The café’s ceiling fan made a noise like hunt-and-peck typing. I sat alone at a little round table right beneath it, looking up movie session times on my phone and drinking an iced latte. It was a Monday and I had the day off work, and I was planning to escape from the summer heat into the sweet chilly embrace of cinema air con. Me and all the other customers crowding the place were covered in sheens of sweat, like our skin had been polished by an exacting butler until he could see his reflection.
I heard a polite “Do you mind if I sit here?” and looked up to meet eyes with a woman standing next to the empty chair opposite mine. I said “Sure!” and she sat down, putting her food number on the table and immediately pulling a book out of her big squishy black bag, as if to reassure me she did not expect me to talk to her. This made me like her. She had a generic face and brown hair and it was hard to tell her age – like a woman in a health insurance ad. She was wearing heat-appropriate shorts and a singlet, but she was also wearing scarlet leather gloves that came to just above the wrist. I kept snatching peeps at them over the top of my phone. I tried to work out what book she was reading but one of her gloved hands obscured the title.
Her food came, a burger and chips.
“Would you mind watching my food while I duck to the toilet?” she said.
“Sure!” I said, in the exact same way I’d said it before.
She left the book splayed face-down on the table, and I could now see that it was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. As I contemplated asking her what she thought of it so far when she returned (it’s one of my favourites), I snagged one of her chips from her plate and popped it into my mouth.
When she came back and settled in her chair again, she stared at her food for a few beats. “Did you steal a chip?” She sounded alarmed rather than annoyed. I flushed and said “God yes, I’m sorry. So rude, I’m so sorry. I hate when people take my chips, even if I know them.” I resisted the urge to caw like a seagull. “I’m not sure what came over me, I swear I would not usually steal a stranger’s chips!”
She looked stricken. She took a few steadying breaths.
“I’m afraid I have to put a curse on you,” she said, sad but firm.
I laughed (obviously).
She took off her gloves and I saw that her palms and fingers were polka-dotted with small scars at various stages of healing. She rummaged in her bag and brought out a thorny purplish-brown stick about the length of her forearm. She grasped it hard with her left hand, her knuckles blooming white. She pointed it at me, closed her eyes and murmured something unintelligible.
She opened her eyes and said “I’m very sorry but you’re cursed now. I made it as minor as I could within the rules. Might not kick in until tonight or maybe even tomorrow. Hopefully nothing too awful and should run its course in a few weeks at most.”
I laughed again.
“I know, I know, it’s just one chip. I’d let it go if I could. But the rules are clear – steal from a witch, you get cursed. This sucks, it’s been ages since this happened. The last one was my boss at a bar who was underpaying all of us so I didn’t feel bad about cursing him at all. Doesn’t that just make you think about how much the world has changed since the rules were wrought, though? Endemic wage theft is a far cry from nicking a single perfect rose from a witch’s enchanted garden, right?”
She put her gloves back on while explaining all of this, covering the red puncture wounds that were now interspersed between the pink and white scars on her left hand. She wrapped a café napkin around the bloodied thorns on her stick and put it back into her bag. She started to eat her burger.
She paused after a few bites and answered the question I was thinking.
“The thorns are a reminder, see. If it hurts, you think twice. I swap hands each time. If both my palms are bloody I know I’ve used it too recently to go again. If you over-use magic you burn alive from the inside. So you can see why I’d give a pardon for a nicked chip if I had my druthers.”
She finished the rest of the burger quickly. She did not eat any of the chips. She stood up and pushed her plate over to my side of the table, like a bartender sliding a whiskey across to a private detective with bruised knuckles and an even more bruised ego. “If you’d asked I would have given you one. Have the rest of them. Sorry again about the curse.” And she left.
I still had barely said anything – like all I had was two cartoon speech bubbles on sticks to communicate with, one that said “Sure!” and one that said “Hahaha!”. I ate all her chips since I was cursed anyway, apparently.
That night, too hot and too full of movie popcorn to have a big dinner, I tried to make scrambled eggs. I’d managed to stop thinking about the scarlet-gloved woman while in the cinema, so I put on a podcast at a nice loud volume to see if it would have a similar effect. I got out my favourite blue-and-white stripy ceramic bowl, my longest-pronged fork and a carton of eggs. The milk did not pass my tentative taste-test so that went down the sink, and I decided to use butter instead. I was thinking about how some people add butter to their coffee and how maybe I should give that a try some time, as I tapped the first egg on the edge of the bowl. It cracked and crumpled, leaving me with a handful of clean eggshell. The egg was empty. I tried two more, both of which seemed to have the heft of a normal egg, but then – nothing inside. I was too unsettled to keep trying.
“Holy shit,” I said to the remaining eggs in the carton. “I’ve been cursed.”
The next morning, I sat at my desk at work and started to peel the banana I had brought for breakfast. A mess of egg white and yolks spilled out all over my desk through the split in the skin. There were three yolks, the same number of empty eggs I had cracked. I cleaned it up before anyone saw.
There was nothing until the weekend, when I was prepping food to take to a barbeque. I braced as I unwrapped a paper parcel of prawns for skewers, imagining tiny bananas inside the pink shells – they were normal though. I was complacent when I turned my attention to a fruit salad because I’d had an apple the day before without incident. But when I started cutting a mango, there was a big wad of banana at the centre, perfectly shaped like a mango stone. I chopped it up and put it in the fruit salad. Each time I saw one of my friends pop a piece of it into their mouth, I opened mine to tell them what was happening but ended up taking a sip of beer instead.
Over a week passed with no occurrences – until I tried to slice an eggplant to bake and found that under the purple skin, the eggplant was made entirely of furry mango stone. I peeled it, cleaned it up and put it in the fruit bowl on my kitchen table to keep some limes company.
Finally, I was making a big frittata on a Sunday afternoon, pretending to myself that I could become one of those organised people who meal prep for the coming week. I had bought new eggs because I assumed the curse wouldn’t repeat itself. When I tried to crack an egg, it wasn’t empty – it was full of something solid but yielding. Once I removed the shell, it was a perfect egg-shaped chunk of eggplant. Two more eggs were the same, but the fourth was ordinary. As I rolled the eggplant lumps in olive oil and sprinkled salt on them for baking, I realised the curse wasn’t repeating itself. It was closing the loop, eating its own tail.
So that was the last of it. Done in a couple of weeks, just like she said. I had figured she was telling the truth about that being her intention, but the thorny wand hadn’t given an impression of precision. It’s not like I expected some dramatic life change or revelation about myself after the curse’s conclusion, but I also wasn’t prepared for how quickly it started to feel like it had all happened to a different version of me. I ate my now completely ordinary meals at the kitchen table, occasionally patting my eggplant-shaped mango stone in its bowl and trying to remember the witch’s face.
The next month I was back at the café and I saw her again. She was at the same table. Her gloves were purple this time. I copied her order, an iced coffee with a tall tower of whipped cream atop. The café was almost empty, but I approached her and asked “Is it ok if I sit here?”
“Sure!” she said, perfectly mimicking my tone from the previous encounter.
She leaned forward keenly once I was seated across from her: “So, what was it?”
I explained about the food playing hopscotch. Her eyebrows arched closer and closer to her hairline as I spoke. “Huh. That’s a new one. They’re not usually so cutesy.”
My iced coffee arrived and I licked some whipped cream off the peak, trying to think of something else to say. I couldn’t remember if there was some sort of lore about how asking a witch her name could have dire consequences.
“Oh! Last time you were reading Haunting of Hill House! How good is it – do you think Eleanor was possessed when she ran her car into the tree at the end?”
“Oh, mate,” she said in a dismayed voice. She drew the book out of her bag. She was using a receipt as a bookmark, and it was placed only a little more than halfway through.
“Fuck,” I said.
“Fuck is right. A spoiler is technically stealing – theft of surprise and enjoyment or whatever. That’s why I stay off Twitter, I’d cook myself internally keeping up with all the cursing. This could be bad, I’ve been really loving this book. Sorry.”
She started removing her gloves.
Emma Wortley’s reviews, stories and poetry have appeared in Voiceworks, Southerly, Goin