Hollow Branch

Cassandra checked the text for the fourth time: The old oak in the meadow behind Oakenstead, it read, midnight.

The cliche wasn’t lost on Cassandra–where else would the Willow Creek Coven meet but there? But then she didn’t mind that it fit a stereotype, either. After all, wasn’t her entire family a cliche? Wasn’t she a stereotype, herself?

She pulled her hair out of the pigtails and mussed it. It was so stringy.

She found a pair of scissors in her mom’s sewing kit and her dad’s razor on his shelf in the medicine cabinet. Half an hour later, her head was shaved in patches.

“There!” she said, triumphantly. “I may still be a cliche, but at least now, I’m a stereotype of my own choosing!”

She cleaned up the scraps of hair quickly–that would set Mother off for sure, to find hair clippings in the sink–and called Malcolm.

“I need to get out of the house before my parents come home. Can I come over?”

“Aren’t you watching your brother?”

“No. He’s at Olivia’s.”

“I’m at my dad’s,” Malcolm said. “Can you take the bus?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Pick me up at Rattlesnake?”

When Cassandra hopped off the bus, Malcolm was nowhere in sight. “Plum him,” she thought, dreading the long walk up the hill. But then she spied their old VW bug at the curb, with Mr. Landgraab slouching against it, casting his vacant gaze towards a patch of barrel cactii.

“Heyo,” she said. She smiled when she saw his double-take at her shaved head, though she didn’t let him see her smile.

“Cassandra,” he said solicitously, “is everything all right? Are you ill?”

She laughed. “I’m great, Mr. L. Peachy.”

They sat silently while the old car grumbled at the steepness of the hill. She found it entertaining to see how long grown-ups would wait before beginning the questions. Mr. L., she’d found, could rarely wait longer that 30 seconds. This time, it was just over 15.

“So, how’s school?” he asked, forcing that cheerful tone into his voice that adults assume when they want to be reassured that all is right in a teen’s world.

“Groovy,” she said. “I’m reading Sartre. In French. ‘On peut toujours faire quelque chose de ce qu’on a fait de nous’.”

He looked at her blankly.

“No, I’m not giving in to nothingness,” she replied to his unspoken question. “Translated: ‘We can always make something out of what we’ve been made into,‘ right, Mr. L.?”

He laughed. A real laugh. “That’s what my wife always tells me! Not Nancy. Clarissa. The new wife.”

They continued on in silence, but it was no longer awkward, for each settled into the peaceful rhythm of thought and reflection.

She found Malcolm up in the study, his old bedroom, reading the I-Ching.

“What on earth?” she said.

Without looking up, he read aloud, “‘Twenty-five. Without pretense. A foundation for progress. It is beneficial to persist. In fact, not being pure is a severe mistake. It is a disadvantage to have a goal to move to.’

She found his duffel bag in the corner and changed out of her school uniform into a pair of his jeans and a t-shirt.

“Damn,” he said when he looked up. “You look like a boy. You look hot.”

He tossed down his book and grabbed her, kissing her hard.

“Malcolm!” she said. “This is different.”

“Different is good.”

Afterwards, with her arms around his shoulders as they lay on the bed, he whispered, “Think I could wear your uniform sometime?” And she felt him grow hard again.

While he showered, she headed outside to clear her mind. She saw Clarissa sitting on the rock beneath the eucalyptus. If anyone knew where the Willow Creek Coven really met, it would be Clarissa.

Usually, Cassandra had no problem introducing a topic. One could always be blunt, and she sort of enjoyed watching how the other person reacted to what seemed to be her complete disregard of social niceties.

But as she looked into Clarissa’s relaxed gaze, she somehow didn’t want to intrude abruptly. And she thought that possibly Clarissa might know something, something that could help her, and if she put up too many barriers now, she’d just have to find a way to dismantle them later.

Clarissa scooted closer to the edge and motioned towards the empty half of the large rock.

“Join me, Cassandra,” she said.

Cassandra sat beside her. They looked together over the canyon. They sat silently for thirty seconds. Forty. Forty-five. A minute. Two minutes. Finally, Cassandra could wait no longer.

“I hear they meet in the meadow behind Oakenstead,” she said.

“What’s that?” asked Clarissa.

“You know,” Cassandra said. “Your group? All those others like you?”

“Are there others like me?” Clarissa asked. “Who’s this that meets in the meadow?”

Clarissa could see that Cassandra was going to make her say it, to bring her curiosity into the open.

“The coven?” she said. “You know, your people?”

Clarissa laughed. “I’m not a witch!” she replied. “I didn’t even know there was a coven in Willow Creek!”

“Then what’s all this?” Cassandra asked.

Clarissa looked at her with her open gaze. “All this?”

“Look,” Cassandra said. “I’ve been watching you. I see how you’re always… there, but separate. I see how you dress, where you look, what you say. If you’re not a witch, what are you?”

Clarissa looked back over the canyon. “Just a person on this planet,” she replied. “Like you.”

“But what do you practice? You’re a pagan, right?”

Clarissa gazed at the horizon. “If recognizing being in everything is pagan, then I guess maybe I am. My practice isn’t necessarily pagan, though.”

Cassandra waited for more, and when she tired of waiting, she asked, “Then what do you practice?”

“Breathing. Listening. That’s about it,” said Clarissa.

“What do you mean?”

“We can try it now,” Clarissa said. “It’s what I was doing before you came along. It’s what I do most of the time, actually.” And she laughed.

“Watch your breath,” Clarissa said. “And listen.”

“What do you hear?”

“I hear my breath and yours. I hear crickets and cicadas. I hear a gila woodpecker calling his mate. Do you hear that red-tailed hawk across the canyon? Listen to the raven wings flapping!”

And then, they fell into silence.

After a moment, Clarissa said, “Can you hear the eucalyptus tree? It says we’ll have rain soon. Listen to how its roots talk to the grasses there at the edge of its shadow. Can you hear how all the trees and grasses and cactuses are talking with each other about rainfall and nutrients and the shifting sunlight?”

“You are a witch,” Cassandra said. But she didn’t get up and head into the house. She sat there still, and though she could only hear the thoughts in her head, and now and then, the beating of her heart, she continued to breathe and to listen.

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