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My mother told me once that being an Oliva meant measuring our lives in lengths of red thread. And probably, that was true.
But growing up in Briar Meadow meant I measured mine by the glimmer that appeared over the reservoir every year.
That was what they called the strangeness that settled onto our town for a week each October, a glimmer. Both for the wavering light that hovered above the water, and because it seemed like the right word for the flicker of magic that came with it.
One year, the glimmer stirred the air between neighbors who hated each other. Families who’d become enemies over fence lines and tree roots suddenly burst into each other’s kitchens, trading long-secret recipes for tomato sauce or spice cookies.
Another year, it was icicles that tasted like rose candies. My mother and I ate them all week, licking them like paletas, and tried to save some in our freezer. When the glimmer left at the end of the week, we found them vanished from between the frozen peas and waffles, and managed to be surprised. (My abuela called us fools for thinking we could hold on to Briar Meadow’s magic any longer than the glimmer let us.)
And once, it was the thorns on the trees and bushes around town. They grew so fast even I could sit still long enough to watch them. The wood twisted into shapes, some simple as a corkscrew curl, others intricate as the figurine of a deer, others as sharp as little knives. Sometimes we woke up to find blood dripping down the points, and we couldn’t be sure if someone had pricked their fingers, or if the thorns themselves were bleeding.
And maybe my mother was right about measuring our lives in red thread, because those drops of blood looked, to me, like the beads on the most beautiful shoes my family made. Red shoes, the kind everyone knew us for.
They bought other colors, of course, but it was the red ones that carried the whisper of a magic not so different from the glimmer. Our red shoes bore the hint of something forbidden and a little scandalous. Parents bought them for anxious brides, who then kissed their grooms with enough passion to make the wedding guests blush. Women had pairs made for class reunions, strutting into the tinsel-draped auditorium like queens. Husbands gave them to their wives before trips meant to celebrate twenty- or thirty-year anniversaries, and the couple always came back with their eyes glinting, as though they’d just met.
Well-crafted seams and delicate beading gave my family a trade and a living. But red shoes gave us a name. They made us infamous. They made us brazen.
Until they came for us.
Except that’s not quite true.
They didn’t come for us.
They came for me.
The first time Lala catches Alifair on the land, he is stealing crab apples from a tree that belongs to her and her aunt. Though, as it turns out, he will come to be theirs far more than the tree, or the land, ever will. The crab apple tree, along with all others on the plot, belongs to them no more than the house, each paid for by the month.
When Lala and her aunt first arrived in Strasbourg, they found that the stature and upkeep of the shabby wattle and daub had been much exaggerated by the friend of a friend. Lala stood in the shade of the roof, staring into the house’s face. The thatch hung so far past the walls that the whole structure seemed to be frowning.
We are new women here, Tante Dorenia told her. We bring with us nothing of who we were.
Nothing of who we were means Tante will not wear the dikhle, the pretty head covering of married women, not just because she is unmarried but because the gadje must find no sign that they are Romnia. It is for the same reason that Lala cannot even be called Lala, the name she has heard since the time she could speak. Now she is Lala only in Tante’s house and in her own thoughts. Everywhere else she must be Lavinia, her full name, prim and uncomfortable as a starched dress.
Whenever Lala asks why they left the hills outside Riquewihr, left where they buried her mother and father, Tante says, What we are, they have made it a crime in our own country. So we will go somewhere no one knows us.
When Lala weeps for her mother and father, as though she might call them from across the weed-tangled land, Tante whispers, We will always love them. We will mourn them. But we will not speak of them. We will hold them in our hearts but not on our tongues, yes? We will keep an altar for them and let their souls rest, will we not?
To all this, Tante is quick to add, We will not lose ourselves here. Because there is work we will do here. Not only for our vitsa, but for others.
The day Alifair appears, Lala spots him first. She shrieks a moment before realizing the moving figure in the branches is not a young wolf or a hawk but a boy. Older than Lala’s five years but still a child.
Tante runs out from the house, wiping her onion-damp hands on her apron and telling Lala to stop carrying on every time she sees a badger, that truly they won’t hurt her if she doesn’t bother them.
Tante stands beneath the tree.
“Don’t look at him,” Lala whispers, trying not to stare herself.
“Oh?” Tante asks. “And why not?”
“They’ll think we’re trying to steal him.” Lala keeps her whisper low, even if Tante won’t match it.
Lala may be small, but she’s old enough to listen. She knows how many gadje mothers and fathers suspect Romnia of being witches who have nothing better to do than steal their children.
Tante tilts her head to look at Lala. “And who exactly will think that?”
With a prickling of guilt, Lala realizes there is a reason Tante does not ask if the boy is lost, or if anyone is missing him. It is clear from his dirt-stained clothes and hungry look that he is on his own.
The boy’s eyes shine out from the crab apple branches, more feral than frightened, like a cat caught in a lantern’s light.
Lala barely knows anything of their neighbors, or of this place her aunt has brought her. But it seems enough like Riquewihr that she knows what would happen to this boy, or what already has. Farmers’ wives chasing him off. Merchants beating him to make sure he never comes back.
Tante sets her hands on her hips, tilts her face up to the tree, and asks the boy, “And what are you good for?”
Not a taunt.
A true question.
Without hesitating, the boy comes down from the crab apple tree. He has hardly set his bare, dirt-grayed feet to the ground when he climbs the great oak next.
Lala watches at Tante’s skirt. She winces as the boy ascends into the clouds of wasps that fill the space between boughs.
He plunges his arms into those swarms and grabs handfuls of oak galls, not once being stung.
He climbs down, jumping from the lowest branch.
Soon, Lala and Tante will learn that this boy knows how to keep secrets. Theirs, and his own. As young as he is, he knows how to fold away the things the world would punish him for.
He holds the oak galls out to Tante Dorenia.
Tante looks between the boy and the tree.
“Now that,” she says, “is worth something.”
Copyright © 2020 by Anna-Marie McLemore