Olivia Boler ’93 is a freelance writer and author of the novels Year of the Smoke Girl (2000) and The Flower Bowl Spell ( 2012), from which the following excerpt is taken. Boler received her master’s degree in creative writing from UC Davis, and has published short stories in the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) anthology Cheers to Muses, the literary journal MARY, and Facets Magazine, among others. She lives in her native San Francisco with her family.
I’ve always known that rats live in the Muni Metro tunnels, but this morning, after I almost fall onto the tracks, I find out that fairies hang out there too.
This should come as no surprise to a person like me, even though I banished magick from my life two years ago. In that time, I haven’t come across anything like fairies or talking sparrows. Not one rag doll has tried to jump into my shopping cart in ages. Yet, all at once, magick has come back to me.
In the Castro Street station, waiting for an M, L, or K car to take me to work downtown, I stand on the edge of the platform with a trickling crowd of morning commuters. Teenagers heading to Union Square for midsummer shopping sprees mingle with hipsters and Asian elders. There are a couple of indigents, one slumped against the wall, the other pacing and muttering. They wear shabby clothes with dirty, threadbare cuffs. Their BO could be bottled for biological warfare.
A high whining sound and blasting horn signals an inbound train. I move with the crowd, the wind from the tunnel gritty yet refreshing on my face. A shove at my back throws me off balance. It’s split-second fast, and I can’t tell if I’m being pushed to the tracks or pulled away, as my head is thrown back and the dim yellow ceiling lights lurch into view. At the same moment, a woman’s voice cries, “Watch out!”
A disheveled man in a San Francisco Giants jersey has hold of my arm. I glance at him as the train pulls up in front of us and the doors open—his eyes obscured by sunglasses and the bill of his baseball cap, and his face covered in graying stubble. He’s the homeless guy who’s been sitting on the floor.
“Thanks,” I mumble.
“You okay?” A young woman dressed like an H&M salesclerk puts her hand on my shoulder, and the man’s tight grip on me loosens and slips away.
“Yeah,” I say as the woman and I step through the doors together, carried forward by the impatient crowd that could give a hoot about my almost-accident. You’re alive, aren’t you? No biggie, their indifference says. The doors close. The man has not followed us. In fact, he seems to be distracted by something just behind the train. I let my shoulders relax, unaware until then that they’ve been tightly hunched. I look out the window. Our train hiccups once before starting its slow glide out of the station. He stands on the platform and, unexpectedly, I read the gray cloud of his disappointed aura—but in response to what, I can’t tell.
With a smile of thanks to the young woman, I move away from the door farther into the car. I find standing space near a back window. As the train enters the subway tunnel, something on the tracks catches my eye. It’s a rat, looking a little dazed and sniffing a bit of discarded muffin. Isn’t it terrified by the rumbling train? I wonder why it doesn’t scurry away. Then I see the reason. A tiny fairy is riding it bucking-bronco style. A fairy who’s waving a shiny sword at me.
In the few seconds before the train rounds the corner of the tunnel, I note that the fairy is only pretending to ride the rat. Its wings beat rapidly, much like a hummingbird’s. I’m not familiar with this variety of pix. The ones I’ve seen are slow flitterers mostly, butterfly-winged. I can’t determine the fairy’s gender, but guess it’s a dude. No self-respecting female fairy would take part in such tomfoolery. He waves the sword around his head as if holding an imaginary lasso.
I allow myself to toy with the idea that perhaps I’m merely hallucinating. Perhaps there’s a speck of dust on my retina or this is just a childhood memory resurrected. But I know that’s wishful thinking.
And I have to say I’m more than a tad concerned.
Life goes on. I have to work. Pay the bills. Contribute to society. At the Golden Gate Planet editorial meeting I try to concentrate.
“So, what do you think? Sound fair, Memphis? Memphis? Yoo-hoo! You with us?”
The urgency in Ned’s voice drags me back. I focus on his face, the raised branches of his eyebrows.
“Sure! Sounds more than fair,” I say. I haven’t the foggiest idea what my editor is talking about. Clearly it’s time to act normal. But this is what’s been happening for the last few months. I space out in meetings and think about that morning on the Muni. It’s hard to forget that I nearly got pushed into (or was it pulled from?) death’s door. Oh yeah, and saw a rat-riding fairy.
“Good. Okay, so Howie, what’s going on with that story on the museum break-in?”
Howie, who has the news beat and favors sweater vests, shuffles his notes. “The curator at the Asian Art Museum was expecting a donation of antique Chinese foot-binding shoes, but they got shanghaied—” He interrupts himself to guffaw at his own joke. “Get it?”
No one laughs. More than being offended, we can’t abide tired wit.
Howie coughs, his cheeks turning pink. “I mean they were stolen en route from the donor’s home in Belvedere. I’m going to talk to the donor tomorrow.”
“Who would want creepy old shoes?” Marisol asks.
“They’re worth a lot,” Howie says. “They’re in museum-quality shape.”
“It’s a big deal.” Ned thumps the table. “Let’s move on.”
I lean over to Marisol. “You’ll tell me what Ned wants me to do, right? I won’t have to pay you or anything. You won’t get all smug on me?”
“Why don’t you just read his mind?”
“Don’t sass me. Please.”
“You’re interviewing third-tier famous people. Same old same old.”
“Some band.” She shrugs. “They’re opening for Yeah Right.”
“How come I don’t get to interview Yeah Right? Cheradon Badler is like my idol.”
“Yeah. Right.” Marisol’s eyes pop and we snort and giggle like dorks. We don’t like tired wit, but we often let mock wit slide.
The meeting is adjourned and Ned’s assistant hands me a press packet. It’s a fluorescent green folder with a DIY sticker askew on the cover that looks for all the world like the potato-stamp art kindergartners make. I think it’s supposed to be the silhouette of four people, but it looks more like a Rorschach test. I see a fungus-infested footprint.
Tossing the folder on my desk, I sit down. We all share cubicles since we’re mostly part-timers here and often work from home. In the two years I’ve been doing this, my cubicle-mate—a proofreader—and I have never laid eyes on each other. Urselina’s rosary, framed portrait of Saint Mary and Her bleeding heart, and the little fake silk flowers kept in a painted pot are like territorial pee markers. I keep one postcard of a full moon over the Canadian Rockies, a place I’d like to visit someday. I sometimes wonder what Urselina thinks of all the want ads she has to proof—trannies, lesbos, queers, and leather-daddies looking for their perfect one-nighter—as well as the lefty leanings of our publisher.
Her little snow globe with an angel trapped behind plastic reminds me again of the fairy. I’ve seen the fay in the city before, but only in parks. They like to live near animals, so I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised by the rat-rider, although the Metro seemed a grim milieu for the little guy. But it’s been a long time since one popped up. I guess I thought maybe they’d all left. Or that I had actually succeeded in my wish to be magick-free.
I can’t remember the last time I seriously considered drawing down the moon or throwing together a charm ritual, or saw a squirrel wearing a bonnet. Or read someone’s aura by accident, and that used to happen all the time. I certainly don’t recall the last time I saw a fairy.
I used to remember everything, because I put a photographic memory charm on myself when I was eleven so I could get straight As and be rewarded with the Arabian horse my parents (falsely) promised. But I haven’t done any maintenance on the charm and it wore off a couple of years ago. Like every other magickal skill of mine.
I can’t give this an in-depth pondering right now. I have to meet Cooper soon. It’s Columbus Day (or, as we like to call it here in SF, Native American Appreciation Day) and he has the day off, so we’re going to indulge in a little afternoon rendezvous.
My cell phone rings. The caller ID reads blocked call. I hit answer.
“Hi lamb. It’s me.” Auntie Tess. My last link to magick. And family. “What are you doing?”
“Just had a meeting and—”
“Oh, you know,” she interrupts, per usual. Did I really expect to complete a sentence? I prop my elbows on my desk, eyes on the ceiling. She continues. “I think I’ve decided something. But I’m just not sure I should…Can you have lunch today?”
“No can do. I have to—I’m busy.”
I grit my teeth. All the hurt and disappointment in that Oh. I will ignore it.
“I suppose I can make a decision on my own…”
“Maybe I can swing by later,” I say.
“Sure,” she says slowly. “After work. I’m doing a waning ritual tonight. You can help. I’m running low on candles.”
“I just went to Target, so I’ve got some.”
“Oh, that’s great. Thanks. Say eight?”
I agree and we say good-bye.
Auntie Tess, not actually my aunt, is a distant cousin of my father. They’re both second-generation Chinese Americans. To be perfectly accurate, my father is only half-Chinese—his mother is white. My own mother, a lovely Chinese American from central Pennsylvania, is the one who wrangled Tess into the whole pagan thing. Both came from solid missionary-produced Episcopalian backgrounds. But my mother lost interest in the occult the way she does in most things—bingo, Avon sales, the PTA. Auntie Tess, however, flourished in her newfound religion. And, being under her charge, I did too, but in a totally different way. And only up to a point.
I write my copy—three short album reviews, one movie review, none memorable—and turn it in. I make some phone calls, including a chat with the third-tier band’s publicist to set up a meeting, and I’m off for the day.
Outside, I look up into the trees, their leaves just starting to turn from green to yellow and brown. The limbs hold only birds—no fairy folk. Waiting for the Metro home, I check the tracks. I do that often these days. There’s nothing but garbage.
I plant myself a safe distance from the edge of the platform and keep watch for any suspicious characters. I do that often these days too. As the train arrives, just to be safe I whisper an eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head charm, stumbling less than I thought I would over words I have not uttered in ages. It doesn’t literally give me eyes in the back of my head, just a heightened awareness of what’s going on behind me. It only lasts for an hour, but that’s all I need to get home. Still, I can’t help but turn around every now and then, ever on the lookout for a scruffy homeless dude.
Contrary to what Sir J.M. Barrie professed, fairies were not created by the scattering of the first baby’s first laugh, although it’s a nice little bit of poetry. Fairies originated from the same quagmires of water, dirt, and simple-celled organisms that every other organic and inorganic being on this planet did. It’s biology and O-chem. I’ve read they’re closely related to bats.
I think about this as I walk up the stairs of my building. Cooper is inside our apartment, drinking coffee and correcting quizzes. The man never seems to be without a red pencil in hand. I watch the way his fingers curl around it. The tanned muscles in his arm gently flex as he writes, an involuntary spasm. He’s wearing a sage green T-shirt and the gold rims of his glasses give him something of a leafy touch, as if he had been born in a forest, one of its creatures.
He does a slight double take when he sees me—work absorbs him—and says as he puts down the pencil, “Is it that time already?”
We kiss and I touch his clean-shaven chin, his sideburns going silver beneath the wheat of his hair. With my round face, dark hair, and short stature, I think we don’t look at all like a couple. I look like a charity case, a refugee with hazel eyes, thanks to my father’s European genes. But whenever Cooper and I stand side by side and I see us reflected in a mirror or shop window, I’m always surprised by how well we actually do work.
I answer his question by nodding, feeling a bit like one of his high school students in his classroom for some after-school tutoring. Which, just a few years ago, I was.
He stands up and places his glasses on the kitchen table with a sigh. I busy myself by hanging my fleece on its hook, hanging my keys on theirs. Everything put away, everything tidy. Then I remember we’re supposed to be going out. Where is my brain? I take my things back and sling my messenger bag over my shoulder. Let’s do it! I want to shout, and slap Cooper five. Go team! But I doubt he would find such juvenilia all that amusing. He gets it all day from the kids.
“Did you do the picnic stuff?” I ask, and the corner of his mouth twitches. Neither of us cooks. We’re lazy and disinterested—we have that in common—so it’s take-out or cheap restaurants all the way. He takes my hand and kisses my palm.
“We’re going to miss the sunset,” I say. “Mr. Funny Business.”
“Now, now.” He kisses the inside of my wrist. He doesn’t let go as he leads me down the hallway towards the back of our flat.
Once we are in our bedroom, he releases my wrist and faces me. There’s a smile fixed to his face as he unbuttons my cardigan, removes my blouse, unzips my pants. I tug at the sage green T-shirt while loosening his leather belt. He lets me struggle for a while, then takes it out of my hands, unbuckling it as his eyes stay put on mine.
Yes, Cooper is sixteen years older than me, but he’s no fogy. He’s what Marisol calls a Silver Fox (and really, he’s only just going silver at the tender age of thirty-nine). One of the things I don’t understand, since I have no interest in planned exercise, but do appreciate about him as it benefits me, is his need to run at least five miles every morning. Keeps him in tip-top shape.
We slip and slide across the hardwood floor to the bed in our socks and underwear. Mine have girlish flowers on them, blue and pink, a Costco six-pack. I was not thinking about seduction this morning when I showered, but at least I did shower, and I have my good bra on, the push-up T-shirt bra that gives me my wee bit of cleavage. As for Cooper, he’s the only man I know who is sexy rather than embarrassing in briefs.
We throw back the covers, the scent of our past sleeping bodies rising up. They’re a little grainy from our walk on the beach last night. He leans over me and we kiss. And then some.
I wake from a light doze, no more than ten minutes. Outside, the sun has barely shifted. Cooper lies by my side watching me, a smile on his lips, his eyes a little confused with love.
“Time for the sunset now?” I yawn.
“Yes, by all means. The sunset.”
He rolls to the edge of our bed and I watch him walk out the door to the bathroom. I hear him turn on the shower and start to mumble-sing “Toréador” from Carmen, his favorite shower song.
Cooper knows about my Wiccan upbringing and refers to me and Auntie Tess as the Asian Pagan Invasion. I’ve even shared tales of some of the more far-out stuff, like the green glow that would suddenly emanate from candles when our former coven would chant around a pentacle circle. But we don’t talk about fairies. Or inanimate objects coming to life. I tried to once, and he told me I had a very active imagination as a child, a sure sign of greatness of mind. Who am I to argue?
Besides, I knew he’d say something like that. Cooper is supportive and easy to read. It’s why I chose him. But he’s not able to handle the fact that my imagination only gets me so far. For reasons I don’t even understand, I can see and do things other witches can’t, things you read about in fairy tales. Only two others know about me. One is Auntie Tess, yet we never talk about it. Something stops me from sharing too much, and something stops her from asking. The other person—well, we haven’t spoken in a long, long time.
I study the ceiling, my old friend. There’s a crack that’s been there forever, before I moved into this place. I’ve never liked the ceiling light fixture and pretty much ignore it, even though each time I pass a lamp store I study the possibilities. Cooper tells me to wait until we buy a place of our own. But I doubt we’ll ever leave this apartment. Still, that lamp with its 1950s design of starbursts and boomerang angles just does not fit with the Edwardian crown molding and—
Something behind it moves.
My breath catches. I blink. What could it be? A mouse? A giant spider? Something small. Something that darts. With wings.
A face peeks over the rim of the lamp. As I sit up it ducks away, disappearing from my view. I feel something, almost like a raindrop, hit my belly, and I jump low into a crouch. Slowly I stand up on the bed, trying to balance on the lumpy old mattress. I reach for the lamp. I’m too short.
“Did you just spit on me?” I holler. “What do you want?” And where, I wonder, have you been?
Footfalls pound down the hall. Cooper stands in the doorway of our room, dripping wet and naked. He looks me up and down. The shower is still running.
“Why are you yelling? What’s wrong?” he asks.
“Nothing. There’s something there.”
I point. “The light. The lamp.”
For a second, I don’t think he’s heard me. He continues to stare at me like maybe this is the moment where he sees the truth about me and it all ends between us. It’s only a fraction of a second and then he steps onto the bed—he’s a good foot taller than I—and unscrews the knob that holds the shade in place. Carefully, he removes it before peering inside. He raises his eyes to me.
“You’re right. There’s something here.”
I open my mouth but don’t say what I’m thinking: Are you magickal after all? He pauses, making sure I’m ready. I nod. He holds the shade toward me like—I can’t help thinking with a wee shiver—it’s a sacrifice.
Inside are bits of asbestos. Dead flies. Lots and lots of dust.
“Oh,” I say. “Oh.”
“Confess.” He wipes the dripping water from his wet hair out of his eyes. “You just wanted me to pull the ugly lampshade down. Am I right?”
I look up at the glaringly bright lightbulbs in their sockets. There’s a hole next to them—a swallow could fit through it, or something of that ilk.
“Yeah, big C,” I say. “You caught me.”
“You are a piece of work, Memphis Zhang.”
“You mean a control freak.”
“Comme tu veux.”
Cooper goes back to the bathroom. He turns off the shower and I hear him toweling off. I stretch out on the bed and study my bod. The spot where I felt something drip on my skin is dry, clean as a whistle. Cooper comes back into our room and starts to dress.
“What did you think was there, anyway?” he asks.
I raise my hands in a helpless shrug. “A squirrel?”
He snorts. “A squirrel.”
“Yeah, you’re right. That’s crazy talk. It was probably a fairy.”
“Or the ghost of Columbus.”
Yet, I know it was a fairy because he smiled at me.
The first time the veil lifted I was eight and very bored.
When I was a kid, my parents often left me in the care of Auntie Tess. Since she was a practicing Wiccan of the hippy-dippy variety, the kind that gives San Francisco its reputation for benign lunacy, they knew I’d be safe. I don’t remember a time when we weren’t together in someone’s backyard or a public space celebrating Sabbats major and minor. For these ladies—and sometimes gents—practicing magick was like prayer. Or wishful thinking. They’d do their rituals, but nothing supernatural actually ever happened—except, on occasion, the green light from the candles, which not everyone could actually see. They didn’t seem to expect real magick. They just liked to come together. Like a book club.
On the night in question, we’d gone to Golden Gate Park’s Lindley Meadow. In the daytime, it was the domain of dogs, acrobats, guitarists, and Frisbee freaks. I liked to visit the horses in the nearby stables or watch the model-boaters cutting loose on Spreckels Lake.
But after the sun went down, the meadow was a favorite ritual site for Wiccans and pagans. It’s resplendent with tiny daisy-chain daisies. The other coven kids and I would collect them, their petals tightly closed for the night, while our mothers and caretakers prepped for the forthcoming hocus-pocus.
The priestesses would get there before everyone else to set up, lighting candles, arranging the talismans, laying out white ropes in a near perfect circle. They were dressed in their robes, mostly handmade get-ups of maroon velvet or navy blue velour. When everything was just so, they called the kids over. As the laughter and murmuring died down, we all joined hands and, without preamble, began to sway and hum. The women closed their eyes. In unison, they sang a song that was some variation of this:
Through all the world below
She is seen all around
Search hills and valley through
There she is found
The growing of the corn
The lily and the thorn
The pleasant and forlorn
She is there
In meadow dressed in green
She is seen.
La la la. Hills and valleys we have in San Francisco, but growing corn? A few public garden plots here and there, I’m sure, but even as a child I knew fantasy from reality. We were urban witches longing for a landscape that belonged to Wine Country fifty miles away. Or to a time three hundred years past.
On and on they sang, in harmony buffered by the fog. That night was extra-special—in the center of the circle next to the usual beeswax candles, someone had placed skeleton dolls dressed in bright clothing.
Auntie Tess was the smallest woman there (easy to pick out in the crowd if you set your gaze lower than usual) and the only Asian face among the others (not including yours truly), which were predominantly white. There was a black woman from Cuba too, but that’s as far as our coven’s diversity diversified.
As I mentioned, I was bored. Bored with making daisy chains, bored with the other coven kids, bored with Tess. I leaned against her, her dark silk kimono slippery and cool under my cheek. She had sewn it shut so that she could slide it over her head.
“Auntie Tess,” I whispered.
“Shhh.” She opened one eye, which glinted down at me.
“I want to be Dorothy for Halloween.” Wizard of Oz Dorothy, of course. “When are we getting my costume?”
“Tomorrow, Memphis, I promise. Now sing or be quiet.”
I watched the other women. Some smiled through their song, earnest and blissed-out. Some undulated. Others mouthed the words, but not Tess. With my ear pressed to her side, I could feel her strong voice, her heartbeat, the gurgling of her supper digesting. I pressed harder until she stumbled a little, and got a frown for my hug.
In the center of the circle, the candles in their hurricane lanterns and jelly jars burned, illuminating a bouquet of flowers. The shadows flowed over the dolls, which made it seem like they were dancing and grinning. I blinked and peered closer and realized that they actually were dancing, all on their own. One tossed off his sombrero and led the others in a Mexican hat dance. Faintly, I could make out their voices, a discordant cheering through the women’s singing. You might expect them to sound like cartoon chipmunks, but their voices, though faint, sounded quite robust.
As they cha-cha’ed by, they saluted me. And I saluted back. I tugged on Tess’s brocade sleeve.
The thing is, I realized in the instant she turned to look down at me that it was hopeless. Her face was full of annoyance, and there was an absence of something I couldn’t name at the time, but I thought of it as a light. She was missing the light that makes magick visible.
“Do you see them?” I whispered, not ready to give up hope.
I felt Auntie Tess’s sides going in and out. “Who?”
Despite herself, Auntie Tess looked into the center of the circle, and I looked with her. But the dolls were still. One had fallen on its face. One had lost its hat. One was getting its leg chewed by a gopher that was craftily dragging the doll down its hole.
“It’s just gophers, lamb. See?”
I looked again. I did see. But I also saw what she couldn’t. One of the gophers and one of the skeleton dolls were now engaged in a lively conversation. They both turned to me and waved. I blinked. And the dolls lay helter-skelter just as they had been, in tiny, colorful heaps.
The women finished singing and Gru, our high priestess, spoke. Like the other kids, I rarely paid attention to what she said. When she was done, everyone sat on the ground, avoiding the dog crap, some better than others. At least one person always went home with a soiled robe after a Sabbat.
I folded my hands in my lap and looked around. Everyone’s eyes were closed. Each person was speaking to her dead. Beforehand, the grownups had told us kids that we too could talk to the dearly departed. The adults called out. Cymbeline Pitts asked for William Shakespeare. Sadie LeBrun Murray hailed her twin brother Isaac, bringing tears to the high priestess’s eyes. Tess made her call in poorly pronounced Chinese (second generation, American-born—not a whole lot of opportunities for the native speak), which made the others shift, wondering what she said.
I had trouble thinking of anyone dead to call, so I silently asked for my father. He wasn’t dead—and still is very much alive—but he was far away at the time, and to me it was the same thing.
When everyone was done, Gru gave the nod for cakes to be served. Bright Vixen, Gru’s second in command, had made blueberry muffins from a mix. “I was in a software design meeting all day,” she explained, handing out the pale little muffins. “No time for much else.” I didn’t care, and I devoured my share.
“Happy New Year. Happy Samhain,” the women murmured to each other and hugged, their arms reaching and enfolding. We kids imitated the grownups, squeezing each other too hard as we giggled. “Oh, Happy New Year, darling. Happy Sow-Wayne.”
Gru gave each of us a hug. Even then, she seemed aged and ageless, her long silver hair plaited down her back, her skin soft and lined, her blue eyes icy bright. As she embraced me, she whispered in my ear, “I saw the skeletons and gophers. I saw them say hello to you.” She pulled away from our hug and gazed into my eyes. I didn’t know what to say. I smiled a little and looked away.
“Don’t worry, Memphis,” she said. “This is a wonderful gift. A powerful one.”
I nodded, afraid she would tell Auntie Tess, or worse, my parents.
“I won’t,” she said. And I knew she had read my thoughts. She was on my side. And for years, she helped me figure out how far I could go with this powerful gift. Until I decided it wasn’t a gift at all.
I remember leaving the fog-laden park in Auntie Tess’s neon yellow Chevy Nova, wondering what the gopher and the little skeleton were up to down below. I had just as much curiosity about the availability of Dorothy costumes. Fifteen years later, I still don’t know why magick decided to show itself to me that night. And I still have trouble figuring out what to wear.
Auntie Tess takes her time answering the buzzer. I’m beginning to suspect she’s a little hard of hearing, even though she’s not that old.
“Hi, lamb,” she says with a quick, hard hug. She has a soft roundness to her, but her arms and shoulders are bony. She doesn’t really go for sweets, which is why I’m surprised to see the tub of cheap supermarket ice cream on the living room sideboard.
“Some dinner,” I say. Cooper and I had our sunset picnic—prosciutto panini and salads with a good pinot noir from A. G. Ferrari. Atop Billy Goat Hill we watched another Columbus Day bite the dust.
Auntie Tess looks balefully at the ice cream, and I regret my words. She’s very good at extracting regret from me.
“Well, I needed a little something,” she says.
I open the refrigerator door. A bottle of hoisin sauce, a bag of rotting mustard greens. Tess nudges me out of the way and puts the soggy ice cream carton back in the freezer.
“So, what’s up? What did you want to talk about?”
She washes her hands in the sink. “There’s something going on at work.”
“Office romance? Has that guy in design been hitting on you again?”
“Memphis!” She scowls while drying her hands on a dishtowel. “He knows I’m married.”
She isn’t, actually. She just wears a wedding band to ward off advances. Not that she’s had any lately. I kind of wish she did as I glance around the small one-bedroom condo. It belongs to my parents and she rents it from them. There’s none of their energy lurking in this space—they are long gone, my father with his teaching, my mother in London, last I heard. There’s only Auntie Tess’s frenetic force. She wears rings on every finger and even a couple on her toes that were clamped on by a Bangladeshi woman in the Tenderloin.
“I think Gil wants to fire me.” Gil is Tess’s boss, an assistant veep of operations at Ana & Co., one of the biggest clothing chains in the world. Everyone on six continents owns at least one pair of their jeans, a logo tee, or a knock-off. I do. It’s a really cute logo. Palindromes are visually fab.
“Why?” I say.
“I accidentally forwarded an email from the legal department to the ACLU.”
Uh oh. “What about?” I ask.
“Accusations from some civil rights groups that we’re using sweat shop labor.”
“Okay. Is it true?”
She throws up her hands. “I don’t know! But he yelled at me. He put me on mandatory leave.”
“With or without pay?”
She shrugs. “With.”
“Well, that’s good! You know, maybe you should take a break. When’s the last time you went on vacation?”
“Exactly. That was two years ago, right? This time, you should go somewhere tropical. Hawaii maybe.”
She doesn’t answer.
“Auntie Tess, what is it?”
Her eyes seem sad, and a deep maroon glow—her aura (I can’t seem to stop seeing those damn things)—radiates from her like soft-focus lighting around the star of a romantic comedy.
She walks out of the kitchen and into the living room. Her altar is set up under the window, facing north. Between the neighboring apartment buildings, you can see the fog rolling in, illuminated orange by streetlights.
“Nothing, Memphis. Don’t worry about it. Bring me the matches, will you? I need some answers.”
I pull a matchbook out of a kitchen drawer and hand it to her.
“Let’s do the ceremony,” she says. “And I think I’ll use sage. This space could use a little smudging. There’s too much negative energy.”
I don’t sense any of that, but I say nothing.
“Did you bring the candles?” she asks. I hand her the plastic Target bag.
“Thanks. I need to go up to Gru’s and get some more of the good kind.” She pauses, a box of cheap white votives in hand. “It’s rather strange. I haven’t heard from her in a while. Not since the last time I visited, and that was around the May Pole. It’s not like her to not call.” She waves the box at me. “You could come too.”
“Where?” I say, feigning spaciness.
“You know where.”
“I haven’t been up there in forever. It would be weird.”
“She misses you, you know.” Tess frowns and begins picking through her magickal cabinet. “Where did I leave that bottle of lavender?”
Her distraction saves me from having to say more. Ah, Gru. Gru is the one who told me about the origin of fairies. She’s seen them too. She taught Tess and me everything we know about magick: spells, rituals, charms, meditation, conversing with the dearly departed as well as deities, Wiccan history, and philosophy. She told me I had a natural gift but not a whole lot of discipline, which is more than my parents said to me about anything I ever tried, whether it was schoolwork or ballet.
When our coven disbanded, Gru retreated to her place in Mendocino. She runs a pagan emporium, and Auntie Tess gets most of her magickal supplies there. When I was younger, she took me up there all the time. We’d spend the night or sometimes a few. I’d listen to them do their midnight rituals outside under the redwoods while I supposedly slept in Gru’s loft. They liked to go skyclad. I haven’t been to her place nor spoken to her since I met Cooper. I don’t even know if she knows that I’m attached. But Tess would have told her. Gru doesn’t let anything slip by.
“Tess,” I say, as my auntie takes out her birch-handle broom and begins to sweep a clockwise circle around her altar, a table from Ikea draped with an antique silk shawl. “Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary lately?”
“Hm?” She doesn’t look up from her sweeping.
“You know, in the community? Heard anything? Anything afoot?” Any fairy sightings? But I’m not ready to ask her that.
She stops sweeping and squints up at the ceiling. “More cats are disappearing, but that always happens near Halloween. And someone stole that carved elephant tusk out of the Emperor of Ceylon lobby in Chinatown.” She closes her eyes while I ponder this. I recall Ned’s assignment to Howie today—the Chinese foot-binding shoes that were stolen. Maybe there’s an Asian art smuggling thing going on.
One of Tess’s eyelids pops open again. “Well, Memphis? Are we going to do this or not?” She shuts the eye again.
Even though I haven’t been practicing magick for the past couple of years, I still keep Tess company during her rituals. But tonight, I intend to really get down to business. I let my eyes close too, hoping to find not just answers, but the right questions to ask.