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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories:

Private Moments of a Witch
Nickolay Todorov

Once again, the yearning that had forced Olga Vartolomei to make an anonymous phone call to the home of Tom Baek for seventy-three consecutive days gave her shortness of breath. Giving an outlet to despair was humiliating and it hurt much, and there were important work engagements she was supposed to tend to instead. It was a miracle his family had not chased her with the police yet - but the urge to ask "why" was stronger than reason.

She dialed Tom’s number and chewed her tongue as the call went through. There was no dignity in hiding inside her car so she stepped out on the street in front of his house. The sandy Los Angeles air stuck to her skin. She was suddenly conscious of her appearance: her skirt was too short for a woman of thirty-six, her thighs had grown soft and her hair needed the help of extensions – but her lips were red and moist and her hips swayed with a promise.
"Yoboseyo?" his wife Mina answered. Tom never picked up: it had to be a law in Korean households that at home a man didn’t lift a finger in labor.
"Is Tom inside?"
"Who is this?" his wife said, even though she knew well. His teenage daughter screamed, "Witch, stop calling!"
"Don’t shout like that, Ji-Won," Mina scolded the girl.
There was a commotion of stifled words, and then his breathing sounded in Olga’s ear for the first time in three months. She felt nauseous.
"Tom, please speak to me!"
But his daughter screamed again, "We’re calling the police!" and the line broke off.

Olga stood with the phone in hand, ill from this longing that lived inside of her like a germ. She stumbled into her car and sped away, along rows of colonial houses and purple jacarandas. The day was dripping in heat: a wild fire burned in the Santa Monica Mountains and its smoke was rising from the red horizon. She was starting to fret over her house in Topanga Canyon when her phone rang.
"I’m sorry, Matt," she answered. "I’m running late."
He was a bedmate and a producer on the movie she was working. The director – a one-time Oscar nominee with a Chihuahua’s temper - was waiting to hear the sound effects she had designed.
"Olga, the film is running." Matt said. "He’ll throw a fit if you don’t show up."
"You want me to piss in my skirt each time he blinks," she said.
"Babycakes, he is giving you a big break!"
"I’ve earned my breaks, Matt."
He was quiet.
"Have you been calling that man again?" he said. "You’re with me now, why can’t you get over him?"
"I will, Matt," she said and tried to sound sure.

He hung up and she called him back but he didn’t pick up. Perhaps it was better – she had run out of apologies. Sirens wailed somewhere. A coyote wandered up the street, undisturbed; it was scrawny and it lingered on a front lawn, sniffing the rotting fruit under a lemon tree. It dashed away when an ambulance rolled around the corner, flashing and howling like an air raid warning. Olga swerved to the curb to avoid it. The commotion receded and she sat in the returning silence, her hands gripping the hot wheel and shaking. Evil omens are hard to come by, so one is to be trusted when it manifests itself. She screeched into a broken U-turn, hit the curbs on both sides and followed the sirens with a gutful of worms.
The ambulance retraced the way to Tom Baek’s house and ten minutes later he was rushed out on a silver gurney. His wife and daughter ran after him in high-heel slippers and great confusion. Dread seeped into Olga’s bones. Tears pushed their way out; she willed them back and sped up after the ambulance.

Tom was a name Ha-Neul Baek had acquired in the United States to accommodate his American clients. She had met him when his company had installed the complex sound system in her house: the job had taken a week and she had fallen in love with him day by day, when each evening she would return home to a different tango he had left playing for her through the newly wired rooms. His ambition had awed her: by the time his daughter had entered first grade, he had paraded his family from Korea to Argentina and then to America, haunted by his Confucian obligation for prosperity. On their first night he had made love to her tensely, switching positions often, as if he was competing at the Olympics. His body was preserved and muscular, his frame tall and erect, his desire for her infinite. Around him, she was a queen: worshipped, protected, encouraged in all of her dreams. One day, she had lost it all: he had abandoned her as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving much havoc but not even a phone call. Now he was escaping again, in an ambulance speeding through the red lights, while she had to answer call after call on the goddamn phone that wouldn’t shut up.
"There’s an awful sound in the opening title!" the Chihuahua barked in his habitual doomsday voice. "Did you put it in?"
She bit into her cheek to hide her irritation.
"I want it out!" he said.
Everybody was trying to screw him but his generosity would end today. When was she coming to the screening room?
She took a deep breath. "A friend of mine is in the hospital."
He waited, and then said, "The one that made you have an abortion and dumped you?"
A cold draft blew into the car.
"Who told you this?"
"Do you think Matt will wait quietly as you keep abusing his trust?
Words were rushing to her mind and bouncing off.
"You’ll be able to fix the sound by tomorrow then?" the Chihuahua said.
"The hard drive with the sound effects is at home, in Topanga," she said and hated herself for speaking to him. "There’s no way to get to it with these fires."
His silence seeped with revulsion. "Thanks, Olga!" he said finally. "Thanks for stabbing me in the back! Cunt!"
His phone crashed against a hard surface and she began to laugh hysterically, trying to quash the fear growing inside her. She followed the ambulance to the emergency room entrance and stole a loading-only parking spot. The ER waiting area of the Cedars-Sinai hospital was a sterile affair, heavy with cough and premonition. Olga was about to run after Tom’s stretcher through a set of swinging doors when a resident with handlebar moustache blocked her way. He did not believe her lies and the truth was too confusing to change his mind. In her despair she accused him of a callous heart and threatened him with a list of godly and ungodly retributions. He heard nothing and only gazed at her, shy and aroused.
"Do you think you’re hurting me?" she fought tears of impotence. "That man nearly killed me, I don’t care what happens to him!"

She rushed off in the wrong direction and found herself in the hospital commissary. Doctors and nurses were queuing before the Ethnic Thursday menu: trays of skewered lamb and saffron rice, cauldrons of pomegranate juice, ice creams with rose water and Arabian gum. Lunch promised a brief respite and Olga sat down to indulge. Halfway through the meal, the resident interrupted.
"The wife and the girl of your friend went home to collect a few things."
The gratitude on her face gave him courage.
"There’s a gelato place across the street. I can take you after your visitation. We don’t have to talk."
She said, "It would be good to talk to someone."
He smiled and led her through the hallways. Her phone was ringing again: it was Matt and she let it ring. When they reached Tom’s room, the resident pulled a chart from a plastic tray on the door and read it.
"He won’t know you are here."

The window in the room overlooked a block of Beverly Hills condominiums. A television set suspended from the ceiling brought images of the burning mountains. In close caption, firefighters described sightings of California condors diving into the blaze to save their nests. Hundreds of homes were on fire. Olga’s heart sank when she thought about the house she had built with a decade of self-denial – but now was not the time to run.

Tom Baek was covered with a thin sheet, like a corpse. A down feather had landed on his chest and fluttered with each of his rare breaths. Intravenous fluids dripped into his arm and a heart monitor gave out sporadic evidence that he was still alive. His face, once carved with the resolve of a Mongolian conqueror, was frozen in awkward confusion. He had urinated outside of his catheter and the stain was expanding over the sheet in the shape of a cloud.
His eyes remained shut, and she held his face until he opened them and scared her.
"Why did you abandon me, Tom?" she said. "I killed for you."
He did not answer but lay in his wet sheet and stared at her, numb like a puppet. A pang of embarrassment stung Olga, until the silence was broken by the lifeless flatline of his heart monitor.

Sinking in dread, Olga stared at her dead torturer. Stones weighed on her feet as she dragged herself to the door to call for help but, as she opened her mouth, a beat from Tom’s heart monitor stopped her in mid-shout. She waited, gagged by fear and hope, until a new heartbeat threw her back to his bed. But when she leaned over him the shrill flatline returned – and Olga ran to the door, but just as she reached it his heart came back to life one more time.

Denial is often the last hope for a battered pride, and Olga continued her desperate dance through the better part of the afternoon: Tom dying whenever she came close to him and regaining his life as soon as she stepped away. When Mina Baek and her daughter returned they discovered Olga darting between the bed and the door like a hummingbird. She would not have noticed them had it not been for Tom’s heart monitor: at the instant Mina set foot in the room, the device skipped, shook, beeped, and recorded the man’s conclusive return to life.
His daughter Ji-Won paid no attention to this. She gave out a shriek and charged Olga like a hissing cobra.
"What are you doing to Apa! I’ll kill you!"

An iPod cord slung around Olga’s neck and choked her while she tried to avoid hits from an expensive handbag and little fists of fury. It took time for Mina Baek to drop the clothes she had brought from home and wrestle away her daughter.
"Ji-Won!" she struggled to hold the little viper. "Wait outside!"
The girl spat at Olga before her mother pushed her out. Olga struggled up from the floor as Mina Baek examined the wet spot on Tom’ sheet.
"You’ve scared him," she said.
"That’s what sick men do when you leave them alone," Olga said. "They piss in their bed like dogs." Her throat hurt when she spoke.
Mina undressed her husband, slipped the cover off a pillow and used it to wipe off the urine from his privates. Something stabbed Olga as she watched Tom touch his wife in gratitude.
"I want to apologize," Mina startled Olga. "For what he did to you. I’d rip his flesh off if he weren’t my husband - but he is, and I don’t want to see you near my family again."
Smoke was spilling into the room, filling Olga’s eyes with tears, her blood with acid, sending a drumbeat through her brain.
Mina said, "I’m sorry I cannot make things right for you."
"Don’t pity me," Olga said.

She strode away under the tick-tock of her high heels. Matt stood by the open door: he had arrived unnoticed and, judging by his fidgeting, had witnessed the exchange in detail. His presence wasn’t a surprise: it was a safe guess he had been dispatched by the Chihuahua to change her mind with a bagful of pleas and threats.
She let Matt walk with her down the stairs and out to her car. In midday the sky had turned to black darkness and the air was thick with the smell of soot. A parking ticket waited on the windshield; she left it there. Matt tried to hold her but she pushed him away. She asked if he wanted to pick up the sound mix from her house: that’s what he had been sent for, wasn’t it. He glanced at the mountains.
"The roads will be closed," he said.

It was good to finish what one started, she offered, and he blew up. He wouldn’t allow her to risk her life for a goddamn romantic comedy: long ago someone should have learned to say no to that self-adoring maniac. And her house – why should one die over concrete and trinkets? He looked a little ridiculous, with his high stance and his anger. I’ve turned you into a coward, she thought with pity.
"I’m going home, Matt," she said. "Perhaps you should stay."
He sat in the car. "I want to make sure you are safe."

She sped toward the Santa Monica Mountains, into the wild fires and the anguish. Black flakes rained from the sky and covered the streets. Police had set up road blocks but she cut through back roads and evacuated properties. Coyotes and raccoons ran downhill, too distraught to fight. As the heat came on when they approached the fires, Matt changed his mind and pled with her to turn around. He tried to wrestle the wheel from her, but she pushed him off and pulled over by the side of the road.
"How could you tell that clown about my baby!" she said.
"You prostitute yourself to that Korean man as if he’s given you sacred memories."
A black curtain fell over her eyes. "I’d rather prostitute myself to a real man than teach a servant how to grow a spine."
He slapped her. The pain exploded and ran through her teeth but she didn’t mind. His gaze was hot against her face.
"Don’t stay in your house for more than an hour, otherwise the fire will cut you off," he said.

She nodded. Time went by and then his door opened and closed. With the corner of her eye she saw him starting the return route. A Range Rover pulling a horse trailer came down the mountain and stopped to pick him up. A good heart always finds a helping hand, she thought.

Alone and scared, she followed the road along the ridge of the mountain, past flames the size of movie screens. Homes were burning and people suffering losses, and she was ashamed because she had little empathy for them. Breathing had become a struggle by the time she pulled into her driveway, but the sight of home brought a swell of relief. In the intensity of the moment, even the gaping front door did not strike her as strange, but she almost lost her wits when she discovered a small boy watching cartoons on her living room couch. A young albino python was wrapped around his neck. The boy jumped and the snake slid onto the couch.
"The door was open," he said. "They made us evacuate, from up on Saddle Peak Road."
His sister and their parents had left with the horses but he had snuck out: his snake had disappeared and Mom had refused to look for it. He had spotted it finally in the brush outside.
Olga said, "This is awfully cruel of you. You parents must think you’re ashes by now."
He picked up the snake. "I’m thirsty" he said.

She led him about the house in search of water. He finished the only bottle in the fridge and she ate ice from the freezer. Their bodies sucked in the liquid like sand and they drank from the kitchen faucet and the shower heads, but the pipes had melted from the heat and the flow died after a few drops. The boy was dizzy and Olga carried him into her studio, where she kept the mixing consoles and the recording decks she used for creating sounds. For the next hour she pulled samples, built effects and layered ambiances, until she devised an aural panorama of crashing waterfalls and soothing drizzle so realistic that she could smell the wet earth. The song of the water stole the boy’s mind away from the demonic heat.
When he dozed off, she stood under the cathedral ceiling of the living room.
The world, it seemed, had become intent on getting rid of her.
"Very well," she said. "If this cesspool of existence doesn’t want me, my house is off-limits for it too."

She found the hard drive for the Chihuahua’s movie, took the device to the back yard and tossed it into the dry brush. Night had arrived in the middle of the afternoon, sparkling with embers that floated across the black darkness like fireflies. Olga’s heart ached: it was hard to abandon a world this beautiful even in the hell of destruction.

The boy was too scared to leave the house, so she was forced to keep him inside. She marched through the rooms, locked each window and each door and nailed boards of plywood over them. The flames reached the structure and roasted the paint, the walls bloated like an abandoned corpse and the windows exploded in fireworks of glass. Might as well torch me like a medieval witch, Olga thought. A life this lonely is worth less than constipated shit.

She was pacing up and down the hallways of the house, across the basement, up the stairs, past the studio and around the laundry room, through the open doors of bedrooms and vestibules. Firemen banged on the door, no doubt alerted by Matt, but the boy signaled her to be quiet and who was she to argue. The firemen moved on. The boy pressed against her when the hallway roof gave in and flames reached inside. Olga was oblivious of the commotion: she was walking and arguing aloud with herself. She had longed for that baby. It had been destined to love her without misgivings or regret, but that man, that stone-faced executioner had robbed her not only of a child but of the delusion that she could earn everlasting love. Long before he had forsaken her in her hospital bed, he had shown signs that he had wanted to crawl back to his family, the same family he had fled desperate for her heat. It was more apparent than a needle in the eye, and so what! It was nauseating, this self-pity. She could dole out all the blame she wanted but the shame that was eating her insides she had brought it all upon herself. And if fate was punishing her, had she not perpetrated a single transgression to provoke such a devastating lesson? The telephone torture she had inflicted on Mina Baek, that poor, frigid woman, and on her wild daughter: it alone was wicked and disgraceful. And what about the humiliation of chasing unrequited love like a spinster in despair? How could a woman of common sense and enviable education turn herself into a victim more mistreated than a grip glove!

She paced through the confines of the house, droning like a bee and battling her doubts. In the middle of the night, she stopped amidst the burning debris and looked at the moon through the missing roof. Pain was shooting up from her feet: her toes were ripe with blisters from the twenty-six miles she had walked inside the house. The boy stood nearby, looking at her with his big eyes.
"I’ve committed many sins and I regret them all," Olga said. "I should never leave this house again and spare the world my hysterics – but I’m afraid it may appear laughably self-indulgent."
With the use of a hammer she smashed the plywood that covered the front door and led the boy out into the smoke, the heat, and the glowing night. His snake snuggled under his shirt and made it protrude like a deformity.
"Your parents must be worried sick," Olga said.

They strode past the puddle of steel that had been her car and she ordered herself not to worry. Fire department planes flew in the darkness above and television helicopters combed the roasting hills with spotlights. In the glow of the fires, the skeleton of her house was the only reminder of habitation on what had been a populated mountain. As she pulled the boy down the road through a canyon of flames, the route behind them closed and the blaze ate the remains of the house.

She grasped onto his hand and when he fainted, she hauled him onto her back. The snake was peeking out of his shirt and its cold skin touched Olga’s neck; it was the only relief in this apocalypse. She squeezed her eyes shut and stumbled forward, sensing her eyelashes melt. When she dared look again, a streak of new daylight was spilling over the black sky, beyond a wall of flames that was blocking the road. Olga laid the boy down to rest her back and rubbed off soot from his face with her spit. He was so small and so well behaved; what she would do just to save him.
"Wake up, kid!" she shook him. "There’s a way out of here. All we need to do is find it."

© Nickolay Todorov Aug 7th 2008
todorov at

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