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Chapter Two

 

Circle of Lights

 

 

 

Between her departure from India Crowley and waking up on the bathroom floor, Irma’s memory was a blur.  She recalled being very sick and groping miserably up the stairs, but, from this point on, all her other memories, including India, oozed back as thick dark syrup through her skull.  She could just barely recall bending over the commode and rolling onto the floor, and yet, as she awakened with bladder pangs and a chiming in her brain, she could clearly remember the look on India’s face.  It was a mixture of horror, loathing, and shock.

            For some reason, this recollection made her laugh.  There was nothing funny about India Crowley’s actions tonight.  She could find nothing humorous in that look on her face or what came out of her mouth.  India was, at this stage, quite deranged.  And yet Irma laughed so much now she began hiccupping and almost lost her breath.  Pulling herself slowly up onto her legs, though, she confronted herself in the mirror, and was reminded of last night.  When she caught her reflection in the glass, the entire episode began flooding back as one dark wave.  A higher pitched giggle, emanating from hysteria rather than mirth now flowed out of her mouth.  Suddenly, her amusement was gone, and in its place there was a gradual awareness of something terribly wrong. 

As she tried to vocalize her concern, her tongue seemed to be ten sizes too big for her mouth.  With such a din in her head, she could barely concentrate, and she also found it difficult to stand.  And yet this primitive perception she felt made her angry as well as afraid.

            “Thad bish!” she drawled, standing shakily on her feet. “Thad crazy, goddamn bish!  Who she thing she iz?  Id washn’t my fauld she made a fool of hershelf!  Where she gid off talking to me like thad?”

            Looking around for her watch, Irma groaned when she saw it lying in the toilet below.  “He-ey,” she made a face, “how’d I do thad?  The bish hex me; thash wha’ she did!”

            After lifting it out of the bowl and rinsing it off, she remembered that it was waterproof.  She also noticed that it was one-thirty, which meant that she had only slept an hour.  She was still quite drunk.  As in the case of most drunks, she was not thinking clearly when she decided to confront India at this hour.  She remembered India talking strangely to her.  She had called her a worm and later a pig.  She had a cloudy notion that something was wrong, but she wasn’t sure what it was.

            Still feeling queasy, she used the toilet, splashed water onto her face, and headed shakily for the door.  There was no time to slip into something chic, Irma thought light-headedly.  The top portion of her costume was now soaking wet, and the goatee drawn by India had just been smeared all over her face.  By the time she exited her apartment, the adrenaline pumping through her system had sobered her enough to keep her on her feet.  As she stumbled up the staircase, however, her wobbly legs remained unsynchronized with her brain.  Mouth agape, glasses askew on her nose, she turned left, realizing belatedly it should have been right.  Squinting myopically down the hall, she adjusted her glasses and shuffled back in the right direction until reaching India’s door.  Afraid to knock on the door, she peered into her living room window, her little nose pressed against the glass.

            Although the curtain had been drawn, a section of it had been caught by one of India’s garish ceramics, allowing her to see just enough of the kitchen beyond.  A dreadful odor floated from her apartment.  She could see India still in her black dress, sitting on the floor inside a circle of lights.  Candles were set evenly around her.  Various witches’ paraphernalia were situated nearby.  Normally, Irma would remember enough of the diabolic rites to recognize a magic ring.  Satan’s star was in the center, surrounded by symbols and words.  Judging by the smell, India had also been brewing something up on the stove.  But the effect of the alcohol Irma had imbibed was still strong.  All of these familiar symbols of India’s black art seemed disjointed in her head.  In her present state of mind, she was fortunate just to be able to hear her words and comprehend her chant.

            She seemed to be praying to herself at first.  The words “Bagabi laca bachabe, Lamac cahi achiababe” sounded like gibberish to her, even though India had mumbled something like this earlier downstairs.  She didn’t know what it was supposed to mean or if India was making it up as she went along.  As her voice rose in a chant, though, she recognized lines from the Diabolic Rites followed by India’s own special request:

            “Emperor Lucifer, master of the underworld.  Look with favor upon India, your servant.  I’ll trade my soul for your power, if you make my magic work and if you allow me to have vengeance on my foes.  Oh master, make my potions and spells successful so I can do your will!”

            “I knew it,” Irma snickered to herself. “Reached into her bag of tricks, she did.  No fire tonight.  No murders.  Poo-oor India, she’s finally gone over the edge!

            After giggling awhile and doing a little jig, she began shuffling down the hall.  Having no desire to confront Shadowbrook’s self-proclaimed witch, she wanted to put as much distance as possible between herself and what was going on in that room.

            Until now, India had been a white witch.  White witches, India had explained to Irma, worshipped gods and goddesses of nature and relied upon these forces when casting their spells.  Her occasional quotes from the Diabolic Rites and sudden interest in black magic and alchemy, though seemingly harmless at first, should have alerted Irma to the dangers in this shift.

India Crowley had crossed the line.  By her own actions, she had become a black witch.  She had graduated, as many witches finally do, into the black arts, from natural magic to sorcery, and from white witchcraft to the Diabolic Rites.  This wisdom, however, though locked in Irma’s mind, now contended with five cans of beer.

            For several moments, as she leisurely walked back to her apartment, she erupted into genuine, non-hysterical, glee: “Emperor Lushifer?  Mashter of the underworld?  I should’ve recorded thish!

            Feeling cocky now, Irma found herself shrugging off the whole affair as she would a bad dream.  As she paused to get her bearings, however, a full-fledged nightmare began heading her way.  Her laughter and her equally ill-conceived urge to whistle as she staggered down the hall demonstrated how intoxicated she still was.  Penetrating her drunken brain was a sound that, in witches’ parlance, could wake up the dead.  She had no desire to retrace her steps, especially back to India’s apartment, but the eerie sound she was hearing came from that direction: about twenty paces from behind, she judged, exactly where the parted curtain in India’s living room had been.  This time, after reluctantly shuffling back, she listened breathlessly by the window before peeking in.  India, with her eyes shut and palms uplifted, was in a state of ecstasy, chanting her incantation in a quivering, wailing voice that made her sound possessed:

 

            I deny the creator of heaven and earth.

            I deny my baptism and the worship I formerly paid to God.

            I cleave unto thee and in thee I believe.

 

After uttering what sounded like gibberish again, she raised her pale arms toward the ceiling and cried out in a husky voice:

 

            Oh Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, come to me tonight,

            so that we can make our trade.

            I will sign a contract with you: my soul for your power.

            Please father Satan, hear me at last!

 

As Irma watched in disbelief, India stopped suddenly, her green eyes popping wide, her arms dropping down limply to her sides, and a look of awe radiating from her face as she stared into space.  A silence followed that was more terrible than any noise.  Irma looked away for a moment not sure whether to stay or flee.  When she looked back, she saw through the darkness of the living room into the dimly lit kitchen, as she had before, India, the magic circle, and witches’ paraphernalia all around… and something else that filled her with dread.

            A dark silhouette now hovered beside India as she sat on the floor.  The candle flames quivered as it moved into the light.  Even in her present state of mind, Irma knew what this was.  India, after years of make-believe witchcraft had summoned the powers of darkness.  Whether or not it was Satan, himself, he seemed to change form continually as he joined her in the circle, yet remained a total abstraction instead of the creature Irma had been imitating tonight.

            “Dear God,” she gasped, “India did it!  She made contact with hell!

            In an ecstatic voice, as she gazed inappropriately at the ceiling, India cried “Thank you master for sending me your servant with the power to do your will!”

            For a few moments, as Irma looked into the room, India reached out joyfully to the demon.  Seeing it quiver in response, Irma heard it reply icily “I am Nebo, the Shape-Changer, servant of Satan.  Through me, you have power, but you are his child!”  Their voices fell to a murmur, as Irma looked on.  She could see India show homage to the demon, but she could not understand what she said.  A new and more terrible nausea gripped Irma as the full meaning of this sank in.

            Pausing a moment to purge herself on the pavement below, she began backing away from the window.  She could not deny the evidence before her eyes.  Sam and Alice had been right to condemn her: India was a witch.  This was unhallowed ground, and yet she found herself drawn back to the crack in the curtain.  When she looked back into the apartment, the demon, now an orange bipedal filament, moved vaporously around India, as she moved zombie-like, in a state of diabolical ecstasy, toward the door. 

At that moment, Irma backed away from the scene, sobered yet numbed by what she had discovered.

            “This is a nightmare,” she decided, adjusting her glasses on her nose, “I’m asleep…. I’m dreaming…. Dear Lord, let me be asleep!

            Forcing her benumbed legs to move, Irma fled, as quickly as her little body would take her, back to her apartment.  She was driven now by one single goal: lock the door, throw the deadbolt and wait for the nightmare to pass.  Although the drunken slur had disappeared from her voice, she still felt the effects of the beer.   After stumbling down the staircase, she became disoriented as she had when she was trying to find India’s apartment.  Not remembering what staircase she came up, she was uncertain if she was supposed turn left or right at the bottom.  Hearing footsteps in the distance, she ran down the corridor, realizing belatedly that she had, in fact, gone the wrong way.  She remembered something from her catechism at Catholic school at this point that seemed appropriate.   Looking heavenward, a prayer formed on her lips.  In a loud croaking voice, she first cried “Get thee behind me Satan!”  Then, as she saw India appear miraculously in her path, she began, with hardly a slur this time, to quote the Twenty-Third Psalm:

 

            The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

            He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.

            He leadeth me beside the still waters.

 

            “Well-well,” purred India, a fiendish look in her eyes, “if it isn’t my little devil, Irma Fresco!”

 

            He restoreth my soul and leadeth me in the paths

            of righteousness for his name’s sake.

            Yea, though I walk through the valley of the

            shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art

            with me.

 

            “I’m going to do something to you.  You’ll never guess what it is!”

           

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

            Thou preparest a table before me in the presence

            of mine enemies.

            Thou anointest my head with oil.

            My cup runneth over.

 

            “You will have a new body and a new pare of eyes!  You too will have new powers when I’m through!  You will be my precious, furry pet!”

 

            Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the

            days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of

            the Lord forever and ever.  Amen.

           

“It’s something missing from my life that every respectable witch needs.” she was saying, as Irma closed her eyes and prepared herself for the worst.  “It makes it that much better when the pet is my best friend!”

            “Pet?…. What pet?…. What are you talking about?” Irma murmured hysterically as India approached.    

As India continued inching toward her, her hands reached out to embrace as well as to curse.  The demonic apparition, which had not completely joined its host, now materialized by her side.  Petrified with fear now, Irma noticed that he had the outline of a man, the consistency of smoke, and yet was transparent, without eyes, nose or mouth.  She watched in horror as the orange bipedal shape moved over India, enveloped her body, and seeped into her skin.

            With her lips frozen, throat paralyzed, and eyes tightly shut, Irma tried willing herself awake, but something was dreadfully wrong.  For that moment, as India radiated phosphorescently in the dark, she tried uttering the Lord’s Prayer this time, but the words caught in her throat when she opened her eyes.  This was all real she admitted to herself.  She had never felt pain in a dream, and yet the bump she received after stumbling on the stairs now throbbed.  She had also scraped one knee.  There was, she reasoned numbly, no mistaking the authenticity of this scene.  It looked real, it sounded and felt real, and it even smelled real.

            When India began to wave her hands around in the air and mumble her spell, there was no mistaking the odor of brimstone as she spoke: “By the power within me and the powers that be, a rat you once were and a cat you now be!”

            Suddenly, as India stopped waving her hands around and pointed a long slender finger directly at her, a strange light-headedness overtook Irma.  She felt herself caving in on all sides and falling swiftly downward as if she was shrinking, which, in fact she was.  When the shrinking had stopped, she could see, as light entered her costume, her black paws.  She could feel a thick black coat of fur over her skin.

            “There-there,” she heard a voice from without. “Poor kitty.  All tangled up in that nasty devil’s pants.”

            As a great, dark hand probed into her costume, Irma tried to speak.  But she realized that she no longer had vocal chords.

            “Meeowww!” she found herself crying. “Meeowww!  Meeowww!  Meeeeowwww!

            Almost instinctively, as India grabbed her tail, Irma did the most natural thing for a cat to do and bit India’s hand.  As soon as India released the appendage, she bolted from the fabric, scampering frantically off into the night.

            Penny Gruber, India’s next-door neighbor, who had been peeking fearfully through her curtain, could see the small, furry black cat dart past.  From the shadows, she witnessed the Shadowbrook Witch in angry pursuit, shouting madly  “I’ll find you my pet, and when I do I might just have you stuffed!

 

                                                                       ******

Only a few moments after Irma had escaped, India heard laughter in Shadowbrook Arms.  Several men were walking toward her now, their mischievous faces captured in successive porch lights as they approached.  The post Halloween party at Wanda and Neva’s apartment had evidently ended.  They were walking away from it with smiles on their faces, not realizing what was waiting for them down the hall.

            “Well, well,” cackled India, rubbing her hands together as they approached, “Buck, Tom, Jim, Ed and Drew…. Out late tonight, are we boys?”

            “Hey, ish Broomhelda!” drawled Buck, obviously quite drunk. “You wuz supposa zap us!”

            “Yeeeaaah,” Tom said, slack jawed and barely able to stand. “You wuz gonna turn ush into animummals!”

            “That I am, my pets, that I am” India cackled, positioning her hands.

            Penny Gruber now caught the voices in the corridor outside her living room and heard India’s response as the men began heckling her again.  Through her parted curtain, she could see India passing by her window after attempting to capture the little cat.  The young spinster didn’t understand what was happening yet.  India looked very much like an adolescent trick-or-treater wearing an oversized costume and ill-fitting hat.  She didn’t look like a witch, and Penny was unaware that Irma had been turned into a cat.  She knew only that India had been acting quite unhinged tonight, both inside and outside her apartment.  Penny had the misfortune to share a common wall with India Crowley.  After hearing strange and unearthly voices on India’s side of the wall, she had attempted to reach Sam Burns the apartment manager, but Sam was evidently not home, and she was tempted now to call the police.  The question is, Penny wondered aloud, “How do I report such a thing to the police?  What do I say?” “Let’s see,” she rehearsed hysterically, “Officer, I hear strange sounds on the other side of the wall.  I think my next door neighbor is a witch!”

            Penny drew back fretfully from the curtain as Buck and his gang heckled India, greatly disturbed by the noise.  The fact was, she noted with surprise, India seemed unusually calm this time.  Even though they were heckling her unmercifully, she hadn’t lost her temper.  When the would-be witch began walking toward them out of her visual range, Penny shrugged her shoulders and began shuffling off to bed.  For some inexplicable reason she would live to regret, however, she decided to have a look.  Unlocking her door, she peeked down the corridor, wishing very much that she had the courage to give them a piece of her mind.

            “Damn you Sam Burns,” she cursed, “where are you?”

            Three or four apartments down the corridor, India had stopped in front of Buck Logan and his friends.  Penny cringed at the sound of their drunken laughter as India cried out “By the power within me and the powers that be, rats you once were and cats you now be!”  Afterwards, she heard the terrible sound of India’s cackling, as if she was about to do something diabolical to the young men.  She did not know yet that she already had. 

            Before returning to her living room and bolting her door, she looked back fearfully one more time and saw the young men standing together laughing at India’s spell.  Suddenly, as would five pairs of starched fabrics going limp, their clothes fell simultaneously to the ground.  It was, Penny thought with a gasp, as if the young men had shrunk into the shadows at India’s feet.  She could not believe her eyes.  The darkness had swallowed up Buck and his friends.

            “It has to be an optical illusion,” she told herself with a shudder. “India can’t really be a witch!” 

            As she listened to the eerie sound of mewing of cats, however, and watched India chase them into the dark, understanding dawned in Penny’s horror-stricken mind.  Retreating back into her apartment, she locked and bolted the door and returned the night latch to its cradle.

            “That settles it,” she said breathlessly, scurrying to her phone, “I’m calling the police!

 

                                                                       ******

            Down the staircase and across the lawn, Irma had run.  Low down to the ground she traveled, below an awesome network of giant buildings and plants, through a netherworld of shadows, barking dogs, monstrous vehicles, into endless alleys and unlit stretches of street.  Without stopping or looking both ways, she scampered across roads and passed driveways on her quest to escape.  Without a destination in mind and with her only goal to flee, she found herself deep into the nearby town before she decided to stop.

            Now, just when she thought she was safe, she was confronted with a new problem almost as bad as the first: she was lost.

            “Son of a bitch!” she thought to herself.  What came out of her mouth, however, was a faint but very distinct meow.  This noise, which was intended to indicate alarm, sounded strange flowing out of her throat.  Also strange to her senses was the sensation of having thick black fur all over her skin.

            Her misfortune was softened by the fact that she was alive.  She was not yet stuffed as India threatened nor would she become her ‘pet.’  Some things, she believed, were actually an improvement upon the old Irma.  She no longer had to wear glasses.  With twenty-twenty vision, she could see the most minute details in the darkest spots.  She could also smell the most finite aromas, and was much faster and more agile than she had been before.

            But she was still a cat, who was under a witch’s spell, and she was lost.

            To make matters worse for her, she was, at this very moment traveling the wrong way.  Instead of heading back north as she should, she was traveling south, skirting passed the civic center, into the outskirts of skid row.  Totally unfamiliar with her surroundings here, she had no way of knowing which way to go.  Irma, the woman, had a poor sense of direction, but at least she could hail a cab or wave down a bus.  Irma, the cat, on the other hand, could neither hail nor wave.  She had no vocal chords, and she had no hands.  Street signs seemed to be twenty stories above her head.  As a human, her sense of direction might have been inadequate, but as a cat, she seemed to have no sense of direction at all.  The important fact for Irma, at this point, was that she had escaped India’s clutches.  There was no telling what sort of spell she might cast on her next.  She might even have lived up to her threat and had her stuffed. 

            Into a world of darkness and danger, Irma now found herself marooned.  From the nightmarish point in which she was transformed, until the moment she curled up in a discarded grocery sack in an alley and fell asleep, barely a half hour had passed, and yet this was already the longest period of hell she had ever endured.


 

 

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