Sugar and Spice
by Jennifer R. Donohue
There was a brisk knock at the door, and deaf or no, Lucky was on her feet in an instant with a sharp bark. Helena sighed and set aside her knitting, the knock coming again before she could reach the door. The next door neighbor, Mr. Sharp, was on her porch, hatless and without his usual greatcoat.
“Sorry to bother you, Madame, but I seem to have locked myself out of the house, and I was right in the middle of something. I wondered if I could–”
“Oh, of course. Do you want to use my cell?” She turned, but Mr. Sharp brushed past her across the runed threshold and looked about, fingers steepled.
“The offer is much appreciated, but I’m not after the phone. No, I must ask, didn’t Mr. Indersam mention having left anything here for me?” His eyes were very blue, and one of his pupils wasn’t quite round, or the right size.
“No, he didn’t. I bought the place from him last fall.” She’d heard about Mr. Sharp. He didn’t have a dog and was a pushy bastard. Self taught, but weren’t they all? Her eyes drifted to his tattoos: sulfur on one index finger, mercury on the back of his left hand.
“Oh. I assumed you were his housekeeper.” Mr. Sharp sneezed and looked at Lucky before turning to Helena. “I must complete my recipe. I promise you, I’ll replace everything I use, but time is of the essence.”
“I’m sure you understand, you mustn’t let certain ingredients sit without the inclusion of others.”
“I do understand,” she said, but Mr. Sharp had already continued down the hall. Lucky gave a wheezy bark and stood him down in the kitchen doorway, pricked ears forward and brushy tail stiff.
“It would seem you have a gatekeeper,” he said after a moment of impasse.
“Indeed.” Helena snapped her fingers for Lucky to come to heel. She did, with a slow stiff gait, eyes on Mr. Sharp the entire time. “Now, what is it you need? I’ve got lots of baking stuff for when my sister’s kids visit.” She hadn’t yet decided when during his farce she would bring him to task.
“Thank you. I’ll need sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Then red thread, a needle, and do you have any teeth?”
Helena paused with her hand on the cupboard door, and turned to Mr. Sharp. “Teeth?” she asked.
“Yes, teeth.” He made a biting gesture.
“I have Lucky’s teeth,” she said, to save herself more explanation.
“Fantastic! I knew you were the neighbor to count on.” Mr. Sharp reached past her and pulled open the cupboard, getting out the sugar and cloves. Cinnamon. The jar of whole nutmegs with a tiny grater on top. “A bathrobe, if you would be so kind.” He began to toss things into the empty cast iron pot on her stove. “And chalk!”
Helena withdrew to her sewing room, torn between laughing at him and ending him. Her own materials were in the front room in a carved cabinet by the fireplace, but Mr. Sharp would not be permitted to use them. She plucked a needle with red thread knotted through the eye from her pincushion. She rummaged in a drawer until she found a box of sidewalk chalk deposited there by her nieces, all broken-off stubs, with grass and sidewalk grit still clinging to some pieces.
Lucky’s teeth were in a little satin box on a shelf. Helena returned to the kitchen to find Mr. Sharp bent into the refrigerator. Lucky sat at attention on one of the rag rugs, fixing him with her intent gaze.
“Here you go,” she said. Mr. Sharp straightened up, a bottle of wine in hand.
“Could you spare a glass of this red?” he asked. “And the bathrobe?”
“Yes, the bathrobe.” She hardly wore them herself, and went back down the hall to push through summer dresses and one of Robert’s suits in her closet, the only one she’d kept. Dear Robert. She held the rough tweed sleeve of it in her hand for a moment. He′d been good at keeping her centered and calm. Eventually she happened upon a bathrobe, lightweight polyester, in mauve paisley.
Mr. Sharp appeared to have put all of the ingredients but the chalk and the glass of wine in the pot by the time Helena came back. Lucky returned to her mistress’ heel. “That’s just lovely,” Mr. Sharp said, taking the bathrobe from Helena and draping it over his arm. “Might I see your fireplace?”
“Down the hall to the left.”
Mr. Sharp set the pot and the wine glass down on an end table and tossed the bathrobe on the chair still occupied by Helena’s knitting. He peeled open the chalk’s cardboard top and made a small moue of distaste, poking about with a too-long index finger until he drew out a half stick of pink chalk. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asked, gesturing at the flagstone fireplace.
“Oh, by all means,” Helena said with a grand gesture. The situation had passed the absurd.
Mr. Sharp drew a half circle. The squiggles he marked at places along the circle and on either side of the fireplace were not in a language Helena had studied, but she followed the gist. Occasionally he brushed away a piece of grass; when they fell to the floor, Lucky slunk in for a sniff, hair growing stiff along her spine. Helena called her away, remaining in the doorway. Mr. Sharp was about to be very rude indeed.
Circle drawn, Mr. Sharp poured the contents of the pot into the fire, then picked up the wine glass and drank off half of it in one gulp before flinging the remainder onto the coals. He set both the pot and the glass on the mantle, peered intently into the flames, and clapped once. He remained staring at the flames as the petal-pink chalk scribblings slowly faded away.
“Right then,” he said, sneezing again. He produced an improbably patterned handkerchief from his inside pocket and blew his nose.
“All done?” She rubbed her own nose to hide her smile.
“All done.” He scooped up the bathrobe and proceeded back towards the door.
“Home. Thank you for having me, this must have seemed very strange.”
“I thought you were locked out?” Helena accompanied him to the door, Lucky trailing behind.
“Yes, that’s taken care of now.”
“I imagine it would have been quite the inconvenience if I hadn’t been home. And of course you can bring over another copy of your key, if you’d like.”
Mr. Sharp paused with his hand on the front door. “Yes, it would have been quite the inconvenience.” He turned back to Helena, and the irregular pupil of his left eye seemed quite a lot larger. “But we can forget all about this, can’t we?” he asked, and his voice had taken on a booming, echoey quality.
She shook her head. “Well no. Of course not.”
“Pardon?” Both Mr. Sharp’s pupils were quite large now.
“You barged into my house without invitation, performed a ritual without securing proper permission, promised you would replace the materials you’ve used, and now seek to glamor me into forgetting you’ve taken such liberties? I certainly will not forget all about this.” Helena’s voice did not grow louder, and Lucky did not grow larger, but to Mr. Sharp such things might have seemed to be the case. He tried the knob, which did not turn.
He really looked at her for the first time, took in the faded indigo crescents inked above her knuckles. “I do believe we’ve had a misunderstanding,” he said.
“Yes, I believe so. You will replace the materials you’ve used, in kind. If you do not, I will take possession of them myself, regardless of what your ritual has just produced. You will not pull a trick like this in my home again, or in any of our unsuspecting neighbors’ homes. Next time you lock yourself out because you’ve decided to bark at the moon in the middle of something, it’s your own loss.”
“You have no authority to place such censure on me.” His eyes started up some nonsense again.
Helena dismissed it with a wave. “Save yourself the trouble next time and at least pretend to be polite.” The front door unlatched and inched open. “You may go.”
“I will replace your materials in kind,” he said grudgingly, bathrobe twisted between clenched hands.
“Thank you.” An apology was too much to hope for.
Mr. Sharp crossed the lawn to his property. His front door opened, and a red haired woman reached her bare arms out to him. He enclosed her in the bathrobe swiftly, and as the woman was ushered inside, she glanced over Mr. Sharp’s shoulder to Helena and smiled tentatively with pointed teeth.
Helena shut the door and returned to her seat by the fire. Lucky paced between the door and her rug before laying down again with a sigh. Helena picked up her knitting, and then looked at the pot and glass still on the mantle. She shook her head, and got up to take them to the kitchen. Just like Robert, leaving his spell detritus strewn about. With today’s rebuke, perhaps Mr. Sharp would learn to be more fastidious.