Later, as they tried to pinpoint when the idea for the exorcism originated, they would all remember the same moment: the first time they heard their mother laugh, on a late Saturday in August, the air thick enough to chew before afternoon rain washed everything away. She was watching a TV commercial for kitty litter that featured a dancing cat with a top hat and a cane who shimmied across the screen, purring in satisfaction. Their mother threw her head back and gasped, exposing a pale pink scar shaped like a cross on the underside of her chin that they had never before noticed. They thought she was choking, and Mary ran to get the cordless phone while the TV cat took an exaggerated bow, until they understood that the vulgar noise being sucked in and out of their mother’s mouth was, in fact, a laugh and they knew the extent of their own power.
They’d found the book of spells at the town library, its pages whisper-thin and smelling musty the way they remembered their grandmother’s furniture had smelled. Timothy tucked it in the waistband of his shorts, beneath his Spider-Man shirt, as they forced themselves to walk slowly to the exit, Margaret waving to the frowning librarian who always sniffed her disapproval at their presence. The card in the front of the book showed it had been checked out thirteen times and they wondered which of their neighbors might be under one or more of its spells. One set of initials, CJH, appeared three times. They huddled on the bottom bunk in their bedroom, a fort of blankets over their heads, and paged through the book while Mary shone a flashlight on its pages. They passed by the fall in love spells and get rich quick spells and have a baby spells to reach the simple happiness spell. Perhaps if their mother were happier, things would be different for them all.
They had never understood their mother. She was serious, aloof, with none of the softness they saw in movie or TV mothers. They longed for her attention, but her focus seemed always to be somewhere above their heads or on the messes or noise they made. Outside of church, they went nowhere together. Their father, before he left, had called her a frigid bitch, which Mary had to explain to Timothy and Margaret after she looked up frigid in the dictionary. Without him, the house was eerily quiet, their mother even more so. They had followed all of her rules, then ignored all of her rules, then broken all of her rules. They were grounded, they lost privileges, their toys locked away for long periods, but their mother never even raised her voice. She remained the same regardless of their behavior: cool, silent, unreachable.
The happiness spell’s ingredients were listed like a recipe ahead of the instructions.
- 1/8 cup pond water-should be the palest green
- 3 yellow rose petals
- 1 tsp honeysuckle
- 1 tsp scraped moss
- 1/3 tsp cinnamon
- Dash of kosher salt
The directions instructed them to crush the ingredients with a grey stone into a glass bowl, then stir in the liquid counter-clockwise until blended. Hidden under the deck in the backyard they lit a candle as directed and chanted over the mixture as they stirred. Happiness in, sadness out, with this spell, be not without. Their mother had made vegetable soup that afternoon for dinner. Immediately before eating, Timothy knocked a glass from the counter so their mother would be distracted by cleaning as Mary poured the potion into her bowl. If their mother noticed a difference in the taste of her soup, she didn’t acknowledge it.
The transformation began the next morning, immediately following the full moon, exactly as the spell had indicated. They woke to her singing in an off-key, screechy belt. She, who had been so soft-spoken, now screaming along to songs with heavy thumping bass and wailing guitars she had previously referred to as a god-awful racket. She spun them around the living room, holding their arms and whirling until she let go and the momentum flung them onto the couch where only guests were allowed to sit. She twirled Timothy right into the coffee table, where he knocked a crystal vase that had been a wedding present onto the carpet, and they all held their breaths until they discovered it had not broken. He handed it like an offering to their mother, who lobbed it up to the ceiling, where it smashed and rained shards of glass down onto their hair, glinting like diamonds in the golden afternoon sunlight.
Instead of doing chores, she told them to play outside and when they forgot to take their sneakers off at the door and trekked mud onto the foyer rug, she opened the front door and unrolled the rug down the steps like she was unfurling a red carpet, saying it looked better out there anyway. They stopped making their beds to test the extent of their mother’s change and along with saying nothing, she ceased making her own bed. Rather than wash the sheets on Sunday, she ripped the top sheet from the bed and added more blankets from the linen closet. She welcomed them in to make blanket forts and jump on the cushy layers. The smile never left her face.
They loved this new version of their mother, but within days, her behavior shifted again into something more perplexing. When they opened the lunchboxes she packed for them daily, they began to find oddities instead of the usual dry salami sandwiches and bruised clementines: eleven tall rusty nails and burned matchsticks, the ten of spades and Jack of clubs from an old deck of cards, three used Spiderman band-aids with their brown blood circles in the middle, a single red feather that looked to be from the cardinal that had once lived in a nest in the giant oak tree hovering over their backyard. When they showed her these items after school, stomachs so empty she could hear them growling, she clapped her hands and squealed with delight that they had found her surprises.
Her hair, normally straight like Margaret and Mary’s, had begun curling like Timothy’s, wisps behind her ears and on her neck, moist with sweat, coiled up like tiny pigs’ tails. She leaned over a steaming pot whose contents they weren’t tall enough to view, ringlets framing her face as she inhaled and smiled. The kitchen suffocated like rotten eggs on a hot day and they held their noses and gagged but she looked puzzled, sweat dripping slowly from her temples in rivulets like perfect plump tears. It’s dandelion soup, she said. They ran outside when she held out a ladle for them to taste. In the backyard, they discovered an overflowing black garbage bag that held their toys they hadn’t realized were missing. Timothy’s racecars now without wheels, Mary and Margaret’s dolls with their hair shorn, all of their stuffed animals with jagged slits in their concave chests, as though someone had ripped out where their hearts would have been.
Their mother began telling them bedtime stories, all of them draped across her on the bed as they had never been allowed before, each of them touching a piece of her, shampooed hair leaving wet splotches on their pajamas and the faint scent of strawberries in the damp cocoon the four of them formed. There were no books, but their mother spoke with no hesitation. Once there was a little boy who found a magic marble that turned him into a moth. Once there was a little boy who lived by himself on an evil llama farm, with only the evil llamas for company. Once there was a little boy who had fingers on his feet instead of toes. In every story, after twists and turns that kept them riveted and anxious, the little boy died, and again, their mother laughed.
Margaret was the first to suggest that their potion had gone awry and they should return to the book for an exorcism spell now, and Timothy was quick to agree. They could not continue to pretend their mother’s behavior was not deeply unsettling. Only Mary hesitated until their mother, while supervising evening baths, asked each of them to show her how long they could hold their breath underwater, then, when they emerged panting, instructed them to immediately do it again, and again. They had tried first to alter their own behavior—one day speaking only in whispers, staying out of their mother’s way, the next day following her around, asking question after question. Their mother continued her bizarre actions, snipping the sleeves off all of their shirts and hiding all of their shoes. The strangled laugh continued throughout it all.
There were multiple exorcism spells in the book. They went in order, first trying to drape their mother’s cross necklace on her neck while she was sleeping, tiptoeing into her room just after midnight, guided by the light of the crescent moon creeping through the ancient threadbare curtains. She was lying on her back, arms beneath the piles of blankets, tight as a mummy. They did not know how to get her hands entwined over her heart as the book suggested, and she woke to them standing above her before they could begin the incantation. She told them story time was over, kissed them each on the forehead and said good little boys and girls should be in their beds or else she might give the evil llamas their address.
They attempted hypnotism next, telling their mother it was a school project to check her eyesight. They tied a long piece of yarn they found in their mother’s old knitting basket around a small rock from the driveway, and stood in front of where she sat on the fancy sofa, now dotted with spaghetti sauce after she’d insisted they eat dinner there. Her eyes didn’t follow the rock from side to side and instead stared, unblinking, at Timothy until he relinquished the string to Margaret and cowered behind her. Their mother’s pupils were massive, with only the hint of yellow-green surrounding the blackness. They told her she was getting sleepy and she replied that it was early and she was not tired at all, and the river downtown was angry and overflowing, did they want to try swimming today?
Their last exorcism option was to brew another potion, this time meant to be added to their mother’s morning coffee, so they slunk out of their beds again at midnight, this time meeting in the kitchen to forage for the necessary ingredients. Appropriate substitutes were listed if they could not find everything, but among the pantry, the refrigerator, the back yard and one foray into the upstairs medicine cabinet, they found everything they needed to add to boiling rainwater:
- 1 steamed cauliflower stem
- 1/2 tsp witch hazel
- 1/4 tsp cumin
- 2 crushed boxwood leaves
- 1 brown cap mushroom
- 3 crushed dandelions
- Pinch of minced garlic
They stood on the tips of their toes, Timothy on a footstool, to stir all of the ingredients into water in the tall pot their mother used for spaghetti, around and around until the smell rose to fill the kitchen with the same rotten egg scent that their mother had released a week prior when she’d offered them dandelion soup. Only Margaret dared whisper what they were thinking: CJH, the initials in the book? Cecilia Jane Harden. Mary shook her head; Timothy began to cry. She wanted to exorcise us? Margaret asked and no one could answer. The three of them lifted the pot and carried it to the backyard, where they dumped it at the base of the metal swing-set slide they no longer slid down. Clumps of cauliflower and mushroom and dandelion wilted on the packed earth, a small puddle of the potion splashing and forming a puddle in an overturned frisbee. Even though most of the liquid seeped immediately into the soil, they could still smell the stench as they stood over it, stomping the potion with bare feet into the ground.
Margaret wanted to tell someone—a teacher, a neighbor, their father, if they could find his new address their mother hid from them—but Mary was adamant that they stay quiet and wait to see what their mother did next. They’d stopped going to school because they could not go without shoes or sleeves. On the third day at home, when they sat in a row on the fancy sofa—Margaret then Timothy, then their mother, then Mary—watching nature documentaries for hours, holding their pee because their mother never seemed to use the bathroom and they didn’t want to leave her alone or be alone with her—the principal called to question their absences. They’re doing a science intensive with me this week, their mother told him, hanging up the phone, then leaving the receiver off the hook. All day they watched her, but she did not laugh or leave them lunchtime surprises or tell them a story before bed. Instead she ushered them into their beds, pulling the covers up over each of their heads and tucking the edges under tightly so they were pinned to their mattresses, their breath growing warm and stale as she closed their door and padded down the hall.
When they woke the next morning, she was not there. They searched every room, opened every door. The car was in the driveway, its engine cool. They biked over to the pointy wooden church and peered down the dimly lit aisle but she was not there either, so they returned home and called for her again as they ran from room to room. Everything was in its place but there was no sign of her. It was as though she’d evaporated into the air, and they listened for any hint of her in the breeze flowing through the open windows. Timothy again began crying, but this time Margaret joined him, big gulping sobs with snot running down her face.
I hypnotized her before bed last night, Timothy said. It’s my fault. He continued to cry. No, I did the incantations on her while she slept last night, Margaret said. It’s my fault. Her chest shook with the force of her crying. Stop, Mary said. I woke early and got the dandelion soup from the frisbee outside and slipped it into the coffee maker. Look, here is her coffee mug. They peered into the cup, empty and stained, sniffing for the sulfur of the dandelion soup, but they only smelled the orange blossoms now that bloomed in a glass of water next to the sink. Timothy and Margaret continued to cry. Had Mary managed not to exorcise their mother but erase her?
They sat again on the sofa all day, in a row, Margaret then Timothy then Mary, nature documentaries on the television, waiting for their mother to return. Timothy claimed he heard her walking up the gravel driveway, but when they looked through the picture window, only their car was there, unmoved. Mary made them dry salami sandwiches and peeled them clementines for lunch. In case their mother returned, they made their beds and put their remaining toys in garbage bags in the backyard, though they could not stand to cut their stuffed chests open so instead plucked off their tiny black plastic eyes, with which they filled their pockets. For dinner, Mary filled the spaghetti pot with pasta, sniffing first for remnants of the dandelion potion. She directed them into their baths, squeezing a soapy sponge over Timothy’s head then rinsing until all of the suds cleared and helping Margaret wrap a towel around her wet hair. Mary gathered them in their mother’s bed, all of them clean and clammy and fruit-fragrant, both of their arms and thighs pressed tightly against hers, for a bedtime story, again with no book from which to read. Once upon a time, there was a little boy and a little girl whose mother left them, all alone.
Katie Devine’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Pithead Chapel, trampset, and Peauxdunque Review, and is the 2020 short story winner of the Words and Music Writing Competition. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions and has received support from Tin House Summer Workshop, Sirenland Writers Conference, and Aspen Summer Words. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School, where she was awarded Provost and University Scholarships. Katie works in media brand partnerships and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Eliza Hamilton