The tomatoes in our garden are hungry again. Nanna is not enough anymore. She has been feeding them for too long. Soon, she will be dead and then it will be my turn.
This is what I think when I scarf down our tomatoes with every meal: A heavily scented stew; an acrid salad; a bite into the tomato’s red, wine-sour flesh is how magic finds you.
Not all tomatoes are like ours. The others are hollow, full of water and seeds. A waste of space, as Nanna says. But that’s what you get when you have no power running through your family roots—or perhaps you used to have it, but stopped paying the price. Water and seeds. That’s what freedom tastes like.
In one corner of our room, sitting up on her creaky bed, Nanna watches me eat with quiet satisfaction. Her legs are not there anymore. In their place is a bundle of fleshy roots, spiraling inside themselves. Years and years of feeding yourself to the tomatoes changes you like that. That’s my future. It’s what I will look like if I don’t get the hell out of this place.
“Filio, do you like the fruit today?” she asks me, eyes unblinking.
I can’t tell her what I saw outside: the plants bent to the side, wilted and crawling with bugs; the tomatoes going from green to red to brimming with worms in just one morning’s time. I just nod. Juice drips down my chin. I wipe my face on my dirty apron and Nanna goes back to sleep.
This is what I think when I look at my grandmother’s chest, rising and falling, hollow like a dead tree: If I am to leave this house, Maria has to feed the crops.
• • •
The corn has taken over most of the land around ours, spreading like a disease. Miles and miles of corn magic. But these plants, unlike ours, are neither sick nor dying. They bend to the side, heavy with grain, not blight. I walk on the side of the road, corn leaves brushing against my right shoulder, a basket of fresh tomatoes tucked into the crook of my left arm.
I hand-picked the best of them from a corner in our plot that has not been infected with the blight—it’s where we buried Mom when she had nothing left to give—but they still look sad and uninviting. I can only hope the magic inside them is still strong. If not, the corn will flood everything.
It’s the Vulari family that’s doing this. The only other witch family in this place. Their corn stretches for so many miles, it’s a wonder their patriarch can keep it as perky as he does.
Through the ripe, blond abundance of the stalks, Maria’s head appears, corkscrew locks rippling around her face. Soon, I can make out her scabbed legs. She stops on the side of the road. The corn stalks make her skin burn and itch and sometimes shed like snakeskin. Corn is not good for us the way it is for other people.
Still, my little sister sneaks between the crops and walks the miles to the Vulari residence like some kind of stray dog looking for its master.
“You’re at it again, eh?” I smack her on the arm.
She hesitates for a moment but then she pinches me back ferociously. I howl and rub at the pain.
“Mind your business,” she mumbles. She wipes her nose on her forearm and stares at her dirty toenails, smiling. She doesn’t look like it but she is very much still a child.
Maria has always been fascinated with the Vulari. Fascinated with their power. They do the same thing we do, yet they prosper while we sink deeper. For her, it’s proof that their magic is better than ours.
They are part of a long lineage that produces seven sons one generation, seven daughters the next. The latest one has seven sons. And my sister’s favorite is their youngest, Andreas. My blood runs ice cold every time I see him strolling about the village with his honey-dripping tongue, his mild manners, and his expensive suits.
Her interest in him has peaked since we heard about his wife’s sudden death. A disease not even the corn could slow down.
“Look at you.” I give her a pitying look. “Go wash your disgusting feet. The Vulari don’t need to know how messy you are.”
Her legs look hideous but her face is angelic and the curves of her body are making her look more and more like Mom—or rather how she used to look before the tomatoes ate her all away. Our mother was beautiful but she did not have enough inside of her to offer.
My words give her pause and I can tell how she longs for my approval, even though she has been turning away from me lately.
“He likes me just fine,” she whispers. “Don’t be jealous.”
I am not jealous. I know she likes to think so. It’s a younger sibling’s desire to be like and even eclipse the older one.
What I want is for her to take over in my place. To give herself to the land and the tomatoes. I need her magic to be as strong as I hope it is—as I know it is. She has to give it willingly to the earth, to feed the tomatoes so I don’t have to. She has to buy me more time with her body and spirit.
But when I find her sneaking around the cornfields, my trust in her falls away like clumps of dirt between my fingers.
“Go to Nanna,” I say. “She is asking for you.”
I turn my back to her and head for the village.
• • •
Here is the thing about us witch families: only one sibling carries on the bloodline. Nobody can escape that fact, not even the Vulari. No matter how many children they produce, only the main root lives long enough to thrive, and we, the branches, are there to help it. Maria may not realize it yet but of the two of us, she is the main root.
I need more time. My power is running thin inside me. I can’t waste it too soon or I’ll end up like Mom. She was not a main root either; she just happened to be the one who survived to adulthood.
I just want to see the slate sea and the snowy mountains—maybe travel to a city far away from here—before I am tied to one place, wasting away.
Maria is perfect for the tomatoes. She already has her feet planted deep in the earth. Just like Nanna, she will live a full and long life before they change her. I don’t let the dirt touch my feet for fear it might consume what little life I’ve got.
I just want a taste of the freedom Maria has always taken for granted. Then I’ll come back—I promise I will.
Before I reach the square where the stone fountain trickles cold water into a basin, I turn to the right, to a small house with a single light inside. It looks almost abandoned in the way it lies there, quiet, the door slightly ajar. In a few years, it might become deserted and, slowly, the whole village with it.
There is an old couple living there, Tasia and Dimitris. They have always bought our tomatoes. Our fruit has carried them through hard times and sickness ever since Mom was still alive. But now they are so old and destitute that Nanna doesn’t ask them for money. One of the first things that Mom taught me was not to ask for coin from the destitute. This is how it’s always been.
The silence coming from the house feels deeper, more absolute, this time. I lay my palm against the half-open door and hesitate. They leave the door open for me without fear—they don’t have anything of value—but something feels wrong this time.
I finally push the door open gently and my breath is cut short.
On the table at the center of the room there are stacked ears of corn, and in the corner beside the stove sits a bag of cornmeal. I recognize the corn and where it comes from the same way that I recognize the sun in the morning. And as if this isn’t enough, there is the stamp on the bag of cornmeal, a big V right in the center. Tasia probably paid for this with everything she had. I leave the basket of tomatoes on the table next to the corn.
Beyond the table lies the bedding, pushed against the far wall. Next to it crouches Tasia, holding her husband’s hand. Dimitris lies very, very still on the old bedding, about to move into the spirit realm.
There is a small coin left next to the corn. It’s for me. I bow my head and take it. I shut my eyes tight so I don’t have to look at Tasia and Demetris as I slip it into my pocket, but then Mom’s and Nanna’s faces appear in my head. I shake them out. It’s for the journey, I tell myself. My cause is too important.
Tasia barely registers my presence and doesn’t say anything when she sees me, doesn’t try to justify herself. She only pulls her husband’s hand gently towards her as if trying to steal him away from Death himself.
“It’s not working,” she says. I crouch on the floor next to her. “I thought at least this… this should be working.”
It’s not our fault our magic is not strong enough anymore. The world is changing, growing, and Nanna is old and drained. But this—this is new. If the corn is not doing its job, either, then how do the cornfields look so rich and healthy? How do they keep spreading?
I have kept Tasia’s husband from Death’s grip for a few years now. Ever since Nanna’s influence started waning, the tomato magic has dwindled with her. But the corn, that is another thing entirely. Could it be the land, the soil itself? Are both our families slowly losing touch with our own power? I shiver at the thought of it, but I can’t ignore the stir in my stomach. There is excitement at the possibilities this would open to me, at the burden that this would lift from my shoulders. There is no need to put off my destiny if there is no destiny to hinder. But how will I leave Maria without a place to put down roots?
I have almost forgotten that Tasia is sitting right next to me. By the way she clasps at her own hands, I realize there is nothing left for her to hold on to anymore. Her husband is dead and the coin in my pocket feels heavy as a rock. I am no Vulari. I still care.
• • •
Seven sons were born to the Vulari family in this generation, each more handsome and charming than the last. Or at least that is the rumor that has spread to all the nearby villages, for I can say from my own experience that as a young girl I never met more cruel and arrogant children than these. Of those seven, only Andreas, the youngest, ever leaves their estate to barter with the poor and the suffering among us. And he does it well, too. He would sell you his magic in exchange for your soul if he could find a use for it.
The last time the seven brothers were seen together, all in their finest suits bought from God knows where, was at Andreas’s wedding. Strange that the youngest would marry first, even before the firstborn, the people said.
But they are young enough not to know their history.
If you had asked my grandmother back in the days when her mind was still cloudless, she would have told you that the Vulari matriarch was herself the youngest daughter of seven siblings. All unmarried except for the youngest one, herself. This is how their magic works, I suppose. Somehow it trickles down only to the last one, and this is the child who must spawn the next generation. The main root.
Why there have to be six siblings before that last one nobody knows. Each of us has our own guesses and none are very benevolent. A deal with the devil wouldn’t be the strangest thing in this place.
• • •
I hide the coin inside my pillow; even Nanna has her clear moments some days. Maria is not back yet, and that’s for the best right now—back when we were close, she used to read my mind as if it was plain as a primer. But I can’t help stealing glances outside. Lately, each time she returns, the sun hangs lower in the sky. Not even the thought of our sick Nanna brings her back.
When she returns, her face is illuminated. She walks into the house like a ghost, dressed in a long linen dress I have never seen before.
She doesn’t even look at me, but goes straight to our Nanna and bows in front of her. She whispers calm words in her ear and my grandmother’s eyelids flutter. I don’t even know if she understands anymore.
Maria seems unbothered by this. She stands and walks up to me, her face flushed, her lips pressed together.
“It’s done,” she tells me. “I am meeting his family, Filio.”
I glance at Nanna, trying to find pain in her face. There’s nothing. It’s just me. It’s my anguish that presses down on me. Maria used to follow me around like a duckling, and now look at her. She wants something and she flaunts it. But I want just as much.
“This family is poison,” I say.
She giggles then, and her face twists all strangely, in a way that I can’t tell if she is angry or happy.
“You take care of yourself, sister,” she says. Then she leans in and kisses me on the cheek, right under the eye. That’s when I realize it was damp all along.
I want to stop her. I should be screaming at her that what she does is destroying us, our house and our family.
But then she says, “Make something good with that money of yours.” And just like that, my power is gone, buried under a heap of shame. She has to want to listen to me, and it’s certainly not going to happen now.
I make a helpless gesture. “Do what you want.”
She walks out without taking anything. Her urgency to go to him leaves me empty, bitter.
That night Nanna calls Maria’s name three times. Every time, I think of my sister as a root traveling vast distances. She goes beyond both tomatoes and corn and leaves our small village, reaching faraway places where the Vularis’ clothes were made, and then farther. Seeing things nobody amongst us will ever see. I am in the garden in my mind; I dig at the earth with my bare hands, trying to find her and grab her, but all I get is dry, brittle bones. Mom’s bones. The ground closes up as quickly as I dig, and soon my arms hang limp by my sides, useless. I am small and Maria is big and strong from the same thing that I try to escape but she embraces. Our power.
• • •
Nanna grows paler each day, and even though I beg her to eat, she refuses, just stares. There are rasping sounds coming from her chest that make my skin crawl. Her face is burning like a furnace. There is nothing left inside of her to sustain our plot.
I always used to believe that when Nanna died, Maria would gladly take my place, growing roots for the garden as slowly as she’d get older. That she alone would bring the village back to life with the fruit that heals, and make the Vulari a thing of the past. That if all else failed, there would always be a green patch of land for me to come back to.
What a fool I was.
Now I live in dread of Nanna leaving me alone in this house. If I leave it, what will I come back to? Will the walls wither and die as well?
I take a scalding sip of chamomile tea and examine our once-thriving garden. On the other side of the property the corn sways in the wind, dispassionate.
The Vulari don’t care that the corn did nothing to help Tasia’s husband. I am sure they have struck some sort of deal with Tasia to own everything she’s ever had in exchange for this corn. That’s how they’ve gotten where they are now, swallowing patches of land one after the other, making them part of their legacy.
And now they are stealing my sister. Perhaps that’s a fair punishment for taking Tasia’s coin.
There is a thud and then a wet sound in the garden, like damp leaves being stepped on. My first thought is of Maria, walking barefoot amongst the plants, touching them and talking to them, maybe shedding tears for their inevitable death, the way she did before the blight got to them—when there was still a future for us here. Perhaps she has come back to us.
I go outside, but I forget my shoes. When my feet touch the damp soil, I flinch. I peer between the tomatoes looking for Maria, but instead I find a trail of footprints, already fading. These marks are large and made by work boots, not my sister’s feet: a man was just here. They lead from the one place in the garden where the plants are still healthy to the small stone wall. Before I have time to blink, they are gone. A few moments later, the landscape rearranges itself. Where Mother is buried and the plants still resisted the decay, there is now scorched earth and fine, sour dust.
My cup falls to the ground. Tea spills in the dirt, turns it into ashen mud. I go inside, put my shoes on, and step into the garden, examining every plant, every single withered and twisted leaf, every blackened fruit. Worms crawl on my fingers; I shake them away.
They fall to the ground and disintegrate into empty corn husks.
If this scorched earth is my punishment, it’s not one I accept.
• • •
Not long after the last tomato plant bends towards the earth and crumbles, Nanna takes her last breath. I kiss her forehead and I lay a black cloth over her face. I can’t do anything for her now, just like I could not do anything for Tasia’s husband.
But I can find the devil that did this, along with his new bride. I can take back my sister.
I make my way across the road and push through the tall cornstalks. They bow left and right as I pass, making way for my fury. I keep my shoes on; even though they slow me down, I cling to them.
The Vulari residence is not too far, only a couple of miles through the cornfield, but the truth reveals itself way before that. After the first rows of healthy crops, the inner fields of corn are dead and dry. Everywhere I look there are only skeleton stalks, like lonely reeds away from the water. Petrified.
A boiling itch lurks under my skin. No matter how hard I resist it, it demands that I dig my nails deep into my flesh and scrape it raw. I scratch and walk, scratch and walk. The death and the ugliness stretch for miles on end. It is so much like our garden, but here there is no end in sight. Disoriented, I stumble over a big pile of corn husks and fall facedown.
A man’s head emerges from the corn husks like a moth from a cocoon.
My feet kick up dirt as I scramble to get away. The man does not move. He is cold and dead and hard like stone; at first it looks like he is covered in hair, but I know corn silk when I see it. His body is swaddled in husks like a newborn baby. Even under all that silk I know him for the Vularis’ second son, Thomas.
His body is drained—given to the corn, no doubt, a few years ago when the Vulari got these acres from the Zefiri family in exchange for corn that would give the Zefiri their coveted heir.
Or maybe it was Pavlos who went first, since he was the firstborn. When the Vulari patriarch could not sustain so much land any longer and his spirit finally flew away, they must have used the brothers, one by one.
I peer around and see another bundle of husks not far away from here. Andreas’s dead wife must have met the same fate if she had had even a drop of witch blood inside of her.
A thought creeps into my head and I walk faster, praying it’s not too late. Farther inside the estate, I reach the innermost circle of crops, the one that surrounds the old manor. The house is thinning; wood and paint have chipped away along with its magnificence. But the way it rises over the desolate earth is still imposing. That’s where I find the standing bundle of husks, the one that’s shivering inside. Where it touches the ground, the earth seems to take life again.
That one stops me dead in my tracks.
That one holds Maria.
I recognize the man who stands next to her as Andreas. His crisp, white shirt reflects the sun; his hair is combed and parted to perfection. A real gentleman. His right hand is outstretched inside the tight cocoon he has woven, so he can touch my sister’s face. His sweet voice is soothing her, cajoling her. Her face is nothing like his brother’s, withered and dry. Hers is calm, lovely, even swaddled like this. My sister’s magic is strong. She can spend an entire human life like this. Bear him babies like this. But she can never leave this place.
And she is doing this willingly—more willingly than Andreas’s own brothers, I bet. But she doesn’t really know what she is giving away, just as I didn’t know up until now.
Family is all.
When Andreas sees me, he twitches and his body stiffens. But then he takes a look at Maria and her roots, firmly inside the ground, and his body relaxes again. He smiles at me, undisturbed now by my presence. Did he know I’d come to find him after he poisoned our land? Or did he think I’d up and leave sooner? No matter what he might have thought, he doesn’t mind that I am here. He thinks he has won.
“Stay with us,” he says. He extends a hand to me. “You are here now. So, please, stay.”
But I can’t let him have her without a fight.
I fall on my hands and knees and claw at the fresh dirt. Perhaps her roots are still shallow, I say to myself. If I can dig her out and bring her to our garden, she can change. But I can’t: her roots go too deep, unlike Nanna’s and Mom’s. She is already a different creature—a part of something else.
Maria finally opens her eyes and looks at me. It’s not an angry stare she gives me. She seems at peace.
“We will make new, better seeds here.” She beckons.
The itch under my skin has turned into a hungry blaze. Something inside of me hungers for a patch of soil. For a moment, I almost give in to it; I touch my sister’s roots and think that we could go to seed and grow old right next to each other until one of us is spent—and that one would surely be me. But my wants are not my sister’s.
“I don’t live here,” I tell her—I tell them. “This is not my home.”
I turn and run as fast as my feet can carry me, stumbling on the uneven field, but eventually I get to the one place I need to go and should never have tried to leave.
• • •
Tomatoes are nurturing and acidic, hard to handle, their power hard to harvest. They have roots that sprout from every part of the stalk where it touches the soil.
I stand at the edge of our garden, looking at the bleakness in front of me, thinking of the bleakness back in the Vulari residence, and take off my shoes.
I have always had roots inside of me. In the end, there was never anywhere else to go but here.
My feet inch closer to the dirt as if they have a life of their own. My toes stretch and twitch, surprised by the sudden freedom. I look at them and wait. Soon enough, the skin of my feet splits into a thousand little holes that sprout hungry rhizomes. They wiggle around, searching for the earth that I have been denying them for so long.
There is no one else to do this anymore. It’s just me. I am all alone.
This is what I think as I take off my dress and lay naked in the middle of the garden: Tomatoes have roots and so have I.
Filaments of my flesh turn into rootstalks and move on and on until there is nothing but the plants. I exist only in this garden now. Even if my body can leave this house and walk around the village, my roots can only stretch so far. I will always have to come back. I will always have to feed the tomatoes.
I am wine-sour. I am acid. The tomatoes drink my blood and my magic and they swell into bright red fruit, delicious and inviting.
Somehow, someday, I will steal into my sister’s new house when her husband is away. In a honey-drenched voice, I will convince her to eat one of my own tomatoes. The bite will find its way down her throat into her belly, and it will stay there until she is heavy with Andreas’s seed. Later, when the time is ready, the first of her seven daughters will come and find me. My garden’s strange fruit will be haunting her dreams. She will ask to learn more. I will graciously teach her.
And then we will start all over again.