Every once in a while, one might stumble upon a family whose members are all women: a mother or two, a few daughters, several nieces, their sisters, godmothers, grandmothers, and many, many aunts. Those women are always witches; I know this because I am one. My mother’s single daughter, who was in turn my mother’s single daughter, who was my great-grandmother’s only daughter. Witches, the whole lot.
At home, we are taught the basics, but when we are old enough, we are sent to the house of an elder to finish our education. To mature, they say. I should have expected there would be a catch when I was told to go to my grandmother’s house, in a day-long bus trip that would take me from Sapucaia do Sul to Belo Horizonte, where grandma lived. My mother was ashamed of our magic, after all.
Eighteen at the time, I hoped to learn all about healing concoctions, regenerative unguents and revitalizing potions, maybe even secret spells to do the unthinkable. Instead, I found myself alone in the bus terminal of the sixth largest city of Brazil, unable to find a familiar face. That was the first sign. Grandma Luísa had always waited in the terminal, concerned that something could happen to a girl from a small town such as me.
“Mom?” I called, fearing she could be sick. “Grandma’s not here.”
“Call a cab.” Her voice was severe, like she was Ms. Edna Garcia and not just mom. “The doorman has the keys. It’s probably because of her condition.”
“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Ale,” Mom continued, business-like. “She’s in the early stages of vascular dementia. Just keep an eye on her, and focus on your studies. You’ll see that college is much more rewarding than brewing potions inside the house.”
That happened in late February, a week before the beginning of classes at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. At first, I didn’t notice anything different. Grandma was her usual self—restless, moody, obsessed with keeping her apartment clean. If anything, she was nicer than I remembered her to be. In my memories, she was judgmental and cruel, seeing her daughter and granddaughter as no more than troublesome weights she was forced to carry, and now she wanted company all the time.
In my first day of college, I was hiding great-grandmother Mercedes’ handwritten books inside my backpack, when grandma entered the room, panting:
“Alexandra!” She called, squinting her black eyes. Despite being seventy at the time, she looked a lot like a child: a round face, pale olive skin, minuscule in height, cropped wiry hair, and a wicked smile playing in her narrow lips. “I need you to come with me.”
“I’m going to class now,” I answered, turning around as I tried to fit into my jeans. I didn’t want her to see my body, or she could start an endless diatribe about my weight. “You know, college.”
“How old are you again?”
“Of course you are!” Grandma burst into laughter, clapping my back so hard it hurt. “Anyway, you can go later to this ‘college’ of yours. Now you’ve got to come with me! I’ll buy you new clothes! Your mother only dresses you in rags.”
The doors of her wardrobe opened, and socks, panties and bras folded themselves to join their hungry drawers, flying through the air as every little piece of the bedroom went to its rightful place. Bed done, floor wiped, curtains open, shoes carefully organized inside the rack.
It was nothing like the woman who screamed at me so many times for asking shy she couldn’t enchant the floor to wipe itself, or whose only compliment in my whole life had been that I wash the dishes surprisingly well.
As if reading my thoughts, she looked at me over her shoulder, grinning:
“I was like that too at your age. A little devil, your grandma used to say when she beat me,” she snickered, clearly meaning great-grandmother Mercedes. “I studied with nuns, you know. Turned their habits upside down. Made all the food in the pantry disappear. Once, I turned the soup into condensed milk. Can you believe it?”
“That’s amazing, grandma!” It was the first time I saw her do magic in front of me without a complaint. “Can you teach me?”
“No, cleaning is boring! Why don’t you go to college instead?”
The doctor told me she would be safe alone for a while. It was advisable for me to be around in case of unusual behavior, but he knew it was hard—very, very hard—to make her understand that she needed a caretaker. And, he added when I was about to leave, it’s important for your mental health to keep attending classes.
To me, grandma didn’t look ill. The doormen agreed; every day, she went downstairs to talk and make sure they all had something to eat. Even though João is looking like a whale, she told me, and even that was just her normal self. But poor thing, he works all day…!
There wasn’t much I could say, and I even considered they might have misdiagnosed her. I had too many memories of her telling me the same: you’re fat, you’ll always be fat if you keep eating like this, oh, dear, that’s a really unfortunate face. It wasn’t in her speech that I found any dissonance, but in the floating towels that greeted me when I got home.
“Grandma?” I left my backpack in the sofa and pushed a green towel aside. The towel kept rubbing itself against my cheek, as if it was just a happy dog eager to greet me.
I followed the trail of flying clothes, and found grandma half inside the old wardrobe of her bedroom.
“Are you home?” Grandma asked. I was in front of her.
“Yeah,” I answered, sitting on the bed. After some deliberation, I decided I wouldn’t point out the fact that she was using magic to clean again. “What are you doing with your ass in the air?”
“I wanted to show you this!” She sat on the floor, and opened a small box made of carved wood. “Come, look.”
“Pictures?” I sat by her side and held the box in my lap. The first picture was black and white, and showed a little girl with upturned eyes, chubby cheeks and a naughty expression in her face. “You?”
“Look at the little devil,” Grandma said, pointing at her child self. Then, she gave me another photo, this one in faded colors that looked from the 1970s. There was a skinny child with ocher skin wearing a bikini near a heavy black man with aviator glasses. “God, your grandpa was so fat.”
“Don’t be rude,” I told her, frowning. “Don’t you miss him?”
“Of course I miss him,” she said nonchalantly. “He was my best friend. Oh, look at that, your mother looks so young here! Décio loved it when she made doll houses for the birds in our house with magic. It was so silly.”
“Mom did magic?”
“And she loved it,” Grandma said, looking at the picture again. I didn’t have time to ask more, because she showed me another one. “This is your grandmother Mercedes. Look how thin she was. How elegant. Spanish class, don’t you think?”
“I didn’t know grandpa knew about us.” I ignored her last comments, searching for another picture of them. This one had a note in the back: From your dear friends, Luísa Megumi Garcia and Décio Garcia.
“You’re so slow,” Grandma huffed, waving her hand in the air. “I told you! He loved it! Silly man.”
“I never asked why you married.” I touched Grandma’s hand with caution, but she didn’t push me away. “Mom raised me by herself. Great-grandmother Mercedes left her husband a few years after you were born. Aren’t witches supposed to live on their own? Without men?”
Grandma blinked, leaving the little box aside.
“That’s true. I wonder why.”
“Maybe because you liked him?”
“Nonsense!” Grandma chuckled, but I wasn’t joking. “But he knew. He was fine about it. Of course he was! Very spiritual man, that Décio, thought we were gifted by orishas, which I agreed, maybe. When he died, I woke up and said: well, I don’t want to know of any other man! I’ll live my life and have fun!”
I didn’t point out that she spent the first years in bed, too depressed to get up; that would just irritate her.
“Oh. I just remembered something my mother taught me, but you can only use it once a week,” she said, opening her hand, small like mine. “When you’re really, really tired, and you want to clean the entire room in a second, you do it like this.”
With a crack, the whole room was refreshed by a blast of air. The wardrobe was closed, the clothes were folded, the shoes were in the rack, and the walls smelled like tangerine.
“Try it,” she said, and I did the same.
Crack. It wasn’t as perfect as hers, it was more like a hurricane, taking the clothes off the drawers only to fold them back again, but it was almost there. I smiled brightly, and hugged her.
“Teach me more, grandma!”
“Aw, aw,” Grandma groaned, at first trying to get rid of my arms, but hugging me back in the end. “Silly girl, really silly girl.”
I woke up in a hurry, trying to find my mother there, or anything that justified her name being yelled at me. I checked my phone, expecting a message. Nothing, just the time: 7 AM.
“Edna!” Grandma called one more time from the corridor. I ran to see if she needed help, but she was just cleaning again.
“I wanted to see you, Edna!”
I yawned and kissed her cheek, reminding myself to stay calm.
“I’m Alexandra, Ale, remember? Mom’s not here.”
“I know that.”
“I know you do.” I stared at the bucket full of all purpose. She had transformed the furniture into miniature toys that stood over the table so she could wipe every centimeter of the floor. “You need help?”
“My head is so funny lately.” Grandma walked away from me, as if she was not in the middle of a sentence. “I can’t remember how to turn the chairs back.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” I said. “Mom never taught me.”
“I think it’s easy,” she continued, holding one of the toy chairs in the air. The enchanted furniture moved its legs like she had just tickled it. “I think you close your hand in a fist, and you do the same movement as when you vanish garbage. But nothing happens when I try it.”
“Like this?” I stood by her side, trying to reproduce her instructions. She did it at the same time as me, open hand, close hand. The toys jerked in the air, and went back to their places, inflating like balloons.
“Oh? Turns out I still know how to do it!” Grandma laughed, and the sound of it made my head spin. I just wanted to go back to sleep.
“Yes, you do,” I muttered, walking back to my bed.
“Now that you’re awake, let me clean your room!”
“No, thank you,” I answered, closing the door. “Go to sleep, grandma.”
My mother called while grandma was watching a movie with one of the neighbors. We needed to speak about my life, she said, so I put her on speaker and laid on the sofa.
“How are things going?” Mom asked, and I stared at the ceiling. There was a small black spot where I had killed a mosquito a few days ago, and I was surprised to still find it there. “Isn’t Belo Horizonte much better than Sapucaia?”
“It’s a nice city,” I agreed with the phone on my chest. “But I’m not having much time to enjoy it.”
“Yeah,” I murmured, twirling a curl with my finger. “I don’t think she’s doing great, mom.”
“If you don’t, we’ll just hire a nurse. That’s it.”
“Mom!” I sat down, holding the phone. If I tried hard enough, I would be able to see her standing in the living room with raised eyebrows. “She’s not gonna understand why we’re doing that to her. She doesn’t know she’s ill.”
“And she won’t ever know,” my mother sighed on the other side. “The doctor says she might become suicidal if she does.”
“I just don’t want you to lose your life taking care of her, Ale,” Mom said sweetly “You’re young, you’re so young… It’s not your fault if grandma is like this.”
“But you’re the one who asked me to take care of her.”
“I did not!” She answered in a sharp tone that reminded me a lot of great-grandmother Mercedes. “It was just to keep an eye open and tell me when it was time to hire a caretaker.”
“It would be cruel to hire someone now.”
“If you say so.”
“I say so,” I insisted. “By the way, mom…?”
“Why didn’t you tell me that you used to like magic?”
Against the doctor’s advice, I chose to stop going to classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays for two reasons. One was that I wanted to learn more with my grandmother, and she did agree to teach me magic, even if in her very unorthodox way. The other was because she always needed me for something outside of the house, and I ended up with no time to focus on my own life.
It could be anything, from paying the bills to eating in a restaurant instead than at home (It tastes like sponge, she would say, pointing at a bowl of salad), or even visiting the worker’s union to ask about her retirement. Every here and then, her eyes would flicker, and she would whisper in my ear: my mother had a great recipe for that. Want to learn?
I learned all of great-grandmother Mercedes’ unguents and medicinal potions while she told me old family stories. Your great-grandmother married my father when she was seventeen because her mother didn’t want to hear of magic no longer, she would say, cutting pieces of star fruit to throw in the boiling water of the pot. Hiroshi Saito, his name. Then she had my brother with one of his friends. It was a scandal! We had to leave the town… Then she met Rodrigo Schwartzmann…
In a matter of a couple of months, I could do anything, from roasting a beef with a flick of the finger to controlling the growth of the plants in the kitchen. Grandma, on the other hand, mistook names, numbers and directions; she found eating with a fork too difficult, and started to use her hands instead. Sometimes, she would try to wear a pair of pants upside down, or forget how to tie her own shoes.
She never once forgot her habits of waking up soon and sleeping late, of organizing her clothes, dusting even the smallest corners, and sweeping the floor, but I started to find dirty spots anyway. My untrained eyes missed some of the clues through the weeks, until I found a cockroach hiding under the table.
Grandma, I called, trying to remember if she had any repellent. Grandma, there’s a cockroach! She ran to the kitchen, her slippers making a characteristic sound against the laminate floor.
That thing? Grandma asked with a joyful expression that contrasted wildly with my scared face. She knelt down, staring at the bug. After what seemed like a quick analysis, she decided to grab the cockroach with her hand, let it go, and then grab her again. I covered my mouth, horrified, seeing the brown creature running up her arm. Grandma, stop! I slapped the cockroach away from her, and froze it in the air.
Grandma laughed it off, grabbing the paralyzed bug to throw it away. That’s not even a cockroach, you spoiled girl, she told me, playing with its long legs. Then, she burned it in her hand. Grandma! It’s dangerous to use fire inside the house! All I heard in response was the same: You annoying little girl…
“I’m actually a witch,” grandma told a stranger in the bus stop. I stared at her, eyes wide open, and then at the man.
“She’s a professional prankster, that’s what she is.” I forced myself to smile. Grandma frowned, like I was personally offending her. Luckily, our bus was arriving, so I held her hand, guiding her toward the line. “Let’s go?”
“Grandma, please, you’re the one who’s asked me to come.”
“You’re always making little of me,” she said, slapping my hand away. I touched my own fingers, remembering how many times she did that when I was a child. “You think I don’t notice? You must find me a senile old woman, but you’re doing just like my mother did, bossing me around!”
“That’s not what happened. Here, come on, it’s our bus, and don’t scream, please.”
“No,” she insisted, a fierce look in her eyes. “I’ll go wherever the hell I want! You go to your, to your ban, to your bank, to class.”
“Grandma,” I begged, but she pushed me away and ran to the middle of the street.
Others must have seen cars honking, braking, their drivers swearing, but what happened was far from this. Grandma’s magic was flowing out of her, surrounding her body in the form of a gray, shapeless aura. The energy forced one of the cars away, and slammed the other against the uneven pavement. Grandma continued to run, and one of the drivers threatened to run their car over me when I went after her.
“You almost died!” I yelled, gasping and holding her by the arm. “I almost died!”
“Why are you screaming?”
“If you don’t care about yourself, try at least to care about me! I almost had a heart attack!”
“Hum? Hum? Grandma, you used magic in front of everyone!” I took a deep breath. “You can’t do that! You’re embarrassing both of us!”
Grandma studied me, and she didn’t look anymore like a prideful and irritable elderly woman, but like a girl, one who had been told those words many, many times. I hadn’t seen her cry much in my life, but that day she wept, tears flowing down her cheeks and loud sobs coming from her throat.
“I don’t know why it’s so shameful,” she whimpered, and only then I realized what I had done. Grandma kept crying, and I hugged her, kissing her forehead and caressing her head.
“I’m sorry, you’re not shameful, I’m sorry…”
In my heart, I wanted to be better, more patient, more adequate. Grandma had hurt me many times in the past. She never had a good thing to say, and her criticism went from fat and ugly to selfish and useless. When I was younger, she would say both that I was heartless and that I was kind to the point of stupidity, and she would laugh whenever I felt pain, saying my mother spoiled me rotten.
And yet I couldn’t ignore that little woman, who once liked to go out every day, who fed me and waited hours in a bus terminal just to make sure nothing would happen to me, crumbling apart. I noticed that I couldn’t judge her from what she had been before the illness, not when she hugged me for the first time, asking to stay like that just a little longer.
“I’ll help you, grandma,” I said, kissing her again. “I swear I will.”
During the rest of the year, I fully devoted myself to her. I couldn’t go to classes any longer, but I decided it was fine, as I could return in another semester. Grandma refused to take the medication her doctor prescribed, but accepted other instructions like a student obeying her teacher. She forgot about the time we fought, and about any arguments we ever had. She even forgot even which movies she enjoyed (they made her head ache), or the food she liked to eat (at that point, she refused to eat anything that wasn’t chocolate).
With magic, I could perform some tricks that helped her. I charmed vegetables to look like candy, or a glass of water to taste like coffee. Both my power and hers ran freely inside the apartment, making paintings sparkle, flowers sprout, and pillows walk to position themselves under her sore feet.
Sleeping more than four hours was a miracle, and I had to stand most of the time—Ale, do this, Edna, do that, mom, bring me something to eat. Grandma threw tantrums whenever I tried to explain why some of her wishes were dangerous, and sometimes told the doormen that I was stealing her money. By Christmas, I was exhausted, and I felt like decades had passed since February.
“We went there yesterday,” I said, after hiding the keys in my pocket. She had spent the entire morning asking me to go out, saying she needed to check her bank account one more time. “Please, grandma, I need to rest now.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“I also forget things sometimes,” I answered, sitting on a chair and trying to close my eyes. “Please, grandma, please. I’m tired.”
My mother arrived in the next day to spend the holidays with us, and I could barely move. I spent the 25th lying on the sofa, in silence, until someone touched my arm.
Grandma was there, and she looked at me in a way that bothered me, making me feel like she had never been sick at all. She bent over me, kissed my forehead, and said:
“I have something to show you.”
“My head isn’t good lately,” she continued, opening her purse and taking everything out of it. “Here, here.”
She shoved a Christmas card in my hand, which she had written herself. Ale, her handwriting was almost unintelligible, but I was able to decode the words after a while. Edna ask to stay in house. Thank you for I will hapy there.
“Grandma, what is…?”
“Your mother says it’s time for me to go to Sapucaia with her,” she said, reading the note again. Grandma pointed at a small key taped to the back. “I want you to keep the apartment.”
“No, no, it’s yours, I…”
“Your grandpa wanted that too.”
“You want to live with mom?”
“Eh!” Grandma shook her head negatively. “She’s a pain in the ass, but I’ll survive. Teach her a thing or two. I can take care of myself. When I get tired of her face, I’ll go to a retirement home.”
Grandma smiled at me, and I smiled back. I knew I wouldn’t ever talk to her like that again—and I didn’t, looking back—but no tears fell from my eyes.
“I loved living with you,” I said, hugging her waist.
“You can keep the books.” She kissed my forehead. “Mother’s books.”
When they left, I was completely alone. My grandparents had a simple place, but it was crammed with furniture, vases, paintings, portraits, statuettes and all the things grandma bought here and there. There were small cockroaches under the kitchen’s sink, blankets she forgot to wash, and spots of dirt she couldn’t clean.
“For you,” I said, putting a photograph of grandma and grandpa in the mirror of the living room.
And, this time without using any magic, I cleaned her house in the way she would have wanted me to. I swept, I dusted, I washed. I organized her clothes, the old photo albums, the books. My mother would have called me silly, just like my great-grandmother before her. You can use it now, they would have said. There is no one looking. But I didn’t want to, because I was not ashamed like they were. I want to do it in your way, I thought, looking at grandma’s face in the picture. The way you did before the illness.
When I finished, my mother texted me, saying grandma had just arrived. Tell her to have fun, I wrote, and looked at how her house used to be one last time.