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A Different Kind of Normalby Cathy Lamb
My mother told me all about the witches in our family. She heard the stories from her mother, who heard them from her mother, and so on, all the way back to the mid-1800s, in London, where the twins, Henrietta and Elizabeth, started The Curse.
Henrietta and Elizabeth were inseparable from the time they reached across their mother's bosom for the other's hand. Their mother was considered to be the best witch of them all, whatever that silly statement means, and she taught the twins. They practiced their spells in the forest behind the fountains and statues on the manicured estate their mother's wealthy, titled family owned.
The twins eventually, reluctantly, agreed to marry wealthy, titled men. They did not feel it necessary to tell their husbands of a few wild years, sins committed and sins omitted, handsome men here and there, and their mother agreed, she of a colorful past herself. "It's our secret, dears," she told her daughters, a pinky tilted up as she drank her tea. "Husbands don't need to know much."
The twins' elegant estates, with lands adjacent to each other, soon held all the herbs they needed for their spells, plus Canterbury bells, hollyhocks, lilies, irises, sweet peas, cosmos, red poppies, peonies, and rows of roses, which is what their mother and grandmother grew, too.
Together Henrietta and Elizabeth had eight children who would later prove to be both saints and raucous sinners, especially the girls, as is often the case in witch families, or so I'm told.
Sadly, though, in their late thirties the twins' friendship fell apart because of a fight over, of all things, a tea set. At least that's what started it. Henrietta bought the delicate white teacups, pitcher, and creamer with the pink flowers, knowing Elizabeth loved it, coveted it, but Henrietta could not resist. They were elegant, from India, hand painted, and the flowers looked as if they could talk if let loose for but a moment. There was only that one set and when Elizabeth found out what Henrietta had done, so sneakily, she was overcome with anger.
Other rigid resentments and prickly problems, built over decades of twinship started to explode, as if the teapot had cracked in half and exposed the fine fissures between the two women. They stopped speaking to each other entirely, despite their children's pleas that they reconcile, until one pleasant Sunday in front of the church.
It wasn't hot that morning, which was fortunate, as the heat could spread such rancid diseases, like scarlet fever and tuberculosis, and it wasn't cold, which could cause a plain cough to become pneumonia in no time. There was a bit of wind, which carried off the natural odors of raw sewage, animals, rot, refuge, defecation, moldy vegetables, decaying meat, dead bodies, vagrant children, and people who had rarely bathed in their lives.
It was a perfect sunny day with no warning of the generational damage to come.
Henrietta and Elizabeth wore their whalebone corsets, white petticoats, beribboned hats, and elaborate, heavy dresses. They reached out white gloved hands to their proper husbands as they debarked from their horse-drawn carriages. Both couples and well-polished children were ready to show off their devoutness to the Lord, though church bored Henrietta and Elizabeth into an almost comatose state, the vicar droning on and on endlessly until both women thought they were perched on a shelf in hell.
The twins caught a glimpse of each other on the cobblestone path, each with a hand in the crook of their husbands' elbows. Their husbands had been chosen for their kindness, business success, and knuckleheadedness, which would allow the twins to carry on their usual witchery and spells with no interference from an observant male.
Henrietta thought Elizabeth made a face at her. Elizabeth thought Henrietta was haughty and, as if they'd been swept up by the devil's tail and smashed together, it all began.
They left the clueless, cultured husbands, locked elbows with each other to pretend friendship and deflect attention, and a quiet, but intense fight broke out, their fake smiles plastered hard on their furious faces.
Accusations were made about "stealing my precious tea set, I told you I wanted it . . ." But then things escalated viciously, as fights between sisters often will. "You're always flirting with men like a peacock . . . you are way too prideful about your children . . . why you should get Maria married off immediately before she sleeps with another stable lad . . . what about your son, Michael? Is there any girl he hasn't tumbled through the hay with? Your gowns are too low cut . . . you talk incessantly . . . always competing with me . . . you think your herb garden is better than mine, it never has been . . . you have to be joking, my herbs are always better than yours, stronger, that's why we use them in the spells all the time. . . ."
And then, the source of true bitterness and jealousy, "I should have been married to Oliver, not you, he was interested in me before you wore your purple dress with almost your entire bosom hanging out. . . . My bosom was not out. . . . Oliver would never have been interested in you with that nose. . . . My nose? Dear, a big nose can be hidden with powder, but big buttocks, horse buttocks, balls and tarnation, that's not hideable, is it?"
Henrietta started to mutter and Elizabeth, knowing a spell was coming forth, slapped a hand over Henrietta's mouth. Henrietta grabbed Elizabeth's flowered hat and Elizabeth clutched a handful of Henrietta's heavy skirt. Soon they toppled to the ground, rolling, whispered curses tossed through the air, uncaring about the lace petticoats flying up, the tearing silks and satins. They were quiet in their fury, because they had no desire to advertise their witchliness. Neither wanted to be burned alive at the stake or flogged or drowned or have their clitorises checked for being too pointy, one irrefutable indication of a true witch.
And they didn't want it for the other, either, despite the delicate tea set with the pink painted flowers and their mutual love for Oliver.
The deadly dull vicar sprinted out of the church, black cassock flying. He was young and naïve, and hadn't a clue how to handle two women locked in a combative fight whispering to each other. My heavens, and praise the Lord, this would not do! Especially on the Lord's Day! He had an important sermon planned, too, about how women must submit to their husbands! Submit to your master!
Their husbands, chatting the pompous chat of self-satisfied, privileged men nearby, rushed over, shock pounding all the way around their lace collars and past their white underthings. What had happened to their demure, lovely wives? What on earth were they doing? This was church, and yes, it was tiresome to be told you were going straight to hell to burn as a sinner, but still! No fighting on the front lawn, surely they knew that?
Their children watched, surprised but highly amused, especially the teenage girls, who had already joyfully learned how to quietly rebel and not get caught. Look at their fighting mothers! Pulling hair and slapping, their dresses flipped over their knees!
The witches' last, frantic roll together marked the beginning of decades of tragedy that affected someone in each generation of one of the witch's families. In the ensuing struggle one witch hissed out a spiraling curse, and before the other witch could deflect it by shooting off a defensive spell, the husbands and vicar were forcibly separating them, their feet kicking, skirts whipped up.
"What has gotten into you, Elizabeth?" Philip Compton loved his family, but he was brought up around royalty and pompous, unearned titles, and this behavior was unseemly, improper! What was his wife doing on top of her twin sister? This was extraordinary!
"For God's sake, Henrietta!" Oliver Platts was handsome, but dense like cheese, and he could hardly believe what he was seeing! He was running for political office, too. Didn't Henrietta know they had appearances to keep up?
"Ladies, let's take a moment to pray," the vicar said, shaking, the women's perky hats long gone, their thick, auburn hair curling wildly over heaving bosoms. He felt himself growing hot at the sight of the bosoms, and the hair, and the red cheeks! Oh, shame to him! Those bosoms were enough to make him forget his vows and certainly his chastity. He dropped his head, his pale white hands clasped together tight. Oh, deliver us, Lord! Save us from the devil and devilish thoughts about bosoms! "Lord, we ask for your forgiveness today . . ." His voice trembled as bosoms frolicked through his prayer. "We are all sinners, unworthy of you. . . ."
Henrietta and Elizabeth were having none of that droning, praying stuff. As everyone else bent their heads, they leaped at each other again with guttural cries, but their husbands, on alert, grabbed them midflight and shoved them back into their carriages, dresses askew, gloves gone.
In bed that night, the husbands, to their immense relief, had their docile, fawning wives back again. The witches pretended they had been overtaken by the stifling heat; perhaps it was the tomatoes they had both eaten the day before? Maybe the porridge had been poisoned? Could the devil had crawled inside of them? It took a few well-placed caresses, some dewy eyes, long kisses, a lifting of the nightgown, and soon their husbands, who saw only what they wished to see, rolled off to their side of the bed, mollified.
But in the pitch, thick blackness of the night, one witch shook with shame and guilt, and the other shook in complete and absolute terror. Both clutched the necklaces they always wore, the same necklaces they had given to their daughters. There were three charms: a cross, a heart, and a star. A cross for Jesus, a heart for family, and a star to represent the power of witchcraft.
Henrietta and Elizabeth were never friends again. How could they be with spells like that flying around recklessly? But they missed each other desperately and cried harsh, lonely tears, in private, often.
The Curse began immediately, afflicting the baby the witch didn't even know she was pregnant with yet. He was born with only one arm. Henrietta cried over him, cursing her twin.
Elizabeth cried, too. She had never meant for the spell to be so strong, so insidious, and within ten years, her guilt killed her. She toppled over in her summer garden, right between the thyme and mint.
Her sister witch cried for a year. Henrietta became an attentive second mother to Elizabeth's children. When she died at seventy-six years old, right before her eyes went blank, she sat straight up in bed, stared into a corner, her wrinkled face transformed with an illuminating smile. She held up a hand, as if she was reaching out to hold another's, and said, "Elizabeth, I have missed you, sister. . . ."
At least, that's the story I was told by my mother.
Her mother told her.
Her mother told her, and so on, who heard it from the daughter of one of the witches, who stood close by and listened with increasing fright as her mother and her mother's twin sister spewed out intricate, menacing spells. The daughter recognized the final spell and clasped a hand over her mouth. The other witch's daughter did the same.
Their mothers had taught them all they needed to know.
And that spell, well, that one was a doozer. On that pleasant Sunday morning, in London, in front of a church and a vicar who was fascinated by heaving bosoms, the damage was done. In each generation, The Curse reappears.
But I don't believe in witches, or curses, or spells.
No, I don't.
I really don't.
It's a legend. A story. A colorful history to laugh and chuckle about in our family line.
It is a fanciful tale. I am sure of it.
I am, at least, 90 percent sure.
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