by W.C. Perry
When my mother went to speak to the neighbors, she never came back. Under a near-full mug of cold tea, the letter stuck between the narrow slats of the kitchen table. We are regretful to hear of your withdrawal from further classes, it read, blurry under a ring of condensation. We wish you luck in your future endeavors. On mornings such as this, I would close the front and back doors, which she left open to circulate the night air through. The doorframe was soggy, hesitant to close against the gentle rain that dripped off the surrounding pines and misted the backyard garden. Next to the coat rack were mother’s bodiless shoes, the envelope torn from edge to edge, and her knitted purse.
Are you absolutely out of it, she would have said, tossing the still-hot cup of tea into the sink, loose leaves of vanilla-infused chai stuck to the enamel like a splattered insect. Silently, I would empty the charm bag she made onto the table: tigers eye clattering, followed by bits of cedar, clover, and bay leaf. Last to the table, drifting out of the green cloth sachet, a note that read: You will do great things this year! At the bottom, smudged in homemade ink, was her signature. From the basket of incense, she would grab a handful of sandalwood and lock herself away. Father’s photograph, surrounded by pine branches and flanked by wheat rice cakes and candles, would rattle at the slam of the door. Smoke would seep into the kitchen from the bedroom, and I wouldn’t see her for hours. None of this did happen; mother went off on her own, silently as she lived, into the surrounding forest.
The rain stopped at noon. Boats bobbed and drifted away over the horizon, the gulls crying for their solemn departure from shore. With baskets in hand, people rushed about the marketplace, from the fishmonger to the potato farmer, dashing past the blind woman selling paintings to grab
the last cut of beef from the butcher. The wheels of my bicycle creaked; its spokes intertwined with herbs. Instinctively, the blind woman grasped her rosary beads as I passed. At a small stand which sold, garlic, onions, and chili peppers, I met with a younger man, not from here by the sound of his accent. He sported a hoodie underneath his overalls that were soaked in the scent of teakwood and pine, his hair shimmering with some product instead of sweat and grease; he definitely wasn’t from here. What a lucky day for me. It’s getting harder to find vendors these days who won’t outright refuse to sell me anything.
That’s five-eighty total, the young man chirped, voice punctuated yet hollow. Behind the young merchant, the baker hauling loaves of brioche from a rust-bitten truck gave me a side-wise glare. His apron was stiff, powdered with loose flour. I’ll make sure to sprinkle burnt breadcrumbs on his doorstep later. The people here hate me because I confuse them — the length of my hair too feminine, angle of my jaw too masculine, a pointed nose and slim body cloaked in high-waisted trousers and the heavy folds of a cashmere sweater. That baker, Alvin Dray, was helped by my mother to heal his sick wife, but he’d never tell. He’ll remember once the familiar smell of charred bread comes with poverty.
Sinners will suffer by the hand of God, the blind woman whispered to herself. Whipping around to confront her, I swung the basket in my arm too far, jabbing a small child at her side in the eye with a loose bit of wicker.
And it harms, it harms, she shrieked. Alvin tossed his apron to the side and lunged over the tables at my throat. In his gruff voice, he shouted back: something about a filthy girly-boy, danger to children, get the fuck out of here.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean –. He let go of my throat and went to comfort the child.
Closer to me, the woman took out a spare length of rosary beads and began waving it in my face, reciting her prayers, choking on the words and swinging the wooden cross past my eyes as if to hypnotize. Swatting it out of the way, I reached for my basket and left my bicycle behind. As I fled, she collapsed onto the ground and wailed as if I had hit her.
And it harms; O dear Lordy me, the sinner does its harm!
The house was empty. Grasping the tree bark with their hollow legs, husks of locusts rattled through the silence. I sat my bag down and untied my shoes, placing them both next to hers — a mirrored image. Mother always had us face our shoes with toes toward the door, Collin’s tiny Velcro sneakers and my white, high-top Chuck Taylor shoes in line next to them. It was meant as a signal to any entity trying to come into the home that we had claimed the space and there would be consequences for trespassing. Sometimes she would line the soles of our shoes with salt, submerging them in a cloud of rosemary smoke every new moon phase. We regularly celebrated these kinds of things as a family, the changes of season and moon, esbats and sabbats, clearing off the long wooden table in the dining room and sitting next to each other on the creaking benches.
On the day of the autumn equinox, known to us as Mabon, I walked around the yard with Collin to collect the freshly turned leaves for our celebration. In his patched and embroidered overalls, Collin stumbled over to a leaf and brought it back to me.
Do you remember what to say, Collie? ‘Protection and Prosperity Be’.
Ho-hum, my brother mumbled, two years old at the time and just beginning to form sounds into words. Ponectin ‘n ‘sperity! Giving the leaf a hard kiss on the stem, Collin placed it into the wicker basket with a crunch. His hair, light as fresh-cut wheat, blew in the September wind. Crouching next to the basket, he shouted about it being cold.
Let’s go in now, Collie.
From the bottom of the staircase, I could see God in the second-floor window. There was no intended image in it; the pane was made of loose bits of sea glass mother and father picked up along the shore as children. Our entire house was built from scratch, an elongated cabin with two floors and plain windows. Inside, the furniture was reclaimed and rebuilt, chairs made from other chairs, mismatched and thrifted china, cast-iron cookware from great-grandma Katherine and rugs from scraps found at the Goodwill. Our home was everything, and yet nothing at all. Stepping closer to the top, I found myself reflected in the bits of sea glass. I had thirteen faces, each of them looking one way or the other over floating specks of dust, each of them planets with people and loving trees and little tiny bugs crawling on the surface. I swatted at and crushed a planet in my hand — dead.
The upstairs bathroom was to my right. With a creak and a yowl, the shower head sprayed water and filled the room with steam. My sweater leaned over the back of the clothesbasket, my belt was cinched around the towel rack, my trousers and underclothes sprawled themselves across the tile floor. The water burned.
Adjusting the temperature, I let the water hit my chest, my back, then the top of my head. In the shower, the soaked mass of my hair weighed on my neck and strained further with the amount of soap needed to thoroughly wash it. If I were a man, I thought, I wouldn’t have to use as much shampoo or even bother with conditioning. Though, if I were a woman, I would have to do both and make sure to style it too. I smiled, as I had to really do neither. Nobody expects anything of me, and it’s better that way.
Having too many expectations would weigh me down more than my hair ever could.
Since I was born, my mother always expected me to go to college. On the evening I received my acceptance letter, a rainstorm came and covered the forest like a gray curtain. Mother took it as a great omen and stripped off her clothes immediately, bidding me do the same. Entirely nude, we made our way into the back garden and exposed ourselves to the earth as mother and child. Father stood on the covered porch holding Collin in his arms, smiling at our impromptu celebration.
Through the waving and jerking movements of my arms, I saw him as a blur in the distance, stubble on his chin spring grass, flannel top a faded grid of color, the baby in his arms a bundled rock. Yet, I could tell he was happy, as we were all happy then. We were heathens but we were free.
Dance with me, Rowan, mother beckoned, spinning like a top across the wet ground. Her breasts moved with her arms and hair, weaving over and under the droplets of sky and dodging any other thought or moment that was not this. She took my hand and led me into the Waltz, stepping two three, stepping two three. We moved about the garden as two hopping robins, our feathers braided with rainwater and beaks curved into a joyful grin.
College was in the city and more than two states away. My mother wanted me to go to college so badly, but she didn’t realize yet that it would mean me being gone for so long. For the first year or two, I would come home only for the holidays and otherwise stay in the dorms. This was hard after growing up surrounded by forests and having to grow our own food or wait for the weekly market, now having to live in a concrete dormitory and stomach greasy fast-food and dining hall meals. Mother taught me how to feel the aura of a space, and the campus had none – it was as dead as the concrete buildings and tired streets were. In the city, you had to travel to see nature or bring it into your place as a houseplant, trying to keep nature contained but still present. Nothing could replace home, I found, after experiencing multiple anxiety attacks and barely getting through two years.
At the end of my second year, my father had died. One afternoon, he fell from the cliffside in town and drowned in the ocean, the rocks slipping from underneath him. He had gone there after work to watch the sunset, smoking one of his Marlboro cigarettes that mother forbid him to buy from the gas station. Local fishermen found him on the rocks only an hour later. I moved back home after that, comforting my mother and taking care of Collin when possible. A few days of mourning progressed, then she set up an altar in his memory and suggested that I go back to the city. I made it to the end of my third year before dropping out completely – the result of a depressive episode that had me reported to the residential advisor and begging to not be hospitalized or have my mother called. I couldn’t have her expectations broken, even if it meant hurting myself to prevent it.
Another creak as the water shut off. Drying myself, I got dressed and made my way downstairs to gather various things: the alcoholic cider mother brewed for some Solstice, the chilis, onions, and garlic from the market; dried eucalyptus leaves and rosemary, ginger root, salt, and the box of matches from the family altar. Father smiled in his photograph on the altar, surrounded by offerings to his spirit. In a drawer, a leather necklace with an iron railroad spike rested against other charms and totems. I wore it around my neck and put my collected items into a basket.
Looking at the clock, I saw that it was close to dinnertime. I quickly gathered some vegetables from the cupboard and made a stew to take with me. With the basket in one arm and the soup in the other, I stood at the door to the basement. It was almost time. The stairs leading down were dark and not helped by the bare bulb that flickered overhead. I made my way down step by step, careful not to knock over stray canned vegetables at the edges of each plank. Dust made its way into my lungs as my feet hit the dirt floor of the basement. I sat down my basket and inched toward the back corner of the room. Darkness swallowed every part of my vision as I put the bowl of soup onto the floor and laid the spoon next to it. Two small feet came out from the dark, rusted shackles around its ankles that clinked as it moved closer. Hands that were the size of a child’s reached out and took the bowl, ignoring the spoon and lifting it up to some invisible mouth. In a second, the bowl was empty and cast back onto the ground. The overhead bulb flickered on, casting light onto the soot-covered cheeks of it, the tiny round face and short stature of a child, the hair of fresh-cut wheat.
When Collin was born, he had bright green eyes. He was due on the day of my graduation, and around my mother on the doctor’s table, we watched him come into the world. Father cried, wiping his nose with his tie before holding his newborn. Still in my robes, with the diploma in the car left to bleach in the sun, I watched too. It was a miracle for them to conceive at the age of fifty, but mother prayed and prayed every night, burning effigies and whipping up tinctures for fertility. Once, she was growing goat weed in the back garden and father refused to drink the tea she made for him. He said that it tasted like a lawnmower dipped in hot water. If she had Collin earlier, mother would have insisted on giving birth at home, but there were already too many complications.
Don’t you dare try and mutilate my son, she screamed when the doctor asked if the baby would be circumcised. She would be damned if she ever changed any natural part of us; she believed everyone had the right to their own body. One night while we were playing cards, she told me about the time she went to a protest for reproductive rights, punched a legislator and, to her surprise, avoided capture by the police. Those fascists could never catch me, she said over a swig of cider. When you’re doing the right thing, your body knows exactly what to do and it’ll never let you down.
When I came home from college for the last time, Collin had dark gray eyes. Mother didn’t know I had dropped out yet and had kept on doing her daily routine: trimming the herbs in the garden and having them up to dry, hanging clothes up on the line and taking down the ones from the day before, collecting eggs from the chicken coop, and preparing lunch. From the window, I could see how slowly she was moving; she had to brace her knees to get up from pulling vegetables. Her face writhed like she was in pain.
Candy tea, Rowan! Candy tea!
I sat down the dish I was drying and went to make Collin his candy tea. He wasn’t old enough to appreciate the herbal taste, so mom came up with a way to get him used to it, hence “candy tea”. Into a pot of water with a moderate amount of sugar, I tossed in a cinnamon stick along with thinly sliced pieces of ginger and orange peel, stirring until it came to a boil. Removing the pot from heat and adding handfuls of hibiscus flower, I let it steep under a cover for a while. Usually, this would be done for twenty minutes to get all the flavor, but Collin was getting inpatient.
Banging his fists on the table, he shouted: Candy tea! Now, Rowan, now!
Into a pitcher filled with ice, I strained out the liquid and tossed the rest. Its color should have given it the name of “blood over ice.” I went to grab two glasses from the cupboard when a burning sensation came over me. On the counter, a bowl of empty eggshells was set out to dry. When I was younger, mother told me the story of a woman who thought her child was replaced with a Changeling, how she did absurd things to trick the changeling into revealing itself.
I grabbed one glass and poured some of the drink for myself. Collin squirmed in his seat, growing more and more restless for his share of the tea. He sniffled and began to cry. Then, he banged his fists some more on the table and demanded his candy tea.
All right, all right. I’ll give you your tea, I said. Reaching for an eggshell, I poured some of the tea into it and placed it in front of him. Collin stopped his tantrum immediately to stare at what I had done. Cocking his head, he opened his mouth slightly and closed it before saying anything.
Then, as soft as a whisper, he spoke. Rowan, dearie, one shouldn’t serve guests in such an odd manner!
Before I could respond, mother rushed in with her basket full of vegetables. She must have seen what I was doing from the kitchen window.
What in the hell do you think you’re doing to him, Rowan? The basket crumpled on the floor, then she swept over and slapped me across the face. It stung from unfamiliar anger – my mother had never hit me before, she didn’t believe in that kind of parenting. Not even a week home and you’re already starting this shit, she screamed, then pointed to the pile of dishes from making tea. And now you’re dirtying up dishes right before lunch, have you lost your common sense from being away for so long? Do I have to beat it back into you?
Mother gently kissed his head of a now crying Collin and lifted him from his seat. Go upstairs to your room, she said. I don’t want to see you for the rest of the night. I could see Collin smiling over her shoulder, his gray eyes following me as I ascended the staircase.
Isn’t this quite presumptuous, the Changeling mumbled, his small frame covered in chains as I lit the final candle. Between the two of us, a thin line of black salt and iron shavings stood as a barrier. Now that I’ve revealed myself, what are you to do, poor Rowan? His words didn’t match his body. Whatever creature took hold of Collin’s body did not care at this point, giving a smirk as I held a chili pepper over the candle and let it blacken. I took a bite of the pepper, letting the intense heat cover my tongue entirely, the seeds at the underside of my tongue as I reached for the cider.
Ooh, a little drink? This will be a long night, then, he said.
I hit the center of my sternum with my fist, then spat out the hot cider through my teeth, onto him. He screamed in agony, like a baby in pain and unable to speak; the sheer volume of it hurt my ears. Wriggling around, he stopped to look at me and laugh – it was a rat’s laugh. He was playing with me. I took the iron spike from around my neck and held it up to him. His eyes reddened, filling with tears as he began to gnash his teeth.
What have you done with him, I asked as I held the spike closer. Tell me now you wretched bastard, what have you done with Collin? The Changeling began to scream again, digging its nails into the chains in a last attempt to free itself.
THREE YEARS! THREE YEARS! It cried, scratching its face enough to draw blood.
What does three years mean, tell me! Stepping over the barrier, I held the spike over its head as if to strike. Streams of blood mixed into the ash covering its face, accentuating the roundness of what used to be Collin’s cheeks and making me step back. If I didn’t know for sure that this wasn’t Collin, the Changeling could have convinced me that I was actually hurting my baby brother. It would have made me feel as if it was him, leading me into security long enough to claim me as its property. Once you are property of fae folk, there is no hope left for you. Mother used to tell stories of her great uncle who, on a hunting trip, ate food offered by the neighbors – this is what she called the “little people” living in the surrounding forest. The next morning, they found him in a clearing, thin as bones and surrounded by a circle of deer legs.
Three years you’ve been gone, Rowan.
Stepping back over the barrier, I gathered up the herbs and began grinding them: garlic and onion skins, dried rosemary and eucalyptus leaves, old and brittle ginger root. All together in a bowl, I struck a match at let the contents burn. From the Changeling’s head, I had plucked strands of wheat-colored hair and tossed it into the flames. The scent of burning hair churned my stomach like a rolling ocean wave, threatening to make me ill.
You don’t know everything you think you do, Rowan. Three years is a lot of time; many things changed.
Focusing on the burning herbs, I held up my arms and closed my eyes. Smoke billowed throughout the empty basement, submerging the two of us in a sea of black as I spoke. I screamed, I cried, I wailed into the flames to release the Changeling’s hold on Collin.
When the fire had nearly gone out, I opened my eyes to see that the soot and blood on the Changeling’s face has disappeared. Clean and dressed up in his overalls, Collin remained on the basement floor in front of me, still in chains. His eyes met with mine as he looked around and cried.
Too dark, Rowan. Where’s mommy? I want to go home, Rowan!
Collie, I choked, my eyes filling with tears. His eyes were fearful as he struggled against the chains. I stood and took a step toward him, toes at the very edge of the barrier. He was free. The Changeling had released him, and Collin was back home. All I needed to do was take him upstairs and prepare to set out to find our mother who was no doubt freezing in the night air.
My arms hurt, Rowan, he said. Can you take them off for me? Please?
Lifting my foot to step over the barrier, I saw the ashes from the burnt herbs crackle. The several candles surrounding the barrier glowed and crackled too, their black soot sigils running down the sides of the votives like water. Cold air shot through the basement, and yet my neck burned. I retrieved the iron railroad spike and held it tightly, pointing the sharpened tip toward him.
Why are you doing that, Rowan? You’re scaring me! Stop it, Rowan!
You’re not my little brother, I replied, stepping back behind the barrier of ash. Dipping the spike into the pile of burnt herbs, the iron radiated unbearable heat into my hands. The cider did nothing, the undoing fire did nothing, and my prayers did nothing to help him. The only thing that warranted a response from him was the iron spike – it would be the only way to truly know if it was Collin.
Stepping over the barrier, I kept the spike ready.
Please don’t hurt me, it said. I want to go see mommy! LET ME GO, ROWAN!
Bringing the spike above my head, I stopped to see tears flow from its eyes as it let out a loud sob. Then, without a second thought, I drove the spike through its skull.
Huhhggg – kggrrrhh, it moaned as blood seeped from between its eyes. With how small the skull was, it was surprising to see that it didn’t split apart entirely. R-r-row-aaah-n.
The Changeling child had finally died. In its place, the head of an old teddy bear wrapped in sticks and rotten nautical rope remained. The spike was still in the cotton-stuffed head of the bear, no longer bleeding or crying. I took the stick-and-rope doll into my arms and cradled it like a baby, weeping long into the night. By the time morning came, the candles had snuffed themselves out.
Growing up in the forest, you learn how to protect yourself from an early age. When I was five, mother helped me crush charcoal tablets into ash and mix them into black pepper, cloves, ashes from the fireplace, and her freshly made sea salt. Together, we sprinkled the powder along every door and window frame to keep the bad things out. My father was more of a realist, putting a gun into my hands at age nine.
Just keep your shoulders braced and aim for the target, he said as he pointed to a spray-painted bale of hay backed with tarp. The weight of the shotgun was becoming too heavy for my little arms; we had been out in the clearings all morning practicing how to breathe quietly and move fast without alerting the deer, placing an imaginary rifle over the fence before stepping over it ourselves to prevent accidents. Dad never believed in mother’s story about her great uncle, he always thought it was ignorance and lack of preparation that killed him. His own theory was that he actually had bagged a deer but had shot himself on the way back doing some “stupid shit” like sliding down a hill with the safety off or dropping it too hard. The circle of legs was where his beliefs were weak, once supposing that wolves had taken all the useful parts of the animal and left them with him. They must not’ve liked the taste of great uncle Eddie.
Bracing myself, I lined up the hoop with the front sight’s post, quickly curling my finger around the trigger and then taking it away just as fast. Few minutes passed by doing this.
Take the damned shot, Rowan, he shouted from a distance.
With a loud blast of heat and smoke, I found myself on the ground. The stock end of the rifle wasn’t properly set into my shoulder and had knocked me back. Dad had grabbed me by the collar, pointing to the line of trees next to where he was standing. One, directly behind where he was just a few moments ago, was split at the middle and had fallen into the clearing. Somehow, I never heard it fall.
You see that? That’s why we don’t do stupid shit, he said. Grabbing the gun from beside me, he led us back to the house and hid the gun in a box underneath the old woodshed. Mother did not know that he owned a gun, and I bet that he never told her. Gazing out at the sunken well at the edge of our property, he let out a heavy sigh. Lord help you if you ever have to go into those woods alone.
The handkerchief created a weight in my hand as it soaked in the morning dew. Wringing the fabric out from end to end into a small bottle looped into my belt, droplets made their way down the sides. A few more passes around the yard and the bottle would be filled.
In my left pocket, I carried a flannel bag with an old, rusted nail, three tobacco leaves, and dried moss from the eastern side of a tree inside. When I first began public school, mother made me a bag just like this, tying three knots in it to make sure I didn’t try and open it. One of the teachers saw it and deemed the contents too dangerous for a six-year-old to have. They sent me home within an hour of being there, unamused by my mother’s attempt to protect me from any fae folk that would prey on me during the walk to school. She turned it down a bit with charm bags after that.
Right as the sun rose this morning, I ascended the stairs with the stick-and-rope doll still in my arms. The sunlight was blinding. Tossing the doll aside, I began gathering supplies to find my mother. With what occurred the previous night, there weren’t any traditional methods I could use to find her.
The bottle of morning dew was full. Many people who fell into the realm of the fae folk often found themselves excluded from the laws of time, with an hour feeling like years or decades passing in a single minute. It was said that drinking the dew forming on the grass the morning of your departure would keep you from falling out of touch with time, though this had the possibility of angering your tricksters more.
I set out with my bottle and charm, making my way into the forest. Immediately, my feet were brought out from under me and I had slid down a hillside. The bottle was ripped from my belt and lost in the brush. Looking up at where I fell from, I remembered that there were no drop-offs anywhere near our house. In all my years here, in all of our family nature walks, there were never any dangerous places like this that we passed.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it was night.
Just as quickly, the sky brightened and blinded me. Daytime again.
An extreme hunger rattled my body. I writhed in pain on the forest floor as the moon rose; night had fallen once more. Three days had passed with barely any recognition. Next to me, an off-colored mushroom sprouted from the ground. Compared to the dirt-covered leaves and broken sticks surrounding it, the thing appeared out of place, vividly green and pale gray. Without a second thought, I had eaten it. I was so hungry that my stomach threatened to split apart.
The sound of rushing water came from nowhere, covering me like a wave. I couldn’t breathe. The water pulled me under, choking me, filling my lungs with water before casting me onto the shore. More than two hours passed where I was drowning, now coughing up bits of salt into a knotted tree. Looking over my shoulder, there was no river to be seen. Yet, my clothes were soaked and the aching in my chest constituted drowning. I felt sick, head swimming, thoughts racing.
You were alone all these years.
You and Collin all alone in that house deep in the woods.
When did reality start to fall apart for you, too?
My throat began to shut, then opening wide to heave a dry cough. I was going to vomit.
After running through the forest, I found myself back on our property. Father was in the woodshed, putting away his gun as he lit a cigarette. Collin was in the back garden, picking flowers and stuffing them into his overall pockets. The flowers danced, tangling into his bright hair and sinking into his eyes. Father twirled out from the shed, spinning like a top, spinning, spinning, spinning until it made me too dizzy that I felt like my head was going to explode.
Mother, where are you, I cried into the forest.
Quiet laughter sprung up from the tree line. Shadow figures danced behind the woodshed.
Something grabbed my hair and dragged me across the lawn to the well, where I emptied my stomach’s contents into the water. Bobbing up from the bottom were bits of mushroom, strands of hair, a nose. Rising from the bottom of the well, pale and stiff, was my mother’s corpse.
Turning over the kitchen table, I heard the plates and glassware shatter onto the floor. I took the axe from the woodshed and smashed the sea glass window. I set fire to all of Collin’s clothes, with thousands and thousands of eyes watching from the tree line. They enjoyed this; they enjoyed all of it. Swinging around dad’s old shotgun, I fired off all his rounds into the trees.
Come out you little fucking bastards, I cried. I’ll kill every last fucking one of you for taking my family!
They all laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.
What did I ever do to you? All I’ve ever done is respect your territory and you’ve taken everything from me! I’ve never asked for anything from you and this is what you do? You’re all sick, filthy creatures!
They whispered. Then, they laughed louder. Hah. They’ve been here this whole time; they know something that I don’t — that’s the joke that I’m not getting. There’s something funny going on here.
I tried pulling mother out of the water, but her skin fell apart. I’M SO SORRY MOTHER! IMSOSORRYTHATITWASTOOLATEISHOULDHAVESTAYEDHOMEPLEASEGOD!
The muscle tissue and points of her cheekbones stuck out of the water. Her mouth was open, she was laughing too. Her gurgles were sickening, deep, rotted shouts that made my ears bleed. She knew the joke. It’s so funny, what is it, dear mother? Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.
Running back into the house, the laughter only grew louder. Hot and cold. Warmer. The family altar was the only thing I hadn’t touched. Warmer. I set fire to the pine branched around father’s photo. I snapped the wheat rice cakes in half. Warmer! Taking out all the little jars of herbs and hand-sewn sachets, I danced on them. Haha! Warmer still! Father’s photograph was the only thing I hadn’t touched. Hurtling it at the farthest wall, I crawled over to the broken thing. Glass shards bit into my palms, rotten blood soaking into the floorboards. I panted, choked, spit. My neck was burning so brightly that the skin peeled. Under father’s photograph, there was a letter with mother’s trademark stain, a ring of condensation from a mug of tea.
I got the joke, but nobody was laughing anymore.
Dear Madam Saintsbury, as you know, the Department of Children and Family Safety recently received a report alleging child abuse and/or neglect involving your family. As a result, the Department completed the following activities: collateral calls and home visits. Based on the information obtained, the Department has made the following determination(s) regarding the allegation(s): Child’s Name: COLLIN SAINTSBURY; Allegation: SEXUAL ABUSE; Decision: SUPPORTED; Caregiver Responsible: MADELAINE SAINTSBURY. With the information gathered, we will work with you and your family to develop a plan of action that will support the safety and well-being of your child(ren). The plan will include both what the Department will provide and what will be expected of your family. We will be in touch with you soon to arrange a time to further discuss the assessment process. Please feel free to contact the Department with any immediate questions at ———
W.C. Perry (they/them) is a writer from southern Ohio pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at Wright State University. Their works focus on loss, family, spirituality, and the midwestern landscape. Their work has appeared in Prometheus Dreaming and Lupercalia Press’ VULCANALIA ‘21. To contact this author, burn a candle on a starless night and scream into the nearest cornfield — they’ll get back to you eventually.