Seven Strands

“It’s real churchy in here.” Norma touched the foot of the crucified Jesus. “When did your mom become so religious?”

Cristian answered, “Mi tia’s been here all week. Clearly she has redecorated.”

They maneuvered around the large couch and chair, put their suitcases in the corner by the row of burning candles: one giant Virgen de Guadalupe, two sacred hearts, and three smaller saints Norma didn’t recognize. “Last time we were here —”

“Last time,” Cristian snapped, “my mom wasn’t sick.”

Norma raised her eyebrows. Cristian was more upset than he had let on while they were driving out here. His incessant chatter about Dodger statistics was normal. But so was his silence as they exited the freeway on the outskirts of town, two exits before the one where his mom lived. He’d said he needed to drive along the rural roads to prepare mentally for his return. He’d always felt like some kind of transformation was necessary to be the son she expected. Norma didn’t have the power to conjure that kind of change.

They were greeted at the door by a shorter, wider version of Cristian’s mom whose voice was higher. “There you are, precioso de mi vida.” She spoke so fast, Norma had to adjust to listen. “Lemme look atchoo. Too flaco. Doesn’t that girlfriend of yours feed you? Lemme make you a plate.”

Norma touched her arms, worried she was invisible, and looked around to see if they’d travelled back to 1950.

“Tia, this is Norma. And she doesn’t have to feed me. I’m thirty-two. I can feed myself.”

Magdalena ignored Norma’s outstretched hand and smoothed nonexistent wrinkles out of Cristian’s shirt.

He maneuvered out of her clutches. “Whatever you’re cooking smells delicious.”

“Sit. Sit.” Magdalena moved her bag of yarn off the kitchen table and patted the seat. Just one seat.

“I’d like to see my mom first.”

“I’d like to use the baño,” Norma muttered in his ear.

“Si. Si. She’s been waiting for you all week, mi’jo. We thought you’d be home sooner.”

“I had to work, Tia. What did the doctor say?”

“She’s been feeling worse every day. Chela gave her some hierba buena the first two days but that didn’t help.”

“Is Chela the local doctor?” Norma asked.

Magdalena scowled at her.

“Tia, what happened when you took my mom to the doctor yesterday?”

Magdalena waved his question away before she opened the door and whispered. “She has been sleeping so much. But she’s been waiting for you. We thought you’d come sooner.”

The room was dark when they entered. Only a tiny crack of light slipped through the opening in the heavy green drapes. The menthol and stale breath caught Norma off guard. She started choking, coughed to cover her discomfort.

“Shhh! I told you she was sleeping,” Magdalena hissed at Norma and pushed her toward the doorway.

“Magdalena, ya. I’m awake. I’ve been awake for a while, I think. But it’s difficult to tell in this darkness.” Cristian’s mom lifted herself up to a half-seated position and sneezed. “Open a window or something. I thought I was already in the tomb.”

Cristian obeyed. The sunlight revealed his mom, thin and pale under a mountain of heavy quilts.

Maybe Magdalena was trying to smother her to death. Norma narrowed her eyes at Magdalena’s back. That’d make Cristian extra guilty. If she’d died before they could drive over to see her. Then he’d be indebted to his Tia forever.

“Norma, mi’ja, so glad you’re here.” Cristian’s mom patted the edge of the bed next to her. “Cristian tells me you’re starting law school in the fall. Que bueno.” She beckoned Norma from the doorway. “Come in. Is Cristian taking good care of you?”

“I take care of myself most of the time.”

“Ah, of course you do. That’s why I like you mi’ja.”

Magdalena made a disapproving noise in her throat.

“Ignore my sister. ‘Sta loca.”

Magdalena scowled and stomped out of the room. They could hear her banging pots in the kitchen.

Cristian stood on the other side of his mom, took her hand in his. “What did the doctor say?”

“Que doctor? That quack Ramirez? He’d probably tell me I need surgery or give me a bottle of some drug no one ever heard of. I go to him, I die for sure.” She turned to Norma, “My sister wants to die first, so she can be the center of everyone’s attention.”

“Mom!” Cristian knelt at his mom’s bedside. “You’re not— dying, are you? Is that what the doctor said?”

“What doctor? Your Tia had her neighbor, Chela, come over here and burn stuff and make me tea and rub smelly stuff on me while they chanted prayers in Spanish and some other language I didn’t understand.”

Norma looked around the room for anything this curandera, Chela, might have left behind, objects that might impede her progress with Magdalena. She fingered the red candle on the nightstand. The wax was cool but still soft, so she took some under her pinky and thumb nails.

Cristian asked, “So you’ve had no medical care?”

“When my sister left to the store, I hopped into the kitchen and made an ice pack for my ankle. I told her I could take care of myself. Like you, Norma, I’m independent. But she insisted on staying here all week, insisted on telling you to come here.” She patted Cristian’s hand. “I am glad to see you.” She looked up at Norma. “Both of you.”

“Your ankle, Mom?”

“It hurts more than my knee.”

“Knee? Mom, what exactly happened?”

“I fell coming up the front steps in a hurry to answer the phone. I was carrying too many grocery bags, like I always do, and I lost my balance. Ni modo. The swelling’s already gone down. I’ve kept it elevated like they say on the WebMD.”

“Tia made it seem like you had some kind of episode, a heart attack or a stroke or something. She said you couldn’t talk to me because—”

“Ay, Magdalena has always been mucha exagerada. You know that.”

Norma held in her chuckle. Cristian had been in agony all week, worried his mom would die before he could take days off work and make the four-hour drive east to Blythe.

“I did not know that!” He walked to the bedroom doorway. “Tia!”

Norma had not seen him this angry since the Lakers last losing season.

“Tia, get in here!”

“No seas tan malcriado, Cristian.” His mom turned to Norma, “My sister tends to be how the kids say today, duh-ra-muh!”

Norma let out her laughter.

“It’s not funny, Norma!” Cristian paced the floor at the foot of the bed. “All this time, Tia had me believing—”

“You believe what you want, chamaco.” Magdalena appeared in the doorway with a different tone. “All I said was your mom needed you. You needed to be here. That’s what sons are for.”

Before Cristian could explode at Magdalena, Norma stood up and stepped between them. “That’s why we’re here. To see what his mom needs.” She walked closer to Magdalena, eyes opened extra wide, maintained her calm tone. “Maybe what they need is a few moments alone.” As she stepped forward, Magdalena stepped backward into the hall. “I’d love to see what you are making with that bright green yarn out there.” She closed the bedroom door behind her. “As soon as I go to the bathroom.”

Magdalena continued walking backward all the way to the kitchen, clearly mesmerized by Norma. “Would, would you like some tea?”

“Tea. Yes. Gracias, Tia.” Norma held Magdalena’s gaze until Magdalena was forced to look away and fill the tea kettle with water. This was going to be easier than Norma thought.

In the bathroom, she put the wax scrapings on to a square of toilet paper. She splashed water on her face and stared at her dripping reflection. The outward pattern said it would take a minor spell to convert Magdalena. Cristian’s mom had been much more of a challenge when they had met last year, and now she knows Norma is what’s best for her son. Norma rummaged through the bag on the counter and pulled seven strands of Magdalena’s bright red hair from a jeweled clip. She pulled seven strands of her own from the nape of her neck. She wrapped them together in the square of toilet paper with the red wax and put them in her pocket. In the drawer, she found the cream she knew Cristian’s mom used nightly. She dabbed a bit behind each ear, just enough to confuse Magdalena.

In the living room, Norma blew out the saint candles and exhaled the smoke away with one hard breath. “Allergies,” she said when Magdalena looked at her questioningly. She sat on the sofa next to Magdalena and pulled the coffee table closer so she could reach her tea.

Magdalena opened her yarn bag and explained the intricate stitches and patterns.

With her not drinking hand, Norma fingered the design, murmured what she hoped sounded like encouragement. She blew gently on her tea to cool it, sipped, aware that it was the same concoction Chela had given Cristian’s mom. So she stealthily spit it back into her mug. “Still too hot,” she said to Magdalena’s curious gaze.

“Do you knit?” Magdalena asked. “Crochet?”

“Mi abuela taught me. Want my help?” Without waiting for a response, Norma took the needles from Magdalena and hummed a spell as she replicated the pattern Magdalena established.

Magdalena got out two smaller needles and started a new piece with a lighter shade of green.

“These two will look beautiful together.”

Magdalena smiled and joined Norma in her humming.

When the tea was cold, Norma knew its potency was reduces. She opened her throat and gulped it all.

“Would you like some more?”

“Water would be fine, Tia.”

When Magdalena got up, Norma removed the square of toilet paper from her pocket and stretched the seven strands of her hair and Magdalena’s along the length of green yarn. She rubbed it all with a bit of wax to hold it together and quickly knitted their hair into the pattern. She twisted the yarn so her light brown and Magdalena’s red hairs weren’t visible at a glance.

Magdalena returned with two clear glasses of iced water.

Norma held hers up. “Salud.” She stared through the glass at Magdalena’s blurred reflection and watched as her hex took effect.