Face

“I have a face laid waste.”

Marguerite Duras

Welcome to Mother Mal’s Elixir Den. May the sun shine upon you no more.

I sing this to the woman with the leather face who stands outside the door. She arrived just after dawn, hidden behind a velvet robe of the deepest purple, carrying only a change purse clutched by spindly bones. Not knocking, no, but waiting, for it is my job to let her in ever since Lita left. Without Lita . . . without Lita it is I who must usher in the desperate. The desperately old, but rich, of course, for they all come to see Mother Mal to get their faces fixed. But no one can fix a face, can they? And if it is fixed, why do they return? These are questions I would ask Lita, should have asked Lita, before she went away.

Come in so Mother may bless you, I say to the woman. She nods, the folds of her hood sliding away to reveal her face, dry, yellowed. The stretching has pulled skin so taut I can run fingers along it without hitting a bump. But that is never the worst. No, the worst is always the eyes—endlessly deep caverns, ready to swallow you as punishment for staring too long. If eyes are a pathway to the soul, as Lita used to say, then souls do not come to see Mother Mal.

A puff of air escapes the jagged crack of the woman’s mouth, pouring out odors sour and foul. Smells live here too; you get used to it after a while.

She glides past me into our den. I slide my tattered slipper until it sits just outside the door—as far as I will ever go—to peer down the alley. Tendrils of fog snake up the stone walls, lingering on the crumbling patches where weeds have pushed through. Distant echoes of carts and passersby trickle down the cobblestones, carrying word of citizens going about the business of living.

A chill dances across my neck, rousing my hairs. Is it an illusion, or is someone standing there, just down the alley, a figure tucked into shadow and fog? Watching the entrance to Mother Mal’s Elixir Den?

I resist the urge to call out to it. I slip back inside, close the door, and click the latch. The living have no place here.

My face leads me as I shuffle the woman along Mother’s hall of mirrors. Lita used to say that mirrors are a reminder of why you are here. Mirrors give you the courage to do what you must. What must my face do? It is round and puffy, red and shiny. My face is growing just as it should, Mother Mal always tells me. So I let it grow. Maybe one day it will grow so big it will float me out of the shop and into the sky toward Lita, wherever she is.

The mirror hallway guides us toward a towering gilded arch, like a tongue pulling us to the open mouth of Mother’s den, where the stairs of her spine spiral us down deeper and deeper into the earth toward Mother’s belly, below any basement in Marjoran, below the base of the mountain that frames the city to the east. The sun is skin’s great evil, Mother Mal always says, and no sun can follow us down here. No mayors. No sentry, either. Mother’s den is below all of those rules and customs. Only those who know can find us, and the number of those who know only grows as the years upon them do.

The damp earth jiggles as we descend, feet pounding the metal stairs, one clank after another, signaling to Mother we have come. She sings in response, a slow and sweet ballad sung in the old days of Marjoran before the war. The song lifts up the woman who trails me, filling her with life, breathing into her chest and pushing out hums perfectly in tune. Mother has a gift for memory, returning the lifeless to a time of wonder.

Welcome, welcome, to Mother Mal’s Den. You come to renew yourself again.

Mother starts to sing a new tune—her welcoming song. To this I can hum along, I know this one in the depths of my belly for Lita used to hum it as she worked, me at her feet, catching her shavings as she scrubbed the walls.

Welcome all who grow into the night. You come full of sorrow but leave a delight.

Mother’s voice is deep and heavy, and it slides down my throat like spiced mint tea, warming my insides and coaxing me further into the earth. The woman and I follow, silently, led by Mother’s song, until the stairs empty us into her den—a massive cavern, the ceiling lost above us in the darkness where light can’t reach. Along the walls sit kerosene torches, their fires casting flickering hues of orange and yellow that flit across intricately woven tapestries in all colors of the world above. In the middle stands Mother Mal, a glowing jewel in her beaded gown, stirring the cauldron over the stone fire pit, each swish of the bubbling liquid a punctuating note in her tune.

Welcome all for winter’s come. Welcome all to come undone.

We stop just before the offering mat, woven from golden fibers, set to entice those to give, as Lita used to say. Mother Mal does not look at us. Her satin gown alive from the torchlight, rows of beads and sequins each fighting for their tiny glint. Always so beautiful, Mother is. Lita used to say Mother has the most beautiful face. I know the woman behind me thinks so. I can feel the intensity of her desire wiggle past me like a worm, heading to the fire to be reborn. For you cannot be reborn without fire.

You are late.

Mother speaks slowly, just above a whisper, but the disapproval finds me and sticks to my skin. Lita would not be so slow.

I leave you, Mother, I say and step away.

Not today, Uma. Today, you stay.

I have never watched an elixir be born. Was always Lita. I was the scullery, the cloth my life, my only purpose to keep Mother’s Den a sparkling gem. I was content to be forgotten, always behind Lita, safely within her shadow. The cruelty of Lita’s absence, of what I must do, forms in my mind, a taunting shadow.

Mother turns to us, and I hear the woman’s gasp. Mother’s face is pure magic. The edges puffed, the valleys smooth, skin like the first dusting of snow upon the ground. Her eyes, however, are not their usual sparkling green but dimmed, slightly, since Lita left.

The woman falls to her knees on the offering mat. Her bones crackle in response, pushed to a limit.

Oh, Mother. Give. Give. Please, I beg. Give me one more. Just one more.

The woman scrapes her fingers across her face, tracing lines and cracks that have burrowed roots. These cracks grew on our journey down, as if she descended not to our cave but to an awaiting tomb.

Lita always warned me not to watch the cracks.

Bursts of sobs push up from the woman’s body, now bent in prayer. The elixir in the pot bubbles in response, stronger, heavier, ready to consume. Hisses whiz past my ears, and I imagine the memories trapped here are weeping with her, their wails pushing through the earth to join the rising steam of the elixir, adding their agony to its growing hunger.

I never wanted to watch. Lita never let me. But Lita is gone.

Mother Mal sweeps past to the crouched woman, her dress flowing on a breeze born of purpose. One lean hand is placed upon the heaving shroud.

Shhh, my child. Shhh.

Mother starts humming again, the old tune, weighted with history, hopes and dreams, terrors and sorrows. Mother’s song awakens the past, the bits of my life before bought me and brought me to the den, and I can remember the city, its shining glass spires and polished metal roofs, the whizzing of airships, the crowded streets of merchants, where I once hid, my job to steal scraps for the day.

My mind hums along, finding its place in the tune, following behind as it pitches higher and higher, up and up until the final trill leads to the fall, like the dawn past a night. The woman has stopped sobbing. Her face raises up to Mother, like a child, her child, come home.

Why have you come again? Mother asks.

Youth and beauty have left me. The woman’s voice is but a creak.

What is the beauty of youth?

Eternity.

What are you willing to pay for eternity?

Everything.

The opening ritual complete, Mother stands and places an arm around my shoulder. Her closeness, not warm, but frigid, its icicles dripping down my sides, shaking my knees.

Uma, come, to the fire.

The steady embers of the fire keep the cauldron’s contents a smoking heap, the pop and hiss of bubbles still resounding. Something foul seeps out, like old cheese, rotted fish, and burnt flesh. My nose itches from the steam that carries the stench. I used to smell it on Lita’s clothes after the rituals. She wouldn’t let me see her. Never could I see her. Not for days. But her clothes would be left in a pile for me to clean until she could return to the world, her face redder, tighter, used. Lita would never speak about the burning, only that Mother had taken and that it was our job to give.

How many years I watched pour over Lita until one day, she was no more. Her very existence but a memory, one that fades.

Now it is my turn to give, Mother has told me. I am not ready, I realize, as my limbs beg to break free and run up the stairs to breathe the air above, away from the smoky haze of Mother’s belly.

Mother is singing again, her deep voice louder, heavier.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

The woman starts singing along, and the flames jump and pop to the urgent melody, ready to devour the cauldron.

Mother takes my hand in hers. I can feel the barren waste between the rough-hewn edges of her palm, like leather left out to rot in the midday sun. The lie is always revealed by the hands, Lita would say. Mother’s hands are a lie, and mine start to quiver.

I do not want to, I say. Mother sings louder, drowning me out.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

I do not want to follow Mother. I want to return to the kitchens, where mold and mildew were my friends, my endless scrubbing for purity among the rusted silver my only thought. I was brought here for this, Mother has said, and I cannot leave until Mother wills it or a worse fate awaits me in Marjoran’s prisons. But I always had Lita to guide me, hold me, brush my hair and help me learn my way about the caves. Never was I a part of Mother’s rituals. Never had I spoken with her visitors. They come from all across Marjoran and even beyond, across the Saltis Sea, as far as the Barren Lands of the West.

Mother has both of my hands trapped underneath the rubble of hers. We are headed toward the cast iron cauldron and its smoking depths. Heat pours from the lip, uncomfortable heat. I will melt if I get closer, I know.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

We stand over the pot, the hiss, cackle, pop, groan. Noises flood my face, push down my throat, burning a path to my belly. I can feel tendrils snake within me, reaching for something I don’t want to give. My hands are in the liquid now, searing heat racing up my skin, melting it away. I want to scream from the pain, but I can’t, I can only cry, for worse than the heat, and the burning, and the melting, is the sorrow. Something is being taken. Something from deep within my bones. I feel it leave with the heat, pouring out of me with my breath, leaving only darkness.

Cold stone on my cheek.

My body lies on the polished black slate of Mother Mal’s den. Have I slept? Have I died and returned?

All I know is that Mother Mal is done with me. I can feel my face deflate, one less breath of life from within me. I open my eyes and see my hands splayed before me—raw, bloody, skin hanging in tatters, only portions left that cling to bone. There is no more pain, only waste.

They regrow, you know, I hear Lita say in my head, at first they regrow.

I sit up, my tunic looser than it was before, as if part of my body was taken. I watch as my skin smoothes over sharp edges, filling in cracks and bringing back life, filling out my hands, tightening once again around my fingers, but yet no sensation.

What happens when they don’t regrow, I had asked Lita. My voice small then, still unformed. Did she answer? I cannot remember.

Mother Mal turns to the woman. I have given you my dearest. What are you willing to give?

I am not Mother’s dearest. Lita was her dearest.

I bring you my fondest memory, the woman says. Her face is wet, liquid seeping from her dark caverns.

Only that which you most admire.

Yes, Mother.

What you must pay to be admired.

Yes, Mother.

The woman lifts up her hands in prayer.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

The singing is so loud it bounces off the stone, following Mother back to the cauldron where she scoops elixir into a glass jeweled jar, carrying it to the woman, cupped in her hands like an offering. The woman must drink. She must ingest what has been given.

Now you give to me, Mother says.

The woman lifts up her hands and Mother pours the liquid into her open mouth. At first, nothing, not even a swallow, but then I see it, escaping, a thin yellow cloud pulsating, alive. It slithers from the woman’s mouth and weaves through the air, growing, glowing, sending an energy that feels light, almost joyous.

A memory.

It flits through the air above me, and I catch its tail, pulling myself in.

A hand tickles my belly as I roll in the grass, bright green, damp and dew-crusted, the smell of fresh dirt invading my lungs. I lie in tall grass, but not alone, and I laugh and laugh. Hands wrap around my stomach and pull me close, a hand now around my neck, edging me forward to soft lips. I let myself relax and my body tingles, alive. I open my eyes and see deep, rich brown eyes peering back. Somewhere birds are conversing, and wind whips leaves like a flutter of trumpets, but this kiss is all I want, and it lasts while my body melts into the ground.

Words of love, promises, a future, impossible words but true, carrying feelings that breathe into my skin and all I know is I want to stay here and feel this love.

I must hold on to this. Forever.

The memory slips through my fingers, lost. It snakes into Mother’s open mouth, filling her up like the airships that glide above the city in the clouds. And then, gone, as quickly as it came.

Love. Peace. I have never known either, only soap and water on black stone, straw mats, tattered shirts, the food scraps Mother won’t eat. How I long for the light. But the memory was never mine. It was hers. Now a piece of this woman is gone, into Mother where it doesn’t belong. I look at the woman’s hunched form bent at sharp angles underneath her purple robes. A heaving mass, groaning, growing, until she stands, and her hood drops away from her face.

A glorious face.

The hollow eyes have defined into a sea of blue waves with white crests, her skin puffed out, red hot, a newborn entering the world. But her joy is gone. That love I felt, I cannot see in her newborn eyes. Why did she let it go?

I hold up my hands, framing her face within my open palms. We are the same. Her face is me.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

Mother continues singing, one open palm held out. The woman hands over a shining signet ring, a ruby, perhaps, and Mother places it on the shelf next to other once-valuable trinkets. But this is not the real payment, no. I try to recreate the woman’s memory in my mind, to haul it in, to make it mine. Grass and wind and kisses. But the feeling is gone. It is in Mother, somewhere, kept alive. What does she do with them, the memories? Do they keep her warm?

Mother says no more, so I lead the woman back out of the belly and up the stairs. The mirrors await, but I do not let myself look. I do not let myself see my face. Yet it walks with me, following me.

The door is heavy; I must use my entire body to pull it open, the gold handle digging into the raw skin of my hands, sending ripples up my wrists. The woman pushes past me, then pauses in the doorway, blue eyes peering into my face.

You gave it away.

The woman only nods.

Is it worth it?

She touches her cheek, and I touch mine in response. Is it hard? Rough? I cannot feel yet, my fingers are sticks pulled from dead trees.

She leaves.

I want to live in the love she gave away. Will she try to get it back now? Will she chase it into the night with her new face?

The woman disappears down the alley, her robe trailing behind her. As I watch her leave, my eyes drift to just past the crook where the alley turns west. The sun has pushed through the fog revealing the figure, still there in the corner. Tall, unmoving, wearing a red hooded cape. The hood falls away and the face is old, wrinkled, sunken, eyes bulging and red. A beggar, it is. Mother has talked of those. Beware the beggars, Uma, they bring only death, she said. The beggar takes one step, then another, hands reaching out toward me as if wanting to grab hold and drag me into darkness.

I scream, I think, I’m not sure. The hands, skeleton’s bone, reaching, reaching, the wind whipping white spindly hair so the wisps stand like snakes upon the beggar’s head. I will turn to stone if I linger here.

I haul myself against the door, push it across the tiles, cringing as the hinges screech until the door shuts with a thud.

***

Dancing in the firelight. I’m dancing, dancing, round in circles, the layers of my dress spinning, beads slapping each other in the frenzy, hands clapping somewhere nearby. The fire roars higher, my hands rise to match its strength. There’s happiness here somewhere and I’m dancing to meet it.

Lita is with me, her laughter coming in ripples. She’s glorious. Not the Lita who Mother stole, slowly, but the Lita I first met when Mother bought me. Long, wavy midnight hair, smooth face, eyes lit by fire. She’s holding my hand, pulling me around the fire; together we twirl and twirl. This is love, I think. This is what it feels like.

Come with me, she says.

How?

Something cold approaches me from behind. Creeping up from the depths of the lake, snaking around my ankles, trying to pull me down. Lita pulls back. Keep dancing, she says, never go down, never look, keep dancing to the fire.

The fire, a lion, roars and grows, pawing the sky. She pulls me closer, closer until I’m almost inside the lion, ready to burn.

I gasp as I wake, my chest constricted, frozen in place, not willing to expand for another breath. Pressure on my back, a stone, a weight. My face deflates again, I can feel it closing in upon my bones. Something is sucking me dry, like a slow leak in a balloon, the hiss escaping out of me, somewhere.

Shhh. The calming voice slides like soap across my wet back.

Shhh, says Mother. I know it’s her. Seated next to me, on the floor, beside my straw mat.

Mother has never come for me in my sleep. She used to come for Lita. I remember the nights. I would first wake to the sounds—soft scrapes against stone, a moaning wind somewhere near—a monster approaching, I thought, my eyes clasped tight, my body cold with fear. Lita’s gasp still rings in my ears, mingled with my own, the soft humming from somewhere nearby. I would never look. Lita told me never to look.

But even here in the cellar, in the deepest cave of all of Marjoran, I am still within Mother’s reach.

My face moves on its own, having been summoned. Mother is above me, her hand on my back, face glowing as if the moon resides within her. Coming in waves, her humming, landing on my cold skin and sliding off, unable to comfort.

She is taking. I feel myself bleed onto the blanket, something of myself oozing out of a wound. Mother’s face, mouth ajar, teeth like razors, coming for me. I close my eyes and think of the fire; can I summon it? I want to follow you, Lita, I want to burn.

***

Welcome to Mother Mal’s Elixir Den. May the sun shine upon you no more.

I sing the song, now familiar, now mine.

Days move one into the next. Mother’s belly swells with visitors, one a week, handing Mother baubles that she hoards in piles, crowding the cavern shelves. But even more, giving Mother their memories. Where does she hoard those? Do they sit, unused, unloved, in piles upon the shelves of her ribcage?

I try to hold on to the memories, when I can, before they are consumed by Mother. The birth of a child. The kiss of a lover. The warmth of a mother’s embrace. All things I have never known. Wisps I grab onto, hold tight, imprint what I can onto my soul, like tiny stamps upon the surface, infusing me with seconds of joy until they float away.

I will never understand why they are given. Once a memory leaves, what happens in the space that is left behind? Is it a hole, a tear in ourselves, unable to be filled?

I only have memories of Lita to hold on to, Lita, cold nights, and Mother’s song.

The front door is heavy today, each day a little more, my bones creak with the burden of it. Outside, the day’s heat sticks to the skin, the sun already seeking me from over the top of the alley wall, wanting to take more of what little is left. The beggar is not here. Usually they are there, just past the crook, hunched in the dark, like a nagging thought of things once forgotten trying to break through.

The woman standing before me today has not been here before, that much she has told me. Her blood-red robe hides her face from me, only visible are her hands of skeleton bone grasping the robe closed, holding in herself.

They all hide when they come. Only once they leave do women let in the light.

We make our way down the long hall, the mirrors taunting me with their truth. I will not look. I will not see my face. Mother says it is still growing, just as it should. But I know better. I can feel the hollowness of my cheeks like the sand after a retreating wave.

The woman shuffles behind me, each step sounding like a burden. Deeper we go, down the stairs to where Mother waits. The visitor is slow today, slower than most. But still, she follows. No one retreats. No price is ever too high. That’s what has depressed my spirit most, knowing that no memory, no part of oneself, is ever too valuable to not throw away.

Would I give up Lita? Holding my hand as we drift asleep. Whispering in my ear when I cry at night.

Mother’s song drifts up the stairs to greet us. Her hum rises and falls in long trills, flowing through my memory, awakening my mind. This song is one I’ve heard often, back when Lita would dust Mother’s valuables on the shelf and I would catch the flying particles once they hit the floor, wiping the stone until my cloth pulled apart. I used to think it was just for us, a secret song, a way to speak her thanks as we rubbed our fingers red. But since Lita left, I have not heard the tune.

Mother never once asked after Lita. Never once did Mother venture out into the world to seek her. Never once spoke her name other than the morning I awoke, cold and alone, with Mother sitting next to me, her cold hand placed upon my forearm, her cracked voice whispering, It’s just us now.

Just us.

The woman behind me begins to hum in unison, her voice a scratch as it races to catch the notes on their journey. I find myself matching her, singing along, as if I’m back on the ground, rubbing stone, Lita’s bare feet standing before me.

We enter the den. Mother waits beside the cauldron, her face aglow. I’ve never seen her look so fresh and full, her skin puffed out and glinting, wet stone after a rain. She stops humming, her arms open wide in greeting, the song pouring from her lips.

Welcome, welcome, to Mother Mal’s Den. You come to renew yourself again.

Welcome all who grow into the night. You come full of sorrow but leave a delight.

Welcome all for winter is come. Welcome all to come undone.

Mother’s voice grows, and I realize the woman is singing along, her voice high and tinny. The words flow out of her, as if in a trance. I search for her face, hidden beneath her robes. But it’s only a dark crevice, her sound escaping a black hole.

Mother stops and silence falls upon the den. The woman falls to the floor, red robe billowing about her like a puddle of blood. Her hands still clutch the hood, her face hidden. But I can feel the years upon her like a stone weight, pushing her into the ground, coaxing her to leave the world.

Why have you come? Mother asks, moving forward, slowly, one foot, then another, the beads of her dress glinting in the torchlight, clinking as she steps.

Youth and beauty have left me, Mother.

What is the beauty of youth?

Eternity.

What are you willing to pay for eternity?

What am I willing to pay…The woman’s voice drifts. My chest clenches with the wait. The ritual is always the same, no questions, no faltering. But this woman falls away, not finishing her thought.

Mother takes another step forward, then places her hand on the woman’s back. I can see the woman’s shudder send ripples across the fabric.

What are you willing to pay for eternity?

A sigh escapes the woman, deflating her body even more, shrinking her into the earth.

Everything.

It has been spoken. The ritual shall continue. I haul myself to the cauldron, not needing Mother to call me. Not needing her stare to warn me of my duty.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

Mother sings but this is my song now. This is my payment. I give. They take. My self is remade each time, older, I know, but also something gone. Something inside me vacates with each ritual. Like a knife scraping butter from its block to be spread and consumed by others.

The woman in red hands something to Mother, something small and shiny. A ring perhaps. I can feel the woman’s eyes, from somewhere within the depths of her hood, watch me as Mother approaches the cauldron, singing her song.

I look up into Mother’s face. Is it Mother’s? Is it mine? My face that once followed me down the hall of mirrors. My face that used to be kissed by Lita.

Mother does not smile. What does she see when she looks at me? For a moment, I detect a sluice of sadness slide across her pupils. Is there regret there, somewhere, of what I must do? Does Mother regret? I want to ask, but I have never asked Mother a question such as this. That is not my place. Mother found me, a lost child, and mother will un-find me, one day, this I know in my bones.

Sing it, Uma. Sing it so she hears.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

I sing as my hands go into the cauldron. I sing as the pain unceasingly stabs like an army of bees. I sing as my skin slides down my arms. I sing as I feel my very insides turn to liquid and chase after my heartbeat as it bleeds out down my fingers into the pot. I sing even as I hear the woman behind me sing along, lifting her voice to match mine as it falters.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

Give it to me. The woman is screaming now, above the song, above the hissing of the cauldron as it releases its steam. Give it to me. I deserve it back. I gave and gave.

And now you take, Mother says.

I fall to the floor, my life seeping onto the stone. I can hear the clanking glass of the vial. The slooping of the liquid. Mother’s footsteps clicking against the stone. The memory will come if I can wake for it. The memory is all I have to keep me going. A ray of warmth until I must die again.

I cannot feel my face, but somehow I turn my head. The woman in red stands tall, towering above my body, her hood fallen, hair screaming about her head in white waves. It’s the beggar, I know it now, her ragged smile and hungry eyes, arms held out, ready to clench my life. She is here but I cannot tell Mother. I cannot tell her what I know.

Mother hands over the vial and the beggar brings it up with shaking hands, liquid oozing down her mouth as she drinks my lifeblood.

Mother watches, her body taut with anticipation. So foreign it is; she never cares for the weary.

The woman closes her eyes, sways. The memory must be coming now. I brace myself for it. Raise up my arm. There it is, coming out, a thin glinting line, so delicate it flutters on the wind like dust that’s been disturbed. I spread my fingers to touch the particles that float past, pulling me in.

Dancing. I’m dancing. The black night around me envelops my body, punctuated by blazing orange and red. A fire. I’m dancing by the firelight. I can feel powdery dirt below my bare feet. I can feel laughter rip my chest. I’m laughing with someone who moves beside me, their arms twined with my arms, moving me in circles.

I try to focus on the figure, it’s all blurry and confused. I’m dizzy and tired, but so full inside I want to burst.

I see the face, finally, as the movement stops and the white lines slow to spots of stars in the sky. A face, full, round, red, and smooth. Bushy brows above dark eyes, set wide apart, ready for more. This is my face.

This is my fire.

The face is me and I am with me. I am Lita.

Come with me, my mouth says to my face. When you see me again, you will come with me, Uma.

My memory, I hold.

My…

A sharp gasp pulls me back to the den. Mother is holding my body. I must be crying. She is yelling something. The woman in red is laughing. Her body is moving, dancing, singing.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

Only, she is not singing to Mother, she is singing to me. Lita is here and I must go with her. She had a face, laid waste, taken by Mother, given to others. She is what I will become. She is where my face is going.

I know now, without really knowing. I somehow stand, push Mother away, and join Lita in her dance. Laughter is here, coming out of me. Lita is here. And she now has my face—cheeks plump as plums, skin brushed by the sun in all its sunset colors, lips puffed and full.

We twirl until the den blurs into a swirl of torchlight and black shadow. She has told me of this, I realize. This is a memory. A whisper into my ear in the night. This is what I could not remember. What she reached out to tell me.

We give, we take, ourselves we make.

I know what to do. Mother knows too, for she is clawing at me, screaming my name, screaming Lita’s name, but we grab her, together, singing, together. Mother goes into the cauldron, not just her arms, but all of her, down to the beads at the rim of her gown, all melting into the liquid as Mother seeps away. We drink her in, the whole pot of her, taking back ourselves and leaving her out, until only a soggy gray sludge is left at the bottom.

Mother Mal is gone.

Heat rushes through me, the fire, now inside, as I continue to dance. The memories are in us now, filling our lungs with hot roiling air, taking root in our growing brains. We are a mother, a daughter, a father, a son. We laugh. We play. We fly. We love.

Up we go, hand in hand, Lita has returned, and I let the mirrors show me, all of me, as I used to be, with my face, a dew drop, growing again, just as it should.

We open the door and slip out into the daylight, letting the sun burn its marks across our skin. Lita’s hand is in mine, and she pulls me down the alley, away from Mother Mal’s Elixir Den, into the streets of Marjoran, where people go about the business of living. Where people are full of Memories ready to be made and kept.