On a Witch's Grieving
- When you don't know how to speak at the wedding, they're concerned — I hope you don't feel left out — you are always welcome here — so they ask you what your mother tongue is. You tell the truth (for once) and say lying. You think about Mother's tongue, which only knows how to shape lies and how to pick them out from between your teeth. When she bares her feathers and whispers, Tell the truth, your tongue unfurls like the wings of a baby bird. You confess, you love another daughter. She'll look at you and say, but darling, I want another son — didn't you know that unnatural romances only end in tragedy?
- Your mother language may be lying, but that's not the only thing you were taught. You know English and French and Latin, as well as the language of freedom (though you're illiterate in that one). So the real reason you can't speak at the wedding is the daughter so pretty at the altar. It's almost magic, like the circling vultures of fireflies disguised as suspended candles. You dance below them and bare your teeth rather than boneless feathers, your featherless bones tap-tapping on the floor of the marquee.
- Vulture comes that night, as it always does. It perches at the foot of your bed and cocks its head. You ask Vulture why it is here this time, and Vulture shrugs. You are always asking things of me, it says. Can I not ask for a little time of yours once in a while? You sit up, tucking your legs to your chest and letting the blankets fall flat to the mattress. Of course. Stay. Time stretches out like taffy, and you chew but never swallow.
- Father comes into your room when all the black feathers have dissipated back into your own. He stands silhouetted in the doorway and asks you what you're doing up so late. Thinking, you reply. So he nods. He steps inside and tells you that he wants to have a talk with you about something. You say okay, because you can't say anything else. He nods and stares blankly at the wall for a few moments before turning his gaze to yours and saying, you must learn to be terrified of becoming in someone else's arms. You don't know what that means, but you promise you'll learn.
- The next morning, you wake up with limbs tangled every which way, slick with sweat almost thick enough to dip a finger into. You get out of bed, then lie down again. You prop your head up on one arm and stare at the square of bright blue sky visible through the window. When Mother returns from the street market, you drag yourself out of bed to help her cook lunch. As the stew sizzles beneath your touch, she tells you, I saw so many girls wearing rings out today. You know, you should get married soon. She smiles wistfully. Like I said, I would love to have another son. It's not as if she has any in the first place — you were supposed to be born a boy, but instead, you were born half a mistake. Father says it's the only time Mother failed in her duties. You ask Mother how you should avoid this and she is silent for a moment before she says, her voice almost spiteful, If I pick out the right man, you won't have to worry about it. You still don't know what any of this means, but you promise you'll marry soon.
- A few, several, who knows how many days later, you wake up before dawn and stop Mother from leaving. I'll go to the market today, you suggest. You take a rest. I need to learn my duties. She smiles and kisses your cheek. I am so proud of you. You push the door open, half-euphoric from the thrill of lying without being caught.
- All the faces you see are blurs, except for hers. She is wearing a ring on her finger now, but not the usual smile, at least until she sees you. Then, her face lights up like a moon that has escaped the sun's eclipse.
- After, you rush through your errands and hurry home. Mother greets you with a kiss and helps you cook lunch. If this is your destiny, maybe it is not so bad.
- Father comes home that day with the news. You are to be married in a month, he says. You are suddenly still, numb as a faithful question. Time as deception. Time as a dichotomy of grief, where it has been too many years and you are still incontent with how little time you have spent alone.
- You spend the next month in a whirlwind of getting ready for the wedding. Your dress must be fitted, and mother must teach you to be the perfect bride, especially on your wedding night. You shiver at the thought. You wonder if your husband-to-be will be able to tell when you are lying — you doubt it; after all, he is a son, not a daughter.
- Two nights before the wedding, and you are close to her once again. You trace her features, her eyes, her nose, her lips. You tuck all her kisses hidden like prayers in your chest. The candlelight is long gone out, but this aching sort of paralysis has always been your favorite home.
- Wedding night and you are still except for how your breath shakes. Rattles. Hollow. You cannot breathe but that has been normal for the past fourteen years; after all, you were born a woman.
- It's harder to hide your witchery when you are no longer the only body that sleeps in your room. Your new husband asks why Vulture visits every night. You tell him that Vulture tears at your tendons and builds them into a son fit for the sun. Then where is my heir? he asks, eyes almost greedy, and you point at your belly. Your breaths are infinitesimal, bare as your body. He smiles and places his hand on your stomach. You fight the urge to bolt. He traces your wounds and your tongue struggles against the cage of your mouth; it begs to snake towards him and snuff him out like a candle.
- You are obsessed with stillness. You are addicted to loneliness. This is the witch's downfall.
- You are always too tempted by the devil, especially when Mother isn't around. This is what makes you a good witch, after all. So that night, you beg Vulture to steal a son of this town. Vulture asks you for payment. You glance around your room, the locked door, the peeling walls. You ask Vulture what it wants — you have nothing to give. Vulture laughs and says you must be willing to part with what you love most in order to part with what you hate most. There must always be a balance of sins. You bare your feathers like a Mother in protest, but your feathers are boneless and weak, and they fall limply in inky heaps when you try to lift them. I don't hate the sons of this town, I don't love a daughter — I'm a daughter myself, I could never — but Vulture, like Mother, always knows when you are lying.
- The next morning, you wake a statue draped in blankets. The two men of the house have left for the city — soon, you are to have a new house to raise your children in — and Mother is still at the market. You get out of bed and spend your time home alone burying daughter's limbs.
- Vulture doesn't come to see you that night. Instead, Moon pauses halfway through the sky and comes to visit at your window. I haven't seen you in a while, you say. I haven't seen you in a long time, either, Moon replies. We've missed you in the night. You pause, clasping your fingers. I know. I — Moon, do you know if I am to be buried alone? When she answers yes, you start shaking. How are you to be alone if you are terrified of becoming anything at all?
- A week later, Father comes home. He is alone; his face is grim. When he sees you, he hugs you for the first time in years. I'm so sorry, love, he says. There was an accident. You pretend to cry into the warmth of his shoulder.
- Maybe it's somehow horrible of you to not even question if the trade was worth it. The town mourns two losses and all you are celebrating is nothing. The time, which unspools now that you are alone again. Your body, draped like a tapestry across the sheets. Didn't you know that unnatural romances only end in tragedy? Your destiny as a sidekick. Love interest. Killed off. Grief as a plot point. You bare your feathers like a mother and you are always sure.
Amy Li is a writer and artist from Georgia. She edits for The Augment Review and her work appears in or is forthcoming in Kissing Dynamite, The Lumiere Review and elsewhere. Though her favorite activity is probably procrastinating, she also adores winter walks, binging TV shows, and sweet tea.