her house, the one he would inherit from her in turn.

D. Vulpescu burned her notebook in the stove of her Bucharest apartment, using three matches to get the job done. There were things spinsters and ethnographers shouldn’t know. But she forgot about breaking the brick the charmwoman baked just for her. Ashes rose up from the Bucharest kitchen and took to the air, looking for the wind that would blow them back to the Village of C, where they nestled in the crannies of Dina’s brick from 1931. That brick still waits among the ashes of the charmwoman’s hearth in the village of C, waiting for Dina to sketch a human figure with her knife and start up a charm. Writing this story starts it all up again. So does reading it. You charm in the evenings, with your skewer and your best knife.

Carrie Messenger
Carrie Messenger lives in West Virginia. Her work has appeared most recently in Grimoire, Pleiades, and Post Road. Her book In the Amber Chamber is forthcoming with Brighthorse Press. She has been a fellow at MacDowell and lived in Romania on a Fulbright.