Louisiana Skin

— Kate St. Clair

There’s a crack in the earth. It runs from the concrete slab under the porch to the far side of the yard, the grass around it peeled back like puckered skin. It looks like a wound.

My hand finds my stomach, feeling the bulge, like half a melon. Not even out yet and the baby is already wrecking my yard.

What are you trying to tell me? I ask it.

The lump is silent.

I sigh, letting my hands drop. A breeze stirs the air, stirring up the smell of wet, green swamp and the deep, forlorn scent of trees that are rotting from the inside. I feel him coming before I see him, strolling down the open street toward the house. He’s so dark against the sun-washed pavement, like a hard shadow. In Louisiana, nothing moves. The air is as still and thick as a pond. But he drags the world behind him like a wake. That’s how I know when he’s coming. When Faolan comes, he brings the wind.

The wound is bigger in the morning. It snuck up under the porch in the night, dragging its way under the house. How long before it splits the earth open beneath us and swallows us while we sleep?

I touch my belly button, which has popped outward as if the baby has a marble and is pressing it against me from the inside. Faolan’s arm snakes over my shoulder, a tiny cake cupped in his hand. There’s a mound of pink frosting slathered over the top of it, like a roof on a house, and a single candle the size of a pinkie in its center. I take it from him, and he presses my back into his chest, his arm pinning me to him.

“What’s this?” I ask, turning the little pastry in my fingers.

“For your birthday. Nineteen. You’re finally a woman.” He runs his thumb along the groove of my jaw.

“That’s what makes me a woman?”

He bends his head, sealing his lips against the skin of my neck. His right hand hovers over the tiny cake and suddenly the wick of the candle is holding a flame. He did it so fast I don’t know if he had a match or if he lit it with his own mind. Probably a trick. He is good at that, making you look one way while his hand carries out something else behind your back.

“Blow it out,” Faolan says, his light Italian accent spicing the words.

“Why? You just lit it.”

He pulls back, twisting my shoulders until I’m turned around to face him.

“You don’t know how this works?”

I shake my head. A smile softens the dark corners of his lips.

“I sometimes forget where you come from. I guess they don’t give you many birthday parties when you grow up in a coven.”

“And you think a cult is better?” I’m looking down at the bump, so it comes out very soft.

Faolan makes a rough noise in his throat. “We’re not a cult. We’re a family. You want a family, don’t you?”

He takes the paper bottom of the cake from me, holding it even with my mouth.

“In the real world, on your birthday, the universe is supposed to grant you one wish. So you light the candle and say the wish in your mind, then blow the flame out to send your wish off.”

“Is it magic?”

The question seems to amuse him.

“Not really. Not the kind that matters, anyway. It’s magic for people who don’t have your magic.” He pushes the cupcake and its lit flame right in front of my lips. “Make a wish. Don’t say it out loud.”

I pull in a breath through my nose, breathing in some of the hot wax scent from the air. A selfless girl would make a wish for her baby. May it grow up healthy and blah blah. But I was never meant to be maternal, not even now.

I lock eyes with Faolan. The light from the candle catches in the golden ring around his pupil, making it look like there are two embers buried under the black pits. There’s so much more behind that face than what I see, and those eyes are just slits in the veil. I wish for the ability to tear off that mask and see what’s actually inside. Instead, I take a breath and extinguish the candle. I don’t need to ask the universe for anything. I have real magic.

 

The night covers me in a skin of sweat. Our ceiling fan hiccups as it spins, battling the stagnant air. Immobility is a force in Louisiana.

The baby fusses inside me, twisting, trying to find a cool spot, I imagine. I pull my shirt up, trying to give it some peace. I turn my head to the side, pressing my cheek against the pillow.

Faolan stands by my side of the bed. He stares down at me, but his eyes aren’t his. There’s no green irises, no ring of ember. Just black.

He shoots forward, his hands clamping around the bulge of my stomach. He starts to push, squeezing the baby inside me.

“Stop!” I shout, trying to sit up but failing.

The pressure is paralyzing. Blood races down through my arms and legs, hot and frantic, like needles pricking me over and over. My stomach spasms under his hands. His fingers dig into belly, blunt knives pushing deep. The baby twists, trying to escape the closing cage. My skin burns under his palms. He keeps squeezing, pushing my insides together, until there’s a cracking sound, like an egg in my womb.

A scream tears out of me, filling the corners of the room. Faolan sits up, now beside me, the covers falling off his shoulders.

“What’s wrong?” he shouts.

I clutch at my stomach, feeling the baby. It’s still there, still whole. Faolan stirs in the bed, gripping my elbow.

“Emily, are you all right?”

His eyes are his own. I wipe the film of sweat from my face.

“I had another nightmare.”

His chin slides back a bit, but he doesn’t let the worry reach his eyes. “About the baby?”

I nod. He presses his palm against my stomach, and I jump. The touch of his skin to mine is too similar to the dream.

“Please go to Isolda in the morning,” he says. “Maybe she can tell us what they mean.”

I hiss out a breath, pulling a thread on our blanket so it bunches up. Isolda. If we didn’t live in a cult, we wouldn’t have a woman who thinks herself a high priestess. I settle back into the pillows, letting that be my answer.

 

Isolda has eyes like an alligator, the way they sit in the middle of her face like two floating copper pennies. I’ve seen alligators behind our house. They watch us, waiting for the cat to fall out of the tree, or for us to toss some motionless sacrifice into their water. People think they’re predators, but really they’re opportunists. Isolda is the same, watching Faolan, me, the others, only swinging her teeth up to the surface when she sees the right moment.

Those eyes follow me as I close her door behind me and sit at the knotted kitchen table Isolda uses for readings. She wants to make me feel like a client.

She leans forward, resting her hands on the table, and the egg-sized jasper amulet dangling at her chest knocks against the wood stupidly. She dresses the way people expect us to dress, like a gypsy. Maybe normal people pay her more that way, when she’s turning over faded Tarot cards and telling chubby women that love is about to find them.

“Faolan wants me to tell you my dreams,” I say, shifting in the chair.

“May I have your hands?”

I slide the back of my hands across the table toward her, trying not to imagine that I’m sliding them into the open mouth of an alligator. Her skin is cold and tight against mine.

She breathes in, closing her eyes. I watch her pupils tick back and forth under her eyelids, like she’s reading something. Abruptly, she drops my hands, letting my knuckles smack against the table.

“I wouldn’t worry about the dreams,” she says, pushing her chair back. “It’s normal to have emotional upsets during your pregnancy.”

She starts rummaging around the kitchen, banging jars down on the counter.

“Is that it?” I ask.

“Yes,” she clips.

I stand, the lump pressing into the tabletop. I fight the urge to kick the table across the room. “What did you see?”

Isolda turns around, her black hair falling over her shoulder with all the liveliness of straw.

“It’s a girl.” She says it the same way you would say food is expired.

Hearing it out loud should hit me like a punch but instead hot anger swells in my chest. A salty taste fills my mouth, seeping into my tongue. “So?”

She lifts and drops her bony shoulders. “So, it’s not important. Faolan needs a son to be the next Prophet.”

My ribs are closing in on my lungs like a corset, pushing all my anger into my throat. “I had no idea the occult was so sexist.”

“We are not a cult,” Isolda says, her upper lip pressing into a line.

The pressure builds in the room, as if the whole house is sinking into the ocean, water pushing against the windows. Isolda feels it too. Her hand grips the counter behind her, her face draining.

I say, “You think I care about your stupid cult? About who’s going to be the next leader?”

The floorboards at the edges of the room send up a spray of splinters as they peel back toward me. The table quivers and bumps against my stomach, so I shove it away from me, almost pinning Isolda against the far wall. The windows are whining, the glass bowing inward.

I should stop. I should bring it back into myself, pull my rage in like a fishing net, but it feels good, so good to make the world hurt around me. This was the reason my parents kept me in the coven, away from people and houses and things that break when I get angry.

Isolda’s eyes are so wide that her irises are drowning in white.

“This,” she whispers, her fingers pressing her amulet into her chest, “this is true magic.”

“Did you think it was a joke?”

One of the windows finally caves, exploding in a shower of dirty shards. They scatter across the kitchen floor, peppering Isolda’s feet.

“I didn’t,” she chokes the words out, bristling back against the counter like a cornered cat. “I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t think a little girl from the middle of nowhere could have real power?”

The door to the pantry lets out a low groan, pulling against its lock. I could take this whole house down. I could bury her in a pile of wood and glass, proving who really should be running this cult they treasure so much.

A sharp pain sticks me in the belly, one so intense I think a shard of glass might have buried itself in me. I hiss in a breath, pressing my hand to the spot.

What, lump? I scream inwardly at it.

The stabbing eases to a pinch and the windows snap back into place, the pressure lifting. The floorboards lay back in their spots, lifeless again. The pinching makes me hinge forward, and I notice Isolda daring to stand again. I want to leave with some shred of authority.

I force my legs to move as I stumble out of the house. The front door smacks against the wall behind me. Out in the open air, I pull myself upright. The lump finally stops pinching me, letting me walk the two blocks home in peace.

A girl, I think. I drag my fingers across the taut skin of my stomach. Not fit to lead the coven. I want to laugh at them, at Faolan, and at the cowering Isolda.

My baby girl. She will be worth the whole cult put together. She will be born with true magic.

I get to the crooked, gap-toothed fence that surrounds our tiny shack of a house. The wound in the earth is half a foot wide now, disappearing under the porch. I’m finally starting to understand what she’s trying to tell me.

“Maybe it’s time we get out of here,” I say aloud to the lump. “Just us girls.”

I swear I see the ground part just a little, silently a step closer to swallowing the house, to burying this whole life here in the Louisiana dirt.

I get it, I tell her. I’m listening now.

 

 

Kate St. Clair is the author of Spelled.  The book follows a young girl who discovers she is descended from a line of powerful witches, and must evade a mysterious cult that is targeting her and her siblings.  Kate lives in San Diego.