My father, whom I trust as surely as yesterday happened and tomorrow might not, was the first to call me a witch. He meant it in a loving way, but he meant it. In later years, he’d sometimes say it with a defiant touch of pride. —My daughter, the witch.
I brought this on myself by warning my brother, Christopher, with all the raw certainty of a seven-year-old who believed she could see things hidden from others, not to go to the movies one August evening with his best friend, Ben. He laughed, like any older brother twice his sister’s age would, and said I could take a metaphysical flying leap. I can still picture him, lanky, loose-jointed, tall as a tree to my eyes, wearing his favorite faded baseball jersey untucked over a pair of worn jeans and scuffed brown boots. —Hey, Nutcracker, see you in the afterlife. Turning, he clomped down the porch stairs two steps at a time to the waiting car. I remember lying in long orchard grass in the field beyond our house, listening to the restless crickets scraping their bony legs together, and waiting for the meteors to tell me when the worst had come to pass.
At first the sky was calm. Just an infinity of cold stars and a few winking planets out in the void, carving their paths through the darkness. Maybe I got it wrong, I hoped. But then so many shooting stars started chasing across the night I couldn’t begin to know which of them had carried my beloved laughing brother away. The crickets stopped their chorus as the whole field sank into silence. I sat up and gasped. How I wished what I saw above me was a great black slate instead of a brilliant light show. Defeated by my vindication, I walked back to the house and sneaked in the side door.
—That you, Cass? my mother called out. My mother, who could hear a mouse yawn the next county over.
—No, I whispered, not wanting to be me anymore.
Christopher never came back. Neither did Ben or Ben’s father, Rich Gilchrist, who was the town supervisor. The funeral was attended by half a thousand people. That happens when you are a well-liked local politician and chief of the volunteer fire department. Not to mention a decorated war veteran. Many men in dress uniforms attended from all over Corinth County in rural upstate New York and across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Phalanxes of fire trucks bright as polished mirrors lined the road beside the churchyard cemetery. People wept in the wake of all the eulogies, and afterward the bells tolled. It was the second big funeral in as many years—Emily Schaefer, Chris’s classmate, was killed the year before in what some believed was not the accidental death the authorities declared it—and our town still hadn’t recovered. Whereas before we followed one hearse to the cemetery, this year three coffins were carried out together after a joint service, one draped with an American flag and two smaller unadorned ones behind. To this day I can hear the bagpipes playing their dirge.
Family friends and Christopher’s inseparable band of buddies—Bibb, Jimmy, Lare, Charley Granger, my favorite, even the brooding Roy Skoler, who slipped out back to smoke—came over to our rambling farmhouse afterward, and everyone ate from a smorgasbord and drank mulled cider and spoke in low shocked voices. As for myself, I hid upstairs. I felt guilty, bereft. Also angry. If he hadn’t so simply ignored me, things might have turned out different. I barricaded my door that night and spent hours memorizing my brother’s narrow freckled face, his edgy voice, his gawky mannerisms, his lame jokes, the Christopherness of him, so I could hold him as long as possible in the decaying cradle of memory.
Instead of sleeping in my bed that night, I lay fitful on the floor, twisting around in my funeral clothes, hugging my doll Millicent, who was my first confidante and imaginary little sister. Why, I thought, should a grieving sibling sleep comfortably when her brother was stuck inside a dark box all alone? I felt hopeless, deeply discouraged. I didn’t want my brother to be dead. I didn’t want to be a witch. I had no interest in knowing ever again what might happen in this world before it did. My foresight was one thing. But to shift the flow of my brother’s will so it might not collide with his fate was as impossible as reaching out to grab one of those falling stars, hold it in my palm, and blow it out. Still would be beyond me, had he survived when a woman fell asleep at the wheel and crossed lanes, flying head-on into the Gilchrists’ car under a new moon. Which is to say no moon at all.
My mother, for all her Christian religion, sank into a numb depression and stayed there for a long time. When I called her Mom she only sometimes answered; more often she just looked blankly right through me. Since she paid more attention to me when I addressed her by her first name, Rosalie, it became a habit that stuck. She took a year off from her job as a science teacher and spent days doing volunteer work for the church. None of her good deeds, from serving meals at a homeless shelter to clerking in the United Methodist thrift shop, buoyed her spirits. Though I didn’t want to believe it, some days I sensed she blamed Christopher’s death on me. This she would have denied, if asked—I didn’t—but it was there in a random gesture, a quiet phrase, a clouded glance. I do know she prayed for me. She told me as much. But I’m glad she prayed in silence.
Looking back, I see that I was trying my best to breathe.
If it hadn’t been for Christopher’s death, I probably would not have been raised by my father like I was. In Rosalie’s grieving absence, my dad and I reinvented our kinship. He was far too wise to bury his own sorrow by attempting to transform me into some factitious son, tomboy though I admittedly and perhaps inevitably was. High-spirited and gregarious, a magnet to a constant stream of friends, my brother had been nothing like his introverted sister, Cassandra, who more often than not kept her own company. Nep did his level best not to Christopherize me. Nor did I feel compelled to try to make my father into an older brother figure.
Instead, we began hanging out together, a fond parent and his punk kid. He drove me to school and picked me up. Together we made three-bean chili and shepherd’s pie for dinners on the nights when Rosalie arrived home late. We listened avidly to his old jazz records, shunning the seventies pop music that filled the airwaves. Weekends I sat on a tall stool next to him in his repair shop, really just a converted barn near the house, filled with widgets, wires, gadgets and tools, boxes of tubes both glass and rubber, a thousand broken household things he, poor man’s Prospero, hoarded for spare parts and used to fix whatever people brought to him that wasn’t working. Radios, tractors, toasters, clocks, locks. He even mended a clarinet for some boy in a local marching band. Nep could, I marveled, take almost anything that had fallen into disrepair and make it new again. Young as I was, I recall thinking, He’s the last of a breed, Cass. Don’t take this for granted.
I was crushed by my brother’s predicted death, stunned by my mother’s disappearance from our lives, and inspired, warmed, and moved by my father, who, however much I’d loved him before, was a revelation to me. The man was possessed, in his quirky way, of genius. I thought so then and still do now, even in the wake of all these intervening years.
What needs to be said here is this. If I hadn’t been fathered so much by him, I might not have become, like him, a diviner. For however skilled he was at transforming the ruined into the r...