art by Void lon iXaarii
by Stephanie Burgis
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."