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Incantation

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Tara won’t realize this until much later, but for all that he despises witchcraft, her father hopes it will save her mother right up to the end. He pretends he doesn’t see the candles Tara lights or smell the incense she burns or see the slick smear of oils she rubs on her mother’s third eye, on her temples. When finally her mother is dead, Tara’s father unleashes all the rage he’s kept bottled inside for the long months she takes to die.

He holds her mother’s hand as she stops breathing, and for just a few seconds, Tara can remember how much her parents love each other, how much her father loves her mother despite the demon blood that slithers through her veins. And then her father turns to Tara who has flattened herself against the wall next to the window, against the soft shelter of handmade curtains that curl around her thighs, and says, “This is what magic does, Tara. It kills.” His eyes are hollow, empty, dark like bruises in his pale face. “Linda died because of this shit.” He knocks over the censer of incense. “And this shit.” He sweeps all the vials of oil from the night stand onto the floor where they shatter, slivers of glass like wet stars on the hardwood. “And this shit.” He takes a lit candle in one hand and rears back as if to throw it.

“Daddy!” Tara screams and grabs his arm. He slaps her across the face and then sets the candle down carefully on the window sill.

“Get rid of this shit,” he says. “Now. I’ll send your brother in to help you. I don’t want the coroner to know what kind of woman your mother was.” He closes the door carefully behind him when he leaves.

Donnie walks up the stairs haltingly. He pauses on the landing for so long that Tara thinks he might actually turn back down the staircase. She’s wrong. The door creaks on its hinges when it opens, and her brother stands in the doorway and just looks at her. Donnie looks at the imprint of their father’s hand on Tara’s cheek and the body of their mother in the bed and breaks down in ugly heaving sobs that terrify Tara just as much as the deadness in her father’s eyes. “You see now, Tara?” Donnie chokes out. “You see now? Oh, god. She’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead, and you kept on casting spells and talking to demons or whatever it is you do, and it’s your fault!”

Tara wraps the edges of the curtains around her. She can remember making these with her mother when she was in ninth grade, the sewing machine eating the fabric a shade faster than she could control. The hem came out uneven, but her mother just laughed. “We’ll tack some trim on the bottom, sugar. Our secret.”

Donnie wipes his face with the backs of his hands and stomps into the room. He yanks Grandma Maclay’s afghan off the back of the rocker and starts dumping the contents of the nightstand on the crocheted starbursts. Tara watches him, trembling, as he wraps everything in the room even vaguely connected to magic in the afghan and slings it over his back. She stays where she is, only her hands fisted in the curtains keeping her upright, until the warm glow of fire throws shadows on the far wall.

She takes a breath and then another and when she can move again, Tara walks to her mother’s bed and lays a hand on that cooling cheek. “I’m sorry,” she says, and she is sorry for many things—for the cancer that whittled her mother down into sharp bones and even sharper agony; for the evil that they share, the sinful legacy of woman’s work, her mother’s work and her grandmother’s and hers as well; and most of all for her conviction, as bone deep and real as her father’s, that nothing her mother taught her is wrong or tainted with wickedness.

Tara hears Donnie on the stairs and quickly snuffs all the candles in the room. Donnie won’t look at her. He piles the candles in the now empty afghan, heedless of the hot wax that drips on the floor, and leaves again. Tara sweeps the glass into a pile with a towel, soaking up the thick slurry of oil and gathering the tiny shards that cling to the wet floor.

Just as she finishes, her father returns with the coroner. Tara looks down, lets her hair fall over her face like a curtain, like the curtains she made with her mother. Her father nods, a tiny gesture of approval. Tara knows he doesn’t want anyone to see the bruise purpling up on her cheekbone. Neither does she.

She slides along the wall and down the stairs, out into the yard where Donnie is feeding the fire. Tara watches sparks fling themselves up into the twilight and wink out. Everything her mother taught her burns in that pile. Tara knows she can buy more candles, more oil, more stuff, more things. But this is her mother’s life on fire—a thumbprint pressed into warm wax, herbs cultivated by her own hands. The sense of loss is overwhelming.

When her mother’s body is gone, Tara scrubs the floor in her sickroom. She scrubs until her arms ache and she has no tears left. Then she scrapes the wax off the floor with a case knife without scratching the wood underneath. Her father sends her in to scrub again the day after the funeral; he can still smell the oil, the incense and the wax. Tara scrubs. The scent remains, persistent and pervasive. Her father finally gives up when he and Donnie spend an afternoon scrubbing the floor themselves to no avail.

Every day until she leaves for college, Tara sneaks into her mother’s empty sickroom and lies down on the floor, her eyes closed and her nose pressed to the oil stains on the hardwood slats. She breathes deeply and remembers—her mother’s face in the moonlight, her quick smile, the glorious drawl of her voice, her patience and kindness and generosity. Tara curls up in the scent memory, and finds the only peace on offer in that house anymore. In the fragrance of herbs, of wood and smoke and the dark green of magic, she smells her mother’s love.