Ma was Gifted. Pa wasn't, but he understood the gist of it, and he never interfered.
Pat wasn't Gifted, and Marley but only a little, but in me, it ran strong and true.
"My Gifted girl," Ma called me, affectionately.
Something twisted inside me, every time she said that, though I did not know why.
Pat and Marley went to the village school to learn to read and write, but Ma taught me, with a slate and chalk, and a reader that was older than I was. Reading, writing, arithmetic, and how to use my Gift.
It had manifested when I was five, though Ma said she had known about it as soon as I was born.
"It's your eyes," she said. "One blue, one brown. It's the true mark of the Gifted."
We had no mirror, and so I had never seen. Ma couldn't abide them. She Saw things in them, she said, things that no one should see.
"Your Pa had a small one, just a disc of polished silver, before we met, but he got rid of it as soon as he began courting me."
She couldn't abide still ponds, either, or the bucket of well water with its ewer. Whenever she wanted water, she'd ask one of us to dip her out a cup, or else she would stomp her feet across the floor, the vibrations creating ripples, disturbing the surface and breaking whatever image it was she saw.
"Be grateful, my girl," she told me. "Be grateful you don't See what I See."
There was always an unspoken line at the end:
Be grateful you don't see what I see -- yet.
Pat and Marley and I played together, when school was over and Ma would let me out of the kitchen, leaving the dark and oppressive interior of the house to go run in the sunshine, but as they got older, they took over chores on the farm, til they had no time left to play with me.
As I got older, Ma changed what I had to do, too. We shifted away from basic schoolwork to what she called spell work -- curses and how to lift them, healing and how it could be done, how to help and how to hurt.
As a child, I wanted to do neither. I wanted to go outside and play with Pat and Marley, help with milking the cows and bringing in vegetables from the garden, putting the odd pea pod or berry in my mouth when no one was looking.
Ma endured my protests with her typical grace and good humor. "Be patient," she said. "My Gifted girl. Another hour and you'll be able to play together."
But Pat and Marley were always too tired to play, at the end of the day, and by then I was too tired, too, and so I had no choice but to sit quietly and work on my knitting, or else do mending for the house.
Ma never taught me to See. I asked her once, why she didn't, and she shook her head.
"It's a burden, not a gift."
I didn't argue with her. I knew, too clearly, how painful it had been for her. Nothing was a surprise. Life followed a predictable rhythm, and the things that could not be predicted, she knew about before anyone else. When Pa's Pa died, thrown from his horse, Ma knew before it happened. When her Ma had died in her sleep, she knew that, too. She had known that Pat and Marley were going to be boys before they were born, and that I would be a girl. She had even, she implied, known that I would be Gifted, though she did not know what my Gift would be.
"Everyone has a specialty, my girl," she said. "I couldn't see yours."
I thought she meant she hadn't looked, but the older I got, and the more I learned about Gifts and magic, abilities beyond those of my brothers and father, our kind and gentle neighbors, I found that she meant, truly, that she couldn't See it. There were some things that no one could meddle with, and others Gifts were one of those things.
Ma taught me everything she knew, and for the things she didn't, she sent away to the other villages, communicating through a network of Gifted to find someone who could teach me their skills -- how to call storms (or calm them), how to speak to animals, how to talk to the dead. I had no affinity for these things, and the teachers, paid in apples or cheese or sausages from our larder, simply slapped me on the back and told me that I would find my calling someday.
"Fear not," they said. "You're gifted."
None of their lessons stuck with me. I wanted to be able to talk to animals, to tell our cows thank you for the milk they provided, and speak with the barn cats about where they hid their kittens, but all I got in response were inquisitive looks and, from the cats, the twitch of a tail and a slow stare. I wanted to be able to call storms, for when Pa frowned and said it would be another week of hauling water to ensure the crops didn't wilt in the fields -- but the clouds stayed stubbornly far away, dots of white off on the horizon, nowhere near where I wanted them to be.
I did not try to speak with the dead again, but I had shivered through that entire lesson, and I was all too happy when the woman who taught it -- a grandmother, with apple cheeks and a grin that made me grin, too -- left. I had liked her, but I did not enjoy what she taught.
"Well," said Ma, as we watched her lift the latch of the gate, to leave. "At least you aren't burdened with something you hate."
She said this lightly, as though I was lucky, but there was a note in her voice that made me know she was thinking about her own specialty and the pain it brought her. Ma had wanted to be a healer, and she had some affinity for it, but her greatest Gift was the Sight that she so hated.
The year I turned sixteen, I started having dreams about doors.
I knew, without being told, that this was my gift.
There were three doors, three choices. Three possibilities, three places to go.
A man always stood beside them. His appearance changed, from dream to dream, but his eyes never did. They were always the same as mine: mismatched, one blue, one brown. He was Gifted too, I could sense, but his Gift was different. He was powerful.
No matter how he looked -- young and handsome, old and wizened, like my Pa or like one of the men from the village, or like someone I had only seen in the woodcut illustrations of the books that Marley occasionally brought home, the friendly sailor or benevolent king.
"Tace," he said, in every dream. "Welcome."
He taught me lessons. It was important, he said, that I remembered them. "Our Gift is a rare one. I do not think anyone your mother knows could teach you. You must remember..."
Sometimes he opened the doors, and sometimes he didn't.
I dreamed of him every night for a year, and on the last night -- the night before my seventeenth birthday -- he clapped me on the back and told me I was ready.
"You know what you must do," he said, and I did not understand.
My birthday was just after midsummer. I'd always loved that. Midsummer was when Ma let me skip the pratical parts of my lessons -- the reading and writing -- and gave me half-a-day's instruction in magic instead, letting me run free with Pat and Marley if I so chose.
I loved summertime, the way the land looked, all green and verdant, the flowers in riot. The blackberries that grew around the edge of our fields bloomed then, their branches heavy with blossoms, nodding gently in the wind, and the poppies in Ma's garden in their full glory. The sunflowers that Pa planted around the edges of the tracked the daylight. The worst of the rains were past, there was a month until harvest, and we could all breathe easy for a moment, before the work began again in earnest.
Ma always gave me my birthday off. She baked a cake, asking as always what I wanted, and invited Pat and Marley, each with houses of their own on the property, to join us for the family meal.
This year was no exception.
"Good morning," she greeted me. "What cake would you like?"
And I answered the same way as always: "Raspberries and cream, please, the cake you made for Pa before he asked you to marry him."
Ma smiled at this every time. "Heavens, child, your memory rivals your Pa's."
She shooed me outside to go "play", though I was too old to do anything more silly than look around the yard to see if any of the barn kittens were out and about. There was one I loved, a tabby with little white feet, and I played with her, dragging a long piece of string and watching as she batted at it.
"Aren't you too old for that?" Pa teased me. "You're near-grown. Another year or two and you'll be moving on, same as Pat and Marley."
I stuck out my tongue. "Rich of you to say, when you lived with your ma till you were five-and-twenty."
Pa laughed. "Good point. What sort of cake are we having this year? The usual?"
"Of course," I said.
He patted me gently on the shoulder. "That's my girl."
The pat on my shoulder reminded me of my dream, and I dropped the string, leaving the kitten to her own devices, and walked back to the kitchen to talk to Ma about just what it had meant. I'd told her about the others -- there was no reason to hide them, and we had talked about them if not frequently, at least often enough that she could give me advice on what to expect.
Ma was in the kitchen when I walked in.
"Tace," she said, smiling. "I'm making your cake. Go away."
"It's my birthday," I said. "If I want to help with my cake, you can't exactly stop me."
I measured out flour and helped her beat the egg whites until they were standing stiff in the bowl, both of us passing it back and forth until they stood upright.
"I had another dream," I started to say, as she folded in the flour. "About..."
"The man and the doors?" she guessed. "Whose face did he wear this time?"
"One of the woodcuts, I think. I didn't recognize him."
"What did he say?"
I explained, as she spooned the batter into a buttered tin and placed it in the oven to bake.
"Well," said Ma, straightening. "That's interesting, isn't it? Do you know what to do?"
I laughed. "No."
"I suppose you'll know when the time comes."
"I suppose." Ma's ease with what I had dreamed set me at ease, too, and before long we were talking about kittens and blackberries, about whether Marley and Laura were planning to marry in the fall, or if they would continue courting, what Pat's mysterious silence when asked about the Bradford's son meant, whether he would ever find someone to settle down with, too, after having his heart broken by the very same son the summer before.
Dinner came. Ma fried a chicken, "in honor of the occasion," she said, and made good gravy and biscuits to mop it up with. There were fresh tomatoes from the garden, and green beans. Marley brought Laura, and Pat surprised us all by showing up with the same Bradford son we'd speculated about as we waited for the cake to bake, walking up the path from the gate hand in hand as though they'd never quarreled and split the summer before.
We ate and laughed, and when Ma brought out the cake and poured tea for everyone, there were contented sighs around the table.
"It gets better every year," Pa said happily, as I cut the slices. "You've outdone yourself this year, Renata."
Ma blushed as I put a piece of cake before her. "It's nothing."
We dug in and sighed in pleasure as we ate ate it. Between the seven of us, it wasn't long before the last piece had been claimed (split in half by Pa and Pat, with my blessing), and we were drinking tea and reminiscing.
"Oh!" said Laura, as Marley began making noises about walking her home. "Tace -- I brought you something."
I smiled. "You didn't have to bring me anything," I said, as she slid a small parcel wrapped in paper across the table to me.
"Nonsense. Open it!"
I unwrapped it slowly.
Inside the package was a small hand mirror, the kind that a girl would hang on her wall and use to fix her hair. It was a plain square of silvered glass with a back painted in gold paint. I'd seen similar ones in the village before, for sale in the dry goods store. "Oh."
"What is it?" Ma asked.
I tried to cover it with the paper. "Thank you, Laura."
"Every girl should have a mirror," she said happily. "Marley said you didn't have one, and I thought..."
I saw Ma's eyes dart to it on the table, her face go blank. I knew she was Seeing something, and something horrible, by the stricken look on her face.
"Cover it!" Pa barked.
I only half-heard him. My mind was elsewhere.
I turned the mirror over and looked around the table. Everyone was frozen, as if they were part of some wax tableau.
I looked to Ma, to see if she knew what was happening -- her, with her Gift, her ability to see things that others could not. She was still, her eyes wide and senseless.
I touched her hand, and she looked toward me, her mismatched eyes meeting mine. I felt a sudden lurch, heard a sound as if something chiming, and then all was still and dark.
My eyes adjusted slowly. Before me were three doors. The man from my dream was not there, but the doors were the same. I recognized them, the light flowing out from under each of them.
I knew what the doors meant.
"Past," I said, reaching out and touching the one nearest me. The wood was dark, dusty. "And present." The wood of that was planed oak, smooth and unblemished but for the knots and whorls in the wood.
The third door I recognized as the future. It was made of heavy black metal. Light escaped from underneath it, more than from the others. The door was cracked, I saw, open in a way that it should not be open.
Is it really that simple?
I reached out to shut the door, and hesitated.
Doors, I thought. Because I know Ma. It won't always be this easy, but this time, this once, it can be.
I gently swung the door closed. It stubbornly swung open again.
I thought of my lessons, my dreams, and created a latch for it, a simple one that could be lifted with a fingertip. When I touched the door again, I could not see it, but I could feel it, the iron smooth under my fingertips.
I shut my eyes, I swung the door closed, and holding it in place with my body, I latched it.
I held my breath as I stepped away, but the door stayed shut, as steadfast as if it had never been opened.
I turned my back on the doors and, remembering another piece of my lessons, returned to the table.
"Renata," said Pa, touching Ma's wrist. "Are you all right?"
"I Saw..." she started, and paused. "I don't remember."
I quickly turned the mirror over on the table. "Thank you for the gift, Laura."
"Of course," she said, her eyebrows crooked. "I suppose -- Marley, will you walk me home?"
They excused themselves, and Pat and the Bradford's son soon followed.
"Renata," said Pa.
"Edmund," she said. "I can't remember what I Saw." Her voice was light, buoyant. "I can't remember."
Pa gave me a look across the table. "Tace, did you..."
I shrugged. "It happens sometimes. Ma's taught me about it."
She looked across the table at me and smiled. "It does happen sometimes," she agreed. "Usually when you get older. But -- Edmund, I'm free."
I slipped away from the table while they were both rejoicing, up to my room, and said a silent prayer of thanks that I had discovered my Gift, knew now what I could do.
Marley married Laura that fall, and Pat married the Bradford's son Will that winter. I lived at home until I was nineteen, and then the boy I was sweet on, Adam, proposed to me, and I moved out to live with him.
Ma knew about my Gift. I told her later, of course, once the fuss had died down. I told her too that if there were any in her network that wanted their own Gifts taken away, I would do so. None had suffered as much as Ma, but there were still some as wanted it done. A few years after I'd taken Ma's gift, after Adam and I were married, a woman from two villages over came and asked if I might be able to take away her ability to speak with the dead, and I did so -- meeting her eyes and altering the shape of her Gift. She spread the word, and others too came, from near and from far, to have their Gifts removed.
Adam and I had a daughter of our own, and when I saw her mismatched eyes, one brown and one hazel, I laughed. "Here is one who will give us trouble."
She grew to have the same Gift I did. I taught her, and when she left for the city, I knew it was to continue doing what I had taught her -- helping where she could, never using her Gift except for those that requested it.
Ma has been gone for a long time, and Pa for longer. My daughter married, and had a daughter of her own, with her same mismatched eyes. When she came to have the same gift as her Ma, she sent her to me for training.
"For a year," she said. "You taught me well; you'll teach her well. I'll visit when I can."
So I have settled into the role of teacher again, instructing another in how to use her Gift: to bring joy only, never pain, and never on anyone except those as are willing.
"Oh grandma," she sighs sometimes, as I instruct her again in the principles of magic. "I know this already."
And I smile and repeat myself, for even if she knows it, a reminder will not hurt her, and I want it to be clear: our true Gift is to ease the pain of others.
"Tace" is a nickname for Tacita, a girl's name with its origins in Roman history. In Latin, it means "silent". It felt appropriate here.
Thanks for reading.