Fa retreated to a corner of the garden, sipping on a cup of hot water. After Ms. Hunter’s gesture of kindness in the condolences line, Fa thought it only right that the girls stay around for a bit, no matter how uncomfortably the looks from the other townsfolk stung. She sunk into her corner, and her eyes appeared glazed, as if she were looking far away.
She had perfected this strategy for feeling comfortable in crowds from many years ago, when she first came to America. She unfocused her eyes slightly, so that the faces of people around her blurred and faded into each other, so that she couldn’t see the points of their pupils staring, or the direction and twitch of their mouths. It had been necessary during those first years, when she had first arrived on the coast of California from Shanghai. She had remembered thinking that her mother had been wrong, that America was not the beautiful country of its name, that it was not more tolerant or acceptant of differences. Perhaps the eyes of the American people were not as sharp as those of the Chinese, but they were sharp enough to see that her skin was yellow, her hair black, and that had been a curse in itself–worse than being a witch. In China, even if tongues cut and eyes burned, she could at least step back and blend in.
In San Francisco, Fa had wandered the streets for a week before she stumbled onto an alleyway that reminded her of home. She convinced a small restaurant to hire her as a waitress and then a cook, learning quickly that the surest way to break down the white man’s wall was through his stomach. She settled in and learned to find happiness–however roundabout it was–in the strange land.
And then circumstances had forced her to Ambrose. For a moment, Fa’s vision cleared and focused on the picture of Graham. A sharp intake of breath, and her eyes clouded over again, this time with tears. As she floated in the memory of her early years–the years before the girls, when she was a girl herself–she realized suddenly how similar Mara’s circumstance was to her own. But wasn’t that what she had been trying to protect them from, all these years? She swallowed and shook her head. Like mother, like daughter. She should have known it would be impossible to prevent her daughters from making the same mistakes.
She had gone to San Francisco–spent a month swimming across the ocean–because of the stories her mother had told her before she died. Stories that in the beautiful land across the ocean, there were cities full of magical people, people from all walks of life. In these cities, strangeness was embraced, and people didn’t live in fear of being discovered. Though Fa did not find that this was the case–there were more people who looked different, but they were partitioned into different parts of the city, with all the Chinese in one part, all the blacks in another, and so on–it was true that there was a large secret network of witches in San Francisco. One day, Fa served a woman named Clara at the restaurant. Clara started to talk to her–something that their white customers almost never did–and soon they developed a friendship.
Clara looked as young as Fa, but Fa soon discovered that she was in her middle years, and that she even had a son who was near Fa’s age. One day, Clara asked Fa if she was a witch. Amazingly, Fa was not surprised. “Yes,” she said, “I am.”
From that day on, Clara adopted Fa like a second child. Clara was a witch too, living in secret from everyone, even her family. She felt isolated, since her husband and son did not know, and had always longed for a daughter. Magic was only passed on to women. It was hard to live alone, she told Fa. She knew.
Clara’s son Turner became good friends with his mother’s new mentee, though he had no idea about the nature of their relationship. Clara encouraged the friendship. Eventually, they fell in love, and married.
For many years Fa and Turner had a wonderful marriage. They had a beautiful daughter, who they named Mara, and then two twin babies. Turner had green eyes (like Mara), and marveled that all his daughters all had differently colored eyes. Other than the bright eyes, the girls’ light milky skin was the only thing they seemed to have inherited from their father. Otherwise, they looked very much Chinese. Fa guessed that magic was in play somehow in the eye colors, though she wasn’t sure how–even though Turner was not magical because he was a man, his mother’s magical blood still ran through his veins. Fa–and Clara–knew that their children would be especially powerful, with magic running in both sides of the family. Together, Fa and Clara guessed that the eye colors were most likely a result of the double magic combination.
In later years, when Fa raised the girls alone, she would come to realize that the eye colors signified each daughter’s propensity towards control of a certain element. Mara, green, held a strong power over the Earth; Marie, blue, over water; Morgan, brown, over fire; and Mina, she guessed, with gray eyes, would one day hold the wind and air in her hands.
But Clara would only see Mara start to develop her powers–by the time Marie and Morgan were old enough, Fa had run far away.
It started when Mara was just five. When she had tantrums, the ground would start to tremble beneath her feet. Being in San Francisco, it wasn’t so odd to feel tremors once in a while, but Turner, not a dull man, began to notice that the epicenter of the quake seemed always to be in their home. He brought it up to Fa, one day, casually, a little amused, a little worried.
Fa trusted him. She had had three children with him, and another was on its way. She talked with Clara, who encouraged her to disclose the truth. With three daughters, it would be impossible to hide it from him forever. She told him. Of course, he didn’t believe her at first. To prove herself, she lit her hand on fire, and then extinguished the flame, all without touching a match.
The next morning, Turner was gone, the drawers emptied of his clothes. Fa waited for him, called Clara–she hadn’t told him about his mother–who told her to be patient. It was surprising information, after all, and even a man like Turner would have to process and adjust. Finally, two days later, there was a knock on the door. Relieved, Fa ran down the stairs.
The man who stood outside was not Turner. It was the police. They grabbed her, cuffed her without explanation. “A danger to your children,” she heard, “abduction, fraud.” Nobody explained. She could only guess that Turner had gone to them, turned her in as a lunatic and a freak.
Fa had no choice. Smoke rose, fingers snapped, bodies dropped to the ground unconscious. Fa fled, disappeared without a word, ran far away, with her daughters in her arms and on her back and in her belly. She finally settled in Ambrose, on the other coast of the vast country. She learned to use her strange face as a mask for her strange abilities, deciding that xenophobia was a better form of ostracism than fear of magic. She promised herself she would protect her daughters from a similar fate.
The fog in front of Fa’s eyes lifted. Her mind drifted back to the garden, where Graham’s memorial service reception was dwindling to a close. The Grahams had gone inside, and the crowd was thinning. Fa looked around to gather her daughters to go home. That was when she realized, a furious panic rising in her chest: the Switch sisters were nowhere in sight.