IN THE RIGHT HANDS
by J.A.W. McCarthy
The knocking was polite, almost hesitant. Hyssop was surprised; the last time her children came, they threw a brick through the window and simply let themselves in.
“Hello, Mother,” the oldest, Opal, said when Hyssop opened the door. She held out a basket covered with a red cloth. “We heard you weren’t feeling well.”
Opal, Faith, and Garrett pushed past their mother and into the house. Hyssop supposed this was progress. Even though her children had spells that could bypass any barrier, their impatience often caused their tongues to trip over words they’d scarcely bothered to learn. At least this time it was false politeness instead that united them.
“What are you doing here?” Hyssop asked, watching her children circle the room. “Please don’t dig up my garden again. I told you, sage doesn’t—”
“We brought you a little gift,” Opal said, shoving the basket into Hyssop’s arms.
Garrett ran a finger over the dusty fireplace mantel. “I see you’re still keeping it…casual,” he sneered.
“Oh, now Garrett, you know Mother’s been ill,” Faith, the youngest said, flashing a garish grin at Hyssop. “Besides, if you were riddled with arthritis and all the effects of old age, you’d hardly be able to lift a broom yourself.”
“Or a rag,” Opal agreed.
The three closed in, forming an arc around Hyssop as she stumbled backwards into the wall. It was true: she had grown feeble in recent years, arthritis swelling her knees and locking her fingers into fists. Her joints ached no matter the weather, and cataracts had started to cloud her vision. With each passing day it had become easier for her children to wear her down, to pick at her flesh and take what they wanted when they grew too impatient to cultivate their own powers.
Lazy, selfish, greedy. What mistakes had she made in raising them?
“Aren’t you going to look at what we brought you, Mother?” Opal leaned close, lifting one of Hyssop’s long, grey-speckled braids and twirling it around her fist. It hurt when she gave it a playful yank, but Hyssop strained to keep her face resolute.
“We put a lot of thought into it,” Faith and Garrett trilled in unison.
Hyssop would’ve laughed if the weight of her children bearing down on her wasn’t so menacing. “I’m sure it’s lovely,” she said.
Opal whipped the cloth from the basket, revealing an array of glass jars inside. Red, white, and black clays, all ground fine, filled the largest jars. Sage and purple heather were wilted but still vibrant behind glass. In smaller jars: fluorite, clear calcite, carnelian, and clear quartz, all nicked and raw in spots, as if rapacious hands had handled them with haste and disrespect. Iron filings filled the smallest jar; Hyssop knew they were from the fence in her backyard, where the children used to roll their eyes and pretend to fall asleep while she tried to impart the wisdoms of the elements and their energies.
“They can heal,” Opal said.
“Or harm,” Garrett said.
Hyssop nodded. “In the right hands.”
They were on her fast, taking the basket and pushing her to the floor. It was easy with three of them, though it would have been just as easy with only one of Hyssop’s children holding her down. Faith used a pocket knife to cut the braids from their mother’s head and used them to bind her hands. Garrett poured the black clay into their mother’s eyes. When Hyssop cried out, Opal forced some of each of the crystals down her throat and filled her mouth with red clay. Hyssop choked and writhed in pain as her children carried her outside.
In the backyard, they threw their mother into the hole they had dug while she slept the night before. The children outlined her body with white clay. They heaped the heather and sage onto her face and hands. They saved the iron filings for last, spreading them over their mother from head to toe.
“With these crystals we hold in our hands, we call the elements,” Opal began. “We summon earth and water and…and…”
“Wind!” Faith declared.
“Fire!” Garrett added.
Opal threw her arms out as if to keep her siblings from imposing on her moment. “We summon the universe to finally give us what is ours, Mother, to protect us from—”
“Your unrelenting preaching,” Garrett snickered.
“To protect us from your negativity,” Opal continued, her pitch rising. “Your old ways are dead, buried with your body. We bind you to the earth so we can take what is ours.”
All at once they reached into the hole: Opal scooped out one of their mother’s eyes, Garrett peeled a length of skin from their mother’s forearm, and Faith ripped their mother’s clay-coated tongue from her mouth.
“We have your vision now, Mother, and your strength, and your knowledge,” Opal said, holding their prizes up to the darkening sky. “This is what we need.”
“Not all those tedious lessons and your boring books,” Garrett spat.
Hyssop felt the clear quartz hit her hands, then the carnelian pelt her chest as her children discarded what they no longer wanted. Then there was dirt, so much dirt, and she was grateful for the cold earth they heaped on top of her.
Hours passed before Hyssop gathered the strength to pull the crystals into her grip. She forced her fingers to close around them, squeezing through the pain. Carnelian to regenerate. Clear quartz to amplify all the other crystals her children had stuffed down her throat.
The fluorite absorbed into her bones, strengthening her joints. The clear calcite activated the black clay in her remaining eye, disintegrating the cataract there. She broke free from the braids that bound her and spread her limbs along the outline of white clay, rubbing the powder into her skin until the arthritis relinquished its grip. Her lips pulled the rich soil into her mouth, filling the space where her tongue had been, mixing with the red clay in her throat. She inhaled it all.
Her children had done their research this time, choosing the right crystals and herbs for protection and power. Even she had to admit that the iron filings were a stroke of genius, though if they’d listened to her lessons, they would have known that iron could heal her as well as it could bind her to the earth. Opal, Garrett and Faith had failed to understand that it was not only a matter of skill but also perception.
In the right hands.
With the red clay flint in her lungs, a fire ignited there, and Hyssop burst from the dirt and out of her grave. Through the kitchen window she saw her children gathered around the table, laughing and gesturing wildly as liquor bottles passed between them. Mocking her. Celebrating.
The heather and sage still clinging to her clothes, Hyssop marched forward and threw the back door open. As her children gaped in terror, she opened her own mouth and released the fire from her chest, watching as it consumed the mistakes she had made.
AUTHOR BIO: J.A.W. McCarthy is the author of Sometimes We’re Cruel and Other Stories (Cemetery Gates Media, 2021). Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Vastarien, LampLight, Apparition Lit, Tales to Terrify, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol 13 (ed. Ellen Datlow). She lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest, where she gets most of her ideas late at night, while she’s trying to sleep. You can call her Jen on Twitter @JAWMcCarthy, and find out more at www.jawmccarthy.com.