by Katie J. Schwartz
The universe keeps giving me brothers.
Henry was there when I was a baby. Not technically my brother, but an uncle born so late to my grandparents that he was only a few years older. When my mother remarried, I gained two more older brothers, Dan and Jake. My first younger brother, Ollie, came a year or so later, courtesy of that new marriage. And finally, my father’s new wife brought me two more younger brothers, Todd and Jack.
And so I, an only child by blood, had six brothers by blessing.
I stood in the wings at the concert hall, rubbing my hands together and rocking back and forth from my toes to my heels. For the first time, I was going to play piano and sing in front of an audience. None of my parents could make it—my father and stepmother lived across the country now, and my mother and stepfather were away on business—four absentee parents, who could never shape my life as much as my brothers do, no matter how they (in particular my mother) tried.
I had my brothers there, and that was what mattered. For the first time, all six of my brothers were in one room. For me.
The house lights went down. I took a deep breath and stepped out into the blinding white spotlight. The polished, softly shining keys of the baby grand beckoned. My fingers fluttered over them, and sweet, soft music filled the room. My eyes drifted shut. Here, on the bench, at the black and white keys—this was my second home.
My thudding heart interrupted the moment’s tranquility. For an instant I didn’t know why, but then I remembered: I had to sing. The first note was fast approaching. My hands began to shake, and I struggled to place each finger correctly. For heaven’s sake, you practiced this forever! There’s no excuse for making stupid mistakes now.
I opened my mouth, and the first few notes came out, clear and solid, if not breathtakingly beautiful. I drew in a breath for the next bar.
A shriek from the audience flew at me.
I stopped playing and whipped around.
Though the high beam of the spotlight was meant to illuminate me, I could see the first row, and all six of my brothers sitting in it. But something was wrong. Their bodies contorted and bent, arms stretching at odd angles, necks elongating. Their skin burst into white feathers.
Before my eyes, my six brothers became six swans. As I stared from my spot at the silent piano, they took wing, and flew from the auditorium.
My lungs burned. I had been running since I fled from the stage, and I didn’t stop until I reached my bedroom. This is all your fault; you make an absolute mess of everything—I fumbled for my spellbook, frantically flipped pages, and stared at the spell I’d done last night.
I knew, deep down, what had happened. I had wanted to sing well. I had wanted my brothers, all of them, to be proud of me. I’d been thinking of my brothers as I enacted the spell, when I should have been focusing on myself. How could you have been so careless? Stupid! I’d been thinking of them when I inhaled a mouthful of sage smoke and choked on the word “swanaz.”
Why on earth would you try a spell in an ancient language that you of course don’t know? What an idiotic decision!
I sat back on my heels. My brothers were waterfowl, and it was all my fault. They’d all been there for me, and it was all my fault.
~ ~ ~
Henry sat me down at the piano bench. “Come on, let’s play piano for a while.”
I squirmed and tried to get back up. “I want to go outside!”
He laughed. “It’s raining cats and dogs! Come on, Juli, I’ll teach you a song.”
I stilled at the thought of learning something on the piano. Henry made such beautiful music come from the keys; I wanted to too.
Henry put his hand over mine and helped me tap out a four-note rhythm. “F-D-G-C,” he sang along. “And repeat, repeat, repeat.” We practiced until I could plunk it out on my own, and gradually I got faster, until I was doing it in perfect four/four time. As I continued to enthusiastically strike the keys, Henry stretched out his fingers and began to play a slightly more complicated melody on top of mine.
For a few minutes, we played together beautifully, our separate melodies intertwining into one full-fledged song. Then I lost my notes under his and began to stumble. I slowed, hit a wrong note, and my stomach dropped. My hand slid off the keys.
Henry paused. “What’s wrong? That was great!”
I studied my lap. “I did it wrong. I’m stupid.”
His brow creased. “Where did you get that idea?”
I shrugged. “I can’t do it, Henry.”
“Juli.” Henry put his arm around my shoulders. “You don’t have to be good at things right away. Making mistakes is how you learn.”
Chewing on my already-shredded lower lip, I continued to leaf through my spellbook. There had to be a way to break this. Mistakes are how you learn. There had to be a way to fix this. But spell books handed down from your great-grandmother don’t come with indexes, and looking for a counter-spell was slow going.
My neck ached and my feet had long since fell asleep, but I remained on the floor, searching, searching. For heaven’s sake, the spellbook isn’t all that difficult to use! Why haven’t you found something yet?
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As calmly as I was able, I started at the back of the book and flipped forward. I took the time to read the title of each spell, and my entire body twitched with impatience. This wouldn’t take so long if you weren’t so careless and stupid.
And then, there it was. A spell to reverse animal transformations. Based on the illustrations of gooey-eyed figures, it was originally intended to restore a lover cursed by another jealous witch, but it would work just fine for brothers. There was one warning, right at the top of the page: The casting witch had to remain completely, utterly silent for the entire duration of the spell. I quickly scanned the spell.
My stomach dropped.
~ ~ ~
Dan started up the car. “You ready, Juli?”
“Yeah!” I bounced a little in my seat. Dan was taking me to a high school party. Me, a sixth grader! A high school party!
He grinned. His smile was crooked, like a child’s drawing of a crescent moon. “This is gonna be awesome.”
The party wasn’t quite what I expected. Instead of a houseful of teenagers dancing and flirting with each other, it was a group of ten or so people lounging around in a low-lit living room. I hung back near the doorway as Dan greeted everyone with lazy high-fives and rude-sounding names, like Swinger and Tubs.
I managed to edge closer to the circle and sit in an empty armchair without anyone noticing me, but then Dan turned and introduced me to the room. Frozen and squirming inside, I listened to a slew of names that I couldn’t focus on enough to remember, and returned half-waves with barely imperceptible nods.
Someone handed Dan a beer, and I shrank further into the armchair as he popped the tab. He turned to me and grinned his off-kilter smile. “You want a beer, Juli?”
“Jesus, Dan,” one of the girls said. “She’s just a kid.”
“She can handle it.” His grin widened. “What do you say, Juli?”
I looked around at the room of high schoolers, all older than me, all infinitely cooler. My voice stuck in my throat, so I did the only thing I could do. I nodded.
Dan handed me his beer and got another one. I took a sip. Bitterness soaked into my tongue, reminding me of when I bit my fingernails and accidentally got a taste of polish remover, except it was everywhere. I grimaced, and the entire room laughed. Heat crept onto my face as I filled to the brim with embarrassment at my own stupidity.
I spent the rest of the evening wishing I could either leave or die. I didn’t drink the rest of my beer, but I held it, feeling the metal can grow warmer and warmer. The taste remained in my mouth. Eventually, the party devolved into everyone pairing up and making out. I couldn’t ask Dan to leave, and I couldn’t call home and ask for a ride, either—I would never hear the end of it if my mother knew about this.
Trapped in the big armchair, I willed myself smaller and smaller, and stayed completely still and silent. If they didn’t hear me, then I wasn’t there.
I stood by the little pond in the woods, kicking up the newly-fallen leaves, hands shoved deep in my pockets. All six swans were there, floating aimlessly around the water. I couldn’t tell if they knew they were actually humans, but I thought they looked a bit morose.
I was feeling a bit morose too. The spell didn’t stop at absolute silence, there were other tasks that I had to fulfill, tasks that I had no knowledge of or experience with—who knew how long it might take? Maybe six months, maybe a year. Maybe more.
During my period of voicelessness, I had to collect stinging nettles, make thread from their stems, and use that thread to weave a blanket large enough to throw over all of my brothers. My silence and industriousness would endow the nettle-blanket with magic, which would transform my brothers back into my brothers, or so the spell claimed.
My silence and industriousness—I’d almost snorted when I read it but stopped myself. Was a snort considered speaking? It wasn’t an ideal spell, but it was my only option. Of course, you’ll likely mess this one up as well—why on earth would you be able to get it right.
I squinted at one swan. His beak was a little crooked, so I thought he might be Dan. Maybe. Dan always treated me like an adult instead of a kid, but now that I was pretty close to actually being an adult, he always seemed like he was on the verge of apologizing for it. There was something in his eyes that belied something on the tip of his tongue, something that he couldn’t quite choke out.
I sighed internally and picked up the plastic bucket I’d brought with me. It was time to start gathering nettles.
~ ~ ~
Jake surveyed the tall, dense patch of weeds and scrubby brush. “It’s taller than you,” he said. “You better get up on my shoulders.”
He knelt down and I scrambled up. We had been tromping through the wooded area that surrounded our house all afternoon—we did it almost every day, looking for cool places, wild animals, and interesting plants. Jake was a Boy Scout, and his knowledge of wilderness seemed endless to me.
Today, we were looking for a place to fish. I perched precariously on his shoulders, clutching the little cross-body bag that I brought along to stash pretty rocks and cool sticks. Last week, we’d found a turtle shell, bleached tan and white by the sun. It was sitting on my bookshelf.
The weeds made dry cracking and shooshing sounds as Jake moved through them. From my vantage point, it looked like a waving ocean of mottled browns and greens. The tips of tree branches combed through my wind-tangled hair. Jake’s hands squeezed around my ankles, steadying me.
As he set me down on the other side of the brush, something caught my ear. “Jake! I think I hear water!” I started to run in the direction I’d heard it from, but he grabbed my wrist.
“Slow down! That’s poison ivy over there. We have to go around.”
I stopped, looking down at the dirt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so stupid.”
“Not knowing what poison ivy looks like doesn’t make you stupid, goofball.” He grinned. “Let’s check out that water source.”
We slowly picked our way around the leaves of three, and when we came out on the other side of the trees, there was a small pond. It wasn’t very big, but it was pretty—surrounded by sugarberry trees and flinty rock. A couple of ducks floated on its mirrored surface.
Jake grinned down at me. “Come on, let’s skip a few rocks.”
My grades were slipping.
No, they were plummeting. I’d been silent for five months now. I could take solace in the fact that I had almost enough nettle thread to begin weaving a blanket, but my senior year was basically a wash. After begging my parents to let me transfer into a fancy-pants art school, I’d filled my schedule with things like voice lessons, public speaking, and participation-heavy creative workshops. My mistake. Full of mess-ups and mistakes, as usual.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it, wasn’t even the thing making me toss and turn all night long.
The entire town was in a fervor looking for my brothers, my six swans. Witches, both local and out-of-towners, were boasting that they and they alone knew how to reverse the curse. Scientists were salivating at the chance to poke and prod them, to figure out where the human was tucked away inside the bird. Luckily, my brothers mostly stayed at the pond, and I was the only one who knew about it. None of this would have even happened if it weren’t for your positively astounding ineptitude.
But I wasn’t taking any chances. I crafted a protection charm, filling my turtle shell with dried bay leaves, St. John’s Wort, and crushed acorn, and walking a barrier around the pond as the mixture burned, releasing a heavy, acrid smoke into the air. I did this every Friday evening, just to be sure.
But school . . . school wasn’t an issue that I could resolve with witchcraft. Maybe if I’d been practicing chaos magic for the last hundred years I could trick my teachers into passing me, but until then . . . I would just have to swallow my F’s right along with my voice.
~ ~ ~
Ollie came rushing through the kitchen door after school, letting it bang shut and moving his legs in a stiff, jerky manner. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that his eyes were brimming with tears.
I cautiously edged my way into the living. He was huddled up on the couch, face crushed into a throw pillow. “Ollie? What’s wrong?”
His shoulders shook as he drew in a shuddery, tear-filled breath. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Ollie.” I sat down next to him and put my hand on his back.
After a minute or two, he rolled over and sat up. “I can’t read right. Every time I have to read in class I just can’t say the words. My face gets all hot and I just can’t say the words. Everybody says I’m stupid.” He tipped forward and crashed his head into my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around him.
“Everybody says that? Everybody?”
He sniffed. “Well, almost everybody. Trent and Mira and Nathaniel all do.”
I recognized the names. Younger siblings of kids that had been in my class at the same school, all exceptionally mean, and exceptionally unashamed of it.
“Ollie.” I rubbed his back. “Listen to me. Just because somebody says that you’re stupid doesn’t make it true.”
“No, really. You’re good at tons of stuff. Remember the birdhouse that you made for Mother’s Day? The finches love it! Could somebody stupid have done that?”
Ollie burrowed his face deeper into my shoulder, but I could feel him smiling. After a minute, I heard his muffled voice. “I can make really good pancakes too.”
I smiled too. “See? A stupid person definitely can’t make pancakes.”
He laughed, and then grew still again. “But I’m still not good at reading. And reading’s important.”
“Well, we can work on it. We can ask Mom if you can get a tutor—”
“No!” Ollie shook his head. “I don’t want to ask Mom. I—I don’t want a tutor.”
“Well, I can help you then,” I said. “Just remember that you can learn to be better at reading. Those other kids can’t learn to be kind.”
The nettle blanket covered my twin bed, but I knew that wasn’t enough. It needed to be at least queen-sized, maybe bigger. Against the backdrop of quiet classical piano music, my knitting needles continued to click and clack. Since I didn’t have a loom at my disposal to actually weave a blanket, knitting one seemed like the obvious alternative. I still wasn’t very good at it—and my hands were stiff with pain from working so closely with a stinging plant—but I was at least faster than when I’d begun. And I figured that a couple dropped stitches weren’t a big deal for a blanket that wasn’t going to be used for warmth.
On my nightstand, my phone began to buzz, vibrating until it shifted and bumped into my alarm clock. I stiffened and ignored it, looking harder at my stitches, playing closer attention to each loop. When it finally stopped, the stones in my stomach dissipated some. One more short, angry buzz sounded, meaning that I had a voicemail or text. The stones were back.
I finished the row that I was on, moving the needles more slowly with each stitch, then drew in a long breath and forced myself to look at my phone.
A text. From Bella, a friend from one of my music classes. The missed call was from her, too.
The stone churned around, grinding against each other as I clicked to open the message. It read: “A bunch of us are going out tonight. Idk why I’m even telling you, since you don’t go out or even talk to us anymore.”
I set my phone face-down, pressing it into the bedspread, as if that would make it and the people on the other end of it disappear. The school year was long since ended, and for that I was glad. I couldn’t speak and I spent most of my time knitting a giant, nettle blanket. It was easier to just ignore my friends, to fade into the background and hope they forgot about me, didn’t notice my strange behavior. They did, of course, and now our relationships were strained, to put it nicely. For heaven’s sake, take some responsibility for once. This would be a non-issue if you hadn’t made such stupid decisions.
It was for the best, though. I didn’t have even anything in common with my musician friends anymore. I couldn’t sing, and for so long now, my hands were either swollen and pussing from handling the nettles, or aching and blistered from nonstop knitting. I hadn’t touched the piano in nearly ten months.
~ ~ ~
Todd burst through my closed bedroom door, smiling and struggling to pop open a can of soda. “Hey guys! What’s going on?”
The internal sighs that came from my friends were excruciatingly audible to me, and I cringed and flushed pink. Hannah’s lips pressed into a thin line as she shut the magazine that we’d been taking a quiz from. Its glossy pages slapped together with an irritated fwap!
Todd came over and wedged himself into our circle. “So how is everybody? What are we talking about?” He leaned over and peered at the magazine. “Seventeen, huh? Any good articles?”
I could hardly bear to look at my friends’ faces, but I still saw the eye-rolls and badly disguised snickers. Janie leaned over to me and whispered, “Can’t you tell your little brother to go away?”
Todd took a long, disgusting slurp from his can of soda. I flinched. “Todd, can I talk to you outside, please?”
“Sure, Sis!” He leaped back to his feet. I ushered him outside of the room and quickly shut the door.
“Look, we’re doing some, um, girl stuff right now. Girls only.”
I watched as Todd’s smile faded. His cheeks turned pink. “Oh.” He looked down. “That’s cool. I’ll just go see what Jack is up to.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Todd.” And I reopened my bedroom door just in time to hear Lisa say, “He’s so lame. Maybe he should be called Toad instead.”
My friends dissolved into fits of laughter. I turned bright red and couldn’t even look at Todd as he walked quickly away. My stomach twisted as I walked back into my room and sat down among my friends. Part of me wanted to tell them that they were being jerks, but they were laughing too loudly.
By my very unscientific estimations, I only needed about another foot on my blanket. I sat on my bed, knitting frantically. It was the end of September. I had been silent for almost an entire year. At this point, I wasn’t even sure if I could still talk.
The hit to my grades hadn’t been quite as bad as I’d feared, and I was able to start college on time. Granted, I couldn’t get into a great school due to my suddenly lower-than-average GPA, but maybe that was for the best. From where I was sitting, online classes through the local community college seemed like a good option.
But it was almost all over. I was going to save my brothers. I was going to undo my mistakes. I was going to start talking, singing, and playing piano again. Maybe I could even begin to repair my lost, broken friendships.
I thought I heard the front door open but dismissed it. Ollie was a swan, and I’d been living alone for the entire year. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I heard stiletto heels clicking down the hall towards my room.
Not because I didn’t know who it was, but because I knew exactly who it was.
My door swung open, and there she stood. My mother.
“Well.” She clicked her way into my room, thin and model-tall, smoothing down her elegant white business suit. “Word finally reached me, although it took awhile to make it through the grapevine. Thank you for letting me know about what you did to your brothers and poor Henry. Oh, and your father’s children.”
I looked back down and concentrated harder on my knitting.
She made a tsk noise through her teeth. “For heaven’s sake, Julietta. I go on sabbatical in Europe for one year, and look what a mess you’ve made. Did you think I wouldn’t find out about it?”
She doesn’t know that I can’t talk. She doesn’t know the spell. A witch so powerful that she teaches at a private witchcraft institution, and she doesn’t know the counter-curse.
I knitted faster. I only needed a little more.
“Oh, and don’t think that I don’t know about your schoolwork, either. We’re going to get that fixed right up as soon as this other mess is taken care of. Community college, what an embarrassment.”
I heard her heels clicking again and then saw her white pant leg out of the corner of my eye, right next to the bed.
“Julietta.” Her voice was sharper, taking on a more annoyed edge. “Don’t you dare ignore me, young lady.” When I didn’t acknowledge her, her fingers smashed my cheeks together and forced my head up. Her gray eyes were cold. “Pay attention. This is what’s going to happen: You are going to give me your great-grandmother’s spellbook, and then you are going to take me to your brothers and the other poor boys. I am going to fix this whole mess that you’ve made. For heaven’s sake, how could you have been so stupid?”
~ ~ ~
Jack sat down next to me on the piano bench. “Hey Juli?”
My fingers stilled, but the sweet notes lingered in the air, reverberating. “What’s up?”
“I was wondering.” His fingers ghosted lightly over the keys, touching but not pressing hard enough to produce sound. “Do you think you could teach me how to play the piano?”
“Oh, Jack.” I bit my lip. “I’m not nearly good enough. Wouldn’t you rather have a real teacher?”
“But you are a real teacher. You love piano and you’re super good at it.”
“Jack, I just don’t think—”
“Please, Juli?” He leaned his head against my arm. “You’re the smartest, nicest person I know. You can be an awesome teacher, you can. Please?”
I looked down at him. He pouted his lower lip out, and then gave me a goofy grin, unable to hold the pose. I couldn’t help but smile. I was still learning the piano myself, but maybe we could learn together.
“OK.” I said. “Here’s your first lesson.” I played a four-note sequence. “F-D-G-C. Now you try.”
I couldn’t hold off any longer. My mother, still criticizing and firing off orders, was now rifling through my things, trying to locate my spellbook. She didn’t ask why I wasn’t speaking. She didn’t ask why I was knitting a giant blanket of stinging nettles. She didn’t care about anything except doing things her own way.
I couldn’t hold her off any longer. Eventually, she would find the spellbook and try something, something that might disrupt all of my efforts. The blanket might be too small, but I would have to risk it.
When her back was turned, I quickly folded up the blanket and ran from the room.
“Julietta!” Her voice was shrill, irritated. “Come back here this instant, young lady!” Just before I banged through the back door, I heard her pointed stilettos begin to click down the hall after me.
The heavy, cumbersome blanket weighed me down, and she came out of the back door before I was able to clear the backyard and disappear into the forest. Knowing that she was behind me, I decided to take the longer route to the pond. The way that would be harder and messier on her expensive high heels and pristine white suit.
“Julietta!” I could hear her shrieking behind me. “Stop this nonsense right now, young lady! Do you hear me? Right now!”
I pushed on.
When I arrived at the pond, my brothers were floating at the far end but began to swim towards me. My lungs heaved and my legs burned, both stinging from the run through the woods, but I wouldn’t stop. I would save my brothers.
There was a crashing noise behind me, and my mother burst through the trees. Her pants were mud up to her knees, there were leaves and twigs in her hair, and her heels were gone. But, to my horror, she was clutching the spellbook.
She spotted my six swans and smiled. “Ahh, there we go.” And she flipped open the book.
I dropped the blanket and rushed at her, intending to knock the book from her hands. She grabbed my wrist and held in high in the air, so that I was forced onto my toes. “Julietta, I simply don’t understand you. I tried to train you, to teach you to be a proper, powerful witch like me, but you just insist on bungling every single thing that you do.”
She shook me. I wobbled on my tiptoes. My shoulder socket screamed, but I pressed my lips together.
“Nothing to say for yourself, hmm? Well, that’s fairly typical, isn’t it. Always the quiet, shrinking, stupid little girl.”
A large white bird flew at my mother’s head.
She shrieked and dropped my arm. I tumbled to the ground, and when I looked up, another swan had joined the first. And then another, and another. In less than a minute, all six of my brothers were diving-bombing my mother, hissing, honking, and flapping their wings.
She screeched again and flung up her hands to protect herself, sending the spellbook crashing into the mud. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the blanket. I would save my brothers.
My brothers who taught me, who let me experience things that my mother never would, who were my friends when no one else was. My brothers who depended on me, who forgave me when I was unkind, who believed in me and my abilities. My brothers who loved me.
They abandoned my mother and landed in front of me. I threw the blanket.
Shouts and loud popping noises came from beneath the nettles, and the swan-shaped lumps shot upward, growing, twisting, changing. Human hands flung the blanket back, and there they were. I fell into their arms, sobbing and rasping their names.
I stood in the wings of the auditorium, waiting for the concert to begin.
This time, I wasn’t performing, but waiting to watch my student perform. Jack stood beside me, nervously rocking back and forth on his feet. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Hey. You’re gonna be great.”
“I know.” He flashed me a grin. “I have an awesome teacher.”
I turned and smiled back at him, but my happiness faded some as I looked at his left arm. Although technically human, it still grew large white wing-feathers, from his wrist to his shoulder. I had been right. The nettle blanket wasn’t quite big enough.
“Jack, I know I’ve said it before, but I really am sorry about your—”
“Stop it.” He rolled his eyes. “It isn’t your fault, Juli. It really, really isn’t.”
I gave him and quick hug, and he walked out on stage to a rainfall of applause. The music began to drift over me, and I closed my eyes, humming. After the concert, I would return home with Henry, where I had been living since I’d left my mother’s house after the swan incident. I had also left the spellbook, content to leave the family business and pursue music, another kind of magic. My mother wasn’t happy about it, but that was her usual state of existence.
As for me, I had the love and support of my brothers, and for the time being, that was all I needed.
Katie J. Schwartz was raised in a small Midwestern town and now lives in another, frightfully similar, small Midwestern town. She has a Master’s degree in Professional Writing. Her creative works have appeared in Journey Literary Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. Like many writers, she also has a blog: katiejschwartz.wordpress.com. Author photo credit to Bryan Schilligo.
Great short story! I like the writing style. I’ve read a couple other pieces by Katie Schwartz and am enjoying the journey.