By C.L. Polk
All magical requests come with a price. A girl with witchcraft, no friends, and only her mother’s bees to confide in will pay whatever’s necessary to keep the girl she loves safe.
I was somebody’s firstborn child, the price somebody paid for gold and a spotlight. I was made to be given away to a woman with the wisdom of the bees. Mama sends me to school with perfect braids plaited up tight, buys me new clothes each spring and each fall, and though she wards me against sickness, accident, or ill-wish, she doesn’t love me.
No one has ever loved me, not for my whole life.
Jefferson carries my schoolbag and my lunch (but never my book) and helps me inside Mama’s white-walled, tail-finned Cadillac, my kid-gloved hand nested in his big brown one. Every day we drive along the avenue that borders the park for miles. Mama’s bees gather and fly, greeting every flower with a kiss.
I watch the other side of the street, walled with buildings where the wealthy live. Their big windows gaze at the wilderness in the middle of a maze of concrete and steel. A lone figure walks in the building’s shadows, and I lurch over the front seat to tap Jefferson’s shoulder.
“You see that girl? Pick her up. She’s in my class.”
“Miss l’Abielle don’t pay me to be a school bus.”
“Have some mercy! Lucille’s my friend.” She could be my friend, if I stop in a big black car and ask her if she wants to ride with me. If I say just the right clever thing to her in school. If I say anything, anything at all.
Jefferson eases into the intersection. “We’ll be late.”
Lucille Grady walks on. One of her socks bunches around her skinny ankles. She lists to one side under the bulk of textbooks and composition books, the battered leather case holding her clarinet strapped to its bulk. A wisp of ebony-wood hair whirls from her head, floating upward against a breeze. Sunlight falls on her face, lighting it up gold as desert sand.
She is the smartest girl at Reardon Picking’s Youth Academy, and Mama would never let us be friends. As we pass I raise my hand, but she never looks at the car.
Zola holds the door open for me when I come home. I dash past her up the wide staircase, my soles thumping on the mezzanine’s carpet. The piano tinkles a snatch of Chopin as I grab the newel post and fling myself around it with unladylike haste.
Announced, I run all the way up to the fourth-floor working room and wait outside the entrance with my hands behind my back. The door swings open at Mama’s word, closing behind me with a click.
Mama wears an apron over a yellow frock with tiny hand-tucked pleats. Her hair’s set in beauty-parlor waves, and her nails are pale pink shells. She wields a pestle in a wide marble bowl and casts her frowning eyes on me.
“Is that how a young lady climbs stairs?”
“Do I have to send you downstairs to do it again?”
“No, Mama. Sorry, Mama.”
I wrinkle my nose and sort through the scents of rosemary, lemongrass, the soapy smell of lavender, the earth-dark smell of valerian. The pestle’s scrape as it crushes dried herbs makes my scalp smooth out and my eyelids droop.
I shake my head to clear the spell from my senses. “Who’s having nightmares, Mama?”
“Fetch the jar of passion flower.”
“I’m right? You’re making sleepwell?”
“Theresa Anne, you could tell sleepwell when you were five.” She points at the center table. “Tell me what you see in those cards.”
Cards lie in a cross on a square of saffron-yellow silk. Diamonds: ace and ten. The deuce of clubs, the lady of spades, and at the bottom, the eight of hearts. “Money coming from gossip from a visitor, and that invites talk about a woman.”
I squint at the queen. “Dark hair. Dark eyes. She’s not married. She’s a widow, but she’s not married. It’s you, Mama.” The ten of diamonds becomes a narrow building, the red shapes somebody’s windows. “The money’s in a house.”
Mama hmphs and sticks her hand out. “Where’s my passionflower?”
“But you asked me to—”
She snaps her fingers, stilling my tongue. “The passionflower.”
It isn’t fair. I stomp to the corner shelves, the wheeled step-stool rattling before my angry toes. The passionflower’s on a shelf over my head, drowsing in a deep brown glass jar.
She taps the other jars on the counter, her long pink nails tapping on the tin lids. “Put these away.”
I can move and talk at the same time. I pick up the jar of French lavender and shake it. “Mama, can you tell Jefferson to stop and give my friend a ride to school?”
“Your friend?” she cuts a glance at me. “What’s her name?”
“What do her folks do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell your friend to tell her mother to call on me.”
I cover up my heavy stomach with the jar. “They don’t live up here.”
“They don’t?” Mama huffs out a breath. “Her pa’s a factory man.”
Not good enough for me, she means. Or else Lucille’s mama wouldn’t be caught dead on our doorstep, to chat and take tea with the lady neighbors speak of with caution. “Can you please tell Jefferson to stop for her?”
“Not without speaking to her mama first. You tell her at school.”
I can’t do that when I never even say hi to her in the halls. It isn’t fair.
“Fix your face, Theresa Anne.”
“But it’s just a ride—”
“Enough. Go upstairs and tell the bees someone’s coming.” She flicks another glance at the cards. “And do your schoolwork. If you have to waste your years with that, least you can do is your best.”
The bees come home at teatime. They dust pollen on my hands, track it along the straight rows of my braids, then light on a dish filled with tumbled agates and fresh water to drink their fill. The hives dot the rooftop, surrounded by flowers and herbs that shouldn’t grow here, but under Mama’s hands, they do. I sit at a table next to the glass dome that fills the stairwell with light, the surface sparkling clear after a washing. Sunlight passes through the glyphs of protection painted on every crystal-cut pane with blessed water, pouring good fortune and safety inside.
“Lucille got three perfect scores today,” I tell the worker sister on my knuckle. I consult the textbook and copy another line in my composition book. “I did too. But Lucille’s already read a hundred books, and I’m only on ninety-eight.”
The worker sister flexes her wings, listening. The bees always listen to me.
“I need to think of the perfect thing to say to her.” I don’t ask for the wit to say the right thing, or the charm to make her notice me, but my tongue aches with the unspoken wish. I may talk to the bees all I like, but I must never utter a desire in their presence.