By: Sami Bolf
The ghost was back in their kitchen again.
When Riley woke up, her first thought was that the house had finally succumbed to disastrous ruin. Still half-asleep, smothered in an envelope of sweat, a vision came to her in flames; they licked at the back of her neck, covering her in pink splotches and burns like a sunrise unfolding. Vines of ivy crawled up her body: the curve of her ribcage, the hard-hearted bone of her hip, the length of her stomach.
The ghost sat downstairs and hit her head against the oven door over and over howling her dirges and elegies like usual. Normally it wasn’t much of an issue. Normally, Riley slept upstairs, under a pile of her grandmother’s ancient quilts, and ignored the ghost.
It’s the only way she’ll learn, said her roommate, a witch named Gemma.
Gemma liked to wear heavy makeup and possessed an endless supply of shirts with pictures and slogans on them. Riley was often fed-up with Gemma and her lazy, crumb-laden dishes, which sat in the sink and occasionally broke out into song, mocking Riley with high-pitched voices.
Just use your wand, sang a particularly obnoxious teacup. Riley didn’t carry a wand and didn’t appreciate the insinuation.
You could make us disappear with your fingertips, said the bright green plate that Riley hated. It’s the principle of the thing, Riley said. Gemma could use magic too, but I don’t hear you bitching at her.
Sometimes Gemma’s jeans had rhinestones sewn onto the back pockets and down the side, dotting her legs. During her more vindictive moments, Riley had to resist the urge to sneak in Gemma’s closet and pluck every single rhinestone off each pair of jeans, one by one, while she was sleeping.
A well-made quilt was supposed to be a harbinger of good fortune for witches.
It was a nice sentiment. The quilts always smelled like lavender and they never needed to be washed and Riley appreciated that quality of theirs. Who was she to ask the difficult questions anyway. Her mother was a witch and her grandmother before her and it was how things were. Nothing to be done about it. Riley was born into a family tree dotted with only daughters: her mother and her mother and her mother and so on. She had never asked if this was purposeful, though she suspected that it was. For witches it was difficult to justify coincidences. Not when, as her mother liked to say, magic always had its reasons.
“Did you turn off the AC to mess with me?” Riley asked.
“Yes,” Gemma said. She pulled the carton of orange juice out from the side of the refrigerator door and twisted the top off with her teeth. Her hip bumped against the door to close it. The refrigerator was painted a bright teal, as were the window panes, and all of the drawer handles in the kitchen.
“Why?” Riley asked.
Gemma leaned against the counter. She wore a white tank-top and gray sweatpants.
“Did you have a nightmare? You’re up early,” Gemma said. She lifted herself onto the countertop and crossed her legs into a pretzel. Riley knew little about Gemma, only that she didn’t like her family, and she didn’t like the coven either. But it was easier to live with another witch than a stranger, who could ask questions and cause trouble for them if something went wrong. All those old test-a-witch tricks had been debunked: if they dropped in water they would float. Or was sinking the sign of innocence in Salem? She couldn’t remember. It was more late than early, but Riley wasn’t one to argue.
“I dreamt of flowers, opening,” she said.
Gemma wiped at her mouth and then drank again from the carton. Orange juice dripped onto the countertop. Riley reached for the washcloth wrapped around the sink faucet, but Gemma pushed her arm back.
“Leave it,” Gemma said.
“Why did you turn off the air conditioning?” Riley asked. She used to consider chain-smoking as a method of stress relief before she started having dreams where her teeth turned yellow and she pulled them, one by one, out of her mouth with bare hands.
“I was trying to wake you up,” Gemma said. She slid off the counter.
“Why,” Riley said, again.
Gemma opened the refrigerator and the kitchen lit up bone-white and sudden. Riley looked down at her feet, skeletal in the artificial light. She shivered. Her back was pressed against the sharp edge of the pantry, where they stored belladonna and cursed sheep’s wool. She was reminded again of her dream, which had started to feel more like an omen. The house in flames. The ghost all aflutter. Gemma and herself, dead as doornails.
Gemma pulled a box of hair-dye out of thin air and placed it on the table.
HAIR LIKE SUNSHINE! The box said in big bold letters. SO EASY YOU’LL THINK IT’S MAGIC!
“I need a favor,” Gemma said.
Often Riley dreamt of teeth. Mainly her own: falling from her head like loose pearls. But she had one nightmare, over and over, about digging plants up in a garden. When she finished pulling up a tomato 5 plant, she looked in her hand and there was a tooth, instead, with a long, curled stem growing out of the earth. Grotesquely magnified, the tooth had sharp edges.
When the sun rose at dawn Gemma would be thirty years old.
“Gemma, you aren’t going to lose anything,” Riley told her.
“The wives told me it can happen earlier. That it happens all the time,” Gemma said.
“They were trying to scare you,” Riley said.
The older women of the coven were called wives by everyone else. It was treated like an issue of respect, a term of endearment or submissiveness or something, but Riley avoided even saying the word aloud to herself when she could help it. Wives. Wife. The wives. It was the kind of word that brought a sneer to your lips before you could stop it. It was the kind of word that could dismiss a person. You, the word seemed to growl, hey, you. Come here.
Gemma pushed the box of hair-dye closer to Riley. It fell to the side, revealing the image of a woman with pale hair and a small nose pointed towards their ceiling.
“You shouldn’t listen to the wives,” Riley said absently. She touched the box-woman’s face with two fingers. In the right circumstances any object could prove fatal, or at least, that was what her mother always told her.
“Are you going to help me or not?” Gemma asked.
In real life the box-woman was probably a nice person, one of those ladies who went to church and poured her husband’s whiskey before dinner and had a few kids, blonde and apple-cheeked and spoiled rotten. Either way, Riley envied her: a box-woman did not have to be a witch.
“No problem,” Riley said.
Silver light drifted through the windows and brought to life unreal shapes. Shadows became girls with pigtails and nice shoes who chased each other into hidden corners. Riley watched them wink in and out of existence, a line of paper dolls all strung together, as Gemma dragged a chair from the table to the sink and turned it to the side, away from the door. She climbed the chair and knelt down on its seat. Their chairs were painted a dark, deep shade of brown, like dried blood.
Gemma bowed her head and wrapped her hands together like the roots of a willow-tree. How often had Riley seen her mother kneeling in the same position? Twenty times? A thousand? Waiting for her magic to return, waiting for a god—any god— to give back what time had taken.
In the dark, Gemma’s hair was only the idea of hair, an ambiguous shape in the distance. Riley considered turning on a light but something uneasy and deep in her chest gave her pause. Instead she hunched over the small instruction manual that came with the box and squinted at the words until they sat up straight and recognizable. She reached around Gemma’s head and turned the faucet handles back and forth, waiting for water to flow lukewarm over her palm.
“Okay,” Riley said. She nodded to the sink and Gemma lowered her head into the water’s path. Slowly and methodically the water made every strand of hair dark-gold, heavy and wet. Riley brought the instruction manual close to her face and read the next line.
“Conditioner,” she said, out loud.
Gemma’s head jerked up, almost hitting the faucet.
“Can’t you just dye it,” she asked. “I conditioned this morning. If I do it twice in one day my hair will be greasy.”
“Those are the rules,” Riley said. She unscrewed the conditioner bottle and dumped it over Gemma’s head. Thick viscous matter oozed, tentacle-like, down her scalp.
“Gross,” Gemma said.
Her hands were curled around the edge of the sink, as though bracing herself for shock or sudden violence. Riley knew nothing about Gemma’s family, but she knew her own parents, who were harsh and unforgiving, like the earth. She read through the rest of the manual with ease; light trickling into the kitchen as time circled like a vulture—lurched forward—stood still again.
In her nightmare she kept digging until the entire garden was destroyed and she was knee-deep in dirt. Still, she found only teeth.
“Do you think we benefit?” Gemma asked. Her voice was garbled by the running water which spilled over her face and got into her mouth.
“When they lose their magic?” Riley said. Gemma nodded, flinging drops of water into the air.
“I don’t know," Riley said. "Maybe a little.”
She thought it was probably true, though she didn’t know for sure. Magic was about balance: counting every last grain of salt to ensure an even amount, leaving the earth a small treasure in exchange for digging up tree roots or wild plants. Every interaction was modeled after that form of exchange. The earth swallowed the bodies of witches burned at the stake for centuries and grew stronger and begat witches 9 made new in the dirt. And they were supposed to be grateful for it. A lifetime of carrying stones on their backs.
“I think the wives are worried about us,” Gemma said.
“About us, or for us?” Riley asked.
Gemma blindly reached up and patted her elbow in response. Her perfume smelled like blue raspberries: artificial and sweet-sour.
“Exactly,” Gemma said. “Sleep with one eye open.”
Riley combed her hands through Gemma’s hair. The conditioner began to wash out and slide down the drain. The sink filled with murky water, as gray as smoke. Toil and trouble, Riley thought. Gemma was singing, but she couldn’t make out any words, only a pleasantly unremarkable tune.
“Now,” Riley said. She picked up the bottle of hair-dye. “Do not be afraid.”
“Fuck off,” Gemma said.
In her dreams she dug until she reached the heart of the earth, which of course was her mother, baring her teeth like a dog.
“Want to talk about your dream,” Gemma asked.
“No,” Riley said, carefully spreading dye the color of crushed indigo over Gemma’s scalp. It was supposed to make her hair lighter, after all was said and done, but it was difficult to understand how, without magic. Gemma coughed, a combination of soap and hair dye. The sink water soaked into Riley’s sleeves and she stepped back from the counter and Gemma’s hair and rolled them up past her elbows. She wondered if hair-dye stained. If she was stuck with lilac petals for hands, she’d kill Gemma.
“Do you always dream of flowers?” Gemma asked.
Riley pressed her fingers against a clump of tangled hair bunched up near Gemma’s neck and imagined pulling it apart like thin silk, spun into a spiderweb.
“Most of the time I dream of teeth,” Riley said.
“Your own?” Gemma asked. Riley nodded before realizing Gemma couldn’t see it.
“Yeah,” Riley said. She’d lost track of the instructions a while ago, and the bottle of hair-dye was nearing empty. “Before. The stuff about wanting to see. What did you mean?”
“I wanted to know what we’d do without it,” Gemma said and coughed a few times water bubbling out of her mouth. “Magic. Just in case, I guess.”
She turned sideways and spat a lump of hair out into the sink. Riley gagged and accidentally knocked Gemma’s head into the faucet.
“Hey,” Gemma said. Water spilled into her eyes and she shook her head wildly. Riley’s hands were on both sides of her face as if holding her in place by the edges. They stood there together, Riley’s hands in Gemma’s hair, the sink close to overflowing; hair-dye spilling down the cabinet and onto the floor in multicolored, miniature lakes. Looking into the water, Riley half-expected to see herself in different dimensions; a head made of parallelograms or her nose a triangle. A dotted line drawn down her face to depict perfect and easily moldable symmetry. Instead, she only saw her reflection as it was: multicolored and miniature and wet.
“Sun will be up soon,” Gemma said.
Riley nodded and turned off the faucet. Gemma got down from the chair, her legs unfolding like a stack of cards.
“I’ll get you a towel,” Riley said.
Rose-colored light came in through the windows and gave birth to their kitchen. Gemma sat at the big table, waiting for her hair to dry wrapped in a weathered towel, a yellow notepad in front of her. Riley closed her eyes and pictured Gemma wearing veils covering her face instead. The veils floated in the air like Medusa’s snakes, quietly surveying the surroundings. She opened her eyes and sat down next to Gemma.
“I don’t get them. The wives,” Riley said.
“Why would you?” Gemma replied. “You’re young and powerful.”
“I’m not saying they have no reason to be angry,” Riley said.
Gemma didn’t respond. She drew a tic-tac-toe board in the corner of her notepad, balanced over her knees; she slid her pencil in the shape of an X across the middle square.
“You’re supposed to start on the outside,” Riley said. Gemma drew another X, this time on the left square in the middle row. “Hey,” Riley said, snapping her fingers in front of Gemma’s nose. “You know that’s not what I meant. About the wives.”
Gemma reached up and touched Riley’s shoulder, hitting her collarbone. She left her hand there. The room became breathless and quiet. Riley heard thumping on the inside of her head and did not understand the significance of the sound. Gemma continued to draw X’s, one after the other, until the entire notepad was covered in thick, traced-over lines. An endless race down the block. Gemma held the marker with her right hand awkwardly, like a child.
“It’s okay,” Gemma said. She squeezed Riley’s shoulder. “I know what you meant."
Sami Bolf graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in May of 2018, with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy, and honors in Creative Writing. She interned for the literary journal, Bat City Review, during the 2017-2018 academic year; as the Nonfiction Intern, she was involved with reading, selecting, and editing creative nonfiction submissions for publication.