Carlos discovered the poppet under a pile of shoes in the back of his grandmother's closet. Although covered in years of dust and grime, the herbs inside gave off a mephitic odor that was amazingly pungent. At the ends of the limbs, the material used to make the doll had unraveled – the hands and feet appearing hairy and disheveled - a child’s nightmare seven inches long. He put it into his backpack and stood up, a little light-headed from the dust and smell.
He heard his father calling for him to come downstairs. They’d already loaded a couple of tables, chairs and an old cherry bookcase from Gran’s library, onto his Dad’s Nissan truck. His father rescued an old photo of his parents, taken after the Vietnam War, and added it to the pile. “Did you find anything upstairs you wanted to keep?” his Dad asked.
“Not really, just a book or two,” he lied. “I couldn’t find the weird picture of the woods she promised me.” Carlos didn’t mention the poppet his grandmother had promised him too.
“Well, she always indulged your weirdness, didn’t she? I wish she hadn’t, you’d be more like me, you know, normal and what you’d probably call boring.”
“And that’s a good thing?” Although Carlos knew his father was a repository of knowledge on certain subjects and he’d certainly come to know life well, he couldn’t possibly keep up with his son verbally. Not ever. And he knew it angered his father that Carlos was far more articulate than him. They closed up the old house and climbed into the truck. The trip home was uneventful, although he could smell the poppet through his backpack and wondered if his Dad could too. The waitress at the Denny’s they stopped at on Route 15 had wrinkled her nose when they sat down, she must have smelled the poppet as well.
By the time they made it back to Lufton, they were both bushed. After his Dad went to bed, Carlos examined the doll more closely. It was obviously quite old, the facsimile of a human artfully created by weaving course brown and yellow cloth through sticks and grass fibers to form the appendages and torso. There was a small head, painted brown and red. Two small seeds, shiny and greasy in appearance, made up the “eyes.” He took a picture and loaded onto his computer to look for internet images of similar dolls. Wikipedia gave him this:
“In folk magic and witchcraft, a poppet (also known as a poppit) is a doll made to represent a person, for casting spells on that person or to aid that person through magic. These dolls may be fashioned from such materials as a carved root, grain or corn shafts, fruit, paper, wax, a potato, clay, branches, or cloth stuffed with herbs with the intent that any actions performed upon the effigy will be transferred to the subject based on sympathetic magic.”
The next day, after school, he stopped by the New Age store downtown to see if he could find more information about the doll. He almost brought it with him to school, but something told him to leave it at home, safely hidden under his bed. The odor of patchouli and lavender greeting him upon entering the store.
“May I help you young man?” The middle-aged woman behind the counter was arranging crystals and small, cheap bracelets covered in gemstones. Soft flute music played in the background.
“I was wondering if you could tell me anything about poppets?” His voice sounded nervous and high pitched. He needed to act cool! He was not a child and didn’t want her to treat him as one.
“Well, poppets can transfer both good and bad magic. Generally, the creator of the poppet will add something that belongs to the intended recipient – it could be something as small as a lock of hair or a piece of cloth. As long as it is attached to the poppet, the intent, as far as the spirits are concerned, is clear. Whatever happens to the poppet happens to the intended. The poppet should always be hidden from non-believers.” He thanked her and left before she had any questions he didn’t want to answer. He had a lot to think about on his walk home.
Decisions were settled for him the next day. He was late to his trig class on Tuesday and Mr. Mortimer, always one to pounce on a teenage victim, let him have it. “Late again Vega? That’s you isn’t it: late for school, late for class, late for life. You’ll be left behind before you know it. I’ve learned a lot about you from fishing with your Dad. He wanted a son better than you; he wanted a son that’s athletic, smart and good-looking. Instead he got you. Pathetic.”
Carlos flashed red, not with embarrassment so much as rage. How dare Ole Mort mention all this in front of this class of jocks, weirdos and losers? He imagined these two sad fishing buddies discussing his faults while getting drunk on the pier. Unbelievable. As he sat there in rage, he formulated a plan for revenge. Ole Mort left him alone after that and Carlos was slow to leave the trig class. Susan Collins, dim-witted but most certainly a hard worker, was asking him a question about homework when Carlos got to the front of the room. Collins and Mortimer were facing the board; Mortimer’s handkerchief sat on the edge of his desk. Carlos grabbed it without either of them noticing his exit.
His Dad was gone to a meeting that night and Carlos fixed a TV dinner for himself. He decided tonight was as good of a night to experiment as any. After dinner he tied the handkerchief around the doll with his fingers. It was harder than he thought it would be, for the poppet was small and stiff. Thinking out loud he said, “so Mort’s a great fisherman, huh? Maybe he needs to see the world from the fishes perspective.” He dropped the shrouded doll, now resembling a superhero, into the toilet. He smirked and added, “good luck Superman.”
So much happened after that. Thursday’s local paper headline said, “Popular high school math teacher found dead at Lake Lufton.” The paper went on to report that the teacher drowned in shallow water just off the edge of the pier. He wondered if his father would inherit Mort’s fishing poles. Inside himself, though, he really wondered how magic worked. Would there be a price for what he did? He didn’t believe in Hell but now he wasn’t so sure. Something so small had this much power. It was terrifying - well, just a little.
Friday night, his Dad, now a little drunk on Carlsberg’s, asked him some questions while they were watching Grimm. “Have you heard anything about Mr. Mortimer’s death at school. What do the kids think?”
“That that asshole deserved it. What a prick.”
The beer can just missed his head for his Dad’s aim wasn’t there after five beers. “Don’t you ever talk about him that way again. He wanted to fix you, fix you right, just like I do.”
“Don’t worry about it, Dad, we’ll never speak of him again.” At that, Carlos picked up the can and left for his bedroom. On his way up the stairs, moonlight entering the living room window made it seem almost pretty - not the tragic, tacky room it appeared during the day. He could have a good life, he just needed to plan for it. He decided, as he climbed up the last steps, he’d visit his Dad’s tackle box this weekend. Maybe he’d find something fun to stick on the poppet.