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Fiction Feature: “The Stray Curse” by Karen Heuler

This is the kind of thing that happens all the time, though not to everyone and not everywhere.

Gina had long brown hair and brown eyes and smooth skin and a mother she didn’t see every day; she was grown and had her own world and that was the way it should be; Gina’s mother had left her mother, who had left her mother, a long string of mothers being left and knowing they had done it in turn, and turn again.

But all of a sudden Gina felt a strange tug at her back. It began with an itch, then a bruise, then a feeling like there was a hook in her spine. She turned around to see what it was, and as soon as she turned the pain went away. But when she shrugged and turned again, it came back fierce and strong. She couldn’t move forward; it hurt her back; she turned around and took a step then a hurried step. She was sure it was her mother pulling her home.

She ran faster and faster the closer she got, flinging the door open when she reached her mother’s house.

Her mother wasn’t there. She called out to her. No answer.

She ran around the back to the woods (her mother was the last house before the wilderness) and then down to the local pond where her mother liked to swim. She stood on the little dock the town had built. Her eyes traveled restlessly, and she was about to turn back when she glanced down.

There below her, deep in the water, her mother reached an arm up; it didn’t break through the surface; her mother’s lips were moving.

Gina dropped to her knees and reached down as far as she could. Her fingertips touched her mother’s wrist; but she couldn’t grab hold and pull her up. She put her ear to the water.

She could hear her mother distantly yelling, Gina! Gina! Help me! Gina, help me!

“Grab my hand!” she yelled back at her mother, but her mother couldn’t.

Gina decided to jump in, but strangely enough she flattened out on the water and she couldn’t reach down any further than she had before.

She felt frantic; she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t reach her.

“You’ll never get her that way,” a voice said, startling her. “She’s cursed.”

She turned to the man who’d spoken. “Cursed! Who would curse her? She’s never hurt anyone or anything.”

The man, lounging on a life guard’s chair tipped against a tree trunk, straightened up and shrugged. “Well, does it matter? Do you want to find out who did it or do you want to undo it? Two different tracks entirely.”

“I want to free her!” Gina cried.

“Well, okay, but you know how it is with curses. There’s always a trick to getting them undone.” He was a slight man with dirty hair and a dirty cap that once used to be blue.

“Can I trust you?” Gina asked impulsively.

He walked towards her. “Of course you can. I’m a life guard. I know all about curses; I’ve even given out a few in my time. Before you ask, it wasn’t me. I’m older than I look and I’m much more cautious. In the past, I’ve regretted a few things I’ve done, so I don’t do them as quickly as I used to.” He smiled faintly; it made Gina feel a little surer, that smile.

“Then what should I do to release her?”

At that he frowned, as if he’d suddenly thought of an obstacle. “It isn’t all that easy,” he said. “Curses are meant to stay. Of course,” he added thoughtfully, “all curses are a series of trades. There’s always a little crack.”

“What’s the crack?” she demanded.

“Hard for me to know, I’m not active anymore.” He closed his eyes dramatically and took a deep breath, then opened them again. “You need advice from someone with more connections. The school nurse comes across the young and the emerging, and they’re more likely to be the ones to let a stray curse go, in case it is a stray curse. Yes, go to the school nurse; I think that should do it.”

“But I can’t leave her here,” she cried.

“Of course not.” He handed her a jar. When she glanced at it she saw her mother deep in the murky waters of the jar.

“Why can’t I just tip it over? Why is she so small?”

“She’s the same size, the water’s the same size, the problem’s the same size. I just changed the perspective, of course.”

Gina put the jar up to her eyes. She could faintly hear her mother yelling, “Help me, Gina!”

“Go ahead,” the man said, and Gina reached her fingers in through the top of the jar and found that her hand was tiny and there was the same old problem: her mother was beneath the water calling for help, and Gina couldn’t reach her. She pulled her hand up.

“What can I do?”

“You have to take her with you to the school nurse; she’s very wise. But I have to warn you, she’ll make a hard bargain. Harder than mine, at least.”

“You’re bargaining something?”

“I’m making it possible to take your mother with you; without that you might lose track of her completely. Don’t you think that’s valuable?”

“Of course, of course,” Gina said hastily.

“For that I only ask for your toes.” He looked modestly away.

Gina was struck with a sudden bolt of terror. “Why would you want my toes? What a terrible thing to ask for!”

“I could have asked for a lung—surely you see how reasonable I am? I hope you won’t insult me by refusing? I’d have to take my gift back.” He reached for the jar, which Gina hastily hid behind her back.

“All right,” she said, and closed her eyes for an instant as a quick piercing pain hit both her feet and when she opened her eyes her toes were gone—and so was the man.

She did little hops for a short distance until she learned how to walk without toes—really, it was a waddle of a sort, flat-footed of a sort—and as she got used to it she got better at it. Her feet slid around in her shoes now since the shoes were clearly too big without toes to fill them. She stopped and tore her sleeves off, and wadded them into the toes of her shoes. There was no blood.

The school nurse was sitting at her desk, filling in forms. She looked up at Gina’s knock. Her eyes slid from Gina’s face to the jar Gina held. “What’s that?” the nurse asked with interest.

“Someone has cursed her,” Gina said. “It’s my mother. I can’t reach her now; my hands won’t reach her.” She unscrewed the lid and reached in to show how impossible it was to actually connect with her mother’s hands. She could hear her mother faintly yelling.

“Well, all mothers leave,” the nurse said. “In one way or another. Isn’t that so?”

“She’s yelling for help,” Gina pointed out.

The nurse sighed. “I’m here to give help, it’s true. But your mother’s obviously been cursed, and there’s no conventional cure for a curse, especially an unconventional curse.” She jiggled the jar, stuck her thumb quickly on her tongue and made motions as if she were paging through a manual in the air. “Yes,” she said finally. “This is a tough one to cure. Whoever did this curse—the diminishing curse—it’s hard to counter. It’s very strong. It requires sacrifice.”

“I already gave my toes,” Gina whispered.

The nurse was surprised. “Why would you do that? What good are toes?”

“The lifeguard required them.”

“He’s a fetishist, that’s all. He’ll probably carry them in his mouth for a month and then spit them out. I never can understand people like him, asking trades for nothing. Well, when you ask something, you risk something.” She looked at Gina.

“What am I risking?” Gina asked quickly. “To get my mother back?”

“You may not get what you request; you may get more than you request; you may get something other than what you request; or you may get nothing at all. But nothing changes without a choice.”

Gina peered at the jar in which her mother faintly sank. “What will you require from me?”

“I need a strip of your skin,” she said.

“How much skin is that?”

“Why, all of it,” the nurse said, surprised. “One continuous strip of all your skin, starting under your right armpit and going up and down until it’s as long as a river. That’s the sympathetic part of it—the river and the water your mother is in; it’s a way to reach her. You hang the skin into the jar and your mother will grab onto it and be pulled to the top.”

Gina was aghast. “But my skin! What will I do without my skin? And do you give it back to me once we get my mother back?”

“Oh, no, of course not—magic doesn’t work on lending things; it works on giving things. I’ll keep it of course, because I use the skin for medicinal purposes.” Here she opened the bottom filing drawer and Gina could see bundles of tightly wrapped skin (like rolls of cellophane) in Ziploc bags.

“I’ll give you an ointment, of course,” the nurse concluded. “It will only sting at first.”

And it stung terribly, and seemed to go on for a terribly long time, but eventually the nurse had the whole roll of skin gathered up, and she put a drop of ointment under Gina’s chin. It seemed to cover her body immediately and indeed the sting went away, although there was a residual sense of stickiness, whether from the ointment or from missing layer of skin, Gina could not tell.

She tried not to look at her skinless hand—red and white in an unpleasant sort of way—as she picked up her mother’s jar and unscrewed the lid. “The skin,” she whispered, and the nurse obliged, handing it to her rolled up as a ball of yarn.

Gina unrolled it slowly. And lovingly. This was herself, a strange sensation: her former self. Her armor against the world. The border between her and it.

She put the jar on the desk and unrolled her skin so that it tipped into the jar, dipping slowly, very slowly, into her mother’s world.

She had to squint to see her skin once it hit the perspective of the jar, being very thin and barely visible. But she lowered it and saw it curl along the top of the water. It didn’t have enough weight to actually dip in. She raised it up and out. “What can I put on it to make it go into the water?” she whispered.

“Put it into your mouth and wet it with your tongue,” the nurse said. “Nothing would get a mother hooked more than the kiss from a daughter. Trust me, she’ll go for it.”

Gina took her own skin, the very tip of it, and put it on her tongue. It felt fragile, and thin, exactly as expected. She moistened it with her saliva and then she took it out and kissed it.

“That will work!” the nurse promised.

But it didn’t. Her mother reached for it—Gina would swear to that—but she couldn’t reach far enough. Instead, bubbles rose from her mouth to the surface. Inside each bubble, Gina was sure, were her mother’s cries: “Help me, Gina! Help me!”

She lifted up the skin and lowered it again. Five times: down and up; pause, down and up. The nurse cheered her on: “You’re almost there!” she said. “This time will work!”

Finally, Gina gave up. She lowered her head. Her mind was almost numb; her body throbbed and her heart was sore

“Oh well,” the nurse said. “We took a chance.”

Gina raised her head. “What chance did you take?” she asked.

The nurse flushed. “I lose, too, when the healing doesn’t work. But I feel I owe you something—or it’s just that I have a good heart. I have a lifetime spent in undoing things like this; if I can’t get you to reach her, then the spell is particularly strong. I can give you a referral.” She stepped over to her desk, leaning down to a small cylinder, which she spun quickly. “Ah, here it is. Dr. Ramona, Transplants.”

“Transplants?” Gina said weakly

“Well, of course. Your mother doesn’t have the will to reach your hand. We must transplant some into her. That’s obvious.” She nodded vigorously to herself, handing the card to Gina, who took up the salve, her mother’s jar, and the card, and walked carefully out the door.

Luckily, Dr. Ramona was nearby, behind a mall with sales on lots of glittery things. There was no one in the waiting room (which concerned Gina, but she felt resigned to it; no one could help her; what did it matter?).

She was ushered into an exam room.

“What is it?” the doctor asked. She wore a short white cotton jacket over her clothes. Her name was sewn onto her pocket.

Gina held her mother out to her. The doctor took the jar, squinting, considering. She took her time. She tapped the jar, she tipped it; she unscrewed the lid and stuck a wooden tongue depressor into it; she listened with her stethoscope.

“I’ve seen this once before,” she said finally.

“And what happened?”

The doctor drew her lips in tightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This is not a deliberate curse; it’s a random one. The person who did this isn’t even aware. That makes it harder to counter it. In essence, there’s nothing to counter. No animosity, no anger, no feelings at all. There was no intent; it just happened. A stray curse.”

Gina sat there. It was so quiet that the faint ring of her mother’s cries could be heard, even from as far away as within the jar.

“My mother is calling for help,” Gina whispered.

“Yes,” the doctor said. “I would too.”

Even that simple agreement cheered Gina. The doctor understood.

“What about a transplant? The nurse said something about a transplant.”

The minutes ticked as the doctor was silent. She pursed her lips, she loosened them; her eyes roamed, her eyes came back; she lifted her hand; she put it down. “There might be some hope there,” she agreed quietly. “Some small hope. But it’s such a risk, and there’s so much to lose.”

“I think she’s lost just about everything already,” Gina argued.

“I didn’t mean for her; there’s not much left for her to lose. I meant for you. Sometimes a curse is stronger because the victim has no will to survive. A kind of compromised immune system, if you will; immunity being the desire to live. We could take yours and give it to her—but you see the danger, don’t you? If we take yours away?”

Gina saw it, definitely. If she gave her own desire to live to her mother, then what would be left for her? It was a sickening prospect, really. She wanted her own life, certainly; was that selfish and cruel? Her eyes strayed to the jar with her mother in it, which the doctor had set down on the table. The doctor waited intently.

“What success rate?” Gina whispered.

“Very small.”

“Then why do it? Why take the chance?”

“I wouldn’t advise it, myself. I wouldn’t do it, myself. We don’t really understand curses like this. Impersonal, indifferent, lacking passion—they can’t be broken easily because we don’t know what was offered to make the curse, so we can’t offer more. It’s irrational. That’s the problem. When you have an irrational curse, there’s very little hope.” She waited to see if Gina would say anything. “The ones who survived may have survived accidentally.”

Gina’s eyes were on the jar. “She’s suffering.”

“She is. But we have no proof that she knows she’s suffering. That part of her may be gone. At least, we can hope so.”

Gina took her mother’s jar. She walked down the long street back to her mother’s house. She walked slowly, because she didn’t have her toes to take some of the burden off her feet. She held the jar in her hands, but the jar often slipped because there was no skin to keep her body fluids from seeping out. Her body was weeping. She tipped the jar every which way, but no matter what position it was in, her mother was still below the water, still reaching up, still calling faintly.

Her mother’s house was the last house before the wilderness. It was a thing her mother often spoke about, the wilderness, though there was nothing in particular Gina could recall about it—not her mother’s wishes concerning it, not whether it was frightening or soothing. It was just a thing her mother mentioned now and then, the wilderness.

Gina stood at its edge. She was silent and listened for a long long time. She didn’t know if her mother could hear her—her mother hadn’t answered her so far, and it seemed she couldn’t change what she was saying. Forever and ever, she could call out, “Help me, Gina” and forever and ever, Gina would not.

Before the sun set, when the birds took their last song, Gina raised her arm and flung the jar as far as she could into the wilderness—so far that she would be unable to find it; so far that she couldn’t hear it; so far that only another jar, flung exactly the same way, would land next to it and add its own unrelenting cry. She would leave instructions for her own daughter, if it should happen to her. Fling my jar far and high and long, she imagined herself writing as she turned to walk down the road to her own house: let me go.

*

This story originally appeared in Indiana Review 36.1, Summer 2014.

Anthony Correale (Fiction Editor): Karen Heuler’s “The Stray Curse” immediately and easily establishes its own internal logic, a compelling fairy tale atmosphere within which the reader willingly surrenders disbelief. It is the rare story that manages to be comically absurd, viscerally disturbing, and heartfelt all at once.

*

Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in over 100 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, from Conjunctions to Clarkesworld to Weird Tales, as well as a number of Best Of anthologies. She has received an O. Henry award, been a finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award, the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction (twice), and others. She has published four novels and three story collections, and last July Aqueduct Press released her novella, In Search of Lost Time, about a woman who can steal time.

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