Authors: Christina Bell
Emma could feel her hands trembling as she combed her daughter’s thick auburn hair. It was Grace’s tenth birthday and they
were at the kitchen island. Grace was perched on a barstool, fresh from the bath and wrapped in her fluffy pink robe. As Emma focused on a particularly nasty snarl, Grace chattered excitedly about the birthday party she was having that weekend. Emma tried to follow the little girl’s monologue, but kept getting lost in her own thoughts
It broke her heart that today, Grace’s tenth birthday, was the day that the doctor told her that she needed to get her affairs in order. The cancer was becoming more aggressive and it was time to make some tough decisions about her treatment, decisions that would make it impossible to hide her illness from her daughter any longer. Until recently, Emma had some success with turning her natural talent for transmogrification inward, using the
magical gift that neither her family nor her doctors knew she possessed to battle the cancer, changing malignant cells to benign. However, she was weakening, and couldn’t keep up with the rapid progression of the disease. While she had the ability to change the shape of things, she had resisted learning to use it properly when she was a girl. She hated how isolated growing up in a magical family made her feel, knowing that she was the only one of her friends trying to hide such a massive secret. Her parents tried to teach her to balance her private and public selves. They did their best to teach her to use her gifts properly, but the older she became, the more she wanted nothing to do with any of it. When she went to college and met Theo, she took the opportunity to build a life with no magical influence whatsoever. It wasn’t until she received a cancer diagnosis that she wished she had learned to use her abilities. By then, her parents were dead and her brother had done one of his disappearing acts. There was no one to ask.
She told Theo that she wanted to
break the news to Grace alone, even though he offered to help. This felt like something she needed to do on her own, but as she tried to visualize how the discussion should go, she could never get to the part where she told her daughter that she would have to grow up without a mother. Each time she tried to plan what she might say, she would break down in tears and couldn’t continue. It wasn’t the dying that upset her. It was the separation from the people she loved. The idea that there would be a last time she saw her child’s face, a last time she would hold her, was emotionally debilitating. Every time she thought of it, she could feel despair sucking the air out of her. She knew she wouldn’t tell Grace about the cancer tonight, but she did want to talk to her about something else.
Emma put down the brush and put her arms around Emma’s small shoulders, hugging her from behind. “I love you, baby,” she said.
Grace turned her head and kissed her mother. “I love you, too, Mom.” She grinned when she said it, and Emma knew that her daughter was reaching the age when she found it a bit awkward to hear her parents say they loved her. There was some independence blossoming in Grace. Soon, she would be a teenager, and Theo would be left with one headstrong little girl. Even through her sadness, she had to smile at the thought of Theo with a teenage daughter. He didn’t stand a chance.
Emma took Grace’s hand. “Get your pajamas on and come to my room. I have something to show you.”
“Is it another birthday present?” Grace asked.
“No,” Emma said. “This is something that I want you to take care of for me.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll tell you about it when you’re ready for bed.” Emma tweaked her daughter’s nose and waved her off. When the little girl was out of the room, Emma’s hand went to her temple. She could feel the headache that set about this time every night kicking in. It started as a nagging pain in her temples for about an hour before is progressed to a band of pressure around her head. There was a time when she could breathe through it and force the pain back by magic, but she was weakening every day.
“Theo,” she called into the living room. “I’ll be in our room with Grace.”
He quickly appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Are you positive you don’t want me there? I can at least help you upstairs.”
Emma smiled. “There will be a day when I need that much help, but let’s not rush things.”
He kissed her quickly and looked at her with sad eyes. “I’m here if you need me.”
“Thank you,” she said and left him there. Gingerly, she climbed the stairs to the second floor of the brownstone, hoping that if she moved slowly and avoided any sudden movements, she would be able to enjoy her time with Grace before she had to lie down for the night.
When Grace got to Emma’s room, she took one look at Emma and asked, “Is your head hurting again?” Grace knew about the headaches and that they forced Emma to go to bed early most nights, but Emma never elaborated on the amount of pain she was enduring or the amount of medication it took to knock out the headache and let her sleep.
“Just a little, honey. I’ll lie down in a while.” Emma walked over to her jewelry box and slid a little ring out of one of the drawers. She climbed into the bed and reclined against the headboard. Grace crawled into Theo’s place and snuggled under the soft blankets like she always did when she and Emma settled in for a mother-daughter talk.
“Is that for me?” Grace pointed to the ring.
“Yes,” Emma said, “but I need to explain it to you. I inherited it from my mother and it will go to you next.” She held out the little metal ring and she and Grace looked at it together.
“It looks like a stick man,” Grace said. The top of the grey metal ring was a flat circle engraved with an ancient symbol for Mercury. Just as Grace said, it looked like a legless stick figure with a round head and an upside-down hat. “Can I try it on?”
“Of course you can.”
Grace slid the ring onto her tiny finger, where it hung loosely. “Maybe it’ll fit in a few years.”
“I’m sure it will,” Emma said. Her headache was slowly increasing, she took a moment to breathe and try to conjure a little magical energy, but she could tell that it wasn’t working the way it once did. “I’ll keep it for now. It’s safe here with my things until your finger grows into it, but I want you to promise me that if anything ever happens to me, you’ll come in here and take it out of my jewelry box. It’s for you and no one else.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you Mom,” Grace said, snuggling deeper into the blankets. “So, when my finger gets big enough, I can have it, right?”
It’ll be sooner than that,
, Emma thought.
Much too soon.
Seven Years Later
Grace was bummed. She usually loved being in the art studio and working at the potter’s wheel. However, she knew it was her own fault that she was faced with being here on an afternoon when her boyfriend, Ryder, and all of her friends were celebrating the official end of their junior year of high school. She should have been with them, going to parties around the neighborhood, making plans for the last summer vacation of high school.
Throughout the last semester, she had failed to complete one simple assignment. Sometime in January, her ceramics teacher, Mr. Henley, who unfortunately for Grace was also her advisor, called her into his office to say that her art teachers agreed that, while her work showed potential, she was still struggling with some mediums. He was particularly concerned that she hadn’t managed to produce a piece using porcelain. She consistently used red clay because it was so forgiving. It was the clay she had learned with, and she fl etas though she had a special relationship with it. Sometimes she felt that all she had to do was picture the vase she wanted to make and the clay would dance at her fingertips, taking the shape she had in her mind. Sometimes she imagined that she could take her hands off the clay and simply imagine what she wanted it to do. The thought of her stunned classmates watching clay on the wheel, spinning itself into a perfect vase made her smile. She didn’t believe that porcelain would be such a compliant medium. It was too delicate. She hated the way the white surface spotlighted any imperfection. Every ridge, every bump caused shadows that detracted from the piece as a whole Grace watched other students struggle with it, and she had no desire to branch out if her results were going to suffer
“New experience defines an artist,” Henley once told her. “Without it, you might strengthen your technique, but over time, your work will lose its meaning. You will become stagnant.”
Later that day, she received an e-mail from him indicating that in order to pass her Advanced Ceramics class she would have to produce a piece of work using porcelain clay. Henley knew that Grace had been avoiding porcelain. She would have thought he would just be happy that her work with red clay was so consistently beautiful, but instead he told her that if she didn’t produce something of quality using porcelain, she would receive an incomplete in the class.
So, four months of procrastination later, she found herself sitting at a wheel in the studio, after dismissal on the last day of school. At five o’clock, an incomplete mark would be placed on her transcript, which meant that the battle would continue into her senior year. Henley had placed a clear plastic bin of clay, roughly the size of a small toaster, on the shelf by her usual workspace.
She pulled the lid off the porcelain. The small block of clay didn’t look intimidating in its current form. In fact, it was surprisingly dense and brownish, considering its delicate nature once fired. Expertly prying a corner off the cube of clay, she formed a ball roughly the size of a marble shooter between her palms. Reaching over to a small dish of slip, she moistened her hands and continued to work the clay until it was pliable. Pressing her thumbs into the ball, she quickly kneaded it into a tiny pinch pot, but already disliked the texture of the material. She tried to smooth the surface with more slip, but couldn’t make it perfect.
Convinced by her little experiment that her original opinion was correct, she tossed the sad pot back into bin and closed the lid. She gave herself a minute to pout before she sighed and re-opened the lid. She gradually rounded a chunk of clay with her hands and fired up the wheel. Once she got into a groove, she only had to visualize what she wanted the clay to do and it obeyed. Her hands applied pressure in the right places as she centered the clay and pulled it upward into a column. In time, her movements seemed extraneous, as if her mind and the vase she was building were somehow linked. She had been sure that in order to reach that place of artistic symbiosis, she needed the comfort of her favorite tools and materials. It was pleasing to have the porcelain feel increasingly less foreign as she ran her hands over the surface to smooth it.
An hour later, she had created a slender vase roughly a foot tall. It w
as nearly perfect, showing only one or two small irregularities, dents where her fingers had pressed just a bit too hard. She considered starting over, but then suddenly understood the message Henley was trying to convey with this assignment.
An artist tries new things. If you aren’t willing to expand your repertoire, then you aren’t an artist. You’re just a dabbler.
She had refused to branch out because she thought the new materials were uncooperative. In truth, she was the one being stubborn.
She found a string on the supply table and used it to slice the vase free from the wheel. Once it was safely positioned on a drying rack where it would await its turn in the kiln, Grace cleaned her area and gathered her things. Just as she was pulling the door shut, her cell phone chirped. She pulled it from her bag and saw a text message from her father, Theo.
FAMILY MEETING AT HOME. 5:00. BIG NEWS.
wished Teo wouldn’t use the word family to refer to their current household configuration. She and Theo were a family. When her mother was alive, the three of them were a family. However, any combination that included Theo’s heinous fiancé, Gianni, did not constitute a family unit. It would be even worse after Theo and Gianni were married later that summer.
Upon her arrival at the Brooklyn brownstone the three of them shared, she could hear voices from the other side of the house. Before she had the chance to put down her things amd move toward them, she could hear Gianni gushing excitedly.
“I can’t wait to decorate. We don’t need to move any of this old furniture. It would look small and dirty in an apartment that big,” Gianni said. “Give it to charity and I’ll replace it. We can start out with all new things that are just ours.”
Grace froze in the doorway. In the years since Emma lost her battle with cancer, Grace and Theo had not changed one thing about the brownstone. Every picture, every knick
knack was exactly where it was the day Emma died. They lived that way until two years ago, when Theo met Gianni. For the first year that they dated, Grace hadn't seen Gianni very often, and once she got used to the idea of Theo dating, she managed to turn a blind eye to Gianni's eccentricities. She was a pretty woman under the make-up and jewelry. She had stronger features that Grace’s mother. Her nose was straighter and her cheekbones were higher. Emma had a light spray of freckles over her nose that Gianni lacked. Sometimes, it occurred to Grace that Gianni could almost be attractive without all the beauty products. It was her personality that irked Grace. Her own mother had been quiet, simple, and thoughtful. Gianni came across as a brash attention hound.