parked in the spot designated for women visiting the witches, beneath the sign with the image of a grackle. I started off on the path and turned right at the pile of six stones, as the instructions online directed, taking off my flip-flops when they got stuck in the mud. Great trees had fallen in last night’s storm. The witches live in a maintenance shed in a large city park, and I arrived barefoot, with red mud wrapped around my feet like a spa treatment. A park worker in a green uniform was loading piles of fodder onto a truck.
“Are you a witch?” I asked.
“I take care of the animals in the petting zoo,” the park worker said. “I can see that you need help.” A witch came out then, squinting in the sunlight and carrying two sacks of grain. She looked me up and down.
“Take this to the chickens. We’re running out of space in there,” she said to the park worker. “Hose your feet off,” she said to me, “and then come on in.”
I used to like my problems, but now I dislike them. I know the location of every speck of dirt in my house, and feel it throbbing like a dying firefly. I feel the reproach of my leftovers sitting in Styrofoam. Last night’s storm snapped old live oaks, flooded the Trinity River, and downed power lines. In some storms, I have felt enveloped by the supercell, soothed by thunder. In some storms, I have felt electrified, communicative, and rational like a math problem. In this storm, which lasted all night and got the tornado warnings whining, I felt snapped, flooded, and downed. My dog Rhubarb hopped into the bathtub and looked at me reproachfully when I came for her. I sat on the cold tiles, chilled by the air conditioning, counting how many miles away the storm was by counting the seconds between lightning strikes and thunder claps. It receded, approached again, backed off, and came nearer, crashing over me again and again like an ocean. It was slaying me. I am slain. I went to the witches so they could reorganize my emotions.
“Stop getting pedicures,” said one witch. “How can anything escape your body? You’re suffocating it. Paint your fingernails black and don’t let them chip. Then leave your toenails clean. Have a seat.”
I sat on a whicker stool. It was a large maintenance shed. I wondered if the witches were sisters or married or just business partners. Both were in their forties, I thought, tall, slim, with pale blond hair and black nail polish. The one who spoke to me had dark brown eyes encircled by smoldering eyeliner. The other had blue eyes and seemed sleepy.
“What’s your name and when were you born?” asked the sleepy witch.
My name is Carnation and I was born October 26, 1986.
The dark-eyed witch stiffened. “Carnation, honey, listen: if you want your children to have ordinary problems give them ordinary names. If you want your children to have rare, complicated problems, name them something rare.”
“Which is better?
The light-eyed witch shook her head. “But carnations are such common, cheap flowers,” she said. “What I want to know is: are you a red carnation, a pink carnation, or a white carnation?”
“I always liked the ones that are dyed different colors like blue and green.”
The witches looked at me in disgust.
“What about good things?” I asked. “How do you name your child if you want her to have rare, good emotions?”
“Carnation sweetie,” said the dark-eyed witch. “Good things are hard to control. It’s easier to prevent bad things. Good things are more like accidents or noise.”
“Carnation darling, why did you come to us?” said the light-eyed witch. “You are not here to ask for good things. You are here because of a problem.”
I told them I felt snapped, flooded, and downed. I feel full of sugar like a hangover. The whole world says, “Oh, Carnation,” and I say “What? What?” There are a million precious animals that live inside my body and all of them are drowning in a terrible flood.
There was a sword hanging on the wall of the shed. It looked so heavy, I felt like I was lifting it with my eyes.
“Don’t worry about that, Carnation sweetie,” said the light-eyed witch. “That’s not for you.”
“Who’s it for?”
“You know where we are,” said the light-eyed witch. “We’re in a state of Southern Baptists who remember the Alamo. Sometimes our neighbors who aren’t mockingbirds and foxes get a little upset about witches in their public parks.”
The witch continued. “Some people need more money. Their health is bad. They need someone to realize they would be perfect together. They need custody of their children. Their car is broken. Their cat has run away. Their son is struggling in school and has stopped speaking to them. Their partner is abusive. Their family back home is suffering. You are neither sick nor mentally ill. And yet you are in distress. Something inside you is incorrect and yet you are listening to it. I don’t know if this is rare, but it is not a problem that people come to see witches for very often. People usually come because they want something or want something to stop. What do you even want?”
My name, to me, is the soft, vulnerable selfhood that sits alongside my kidneys. Rhubarb, do you have rare canine problems? Wolves, coyotes, dingoes without names must not have problems at all besides finding food and a mate. Are names problems that humans give to the animals they love?
When I got home, Rhubarb smelled my bag carefully. She stopped, her tail mid-wag, sat without my telling her to, and waited. “Let’s go outside, Rhubarbie,” I sang to her, and she followed me out. While she sniffed around the yard, I snuck back in and locked the door. She can open the door if it’s unlocked.
In the bathroom, I took the vial of Magic Mold that the witches had given me out of my bag. They told me I was weak, and it would give me strength.
I want the world to be all birds’ nests and pebbles. That’s impossible. There are conference rooms, cruise ships, and concrete. That ivy isn’t native and it’s undermining the building’s structure.
The opposite of snapped is straight and whole and tall.
The opposite of flooded is dry.
The opposite of downed is lifted, carried, sailing.
If our world is the cheese, the Magic Mold is the partly cloudy sky: blue sky that makes your insides constrict with repulsion. As instructed, I dipped my finger into the mold, shivering, and rubbed it into my bellybutton and both of my ears. I removed my toenail polish. When I heard Rhubarb pawing at the back door, I went out to the living room and saw her through the glass looking alert and worried. The taste of the mold penetrated through my ears, into my sinuses, and down my throat: old hazelnuts, shiitake, and Advil if you chew it. The mold’s fuzziness crept into my stomach like a time-lapse vine.
I let Rhubarb back into the house and she pressed her nose into my still-exposed bellybutton, and took two deep, suspicious sniffs before I was able to shove her away. She scampered off to the bedroom.
I was beginning to feel strong. I felt my core in a Pilates clench. I wanted to get into a fistfight but with my abs instead of my hands. My esophagus felt caked with mud. The hair on my head rose with static electricity.
Rhubarb walked back in on her two hind legs, her forepaws dangling foppishly. She looked at me ecstatically, like, “Isn’t this what you always wanted?! Now we can dance!”
I clenched my abs tighter. I am a bundle of sticks. Nothing can break me. I made a sign on poster board that said, “No, thanks!” in black letters and hung it on my front door.
I felt like my joints would never bend again, even as I bent them. The specks of dirt in my house did not exist, had never existed, and anyway, this house was me: each room was created anew as I walked into it. I felt a stillness not of inertia but of power. My phone rang. I picked it up automatically, laughed like a grackle, and then hung up. I turned it off completely.
I was proud of all my objects now. The TV that I had anguished over in Best Buy, the garage sale lamp, my feeble display of crystals: what a good collector of things I was. My several succulents were thriving all thanks to my genius with things that are alive. My eyes were dry and burning, and my throat was so parched, I knew I could barely speak if I wanted to (I did not). My insides were dry. My stomach had no juices, and instead of using acid to process food, was compressing it into perfect, dense cubes like at a municipal dump.
I felt, though proud and unbreakable, also like a wrung-out sponge. I worried about Rhubarb, who was following me around the house, still on her hind paws, furiously wagging her tail and panting heavily. Her little back legs were shaking.
“Good girl,” I tried. I held a bowl of water in front of her face and she drank standing. I poured myself some iced tea and painted my nails black. Nothing can get inside of me.
I sat on the couch, though I felt like standing on it. I patted a cushion. “Up up, Rhubarbie!” Rhubarb likes being on the couch, and I thought it might calm her down. She looked tempted but unsure of how to jump from her upright position. I lifted her, but she tried to stand on the couch, teetered, and fell onto the floor. She twisted around so much, I thought she might break her back, but she wobbled to her hind legs again, wagging her tail sheepishly, and began to walk. Her legs shook, and she was crying, a high-pitched, mournful whine, interrupted by pathetic little woofs.
I am tremendous. I am an arid expanse so large I can be seen from space. But I am only a pothole filling with water without my dog. Rhubarb had taken medicine not prescribed to her, and I had to find an antidote.
“Let’s go for a ride, puppy!”
It was storming again, a violent, luscious pouring and thundering, but I am Death Valley. I carried Rhubarb to the car, put her in the front seat, and buckled her in sitting up like a small child. I did not drive to the witches. I imagined they would chastise me for allowing harm to come to an animal. Worse, I imagined they wouldn’t care about Rhubarb at all.
I drove cautiously through the rain, tensed, the steering wheel becoming a part of my body. It was Saturday and most people were huddled inside. I was hoping to stumble upon a trope: a magical store that appears when you need it, that you can’t find again when you retrace your steps.
Carnation sugar, you should have known: magical shops are for the beginning of stories. They don’t exist in new, sprawling cities like this one, and you can’t reach them in a car.
The rain came horizontally in the wind. An American flag the size of a swimming pool twisted and thrashed and fought for its country above a Denny’s. A mega-church sat with empty acres of parking spaces. Everywhere I looked, stores were closed; their employees couldn’t get to work because trees fell on their cars; the strip malls flooded; the power went out and the ice cream melted. Sections of freeway were closed. Is it ridiculous to have a problem of your own amid all this destruction?
A parking lot fortified by light, the LEDs battling against the siege of storm. I felt all the tiny animals that live within the desert of my body peer out, wondering if the coast was clear. Not quite, my kangaroo rats, my beautiful iguanas, my darkling beetles. But there is hope. The Walmart Supercenter is open.
Rhubarb and I walked in each on our two hind legs. The greeter looked at us in astonishment.
“She’s a service dog,” I said. Rhubarb teetered and whined.
“Can I help you find anything?” asked the greeter.
“No, thanks!” I said. “She’s all the help I need!”
Rhubarb sniffed the air, the desert animals within me sniffed the air, and I took a blue basket from the stack. Coyote, burrowing owl, Rhubarb, where should we go? We stepped into the forest of aisles.
Of course, they led me to the pet department. The beginning of it shimmered with the bubbling of tanks and the hustling of little fish. Beyond the tanks were toys shaped like mice and birds, balls that squeak, and pots of growing catnip. Then we came to the feed section, heavy with tinned cat food, sacks of rabbit kibble, and dog chow. I heard a sweet, sad “chree, chree, chree.” It came from a brown sparrow hopping unsteadily on top of a bag of seeds for cockatiels.
“Oh, hello, little friend.” Rhubarb wagged her tail, almost knocking herself off balance.
“Chree, chree, chree.”
“Are you trapped, little sparrow?” There were no people around, and anyway there is no shame in talking to animals in distress.
“You can ride on my shopping basket and I’ll lead you out.” The sparrow seemed to have a skeptical look in its black eyes.
“Chree chree chree.” It pecked at the thick industrial plastic of the seed sack below it.
“Oh, you’re hungry.” It blinked at me. I reached into my purse and pulled out the Swiss army knife on my key chain. The sparrow hopped back and I sliced the bag six inches; it opened like a wound. The sparrow hopped into it and pecked intently at the millet and pumpkin seeds. Rhubarb stepped forward to sniff the bag, which was on a shelf just above her nose. The sparrow chirped happily, I thought, and flew to perch on my basket, chirped again, and then flew away. We followed. He led us deeper into the pet department, past hamster wheels and straw, before alighting on a blue sign advertising Everyday Low Prices.
“Chirp chirp.” He flew back toward the seeds. Rhubarb and I were left in an aisle of bones: of pigs’ ears, smoked knuckles, monster elk antlers, and lamb trotters. I felt uneasy and brittle. My desert creatures burrowed into my pelvis to hide. Rhubarb whined nervously and then began shout-barking at the shelves. To my horror, I saw two human eyes looking at us. There was a face among the bones. There was a man hiding between the shelves. A scream rose from the animals in my pelvis, but dissipated weakly in my vocal cords. My abs clenched tighter.
“What the hell is wrong with your dog?” asked the man in the shelves. His voice felt like sandpaper on my ears.
“What the hell are you doing in there?”
“Now, what does it look like I’m doing here, young lady?”
I am a furious sandstorm walking through the Walmart. Do not call me “young lady.”
“Waiting to scare people.”
“Well, I’m waiting. It’s true. I’m waiting for the store to close.”
“And what will you do when the store closes?”
“Eat some apples and peanut butter, and then go pick some nice blankets in the bedding department and sleep.”
“You live here?”
“I stay here sometimes. You may have noticed the bad weather lately. You and your dog are going to keep quiet about my presence, aren’t you?”
It hadn’t occurred to me to tattle. It had only occurred to me that I would have to go to battle with the bone shelf man. I realized I still had my pocketknife clenched in my hand. I slackened. “Of course not.” Rhubarb sniffed the shelf, tottering.
“Your dog ain’t always like that, is she?”
“No, sir. I’m here trying to find a cure. A sparrow led us here.”
The bone shelf man nodded. “Always good to follow birds.” He shuffled sideways, moving parallel to the shelves. “Dog needs a good bone. How about this one?” He gestured with his brows toward a giant, heavy bone labeled “mammoth” but from a cow. I picked it up. Rhubarb wagged her tail and whined.
“Don’t give it to her yet. You got to carve a charm into it first.” He nodded at my knife.
“Your dog seems to need to calm herself. She needs some temperance. So, you carve a path up between some tall mountains, and then the sun rising above the mountains.”
“That sounds complicated.” I put the bone in my basket.
“Just put your intention into it.”
“Thank you, sir.” I stepped away.
“That’s for your dog, now,” said the bone shelf man. “Don’t know what to do for you. Guess you need some more help.”
I guessed so, though I still felt mighty.
The desert at night is colder than you or I imagine. I walked through the freezer section, past taquitos, pizzas, and ice cream sandwiches. I went through Women’s Accessories. Workout equipment. Greeting cards. Scrapbook supplies. Toilet cleaner. Whine. “You can’t have your bone yet, Rhubarbie. I haven’t paid for it. And then I have to charm it.”
I was looking at camping equipment when a Walmart employee approached me. She had somewhat successfully attempted to make her uniform of khakis and blue vest look flattering. Her nametag said, “Twilia,” and she was wearing black nail polish.
“Can I help you find something?” asked Twilia, my angel-fairy, my witch-visiting sister in magic.
I told Twilia that I had been snapped, flooded, downed, and that I had gone to the witches so they could organize my emotions. I told Twilia that now I was straight, dry, and powerful, but that my dog had been poisoned, and I wondered if I was too dried out.
Twilia looked at the heavy bone in my basket. “It seems like you need a little balance. Maybe you need a candle.” She led me to the aisle of candles and potpourri, and we started smelling them. Sage-Melon. No. Lilac-Summer. No. Calming Beach. Red Wine Romance. Plumeria-Basil. No no no. Finally, I found one made of beeswax that smelled like yoga class.
Twilia smiled. “Just don’t burn it all night.”
“Why not? Will it mellow me out too much?”
“No. You just might burn your house down.”
At home, I took down the “No, Thanks!” sign and replaced it with, “Not now, thanks, but maybe later.” I plugged in my phone to charge but left it turned off. I did my best carving mountains and a rising sun into the bone and I did the same with my candle. I lit the candle. I put the bone on the kitchen floor. Rhubarb looked down at it from up on her hind legs and sniffed. I saw the bone tugging at her like a magnet; it twirled its lasso and roped her by the doggie shoulders. The candle burned and the bone stayed on the floor, and finally Rhubarb dropped to all fours, took the bone in her mouth, and trotted with it under the kitchen table to happily gnaw.
Once there was a coyote whose mother named her Mermaid. Once there was a coyote whose mother named him Gryphon. Once there was an orphaned coyote taken in by an animal sanctuary, and the humans named her Fairy Princess.
After years of drought, rain comes to the desert, and when the rains move on there is a super bloom. Blue bonnets, prickly pear, forget-me-nots, and pink buckeye. Carnation, sweet pea, you’re doing great.