Friday, March 12, 2010

Double, Double

The hard part had turned out to be the fresh mugwart, because there wasn’t any in Las Vegas. Fresh anything was always hard in the desert, unless it was sage. But there weren’t too many magical potions that called for tumbleweeds, so fresh things always required, at the very least, tracking down a supplier with a greenhouse. It got expensive.

Lilith had found a supplier, a graduate student who looked like a leftover from the counter-culture Sixties, but believed in Wicca and grew all sorts of interesting things in a back corner of the university greenhouse. She’d come up with any number of herbs and rare cuttings as Lilith read them off her ingredient list, and without batting an eye or asking questions. But, when asked for mugwart, she shook her head.

“It won’t grow in the desert,” she explained. “Not under controlled conditions, not under any conditions. Mugwart grows alongside creekbeds. It needs mud and damp. And the light’s wrong here– you know that kind of green, leafy light you get in places where there’s lots of foliage? When the sun shines through the leaves and everything feels damp...” she stared off at a private vision, and Lilith nodded briskly.

“I get it. Where can I get some, though? There must be someone on the West Coast. There are creeks in California.”

Her expert looked doubtful. “I don’t know if they’re right. You know, the light is really different in different parts of the country. East Coast light is heavier, more muggy, you know? West Coast is lighter, brighter. Some plants don’t make the transition. Like nightshade, it needs–”

Lilith never learned what nightshade needed. It wasn’t called for in her recipe, so she didn’t stay to listen. She returned to her online searching, and eventually turned up a grower in L.A. who promised her as much mugwart as she desired. She flew there and back again one afternoon, the precious plant well-swaddled with damp rags in her lap, crossing her fingers that it was right and would do the trick. At least she hadn’t had to pick it at midnight under a full moon, she thought gratefully.

After that, the recipe was not hard. The spoken spell was a challenge, since it was in Basque, a language reputedly unlearnable by non-natives. She thought she might have hit a roadblock there, till she stumbled on a small collection of Basque Shakespeare and Jane Austen readings on cassette for the blind. By painstakingly comparing those original texts with her spell, she managed to create a phonetic translation. She never did figure exactly out what she was saying, but she hoped that wouldn’t matter. She refused to waste time wondering what a bunch of sheepherders in the upper Pyranees were doing making up spells like the one she wanted.

What she was trying to get, or create, was a champion to fight Zem for her. She needed something big. Something powerful. And something, if possible, as ancient as he was.

Or at least, some reasonable facsimile.

The incantation was to be said three times while she boiled the potion, which she did in a mutter, banishing thoughts of Macbeth’s three witches from her mind. She peered long and hard into her iron pot when she finished reciting, wondering if she’d done it right and if all the ingredients were sufficiently dissolved. With this spell as with many others, timing was of the essence.

She decided that if she couldn’t actually see any recognizable bits of mugwart or lemon peel floating around in the dark muck, it was probably ready. Besides, she should be able to count on the Winter Solstice to energize the spell and make up for some shortcomings, shouldn’t she?

She grabbed the pot with her heaviest oven mitts and headed for her car.

The potion had to be used hot. She supposed that really, she ought to have mixed it up on site, a yard or two from her subject. But that was obviously impossible. The modern world, not to mention the hospitality industry, was certainly not ready for a Gypsy witch stirring a caldron on a clear Tuesday in December.

She sped down the freeway, passing every car till she hit the last exit. Then she careened around three left turns, nearly overturning the pot in her passenger seat, and screeched into valet parking at the Nile.

She grabbed her mitts and the caldron and hurried out, managing to toss a ten to the pimply-faced youth who took her keys.

“Won’t be here long. Just don’t bother me,” she said sweetly.

He was young enough to be dazzled by her smile, or else new enough at his job to be impressed by the ten. In either case, he just stood there watching after her and didn’t say a word.

The incantation had to be repeated backwards while she poured the potion over each of the statue’s four feet. She’d made a special trip here yesterday to reconfirm that there were, in fact, four complete paws, that the wall of the hotel didn’t swallow the back two. She’d had some bad moments when she’d thought of that.

The inflections were even harder, speaking backward, and Lilith struggled to get through them smoothly. She finished the first paw, screwed up the second irretrievably, went back and started over, and noticed as she repeated her steps that the whole parking staff was gathering in a little knot to stare at her.

Just get through the spell, she told herself, and you won’t have to worry about them.

She only hoped her accent was good enough to make the incantation work. Whatever spirits or earthly forces actually listened to these things would have to pay pretty close attention to get every nuance. She stumbled as she came around to the fourth and final leg, and poured the very last of her now-cooling potion on its toes. And when she was finished, she straightened and looked up, studied the legs and the belly of the thing, which were the only parts she could see, and suddenly, without warning, she knew.

She knew before she saw the movement, before she even felt the ground shudder underneath her as the thing shifted its weight. She knew without doubt.

The actual performance was wildly impressive, of course. Boy, if Cheryl could just see me now! Lilith thought. But no one could see her. The valet parkers had scattered, she noticed. And even the car noise from the Strip seemed to have abated. No one was around to scream or point or wonder.

Somehow, in this most populous and busy place on earth, Lilith found herself, now, utterly alone. Alone, except for the gigantic form she’d brought to life, the statue she’d awakened, the monolithic being she’d succeeded in energizing magically.

When the ground stopped shaking, Lilith looked up at the thing she’d wrought and felt impressed, and awe-struck, and proud, and excited. But mostly, she felt very, very small.

The Sphinx looked down at her. “Shall we go?” it invited.

NEXT POST: ROUNDUP (Monday 3/15)