Maia got her mom a new body for Christmas that year. Her mother’s old body was just that: old, and it was beginning to crumble at the edges and wear at the joints. She was eroding, melting like a snow-woman in March. Lord knew she hadn’t been easy on it, having to work through her forties to support her daughter, on a horse farm no less, hard work. Her mom was in the autumn of her life, and she would need new bones for the winter ahead.
Diligent and determined, Maia had combed the dead wood for those bones. She and her big white ghost of a dog haunted the parks on dripping November days when the snow was gone and the ground was laid bare. Winter was best for bone collecting. Here a scapula, there a pelvis, everywhere a fragment of the spinal column that would allow her mom to stand up straight, finally. Her mom loved the wild; she wouldn’t mind having the hips of a deer, the jaw of a wolf, the legs of a rare wild cat.
And on Christmas morning, when she unwrapped the long oblong package (“Do you know what it is?” Maia asked, afraid she had somehow found out, the surprise spoiled; “I have no idea, Maia!” her mom cried), those bones ceased to belong to deer, fox, wolf, goose, and cat. They were Mom’s bones now.
“Oh, my gosh,” her mom said, pulling away the gray wrapping paper. “What?”
She was speechless, and Maia sat on the couch, knees to her chest, smirking, tears ready in the wells of her eyes. Her mom held the skeleton up by the string around its neck, and it revolved slowly, bones painted bright by the lights of the Christmas tree. They were rapt in the magic of the moment.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
The skeleton was alight with butterflies, like tiny figures parachuting down a cliff of bones. Their silks were crimson, electric blue, dandelion yellow, and fern green, covered in spots and stripes and fierce leopard’s eyes. Tiny owls made of pinecone leaves, corn husks, and acorn caps peeked out from within the rib cage. A bold purple flower bloomed where the heart would be.
In its hand was a scroll tied with flaxen twine, a letter for mom’s eyes only, the eyes of this body and not the next. And those eyes weren’t dry as she unfurled the note and began to read, pausing here and there to let her vision clear. What it said, only mother and daughter will ever know.
“Finally,” Maia said. “A new body.”
It had been a joke, sometimes a plea to God, sometimes a dream. Though Maia’s mom wasn’t yet fifty, she was prone to accidents, falls, and injuries. The horse that stepped on her foot and forced her to quit her job; the fall from the tree when she rescued the cat; the unexplained rash; the fracture in her collarbone; the pancreatitis; and the cumulative wear of all these maladies, the rearrangement of her bones and tissues as they compensated here and there for each new injury.
Maia, still living at home, the only other one now, had been there to witness them all. She had helped her, dressed and redressed wounds, and given her a shoulder on which to lean. She had seen it and so close were they that she had felt it too.
And on her new body, Maia had scribbled with a felt-tip marker all the cracks and breaks of her old body, each in their respective places as a reminder of things past. She was afraid she might jinx the new body with these scribblings, but she did it anyway. Maia had some strange sentimental attachment to her mom’s body, and reasoned that so would her mom. Maybe it was that she had nurtured it for so long, or maybe it was only that she was born of that body and had some subconscious love of it. Regardless, those fractures would be the link that bound two bodies.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t like it,” Maia said. “I thought you might think it was morbid. Creepy. That you wouldn’t understand.”
“No, Maia. No, I love it. Thank you.” She gave the skeleton a careful, awkward hug. “I’ll try to take care of this one.”
Lynn slept with the skeleton hung above her bed, mirroring her head to toe as she was down below. Maia had helped attach it to the ceiling with wire and nails, and as Lynn now settled into her hammock (easier on her back, though she might not need it soon!), she stared at the watchful skeleton, stirring slightly in the rising heat from the furnace. One of the butterflies detached itself and drifted down, alighting on her knee. She moved to brush it away and stopped. He could stay for now. She would allow it.
She fell asleep imagining herself floating upward, leaving behind the old body and inhabiting the new. It was a sort of falling upward, something she had somehow never managed to do. There was still time, she thought, and giggled just before she drifted off. She knew that what you fell asleep thinking about was often what you dreamed about, but the next morning she remembered only darkness, and she was still inside her old body. The one that was stiff and in pain. She thought of the moments ahead: the interminable walk to the bathroom, the hour of hacking and coughing, and the long road to wakeful awareness.
Before she left her bedroom, she looked once more at the skeleton on the ceiling and smiled. If anything kept her alive, it was her daughter.
Maia, believing in magic, checked her mom’s new body every day. She wasn’t sure what she expected, but she found herself staring up at it each day anyway, often in the morning with a mug of tea in her hands, or at night with an armful of cat. Sometimes, when the shadows came, she thought she saw a shimmer of movement among the bones. She waited and watched and eventually went to bed a little expectant, a tiny stirring of hope in her heart. But the next morning, all was as it had been. She looked at the tea leaves at the bottom of the mug—nothing. No future written there. The cat leaped away. And the skeleton grew old with dust and cobwebs. The butterflies fell, and though her mom kept them at first—all lined up neatly on her dresser—she eventually forgot her collection and they were swept away. The owls became haunts for spiders, and the purple heart flower wilted, the petals crisp and wine dark.
One day the following autumn, Maia went to her mom with a heavy heart. She found her in front of the wood burning stove, warming her aching feet and eating from a plate of soggy leftovers.
“Do you still like your present? From last Christmas?”
“Hm?” She was lost in thought or in pain, and it took her a moment to catch on. “Oh, yeah, of course, honey. I do. I love it. I dream about it sometimes. Though I need to dust it. Maybe you can get up there tomorrow. What’s wrong?”
“Did you ever believe it would work? That you would…”
Maia blushed with embarrassment and fled the room.
How could she be so naive, so childishly stupid? She threw herself into her bed, weeping. She was a fragile girl, sensitive, that’s what they said behind her back when they thought she wasn’t listening. Her grandparents, her brother, her father. They didn’t know what she went through, or what her mom went through. They were fools. She saw the light of a hidden world, and they saw nothing but the cold gray death of this one. So what if you had to be sensitive to see it? She was strong where it mattered, in that world they could not see.
But what if they were right?
What if there was no magic?
Maia thought of the dry, dusty bones hanging in her mom’s bedroom and grimaced. The bones she had collected and bound together by candlelight were merely the remains of a handful of animals, strung together into some semblance of a body. It really was morbid. Creepy.
She fell asleep wondering where it all went wrong.
It is a tragedy that we forget our dreams, for that night, Maia dreamed with a wisdom she did not yet have. Her slumbering self knew what was happening, knew that she was at the age when the world drops the veil over your eyes for the first time and you no longer see what you once knew was there. You begin to doubt, a contagion caught from someone older than you—someone already behind the veil—and the pestilence grows strong and black, pushing dark roots into your heart. The secret hustling and bustling of hidden beings retreats from the edges of your vision, never to reappear, and the world grows wider, stiller, a paler shade of green.
And life is never the same again.
Maia was coming into another season of herself, and her mom would tread into another winter with an old and broken body.
Maia’s mom fell again before the next Christmas came around. Her femur was fractured, and she spent familiar days in the hospital and the doctor’s office, and the bills piled up. It would be another small Christmas that year, not too many gifts, and a tree cut from their own backyard.
Maia helped where and when she could. She made dinner, took care of the animals, and she even cut the fir tree down when December came. She dragged it into the house, placed it in the rusting red and green stand, and strung the boughs with lights. Her mom helped put up the ornaments.
Maia had to add another crooked mark to her mom’s new body. Even though it pained her to see the skeleton hanging above her mom’s hammock (her mom refused to take it down), Maia felt sure that she should continue adding the scars of her mom’s new injuries. Keeping it up to date, as it were.
Really, though she would only admit it to herself in dreams, she had hope. No matter what happened to extinguish it, she always had a tiny flame burning inside her, a distant well of strength. Only dimly aware of it, she took a felt-tip marker and a ladder and climbed to the ceiling.
But the markings were already there, etched in black across the femur, just like on the X-ray.
Maia nearly fell off the ladder.
Maia told no one, not even her mom, as if a secret spoiled would reverse the spell. If that’s what it was. Could her mother have done it herself? That was impossible in her condition. Could her father have done it? He visited irregularly, occasionally helping out, fixing cabinets and doors. But did he even know about his wife’s new body? He didn’t seem to care much about the old one, so Maia assumed he didn’t. He rarely went into her mom’s bedroom anymore, and besides, he wasn’t the type of man that looked up very often. Maybe it was her brother, then, but she wasn’t sure he even remembered the bones. He had admired the skeleton that first Christmas, but had since never mentioned it.
But why had nothing else happened? Was this the extent of her power?
Maia had done her research. Necromancy, sympathetic magic, witchcraft, and all the knowledge of wizards past. She had checked books out from the library and ordered some specially from an online store. She had been careful to do most of the assembling on the right days, according to moon calendars and zodiacal charts. The stars were on her side. She wasn’t convinced by all of it—indeed, some of it seemed downright silly—but she didn’t want to take any chances. Only the best for mom.
Another Christmas passed and nothing happened. There was no transfer of vessels, no dreams come true, and once again Maia began to wonder what had gone wrong. Had she imagined the cracks on the femur, some self-fulfilling prophecy? She couldn’t bring herself to check. She was too afraid of what she would find.
She sulked into spring.
A foot of snow followed a week of early warmth, extinguishing the hope of a bright March. Her mom was besieged with medical bills and spent her days on the phone, bargaining for just a little more time. Even the animals’ spirits seemed dampened by the weather, and Maia slept late into the days, forgetting there had ever been a chance to fix all this.
One day, after a few inches of snow had melted, Maia’s mom woke her, pushed a walking stick into her sleep-weak hands, and told her to get outside.
“Walk,” she said. “For me. Take a walk where I can’t.”
And she did, wandering into the woods by herself, not even the dog to accompany her. The sun set the snow-covered world all aglitter, and she shielded her eyes from the glare. She had to admit that the snow was beautiful and the cold refreshing, even if she was ready for rich green grass and little buttercups, baby geese and the smell of worms in a rainstorm.
She was about to turn back toward home when a fox—the first she had seen in the flesh—darted across her path. She shivered and froze for a long moment, listening first to the fox’s footfalls, hushed by the snow, and then to her own body and its heartbeat, the one that had been with her since the beginning, the one with the tiny murmur in it, the slightest disruption in the lub-dub rhythm of her blood. And for the first time, she ceased to think of it as a flaw and instead heard in it some wild rebel call, a signal measured out in blood, an elfin drumbeat from beyond.
She ran home, not caring if it harmed her murmuring heart, and threw open the door to her room. She looked at the stack of occult books she had gathered long ago, picked one up, and tossed it against the wall. She laughed and threw another and with screams and shouts and wild howls of laughter, she whipped them around her room and flung herself down on the rug when she was done.
She thought of the fox and the beating of her heart.
If magic existed, it wasn’t in those books. The formulas, the incantations, the invocations of demons and angels—they were all nonsense. The witchcraft, the faith healing. If magic is real, it is beyond us, she decided, beyond our dreams and imaginings. Beyond rules, beyond reason. And why couldn’t there be something as of yet undiscovered in the wide weird world? Something, she dared think, undiscoverable. Unknowable. Unmeasurable, that was it. And she had tried to measure it, pin it down like a butterfly in a box.
So, she let go. What is, what will be, will have to do.
Maybe everyone had it wrong, everyone except the few who lifted the veil and remembered. Magic was not changing the world, but allowing the world to change you. It was not something you poured out, but something you let in.
“Mom!” she yelled across the house. “Mom! I have an idea!”
Maia tried to prepare her mom as best she could, but she was going alone, after all, forging her own path. None of her friends or family had been there before. She had no one to consult, no mentor, and she resolved never to need one. She had been alone most of her life anyway.
When meditation failed, and yoga because it was too painful (which somehow felt phony anyway), she resigned to joy. If anything were to happen, her mom’s body must be ready to receive it. She must be at peace with her body. That seemed reasonable enough, and what better road to peace was there than joy?
And so she taught her mom to love her old body, to live and laugh as if she had a new one already. They went to the hot tub garden in winter and soaked until they were wrinkled and faint. They watched old movies and listened to music from her mom’s childhood, old tapes dug up from the attic. They went to the arcade and exchanged a hundred tickets for a single stale Tootsie Roll, went swimming below the lighthouse on the lake, and one winter night, they wandered out under a new moon, and her mom began to dance.
“Mom! You’re gonna hurt yourself!” She laughed at her mom’s capering silhouette, a graceless shadow moving to a rhythm of her own. Evidently, Maia was doing something right.
“Don’t you feel it?” her mom asked, and Maia could hear her smiling. She was grinning like a puckish goblin, dancing in the snow-trampled grass.
Maia, stomach hurting from laughter, joined her mom, letting her body absorb the secret rhythm of the night.
“You can’t just cry until you die and never dance!”
Maia had a hard time not doing both just then. Her mom was a warrior, and her foes were all the drudgeries and disappointments of life. She endured; she survived, somehow. Every time. Despite the food and shelter, love and sweetness, it was this that Maia loved most of all the things her mom had given her: the heart of a warrior.
“I can’t remember the last time I danced,” her mom said.
“I hope this isn’t the last time,” Maia said.
And it wasn’t.
Lynn sunk into the sofa in front of the wood burning stove and wrapped her head in a heated pad. Maia had made it for her, in fact, and given it to her as a birthday gift one or two years ago, she couldn’t remember now. Maia had sewn it herself. She had taught herself to sew, because her mom’s fingers were too crooked and unsteady to thread a needle. She couldn’t even give her daughter that much.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Maia was supposed to have left already, like her brother, with a boy (or a girl—anything, as long as she was happy). She was supposed to go out into the world where there were bright lights and opportunities, youth and song. Maia wasn’t meant to spend her childhood in a house of illness, tending to a wrinkled bag of bones. Bones that weren’t even whole anymore.
She would have been fine on her own, she thought, with one or two of the animals to keep her company. Maia could have taken the rest and left.
She looked down at her veiny, bruise-colored hands and smiled. She was always surprised when she woke up and they still worked. She would miss these old bones. Somehow, in the past year, she had taken a liking to her body again. She stopped fighting against it and accepted her flesh for what it was. She felt self-compassion, and some odd presentiment of a life yet to be lived.
She endured, didn’t she, while there was work yet to be done, love left to give.
In recent years, she had become prone to these swift shifts in mood—her mind melting along with her body, she thought—but she was learning to enjoy even that. At least she would be happy half of the time. She giggled. Wasn’t she, wasn’t life, just one long running—tripping, falling—joke? If you could learn to laugh at life, then you might be able to live with it.
“Maia! Get your butt in here!”
Suddenly, she felt it was the most urgent thing in the world to tell her daughter to love herself, to care for her beautiful body even into old age. Never to give up as she had nearly done, because she might not have a daughter to remind her.
She rose, tripped on a cat at her feet, and fell, her head striking the wrought iron wood burning stove and bursting open into stars and sparks and a little purple flame that danced and danced away.
Maia found her and fell apart. The cats tugged at errant threads of her ragged pajamas. The dog was licking the wound on her skull, trying to heal it with her tongue. But there was no magic there, and Maia crumpled into a ball and wept.
Death wrapped the house in silence, but only for a moment. The world doesn’t stop for the death of one old woman. The wheel turns. And there was a thundering crash from the other end of the house, from one of the bedrooms, a sound like someone falling.
A sound Maia knew well.
The dog turned her head. The cats pulled back their ears. And Maia slowly stood and made her way through the kitchen and toward the bedrooms. “Hullo?” she called into the dimness of the hallway. She heard a shuffling, as of feet, and the flame inside her guttered and grew.