To This You Cling, With Jagged Fingernails

Edited by Julia Rios

July 2018

Your awareness of magic is dying, and now Grandma is dead, too.

The two losses are not directly connected, and yet they are.

You have felt the awful ordinariness of the world intrude upon you. Clouds are slow to form recognizable shapes. Animals are more reticent to speak. Maybe they smell the hormones that steep within your body and rot your ability to see and accept magic.

You’ve already watched your big brother’s consciousness of the extraordinary leech away, leaving him a surly, mundane teenage boy.

As Mom sobs into the phone and places call after call to relatives, you wish you could turn to your brother and bring up a dozen instances of “Do you remember…” of your times visiting Grandma, of the magical moments you shared, but you know he’d only declare you to be stupid. That everything is stupid.

Days later, you all fly out to attend the funeral. As the preacher drones on like a summer cicada, you think of how Grandma used to set aside the first cookie from the first batch as an offering for the household gnomes, how she whispered that the old white horse in the neighbor’s back forty wasn’t a normal horse at all.

How some people muttered Grandma wasn’t normal, either. That she was weird. Off. Crazy.

You should have talked to her about magic before she died, but you haven’t lived close to her in years, and mentioning the subject over the phone just felt wrong.

As the attendees shuffle to stand and sing a hymn, you realize that your hesitance to talk about magic on the phone is probably another symptom of its departure. You never used to be self-conscious like that. Shame and frustration bring tears to your eyes.

You see your cousins down the row, the two girls you once visited the beach with years ago. Together, you taught selkies the game Marco Polo. Now they resemble mannequins with factory-made expressions.

Grandma’s house is packed with family and strangers, yet still empty. Your brother speaks in glares from behind a counter laden with casserole dishes. Your cousins toy with their phones and ignore your existence. You may as well be a fairy, invisible to their eyes.

You wander and find yourself in the backyard.

Grandma was too sick to plant anything new this year. You stare, sickened, at the weeds that have overtaken the raised beds like thorny vines around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The wrongness of it appalls you on a deep level. Grandma’s domain can’t look like this.

You fetch the bucket and tools from the shed. Time to work.

As you do, you try to sing like Grandma once did. You loosen the soil. You rip out weeds. You tame the rosemary bush that would grow and grow and take over the whole world, if left alone. Its savory scent reminds you of cooking with Grandma, of her wondrous homemade pizza dough flecked with fresh herbs. You sob, and sing, and hate how your voice sounds, but sing on, feeling both brave and foolish.

Slowly, the fairies emerge. At first as mere glimmers visible at the corners of your eyes, then in full, all sparkly flash and rainbow wings.

“Where is she where is she?” they ask.

There is no question of who they refer to. “Dead,” you say, hacking at hard dirt as if you’re digging her grave yourself.

The fairies accept this with a thoughtful hum.

“You’re stupid.” Your brother’s voice causes you to spin around. He slouches in a suit that is both too big and too small. “You’re filthy dirty. Mom’s going to be furious. There’s not even a point in doing that.” He waves at the garden. “They’re going to sell the house, you know. The new owner will probably rip this out and put in a pool.” With that blow dealt, he shuffles away.

You turn to the fairies, only to find they are gone again.

You sob alone. Grandma is dead. This place, packed with happy memories, will be gone, too.

“I don’t want to grow up,” you say. “I don’t want to look back and think that everything magical was make-believe.”

The rosemary branches quiver. “Then don’t.” A black and white tabby cat slinks through a gap. You recognize him from past visits. “You have to grow up, of course, but believe what you want to believe. I do.”

“Didn’t you end up trapped in a car engine compartment a few years ago?” you ask.

“It was warm.” He strolls by, casts a final haughty glare, then leaps over the wall.

“Grandma, you acted like you saw and heard everything magical like I do. Like the other kids used to.” You speak, with the vain hope that her ghost might manifest in this place she loved best.

Grandma was happiest when the birds gossiped, when the gnomes drummed in the household walls. She was… like a child. She didn’t care if people thought she was weird.

Maybe your brother and cousins are using newfound adult logic to dismiss the magical.

Or maybe they only act like teenagers are supposed to act. Maybe all of adulthood is an act. One big, stupid act, as your brother might say.

You hum and summon the trowel to your hand.

You can act normal, too. Sometimes.

You can also cling to your magic with your chewed-short fingernails, as if to a sheer cliff. Just like Grandma did. Just as you have for months. Just as you always will.

Your cousins slink into the garden. They watch you for a moment, then one dons gloves, the other fluffs out a trash bag.

Did they come because they sensed magic?

Did the reason really matter?

Heedful, you sing as you continue to clean Grandma’s garden. One of your cousins hums along at a decibel almost too low to hear.

But you do hear, and smile as you wait for the fairies to return.

© 2018 Beth Cato

About the author

Beth Cato

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. Her newest novel is Call of Fire. She’s a Hanford, California, native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

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