By Joel Tagert
Art by Jason White
Published Issue 122, February 2024
Zabbie couldn’t understand her sister.
She had been gone for three months for a foreign exchange program in Australia. At the time she’d felt guilty about leaving when her family was already so stressed with Lyn’s care, but her mother had encouraged her to go, and anyway the progress of the disease tended to be slow.
But in that time the slight slurring they’d all heard in the summer had gotten worse — worse to where Zabbie kept having to ask Lyn to repeat herself over dinner that first night, and still didn’t really know what she’d said.
“I’m going to use the restroom,” she announced, shut the door and spent fifteen minutes sobbing. She shouldn’t have gone. She was a terrible sister. She could have, should have done more. She would do more. Otherwise what was the use of being a witch?
That night, alone in her childhood bedroom, she went into her closet and brought out her Box of Very Special Things. From the box she withdrew the body of an old dried whiptail lizard. She had neglected her coffee-table altar for a long time — there were months-old cups and several magazines on top of it — but now she cleaned it off, straightened the embroidered cloth, lit incense and candles, and placed the lizard in a special brass plate inscribed with a pentagram. Finally, she pulled off the tail of the lizard and set it in a separate dish, a teacup with an interesting black glaze.
Preparations complete, she settled herself on the floor and closed her eyes. She held the image of the lizard in her mind, focusing intently on how she thought it would taste. She tried to imagine how a hungry cat might enjoy it, how interesting the texture was, the meaty flavor enhanced with age.
“Here kitty kitty,” she called softly. “I have a treat for you.”
And there: that old familiar feeling, something stirring, like small claws pulling at her temples. Zabbie’s inward gaze deepened. Holding that gaze, she saw the feline face of her familiar, the glowing red eyes, the peculiar verdigris color of the demon’s sleek fur. Finally she heard Baalephin’s voice, a rippling purr: What have you brought me?
“I’ve brought you a gift,” Zabbie murmured.
I want it!
Zabbie did not protest, but reached out for the lizard’s tail and without looking, placed it in her mouth. It was difficult to eat — very chewy — but finally she got it down.
Baalephin glowed with pleasure, the inward connection strengthening. Delicious! But something’s missing. Where’s the rest?
“I have it here. But you have to do something for me.”
Name your desire.
Zabbie did, and her familiar agreed. The girl reached for the lizard’s body.
“How are you feeling?” she asked Lyn the next morning, looking at her sister intently. Where red-headed Zabbie wore loose, dark clothes looted from a half-dozen thrift stores and consignment shops, her blond sister had always liked expensive designer shit, and so far had made only small concessions to the wheelchair. Today she wore a pale cashmere sweater and brown pants with a velvety sheen.
“Much better, actually,” Lyn said, and the word actually was perfectly enunciated. Zabbie smiled brightly, delighted. “Maybe I’ll go for a run later,” she continued wryly.
“Maybe you will,” Zabbie said.
For several days Lyn really did seem better. She said she was sleeping well and their parents commented that her mood had improved. But it didn’t last. By week’s end Zabbie’s attentive ear detected the slur returning, a softening of the syllables.
This time she went to Crystal Cave and talked with Melani. “I need something special,” she said. “Something my familiar will really go crazy for.”
Melani nodded, the charms in her white hair bobbing. “I have just the thing.”
Zabbie spooned half the hummingbird hearts out of the tiny jar they came in and placed them in the brass offering dish. With one finger she reached out and tasted the juices they stewed in. “Here kitty kitty. I have a treat for you.”
Her temples tightened and a dull pain formed inside her head. The feeling intensified, a sharp pain as of cat’s claws raking her skin, and with that the demon was here again. What do you have?
Zabbie picked up the dish and choked down the three tiny hearts there. Delectable! More!
“I have more. But you have to do something for me.”
What is your desire?
When she named it, she saw her familiar’s face change. Where before she had envisioned a cat, now she saw a human face, the head bald, the features sharp, and all the green of rainworn copper except for the demon’s red eyes. You ask too much for such an offering. But I am generous.
The next morning Lyn came to breakfast using her walker. “Look at you!” Zabbie said, trying to sound cheerful despite her headache.
“I know, right? Ready for the dance floor.”
“I’m great. Just a bit of hurty-head.”
But nothing good could last. One day, two, three, with Lyn upright, smiling, laughing; and on the fourth, back to the wheelchair, listless, head bowed. Zabbie was crushed. What was the point of the bargain if it didn’t last? On the other hand, the spells had worked. They did bring Lyn relief.
Once more into the breach, then. She had to wait two weeks for Melani to obtain the body of a two-headed chick that had died shortly after it was hatched. It cost her fifteen hundred dollars, money intended for her living expenses when school started again. But she needed it. Lyn needed it.
“Come to me, Baalephin,” she chanted. “I offer you gifts, I offer you unusual flavors, I offer you sustenance.”
But at first Baalephin wouldn’t come. Two hours she sat there, making magical gestures, lighting incense in different arrangements. Not until she burned several feathers from the chick did she feel her temples tighten — and tighten, and tighten. The demon’s claws were cutting into her face, its teeth sinking into her forehead. A small cry of surprise escaped her, but she fought it, tried to calm her mind, tried to relax her features against the pain, still keeping her eyes tightly shut.
When she finally saw the visage of Baalephin, it was neither cat nor human, but a verdigris crocodile, its grin all teeth, its eyes red and greedy. What have you brought me?
Zabbie bit off one head of the chick. The feathers were more difficult to swallow than she’d expected, small as they were.
What do you desire?
“I want my sister to be healed. Permanently.”
The crocodile Baalephin made a croaking sound that eventually she realized was laughter. For this tiny bird? Waste my time and I will not answer your call again.
“Can you do it, though?”
There is little outside my power. But the offering must be commensurate.
Baalephin shifted its gaze, and she knew what the demon regarded: Little Bit, the family dog, down in his donut-shaped dog bed in the living room. The crocodile’s smile widened.
Zabbie was aghast, but slowly she stood and went downstairs. The chihuahua licked her face when she picked him up — he was a notorious face-licker — and in her bedroom was content to sit facing her, his outsized eyes reflecting the candlelight.
Zabbie picked up her ceremonial knife, a crystal set in the hilt. She bowed her head, praying, but the only face that came to her was Baalephin’s, avid and reptilian. Give me the dog!
But she couldn’t do it. Crying, she let the knife fall from her fingers and hugged the dog to her chest.
The next day Lyn looked her sister over. “You look better,” she said. “You’ve been looking pretty ragged the last couple weeks. Thought I might have to do something drastic to cheer you up.” Zabbie laughed until she cried.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Jason White is an artist living in the suburbs of Chicago. His favorite mediums are oil on canvas and pencil & ink drawings. When he was a kid he cried on the Bozo Show. His work varies from silly to serious and sometimes both. Check out more of his work on Instagram.