Basement Flat, Corner of Barons Court Road

Emma Pearl

Photo Credit: Julie Jablonski/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

An unlikely setting to barter for your heart’s desire—the back wall so close to the train tracks that the whole building rumbled constantly—but the address I’d been given, nonetheless. November wind cut like a knife, urging me down the steps when I might otherwise have walked on by or dithered on the pavement battling with my second thoughts.

A scrawny, unkempt woman opened the door and regarded me hungrily. Her corvid eyes were too small even for her narrow face. Inside, the flat smelt not of incense but of earth. Plant pots sat precariously on every surface, seedlings every shade of green leaching over edges, handwritten labels that made my breath stutter.

Liver Function. Sense of Smell. Friendship. Premonitions. Courage.

Fear rose in my throat and I fought the urge to run. I had to do this—every other avenue was already exhausted. The curse of infertility was scraping me inside out. I needed a child like air to breathe, no matter the cost.

My eyes kept flitting to the labels, desperately trying to predict what I would be sacrificing to this unwholesome woman who was, apparently, the answer to my prayers.

Curiosity. Singing voice. Childhood memories. Honesty.

The handwriting scrawled like spiders tiptoeing down my spine. Flies buzzed at the window pane—dead bodies piled on the sill—and the strip light in the hallway flickered like a curse, echoing the ragged hope in my heart.

How to play the violin. Left thumb. Remorse.

The woman held out her hand. I had been instructed to bring a personal item. It must be precious, small enough to fit in my palm and have been in my possession for at least five years. I passed her the only thing I could find that fit all those criteria—a brooch that had belonged to my grandmother. I wouldn’t miss it. Doubt plagued me sharp and sudden. Did that mean it wouldn’t work?

She studied it, threw it in the fire that blazed lazily in the hearth. The flames danced and glowed turquoise. The woman nodded. It was enough. She fished it out with a pair of tongs and placed it carefully in a pot, pushing it deep in the soil with her blackened fingernails. She set the pot beside the fly graveyard. What would she write on the label when I left?
Sense of humour. Faith. Confidence.

How could I know then that this trade would render everything pointless?

“Drink this,” she muttered, pouring a glass of dubious-coloured water from a jug. I gulped it down, anxious to leave now. The taste was bitter, and those crow eyes staring into my soul made it bitterer still.

I left, my heart skittering like a trapped fly. Too late for regret now.

A week later, a positive pregnancy test brought the joy I had hungered for. It had worked. But it wasn’t until after the baby was born that the label on my plant pot became clear to me.

Ability to love.


Emma Pearl writes fiction for all ages and is represented by Sera Rivers at Martin Literary Management. Her debut picture book Mending the Moon (illustrated by Sara Ugolotti, Page Street Kids) will be published in November 2022, the sequel Saving the Sun in 2023. She is a WriteMentor picture book mentor. She grew up in the UK and now lives with her family in New Zealand. Twitter: @emmspearl Email: emmspearl[at]

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