2001, Santa Fe, New MexicoSomeone turned Lillia in for not sending her thirteen-year-old daughter to school. The social services worker coming to the house caused some friction between the three sisters, Lillia, Nikki and Medea. Lillia suspected that one, or both of her older sisters, reported her for not sending Astra to school.The social worker gawked at Lillia’s immaculate clothing and toiletry, and then shook her head at Astra’s dirty legs and arms. Astra’s hair was dishwater blonde, but really, her hair seemed just plain dirty. The girl’s feet were filthy, her legs streaked with dry mud, and her arms appeared to have charcoal on them. Her feet looked as if she rarely wore shoes.
“My daughter will attend school today,” Lillia said. She balled up the court order in a white-gloved fist and tossed it to her mother, Dima, with a look that said, See, what your other daughters have done? Nikki and Medea bring nothing but trouble to this house!Dima glared at the bossy Lillia. “Astra is the only member of my family whom I love,” Dima said. Indeed, Astra now sat on Dima’s lap with her face buried in her grandmother’s shoulder. “Are you going to arrest Astra because she doesn’t go to school?”Astra flinched in her arms. “Please don’t let the lady take me away,” she pleaded in a voice only Dima could hear.“Well, then you better go to school child,” Dima said.Medea and Nikki both grunted, satisfied that their mother was on their side, instead of Astra’s and Lillia’s sides. It was hard to tell with Dima, since she spoiled Astra, a feat that all three sisters were jealous of. Dima, in her old age of 180, had softened, or perhaps, she never wanted children but grandchildren instead. Astra was the only grandchild she would ever have since Nikki was 67-years-old, and Medea was cursed by Dima to be a cat at night. Lillia, being 48 years of age, could conceivably have another child, but their youngest sister loathed the experience.“I don’t want to go to school, Grandma,” Astra whined again, and grabbed Dima’s collar.The social services woman appeared startled since Dima appeared to be nineteen years old, and younger than the other three women. The woman believed Dima to be Astra’s older sister. She could have sworn though, when Dima staggered into the living room dressed in a beer-stained bathrobe, that each sister addressed the young, lovely Dima with motherly endearments, though said with sour voices.“It’s settled then.” The social worker offered a hand to Lillia and stood.Lillia was tall and thin and had what she believed was an aristocratic face. She was, after all, the great-granddaughter of Catherine the Great. Her hair was always swept up in a royal Russian fashion. She appeared to masquerade as the lady of the manor, just returned from the beauty shop. Lillia seemed made of plastic with never a hair out of place. Her eyebrows were arched because she was always surprised at the dirtiness around her. Her eyes were hawkish, and Lillia seemed to devour everything she looked at, just like she did this woman who took a step back, her arms now hanging limply at her sides.Some manor, the three-story, rambling house appeared haunted from the outside with cracked walls and peeling paint.Lillia turned her nose down at the woman’s proffered hand. “I avoid the germs of others,” she snapped, “and your breath stinks. Please do not come any closer and foul the air that I breathe.” Lillia coughed into a silken, snowy-white, handkerchief and then placed a cigarette in a long cigarette holder. She crossed her white, thin legs. Lillia appeared to never get any sun. She preferred the night, when the filth of the world was hidden. “To fumigate,” she explained, not that the disapproving woman asked why Lillia waved the blue smoke around her head. Lillia smiled with small, pointed teeth, waving a hand at her as if she was a queen. “You are dismissed. My sister will see you out.” Lillia then turned her back to the woman, indicating that their meeting was at an end.Medea made a face at Nikki and indicated with her eyes, to make sure that the woman did not come back.Nikki grabbed the woman’s elbow.She shivered from Nikki’s icy hand.Nikki escorted the social worker from the house. The woman appeared more than happy to leave. Nikki could be scary-looking, if she showed the right side of her face, which was monstrously scarred from acid. It was only eight in the morning and Nikki was clothed in a black bathrobe with a hood covering the good side of her face.Ha! The woman took one look at Nikki’s profile and stumbled down the porch steps, jumped in her car, and sped down the hill.While Nikki was preoccupied climbing slowly up the stairs of the porch and grumbling that she once looked like Marilyn Monroe, Astra rubbed at a fresh bruise on her face and winced at the pain.Medea was watching with narrowed eyes. Her head was hunched like a cat and a slight hiss escaped her lips.Lillia whispered in her daughter’s ear. “Don’t you dare tell anyone that I struck you earlier.”Astra stuck a finger in her mouth and Mommy kissed her on the head.Astra shoveled some cereal into her mouth and then ran down the basement stairs to get ready for school.There. She was ready to face the torture. She had brushed the dirt from her hair and sort of combed the locks. She wore a dirty dress, instead of pajamas with a hole in the butt. She was still barefoot and only her face was clean.Now, where was the dark, murky, pin that was a mystery like Mommy? Ah, hiding under her bed.Most of Astra’s family never bothered to walk the stairs down to the basement of the house where the girl’s bedroom was. Instead, they all yelled at her from upstairs. To be fair, Aunt Medea only yelled at Astra, when her niece was in danger of getting hurt.Astra was slight of build and had no problem crawling under the bed. She now retrieved the huge pin and stabbed the heart of her teddy bear, finally cracking the scratched-up heart. The scratches on the heart were from the other times Astra attempted to break the heart of her teddy bear with the mommy pin.“Ha-ha!” Astra laughed. She could hear Mommy upstairs screaming that she felt like she was having a heart attack. “It’s that damn heartburn again,” Mommy screeched.Astra then picked up another large pin that had a skull on the head of the pin. “Hello, Aunt Nikki,” Astra said, and she stabbed the teddy bear on the forehead.Upstairs, Aunt Nikki yelled at Grandma Dima to give her a potion for a headache.Astra giggled. Grandma Dima was next on her mad-list. She picked up a big pin that had a masked, Catherine-the-Great picture on it. Astra ran with the pin and stuck the teddy bear on the leg.Grandma hollered that she was lame. “Sonofabitch! Gout in the leg! What the hell? Where is Pompeii, that piece of shit, rusting, shapeshifting stone?”Astra looked at the stuffed, stitched, three-foot gingerbread man in her room that had a mean, scowling look on the face and a turned-down, stitched mouth, with buttons in its devil-looking eyes. This stuffed doll was animated and walked on legs stuffed with cotton. “Grandma doesn’t love you like I do, Pompeii,” Astra said, and patted the gingerbread man on its head. “You better shift back into a rock, and I’ll sneak you back up when I leave, and drop you back in Grandma’s dresser,” she said. The gingerbread man turned into a volcanic rock that seemed to stare at Astra with love in the two porous holes, which resembled puppy-dog eyes. Astra dripped some water on the rock so it could drink.“I just need to do one more thing, Pompeii,” Astra said to the rock. She picked up the last large pin from the concrete floor. This pin had a cat face with strange-looking eyes. Astra took the pin and stabbed the foot of the teddy bear.“Ouch!” Aunt Medea yelled from upstairs.Astra glared at the four pins on the teddy bear, one for each member of her family. “That’s what you all get for making me go to school!”Quick, someone was coming down the stairs. Astra unstuck all of the pins and threw the pins under the bed. She picked up Pompeii, and shoved the shapeshifting rock in her pocket. She then stood at the foot of the stairs with her teeth clenched, like she was smiling, and her hands twisted behind her back. Inside, she was a shivering mess of tummy ache and farts.Oh, it was only Aunt Medea. Astra’s flattish chest caved in and she gave a sigh of relief.Aunt Medea was limping, and she felt a twinge of guilt. She really did love her Aunt Medea.Grandma Dima was fun and sometimes shapeshifted into a thirteen-year-old girl and hung out with her.Poor Aunt Nikki was kind to her.But of all her family, Astra loved Aunt Medea most of all. At night, she was a 32-year-old cat, and one of the oldest cats listed on the internet so famous really. The cat slept with Astra. Aunt Medea once had nine lives, but had used up two of them. If one counted the years since her first human birth, Aunt Medea should be 82 years old. Due to the magic of a legendary witch, Aunt Medea, during the day, was a 49-year-old lady, just one year older than Mommy, which really got Lillia angry since the sisters were born 34 years apart. Aunt Medea was pure magic. Mommy was desperate, wanna-be power, though she did have a gift with weather.“What have you been up to, Astra?” Aunt Medea stopped on the last step. She frowned at the teddy bear and walked over and examined the pin pricks.“Well, if you didn’t want me to use effigy magic, why did you teach me then?” Astra said.She sighed. “What am I going to do with you, Astra? Why didn’t you put on a clean dress for school?” She rifled through the closet. “Here, put on this skirt and sweater. Come on. Hurry up! I’m on my way to work, and I’ll drop you off at school. Here, I bought you some school supplies.”Astra snatched the bag from her aunt and snarled, “How did you know that I would be going to school today?”Medea chuckled. “Well, my crystal ball told me.”“You could have warned me last night, when you came meowing at the window to let you in,” Astra said.“Why? So, you can run away again?”Astra quickly changed, turning her back to Aunt Medea while she transferred the shapeshifting stone to a small purse. “I need a brush to comb my hair again. I can’t find mine,” Astra said.Her aunt beamed at her. “You can take a brush from my room. Take a washrag and clean up your face and legs. And bring the ribbon on the bed so I can tie your hair back. You’ve a pretty face, if you would just clean up.”Astra ran towards her aunt’s room, darting into her grandmother’s room and dropping the shapeshifting stone back into the dresser drawer. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to Pompeii, “but Grandma expects to find you here.” She petted the stone which purred at her touch. “I’ll water you when I get home from school.”The word, school, choked in her throat.She stood patiently while Aung Medea tied a ribbon in her hair.Astra then sat, buckled into the front seat beside her aunt. She held a lunch sack in her hands. Mommy had made her a sandwich and hissed some words into her ear before pushing her out the door.As the car wound down the hill, Astra thought about the social services lady actually paying a visit to the house, which was very nervy of her. Everyone was scared to of what the town called, the House at Witch Hill. “I don’t understand why,” Mommy often complained to her aunts and Grandma. “We’re just a group of businesswomen.”“People dislike independent women,” Aunt Medea would agree.“Exactly. That’s the problem,” Aunt Nikki would add. “We’re working women with no men in this house.”“And whose fault is that?” Grandma would answer and glare at Mommy.Aunt Medea drove up to the district middle school and showed Astra her cheek.“I hate school,” she said. “I don’t want to go.”“How can you hate school when you don’t go?”She shrugged her small shoulders. “I sometimes went, when we lived at the pueblo. I didn’t fit in there either.” Astra was half-Native-American and felt as if she was split into two girls. She didn’t look at all Native American, which made her an outsider with her dead father’s family. As for the Santa Fe townsfolk, Grandma Dima had been more than amused to purchase the land that was known as Witch Hill for four centuries. It was easy for Grandma. She could shapeshift into whoever she wanted to be.“Besides,” Astra added, “I can read and write some. You and Aunt Nikki taught me. And I can add and subtract.”“Yes, but we don’t have the time to be full-time teachers. If it was up to your mother, you would be totally ignorant.” Aunt Medea sighed. “I know you’re not happy about this, Astra, but you have to go to school. You don’t want to grow up with no education, do you? Don’t you want to learn to read and write better?”“I like to watch television,” she said.“Just go and have fun. Maybe you’ll make some friends.”She pecked at her aunt’s cheek with pursed lips. She climbed out of the car. Astra hugged the bag of school supplies, staring at the back of her aunt’s car until the vehicle was just a speck on the road.Astra marched towards the middle school. It seemed the principle was waiting for her. The woman introduced herself but Astra was deaf to her voice. “You’re late,” she said. “You’ve already missed your first two classes.”She followed the principal to the third classroom she had been assigned. “We didn’t know what grade to place you in, but we’ll try seventh-grade shall we? Perhaps, you are bright?” she said.Astra said nothing. She followed the well-groomed principal, combing at her hair with the small brush she had taken from her aunt’s room. Astra licked her hands, wiping her face of any smudges she might have picked up in Aunt Medea’s car. Yuck, she had cat hair between her teeth. She should have brought a mirror with her. Well, at least she remembered to wear shoes, though one shoe string was missing from a tennis shoe and she wore no socks.Astra lingered shyly in the doorway of the classroom, unaware that a handful of hair stuck up from her scalp.“Astra Romanov?” the teacher said, “I am Miss Singer.”Astra thought, I know who you are, Teacher. You are the seventh lump on Mommy’s petticoat. It is Mommy’s fault no man will ever marry you. As Aunt Nikki says, Lillia has done you a favor.Miss Singer wore spectacles, a cape, and a hat, even when inside. She coughed uncomfortably, wiping her hands on her dress. “The first day of school started a month ago, Astra,” she said with exasperation. She straightened, folding her hands on the desk. “The letters mailed out instructed all parents to register their children on September first.”“My mother is not all parents. She never goes by others’ timetables,” she said, flatly.“You will be more weeks behind the others,” Miss Singer pointed out. “This class is English and we are reading the classics. Do you read a lot?”Astra nodded her head, yes. Barely, she thought.Miss Singer piled three books on Astra’s arms, slamming each book on top of the previous. “Animal Farm by George Orwell. A political book, really.”“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, about a ragged outsider.”“And lastly, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, about a girl about your age forced to live in a basement, in hiding.”“In hiding from the world?” Astra asked in a small voice.“You’ll discover when you read the book,” Miss Singer said. “I wouldn’t want to spoil the true story for you.”“Find somewhere to sit in the back and tomorrow, don’t be tardy.”Astra’s shoulders were rounded, her toes pointed in. Her ragged hair tangled about her monkey face. She had a look of disdain on her face, as she scanned the other pupils. They all but sparkled from showers and baths.The other kids dropped their eyes to the floor, their faces flushed beet red. Their parents had warned them about the danger of Astra, her mother, aunts, and grandmother.Astra was slender with haunted eyes reflecting her status as an outcast and loner, a girl shunned by all. She stared straight ahead, like a robot, balancing the heavy books on her skinny arms. She shuffled down the aisle, looking for a seat.The kids held their fingers to their noses, as she passed.Miss Singer smiled to the side of her mouth, not disciplining the children on their bad manners.The wooden desks were long, the type shared by two pupils, sitting side by side. There were four empty seats left.One row after another, as Astra passed an available seat, the boy or girl sitting in the adjoining seat slid into the empty one, preventing her from sitting there.Astra bit her tongue and the cuss words threatening her composure. She wished she did not care so much, and the rejection of the others did not hurt, but it did, it did. It always did. Astra sucked in her cheeks, refusing to cry.Finally, she snaked her way around all the aisles, until there was but one empty seat at the front.Astra hugged her books, unsure whether or not to place them on the other girl’s desk or sit on the floor.Behind her, the other kids snickered, egging on the girl to reject her, just as the others did.Amelia paid no heed to the snickering. She did not even hear them because Astra’s eyes arrested her, as though the young witch’s orbs exposed her soul, reflecting isolation and despair. Astra’s lavender eyes looked like two ships lost at sea and tossed about by an adjoining storm, neither ship able to come to the aid of the other. Along with her loneliness mingled fury. Astra’s anger was a palpitating, living thing. The storm raging in her eyes was like the earth rumbling below the ground.One day, Amelia thought, Astra’s fury will cave in. There will be such a storm then. Perhaps she is like her mother. It is rumored that Lillia Romanoff can cause the rain to fall.“You can sit here, Astra.” Amelia spoke very low so was unsure if the other girl heard.A sigh of relief escaped Astra’s lips.“I’m Amelia,” she said, smiling at her.Astra set her books down, and Amelia slid over to make room.Astra silently took her seat.The other kids looked disappointed.Out of the corner of one eye, Amelia examined Astra. Her head hung down, her hair hiding the expression on her face. Astra rolled a pencil between her hands. The pencil clicked against a ring on her finger. The clicking was in tune to her shoe hitting the front of the desk. Her left toe stuck out of a hole in the fabric. Her nails were dirty and ragged. It was not true what the other kids said though. Astra did not stink. In fact, she smelled rather good, like strawberries. She just needed to wash her hair.Unlike the rest of her family, Astra did not seem dangerous, just lacking in social graces. Click. Click. Click, went the sound of her pencil passing across her ring. Kick. Kick. Kick, went the sound of her shoes...until a spitball hit Astra in the back of the head.Astra dropped the pencil, her lips moving silently.Amelia bent her head under the desk to pick up the pencil.Astra swung her head around, locking eyes with the boy who threw the spitball at her. She stared at Joey Penny, opening her eyes wide until dark-blue veins stuck out of her eyelids.With a pale face and hollowed cheeks, he stared back at her like a zombie, struck by the force of her gaze, literally drowning in a whirlpool of emotions. Regret. Sadness. Fear. Shock. Hatred. Astra especially threw out hatred at him, numbing his brain, overwhelming him with lightheadedness.His head slowly circled his neck.His eyelids drooped to his cheeks.All oxygen left his body, his lungs deflating into his spine.Astra was the only one in the room who could see his flesh separate from his bones and his organs disintegrate.His heart fell on the desk.His liver dropped to the floor.His lungs breathed in one corner.His kidneys hung on the wall of another corner.His bladder was on the teacher’s desk, leaking piss into the trash cash on the side.Joey was pissing in his pants, giving his feet a shower as urine seeped beneath his socks.He was dying. His spirit was breaking free from his body, tearing his guts open, from the inside out.Finally, his spirit did break free and whooshed from his belly button.His soul floated from the ceiling, looking down upon his empty shell.“Here, I picked up your pencil,” Amelia said.Astra moved her eyes away from Joey’s eyes, breaking the spell.He gasped for air, clutching his collar, having re-entered his body. The re-entry resembled carbonated soda sealed inside a bottle to trap the air bubbles. Green saliva bubbled from his lips. Mucus ran from his nose. Goosebumps erupted on his arms. He rubbed his chest, blinking his eyes to hold back his tears. Everyone in the room heard his fart when he pooped his pants.“There must be a cold going around. Boys are weak, susceptible to all sorts of things,” Astra commented. She laughed, clenching the desk, belying her humorous mood. She peeked at Amelia from the corner of one eye, wondering if she had heard her muttering the spell.Astra sat there, breathing heavily. She closed her eyes, clenching her hands into fists. Control, Astra, she told herself. It is all about control. Remember what Aunt Nikki has taught you—there is a time and a place for everything, even death.After the boring lesson the bell rang, and Miss Singer told the students they could go to lunch. Amelia, also, carried a lunch sack, and Astra followed her to some tables outside, like a puppy biting at her sock.You cannot shake me, Astra thought, running after her to the back of the school, where there was no one else around. “I’ve never had a real, live, friend before,” she said, pathetically.“I’m not your friend. Just go away before you ruin my life,” Amelia said. “My other friends don’t want to eat with me because of you.”“Then we’ll eat together.”Astra pushed her shoulders, forcing Amelia to sit on the ground.“Don’t worry. No other kids can see us,” Astra shyly said.They both ate in silence. Amelia looked as if she was about to cry. “That’s what I get for being nice,” Astra thought she heard the girl say.Astra yanked a great big walnut hidden in her pocket and held it out to her. The walnut was shiny, because Astra had taken the time to rub the shell against the hem of her skirt. She had planned to disobey Mommy and give the walnut to Miss Singer instead of the Marquet girl, but Astra changed her mind.“What did you do to Joey?” Amelia asked, suspiciously.“Is that the boy’s name? I did nothing. He must have felt guilty for being mean and throwing a spitball at me. See. I’m nice,” she said, offering Amelia the walnut.The shell sparkled in the sunlight, appearing like the most expensive wood. “It’s a long time between lunch and home. You have a healthy appetite. You’re not thin like me,” she said. Amelia was taller, big-boned, and not fragile-looking like Astra.Amelia circled her mouth with her tongue, but did not take the walnut.Astra cracked the walnut shell in half between her hands, which were stronger than they appeared. She removed a small piece of crunchy chunk of nut and tossed the nut in her mouth. She then, once again, offered the walnut to the other girl.“I’m still hungry,” Amelia grunted, reaching out and taking a few walnut pieces in her limp hand. She rubbed her fingers against the nuts, swallowing the saliva in her mouth. “What did you say?”Astra talked with a full mouth. Tiny crumbs of walnut flew from between her teeth as she chewed. She gulped, swallowing the nut. “I told you. See. The walnut is not poisoned.”An uncomfortable silence followed her words.Amelia lifted the walnut pieces to her mouth and bit into the nuts, acting as if the nuts tasted like sawdust in her mouth.“Walnuts are dry,” Astra said, “but here, you must eat the last piece in this half of the walnut. See, how the walnut is shaped exactly like a heart? Here.” Astra carefully removed the nut so it would not break and stuffed the heart-shaped nut in Amelia’s mouth. “Chew,” she ordered.Amelia bit down on the nut, but the heart-shaped piece would not break.Astra smiled, lopsided. “The walnut is from my family’s tree,” she announced, plopping down beside her. “You know, the big walnut tree on the top of the hill that looks down on Santa Fe?”Amelia gagged, and the walnut slid down her throat.She took Amelia’s hand, grasping it in her own, tightly, preventing her from escaping. She squeezed tighter, ignoring her pale face and whimper. “The fruit of the nut is especially sweet, is it not? You have never tasted such a walnut before.”Amelia’s face shown with rapture. “You’re right. Your family’s walnut is the best I have ever tasted. The pieces of shell even glow in my hand.”Astra smiled triumphantly at Amelia. “I have another walnut,” she said and reached in her pocket. She waved the walnut at Amelia who grabbed for it. She held the walnut high, laughing. “This walnut is shaped like your brain.”She threw the walnut at Amelia, who cracked the shell open and sucked the pieces of nut right out of the shell. “With each bite of this walnut, it tastes better and better,” she said. “There is such passion in this nut, I feel tingly all over. Oh, but I am stingy. The walnut is nearly gone. Here, Astra, have a piece.”“No,” she said, guiding the walnut to Amelia’s lips. “Eat. Eat of the fruit of my family’s tree.”Amelia’s lips reddened, looking as if her heart beat in her mouth, pumping blood around her lips. Indeed, her lips trembled.“I brought the walnuts, especially for you. You were good and ate both of them,” Astra said. She smiled sweetly when Amelia swallowed the walnut, even the shell.Control. It was all about control. Astra had bid her time. All morning the walnuts burned a hole in her purse, but Astra controlled her urge to offer the walnuts to Amelia in the classroom.See. Her first day at school and already she was learning.