This story is a fairytale you have not heard before. A story about children, about sports involving nets, about newt stew, about secrets, about dimly lit closets, about flash film photography, about growing up, about blackberries, about witches. A story set in a modern world like your own but one where magic is no different than language or religion or gender. In this story there is a boy named Guess who lives with a girl named Lola and her grandmother, Henny. Lola and Henny are witches, but nobody thinks twice about this. They all live in a small house off University Avenue, close to the shopping mall, and in this story, one of them dies.
Guess and Lola aren’t biological brother and sister but they are brother and sister nonetheless. Because his skin is darker than Lola’s and Henny’s, Guess assumes he is adopted even though he has never been told so. Lola knows the truth about Guess but Henny has sworn her to secrecy. Henny has said that if Lola says anything, she will have to punish Lola by sending her to the scrap yard. Lola doesn’t know what the scrap yard is, but the grave way Henny whispers the words plants a barbed and caustic dread in Lola.
Other than that one threat, Henny does not discipline the children. She lets them learn from their own mistakes, which has made Guess very cautious and Lola not at all. Guess is scared of large flocks of birds (the way they change shape is ominous), fallen trees that are bigger than him (who knows what lives inside them), and people who smile all the time (it’s not why you’d think). Lola, on the other hand, crosses busy streets without looking, eats food from other people’s plates without asking, and takes things from Walgreen’s without paying. She mostly steals disposable cameras. What people notice about her first, though, is that she doesn’t hesitate to let people know what she thinks of them, and while her thoughts are usually not nice, they are usually never wrong.
Today, on the first day of high school, after ten minutes of English class with Stacey Langston, she tells the girl, “You talk like a vulture circling around animals it wishes were dead. We are going to be arch-nemeses.”
Guess and Lola are in the same grade and go to the same high school, St. Catherine’s School for Young Ladies. Guess is obviously not a Young Lady, but Henny insists her children go to the same school. As a witch, Henny isn’t Catholic, but she believes in institutions at least a thousand years old and there are no witch schools where they live. At first, when Henny came in on registration day, hunched over in her blue shawl, her gnarled cane clacking on the slightly buckled floor, and demanded they take not only her daughter but also her son, the administration refused. She offered to pay double, even triple the price of tuition for him, but they still refused politely. They knew about witches and their potent revenge when slighted. They said the rules were the rules. They weren’t fools. Henny could see this. But she wasn’t the type to resort to nefarious measures quickly, unlike other witches who have died early, foolish deaths. She left without a fight. But that night, she went to the headmistress’s house to strike a deal. You see, the headmistress had chronic liver failure from a long life of drinking, and though she had sobered up for the past ten years, the damage was already done and her doctors were not hopeful. She was only getting worse. This was Henny’s proposal: a new liver in exchange for Guess’s enrollment. Henny was a witch of many talents but the talent that she had perfected—and that was unique to her—was her ability to crochet body parts. With hooked silver needles and thick wool she spun and dyed herself, she assembled the round shapes of organs. By the time the last stitch was made, they were real and alive and ready for a body. Henny could swap the body parts by herself, eliminating the need for costly surgery. How could the headmistress say no?
As a rule, men were not allowed in Henny’s household, so Guess has not grown up around many men and thus he did not object to going to an all-girls school. The administration worried at first that he would become a distraction to all the young ladies, but as they soon found out, Guess is an unimposing, anxious boy who hardly talks in class and almost never talks to his classmates. The only problem was finding a place for him to change for gym class since there was no men’s locker room. By the end of the second week, the gym teacher, Mrs. Rabine, decided he could use the janitor’s closet. Inside the janitor’s closet, it smells like mildew and bleach. A light bulb hangs from the ceiling sputtering light. Even though there is no one to watch him undress, Guess is still nervous—suddenly aware of his tighty whities—and he imagines other boys changing with him among the mop bucket and floor waxer. They are further along in puberty than he is, more athletic and coordinated, more comfortable with their bodies, laughing and joking around half-naked, and they wear boxers. He is already blushing and waiting for them to look away before he takes his pants off.
In the women’s locker room, Lola keeps an eye on Stacy Langston as Stacy whispers something she assumes is nasty to a group of snickering girls. Lola suspects that they are talking about her. She considers regretting making an enemy of Stacy the week before but decides against it. Lola is certain that Stacy would have been her enemy regardless and that she will beat Stacy in badminton blindfolded. Stacy’s skin is clearer than Lola’s and her hair shinier and her breasts bigger and these are all things that Lola admires about her, but that only makes Lola want to defeat Stacy even more.
By the end of gym class, she finds out that she has read Stacy wrong. Stacy is patient and graceful and methodical with her body, serving her better for a sport like badminton than Lola’s fast, aggressive, and powerful style. When the bell rings at the end of class, Stacy says, “Better luck next time, arch nemesis,” though it comes off more playful than threatening. Lola is furious and embarrassed. Guess slips out of the janitor’s closet, hoping no one has noticed that he didn’t participate in class, but Mrs. Rabine sees him and tells him he can’t do that every day if he wants to pass.
Walking back home from school the following week, Lola complains nonstop about Stacy, stopping every now and then to take a picture of a rose bush or a lawn gnome or a billboard with a disposable camera she stole on the way to school. “I can’t stand her. She thinks she’s so great and is always looking for an opportunity to show people that she’s better than them,” she says.
“I haven’t really talked to her, but she seems nice,” Guess admits.
“Well, keep a closer eye on her and you’ll see.” She pauses to bend over and take a picture of an empty Doritos bag on the sidewalk. “You know I’m right about these things.”
Guess nods and watches her look through the plastic viewfinder. She is always taking pictures of random things but he has never seen the prints and she has never taken a picture of him before. He knows not to ask about it. “What’s Henny making for dinner?” he asks instead.
“Beats me,” Lola replies. “Probably newt stew. She found a whole nest of them by the creek.” Henny loves newt stew.
Guess nods again. He loves newt stew, too. It is one of the few things Henny loves him for.
When Guess was first taken into Henny’s home, he didn’t have a name and grew up without one for four years. Henny referred to him as “boy” or “child” while Lola called him “friend” and “brother.” Eventually he wised up to his namelessness when he was reading a book about the names of animals and asked, “What’s my name?” Henny answered, “Guess.”
Before the children started high school this year, Henny had homeschooled them. Now that she doesn’t have to instruct Lola in magic or teach Guess the evils inherent in men, she finally has time for herself. She is not a young witch anymore so she values time more than she used to. She has started a new project because she knows she might need it soon. She forgot how productive she can be without distractions. By the light of wil-o-the-wisps, she toils, considering each stitch carefully, scrutinizing every stray fiber. She has never done shoddy work before, but this work must be perfect. It isn’t for some sad sap human who has come to her door, begging with tears and snot caking their face, like the rest of her work has been. When Lola and Guess come home each day, she locks the project away in her closet. She’s always keeping secrets from them.
One secret is what happened to Lola’s mother, Henny’s only daughter. Lola knows better than to ask, but the weight of her mother’s absence presses on her from time to time, squeezing sadness from her as poison is squeezed from berries. Henny has taught her that a curious witch is a witch not powerful enough to know something for herself. Lola has tried several forms of divination—tea leaves, rabbit entrails, melted Barbie dolls, menstrual blood stains—to no avail. The truth about her mother remains hidden, a mandrake root waiting to be unearthed.
Henny does not make newt stew for dinner that night. Instead, they go out for pizza. Guess is disappointed. He wanted newts. You cannot order newt pizza; not in this country.
The next week, Henny makes newt stew and Guess is happy. Henny puts on her favorite record, Daphne Denouement’s Wicked Love, and Guess dances a silly dance around the small kitchen as the aroma of boiling newts and spices fills the air. Lola teases him for his awkward movements but deep down she loves nothing more than seeing Guess dance, how happy he looks for once. Henny, too, smiles at his joy and lets him taste the stew between songs. She is always amazed and pleased at how his tongue knows exactly what flavors are missing or needed. More thyme. More salt. More bitter and no more sweet. More soft. More fire. More buzzing. No sting. No teeth. No more burning. No—more burning. More warmth.
They crowd around their rickety kitchen table, elbow to elbow, and eat bowlful after bowlful of newt stew, as a family.
At St. Catherine’s, Guess and Lola both eat lunch by themselves, having made no friends during the first months of school. Perhaps they would have sat together, but they have lunch at different periods. Guess does not mind this. Some people are meant to be left alone. Maybe Guess is one of them. Today, he sits in the corner of the cafeteria eating two-month-old leftover newt stew from a Tupperware container. Henny cooked so much of it that it’s lasted awhile, but she’s kept it fresh with magic and Guess never tires of it. The red and black soup has a slimy, soft texture that most people find unsettling, but Guess enjoys the way it feels when he slurps up a mouthful of whole newt bodies. He does not expect Stacy Langston to sit down across from him, yet there she is, with her clean smile and fox-like face. She has even brought some of her own lunch, a turkey sandwich with spinach and Swiss and Dijon mustard on wheat bread cut diagonally in half. She takes small bites and slowly chews as if she’s afraid of choking. Guess likes that about her. He is afraid of choking, too.
After she clears her mouth with a sip of mineral water, Stacy says, “What’s up with your sister?”
Guess stares. “What do you mean?”
Stacy looks down at his soup. “What is that?”
“Newts,” he answers. “Want some?”
She shakes her head politely but in a way that says, No, I would never, which stings a bit. She continues, “I mean, why is she such a bitch? Do you know what she said to me on the first day of school? She said I was a vulture. Who says something like that?”
Guess can see what Lola meant. Stacy is extraordinarily tall, towering over people, and her eyes rove in circles around them as if looking for a chance to feast. Guess shrugs his shoulders.
Stacy huffs. “And what’s up with the cameras? She has like five disposables in her purse. Is she trying to be a photographer or something? She could just invest in a real camera.”
“Were you looking through her purse?”
Stacy blushes; she’s slipped up; she’s been caught.
Guess shrugs again. “I don’t know what she does with them. You could just ask her yourself. And you don’t have to be mean about it.”
Stacy finishes half her sandwich and puts the other half back in the Ziploc bag. “Who says I’m mean?” she asks as she gets up.
Guess is left alone again. He is not exactly sure what has happened but he cannot wait to tell Lola—he knows she will eat herself up with this information. But then he thinks, stirring the stew, what if he didn’t? Henny and Lola have their secrets. Why can’t he have one of his own? On their walk home from school, Guess listens to Lola chatter and feels the secret sloshing inside of him. It’s both wonderful and terrible, the pleasure and guilt of it making him all wet inside, and he doesn’t know how one person could hold so many secrets, secrets much bigger than this one small thing. He doesn’t dare let his secret spill.
In gym class, they have moved on from badminton to basketball to archery to kickball to yoga and now, at the beginning of the second semester, to volleyball. Nobody wants Guess on their team because he runs away from the ball. Everyone wants Lola on their team because, despite her off-putting honesty, she has a killer spike and a beautiful serve. Whenever Stacy is on the receiving end of her spikes, Lola gets giddy, gloating and strutting about. Stacy tries to dive for the ball but nine times out of ten ends up splayed out on the gym floor. Stacy claims that it’s witchcraft, that Lola must be using magic to win. This is bullshit. Stacy is a sore loser. Everyone knows that’s not how magic works, just like how everyone knows that the Bible says God created Adam and then Eve. Stacy doesn’t seem as pretty without her winning poise, but it makes Lola like her more. If you couldn’t tell, this is the beginning of a love story.
In the janitor’s closet, Guess still sees the other boys changing with him. Only now they’re not in his imagination. They glow in the dull incandescent light, turning and milling about, translucent and flickering as if they’re projected onto fog by an old film reel. Guess thinks it must be the cleaning fumes or perhaps the mildew messing with his mind, but no, they’re there. They’re real. They look at him and smile, try to talk to him, ask him how his day is, chat about sports, but he can’t say anything back. His tongue sticks to his teeth and gums like flypaper. He has never talked to ghosts before. Henny wouldn’t allow him to participate in Lola’s witchcraft lessons, one of which was communing with spirits from the other side. How did these boy ghosts get inside an all-girls school? Did Guess bring them here? There is one ghost—a boy with incredibly focused eyes and an afro encircling his head like a dark halo—whom Guess finds especially cute. He wishes he had more time to change, to build up the courage to speak, but Mrs. Rabine always knocks on the door to force him out.
Walking home in the gray winter light, Lola is still going on about Stacy, repeating stories Guess now knows by heart. Guess, who usually nods and grunts along, turning over the weight of his secret like a smooth stone in his hand, tells Lola about the ghosts. He wants to know how he should talk to them, what precautions he should take or what rules of courtesy he should follow. “Oh, I can’t tell you about that,” Lola says. “Henny will be mad.” Guess says pretty please. He says please please please please please please. “What do you have to give me in return?” Lola asks in a haughty tone she learned from listening to Henny all her life. Guess almost lets his secret out right then and there, the image of the ghost boy with the afro pushing his mouth open, but he’s kept his secret for so long and so he tries to stop himself. He stutters a string of nonsense. Lola knows immediately that he is trying to hide something. She tries to grab him but he runs off down the street toward the park. She chases after. He’s gotten a head start but she’s much faster than him, she’s always been much faster than him. She knocks him down into the gravel by the swings. He shrieks. She straddles his waist and pins down his shoulders. He is breathing so fast, heart beating so fast. He looks up at her face and it is all crocodile and imp. “Tell me,” she says. He tells her.
Even though the agreement, as Guess understood it, was an exchange of information, Lola does not tell him anything about ghosts. Lola wants to know more about Stacy and her lunch with Guess—why hadn’t he told her about this before!?—and Lola always dominates a conversation. She asks: “What did she want to know?” and “What did you tell her?” and “Why do you think she asked that?” Guess tells her that her guess is as good as his. “I don’t need to guess,” she tells him, “because I’m a witch. Do you think I could catch one of the mice living in the basement?” Guess shudders at the thought of a mouse’s miniature organs cut and strewn out on the countertop for divination. He tells her what he told Stacy: “Why don’t you just ask her yourself?” Lola knows he is right but doesn’t admit it. When they get home, she gives him a glossy paperback called Hello! from the Other Side: A Guide to Chatting with Ghosts for the Teenage Witch. On the cover is an illustration of a girl in a black dress laughing deliriously alongside another girl glowing blue and covered in sores as if she had died in a plague. “Don’t tell Henny I gave that to you,” Lola warns him.
Guess nods and smiles when she says this. He has given up his secret but now he has a new one, one he shares with Lola. He thinks of it as an invisible stretch of yarn tied around their left pinky fingers at either end, connecting them always.
Over the next few nights, Guess pores over the book under his covers with a flashlight, looking for answers somewhere in the Comic Sans font and the goofy drawings that appear on every page. After reading through the initial chapters on summoning spirits—the use of different spiritual mediums; the mechanics of crystal balls or mirrors versus live, physical hosts; what common brands of salt make the best pentagrams—Guess gets to what matters most to him: how to engage in conversation. The book reads: Unless the spirits are inhuman entities such as angels, demons, or djinn, treat most ghosts as you would treat any living person you’d meet out in the world. It would be rude to talk to someone in a wheelchair or with Downs syndrome as if they were different or less than you and being dead is no different. Just say ‘Hi! My name’s _______. What’s yours?’ and see where the conversation takes you! A lump forms in Guess’s throat. He does not know if he can trust himself to exchange words without a map to follow or rules to adhere to. But what choice does he have? When you want something, it hurts just as bad, if not more, not to do anything about it.
(Of course, Henny knows Lola gave Guess the book; it’s no secret. It is within her right and power to know everything about her children. She would’ve been more upset, though, if she weren’t so completely absorbed in her secret project—which is taking much longer than she had originally thought it would and this worries her—or if Guess weren’t such a helpless boy. She pities his weakness, his fear. Sometimes it makes her want to swaddle him in a large, golden skein, but most times it disgusts her, the way he snivels at her cold hand across the back of his neck. She would’ve sold him long ago for a chest of full of fairies if the presence of a boy were not needed for the protective charm around her house that keeps unwanted eyes and ears and bodies out. One day, he will not be a boy anymore and he will leave to face the world on his own, but for now, while he lives in Henny’s home, he can keep the book. It will be her charity to him. Lola, on the other hand, knows better and Henny will give her nightmares for the next two months—a rare punishment. In the nightmares, Lola will stalk the fen where she was born, searching desperately for her mother in the silty water, only to see her own wretched face reach up from her reflection and drown her amongst the bodies of other motherless children. Lola will have no clue these dreams are her grandmother’s doing. She will wake up in tears, walk through the dark to Henny’s bedroom, and crawl into bed with her. Henny will take Lola into her arms, sing her a sweet song that only witches know, and shush the poor girl back to sleep.)
It takes Lola several weeks of demolishing Stacy in volleyball and averting her gaze every time Stacy speaks in English class to work up the courage to talk to her. She waits until school is over so no one will see them together. She sees Stacy getting into the driver’s seat of an old, dented station wagon with wood paneling along the side. She rushes up to her before Stacy can close the door.
“Is this your car?” Lola asks. “Are you even old enough to drive?” She has caught Stacy off-guard, which may have been on purpose.
Stacy looks stunned but also stunning, somehow able to transcend the awkwardness of being surprised. “I have a hardship license,” she responds. “My parents are divorced and can’t drive me to and from school because of their work hours. And since the school doesn’t have buses and I live on the other side of town, I had to learn to drive myself.”
Lola nods to show she understands. “I live only a couple blocks away. Guess and I walk.” She pauses, then asks, “Can I get in?”
“I don’t know… I’m not allowed to have anyone else under twenty-one in the car while I’m driving. It’s part of the rules.”
Lola walks around to the passenger side, opens the door, slides in, and buckles up. “We don’t have to go far. There’s the Starbucks close by, we can go there. We can do homework. You won’t even have to drive me home, I can just walk, it’s that close.”
How can Stacy say no to this? If she does, Lola may never give her the chance again. What other choice does Stacy have but to start the car and drive off, carefully, down the street so they can sit together alone and finally act like they don’t hate each other? Because they don’t; they really don’t.
Neither of them buy coffee. Stacy has been told all her life that caffeine will stunt her growth and she’s already so tall—why keep her body from reaching greater heights? Lola hates the taste. She orders some chamomile tea. Stacy buys a slice of pumpkin bread and shares it with Lola. They have their English textbooks open on the table between them, but it’s all pretense.
“Where are you whenever we have chapel?” Stacy asks.
Lola takes a sip of her tea but it’s too hot and she burns her tongue. “Ow! What do you mean?”
“Everyone is required to go to chapel every day. But you and your brother are never there.”
Lola is confused. “What period is that?”
“It’s always third period.”
“Oh.” She pulls out her wrinkled and faded schedule from the bottom of her backpack. “I have study hall then.”
Stacy examines the paper and sees that it does indeed say STUDY HALL—LIBRARY. “I guess they don’t want a witch at church. But that’s funny. Sana’s Muslim and she still has to go. They don’t make an exception for her. And most of us aren’t Catholic anyway. I mean, I am, but like I’m not really, I dunno, into it. I got confirmed last year, though.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Lola admits. “I’m sure Henny had something to do with getting me out of it.”
“My grandmother. She takes care of me and Guess.”
Lola removes the plastic lid from her cup of tea and steam rises. She spits into the drink and stares at it intently. The steam dissipates almost immediately.
“Was that magic?” Stacy asks.
“A little bit. Nothing special,” Lola says, taking a drink. “It’s the perfect temperature now. Try it.” She hands her the cup.
Stacy looks suspiciously at the cup. “You’re not putting a spell on me, are you?”
“I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Stacy, who would normally be opposed on principal to drinking from spit-contaminated drinks, takes a sip, and Lola’s right, it’s just the right temperature to bring warmth to her body and allow her to drink slowly and comfortably. “It’s alright,” Stacy says, trying to feign cool indifference. “Maybe a little too cold for my taste.” She puts the cup back down in front of Lola. “So what’s with the disposable cameras? What do you take pictures of?”
“Just of anything, everything,” Lola answers. “Maybe I’ll show you sometime.” She doesn’t know if she actually means this.
“Do you want to take a picture of me?” Stacy asks.
Lola shakes her head, startled. “No. Never.”
Stacy puts a small piece of pumpkin bread in her mouth. “Am I not pretty enough?”
“You’re too beautiful for me to do that to you,” Lola confesses.
She says it with such fear and sadness, her voice cracking, losing all confidence and any hope for joy, as if Stacy had asked Lola to shoot her, that it makes Stacy cry.
Perhaps by now you’re wondering when one of these characters will die. Or perhaps you have forgotten about that. But most likely you haven’t. We seldom forget when people promise to give us something, whether we need or want that thing or not. I promise you death, you want a death. Maybe your money’s on Henny. She’s old and her body’s a wreck: vertebrae rubbing against each other, lungs caked black with cigarette and cauldron smoke, arthritis eating up her knuckles and knees, heart just about burned up. But she knows this, too. It’s too obvious. A witch who dies is a careless witch, the way she sees it, and you know nothing of what she’s been up to in her dark room with her glinting crochet hooks besides the fact that she’s been up to something. And wouldn’t you like to know her secret? Wouldn’t you like to peer over her shoulder as her hands tremble and her eyes go cross and her breathing grows heavy with excitement? Would you be excited too at the sight of the awesome mass growing between her fingers? Would you dutifully unspool the splendor of yarn for her as she works on her magnum opus? Would you grow more than a teensy bit jealous? Would you be horrified? Would you dare speak?
Every gym class is a chance for Guess to talk to the ghost boy with the afro, but every class he fails to take that chance. Next time, I’ll do it, he tells himself. Next time I’ll say hello. I’ll ask him what his favorite book is. Mine is the one about the orphans who live in the pocket of a giant’s raincoat. I’ll say to him, I could let you borrow it sometime, if you’d like. But what if the ghost boy doesn’t read books anymore? What if he doesn’t find Guess interesting? What if he doesn’t care? What will Guess do then? The ghost boy has seen him dressed and undressed. The ghost boy has seen Guess’s small, gangly body slowly gaining centimeter after centimeter of height. He has seen the constellation of moles growing on Guess’s back, his russet skin covered in acne that comes and goes like algal blooms. He has probably even seen, no matter how hard Guess has tried to hide it, Guess’s nervous erection beneath his briefs. The ghost boy must know by now, and the fact that he hasn’t said anything points to the worst.
What Guess doesn’t know is that the ghost boy has no tongue. His father cut it out of his mouth right before he murdered the boy. The ghost boy cannot talk. The other ghost boys in the janitor’s closet would tell Guess this, but after all these years the ghost boy is still sad and sensitive about his death. It would be rude to mention. Besides, it’s not like Guess talks to them either. The other ghost boys have learned not to bother.
The ghost boy with the afro misinterprets Guess’s anxiety as aloofness. He tries not to get angry with Guess nor judge him too harshly for his unwillingness to speak despite being perfectly able to do so. He imagines all the things he would say to Guess if he could—fun facts about bobcats and cougars, that he likes Guess’s t-shirt with the Chinese dragon design, how it is not so scary to die, not really. He imagines the two of them becoming close friends and he feels silly and stupid for wanting this, even though it makes him so happy to imagine, even though it is the most he has wanted in a very long time. So he puts on an act of indifference, staring intently at the closet’s corners, not allowing himself to look up and smile at anyone. He hopes this will make him look cool enough for Guess to talk to him. Every gym class he digs himself deeper into this lonesome, blue iciness.
And so, Guess is left wondering about the ghost boy’s silence, tying himself up in knots around the agony of his first high school crush.
The truth about Guess’s mother is that she made a deal with Henny to exchange her only son, her baby boy, for a new face, complete with new skin, new lips, new nose cartilage, a new eye, new bones, and new tear ducts too. She had denied sex and love and affection to a man who then threw acid at her from a moving car, disfiguring and melting her face. She had two choices: She could opt for skin grafts, surgeries, and medications, gaining hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and never escaping the pain. Or, she could trade a life with her child for a real fix, a total restoration. She didn’t know what Henny would do with her son, but she had faith in the God she prayed to that he would be taken care of. Guess will never know this truth. He will never be brave enough to ask for it or demand it or find it for himself. I would like to say that he does, but he doesn’t. He will need his bravery for other things.
The truth about Lola’s mother is one that Henny has kept even from me.
On the last lazy weekend before summer break, after Lola and Stacy have dared to kiss each other into a fever and press their bodies together for the first time, Stacy is alone in Lola’s bedroom while Lola is in the kitchen, fetching some fruit. Stacy lets her long arms hang over the edge of Lola’s bed and fiddles with the shag carpet. Her eye catches the corner of a shoebox peeking out from beneath the box-spring. She pulls it out and gets on the floor, only to find that there are at least a dozen shoeboxes under the bed. She pulls out four more boxes and opens them. They are all filled with photographs. They are just pictures of things, she thinks at first glance. Rusted road signs. A pile of books burned or torn to shreds. Bird bones. A towering tree. They look like the dabbling of an aspiring artist. Then she finds a photograph of a place she recognizes. It’s the entranceway to St. Catherine’s School for Young Ladies, only things are different. The statue of St. Catherine is overtaken with ivy, only her hands, bearing the stigmata, poking out of the teeming green. The faux-Gothic facade is crumbled, the carved letters worn smooth, barely legible. Through the three empty doorways, the rest of the building no longer stands, has been replaced with thickets of twisting, sickly saplings. The gray-teal sky is both calming and nauseating to look at.
If it hadn’t been developed and printed from film, and if Lola weren’t a witch, Stacy would have guessed Lola has a knack for Photoshop. She knows this is magic, and thumbing back through the others sees what she failed to realize at first: Lola’s photographs peek into the future of whatever they capture. Some things, like the tree, maintain their vitality, but Stacy suspects that particular picture was taken of a seedling. Most things, she sees, slip and tumble into decay and corrosion. She imagines a younger Lola, just a few years ago, discovering and developing her ability, waiting until the sun was setting for the softest light and curiously turning the camera on herself, wondering if she would grow up to be beautiful. Stacy then sees that young Lola picking up the prints from the one-hour photo counter and flipping through the pictures excitedly, only to find what she must have known she would capture—herself dead, skin yellowed and peeling with decay, eye sockets empty, bones exposed, a corpse trying to smile. Stacy knows this is all her own speculation, but it comes with such vividness and sureness she knows it’s true. She quietly, carefully, puts the photos back in the boxes and slides them under the bed. She doesn’t dare cry or else Lola will figure out she snooped. She feels the new weight of this, the secret becoming known but the knowingness itself a secret. There will never not be secrets in this world. Lola comes back into the room, cradling two peaches and a bowl full of blackberries. She and Stacy curl up around each other and let the juices drip down their chins. Stacy feeds her blackberries one at a time and the marriage of sweetness and bitterness in the small clusters of fruit dazes her. She has never felt so warm, so loved, though she knows this will change.
If Guess knew about the ghost boy’s missing tongue, he could ask Henny if she could crochet him a new one. Ghost body parts are tricky but not impossible. Henny, of course, would not give this to him for free, even if he is her adopted grandson. There always has to be a price, something of equal or greater value, and Guess has nothing to offer except his own tongue. In some versions of this story, Guess does learn the truth about the ghost boy and he does strike the deal with Henny. In those versions, Guess, emboldened and driven to desperation by young love, cuts out his tongue but he does not account for the blood loss and trauma, and he dies before he can reach the hospital. The ghost boy gets his tongue but there is nothing joyful about it; Henny keeps Guess’s tongue, still alive and wriggling, in a bird cage above her stove; Lola is devastated. But this is not one of those versions of this story. This is the true version. The right one.
In this true version of the story, at some point in the future, Henny is on her deathbed and both Lola and Guess have grown up and moved out to live and love and lose and lose on their own. With the last of her strength and will, Henny creaks out of bed and drags her body, sagging sacks of flesh and whittled bones, to her closet where she has been keeping her secret project. She undoes the numerous locking charms she has placed on the door. She pulls out the most elaborate and intricate crocheting she has ever done—a new body for herself. Every organ, every bone, every nerve and tendon and muscle has been accounted for, shaped out of the finest, warmest wool. All she needs to do is make one last stitch and it will all become real and she will recite her spell and replace the entirety of herself with her new, younger body. She plans on outliving her grandchildren. She plans on living forever. Who is there to stop her? I could say that Henny dies, that she has miscalculated the moment and collapses before the final necessary actions can be made, and that Lola and Guess live happily ever after. I could end the story there, leaving the children the ones with eternal life. But there are the things in this world that we can control and there are the things that we want, and these things are not always the same.
Rumpus original art by Anna McGlynn.