LESSONS NEVER LEARNED • by Christopher Owen

It is late on a Saturday afternoon, and I sit on the back stoop, looking over the thin slice that is the backyard of my flat. It’s still replete with the flowers and herbs that you, my sweet wife, planted so many years ago. Some come back on their own each year, the others I’ve conjured back with the little bit of magic that I’ve managed to learn.

Some things come so easy to me, like calling forth new life from the dry and twisted roots of your basil, thyme and cilantro — little plants that were never meant to be perennial. But I hang on to all of you that I can, for every little piece of you that yet survives is one more piece of hope that I can someday bring you back.

I never had much use for magic, not until you were gone. But your absence made a sorcerer of me, and every evening that I can work up the courage, strength, and fortitude, I make another attempt to bring you back. Each try shaves a little life from me, for that is the way of magic. I tried last night, but I was interrupted by Ms Swallows — Nancy, if I may — the young lady who now lives in the flat next door. She came through the hedgerow and inquired as to my well-being. I can’t fault her, she’s as lonely a soul as I am, lost in a big city of cold brick and stone. But that, I have to say, is her problem. She’ll have to find her own magic in her life.

I of course made up some excuse or other — one’s magic is one’s secret, or so they teach. She’s a nice enough sort, and we sometimes have dined together, or shared a bottle of wine, but I’ll still keep my secrets to myself. I fear to do otherwise would be to chance losing you forever, and I’ve not yet given up hope.

It is a lovely evening, with the splendor of cool twilight aglow overhead. Tonight I’ve merely come out to relax. I snap my fingers and produce a little flame, and touch it to the end of a Churchill, drawing it to life with a few puffs of breath. I then snap the top on a can of beer, and take a long drink. Even the beer and cigars — little dalliances of mine that you always tolerated — remind me of you. “You gotta be you,” you always said to me. I agreed then, and I still agree now, but I have to wonder how much of me is left. A large part of me seemed to die when you did, and I’m rapidly using up the rest of me in my arcane pursuit of your return.

I got close once, or so I think. It was a rainy day, and I’d just cast the spell. I swear I saw you walking amongst the drizzle, tending to your flowers. But when I went outside, you were gone. I remember the day well; it was the day before Nancy moved in. I’ve never had even a smattering of such success since then, and I wonder how many more times it will be safe to cast the spell again. A part of me thinks I’ll never stop, however. But I grow weary of the pain it causes.

“Nigel?” I hear the voice of Nancy call to me through the hedgerow. “Is that you?”

“Yes, yes,” I say, and soon the hedges tremble, and she appears.

“Lovely evening, eh?”

“It is,” I say.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Of course not. As long as you don’t mind the cigar smoke.”

“Not at all. In fact,” she says, holding a single finger up. She produces a crumpled pack of Pall Malls from her pocket, pats out a cigarette, and holds it in her mouth. “May I?” she says, indicating my cigar in the ashtray on the little metal table.

“Go ahead,” I say, and she takes the cigar and touches the lit end to her cigarette, which soon holds a glow of its own.

“I didn’t know you smoked, Nancy.”

She smiled. “Usually only when I’m alone, or amongst fellow smokers. You gotta be you, right?”

“Right,” I say, a bit taken back by her words. “You gotta be you,” I repeat.

We smoke in silence for a while, and at length I say, “Nancy, would you like to have dinner with me tonight?”

“Why yes, Nigel. And thank you for not making me invite myself again.”

“Not at all. I… enjoy your company, Nancy.”

That night, after dinner and several drinks, Nancy and I made love. It was the first time I’d fathomed such a thing since you left, but I have to say that it felt right. I have a feeling she and I will start a relationship. It’s not that I’ve given up, my sweet, or that I don’t think I could cast the spell again. It’s just that tonight, for the first time, I realized that perhaps the spell has already worked. Those herbs and flowers of yours are not really the same ones that you planted, but new growth with a bit of the old surviving in the roots and pollen and the ground in which they grow.

Nancy isn’t you, but there’s something of you in her, and I delight when I see it in her smile, her laugh, and her words. Maybe this is how the spell works.

We lie together in my bed — our old bed — and I ask her if she minds if I smoke.

“You gotta be you,” she says, and we both laugh.

Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. He has recently retired from a long career in aviation to write full time.

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