The 巫 rented the converted shed in our backyard. She was an unassuming woman: salt and pepper hair, generic two-for-$20 drugstore glasses and a gaze that seemed as if she was always looking at your ear rather than your eyes.
For us, the 巫 were mythical figures, women of ancient times with wind-whipped gray hair, sackcloth robes, and fingernails grown so long they curled into themselves. Oneiromancers. Rainmakers. Shamans. Sorceresses. These were the women who could poison an entire town in one whispered curse or heal a broken bone in a single syllable. Like vessels for spirits, they could empty themselves of their earthly being to serve as conduits to the spirit world.
This 巫 was invisible too, but in the way that middle-aged women slowly become undetectable, functioning more as background pedestrians for the ravishing world of men and women radiant with youth. No one writes love songs to a soft-jowled middle-aged woman in drugstore reading glasses.
We didn’t know her powers until the night we saw her light a ring of fire on the patio, strip off her clothes and step into it, dancing naked until the sweat flew off her body like the rain that it conjured.
*巫 is pronounced as “wu.”
At a library sale, I found a book, Handicrafts for Handy Girls, from 1916, with instructions for making a black cat match-scratcher. A black cat made of sandpaper and glued on cardboard declaring “Scratch my back!” The book warned of this suggested money-making venture: “Scratchers are not as popular nowadays as they were twenty years ago, before electricity came into such general use for lighting purposes.” I thought of the time before electricity, when a woman like me would have been banned by law, when our buildings were set fire, all our people were driven out, forced to pay our own passage back to the Middle Kingdom. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, according to the newspaper: “Lying in the smoldering embers where Chinatown stood were found 10 charred and shapeless trunks, sending up a noisome stench, while another, which had evidently been dragged from the ashes by boys, was found in the sage nearby.”
I know this history because it has broken its way into my DNA to be carried on for generations.
I knew the children who lived in the house assumed that the magic was kept in my matches. Something special mixed in with the phosphorous and potassium chlorate, some alchemy that would turn them powerful too and allow them to walk through fire without getting burned. They would burn the books they loved, burn the pictures they cherished, burn everything they wished to preserve.
The children thought I’d left for the afternoon, but I had come back because I’d forgotten my sunglasses, and from the driveway, I saw them sneak into my shed. I knew what they would do before they did, and I didn’t need to stay to see them sneak out again, holding hands, their pockets fat with matchboxes.
I kept the ashes of my losses in my satchel, which weighed nine pounds when including the contents. My dogs dead of old age, my birth certificate, my tax records, my journals, heirloom dresses and jewelry from my mother, and my marriage certificate. I was astonished that what mattered to me could be reduced to such small dust, and that the creatures I’d loved that had moved through times and space, their bodies a weight in my arms and their muscles rippling beneath my hands could now fit into a Ziploc. We are made of star stuff, Carl Sagan said, and though these losses had made a black hole of my heart, they were wholly of the earth.
The bag carried winter, not the winter of ice ponds and skating and rosy cheeks and crackling fires, but the winter of tundra, snowpocalypses, black ice, burst pipes, arctic stillness, frostbite.
I drove until the houses became skyscrapers and the trees shriveled down to concrete. I found a bench at McKinley Park. How long would it be before the children betrayed me and their parents evicted me?
I put on my mittens and opened the bag. First came the gray, which surged up and swallowed the blue. Birds flocked, cried, then went still. Next, the cold, a current crackling like poison. Trees dropped their leaves in a matters of minutes. Water froze around the ducks in the pond. My breath made ghosts in the air.
I am not a vindictive person. Like a movie superhero, I use my power only for good.
Voice: [rumbling, resonant whale song]
Voice: Οἵτινές ποτ᾿ ἔστε χαίρετε! Εἰρηνικῶς πρὸς φίλους ἐληλύθαμεν φίλοι.
巫: I don’t understand.
Voice: Hello from the children of planet Earth.
Voice: Witajcie, istoty z zaświatów.
巫: I still don’t….
Voice: This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations.
巫: I answer the Earth from Earth.
Voice: [Ba dump ba dump ba dump ba dump.]
*dialogue for the Voice taken from the Voyager Golden Record, launched into space in 1977.
I was happy to hear from you at Christmas, but I was also finally putting in the work of grieving us. I did not respond gracefully. I wish I had.
I was thinking about our Momo, dead a year today, and how I still expect she will come back. Not a realistic expectation of course, but some inclination I feel physically, intuitively, beyond logic. The same way I feel about you. Which makes me think that the nagging anticipation is just a natural part of grief—it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have an unbreakable connection. I can accept that, and it makes sense.
The #metoo stuff has me thinking about us too, and how we were trapped, without realizing it, in that bullshit. I harmed myself through sex I didn’t want, as if I didn’t deserve to say no. And you were trapped in some sort of, if I may use an overused buzzword, toxic masculinity, which I think you were aware of, but that didn’t make you more free. I don’t know why you, so talented and smart and beautiful, grew up with such insecurity about your masculinity, and, at the same time, an entitlement. I remember complaining to you (or maybe I didn’t? maybe it was just in my head?) that I felt so objectified, and I think I was. That you were wonderful as a partner, but in the bedroom, suddenly we were in these other roles, not as you and me, but you as “man” and me as “woman” and all the surrounding toxicity that that entailed.
I have to be sure there is nothing left here, that we are so diverged that we can never be intersecting lines again. It feels like losing God, but it’s still possible to see the beauty of the world through the eyes of an atheist.
I gave away the Eames chair you inherited from your father and I thought of all the other things your father gave you. Your jawline. Your love of Frank Lobdell. Your willingness to eat Phoenix Claws. Your alcoholism.
But who did we inherit our infertility from? Both of my grandmothers had sixteen kids between them. We were attempting to survive our times, first through love, then booze, then babies.
The clinic retrieved my eggs and I was woozy from the anesthesia, you held my hand as I cried in the parking lot, thinking of the creature you and I would create with the help of science. I had re-read Frankenstein in preparation for our journey. The monster that defied nature, loathed its own ugliness, yearned for love, and desired to destroy its creator. The doctors would test the embryos: remove trophectoderm cells, drop them on a slide, and check for “genetic disorder or abnormality.” They’d discard the blastocysts with genetic issues because there’s no room for imperfection in a world made by science. Perfect egg, perfect sperm, perfect blastocyst, perfect embryo, perfect baby. Perfect parents.
But my uterus was not, in the words of the doctor, “sticky” enough. I could make rain, but I couldn’t make a baby.
A confession: I was relieved? I thought of how trauma reiterates itself in each generation, and the immensity of what would die with us.
I’ve learned that earthling is not a fixed identity. How can I know to be human without my human body? After so much time away, returning to earth’s gravity would break my bones.
NASA didn’t just send voices, birdsong, Chuck Berry, and footsteps to space on the Voyager golden record. They also sent the rattle static hum brain waves of a woman in love. The one she loved is now dead and the golden record is forty years, nine months and ten days, and thirteen billion miles from earth in interstellar space.
We had a life, didn’t we?
That one, the third one from the sun, was home, once upon a time.
Kate Gavino is a writer and illustrator. She is the creator of the website, Last Night’s Reading, which was compiled into a published collection by Penguin Books in 2015. Her work has been featured in BuzzFeed, Lenny Letter, Oprah.com, Rookie, and more. She was recently named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s 30 Under 30. Her graphic novel, Sanpaku, was published by BOOM! Studios in August 2018.
Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Water Ghosts and Green Island, has received the Elliot Cades Emerging Writer Award, the Association for Asian American Studies Best Book Award, and an American Book Award. She directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.