© 2005 Christopher Howard
It was the clouds, something in the clouds that convinced Mozell Jirsa her own death was near. Wispy strips of transientness coming down from the North, catching the sunlight, thickening into wide bands of gold that disintegrated as they crossed the sky, scattering coin-like dabs against still blue.
"The message's clear if you just look that way. Perhaps not death, but something close to it?"
From the South, fat drifting dirigibles lumbered up, heavy with moisture, tops billowing white like full sails rigged over hazy gray hulls.
"Heaven breakers, those," Mozell said in a conversational tone and volume to anyone who might be listening.
Her garden was large enough to hide dozens of human-sized listeners, hundreds if they could shrink to a ferret's leanness and didn't mind crowding in the weeds between the sunflowers and bloodchirps. A full-grown man could stand straight behind the string bean rails and not be seen easily.
Mozell scanned the rows of plants, mostly vegetables, her eyes partly closed, as if she possessed a sense of sight that didn't require them.
"I'd detect anyone in my own garden. Only a fool of a gardener wouldn't," she said, her eyes returning to the clouds.
Shaking her head and standing on tiptoes to take in as much sky as she could, she said, "I see it coming. Not sure how it ends, though." She twisted her lips in doubt, fixing her hair, pulling long strands of iron gray into a tighter ponytail. She studied the clouds another ten seconds, and added with a slow scowl, "Not really sure if it does end."
Mozell released a long, unsteady breath and returned to earth. "I'm going to miss the gardening," she said, turned that into another question, and looked to the sky for the answer. She frowned. "Hmmm. I don't see myself missing it. I don't see myself even leaving the garden. Funny."
She bent low into the bloodchirps and snapped off seven bean-like pods, long lumpy fingers of deep glossy red. One of them oozed a bloody pus where she'd pinched its stem, and Mozell licked the trickle off her thumb.
She straightened in the garden's center, steering her eyes through the hedge that blocked her house from the view of vehicles traveling along Echo Road.
"Not my view," she said, glaring at the wall of green as if it had offended her. "I see right through you." Her head swiveled along the hedge, following something moving at high speed on the road. "There you go, Jan Corliss, the father, always running away, off to Heydel's in your dad's car, audio blaring ... guitar squeal, playful bass thrum ... SnapDragonflies? Mother's fingernails, haven't heard that in a long time." She made a satisfied snapping noise with her lips. "There's a cycle for everything, isn't there." She didn't make it into a question, because the answer was plain to hear.
Her head swung back and stopped when her senses picked up the next traveler along Echo. "Jacinta Yahl. Breathing quickly. Overwrought. The girl shouldn't be running like that, not with the baby due...." She stopped herself from saying, "anytime" and quickly added, "at three o'clock this afternoon."
Mozell frowned, lifted her nose and pulled in the slow path of some nidorous smell on the road about a hundred feet behind the girl. "Yup. And something dead drifting along in her wake. Got a good pair of legs on it, too, not the junior high-school dance shuffle you usually see with them. Should've expected that."
Mozell moved through the row of plants, shoved the bloodchirp pods into her apron, and rubbed her hands together, shaking off the garden's dirt while she made her way to the front of the house.
Jacinta shot through the open gate at the end of Mozell's drive, brown legs bent and kicking, flowery dress rippling, black hair pulsing and coiling past her like a shredded banner in a gale, her arms folded over her full pregnant belly.
"Mother Jirsa! Mother Jirsa!"
Mozell gave Jacinta a growing smile. "Always liked that girl," she said low and to herself, as if there were listeners roaming her property who weren't privy to some of her chatter.
Jacinta skidded on the gravel a few steps beyond Mozell, spun around and looked over the old woman's shoulder at the space where the drive met Echo Road. She bent forward, her chin pushing into the Mozell's soft neck, panting, her eyelids shuddering against the pain and pressure in her back, hips, belly, thigh muscles, against her cervix.
Mozell stiffened, becoming a brace for the girl. "Just rest your head there for a minute before you ask any questions, all right, dear?" She smiled when she felt the nod, Jacinta's chin digging deeper into her neck.
"You're a strong woman," said Mozell. "Carrying a child, running two miles, and a slice of a day before you bring him into the world."
Jacinta gasped something that sounded like the weak start of the word, "him?" Her body pressed harder against Mozell's back.
Mozell shushed her and drew one bony finger across her lips. "I'm old, but I've borne children, delivered even more. You never forget what it feels like. My back was what really got to me. Yours? I know where you're hurting. Let me give it try. Something like this...." She rubbed her chin. "Imagine a boy with a stick running up and back along a fence, dragging it over the pickets and the gaps between them, serrated popping, chipping the paint, denting the wood. Got that? Now imagine some osseous plane of existence that cuts through ours but only exposes your skeleton, and now a boy living in that plane uses his stick on your spinal column, with bone-chipping rhythm, thumping up and down your vertebrae, loosening them, rapping on them like a damn xylophone, the little bastard vandal," she snapped the last under her breath, and then went on cheerfully, "Something like that, right?"
Jacinta straightened, nodding uncertainly, her fingers gripping Mozell's shoulders. "I guess so." She scowled a little, trying to picture an existence where she only saw the skeletons of the inhabitants of some intersecting plane. And, funny, the pain in her body eased.
Mozell patted her hand. "Did you bring the letter?"
"It's in the trunk, a wooden trunk, under the hutch in the dining room. Addressed to your great grandmother Isabella."
"Oh," Jacinta said in a small voice, shaking her head, as if Mozell had asked her if she'd brought the ladder they'd need to climb to the moon.
"Now run along and fetch it."
Her eyes went wide. "What about him?"
Mozell waved away her question dismissively. "Just get the letter, and I'll explain everything." But her eyes stayed with Jacinta's, and she nodded. "It's good that you can sense him. Not many can. Damn, that's a wicked curse." Mozell looked at her watch, and then at the hedge, scrunching up her nose at the reek. "He's a steady one, strong, but not that quick. You can make it to your mother's place and back at a brisk walk. Go."
"I mean, what is he?"
Mozell waved a finger. "Not 'til you return with the letter."
Jacinta looked deep into Mozell's eyes, jerked back as if slapped, and then bowed her head slightly. "Mother Jirsa, you've always been fair to me."
"I'm always fair to everyone."
"You've always been good to me."
"That's a fair way to put it. Yes. I think you, Jacinta Yahl, are here for something important. Three or four important things all coming together at the same time. It'll all ravel or unravel about three this afternoon."
"Letter. And cheer up. You're having a baby. Mother Yahl has a nice sound though, doesn't it?"
The girl looked at Mozell, avoiding her eyes, sensing something, a uniqueness, emptiness, something she couldn't pin down, except for a trail of sorrow.
"Don't look at me like that," said Mozell with a slow smile. "It happens to us all. I showed up one autumn day with a basket of blueberry muffins, young as you, chattering like a cricket, and Mother Elquist just got up from the table with her knitting bag, said, 'I'm off. See you when I see you.'"
"Have you seen her?"
"Not a peep since."
"Are ... are you going?"
Mozell raised a critical eye to the sky. "Apparently not. If you find my body, do something with it. Just don't bury it in the garden. That's my only request."
Jacinta backed up a step, clutching at her belly. "You're dying?"
"No. No. You're going to take my life, dear, and I brought you some ripe bloodchirps to mix up a batch o' near-death that'll send a good chunk of me off without a fuss."
Mozell glanced at the sky one more time, pursed her lips in disapproval, and gave her garden a good long stare.
Jacinta staggered away from her. "But ... I don't want to."
Mozell looked over her shoulder at her. "Oh, you're still here. Get the letter, girl. It'll tell you everything you need to know. A brisk walk, now. No running. It's not necessary."
Jacinta pulled in a shuddery breath, turned and left by the side gate through the hedge, an old-fashioned, narrow, iron-barred gate, rough with rust and hinges that growled.
Mozell wheeled at the sound, but her eyes immediately drifted back to the presence of the dead man at the end of her driveway. He moved along her hedge, smooth, with purpose, back down Echo Road, following Jacinta home.
"A nice gait on him. Perhaps I'll be able to study him a bit before...." She frowned.
An hour later, she was standing next to her garden, glaring at the clouds, when Jacinta bolted from the gap in the hedge, down the drive.
"Here it is, Mother Jirsa." Jacinta seized her belly, fiddling with the letter with her teeth and the fingers of one hand.
"Slow down." Mozell held up her hand to stop her from opening the crinkly brown envelope. "I know what's in the letter. Know it by heart. We won't bother with it. I don't need the letter to tell you the story."
"But ... I just walked!"
"In order to get your slowpoke of a womb into gear's, all. That baby needs to be out and braying by three if we're to save him from that monster."
Jacinta swung around, her eyes fixed on the drive's end. "He followed me home and back," the girl breathed, and then with a lot more strength in her voice, "But you sent me out there with him!"
Mozell smiled and waved away her defiance. "Oh, he's not after you, dear. He's waiting for your child."
Jacinta threw her arms possessively around her middle.
Mozell patted her shoulder. "He fears me, and he won't be able to pass the front gate until you've given the world your newborn boy."
Jacinta stared at her for a minute, stunned. "Boy?"
Mozell jerked her chin at the driveway. "He wouldn't be here if it wasn't."
"There's more," Jacinta whispered. "There are things you're not telling me."
Mozell glanced at her watch and headed to the patio, waving Jacinta in front of her. "There's iced tea in the fridge. Get me a glass."
Jacinta stopped halfway to jumping at her order. "Wait, I'm preg"
"And I'm old. That outweighs you. A nice tall glass now, lots of ice, and hurry, while I think back on how this started."
Jacinta nearly dropped the glass on the table in front of Mozell, and then dumped her pregnant body into the chair to Mozell's right, panting as if she'd just run another couple miles for the tea.
"Mother" Jacinta winced, pressing a hand to her waist. "Jirsa?"
"Quiet, girl; I have a good start for the story. It's about how Arden Covitt released the witch Awilda from a shadow, and the price he paid." After a sip, Mozell nodded, and then jerked her chin at the thick forest behind her house. "Our world's a bright place, Jacinta, but it wasn't always so. It used to be darker. There was shadow in the woods so thick it sometimes clumped together and formed into ... dangerous things. One of these shadows grew very strong. It choked the life out of passing animals and took something from each corpse before the soul faded, a single hair, a tooth, an eye, an ear. It took only one portion from each, and over a thousand years it filled itself with them. It was made of the hairs and teeth and eyes and ears of the things it killed, and it grew mighty. It heard thunder from the other side of the horizon, it could hear your heart beating a mile away. Its eyes of every kind, insect eyes, rat eyes, fish eyes, human eyes, bear eyes, swiveled in every direction and took in different lights, penetrated darkness and mist. It stole the paws from cats, the hands and feet from men, hooves from stags, and it learned to move at great speed. When it had completely covered its shape in the skin and hair and fur of its victims, it sought the organs beneath them. It stuffed its shadowy core with the warm hearts of animals. It breathed because it swallowed the lungs of those it killed. It fed its shadow with the stomachs of men and deer and bears. Then it hungered. And it had teeth. "Arden Covitt was hunting deep in the woods when he found the shadow's trail. He followed it to the end and he released the witch, Awilda, from the shadow's core. She came out like she went in, whole. I don't know how long she was inside the thing. Evidently, Awilda didn't die when the shadow bit her, when it spilled her blood, when it tried to cut her into pieces. It had devoured her as one piece, and she'd become part of it."
"This Awilda wasn't strong enough to defeat it?"
Mozell froze, studying the girl, a small creeping of admiration showing in the tightened corners of her mouth. "That's what I asked myself when I first heard the story. Awilda never told us that. It makes more sense that Awilda's ability to keep herself intact was some sort of strategy. She went seeking the monster, knowing something of it's ... methods."
"Maybe she'd seen the remains of animals, missing an organ, an ear, an eye?"
Mozell nodded. "And her purpose was subjection, to control the shadow, master it, become it, and drive it. That was Awilda's way."
"Arden Covitt destroyed the shadow?"
"Or defeated it, reduced its capacity to hold all of the things that made it threatening. It kept a few teeth and claws but released everything else, including Awilda. Arden feared her, thinking that she was the shadow's real source of power. Awilda, however, always seeking moreand recognizing a bold man when she saw onesmiled and granted him a wish for releasing her from the monster's bonds."
"Did she need releasing?"
"What did he want?"
Mozell hesitated, and took a sip of iced tea to cover it up. "A son."
"And Awilda gave it to him?"
"In a way. She seduced Arden, who was already married, and Awilda bore a son, Roman. She wanted Arden as a lover, but he already loved another." Mozell raised an eyebrow. "I think she was lonely and just didn't know how to deal with people. All she understood about others was how to control them. Arden, as he'd shown against the shadow, had the strength and courage to resist her, and, a year after he'd gone into the woods to hunt, he broke from her secrets and webs and ties. He fled and never returned. Well, until now."
Jacinta leaned forward, glaring, trying to pull the next part of the story from Mozell. "Then what happened?"
"Awilda cursed Arden, a bad one, too. Arden and his wife already had a three-year-old daughter, Isabella. In the spring after Arden's escape, his wife, Theola, gave birth to a son. Arden relaxed. He thought Awilda had, well, taken something from him, but at the same time, granted him his wish."
"Twenty days after his son's birth, Arden choked him to death."
Mozell nodded, then shook her head. "Not really him. It was Awilda's curse, put on him for spurning her." Mozell frowned. "One of Awilda's favorite words, spurn. There was always a lot of spurning going on in her life. Anyway, Arden had been ... well, he'd been foolish. A little overconfident. He'd been a dragon pointing out its weakest scale, a general the fragile point in the line, a jailor the weakest link in a murderer's chain. Arden had handed Awilda his deepest vulnerability. His want of a son. She cursed him, strengthening his desire to have one and then forcing him to kill any son of his seed or their descendents. His guilt nearly stopped his life, but he wasn't certain that he'd been the killer. He didn't remember doing it. Theola gave birth to another son the following spring."
Jacinta shuddered. "Again?"
Mozell sipped her iced tea. "Three times Theola gave a son to Arden, and he killed each. The next autumn, Theola told Arden she was again pregnant, a fourth time. In grief, he hanged himself."
Jacinta swung her head around to the driveway's end, to the presence of death that stood there.
"The curse makes him kill his sons?"
"Awilda thinks these things through. She's very ... methodical, very thorough. The thing at the end of the drive's your great-great-grandfather, Arden Covitt. He's family. After his suicide, he came back and killed the fourth son, and many more. Isabella's son, grandson. He's returned every time one of your family has given birth to a son."
"Oh no!" Jacinta cried, getting to her feet in a hunched position, her face bent down over her round belly.
"Oh, yes. That's why he's here."
Jacinta looked up. "No, I mean, oh no. My water broke."
Mozell sipped her tea, looking mildly attentive. She waved the girl back. "Sit. I'll get you a towel. It's only eleven. Your boy won't be coming into the world till three this afternoon."
Mozell managed to bring half a dozen pillows, a blanket, several towels, and a glass of ice water all in a single trip to the house. "Can't do much about the pain. Hopefully these'll make bearing it a little easier." She spent fifteen minutes arranging everything, bending the straw so that Jacinta could lean toward the patio table and take a sip, shoving pillows under her arms, behind her knees.
"How do you know the STORY?" Jacinta shrieked the last word, huffing and shifting her body in search of the ever-elusive comfortable position.
"Awilda's my grandmother."
"Then that's why you're a ... you're a...." Jacinta sat upright, her eyes squeezed tight in pain. She gasped. Her mouth swung open, but she couldn't manage much of a scream, just a little gagging noise.
"Witch?" Mozell held her hand firmly and patted it. "I'm something like a good old-fashioned bake boys and girls in the oven witch. Not one of those new ones. I'll not have any of that black fingernails and lipstick Goth crap. If my fingernails are black, it's because I've been gardening ... or baking. Not children, no. But I do make a mean pork pie, and, well, you've had my eleven-grain bread. With some fresh butter, is there anything like it on earth?"
Jacinta shook her head, no, then stopped herself. They were getting off the subject. Or there were too many subjects coming at once and she had to weed some out. "What are we going to do?"
"I think it has to be you that does it."
"How can I stop him?"
"By taking some of my blood and soul, by becoming a little bit of me." She didn't add, I hope.
"A little bit of Awilda?"
Mozell nodded. "If you like."
"What" gasped Jacinta, now willing to pay any amount of money for relief from the pain. "What was she like?"
"In one word," said Mozell, looking up at the sky. "Awilda was real. Is real. No one witnessed her death. There was something about her, something really real, beyond real, hard and absolute, like one of that old Greek chap, Plato's, Forms. You know, there's the world of Forms and the world of particulars. Particulars are the half-real. What did Plato say of the Forms? Something that's never becoming but always is? Awilda was whole, complete ... always is. It's like she was born fully armed and armored, Athena-like. Her problem was that she never grew. She didn't have room to grow. Didn't realize growing was possible. If she wanted more power, she wouldn't even think of bettering herself. She always sought it outside of herself, in other people, by controlling them, making them do her bidding. And, Holy Mother! If you crossed her you ended up ... like Arden, cursed to kill your own children forever, beyond death, an eternity of self-inflicted pain."
"Are there others? Who" Jacinta breathed, clutching the patio table, rattling the ice cubes in her glass. "Who else?"
"Cursed by Awilda? No one knows but her. Some she thought beneath a good curse, though." Mozell looked up at her house. "This was her place, you know. One time it was deep in the forest, no roads, just a weed-choked old deer path through miles of woods. The town grew up around it, building houses closer, till you live just a couple miles down Echo from me. Anyway, this is an old, old place. There are graves here and there on the land, pets that died, family, relatives." She swung her head away from the house to the forest. "Over in that corner, there are three graves, unmarked, but I know who's in them."
Jacinta stood up, hands holding her hips, one eye still attentive to Mother Jirsa, the other squeezed painfully shut, her face curled into a torture-me-all-you-want-you-won't-get-any-information-out-of-me look.
Mozell stood with her, guiding her into the house, past the kitchenalthough she did something, a wrist flick or just a mean look, and the fire on the stove whooshed into life under a pot of water. Mozell eased Jacinta into the bed in the room at the end of a long narrow hall.
"Awilda always kept the doors unlocked. She said it saved her fixing them later because they always knocked them off the hinges. It's not like a lock was going to make them stay away from her house."
"Bad men. She lived in the forest alone, and she kept a small cemetery for those who visited her with ... unfriendly intent. Awilda called them, 'untoward incidents.' Word got around after the third incident, and few people bothered her after that. She wasn't exactly evil or stupid, just a bit lonely and, of course, way off kilter when someone wronged herat least in Arden's case. She enjoyed a chat now and then with passing hunters or trappers, and was generous if they knew their place."
"What did the three ... OUCH! ... do?"
"They raped her. They used her body, and she in turn rewarded them with dinner. Awilda always laughed when she told this part of her story, saying, 'Funny. They never drank the wine, fearing poison. And I had a nice selection of mature bottles in the cellar. What a waste.'"
"How did she stop them?"
Mozell shook her head. "Never eat the garnish. My advice. She didn't mix anything with the food. She set a little something from the garden on the edge of the plate, and theyshe'd assessed them as the rough sorts of fellows who'll eat everything on the plateate the garnish." Mozell laughed. "Blue Devil's Creeper or Bad Goatswort, some poisonous member of the Forget-me-Not family. Awilda's favorite flowers."
"So, Arden Covitt found out ... the painful way. He'll never forget her."
"I think that's Awilda's point, dear."
"Crowning!" Jacinta shrieked the word, in pain and anger. Pain, because it felt as if she were pushing a brace of frozen turkeys, a bolt of lightning and a box of woodscrews out from between her legs. Anger, because she'd been reduced to shouting single words and had completely lost the ability to string any two of them together.
"Not unless the little guy's wearing it around his shoulders," muttered Mozell, distracted with the delivery. "Here he comes. Come to Mother Jirsa. Yes. Easy now."
Jacinta's eyes opened to somewhere into the middle of her forehead, sweat pouring into her eyes. The whole world hurt. Her teeth felt loose, aching in their sockets. Her mouth widened till she'd have sworn she felt her chin touch her naval, then it slammed shut like an angry teenager's bedroom door. She felt stretched and ripped like a cartoon, bent into unnatural shapes over two-dimensional space.
Then there was an immeasurable sense of release, emptiness, not doing much for the pain, but it was as if someone had come in with a giant grapefruit spoon and scooped out half her insides. She sank into the pillows, her body running at high idle, a marathon burn in her lungs, her dark eyes blinking at the ceiling, trying to focus. Is this euphoria? It wasn't all good, not the diner's Special Sundae piled high and sweet, but a tight ball of perception of ... everything, everything that she was, every second of the world that had come through her senses since she'd come into it. Here it was. Good and bad, sharp points of strength and weakness, rumbling ugliness and fear, courage striding across her imagination, soft singing beauty, all of it bundled into one pinpoint feeling, but with the scale, the magnitude, the thunderous depth of an ocean.
She vaguely noticed Mother Jirsa moving in and out of her field of vision, cleaning her with a hot towel, working on something across the room, and singing a really old song, "...overfull glass of desolation wine."
And then Mozell pushed something into her arms, a warm, cloth-wrapped bundle that shivered and wailed.
Jacinta held her son, her body shaking weakly, feeling something like the shadow monster in Mother Jirsa's story, a soft center under the loose bits and pieces that had once been her body. Her fingers moved slowly, only half under her control, to uncover his dark red face, scrunched up, distressed, and beautiful.
"Back in a bit." Mozell threw the words over her shoulder as she whisked from the bedroom. She dug the bloodchirps from her apron, hanging on a peg in the kitchen, dropped them in the blender, and set it for puree.
She returned to Jacinta, who was grinning like a fool at her baby.
Mozell poured the bloodchirp shake into a glass, pulled one of Jacinta's hands from the child, and pushed it into her weak grip. "Drink up. Quickly!"
Jacinta looked at the dark red syrup for a second, and then tilted it into her mouth. The warm, slippery liquid never reached her throat. She upended the glass. It rushed over her tongue, heading for her esophagus. She swallowed air. The liquid wriggled sideways off her tongue, squeezed between her teeth, and went inside her, absorbed into the lining of her mouth and gums.
The bedroom door flew in and slammed against the wall, shuddering on its hinges.
Mozell turned slowly, standing in front of Jacinta. "Been expecting you, Arden Covitt."
Jacinta felt ... not just alive, but ... there. Really there. More there than she'd ever felt in her life. Whatever Mozell had given her, it heightened her euphoria. She felt a tingle of annoyance, as if the world had invaded her space, encroached on her personal territory. She smelled its breath. It looked over her shoulder, through her own eyes. The universe hovered, adhering like plastic wrap to her senses.
A man's dry voice came through the doorway. "Have you named him?"
Jacinta's eyes shot up. She dropped the glass, pulled her baby against her body protectively, kicked the blankets away, and scooted to the right side of the bed.
Arden Covitt walked into the room, his arms at his sides, his eyes aimed at the bundle Jacinta held. He wasn't as decayed as she'd expected, only halfway there. All the color had faded from his body and left his skin papery, almost translucent. His eyes were watery gray, almost indistinguishable from the whites. There was more rotting skull showing than hair to cover it. Pale scabs littered the floor in his wake. In her peripherals, Jacinta saw Mozell shaking her head and heard her faint tsk-ing, as if someone had left muddy tracks across her clean kitchen floor. Arden Covitt stank, like mold and an ancient forest's floor, but there was a sour edge to it, the smell of the curse that drove him.
Mozell straightened, arching her back, and bashed in the side of his head with the heavy glass blender container, knocking him to the floor. He got up again without even appearing to notice how he'd ended up there.
His head swiveled to Mozell, and he threw one hand out, flat against her face, sending her across the room and halfway into the wall.
Jacinta's eyes darted to Mother Jirsa's limp form, and then back to Arden Covitt. Her baby cried in her arms, the thin peal like a knife ricocheting around the room, unable to stab the walls, but cutting everything in between.
Arden bent, grabbed the corner of the mattress and heaved it against the wall, knocking the lamp off the dresser. He hooked one hand under the bed frame and tossed it away along with the box spring, leaving Jacinta exposed in the corner.
He moved steadily toward the baby, arms out to catch the mother if she tried to run around him, his pale eyes fixed on his mark.
He batted away Jacinta's fist. His fingers dug into the warm wrap, found the soft neck, and squeezed off its wail.
Jacinta clawed at Arden's throat, feeling the lumpy rope scars from his hanging. She pushed his head back, cried in agony and anger, and bit into his arm just below the elbow. She felt the tendons and muscle slacken under her teeth, and the dead tissue dissolved in her mouth. The rotting meat sour taste sweetened, and then drifted away, leaving nothing, just cold, like ice-cubes against her teeth.
The baby's cry hit her ears, sharp and clinging as a nettle's seedpod, and as perfect as Nature intended.
Jacinta straightened her back against the join of two of the bedroom's walls, breathing hard, staring around for Mother Jirsa. Her cursed great-great-grandfather was gone. She didn't see Mozell either, but her eyes were blurry with tears and the room was so bright. Maybe the witch ended up beneath the thrown mattress and frame. She pushed off the wall, and her footstep jarred her senses.
"What is this?" She blinked away her tears, giving the world a really good look, and it came back more vivid than before. "Mother Jirsa?" Her ears rang with her own voice.
Jacinta's eyes snapped to the lampshade rolling into the middle of the room. Mozell stood up in the opposite corner, shaking the glass of a shattered light bulb from her dress.
A smile started on Jacinta's lips, stopped, and then contracted into a frown. "Something's wrong. I can't see you like the rest of the room."
"Name him Roman," whispered Mozell shortly, and faded into the flowery wallpaper, became colorless, and drifted through the wall.
Five days later, Mozell returned to her old house, walked from her garden, and met Jacinta and baby Roman on the patio. Jacinta shot to her feet, keeping one hand on the bassinette.
"You came back!"
Mozell gave her a disappointed look. "I never left, really. Took a stroll through the woods. I'll always be here, like one of Plato's particulars, something that's always becoming but never is."
"But ... you're not ... solid."
"Still here, though. I'm just more becoming than is right now. I need to be. I don't know if you broke Awilda's curse. I think you just stopped Arden Covitt from hunting down your boy. He might be back the next time one of your family decides to have a male child."
"I bit his arm. Something in that drink changed my sight. I see things ... I didn't see before."
"I wish it had kicked in a bit sooner. I thought about giving it to you before you gave birth. Maybe some of it would have passed to the fetus, although it's not something a child should have, but old Arden gave me an idea when he asked if you'd named your baby. I don't think the curse'll work on a son named after Awilda's."
"You knew the drink would work on me?"
"A cycle for everything, right? We're related, you know. My hand-me-down puree of bloodchirps wouldn't have passed some of my soul into you otherwise."
"I'm the daughter of Roman, the son Awilda bore from Arden. I think that makes you my great-grand-niece? Maybe a remove or two?" Her lip curled down with a few seconds thought, and then she shrugged. "Who knows? We're related, and now you're one of us, a witch."
"But ... do I want to...."
"Oh, yeah. You'll love it. Just take my lesson to heart, dearor Awilda's lesson. Never be an is. Always becoming, and you'll do fine. It's all about the growth. About being a gardener, not owning themgardeners, I mean. I'll be back on Thursday to help you start your own growth of bloodchirps. Have a pint of yours ready for germinating the seeds. Keep it at body temp. Mid-morning sound good? Ten-ish? Have some tea ready for me, too." Before Jacinta could answer, Mozell bent down to the bassinette, grinning foolishly and cooing. "And I'll bring something icky for little Roman, shall I?"