There are children playing in the snow where your bus stops. You carefully walk around them, watching them dig until they reach the ground, shape cylinders and hardened snowballs at the edge of the sidewalk with slivers of frozen mud, their gloves dirty.
You wonder why they are searching for mud now instead of waiting for spring.
One of them looks up at you. You smile, and they hand you a ball of snow and mud. You polish it, pressing and smoothing. A tiny woman in blue uniform hands you your bag from the belly of the bus when you point to it.
“Thanks,” you say, and she calls for the next person in line, so you move aside and wait.
Most of the people who step off the bus greet each other, and you imagine they are all locals. They wear huge jackets, smiling over their scarves. You stare at your sneakers, heavy with snow. You have never been to Vermont before, and your fingers are curling red over the mud.
You pretend you are not cold.
You want to get back on the bus and turn around.
“Beth, over here!”
Waving by a big car, you can only see the eyes of your cousin, Sarah, moon-shaped and happy.
You wave back and turn to one of the kids still clawing at the mud. You place the frozen ball beside them. It is nearly glossy now.
“Where are their parents, right?” Sarah says when you reach her, nodding at the children before pushing your bag into the trunk. “I mean, it’s pretty here, of course, but so weird.”
You laugh and slide into the car when Sarah does. She presses her palm over yours. You gaze at the children, moving like a production line, rows of bodies, a practiced dance. “Maybe they’ll find God at the bottom of the snow.”
“My mother used to say that—some story.” You remember it as something certain and true.
She turns a corner, humming, “you don’t have to speak to her. Just stick by me. Only a couple of days then it’s over. Although there are some other brats here. Try to avoid Claire.”
You shrug, but your body feels dark and your feet are wet.
Sarah taps the window every time you pass a landmark, which is everywhere in Grafton, buried dormant under snow. She stops the car for ten seconds by the black windows of a church, says it is a beautiful venue for her brother to get married in, and she is very happy, and you agree.
She drives on.
You think about hands in the snow, tunneling, searching, ceaseless.
You learn many things about the history of Grafton. It is a good distraction.
Grafton was a farming town in decline. A flood flattened everything, and it was beautiful. Things were rebuilt because it is important to reinspire small places and small people. The Grafton Inn once housed philosophers and presidents, maybe at the same time. There is a museum here all about mining. There are trails where you will be forced to ski and snowshoe.
A very pleasant old man with a brochure in the Inn lobby tells you: the Grafton church is a destination for weddings, and it is cheaper in the winter.
You tell him that is why you are here and very cold. You are used to San Francisco weather. You have forgotten the winters in Boston when you were a child, and you are glad that you have.
Across the lobby, you see your mother and her husband emerge from the stairs. Your mother carries a crutch. She tore her ACL, Sarah mentioned in the car, and you watch her limp. Once, you would have carried her weight with your tiny body so she would be close to you.
Your mother almost looks at you. She is wearing a shawl with one of her own designs. She turns away.
You say goodbye to the old man, and he folds a pair of gloves into your hands, and you thank him. As you head for the door, you eye your mother slowly moving toward the front desk. Her shawl is caught in her crutch. You know how it must frustrate her.
You put your new gloves on, feeling victorious.
Outside in the town centre, a small crowd is gathering. You stand at the back. There is a man in a purple corduroy suit on a raised platform. A magician. His assistant shuffles gracelessly by his side. You push further into the crowd.
The magician reaches into his pocket, silent, and presents a silver gun.
“An ordinary gun, take a look.”
He plucks out a bullet, flashing it between his fingers. “An ordinary bullet.”
He loads the gun slowly, clearly, and offers it to his assistant.
“And now, watch closely.”
You are fascinated by the elegance when the assistant shoots and the magician smiles. He opens his palm, wiggles his fingers, the bullet glittering.
You clap. The magician bows.
You believe it and it is easy to. It makes the crowd joyous and the magician proud. He must commit to the trick until it becomes real to him, too.
In university, you joined the Aspiring Magician’s Club and quit after a day. The club leader eradicated the joy: to sustain the illusion, you kill your inner self.
In the evening, after warming up in the Inn, you take a walking tour of Grafton because the various pieces are unsettling, and you want the wholeness, the entire web. You take out a camera you know you will not use. Sarah insists on joining you, and you exchange clothes beforehand like when you were younger, musing to the tour guide about the architecture and granite and marble with awful British accents.
“Superb, no, Beth?” Sarah gestures at the little post office.
You grin, shoulder against hers. “Marvelous, indeed.”
When your group stops in front of a library, you and Sarah repeat your rehearsed lines. The tour guide finds you funny, and the others ignore you. It makes Sarah try harder. You pat her arm.
“I think that’s enough,” you say quietly, accent gone, but Sarah is already off speaking to a stunned family, accent loud and flailing.
You find a bench to sit on, tracing circles into the snow. Behind you, the library is tall and white, resting on eight columns.
You remember your mother dragging you through aisles of books and leaving you in the corner of an unmarked section. You cried onto the floor, six years old and afraid. Left on the Russian beach, the spongy floor of an amusement park, the old theatre. Your small, wanting face. Strange, ornate childhood clothes, dry knuckles, collecting hair at the drain’s end. You used to peek into her art studio, trying to see things you could not feel with bare hands.
When you were sixteen and left home, you screamed in the tomato garden, counted the times you were lost and isolated and she knew.
Your mother remembers each instance as lessons. She remembers exhausted hours working on her designs, conceiving a business for you, waiting to inspire you. She remembers helping you.
You suddenly feel the heat of your skin.
Sarah is pointing at the library now, the family laughing at her ridiculous phrases, superb, superb, superb. Her accent has become overtly fake.
You look to where Sarah is pointing.
Amidst the white, a mural of colour.
The day of the family dinner, you fill your time with activities you normally hate. You go skiing and fall backward down a hill. You and Sarah and the sister of the bride, Claire, go to the mining museum, which Sarah establishes is called the Vermont Museum of Mining and Minerals.
“I heard you weren’t going to come—to the wedding, no offense,” Claire says.
Sarah looks from the hollowed mouth of a stone to Claire. “That’s a stupid thing to say.”
You step in front of Sarah and move to the next exhibit. “It’s true. I wasn’t.” Claire gives you a long, expectant look. “I changed my mind.”
“I heard it’s because of your mom. That you haven’t seen her in years. She’s super nice, though. I heard you were the not-nice one. She gave me this.” Claire tugs at a charm from her bracelet. It is yellow.
Sarah frowns, pulls the iron-burnt ends of Claire’s hair. “Jesus, you’re seriously a piece of work, last time you’re coming with me anywhere.”
You and Sarah and Claire stop in front of a case of stones. The silver plaque says Arrangement of Coloured Quartz. The stones are lined like a rainbow.
Secretly, the abstract rage satisfies you, stringing each muffled piece of memory into an encroaching, faceless dark. You have cultivated a need for it in the pearls of your spine.
“Good for you. She can be your mother.”
Once, your mother took you to a woman who painted your forehead with water and orange dye made of citrine. You called her a witch. Only beneath your tongue, and only when she stepped back and prayed. You watched her move her hands up and down until the dye dried and she closed her eyes. You felt her belief winging up in the dark room and you pitied her. You wondered why you were here, and your mother was not.
Outside, you washed your face in the rain.
You can no longer avoid her.
The family dinner is held in a private room at the Old Tavern restaurant, which you remember from the walking tour. The chairs are soft and there are yellowed maps and blue signatures fixed to the walls. Your mother is sitting at the other end of the long table, talking loudly because she always talks loudly. She looks at you, then away.
“Tomatoes?” Claire almost drops the dish, and you steady it on the table.
“Yeah, okay.” You spoon at the spongy red wheels, scowling.
Sarah takes the dish from you and passes it along. Beside her is your grandmother and she is forgetting colours and recipes and names. Her slow deterioration does not mean much to you; you never knew her well. Your mother was estranged from her. She used to call her that woman, wicked, vile. You look at your grandmother’s wrists and bones and faint curls of hair and imagine her younger, the picture of your mother, fading, impermanent.
Hours pass and you listen to conversations about the winter and Grafton and the wedding dress. Somehow, only sore, lonely sounds. Your mothers’ drifting gaze.
Dessert arrives in tiny cakes.
“Well, well!” Your mother claps. “They turned out great, didn’t they?”
One of the tiny cakes reaches you and you suddenly realize it is decorated with your mother’s signature design, a yellow flower, caught mid-bloom.
“Beth, isn’t it pretty? It’s going on the wedding cake as well.” A man you do not recognize asks from across the table. He must be from the other family.
You gaze at the line of faces. Your mother is watching you at last. You feel Sarah’s knuckle pressed gently to your knee. People start talking again; how visionary your mother is, how sharp the colours she uses are, how well she has adapted her business to the new shifts in technology. The winter and Grafton and the wedding dress.
The moment continues for you. You look at your mother, so visible, and you are reminded of carrying buckets of paint to her closed art studio door, severed from her for years.
“She hates me,” you say.
Sarah examines her fork, and you see her through the tines of its body. “Yeah, you hate her, too.”
Your mother was surprised when you screamed in the tomato garden bursting red. She was painting them; she would not talk to you. You had touched your forehead once pressed with citrine and left. She thought she was giving you space. You never meant for this to be an end.
No final straw, only a heaviness of a thousand pieces of grass. Little scratches.
You continue to look at her, and your mother looks at you as if she is searching for another child.
“She probably didn’t recognize the design,” you hear your mother say, still watching you.
You pick up the tiny cake with your fork and cut the yellow flower into a dozen shards.
At the wedding, you look over at your mother and see her eyes, the shiny fabric draping over her shoulders. Beneath, the loose threads of her dress.
You are on the bus again, hands curled inside your gloves. Sarah is outside, waving, and you smile and pat the glass. You look at the people around you, pale and dazed. You think about the sameness you feel.
The bus starts moving and you lean your forehead against the window; the children are kneeling by the side of the road, digging through the snow, fingertips by God. No one has told them that mud freezes in the winter, and they should wait until it melts, and everything will be easier. Or they have been told, and search anyways.
You take out your camera, untouched, and photograph the shrinking tip of the church, the field of children glittering in the snow. You turn it off.
In the dark screen, you notice your face invisibly split, scissored apart in a collage of pieces. The mouth of your mother, your hairline, your grandmother’s soft curls. The mismatched eyes are angry and sad.
They are cut from the same face. They somehow never touch.
You tuck the camera away.
Overhead, the sky tricks the snow: a forest of rain.
The truth is that it is not a real bullet. The magician uses misdirection to fool the audience, exchanging the real bullet for a wax bullet. Over the years, many magicians have died attempting the Bullet Catch, themselves believing the lie.