“A good source of protein,” she’d say, the gleam in her eyes the brightest thing in our dingy little kitchen. And we would shriek and giggle, alight with horror and admiration.
Our house was ramshackle—the roof leaked in the winter, and our kitchen was always messy or dirty or some combination of the two. My daddy used to say that we lived like pigs in slop. But we didn’t own anything to clean with, not really, except for my mama’s broom, but that wasn’t for sweeping.
The broom was a pale, twisted beam of ash lashed tight at the foot with birch twigs and it lived propped up next to the broken microwave that hadn’t worked in so long we used it to store the cat food in.
“This broom,” Mama would say, “is not made for cleaning. This broom is made for flying and magic and moon-loving and grimtalk. Don’t you kids ever look at me and see someone who scrubs floors; you look at your mama and see someone who knows how to sweep star-fog down from the sky.”
We’d smile and nod and say yes Mama. But at night, after she tucked us into our beds to sweat beneath the noisy ceiling fan, we knew she changed into a cleaning lady uniform, tied her hair back with a threadbare kerchief, and set out into the night, leaving her broom propped up alone in the moonshot kitchen.
In the mornings, when she woke us up to drag a brush through our ratty hair and yank a t-shirt over our heads, her eyes were always tired and she smelled more like Pine-sol than star-fog.
Our favorite Mama stories were the ones she told about the dimensions that hid just behind this one; the wild-others, she called them. She said the wild-others were so close that if we could scratch the air with our fingernails we could see their blood seeping on out.
“Everything you can see,” she’d say, “has a thousand more meanings behind it, collected up somewhere in the wild-others. Everything means something else, even you and me and our little weevils.”
But Daddy said the weevils were caused by Mama’s sheer slovenliness. “She thinks she’s too good to keep a neat house,” he’d say, his black eyes sparking like cap guns. And that was on good days. Other days, his eyes went all muddy like the old cur dog that slept beneath our neighbor’s porch, mean and watchful and always on the verge of something.
Mama would tell us that Daddy didn’t know the first thing about weevils. “Weevils in the porridge,” she’d say, “are a sign of the most magical kind. Same as phone calls from bill collectors and hand-me-downs that never fit right. Same as ceiling fans that squeak and stray cats with pink noses who show up just when you need them most.”
And then one day, we didn’t have a daddy anymore. He had always had a habit of drifting in and out of our lives like an inscrutable weather pattern and finally it seemed that he got swept away entirely. It wasn’t so bad, really, except for the kids at school who could smell our sickly sorrow from a thousand yards and bayed for blood like coonhounds on a trail.
When we’d come home with eyes puffy from crying, Mama would wake up, no matter how tired she was from her nocturnal witchy work, and yank up her broom and set to sweeping our auras clean. That broom whipping through the air around our bodies cast off a scent like hay fields in summer and like our attic after it rained. She’d sweep it up over our heads and down our arms, “Knocking off the cobwebs and fairy shit,” she’d say, tickling us till we flopped on the floor in helpless laughter.
Once we had dried the last of our tears, she’d let us hold that broom and remind us of all the other dimensions that were there all the time just breathing down our neck. She’d say, “Feel your hands on that broom, on something that’s real in more worlds than this. And remember that you are the child of a witch mama and you know what magic really is.”
I’d look into her worn-out, faded denim eyes and nod. There in our tired kitchen, I could see clearly that her broom was a chariot of witchery and meteor smoke, a talisman of a dozen wild-others.
And more than that I could see that I was loved, here and in all the wild-others, by a witch mama that loved me like the stars loved the sky. I knew then that witch mama love was its own kind of magic whose spells were woven out of spit-polished faces, kisses on skinned knees, and cool hands on fevered brows. Witch mama magic made the nettles grow and the blackbirds sing and was everything good that could ever be.
And growing up in a house with weevils in the porridge, a broom that wasn’t for sweeping, and magic in the air as thick as clotted cream, was what Mama said life was built on. “Tumble and run-down is what fills the cracks in your soul,” she’d say, pouring us cups of watered down milk sweetened with spoonfuls of clover honey.
“This right here,” she’d snap her fingers, “this is what’s going to light up the furnace of your heart.”
And then she’d laugh and toss back her head, stretching out that long sweep of throat that gleamed like the silvered fish skin belly of the fullest moon.
—Natasha Burge divides her time between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where she and her husband are owned by an unruly herd of rescue animals. She is pursuing a Master’s degree in creative writing and trying to wrestle her first novel into shape. Her writing can be found, or is forthcoming, in Jersey Devil Press, Crack the Spine, and Pidgeonholes, among others. She has a tumbleweed heart, ink stains on her fingers, and one foot permanently planted in other worlds.