I remember everyone being lit up in colors when I was a little kid. They wore vivid blues and pinks and greens and yellows. Everyone dripped in thoughts and feelings. They were painted with sky blue happy or scarlet red mad, thunderhead gray sad and bright orange excited. I loved looking at everyone wearing their hearts out like that, and mostly everyone had real nice shines. Then I met a man with no color at all.
That’s when we lived outside the little town of Misty, which hugs the line of Maximillian and the Southern Triangle, and still ain’t decided which one it wants to be a part of. We farmed orchards with apples and oranges and fat bunches of grapes, and Mama had a vegetable garden that spat out vegetables bigger than anyone else’s. She can make anything grow big and better tasting just with her hands.
We went to town with Mama sometimes, when she needed seeds or something else that couldn’t wait for Daddy to get the next day. We’d walk down the dusty dirt roads, until we got close to the center of town where the roads turned into big flat stones cobbled together.
Every time we went to town, Mama stopped and bought us a lemonade at the corner store. It was so full of sugar it made a little coating on your teeth, that you could lick the rest of day, still taste the sweet. Mama ain’t big on sweets, and it was always my favorite part. Carly always sipped hers all the way home, but I swallowed gulp after gulp until my throat seized up and sent needles through my head.
I was five the last time we ever went into Misty. It was real sunny that day, so bright I had to squint to see anything at all. We came on the man with a shiny black hat and matching coat right where the dust turned to stone. Under his hat, his face was pale and the way the sun was steaming off the pavement, it made his face blur, like it was melting right off. I squinted real hard, trying to see what kind of shade he was throwing off, but not a single color came off him.
“Mama,” I said and tugged her hand. Me and Carly was on either side of her, our heads right at her waist even though Carly’s four years older than me. Daddy says Mama and Carly are pint sized. Not like me and him.
“What?” Mama said, real irritated, pink with it. She got all nervous and twitchy when we came to town.
“That man ain’t got no colors,” I whispered.
His head turned real smooth and he smiled at me. Not at Mama and Carly, but at me. Underneath his glossy black mustache, his teeth were white and square and too big for his mouth. Looked fake. As we drew near, he bent at the waist like he was taking a bow, and said loud, “Hello, little girl! Would you like to see what I have inside my hat?”
“Yeah!” I said, tugged my hand free of Mama’s, ran towards him.
“Grace!” Mama snapped and hustled after me.
The man took his hat off one handed and turned it upside down, passed his free hand over it in circles.
“Grace,” Mama said, and I felt her fingers knifing into my shoulder. “Sir, we are late, no time for tricks, excuse us.”
“We ain’t late,” I said. “I want to see.”
The man dipped his hand in his hat and pulled out a fat white snake. It made an odd purring sound, and he looked at my Mama and smiled. I reached out and felt scales shiver soft and smooth.
“Come on, Grace,” Mama said. She yanked on my shoulder.
The man closed his hand around the snake and dipped it back in his hat, Then he pulled it back out, and when he spread his fingers out there were three golden eggs, the same color as the little bubbles of light that came from Mama when she sang. “Little snakes are most often vulnerable in the egg, just like little birds in the nest,” he told us.
“Grace!” Mama said, and this time she pulled harder, and I stumbled backwards, crying out ‘cause it hurt. My mad mixed with my hurt feelings and floated away red and orange.
I went with her, my head turned around to look back at the colorless man. He was still smiling away. He kept his eyes on mine and leaned forward and blew a tiny snake from his mouth that landed on the middle egg. It hammered its triangle head into the shell and disappeared with its tail flicking back and forth.
“Turn around, Grace,” Mama said, dragged me down the street. She held me so tight that I wore a purple wrist bracelet the next day.
“We never forget magic,” the man called after us. “Not the kind that turned its back on its brothers!”
Mama’s face got bone white and a real ugly color like wet ash circled her head. We didn’t stop again, not for seeds, not even for lemonade.
“Why couldn’t we see the magician?” I demanded. I was sparking yellow orange red.
We were on the dust roads leading out of town, and Mama stopped right in the middle of the road. She got down on her knees, looked at me and Carly real serious. Her color was a dark blue, twisted up with orange.
“That man wasn’t a magician. He was a snake charmer,” she said.
“What’s a snake charmer?” Carly asked.
“It’s a bad kind of magic,” she said. “That’s why we don’t tell people about Grace seeing colors. Or about the light bubbles when I sing, or that I have the gift of growing. A long time ago, there was magic in a lot of places. But there was our kind of magic, the good kind, and then the dark magic. The snake charmers. Now, they didn’t start as all bad. But sometimes they used their power to get things, when it wasn’t fair to other people. And then people, the ones with no magic, became angry and scared. So, they chased the people with magic away, wouldn’t sell things to them in town, wouldn’t allow their children to go to school, that sort of thing. And then even people with good magic started hiding theirs, because they didn’t want to get run off. Lots of the snake charmers died off. And the ones that were left, they had so much anger about being driven out, they turned mean as snakes. That’s why people started calling them the snake charmers.”
And she didn’t say nothing else the way home. We got sent to our room so she could have peace and quiet. I heard her tell Daddy about the snake charmer as soon as he got home.
She was all kinds of colors, flashing red and blue and black and gold in pulses. “We can’t stay here.”
“Julia,” Daddy said. “Maybe he was just a magician?”
“He had a snake come out his mouth, and crawl into the eggs the bird laid,” I said. I was still supposed to be in my room.
“Grace,” Mama said. “Room. Now.”
I went to my room and closed the door loud, then tiptoed back out to listen.
“Maybe he’s just passing through?” Daddy said. “He won’t want people to catch onto him. I bet he’s already moved on.”
“You don’t understand,” Mama said. “Charmers hate my kind. He saw me, I know. He heard what Grace said. He’ll come, and he won’t stop coming until he’s dead, maybe not even then, Nate. We have to go. Tonight. We have to run. I mean, I can grow anything. We’ll go south where they don’t mind a little magic as long as it don’t hurt anyone. We make a new home.”
There was a time when Daddy did anything Mama wanted. There was more talking but we left Misty that night.
It’s funny but as time passed I sort of forgot the whole thing, even the awful bumpy midnight ride down here to South Song. It felt more and more like a dream if it did cross my mind.
First time I said anything about colors here, Mama shook her head. “Grace,” she said. “It’s time to stop being fanciful. There aren’t any colors. It’s just your imagination.”
“No, it ain’t,” I said. “You made us move ‘cause I didn’t see no colors round that man, Mama.” “That wasn’t why,” Mama said.
“Grace,” Mama said. “Stop arguing with me right now. I don’t want to hear another word about colors, or I’ll tan your little behind. There aren’t any colors.”
Bout that time was when Mama seemed to be finding wrong with anything I did. It felt like being slapped, knowing she knew I was telling the truth and she was saying it wasn’t so.
I remember being so mad that my eyes stung with it. Ain’t nothing worse than trying to say something and being told to shush.
I tried not seeing them. Not talking about them. But two days later I saw a woman with a big belly, when we went to town to get some things. I knew the lady was growing a baby inside her, but I don’t get excited about that. What I got excited about was the bright pink web spinning out from her, clear into the sky. It was so damn pretty against the sky I couldn’t breathe. “Mama!” I pointed above her head. “Look at the color!”
Mama’s lips skinned tight against her teeth, turned pale white. She jerked my hand so hard I almost tripped. “Ssshh,” she said, tinted a real ugly maroon.
When we got home, she made good on her hide tanning promise. I lay in bed the rest of the day with my eyes shut. Whenever I opened them, I saw ugliness.
You’d think I’d never have said a damn word about the colors ever again. I didn’t talk about them, even to Carly. I tried to ignore them, and they started fading on me. It was tolerable enough, but sometimes I felt all hollowed out inside.
I was eight years old and two days when I seen Brian, a man my daddy’s age, doing his limp down the street. He had gotten bucked off a horse a year before and it did something bad to his hip. He got sort of mean after that. He was always stained with a dark red hue if I looked real hard. His daughter Marley went to school with us, a real skinny girl with shiny blond hair. I didn’t really know her ‘cause she was almost sixteen. But people knew her daddy was bad on the drink, since the accident. People always got something to say about stuff like that.
This afternoon, I couldn’t rightly see if he was on the drink, ‘cause he was wrapped up in black so dark it looked wet. Like spilled ink all over his paper white skin. He was muttering to himself, too, looked crazy.
I felt ice cold looking at him all messy like that. I crossed the street so we didn’t share the same side of the road. I went home and couldn’t eat. I kept seeing that ink cloud. It had me wondering if things like that could leave the person they was on and come after other people.
Next day, Marley was just gone. Her mama went door to door, banging away, asking had anyone see Marley. My daddy went to town, to join the men who were going to search for her. I sat at the table and tried to tell Mama, about the ink cloud.
“Mama, I saw Marley’s daddy in town yesterday,” I said.
“And he was walking down the street, and he scared me.”
Mama stopped and looked at me. “What did he do?” she asked. “Was he on the drink again?”
“I don’t know, ma’am,” I said. “But he had real bad color around him like a cloud of real black—”
Mama took in some air, and when she blew it out, it was mad and scared, red and blue gray. “Goddammit, Grace,” she whispered. Her eyebrows yanked down and a big fat line appeared in between them. “I have told you, and told you—”
“But nothing, Grace!” she roared. “Go to your damn room, right now!”
Mama tanned me again, worse. I stopped crying after the first couple licks, ‘cause this mad feeling just sort of took over. Ain’t ever gonna let her see me cry again, I promised myself. And when she was done, she was one crying. She knelt down beside me and she said, “Grace, this is for your own good. If you keep on talking about colors, people will get bad ideas. You have to forget about Brian, and Marley, and the colors. You hear me? You forget it all.”
There’s an old saying that there are some things better left forgotten, but that ain’t right. There are things you should never forget. I knew I was seeing something important, but even that feeling sort of drifted away, faded like dreams do.
I don’t like the new teacher. He smiles to greet us when we file into the big old school room that used to be a barn. It’s the only building big enough to fit all of us, from the little kids still wiping snot on their sleeves, up to the older kids who only care about making big dumb moon eyes at each other. When he smiles, one of his lips curls up higher on one side, reveals big square teeth. It tugs at something in my head, but I don’t know what. It’s like everything faded with the colors.
The colors are little ghosts of their old selves, all faded and barely there. They only show up bright if it’s real important. I guess looking at them sort of feels wrong, like peeping into other people’s heads. There’s some feelings people have that you don’t want to see.
But Ellison ain’t got no color, note even a hint of it, at all.
“I don’t like him,” I whisper to Carly.
Carly rolls her eyes. “Shut up and go sit down,” she whispers back – “before you get us in trouble.”
She shakes her hair as she walks down the side of the rows, like she’s getting it behind her shoulders, but she’s just doing it so everyone looks at her. She’s real proud of all that golden hair she brushes one hundred times every morning and night. She likes being smart, but she likes being pretty more. She about pooped a kitten when she was voted the prettiest girl last year by the boys. They wrote her name on a piece of paper with little stars and hearts drawn around it, and she crowed about that all damn summer.
I didn’t even make the pretty girl list, which Carly said was ‘cause I was too young. She was being nice for once, but I don’t care about that dumb list. You just know the girls who got excited about that are gonna pop out a hundred kids and get stuck right here in this dusty town where nothing ever happens. Me, I’m gonna be the first girl to ride to the North Border and back, just to show everyone I can. I’m gonna make history.
“I’m Mr. Ellison,” the man says. Then he tells me, “Put that chair down on all four legs, Grace Milliken.”
Then, he makes us change all our seats. We have to sit in the order of youngest to the oldest, which puts me in the front row. Stupid, ‘cause I’m four inches taller than everyone in the second row. The front’s for suck ups like Carly. I cross my arms and slouch when Ellison walks by, carrying a long, thin wooden pointer. He snaps it down on my leg right above the knee when he passes.
“Sit up straight, Grace Milliken,” he says.
I ain’t never been hit before by an adult, and I don’t like it. It hurts, but worse, everyone saw it happen. I sit up straight and fold my arms across my chest, hot all through my face.
Everyone sits up arrow straight then. Nick’s next to me looking out the side of his eyes and shrugging in sympathy. He ain’t half bad, for a farmer boy. Ellison gets up to Carly’s row, near the back since she’s one of the oldest. Carly raises her hand. “Mr. Ellison, sir?”
Here we go. Everyone loves Carly ‘cause she’s just so proper and perfect.
He already knows all our names on the first damn day. I don’t like it, not at all.
“Sir, I can’t see the board.”
I sneak a look back, see James the 1st directly in front of her. There are two James, and this James is the big one, taller than anybody in class. Being short like she is, Carly can’t probably see anything but the dirt on his neck. I snicker inside. Even if she can see, James the 1st’s daddy has a hog farm and he’s always stinking to high hell.
Mr. Ellison sighs. His noises are louder than his words. He’s that kind of person.
I’m really lookin at him, how even the color around him looks faded. I want to tell someone, but I can’t. Not anymore.
For being magic, Mama sure hates it. She can grow things just by touching them. When she sings, little bubbles of light float around her, but she pretends not to see them. My seeing colors ain’t as good, ‘cause I’m half ordinary like Daddy, but it’s mine all the same. Carly can’t do a lick of magic, but she’s perfect in every other way. Everyone thinks so, except maybe Ellison, ‘cause he just sighed at her.
That sigh Ellison makes, I see it hanging above Carly, see through but it’s thicker than the rest of the air. I sit up a little, ‘cause I ain’t never seen that before.
“Are you saying I’ve made a poor choice, Carly, with my seating arrangements?” He smiles, his stupid lip curling up.
Carly flushes like I did. There ain’t no right way to answer his question, and we all sort of wait to see what happens in the worst kind of quiet.
“No, sir, I was just- “
“Just what?” he slices into her mid-sentence. His eyes are squinted slits.
No one ever talks to Carly like that. She bites her lip, looking around, and I damn near feel sorry for her, but not sorry enough to stop thinking it was about time. A little humility’s good for the spirit, Daddy said, the first time I fell off a horse and cried like a girl. Makes you realize you ain’t perfect.
“No, sir,” Carly whispers. She’s staring at her hands in her lap. Her hair falls around her face. She’s real pretty, like Mama. She’s got little bones and big eyes, and big masses of long golden hair. Me, I’m tall and big through the shoulders like Daddy. Colored all different browns and tans, eyes and hair, average. I got robbed on that ‘cause his good looks don’t translate to my face.
“Are we going to have a problem this semester, Carly?”
He should let her alone after that, but he don’t. He ain’t smiling on the outside, but I think he is on the inside.
“No,” she says, real soft.
“Stay when I dismiss the others,” he says, and moves past her.
I feel bad, honest, but she’s always been a crier.
I forget my lunchbox on purpose. I want to hear what that big galoot has to say to my sister. Just ‘cause I don’t always like her don’t mean I stop looking out for her. If she’s got a fault, it’s that she’ll believe any damn thing people tell her. Three years she spent a whole week eating only potatoes when I told her they’d make her skin glitter. I heard it from this girl who had real pretty skin, said a boy up north wrote a song about it.
Or so she claimed. Me, I don’t go around just believing any damn thing people say.
Carly’s got her nose to the corner. I can see just the side of her face. Her cheek has old dusty tracks from the crying before. Ellison stands just a step away, no expression at all on his face. He’s talking real intense, right in her ear. His words come out little colored snakes of yellow and green that slither into her ear. I strain my ears trying to catch what he says, but all I hear is hissing. The hissing is making me sick, like I might puke so hard breakfast comes out my nose. I feel hot and dizzy, so I get outside, where everyone’s still sitting and eating. It can’t have been long I was gone, but it felt like damn near forever.
Carly don’t come out until I’m finishing my sandwich, trying to help my stomach stop turning flips.
She don’t look no worse for the wear now, and don’t stop to talk to me, so I mind my own business.
I don’t say nothing about the snakes and Ellison to anyone. I’ll just get tanned for it and no one will believe me anyway.
Carly nibbles at dinner and goes straight up to bed. When I get up to our room, she’s standing there in her drawers, pinching at her stomach. She must have been doing it for a while, ‘cause there are red blotches all along the top of her waist.
“What the hell you doing?” I ask.
“Don’t curse, Grace,” she says. She turns her head, looks at the back of her thigh. I see pinch marks there too. “I’m getting fat.”
I snort. “You’re real skinny. You’re practically a walking skeleton. Why the hell would you think that, and why the hell you pinching yourself? Ain’t nothing there but skin, and you’re going stretch it all out doing that.”
“You ought to start talking right,” she says. “Otherwise people will think you’re stupid. Anyway, it was just something someone said. Just forget it.”
I go to bed thinking about how everyone always wants me to forget.
What do you think of the new teacher?” Dad asks at dinner next day.
“Hate him,” I say.
“Grace!” Mama says. “Don’t use that word.”
“Well, what am I supposed to say? I do.” I stab my fork into my potato, which splits down the middle. Me and Carly love potatoes. We both put a big fat pat of butter inside them and let it melt into the white stuff. “Pass me the butter, Carly.”
“Strongly dislike,” Mama says.
Carly pushes the butter plate over without taking any. She starts cutting her potato into tiny pieces. She puts one in her mouth and chews slowly.
“Not hungry?” Dad asks Carly.
“Well, someone at school told Carly she’s fat, so she ain’t eating,” I say.
Mama frowns and Dad puts his fork down. “Who the hell called you fat?” Dad says.
“Well, where does Grace get it from, now?” Mama says to Dad, but it’s just a reflex. She looks at Carly. “Carly, is that true?”
“No,” Carly says. I see color in that lie, dirt brown, like shit. It’s the first time in a couple years I seen a color that ain’t all faded like old clothes and the first time I ever heard Carly lie.
“That’s a goddamn lie!” I say real loud. I’m mad as hell. I can feel a whole bunch of things twisting around in my chest, wanting to come out.
“Grace!” Mama snaps, and this time I see her face beet red. I don’t need to see nothing else to tell me she’s mad. “You go to your room right now!”
“But she told a damn lie!”
“Get in your room Grace!” It comes out as dull red pulses. Seems like whenever Mama’s got color, it’s always at me, and it ain’t never a nice color.
“This ain’t fair, she doesn’t even want to eat!” I holler, and stomp upstairs.
Dad comes up after a while. I paced around at first, but now I’m lying on my bed, still steaming. The bed dips when he sits down, rocks back and forth. He’s a big, solid man. When he wraps his arms around Mama she practically disappears. “Hey kiddo,” he says. “You know you can’t curse like that.”
“But she lied! You’d be pissed if someone lied on you too!” I glare at him.
“You sound just like your mama, you know. She was always getting all hot and bothered about something and getting herself in trouble.”
“I don’t believe you,” I keep my face buried in the pillow. “Bet she was perfect, just like Carly’s lying butt.”
He laughs real low, says, “Aw, Grace, no one’s perfect.”
He pats me on the head and tells me to come finish dinner. I drag my feet on the stairs so everyone knows I’m still in my feelings about what happened. Mama’s cleaning up and Carly’s sitting at the table, most of her plate in front of her. I sit down and glare at her.
“Eat, Grace,” Mama says without turning her head. Sometimes she knows what I’m doing without even looking. “And Carly, you’re not done until you finish your plate.”
I finish first, and get sent right back upstairs, which gets me mad all over again. Carly doesn’t come up until it’s dark, bedtime.
“You finally eat?” I snap at her, ready to fight.
“No,” she says. She goes to bed without even brushing her hair. I lay there and look at my breath, steaming out maroon. It takes me a while to settle down, get to sleep.
I’m seeing colors again a lot. I don’t like it.
Next day, Carly says she’s sick and won’t get out of bed. I go out with Mama and Dad and prune trees in the orchard, and then we all come in and play a game of cards. If I could see my colors now, I know they’d be all sky blue right now. I like it being the three of us sometimes.
“You giving up on your good looks?” I ask Carly, walking to school. She only brushed her hair a couple times this morning and didn’t pinch her cheeks or run her finger through the jam and paste it to her lips either. “You ain’t hardly brushed your hair.”
“Why should I?” Carly says. She’s walking with her head tilted to the side, like I do when I get water in my ear. “No one cares what my hair looks like when I’m this fat.”
She’s skinny as ever. “You ain’t fat,” I tell her.
“They say I am,” she says, still walking with her head craned almost to her shoulder.
“Who? What the hell is the matter with you?” I like the way that sounds coming out. Dad says that to Mama when she gives him a hard time about his ales at night. A sharp-edged joke.
“Do you hear that?” Carly says instead of answering.
“The birds,” she says. She stops and turns in a circle real slow. “Their wings. The talking.”
“What birds?” The road we walk to school on is bare of trees, just a dusty stretch of road leading to a dead end.
“They’re everywhere,” she whispers. “In here.” She taps her head. I see color starting to appear around her. She’s the color of fireplace ashes and embers.
I don’t know what to do or say. After a minute she just walks on.
I trail behind her, inspecting the sky for anything with wings.
Day 4, Carly don’t spell wicked right, leaves the c out. Ellison keeps her in for recess. I sneak in but he isn’t hissing this time. Instead, Carly sits at her desk, every part of her bowed over. He sits at his desk, with his fingers steepled together. His smile a mean curve to his face, and all the color in the room is gone. Not just from him but gone from the walls and books and plants.
“Something’s wrong at school,” I tell Dad. He’s started in on the dead orchard trees lying in pieces behind the orchard. He strips them of their bark, sands them down, makes things. He don’t never know what he’s gonna do until it takes its own shape. He says things want to be made.
“Bad wrong?” he asks.
Dad asks one question, and listens. Mama asks a hundred and don’t.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s Ellison. He hates Carly. He keeps her inside for lunch all the time and I think he says mean things to her.”
“Mean things like what?” Dad stops and rests his hands on the tree between his legs.
“I don’t rightly know the exact words,” I tell him. “I just know he does.”
“She tells you that?”
“I went back inside for my lunch first day,” I say. “He was in her ear, talking real quiet.”
“He yell? Or put his hands on her?”
“No, sir,” I say.
“But it made you scared? Or scared for Carly?”
“Made me mad, but made me fearful, sir.”
“Gracie,” he says. He put his hands on his hips. “Did he tell Carly she was fat?”
“I don’t rightly know,” I say. I hesitate, try to think how to explain it the thing I can’t explain. “He’s not a good person, Daddy. I can tell, you know I can. I think he’s bad. Real bad.”
“Gracie,” he put his hand on my shoulder. “I believe you. You know why?”
“You ain’t said a damn swear word this whole time,” he says. He smiles, but he has to work at it. “I’ll take care of it, kiddo. Alright?”
“Yes, sir,” I nod. I get a bad feeling, but I don’t know why. It’s sort of like I know I got a big boulder rolling, but I don’t know where it’s going. I don’t feel like talking anymore, and I turn to leave.
“Gracie?” Dad says. “You see any colors round him?”
We don’t talk about the colors since Mama said not to.
“If I see them, they’re not good ones,” I say, but I don’t wait to see his reaction. He wants to talk about colors if it was about Carly. That sort of sticks somewhere in me, but I ain’t going to tell anyone about it.
“What the hell did you say?” Carly comes at me, and I’m faster than her but the cursing froze me. Violet clouds erupt from her nostrils and scatter. It scares me, what I’m seeing.
“Hell!” I throw up my arms to protect my face, but she don’t swing, pushes me down on my bed instead. My head hits the wall, and I push back at her. “What the goddamn hell, Carly?”
“You tell Dad or Mama?” she snaps.
“Tell ‘em what?”
“About me getting in trouble at school.” Her eyes are jumping out of her head, crazy like her hair’s getting.
“I didn’t say nothing about you getting in trouble,” I say. “I said that damn Ellison is mean to you.”
“That’s getting in trouble!” Carly says. Big fat tears start slipping out of her eyes. “I ain’t nothing but trouble!”
“That’s a goddamn stupid thing to say,” I tell her. “Ellison say that?”
She glares at me. “He doesn’t say a goddamn thing to me, understand?”
“Liar,” I whisper.
She pushes me again, and this time my head cracks the wall good. All my air gusts out and I ain’t even mad. She’s lost her damn mind. I want to get good and mad, but I’m sort of scared to. I ain’t never seen someone shoot sparks from inside like she is.
“You just mind you own business,” she said, up so close her words lash my face. “You little spoiled bitch.”
I don’t say nothing after that. Don’t change into my bedclothes either. I just crawl under my sheets, pull them to my neck, and stare at the ceiling wishing I could make pretty colors that flowed and painted over the bad ones. It’s a long time before I close my eyes.
Carly don’t say a word to me walking to school. She walks the whole time with her head tilted, frowning. A kaleidoscope of darkness spinning webs from her. I wish the colors would go away.
Daddy comes walking into school just before lunch. Ellison sees him but don’t stop talking about the old Gods. Yesterday he said how the old Gods abandoned their people, left them with special powers that the people from before didn’t like. How the people decided they would get rid of people who were different, how they drove them off and murdered them and stole their children. Beat anything different right out of them. But he said there was something called full circle which meant that what goes around comes around. He drew on the chalkboard a snake in a circle eating its own tails.
But today he talks about the same stuff our other teachers did. About history, how often people used to worship their Gods, how some of them still have old paintings and books they read out of every day, blah blah blah.
Daddy leans up against the wall against the back of the classroom, his arms folded across his chest, listening. I sneak a look back at Carly, who’s either so mad she erased it off her face, or scared. I can’t tell but I feel smooth as a turquoise sea, ‘cause my Daddy’s a man takes care of things.
Ellison dismisses us and walks right up to Daddy, extends his hand. They shake hands, but Daddy takes a minute to do it. He holds that slimy hand, half the size of his, and they look each other up and down.
“Mr. Milliken, I presume?” Ellison nods at me, waiting. “Your daughter is a fierce likeness.”
“In more ways than one,” Daddy says. He let go of Ellison, looks at me. “Go on outside, Gracie. You too, Carly.”
Ellison’s lips skim his teeth, peel back. Both sides, but I look real close at his mouth and see the side that usually curls up twitching away under his skin.
I hate waiting. When Daddy strides out, he don’t seem no different. He says goodbye to Carly, kisses her on top of the head, then pulls me alongside him. He keeps his voice real low when he speaks.
“That man,” he says, just to me. “or any other, for that matter, is not to keep you or Carly at lunch or after school, ever, by yourselves. You hear me? He tries to, you come right home and get me. You understand Gracie?”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“Now go on,” he says. “I’ll be here to walk you girls home.”
I go in feeling smug, like I won, and then I see little tendrils of smoke coming off Ellison. He’s thick with them, and I feel more scared than mad just like that. All his face is tight, like it’s being sucked in, cheekbones knives ready to slice through the flesh and let the real him out.
He’s a man with no color. He’s a snake charmer. I guess I knew it, sort of. You know how you know something, but you ain’t ready to believe it? Like maybe your Mama likes your sister better, but you just pretend she don’t? It’s the kind of knowing you pretend ain’t there.
Me and Carly get sent right to our room so Mama and Dad can talk. Carly don’t want to listen, but I do. I press my ear against the door and I hear them talking real urgent. I wished I could see what their words are wearing, but I’m cutoff from what’s happening, and I hate it. I got to tell them about the rest of it, how Ellison’s got the black magic. I want to know exactly what is going to happen, so I can rein in this damn fear horse thundering through me.
The sun dips low before they call us down. Mama’s pinned her pale hair back and her eyes have gone from bright blue to dark. She’s fidgeting like I do at school. Daddy’s sitting sideways in his chair, elbow resting on the table.
“I know you two must want to know what’s going to happen,” Mama says.
“This is so stupid,” Carly says, crying. She’s got more of a water supply than anybody I know. “Nothing happened.”
“Hell, it didn’t,” Daddy says. His eyes are narrow in his face. He’s looking at Carly like he maybe wants to smack her, which I feel in my bones. “I don’t know what’s been going on down at that school, but you aren’t acting right, Carly.”
“Ellison, he’s a snake charmer,” I say. I’m so scared I’m shaking, but I gotta get this out. “I know it. He’s like that man we ran away from. He hissed snakes right in her ear!”
“You don’t know a damn thing,” Carly says. “You think you’re so smart, everyone does, but you’re not.”
“We’re not arguing,” Mama says. “We’re not even discussing. Until we get this handled, neither of you are going to school.”
“But that’s not fair!” Carly bursts out, hollering. “IT’S NOT FAIR!” and she just screams it over and over until it blurs into one long continuous color flashing desperation at us. Then her limbs go boneless and she flops onto the floor, crying. Mama gets down to her knees beside her.
“But it’s the only time the birds are quiet,” Carly moans.
“The ones in my head,” Carly says. “All day and all night, they beat their wings inside me and I can hear it in words in my head, they’re saying the most terrible things, and it only stops there, at school.”
Dad and Mama look at each other, over Carly unspooled on the floor. I think they might tell me to go to my room, but I think they forgot me. There’s only the three of them—the broken one, and the scared adults.
“What do they say?” Mama asks, real nice. Her voice molasses over pancakes, so sugar sweet it makes my teeth ache. “Carly, darling, tell me what the birds say.”
“Fat,” Carly whispers. “Ugly. Stupid. Worthless. Good for nothing. They tell me I’ll have to be a whore because I can’t do anything at all, and I’ll be bad at it, because I’m so fat and ugly.”
There’s a great crack through the room and we all jump. Even Dad himself, who looks at the big seam that now runs down the table. His fingers are white knuckles of rage.
Mama gets Carly calmed down, carries her to their bed. Dad paces. She comes out and she tells me to sleep in their bed with Carly. I tell her no, don’t leave me with Carly. I’m whining, near tears.
“You take care of your sister, now, Grace,” she says. She kisses me on the top of the head. She looks at me. “I’m awful proud of you, Grace. You’re very brave. Like your father.”
I go in and lay next to silent Carly, on top of the sheets. Her body curves away from me, a slivered half-moon against the sheets. I lay board stiff next to her, thinking about the whores. I guess I never did think about them before. I know about sex, and stuff. I mean, I’m eleven and I have an older sister who’s kissed boys but nothing else. I ain’t even sure what a whore is, except it’s a woman who does sex type stuff with lots of men.
I know that’s how we came from Mama and Dad too. Mama told us the first time Carly asked. We made you with our bodies, she said, and thinking about now, in their bed makes me feel hot and uncomfortable. They ain’t always quiet about it, but it’s always when I’m supposed to be sleeping, so I can’t rightly complain. But I feel odd, thinking about it now.
I get up and sit at the edge of the bed. I can hear Mama and Daddy talking about moving away again. Carly has her eyes closed, maybe sleeping. I reach over and brush her hair like Mama did to calm her down. She doesn’t stir but then my fingers brush up against something hard.
I tug it out a knot, but it’s not hair.
It’s a feather.
Carly pitches a fit this morning. I wake up when her feet drum the bed and little rat a tat tats run down her spine, which curves unnatural. I scream until Dad and Mama come. Dad freezes statue still, but Mama comes and gathers Carly in her arms. She starts to sing, first just a melody from words I know. Then the song glows and spins. The words stretch and change until I can’t recognize them, getting long and dancing around the room, rainbows spinning in little circles.
Carly’s body stops shaking and she’s limp in Mama’s arms.
Dad’s moving again, a big tree of a man trembling like a leaf. “Julia,” he says. “We should just pack up and go. Right now.”
“It’s too late,” Mama says. “He’s already got inside her somehow.”
Daddy’s twisting his hands together and they’re turning red. “What, then?”
Mama looks at him. “It won’t stop, Nate.”
“Alright,” Daddy says. “Alright.”
The space between them uncurls and fills with black ink.
Daddy leaves then.
Mama and I clean up Carly, starting with her hair. Mama gives me her comb and she takes Dad’s and we tease the ends out first. It takes some doing, but with slow small strokes, we get most of the tangles out without cutting it.
“Mama?” I say.
“Gracie?” she makes it a question.
“He did it. Ellison put the birds in her head. The first day. I went back to get my lunch and he was saying something to her, and I could see his words like snakes go right in her ear. I should have told you, huh? You could have fixed it?”
“Oh, Grace,” she says. She stops and hugs me right against her.
I’m as tall as her, and wider still, but she still circles me up somehow.
“I wouldn’t have listened, probably,” she says. “You know? Sometimes I don’t listen.”
“I know,” I say, and she squeezes tighter.
“You haven’t hugged me in so long,” she murmurs.
“Where’s Daddy?” I ask.
Her body goes stiff. She lets go and I don’t need colors to tell me she’s ashamed and scared and defiant all at the same time. I guess ‘cause I feel all them feelings too. I knew it when she told Daddy to go. I seen blackness stretched between them, the kind where there ain’t no light at all.
“He went to kill Ellison,” I say. I know it’s true. I feel a real blackness inside me too, thick and ugly, squeezed up round my heart.
“The connection has to be broken,” Mama says. “By any means necessary. You saw Carly this morning. She could die.”
“I ain’t saying its wrong,” I say. “What’s Daddy mean? It never ends?”
“You can’t make it go away, any kind of magic. It just takes another shape.”
“Why though?” I ask. “Why us?”
Right then, Carly sits up. She has half her hair smooth as melted butter and half a huckleberry bush. Her eyes are wide and there ain’t nothing in them. She opens her mouth and I think she’s gonna scream but birds start spilling out of her mouth. Blackbirds, owls, little gray and red plumed birds, too big for her. They come and come and Mama screams. I don’t think but I jump up and run to the big window. I shove it open, catching splinters in all my fingers. The birds beat their wings without stopping, going right through a window way too damn small for their size and number, but it happens.
Outside they caw and beat and their wings make a hard rain sound. It softens as they begin to move farther off.
Carly collapses back on the bed and lies still.
I miss my Daddy so fierce I could die right now.
Mama puts her head down and sobs.
I go to the floor and put my head down and don’t.
We all pretend things are fine, now.
Dad came home vacant eyed to Carly sitting up, talking. She didn’t remember a damn thing. Mama was petting her, the way you do a fresh kitten. I was squeezing my hands together, blind to the fact blood was dripping from all them splinters. Daddy was washing blood off his hands when I felt mine aching, saw the mess I’d made. I sort of gasped, and Daddy saw the splinters. He sat me down and took each splinter out like I might break, and when he was done, he laid his head against the table and sobbed.
We all broke in some way, I guess.
Dad doesn’t come home until late now. Sometimes, he smells like other women. Mama and he argue about it, and sometimes they make noise after but it isn’t quiet and it isn’t nice. Once I very clearly heard Mama say ‘hurt me, then’. I want to tell you he didn’t.
Carly acts like nothing happened. I asked her once what she remembered and she told me to leave her alone. I tried to see what colors lurked inside her but after I saw murder coloring my mama and daddy, I never saw them again. Carly’s been seeing this boy from the next town over who has a whole bunch of money. She says she’s getting out of this place.
I guess I’m different now too. I don’t feel like the same person. I don’t curse or see colors. I try to find them in people and places, but everything’s gone flat and dull.
I hear hissing in my sleep, and I’m afraid it’s not a dream. I dream about birds, lined up on house roofs, beady black eyes and sharp beaks. I dream of snake pits, dozens of snakes slithering over each other in knots and wake up with my heart running double time.
I found a black crow feather under my window pillow this morning.
If I’m really quiet, I hear wings fluttering all around.
I’m afraid. And I miss all the colors I cannot see.