Before I leave you in this world, my dear, I aim to record what came to pass when your momma rode from the Nebraska Territory to Louisiana to the frozen shores of Lake Superior to bring to justice the monster responsible for shooting your father in the back.
I know you will have more questions than I will be able to answer in these pages. Some of those questions, your Nana Cat will be glad to answer, as she was glad to answer mine when I began to wonder about the world and my place in it. If our path is freer and easier than it has been thus far, I will bring you to the roadhouse where I grew up not knowing who my father was, and you will grow up in a family of witches proud and strong, and one day you will understand why you did so without a mother or a father. Why there was no other way this story was going to end.
You come from a long line of women gifted in a way that scares most folks.
It was not my intention for you to come into this world not knowing your father, and I sure as hell did not intend for you to not know your mother, but what I am about to tell you is an injustice the likes of which the world has been tolerating for so long as men have walked in it. Bringing you into that kind of world is nothing your father and I envisioned when we set out to start a family. We did the best we could with what we had, which was not much. I liked to think it was enough.
You will never meet your grandfolks from your father’s side. Fever took them in his eleventh summer, and he went off to live with his aunt and his uncle in Kentucky afterwards. Learned to ride horses and be gentle with them, to shoot a musket and skin a deer. Riding would have served him well in the army same as shooting and skinning would have, but he never liked shooting and he liked to talk about his time in the army less.
Your gran may very well sell the guns your father and I owned for the whole of our lives together, but I want you to know guns are not what you have to worry about when considering violence and the ease with which men kill each other. It takes little skill and less thought to kill a man. Disease works just as fast as a bullet. Faster, sometimes.
A part of me wishes you had something solid to show you where you came from. Wishing has brought me plenty in my life, to include trouble, but it will do me no good now. I was born too early for tintypes, your father earlier, and I do not believe your gran trusts photographs anyway. She thinks photographers are thieves.
You make an image of a thing, it takes a bit of its soul away, she used to say. That’s why wax figures are so dangerous, and why they are so common in darker magick.
I have always been interested in things of that nature. Dangerous things. I like to know if they are dangerous on account of common sense saying so, or on account of ignorance saying so. If I were the sort to lack common sense, I do not suppose I would have lasted the five and twenty years I have without greater calamity coming down on me. That is not to say I have not seen my fair share of calamity. You almost perished during the course of this story on account of my actions, and that is my burden to carry the same as I once carried you.
When I dream of you grown, I dream you have your father’s eyes, bright and blue and kind, some mischief in them but no malice. When I dream of you, I dream of him. I cannot help it. His ghost, I suspect, will follow you for a long time.
Your father was a tall man, and handsome, at least to my eyes. He did not talk much, and he talked even less about his life before the war. I do know he joined the United States Army in the fall of 1840 at the age of ten and seven, and seven years later when the call came for the men to go to Mexico and fight in the war he answered that call and went although he did not fight. Your father was a doctor, and a good one. His job was to patch up the men who did fight.
What your father saw and did while the Americans fought the Mexicans trailed after him even after he took off his spurs. He likened it to a dog he had fed one time keeping at his heel in the hopes he would drop another scrap. Having moments of violence in his past, he thought that meant he would always be a man of violence. Never raised a hand to another person in his life and never touched a weapon after he hung his up for the last time, but the war changed him.
Changed or not, I loved him. None of this would have happened if I did not love him.
According to the stories your gran told me when I was growing up, the roadhouse in St. Louis has been in the MacPherson family for as long as Missouri itself has been a part of the Union. As the story goes, the women in this family have always run a public house and healing and helping has always been in their blood, but the women in this family have always lived in fear of fire, as well. England and the New World may have doused the embers in the pits they used for burning witches a hundred years ago, but the tradition persists in Scotland. It drove our family out.
Perhaps your gran will give you a greater account of how the roadhouse came to rest in their hands herself, but the way I heard tell, one of her aunts married the gentleman who owned the place, and the gentleman did not die so much as he crawled inside a whiskey bottle and lived out the rest of his years at the bottom of it, which was just as well. If he had died before he gave her a son, your great great aunt would have had no recourse legal or otherwise for hanging on to the place.
The men in this family do not have the gift the women have. As near as I can tell it has more to do with the blood than it does with the body. Always in our histories, men have been responsible for keeping us rooted in the world. If not for them coming into the wilds aiming to tame it, we would have stayed wild ourselves, nettles in our hair and dirt for lip colour, and we would cease to exist. Such is the way of wild things.
I grew up in that roadhouse, wild with your aunts and cousins in the nursery while men gambled and drank and smoked beneath our twiglet dolls and pretend altars, wild from not knowing who my father was. You will have stories of your momma and your daddy both--I had only my imagination. In my imagination I drew pictures of highwaymen and wayward sons, troubled artists and rebellious heirs. It was only in the mirror that I was able to see traces of who he might have been. My hair was thick and black while my cousins had fine locks, red in the winter months and cornsilk in the summer, and while their eyes were big and green, their skin fair and freckled, my eyes were not so round and my skin would brown like bread between the equinox and the solstice. It would freckle, sure, but I did not have to protect my skin the way my cousins had to protect theirs.
My earliest memory is of that nursery. Sunlight from one window and the smell of the herbs from the back garden from the other. The rug beneath us as old as the roadhouse itself, older. If we aligned our tiny fingers with the piles, all of us in a circle, we could convince each other we heard the voices of the women who wove it, our ancestors, our blood. Girlhood is a magick all its own, and our girlhood was a shared one.
This occasion was one of dread for my mother. Even as a young woman, your gran had a strong jaw and mean eyes, but in the week leading to my first day of school she had stopped smiling and started snapping her fingers to get our attention, slapping our wrists when we slipped up in ways we were not to slip up. Pulling the glass across the breakfast table with our Will instead of asking would someone please pass the milk, or bursting into giggles in a silent room because we had been showing each other our thoughts. We were young, and we were careless. We were still learning to know better. Our wrists were red by the time the aunts lined us up in the nursery to sit between their knees as they combed and braided our hair.
My mother had to comb mine with a particular fierceness, as it preferred to fall in waves, and though she smoothed them with a wetted palm the baby hairs along the edge of my scalp would not lie flat. She stood me up when the braiding was done and held me still and called me her smart brave girl before leaving the room, leaving my cousin Aoife holding up our plaits side by side as if she had never noticed this before.
Look how dark your hair is Lily, she said to me. None of the girls could pronounce my name, Li Lian, given to honour my faceless father without identifying him.
It’s so pretty, said Aoife’s older sister Scathach, so named after the warrior woman of legend. Her hair was the colour of dish water, and I know she hated it for so soon as she was able to she began to work spells that would darken it until it appeared in low light to be the colour of blood.
Scathach was old enough then to help the aunts in the tavern downstairs, and old enough that so soon as a customer entered in the afternoon would one of the aunts shoo her from the room. Men were beginning to mean something to her, and not even a few nights earlier we had lain awake, Aoife and I, listening to childless Aunt Griselda holler at her through the walls about casting spells on men.
I didn’t mean to, Scathach had said, a quaver in her voice that had frightened the both of us.
You don’t have to mean to, Aunt Griselda had said. Men are animals, and if they catch you on a night the rest of us aren’t there to protect you, they’ll pick your bones clean. I ever catch you making eyes at a customer again, I’ll make sure you awaken the next morning covered in warts, head to toe, I swear on the four winds I will.
Though she had passed an hour crying into her pillow after that, the sound muffled through the walls but not enough to keep it from our ears, Scathach was all smiles and good cheer this morning, and after fingering a braid and patting me on the head she too left the room. Aoife and I were alone with our fresh braids and our uncertainty, and so we sat cross legged and facing each other. The creases in the palms of our hands served as a suitable enough place to begin our maps. When Aoife held her wrist up against mine, the milky blueness of hers was a shock compared to the amber warmth of my own.
Our younger cousins ran into the room then, excused from the breakfast table and with little to occupy them while we older girls prepared for the walk to the schoolhouse. It was not far, but I did not know the way and I would have to follow my older cousins in order to learn it.
Some lessons I could learn from watching the other girls, such as braiding a lilac flower into one’s hair to bring wisdom during lessons or sprinkling playing cards with nutmeg to bring the dealer good fortune. Physical objects can serve as a focus for your magick, and they can also make less obvious the fact that you are using your Will to change the world around you.
Other lessons I had to learn myself. There are lessons you will have to learn for yourself. Some, I hope like hell you will learn from what I have done and written here.
To look at you now, I am not certain which I would prefer--for you to resemble your father that you might feel at ease among your Scottish kin, or for you to resemble your mother, to have black hair and sharp eyes, to grow up tall and proud that I might recognize when you are grown. It does not matter to me which of us you resemble. You are alive.
My thoughts may seem scattered, and I suppose they are. It is a terrible consideration, that I will not be there when you first realize that you have within you this power and I will not be there when you first realize that you do not look like the children in your schoolroom and I will not be there when you first uncover the dusty books in the back of the grand library that whisper to you of dark things that once done cannot be undone. This is the best that I can do. I can hope I will return to you before you are grown so tall as to prove a menace to the candles and the salt piles on your aunties’ altars, or to attract the eyes of men who would take your body but never give a thought to taking your hand. But I am beginning to believe so far as hope is concerned, I am dead to her.
In place of hope I have the solace of knowing you will grow up among other girls who will come to know by and by that they are different, even if you must come to know that you are different in your own way.
In the schoolhouse it was easier to keep to ourselves, the thoughts of the other children being so loud and the attention drawn from using our powers to bring pencils or lesson primers to us paling in comparison to the thought of our mothers learning of our indiscretion.
Before I knew what it was to be a witch, I knew what it was to be different.
I had no say in the matter, but if I had, St. Louis would have been as fine a place as any to choose to grow up. At the time I was the age I imagine you to be when you are reading this, the state of Missouri had a reputation for changing, both its borders and the people within them. We girls heard bits of news from the men who would set out on the roadhouse’s front porch during warmer nights and used those bits to form a quilt of what was going on around us. Every day on the way to school we passed by the riverfront, where the men would unload the big boats and horses would pull crates to meet up with the railroad, and from time to time after school we would walk along the railroad to collect coins and horse shoes and other metal objects that had been discarded along the tracks.
It was during my fourth year of school, when I was near the age of nine or so, that I began to believe trouble and I were destined to spend our lives together. The teacher was focused on us for the time being, the younger children excused to the yard to practice their lessons or play, and I remember clear as yesterday a little blond boy named Daniel Chesterfield sticking his hand into the air and calling out without waiting for the teacher to give him permission, The railroad brought babies, too.
Our teacher was a thin woman with a long, sad face. I remember overhearing a remark that she was not much older than my cousin Scathach, and though she was a maiden she had the weary disposition of a crone. She did not want to ask Danny to repeat himself, this I could hear in her bones, but she did anyway.
The men who work on the railroad, Danny said. They all look like Li Lian.
No they don’t! I said, because the men who worked on the railroad were covered in dirt and coal dust and sweat and though I would not hesitate to dig in the dirt with my bare hands, I did not spend my days in that state.
Yes they do, he said, and then he put a thumb to the corner of either eye and pulled back the skin.
I threw my chalkboard at him then, which earned both of us time in opposite corners of the schoolhouse while the others completed their lesson and went outside to play. Danny would go on to enlist his friends in chasing I and my friends around the yard, pushing us down and spitting on us, pulling our hair and dropping insects down the backs of our dresses, and when I told my mother of Danny’s reign of terror, she said, You would do best to ignore that young man. He will get what is coming to him.
Waiting was not in my nature. If you are anything like your father, you will find yourself quick to make friends. If you are more like your mother, you will find it easier to lose them.
About the worst thing I ever did in my early life was curse that young man. Your gran was not pleased to hear from the schoolmistress that I had cut free a lock of Danny’s hair with a pair of sewing scissors I had hidden away in my skirts that morning, and when she asked me what I had done with the hair, I did not want to tell her I had mixed it with cow dung and dirt and deposited it in the gutter for the water to carry away. I had, so I denied having been anywhere near the boy. He did not attend lessons the rest of the week, having taken to bed with dysentery. I told your gran he must have drunk out of the river like he was not supposed to.
Maybe she could have proven I was the one who made him ill, and shown me the proof. She did not. She sat me down and told me malice was not the way to meet other folks and their own maliciousness, that the hexed would not recognize the hexing as a punishment just because I wished it so. They would recognize it as witchcraft, and that would be enough for them to string up the offending woman and set her alight, even if she was not a woman but a girl of only eight. That was why our ancestors left Scotland. That was why we had to be careful.
If I were born in Salem times and done to Danny what I done, they would have drug me in front of the judge and hung me right that afternoon. Eight is plenty old enough to die when the law thinks what you have done is rotten enough. Luck and I have always had an understanding, but I know now the fear your gran felt for me after what I done in the schoolyard. Killing Danny on accident would have made this a different story, and a shorter one. I would not be sat here writing this to you.
Danny did recognize it as witchcraft though he did not report it as such. I had cut a lock of his hair, after all, and there was no convincing him that I was not the one who had made him sick. When he accused me of making him sick in the yard in front of his friends, I told him in front of mine yes it was me who turned his guts to water, leave my friends alone or it will be worse the next time.
He never came near any of us girls again, but neither did anyone else come near me, for a time. That instance scared my friends even worse than it had scared Daniel.
My sweet girl, I hope so many things for you. I hope you find a good man, brave and kind, who does not stoop to fighting when the folks in town call you a witch. And they will call you a witch. That is what you will grow up to become, after all.
Folks respected your father for his part in the war almost as much as they respected him for his work as a doctor, but I know as much as they respected him, they feared I had him under a spell, that he was with me not because of love but because he had no choice. You will hear folks call love by many different names, but love and infatuation are not at all the same, and no matter how powerful the spell, a witch cannot force a man to love her.
You will also hear folks call the war the Mexican American War if you stay in Missouri, where a White landed man may still own slaves in 1859, the year I am writing to you. Perhaps by the time you are old enough to read and write, they will have started calling it something else, and Black men will be free. Perhaps there will be another war, bigger and bloodier than that war, so that they stop calling it anything at all.
I hear a lot of things other folks don’t on account of only being half White. That is not magick. That is ignorance. Folks mistake me for Indian if they do not mistake me for Mexican, and they cease minding their tongues around those they think to be beneath them anyway. I have light eyes same as your father did, and I suppose that frightens them more than accounts of my witchcraft do. Dark eyes in a face like mine would make sense to them, but light eyes do not.
Mexicans call the war The Northern Invasion.
More than finding a good man kind and brave, I hope that you grow up to be a wild one, that you learn to spit and curse and shoot a gun. This country is not kind to soft women. Maybe back east it is. Back east I hear they drape their women in lace and gild their homes and change their clothing a half a dozen times a day. St. Louis is considerable more civilized than the frontier, where your home would have been, where we do not have such things. I wish I could say the openness of the plains and the danger waiting on those who go out into it unprepared would be enough to make men kinder to one another, but I don’t think it’s in a man’s nature to be kind. Hard times make for hard men, and harder times are still ahead of us.
In my life I have met plenty of thieves, and I do not think thievery is a trait only lawless men possess. Back east, thieves want the same thing we want, but they want their consciences clean and so they take what they want without shedding blood. I hope you steer clear of lawless men. Plenty of them claim to follow their own codes of honour, but I will tell you how quick those codes vanish when such men find themselves threatened or worse, afraid.
I have to believe you will grow up to be better than that. You are the only good and pure thing to come out of all of this.