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art by Void lon iXaarii

Clasp Hands

Stephanie Burgis grew up in America but now lives in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffeeshops. She has had over 30 short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and her trilogy of Regency-era fantasy novels has been published in three countries. You can find out more (and read samples of each of her novels) at her website: stephanieburgis.com.
The smallest witch hung over the banister, her whole body forming an arc of yearning, as the first of her mother's friends arrived for their annual feast.
"Bella!" It was Aunt Calliope, bursting into the house in a cloud of snow, wrapped up in a six-foot scarf. She was already unwinding the scarf as she spoke to her hostess, midnight-blue wool and white stars swirling around her round, comfortable body. "Terrible weather! That traffic, can you believe it...?"
But the smallest witch knew better than to listen to what Calliope said in those first, guarded moments. She looked instead, with her eyes half-closed, until she saw what was hiding underneath: the glimmer of gold filling the air around Calliope, and the tiny owl who hid, buried deep in Calliope's curly brown hair, blinking out at the smallest witch with a deep yellow gaze.
As the owl's eyes blinked twice, Calliope looked up. "And Katy!" She beamed and blew a kiss up the stairs, her long scarf dangling from her fingers. "Look how big you are! Is your mama finally letting you stay up this year?"
"Absolutely not!" said Katy's mom. The black-and-gold leopard on the back of her sweater seemed to arch and stretch in warning as she whisked Calliope's scarf away and hung it over Katy's favorite coat hook, the one shaped like an eagle's head. "She's allowed to wave hello to everyone, but then she has to go to sleep. School tomorrow--and don't give me that look, young lady!"
"Oh, poor sweetie," Calliope said, and made a sympathetic face. "Just another year or two, though--oh, look!" She whirled around. "It's Frigg! Can you believe I actually got here before her, for once?"
The door opened again, letting in more whirling flakes of snow, but none of them seemed to touch Aunt Frigg. She stood like a queen in the center of the doorway, glittering in white cashmere, framed against the dark night sky.
Katy didn't have to close her eyes to see the silver glow that surrounded this aunt's tall figure. Frigg had never bothered to hide what she was--not to Katy's sight, at least. As she took off her sleek, knee-length coat, Frigg didn't say a word... but she looked up at Katy with eyes that said: Soon.
Katy shivered with delight. Aunt Frigg had always, always been her favorite.
She clung to the banister as all the rest of them arrived, as wine glasses clinked and soft music played and her mother plugged in fairy lights against the dark. She slid down to her knees on the carpet upstairs, peering down through the bars of the stair rail at the living room below as the air filled with sparkles and women scattered across couches and chairs. More stools had to be dragged out from the closet, just like always, before the entire group could be seated.
"Why don't I ever remember how many we are?" Katy's mother demanded, and Katy mouthed the familiar words along with her while the other women cackled with laughter and sent showers of gold into the air with their wine glasses.
Everything else had changed this last year, until she had echoed and ached with loss, but this one night could be counted on to always be the same. She'd been waiting for it for weeks, squeezing her eyes shut against the dark, reciting all the familiar rites of the evening as if she could bring it on early by sheer willpower... as if the empty spaces in her house and heart could fill already in anticipation.
"Tonight," Katy whispered to herself. "Tonight, I'll bring them back."
Dishes gradually spread across the tables below, filling the air with scents of cinnamon and sugar, cooked meat, and exotic cheeses. Laughter sounded, coffee brewed in the kitchen, and less than half an hour in, as always, Aunt Jessamy turned off the classical radio with a cry of disgust. "Come on, Bella, live a little, won't you? Join the last century, at least!"
As half the women shouted in protest and the other half shouted in agreement, she stuck in a CD of her own. A woman's voice suddenly filled the room, shrieking and wailing over pounding drums until even Katy's mom was dragged up by the others to dance along to the wild music. Aunt Frigg danced like a white tiger, all cool, elegant grace and power. Aunt Calliope stamped with joy until the furniture rattled, and she shook her long hair until it whirled around her and her owl fluttered free, up to a high shelf where it could look down at everyone.
Longing built in Katy's chest, the loneliness that had built and built over months, until it filled her throat and she couldn't resist any longer. She slipped down one step, two steps, three....
"Oh, Katy!" Her mother broke free and hurried to the stairs, shaking her head. "What are you doing still awake? You should have gone to bed by now."
"But--!"
"No buts," said her mother, and she walked Katy all the way to her room with a firm hand on her shoulder. "Come on. You've seen everyone, and now it's time for sleep for little girls."
"I am not a little girl," Katy muttered. But her voice was drowned out by the cries from downstairs.
"Aw, poor Katy."
"Good night, Katy!"
"We'll miss you, Katy!"
The chorus of familiar voices only ended as the door closed behind her. Katy's chest burned as she padded to the bed and slipped inside. She could feel her mother listening as she pulled up the covers, laid her head on the pillow. She clenched her hands as she forced herself to lie still.
Next to her bed, the dull gold locket lay on her bedside table--her grandmother's locket, with a picture of all four of them inside.
"Almost time," Katy whispered to it. "She can't make me be alone any longer."
She waited until her mother's footsteps had moved away from the door. Then she slid out of bed, pulled up the rug, and pressed her ear against the floor.
"Is Katy really all right?" That was Calliope's voice. "It must have been a tough year for her, what with your mom and, well, Dan... it's hard to go from four to two."
"She won't let it break her." That was Frigg, her voice cool and certain. "She's one of us."
"Oh, she's better off without Dan anyway." That was Aunt Hannah, her words making Katy's shoulders tense. "Good riddance! Better no father than one who doesn't care. We all know that."
"Ohhh." And that was Katy's mother. "I hope so. I mean, you're right, and she is strong, but..." She sighed, and Katy, listening, scowled. "All I want is to keep her safe, but if you could see the way she looks at me, like she thinks I'm completely inept, or... no!" There was a slapping sound, her voice turning brisk. "I've done more than enough moaning to you guys already. Tell me all about your love lives instead."
"Well...!" began Calliope with gusto
The other women dissolved into laughter.
"Turn up the music!" Jessamy bellowed. "And pass the wine!"
Men--and women--were dissected and dismissed. Jobs were complained about. New careers were suggested. Wild plans for treks across the world were devised.
If she hadn't been careful, Katy might have fallen to sleep with her cheek pressed against the floorboard, the way she often had in the past, as the comfort of their familiar voices echoed below her, promising everything wonderful that waited in the far-off future.
But that had been back when she still trusted her mother to guide that future for her.
This year, she wouldn't let herself fall asleep, tucked away from everything important. This year she stayed awake until the voices quieted. Until the food was all put away and the real business of the night began.
She waited until midnight, until the clock chimed twelve. Then she eased the door open with trembling hands, careful not to make a sound. The light in the hallway had been turned off. She crawled, whisper-soft, across the carpet, carrying her secret supplies in her hands. She peered down through the bars of the stair rail into the living room below, where the fairy lights had been extinguished and only twelve points of lights shone in the darkness: the candles that had been lit around the central coffee table.
Katy pulled out a match from the matchbox she had stolen, shielding her own candle with her hands. But she knew her mother wouldn't see it, and neither would any of her friends. Not now. Now they were holding each other's hands in a ring around the table, with their eyes shut, and power rippled through the air like muffled thunder.
It made Katy's skin prickle and her eyebrows itch: the feeling of it rising all around her... and the feeling of her own power, rising within her to meet it.
I'm old enough , she told herself fiercely. She can't make me wait any longer.
" Enter ," the women below breathed, as one.
" Enter ," Katy whispered, and struck her flame.
Light erupted in a blazing sheet of flame around the table downstairs. The air shivered around Katy as she watched, holding her breath.
Then light exploded behind her eyes.
She cried out, dropping her candle. It fell somewhere into the blackness, but she couldn't see it anymore. She couldn't see anything but the light that flooded everything now, the internal fire that filled her eyes with flames.
"Little witch." A deep voice rocked through her whole body, echoing through every bone. "Little witch, calling me all alone. Little witch without a circle to protect her."
Katy couldn't feel the floor beneath her, couldn't hear her mother or her aunts down below. She'd been swept away from everything, but there were some things she still knew for sure, things she'd repeated and repeated in the last horrible year of nights, until her pillow had been damp and cold and she had fallen asleep with her hair pasted to her face by tears.
"I don't need my mother's protection," she snapped. "I'm old enough to decide things for myself."
A deep, rolling chuckle rocked through her body. "Are you, little witch? And what would you decide?"
Katy couldn't feel her hands or arms anymore, but she knew what she'd held looped over her wrist a moment ago. She had watched the others, all these years, memorized the ritual her mother had tried to keep so secret. "I have an offering for you," she whispered. "My grandmother's locket."
"Oh, how delicious," murmured the voice. "Such a clever little witch, offering me that which holds your heart. But should you give up such a treasure, do you think?"
"It's all I have," Katy said. "But," She drew a shivering breath. "It's not a gift. I need them both back, in exchange. Gran and... and Dad, too."
For a moment, Aunt Hannah's words echoed in her ears, sending sudden disquiet shivering through her: Better no father than one who doesn't care.
She set her jaw. Dad had cared. He had. It was only her mother who had made him go, who had turned him hard. She had fought with him late in the night every night, when she'd thought that Katy was sleeping. She had refused to call him back, no matter how Katy had begged, until Katy couldn't love her anymore.
She hadn't even saved Gran from dying!
"I need them back," Katy whispered. "But I'll give you the locket in exchange."
"Ah, little witch," the voice whispered back, "I'll tell you a secret. I'll take the locket, as you say, and you'll never be alone again... but that's because I'll be taking you, too."
"What?" Katy's breath stuttered in her throat. "You can't do that! Tonight--"
"--Is the night," the voice agreed, "the only night in the year when I can be called by the wise and the powerful for favors. But you've forgotten one thing, little witch. You had no circle to protect you when you called. And there's nothing so sweet to the palate of my kind as the pure and tiny flame of a little witch who hasn't grown into her power yet."
"No!" Katy yelled.
It was no use. Her voice disappeared into the crackling flames.
There was no one close enough to hear her. There was only the voice, laughing all around her.
"Try to escape, little bird, if you like. But I promise you'll never manage it alone."
Katy burned with the truth of it. She was all alone. She had been all year long: as she sat by her grandmother's empty hospital bed... as she watched her father's car drive away... and as she ran to her room afterwards, slamming the door against the sound of her mother's angry voice behind her.
A small pair of yellow eyes suddenly blinked at her through the flames. When she looked again they were gone. But in the distance, she heard a soft whisper... a sound like the sound of owl's wings flapping.
Katy stared harder, desperately trying to see through the flames to the room beyond. For a moment they flickered. Then they snapped back into place. She was locked away from the house around her, just as she'd been kept away from her aunts and the party tonight.
"Oh, little witch," the voice sighed. "I am glad that you called me. It's a long time since I've been so entertained. What fun it will be to devour such strength."
Katy blinked.
Wait.
Her mother had called her strong, too. And Aunt Frigg had said: " She's one of us. "
One of them: her wild and wonderful aunts, who had come every year of her life to fill her house with magic and wonder; who made her rigid mother actually laugh and dance and relax.
Katy had been stuck upstairs, as always, when they'd lit their candles that night. But the power in her had recognized their power when it rose to meet her, just as she had known all of their voices by heart through the floorboards. Because...
"I'm a witch," Katy whispered. "Just like them." And they'd been coming forever, for all of her life. So-- "I have never been alone."
She opened her mouth. She yelled through the flames: " Mom! Everyone! I'm here! "
A black-and-gold leopard leapt, screaming with rage, through the fire.
A brown owl fluttered after the leopard, growing as it flew until its great, billowing wings filled her vision. A white tiger followed after it, powerful and cold, while a giant, slithering snake opened its vast mouth wide behind them to show its dripping fangs to the flames. A raptor with jeweled claws led the rest of the animals, letting out a harsh battle cry in Aunt Jessamy's voice.
Katy recognized every one of them.
Hissing, yowling, hooting, and snarling, they threw themselves around Katy and pressed her between them in their circle. They beat back the flames with claws and teeth. As Katy felt their strength rise around her, she felt something new rising in her own chest--something with teeth and claws of its own.
She opened her mouth, and it growled through her throat, filling her with feral joy.
She tipped her head back and let it out in a roar.
"Next time, little witch," the voice sighed, as it faded. "Next time you call me on your own...."
But Katy didn't listen, not anymore. The house was taking shape around her. The creature behind her eyes was fading, and every muscle in her body ached with effort. She lay in the center of the coffee table, curled in a circle between the candles, and as she opened her eyes, she saw Aunt Frigg extinguish the very last flame with her fingers.
"There," Frigg said, and she wiped off her hands with an expression of distaste. "That's the last time he'll try that trick again, I think."
" Katy--!"
That was her mother's voice behind her, but Katy had never heard it like that before. When Gran had given her last gasping breaths, Mom's voice had sounded as dry and thin and papery as if it might shred at any moment. When Dad had slammed the door behind him for the very last time, Mom had screamed after him with rage.
But Katy had never, ever heard her mother cry.
Her skin prickled with fear as she turned, pushing herself up on the coffee table, following that awful, unfamiliar sound.
Her mother's eyes were the green of the leopard who'd raged at the flames. "I almost lost you," she said fiercely. "Don't you understand? I can not lose you, too!"
The rest of the women around them held still and silent as Katy stared into her mother's leopard-gaze. Memories shifted and clicked into place.
"Mom," she whispered. "This is for you."
She lifted her grandmother's locket and dropped the chain over her mother's head.
Magic exploded in the air around them.
Her mother let out a choking sob and snatched Katy to her chest, where the locket glinted gold.
Aunts flooded into action around them, hugging and kissing and exclaiming and scolding, until the house echoed with their voices.
Aunt Jessamy turned on the music again, while Calliope plugged in the fairy lights.
"It's still a school day tomorrow," Katy's mom protested. But she didn't lift her face from Katy's hair as she said it, and her arms didn't loosen around Katy's shoulders.
"Bah," said Aunt Hannah. "Who cares about missing one day of school when our circle is finally complete?"
Katy pulled back. "Really?" she whispered. "Mom?"
She didn't have to turn to see her aunts' wild, mischievous, frightening grins all around her. They were candles lit within her chest, filling up the last of the empty spaces.
Her mother sighed. She bit her lip. Then she gave a rueful smile and pulled Katy up to stand in front of her.
"Well," she said, "I suppose it is only once a year...."
And the smallest witch danced with her circle all the rest of that night, whole and complete in the darkness.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 30th, 2014

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