I knew we were in for trouble on Sarah's first day of fifth grade. I was studying the old tape marks on the walls, waiting for her to gather her things, when a moist hand attached itself to my arm like a jellyfish. A voice hissed in my ear: "Sarah was not prepared to be back in school today. She was daydreaming."
I turned to find the froglike countenance of Sarah's new teacher inches from mine. "Hello," I said brightly. "You must be Miss Fleckert. I'm Martha. Sarah's mom." I looked her over. Googly eyes and premature jowls, a blocky figure stuffed into a purple sweater set, skinny legs protruding from a wrinkled tan skirt. If this were Hollywood instead of New Jersey, I'd cast her as a governess on a BBC soap opera. Or an angry Muppet.
Miss Fleckert's scowl intensified. "She hasn't gotten off to a very good start with me. And I think you need to help her dress in the morning. Her socks don't match."
I tried not to roll my eyes. "She does that on purpose," I said. "It's her trademark. The other kids think it's a hoot." Miss Fleckert did not seem impressed. "Sarah has never had problems in school," I said with a little more heat. Fleckert clomped over to her desk without bothering to reply. I recast her as an eggplant on stilts and stuck my tongue out at her.
We beat our retreat, picking our way across a parking lot so hot it squished. In the Explorer, I gunned the AC. Sarah curled into her seat, wrapping her thin arms around her chest as if she were freezing.
"How was your day?" I asked.
"Okay." And then, for the first time in recorded history, my daughter clammed up.
After a quiet dinner we dispersed, Sarah off to do her homework, and Tom, my husband, to his basement hideaway. I made a cup of the calming tea I got from a tiny Chinese man on Mott Street and left Tom in peace. At this point I could say his lines as well as he could: "Martha, you have to let Sarah figure things out on her own. You can't coddle her."
What do you know? I answered my inner Tom. You're on the road four days out of seven. But I reflected that he might be right; maybe it was time to let Sarah work this out for herself. Anyway, it wouldn't take long for Miss Fleckert to see how special Sarah was, like every teacher before her.
Midway through the third week of school, Sarah got off the bus with the look Tom and I called First Dead Hamster.
"My god, baby, what's wrong?" I cried. She handed me a report she had written on the moons of Jupiter with a giant red "D" scrawled across Page One. I stood in the shade of the stately maples that lined our street and scanned the comments.
Your facts are incomplete. You didn't do sufficient research. Your writing suffers from multiple errors. If you rewrite this report I may raise your grade to a C.
This wasn't an astrophysics dissertation. It was fifth grade. What on earth was this woman thinking? I saw two big tears roll down Sarah's face and turned to the first order of business. "Desperate times require desperate ice cream," I told her.
We sat down at a fly-spangled picnic table next to the ice cream stand, Sarah with a giant pink cone and me with my Diet Coke. A herd of carrot-top kids poured out of a minivan. At the table next to us a much-pierced teenage couple in layers of black conferred in urgent whispers. Normally Sarah and I would have shared a laugh, but she just darted her tongue listlessly in and out of her Bubblegum Crunch. "Sarah," I said, "are you feeling . . . different this year?"
"What do you mean, Mom?"
"You know the changes in your body that we talked about? That's just the half of it. Your mind goes through changes too. Some girls find it hard to concentrate. Maybe you're thinking about boys instead of Jupiter." I got busy with my straw.
"Boys? You think I got a bad grade on my report because of boys?" A pink rivulet snaked over her hand and onto her stiff new jeans. "Mom, I'm just the same as I was last year. Only Miss Fleckert doesn't like anything I do."
"Don't worry, honey. It'll be okay." The words came automatically, but Sarah shot me a look as new as her jeans: I don't believe you. Then she went back to licking her cone and her wounds.
For a while I stuck to my resolve to butt out. Then I limited myself to traditional parental strategies, like character assassination and bribery. I mentioned to Ms. Headly, the principal, that Miss Fleckert might benefit from a workshop on teaching gifted children. Then I dropped tickets to Wicked on Fleckert's desk, a treat she never even thanked me for. Still, I was trying to be good. But as I went about my business, editing manuscripts, ignoring housework, chatting with neighbors, I could swear I detected the faint aroma of sardines and burnt sage emanating from an old carton of books in our basement. It was a siren call that I'd ignored for a long time.
And I continued to ignore it, convincing myself that things would, in fact, be okay. As the weeks went by, Sarah learned to divine what Miss Fleckert wanted before she handed in an assignment, a skill I didn't pick up until college. As her grades hovered in the barely acceptable range, I reassured myself that one's fifth grade transcript did not determine one's future.
But little by little, Sarah lost her sparkle. She stopped reading fantasies about gutsy warrior girls and turned to grim tales of abused orphans. She rarely had friends over; she just shrugged when I asked her if she wanted to have a sleepover or a roller skating party.
The day she came downstairs wearing matching socks, the war was on.
At this point even Tom agreed that parental intervention was indicated. But he thought he could lick this thing the old-fashioned way. "Martha," he said, "set up a meeting with–what's this bird's name? Flockhart? I'm sure she can be persuaded to listen to reason."
"Don't be so sure," I snapped.
He raised an eyebrow.
"Look, Tom. School doesn't work like business. It's Shakespeare: politics and hurt feelings and plots. People aren't rational."
Tom snorted. "What makes you think business is rational? I negotiate for a living, remember? We'll fix this."
Tom saw the situation as he'd always seen the world: black and white, with three comforting dimensions. But I saw another world that he didn't even know existed. And I was done playing fair. I sent a quick text to my two best friends: Your vessels and your spells provide. Midnight. Then I went to take out my lasagna.
I had never noticed that the chime of my oven timer sounded just like a certain chapel bell in cold salt air.
Stephanie, Julia, and I had missed the Age of Aquarius, but that didn't stop us from dragging our flimsy Indian skirts through the snow that blanketed the Bowdoin campus from November to April. We grew hair in all kinds of places and danced to Joni Mitchell. We went ga-ga for the I Ching one month, tarot the next. But it was Steph's horrible taste in men that showed us our true calling.
Bowdoin offered limited non-jock dating options, and we were isolated from the rest of Brunswick, Maine by a deep town/gown divide. So our artsy little set made do by passing each other around like canapés. All three of us slept with a jerk named Fernando, but unfortunately, Steph actually fell for him. He hung around her, crying about his loveless childhood, writing horrible poems, and humiliating her in a spectacularly public fashion. Julia and I kept hoping that his bad behavior would get him expelled but his parents were big donors. He only got a slap on the wrist when he got dragged pantless out of the Peary-MacMillan Museum with an underage townie girl.
One night when Julia and I were studying for our Shakespeare final, high on Mountain Dew, she slapped the text closed and said, "Let's take care of that asshole once and for all."
We dug out an old book of spells we'd bought in a hippie bookstore. Solemnly I outlined a pentangle on the floor of our room with a burnt Popsicle stick. Julia used the end of my hairbrush to grind up some sage from an aborted cooking experiment; we were supposed to burn that, too, so she scorched it with a lighter. "Whew, that's potent," she said. "We'd better finish before we get nabbed for smoking something else." She scanned the list of ingredients. "Oh no. Where are we going to get fish bones this time of night?"
I had an idea. "For some reason, Steph's mom thinks she loves sardines," I said. I went into Steph's tiny bedroom and found six or seven tins in her food drawer. Holding our noses, we opened one and extracted some tiny bones. We tossed them into a pot on our illegal hotplate with some the burnt sage and some Mountain Dew.
"'Bury this potion in a deep hole in the wood'," I read. We looked out at a foot of snow on the quad.
"This will have to do," said Julia. She opened the window and tossed the mess out onto the snow.
We shivered and pulled the window closed. I hunched over, shook a finger, and channeled Hecate. "'Your vessels and your spells provide/Your charms and everything beside.'" We cracked up and fell across our beds in a sugar stupor.
The next day, when Fernando took a stoned dive off Smith Union and broke his leg, the Dean of Students had finally had enough. A small crowd showed up to watch his parents load him into their Mercedes. His mother's voice drifted over to us, as icy as the Zamboni leavings outside the hockey rink.
"Well, Lowell, what school would you like to be thrown out of next?"
"Lowell?" I whispered to Julia. "What happened to Fernando?"
"We should tell her it's our fault," Julia whispered back. She angled her chin toward heart-broken Steph.
"Are you kidding? She'll kill us."
"It's only right." Julia had always been our ethicist. As we walked back to our suite, she put her arm around Steph and told her about the spell. To our surprise, Steph clapped her hands and laughed. "So how did you guys do this again?" she asked.
After that, whenever fate needed a little helping hand, we played Three Weird Sisters. We never hexed anybody dead or seriously injured, of course, but we were not above inflicting a little pain: a skin rash, an appendix flare-up. And something always went awry for our unfortunate victim.
I adored the rush. I loved my friends so much when we held hands and chanted our chants. And it made me feel powerful. After all, how many people can control the fates and create their own reality?
After we graduated and went our separate ways, our little metaphysical hobby kept us close. With a bit of help from us, Julia's rival for editor of the Harvard Law Review got caught stealing exams. And, of course, we dealt with a parade of nasty Fernandos that trooped through Steph's life like Banquo's descendants. But, as much as I enjoyed working spells, I rarely asked for help for myself. Until Fleckert, my life was perfect.
That night I went down to the laundry room at precisely midnight and called Julia. She answered immediately. Stephanie's phone rang and rang; she picked up just as her voicemail kicked in.
"What?" she said sleepily.
"Didn't you get my text?"
"I must have missed it. I was in a meeting all afternoon, and a bunch of us went to a new Sicilian place for dinner." Steph always had a new Manhattan bistro du jour. "What's wrong, Martha?"
"Julia, you still there?" I pictured her in her cushy office overlooking Boston Harbor, stilettos off, paging through some ponderous brief.
"Listen, guys. I need a little eye of newt."
"Wait. You woke me up to cast a spell?" said Stephanie.
"C'mon, you guys. It's been ages," I said.
I heard someone sigh.
"Let's get to it," said Julia impatiently. "I've got hours of work left. Who is it?"
"A teacher?" Stephanie said. "That doesn't sound exactly kosher."
"This is not a nice teacher. You guys are in crappy moods, you know that?" But we began. I felt myself relax as the familiar drug coursed through me—along with a jolt of hope that everything would, finally, be all right.
The next morning I whistled cheerfully as I laid out platters of French toast with maple syrup and strawberries. Sarah looked up at me. "What's with you, Mom? You never cook breakfast on weekdays."
"Nothing's with me," I said. "What's going on at school today?"
"We have to make a group poster about the Civil War. Miss Fleckert put me with Jojo and Harper." The Ritalin Brigade. "They just sit there and play with their phones under their desks. I'd do the whole thing myself but Miss Fleckert told me I have to learn to collaborate."
"Fifth graders have phones?"
"Mom. Everyone has a phone but me. That's not the point."
Tom looked up from his BlackBerry, picking up his fork and the thread of the conversation. "Miss Flockhart still being a pain?"
"Miss Fleckert, Dad. I guess."
He glanced at me and talked around his mouthful of French toast. "I thought we were going to schedule a meeting."
Sarah's fork clattered on her plate. "Don't, Dad. It'll only make things worse."
"Sarah, let me help."
"No. Please. I can handle it."
I could see that Tom was baffled, but I understood Sarah's reluctance; the parent conference backfired more often than it helped. There was only one problem: If the hex didn't work, the parent conference was my Plan B. And that had just gone into the toilet.
The inflatable Santas took over our neighborhood like jolly aliens. The Feinsteins' lonely electric Menorah cast its faint light on their porch like a reproach; I had stopped putting ours in the window when my Bubbe told me it would light my curtains on fire. I haunted the PTA kaffeklatches, ears pricked for news, but I heard nothing. At first I had worried that the strength of my maternal fury might have turbo-charged the spell. I wanted to remove Miss Fleckert—I didn't want to kill her. But as time went by I thought that it was the opposite. Perhaps my friends' lack of enthusiasm had failed to produce the necessary energy.
The day after Christmas vacation, Sarah said casually, "Hey, Mom. Miss Fleckert got married. We have to call her Mrs. Raleigh now."
Bingo! A bloodless coup. "How nice," I answered. "She'll be moving away now, I presume?"
"Uh-uh. She said her husband works at home so they can stay in Princeton."
Well, magic works in mysterious ways, I thought. Something would come of this new wrinkle. For starters, Fleckert's hubby would undoubtedly be a troll. I hurried to Facebook; it took me a couple of tries to remember to use her new name. When I found her wedding photos I couldn't believe what I saw. In every frame, a shockingly handsome man beamed with joy at his Poppin' Fresh bride. In a flower-draped gazebo he tenderly removed her oversized pump, bridal garter in hand; in a beachy paradise, he angled an umbrella drink through her burqa of scarves, hat, and sunglasses.
I clicked out in dismay.
Late that night I summoned my friends. Julia didn't answer, but I regaled Steph with the tale of Fleckert's undeserved good fortune. What had gone wrong?
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Finally Steph said, "Aren't we getting a little old for this?"
"I love you, Martha, but to tell you the truth, I was ready to stop this nonsense a long time ago."
I breathed evenly. Stephanie just needed a little pep talk; it wouldn't be the first time. I wished Julia was on the line.
"Steph," I said, "the whole basis of the magic is the three of us together. We wouldn't be able to do it without you."
"Give Sarah my love," Steph said, and she hung up.
By March everyone had stowed their Christmas lights except Sheila Evans, who always ignored our hints until one of us sent over a husband with a ladder. In our flower beds the daffodils and hyacinths gave way to pansies, which yielded, in due course, to petunias and crabgrass.
Over the months Sarah's face had become more angular, her clear-eyed gaze shuttered like a house awaiting a hurricane. She spent hours alone in her room. I missed having her follow me around the house, spooling out her kooky stream of consciousness. And I blamed Fleckert.
Meanwhile, according to Facebook, Fleckert spent Easter break in a villa in Tuscany. She lost weight, bought clothes, and got an expensive haircut. In the school parking lot, her rusty Subaru gave way to a sweet little Beamer. Once I saw her husband drop her off. She leaned into the window and kissed him passionately, while all around her, middle school kids pretended to barf.
Two weeks before the end of school Sarah raced into the house. "Mom," she said, "You won't believe this. Mrs. Raleigh's husband got arrested. We have a substitute for the rest of the year."
I flew to my computer and pulled up the local news. There it was: the dashing Mr. Raleigh being led away in handcuffs while Fleckert wrung her hands like a silent movie heroine. It turned out that Mr. Raleigh—or whatever his name was—had wives in three states. He had lived large on a romantic Ponzi scheme, using the last of each rich bride's savings to court the next.
Wait. Rich bride? It turned out that no one in Princeton had known that Fleckert was heir to a Newark Laundromat dynasty. "I only taught because I love the children," she told the reporter. "I didn't need the money. But now there's nothing left." With so little of the school year remaining, Miss Fleckert's downfall didn't do Sarah any good, but I savored the vindication.
Late that night I snuck back to the laundry room to call Steph and Julia. "See?" I told them gleefully. "The spell worked. It was just a delayed reaction."
"Martha, how can you see this as anything but a coincidence?" Julia's voice was uncharacteristically kind.
"What? No. The spell just took a while."
"You've always taken this whole thing too seriously. It's just a silly thing we did in college."
"Why didn't you say something before, Julia?" said Stephanie. "I thought it was just me."
"I did it for Martha. But now I see I shouldn't have encouraged her."
I felt like some essential part of me was floating away in a fast current. "Okay, Julia," I said. "If it's so silly, how come things always happened to the people we hexed?"
I heard Julia's muffled aside to someone in her office: Don't leave, I'm almost done here. Then she answered me. "Because life is always ready to throw a load of crap at people. But Martha—it was always random."
"Well. If that's how you both feel."
"Oh, Martha," said Stephanie, "don't be like that. We don't need that stuff to stay friends."
I managed a terse goodbye and crawled into my empty bed with a box of tissues, glad, for once, that Tom was on the road. How could I not have known that our charms—for me, the heart of our intimacy—had been a joke to Julia and Steph? I had been the only one of us who'd needed a talisman to cling to when life spun beyond my control. As I twisted the corner of my sheet and sniffled, I wondered if everyone close to me saw me as a naïve little fool.
Still, I wasn't sure I could bear the flatness of a world without magic.
Once the publicity died down I went to see Miss Fleckert. Not to gloat; I'd lost my taste for revenge along with my confidence in supernatural first aid. I just wanted to ask her why she had been so tough on my daughter.
She answered the door of a McMansion, back in her dowdy clothes, her expensive haircut grown out to an awkward bob. She invited me in without enthusiasm and took me into a showy sunroom. I wondered how long it would be before the repo guys grabbed her furniture.
When I asked her about Sarah she looked perplexed.
"I had no ill will toward Sarah," she said. "I never disliked my students. I simply provide a rigorous level of challenge and discipline." I heard her subtext: To make up for the way you spoil them. I finished my tea, gathered myself up, shook her hand and wished her well. Miss Fleckert was no longer monstrous. She was an imperfect human who had made mistakes, like all of us.
A few weeks later a city girl moved into the big Victorian at the end of our block. By the strange alchemy of preteens, she and Sarah were strangers one day and inseparable the next. When Sarah wasn't giggling with Carly behind closed doors she was texting her on the hideous pink cell phone we'd finally gotten her.
Carly was a sixth grader too, but a different genus from Sarah: tall, developed, and freakily self-possessed. She dressed as if she had stepped from the pages of Seventeen. I thought she was a bit sophisticated, but I was glad to see my daughter's face shining. The school year began brilliantly. Carly was assigned to Sarah's teaching team by her mom's request. Sarah was engaged and confident. She did well in all her subjects and she seemed to be popular. Perhaps everyone just wanted to get close to Carly, but so what? It was middle school.
At the end of September, however, the Ghost of First Dead Hamster reappeared. "Carly has a boyfriend. An eighth grader," Sarah told me tearfully. She dropped her backpack on the kitchen floor and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "She hardly talked to me all day. I hate her." And she began to cry in earnest.
I murmured, "You'll be friends again soon. Carly's just excited because dating is new." But by now I knew that my words of comfort were empty. I felt more helpless than ever. How could a mother possibly be strong enough, or wise enough, to escort her daughter through the land mines of adolescence?
Then, while Sarah wept on my shoulder, I sniffed and sniffed again. The scent of sardines and burnt sage filled my living room like a long-lost friend. My vision clouded and swirled with dimensions and colors I thought I'd never see again. For a few precious seconds I drifted on a familiar cloud of longing and euphoria.
What if I could share this gift with Sarah? Don't be sad, I would tell her. You can make things happen; you can be the mistress of your fate. I'll show you.
All too quickly the ordinary hues and contours of my living room came back into focus. I was tired and dispirited, I thought, and a little dizzy from my latest diet. The only thing I smelled was furniture polish. I shook my head to clear it and gave Sarah one last squeeze. "Buck up, my darling," I said. "Life isn't fair. Go do your homework."