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Did they ever hex me? No. I was their brother.
I had eight sisters and they were all witches. Half were older than me and half were younger. My mom was training them to be a grand witch like her. I had the feeling that she didn’t care about me at all. She never had time for me because she was so wrapped up with my sisters.
They were horrible.
They used their spells to bully other kids and trick their teachers. They’d cast fire illusions on neighbors’ dollhouses and pets, which only the owner could see. And they’d laugh and laugh at the victims and their cries. I watched, a chagrined bystander.
Did they ever hex me? No. I was their brother.
I hung out with my dad, mostly. He taught me how to build a canoe, skin a deer, build a shelter. He didn’t say much and never anything about my sisters. He didn't leave our land. But him and my mom did seem happy together. He’d kiss her goodbye before we’d head into town. We’d wander looking for ice cream or ramen and my sisters would cartwheel in front of us, singing witch songs, stopping traffic, circling our mom. I was behind everybody, picking up the fruit they’d knocked over, apologizing to drivers. The whole thing.
As teenagers we started to spend more time apart and eventually I went on my first date. She lived across the river so she didn’t know about my horrible sisters.
I was really excited. She liked music like me and went to the French language school. And most importantly, she was a normal girl.
The date started well. We got basil ice cream and sat by the river. She was really pretty. I’m so used to people dressing like trees and rabbits and cats that it was a new world to see a girl with a blue and pink t-shirt. She asked me about hunting and I told her about the treehouse my dad and I had made to watch for the beasts that come to eat on our land. She was fascinated. I asked her to speak French and she said beautiful sentences with words like "Quel drôle de garçon!". I loved it.
Thinking about it now, that’s where my doom was sealed. Next she wrote a sentence in French because she wanted to show me her penmanship. I thought the lines and loops were pretty and orderly like a good carving. Then she asked me how to spell my name.
“I don’t know,” I said. I licked my ice cream. The thing about being exceptional is that you don’t know the ways in which you’re exceptional. Until it’s pointed out to you.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” she asked. She sounded concerned, the tone you'd use if somebody told you they'd enraged the river spirits.
“I don’t know how to write words,” I said, beginning to pick up that this might be one of those differences between my family and others. I decided not to mention that I can recognize several non-alphabet runes (which always seemed much more important).
She seemed unsure of what to say. She took the glummest bite of ice cream I’d ever seen.
“Are you homeschooled?” she asked next.
“Yes,” I said. I know real homeschoolers sit at desks with their moms and use pencils. But all my parents’ land is our home so it technically counts.
“And you didn’t learn how to read?”
“No,” I said. This seemed to be going badly. I furrowed my brow. “I think my sisters can.” I wasn’t sure but maybe that would reassure her. It didn’t. Instead she looked horrified.
“But that’s reverse sexism! Just because you’re a boy!” She looked around, like there was an audience. “It’s abuse!”
I stood, by instinct, surprising myself and her. I sat down, flustered. “Sorry. It’s not abuse. My family’s really good to me. I know how to navigate with the stars. I can recite the history of my dad’s family back seven generations and my mom’s back fourteen. My sisters and I sew together.” I made sure not to mention that I liked sewing clothes and they liked sewing hexes.
She was shaking her head. She said little. I wasn’t sure what to say either. Maybe when I got home I’d mention to my dad that I should learn how to read so this didn’t happen again. I wasn’t embarrassed exactly. But I didn’t like that this was how my first date went. The ice cream cone in my hand was sticky and I didn’t know where to throw it out.
She looked at her phone. “My mom’s going to pick me up. She’ll be here in twenty.” She looked up at me, finally. “She could help, you know. She likes helping.”
“Help me learn to read?” That was pretty nice. Maybe I still had a chance with her.
She gave me another one of her looks. “Help you get out.”
“Oh,” I said, without meaning to. It was, of course, out of the question. Who would my dad hang out with? Besides, if somebody tried to take me away, my mother would make them explode from the inside.
“No thank you,” I said in my polite voice. She ignored me and returned to her phone.
Her mom came, and the girl thanked me mechanically for a nice time. I wandered home. My eldest sister had dropped me off but I wanted to walk home to look for flowers on the way. There are lots of ones you can eat but I’d rather not say which; they’re pretty and I don’t want them to disappear.
I got home just before midnight. My mom was brewing something in the kitchen and asked how the date went. She beckoned me over and doled out stew from the eternal cauldron. I nibbled on my flowers. It was just her and me, which happened about once a year.
I told her the story and I could tell she didn’t like it. The brewing became furious, the fairy lights turned red. She asked me questions the way my dad would.
"You're confused. Why?"
I explained that she had been very nice at the beginning but it changed so suddenly.
She got a look in her eye. "Are you sad?"
"A little," I admitted. “We had been having fun. I kind of feel like I ruined it.”
She nodded. "Did you tell her about us?"
"No." I shook my head. “It seemed like she wouldn’t like it.”
She nodded again. "That was wise but insufficient." She turned and cast her voice into the trees, calling for my sisters. I could hear them stirring. Then she returned to me.
"You didn’t ruin anything. She ruined it by not treating you like an equal. She was not nice to you. Nice doesn’t count if it’s only when it’s easy. You cannot let people suspect anything is too different about us. Your father will explain tomorrow.
"You can learn to read, if you’d like. You will learn much faster than if you learned at her age because you were as dumb as her back then. Now you are quite smart. Your father and I would both teach you."
It was quite an outpouring from her and it meant a lot to me, to know she was taking me seriously, just like my dad. I managed to thank her before my sisters showed up.
They floated down from the trees and the younger ones crawled out of the earth. One or two were dressed as bats. All were giggling and cackling.
My mother repeated what I had told her. My sisters hissed and booed. She explained that she would talk to the mother, and my sisters were to talk to the girl. I felt my heart drop.
“Talk to” doesn’t mean “talk to” like speaking. I talk to my dad for hours every day. That’s good talk. They were going to turn that family into toads or mushrooms or something. That kind of talking to.
You should know that I never interfere with their magic. That’s their domain. If they hex the school principle, that’s their business. But this was my date. Suddenly it was my business.
“Wait,” I managed to say, while they were assembling their brooms. They all turned to me in curiosity. “Wait a second. Do you have to, you know…” I gestured lamely with my finger as a wand. I had never talked about what they do before. “Can’t you just threaten them so they don’t have to be newts?”
My littlest sister squinted at me. “Don’t you want her a newt?”
“No. I don’t. She wasn’t bad. She just doesn’t know about us. She thinks I should be like her. ”
My mother tsk’d. “We’d have to watch them all the time. And if they told anybody, we’d have to hex them too. On and on. We have more important things to do.” She turned to continue assembling her basket, dismissing me.
That was it. I had pleaded but my mother made the decisions. I would go to sleep and wake up to news that a local family had disappeared. If I went to their lawn, I’d see a little patch of mushrooms. She could have been my girlfriend.
But then I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw his solemn face, towering over me. I was taller than my sisters but he was still taller than all. His stony eyes looked down at me in silence. He smiled, in the small way he did. I knew what he meant.
I turned. “There has to be another way. I don’t want this.”
My sisters shrieked. “He doesn’t want this, he doesn’t want this,” they sang in a sing-song voice. My mother only stared down at me.
“If there is another way,” she said slowly, after the singing had stopped. “You would owe us all favors.”
“Of course,” I said.
“That’s after you handle the dishes and the cleaning all this week.”
“Yes,” I said, grimacing.
“And you must promise to not bring any more danger to the family.”
She grinned her witchiest grin. “We have a deal.” She turned to my sulking sisters. “Change of plans, my loves. Tonight we practice our memory spells. Finish the baskets!”
I couldn’t believe it. I had interfered in her domain and my sisters hadn’t cursed me. I realized I had been holding my breath and exhaled. I watched, bemused, as my mother stood on her toes to kiss my father. Then, cackling, she mounted her broom, and began to ascend in a spiral around us, my sisters following, spinning and swinging and dancing on their brooms. Then they were gone.
I turned to my father.
“I did like her,” I said. He nodded. He hugged me. He nodded at the dishes.
We worked away at them but my sisters still weren’t home by the time I went to bed. I slept in the hollow of the main tree. I was the only one to sleep on ground-level.
When I woke up I could see the scorch marks from my sisters’ return. I leaned out and at the top of the tree I could see my mother sleeping next to my dad. My dad was working away at something.
I rolled out and began making us all oatmeal. It wasn’t part of the deal but I really was grateful. I left it warming when my dad came down. He had a tablet and parchment paper. He pointed to rune after rune, and I practiced inscribing them. Then he pointed and made the sounds with his mouth.
It was a lot of fun. I wandered off to practice it in the woods, carving the runes into the friend trees. A. A. A. Later I came home and my mother gave me a big hug and asked me to show her. Then she showed me how to write her true name, so I could always call for help if I needed her.
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