I saw, but thou could'st not, flying between the cold moon and the earth, Cupid all armed: A certain aim he took at a fair vestal throned by the West, and loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow, as it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts; but I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell. It fell upon a little western flower, before milk-white, now purple with love's wound, and maidens call it Love-in-Idleness. Fetch me that flower; the herb I showed thee once: The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid will make man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
It was insane. I had pulled up a list of every book in the Central Library that contained information on love spells, love charms, and love potions. There were
a number of listings, and most were checked in. But that didn't matter. Something had happened. Something not good. And something that was, to my way of thinking, just plain weird. No matter how new or well-preserved the books seemed to be on the outside, the sections on love potions, love charms, and love spells had been torn out. Sometimes the pages had been ripped cleanly right down the spine. Sometimes it looked like they had been torn out by a wild beast on a book-eating rampage. Only the chapters on love-related magic had been removed. Everything else was pristine, perfect. Not a single book I laid my hands on had escaped this cruel fate.
Now, you may wonder what I, a happily married man (and I am), was doing in the library looking up information on love potions. That is none of your business, but I'll tell you anyway. Valentine's Day is upon us: the day when lovers worldwide celebrate their affections and the loneliest of the lonely sit pathetically at home watching Matlock reruns, crying in their beer, and eating jelly-filled chocolates out of the heart-shaped boxes they picked up at Walgreens on the way home from work.
It is, of course, the latter group I was concerned about, and it was metaphor, not actual magic, that I sought. I'd hoped to find, submerged in all the mystical mumbo jumbo, some bit of ancient wisdom, some practical, real-world advice to the lovelorn that had been forgotten as the march of technology eroded our collective belief in magic. Or something like that. But, with the discovery of torn page after torn page, it became more and more obvious that this was not to be. Not today anyway. Not at the Central Library.
Instead of continuing my search for books on witchcraft, potions, and charms, I reverted to a familiar text: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where a hobgoblin called Robin Goodfellow uses the juice of a flower to induce the spell of love and in so doing creates all manner of romantic chaos, turning sweethearts into bitter foes and inciting perverse bestial liaisons between fairies and asses.
Dr. Charles Sell, a chemist and an expert on smell and taste, once told BBC radio that Mr. Goodfellow's flower, "Love-in-Idleness," was more than just a flower. Sell claimed that it was somewhere in between a perfume and an elixir, blending a plant called "Viola Tricolor" with various other herbs. He described it as a wintergreen-flavored folk remedy sometimes known as "Heart's Ease." The tasty tonic was rumored to cure everything from asthma to "diseases of the heart." But how?
"[It] starts with sparkling notes to ignite fiery love," Sell said of the fairy potion in A Midsummer Night's Dream. "With the bright effervescence of luminous tangerine, combined with the zest of fresh bergamot. Then the blend of spices such as white pepper and clove bringing a sexy top to the fragrance, reinforcing its seductive character."
But does it work when laid on sleeping eyelids? Sell said no, not really, and for safety's sake strongly advised against putting things on your eyelids, though he noted, "It will be interesting to see what kind of effect the perfume may have when applied to the nape of the neck."
Not very helpful, that. I need the recipe for a real old-fashioned love potion, not for a medieval aftershave/cocktail. You know, I want the whole "add two parts black-cat bone crushed to one part goat horn, finely minced" sort of a thing. I don't believe, not for a second, that by combining said ingredients and slipping them into somebody's drink I could somehow make them love me. That's not it at all. I'd hoped that the recipes themselves might function as some kind of riddle or mnemonic device. I'd hoped that submerged within the semiotics of the spell itself there would be practical instructions that could help even the world's biggest losers learn how to make love out of nothing at all, advice so obvious and so effective that the results seemed like magic. Something lost or forgotten or obscured or simply discredited because of its magical associations. To see if, from this odd inquiry, I could concoct some story that would at the very least be entertaining to some reader, somewhere. And maybe a little sweet. Like chocolates in a heart-shaped box. Dark chocolates, of course. Filled with jelly.
I was about to leave the library with only a fancy new bit of Shakespearean trivia to show for my pains. As far as I was concerned, that made me a failure. At the last minute, however, just as the announcement was being made for everyone to bring their books to the checkout counter, I decided to look in one last book about magic: Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough. I wondered if, because it is a book of anthropology rather than some practical guide to the paranormal, it might have somehow escaped the seemingly universal mutilation. And, miracle of miracles, it had.
In it Frazer writes: "Among the South Slavs a girl will dig up the earth from the footprints of the man she loves and put it in a flower-pot. Then she plants in the pot a marigold, a flower that is thought to be fadeless. And as its golden blossom grows and blooms and never fades, so shall her sweetheart's love grow and bloom and never, never fade. Thus the love-spell acts on the man through the earth he trod on."
There it was laid right out in front of me, the very thing I had been looking for. The very recipe for love itself: a ritualized object lesson that time had stripped of its obvious moral and clothed in the robes of a wizard. Its lesson is obvious, of course. Too obvious, even. But in a culture so enamored of instant gratification, it's a lesson worth repeating, worth turning into ritual. Because, in a very real sense, it is a magical exercise. Love is something that must first, and above all things, be pursued. That is, of course, the riddle of the footprints. And do I have to get all cheeseball here and explain the significance of planting the flower, tending it, and watching it bloom? I really didn't think so.
So there you have it, folks, an honest-to-gosh magical love spell that should work, as they say, like a charm. And just in time for our annual celebration of all things amorous. Now stop defacing library books and find yourself some love.