Witchcraft is a gift.
Imelda would wave her steel spoon at Mercer and insist on this as he measured ingredients for her, whether she was boiling potions or a pot of farfalle pasta. Watch the salt, a teaspoon only, never pour too much. Don’t overheat the sauce. Bottle the hawks’ gizzards separate from the basilisks’.
Never half-ass a gift, Mercy. Her perpetual imperative.
Mercer is alone now. His hands are unsteady—they’ve shaken like a drunkard’s since they held Imelda as she passed—and he is no witch. Never was. But the candlewick must be rolled in beeswax, and the bees must be fed on narcissus blooms from a single Persian meadow that can only be visited when the moon is waning and the weather storming, and even then only by crawling hands-and-bony-knees through the portal Imelda keeps locked in the cabinet beneath the master bedroom sink.
Mercer is careful to lock the cabinet behind him. As Imelda would.
The candle must be wide as a child’s finger—no more or less. Mercer guesses; they never had children, though now he wonders, if they had, would their fingers be spidery like his or thick and rosy, like Imelda’s?
A lock of hair from the loved one lost—seventy-two strands exactly—must be wound around the candle’s shaft until it cuts into the wax, but never so deep that the candle breaks.
He cut Imelda’s braid loose with her red kitchen shears an hour after she’d gone.
He almost forgot to do it. It was her face that reminded him. He touched her closed eyes, and in that tear-swollen technicolor instant he could imagine her reaction, her sweet, exquisite exasperation, if he had neglected such an essential element of a spell. The hair, Mercy! She would have shut her eyes tight, shaken her head, scowled—and then pressed her plump hands together and adopted an air of utter peace and tolerance. Oh Mercy, my love, she would have said. How could you have forgotten my hair?
But in that first unending hour without her, he’d hardly remembered how to breathe.
• • • •
Once lit, the candle must burn, undiminished, all night.
Mercer stays awake. It’s easier these days. Age had already drained away their languid pillow hours, the mornings spent with his hand on her cheek, with her leg tangled over his, the two of them enveloped in whatever shimmer of ecstasy Imelda had concocted from glitter and newt snouts. From magic.
When Imelda fell sick, sleep left him almost entirely and pooled instead in her. He’d gather shreds of rest and she’d pick at her scraps of sliced bread and packaged cheese, nibble away the corners and crusts, before the afternoons wore her thin. They spent her waking time in a concerted act of remembering—a fifth of whiskey shared in a faery den, a waltz on the roof of the Taj Mahal. Making love, sweat-slick from the Roman summer, on a Caesar’s bed. It felt like months, those dwindling weeks, drifting through better days. Together they’d slowed the stealing hand of time, for a while.
Or maybe Imelda had slowed it herself. A secret spell. A final gift.
No. Magic has limits.
So Imelda said. Mercer refuses to believe it. The things they’d done, the places she’d shown him! He could feel it, with her. The infinite ripple of possibility.
Outside, cars slide into neighbors’ driveways. The sun idles into the hills. Children gather their bats and balls and answer calls to come inside. Crows—my queenly Corvidae, Imelda called them—settle into their midnight roosts.
And the candle, set in the center of Imelda’s best Moroccan tea plate, steadily melts into a pool of wax.
Diminished, as with the last four attempts, to nothing.
If Mercer had any strength left, he would cry.
• • • •
Mercer knows nothing of witchcraft. Imelda reminded him of this often. Witchcraft is a birthright—but not in the insidious, entitled sense that pervades aristocracies. A birthmark, rather; a randomness set loose in certain lines. Magic wriggled under your skin, fattened your cells. Or it didn’t. You were born a witch, or you weren’t.
In which case, you just had to fall in love with one. That was Mercer’s best reply, the one that made Imelda grin, made her shut her eyes and wrinkle her nose and flush like a ripening berry.
If she’d seen him unlocking her cabinets, prying open her ironbound crates. If she’d seen him, hauling her books from her moonlit attic down to his desk-lamped study like an old pack mule, struggling to spread them gently on the acrylic rug but fumbling, dropping them instead, letting the burn of suburban daylight fall on their smoke-scented pages.
But she was sleeping so much by then. One night he dropped a globe of water they’d stolen, tipsy and giggling, from an Olympian fountain and whimpered, helpless, as it drained out on the kitchen tiles. And Imelda hadn’t even opened an eye.
He’d found what he needed, though, while she slept, in a hidebound book on the highest shelf.
A spell to call back the dead.
• • • •
Imelda’s hair had gone white young—an unfortunate side effect of witchcraft, she’d said, it scares the color out of every strand—but it had stayed always long, in thick, feral ringlets she restrained with a twist of cinnabar fabric.
He’d asked her once what the fabric was—a scrap of blanket from the saddle of a Mongolian warlord? A muse’s chiton? Gryphon pelt?
She’d doubled over laughing. No, she’d choked through tears, it was cotton. Red cotton and elastic.
Mercer keeps the braid wrapped in a white silk scarf. He secured the rough-cut end of the braid with a rubber band but left the hairband untouched, in its place, bundling the tapering ends of her curls. The scarf, too, is Imelda’s. He unwrapped it, gently, from a deck of cards, each hand-painted with a tangle of erotic nudes. The cards are not tarot or oracles or even the simplest sort of magic; they are playing cards. A gift, long decades given. He’d haggled them off a street artist in the city, a block from the building where he’d worked the job that had bought them this house, this view of the winter-bare crows’ trees, this polished oak table where Mercer sits alone, winding Imelda’s hair around a candle. Again.
His hands ache from molding beeswax, his knees are bruised from crawling through a bathroom-cabinet portal cut wide enough for Imelda’s once-generous hips, but somehow too small, by far, for him.
He sleeps little and poorly and only in the morning hours, after the candle has melted away. An hour at most, or two. After the candle’s diminished. After he’s certain he’s failed yet again.
Worse, Imelda’s braid is thinning with every failure. He squints as he picks out each white strand and curses himself for wrapping it all in a scarf the very same color, and just as soft. He pulls the strands free tenderly, as if he is handling Imelda herself, but still the strands squirm into curls and bounce free of the red hairband and tangle until they are inseparable, uncountable, and then fall together to the floor. Sometimes he finds them again, under the table. Sometimes they’re lost.
And always, his hands shake. Precision, he hears her say. Magic is precise.
The sun lifts above the hilltops. Mercer watches the crows rise in a marled gray curtain, like the static of the black-and-white TV in their first apartment, if the antenna wasn’t set just right.
Early in the night, he had let himself believe he was closer, that this time, the candle held its form longer, the flame dazzled brighter. But these were lies, and short-lived. As always, the candle—one of hundreds, the latest casualty of his months of effort—died out in a lumpy pool of wax.
And another seventy-two strands of hair burned away for good.
Mercer lets his head fall into his hands. He is an old man, and empty. There is no magic bubbling under his frail, papery skin.
Cars pull out of driveways. Two men in white jumpsuits and plastic helmets bright as wildfire carve branches from a leafless tree. A school bus plods around the block, then turns off toward the city.
Imelda is still gone. And Mercer, still alone, still awake and too weak for tears, is lost without her.
• • • •
He is dozing at last when the doorbell rings. He is warm under a blanket—this one, he knows, is magic, spun from siren song gathered by a sailor’s widow and sold on the moors at an unnamed festival held only on moonless nights.
In this meager cache of unconsciousness, he dreams of Imelda. It is the only dream he’s had since she died, a relentlessly repeating vision, but heartbreakingly brief, a splinter of her presence just sharp enough to make him bleed. She works a spell at her broad plank altar. Her thick hands occasionally grasp for a bottle or a book, and her braid swings as she moves, her silver stoneless wedding band glinting in dim candlelight.
But her back is turned. No matter what he says, how he cries out or reaches for her, she never acknowledges him. She never speaks.
The doorbell rings again.
Mercer rises. The ache in his knees is worse now—a deep, purpling species of pain. The stiffness that comes with a break, or bruised bone. The sort of injury Imelda could heal in hours with a cup of boiled water, a fistful of off-colored herbs, and a gentle murmur about his inattention, his clumsiness.
He peeks out the curtains—not magic, although their looping white lace always reminded him of the moonspider silk Imelda farmed in the attic for a number of years, before he begged her to stop. There is no delivery truck. No one is departing the porch or pacing down the concrete path past Imelda’s canvas-shrouded Miata.
Mercer opens the door, certain some neighborhood child has skipped school to amuse herself with a day of pranking the elderly. He is prepared to live up to all the child’s worst fears. He will shout. He will order her off his lawn.
On the porch are seven crows and a narrow, plain wood box, long as his forearm.
Mercer watches the crows. They hop back for him, give him space. They do not leave. Their heads turn. Their beaks twitch. They examine him first with one eye, then the other.
They all look at once toward the box, then one by one, back at him.
Queenly Corvidae, he thinks.
Mercer steps onto the porch. The doorway is lined with empty pots that once held Imelda’s herbs—thyme and tarragon and stalks of red-bloomed aglaophotis—before the winter killed them off. He was never good with plants to begin with, never good with pets or children. No wonder magic kept its distance.
The crows step back.
He picks up the box. The wood is unfinished, rough-cut, nailed shut. There’s a letter burned in the lid. A swirling, italicized, soot-black M.
One of the crows—the smallest—cries out, and all at once they lift off, across the porch, over the house. Away to where Mercer can’t follow.
• • • •
He lays the box on the dining room table. He traces the letter on the lid once, with his forefinger. Then he pries the nails out with a pocketknife from the kitchen junk drawer.
Inside is one spider-thin black candle, wrapped in strands of cloud-white hair and swaddled in red cotton.
There’s also single sheet of blue-lined notepaper, half-sized, folded in thirds. It’s the kind of paper Mercer keeps in pads on his desk, for taking notes during phone calls.
The ink, though. It is the brown of tall August grass and deep soil, of blood long centuries dried. It smells of bergamot and faerysong and familiar skin in sunlight, and it shimmers like laughter.
And the handwriting—oh, the handwriting. Mercer knows at once who it’s from.
If you’re reading this, thank the crows for me.
Magic is a gift. So is rest.
P.S. Please put my books back where you found them.
Mercer goes back outside. He sits on the bench beside Imelda’s barren terracotta pots and her Grecian bronze watering can and the sculptures of toadstools she made herself, out of clay from the river Lethe.
The cars and children wind their way back from the city, to the tidy rows of driveways and houses.
The crows follow, not long after. There are more of them this evening, clusters of ruffled black nestled together on the now-trimmed branches of trees.
Mercer gives them a smile and a single, heartfelt nod.
As soon as the sun fades, the wind picks up cold. Mercer goes inside. He lights the candle. The flame is a brisk blue, like a perfect sky breaking through a storm. The shadows it casts are vast as a lifetime; they engulf the kitchen, twirl down the hall and up the unfolded attic stairs, twist through cracked doorways and nuzzle into every carpeted corner of the house.
He can almost make out their edges, their shapes. If he squints, he can see a bouncing curl, a swing of wide-set hips. If he closes his eyes, he hears whispers.
And all at once, he is tired.
Mercer wanders to the couch. He sits. He pulls the siren-song blanket around his shoulders and watches the moths dance against the windowpane, bright as the fires below the Taj Mahal. He waits.
Without even thinking, he sleeps. In an effortless shimmer of magic, he dreams.
And the black candle, impossibly bright, burns on through the night, undiminished.