My Mother’s Hand
Written by Dante Luiz
Highlight to read content warnings:
Abuse, Transphobia, Sexual situations
March 14, 1886
Today I will write with my right hand; my mother now owns the other one. My fingers haven’t followed their master’s orders since we disembarked at Porto Madeira, and I have been suffering constant spilling of salt and other witch-like habits that are no longer pertinent to my current life of man. This is how I discover that she is no more—only dead witches can possess the living. Or not. I don’t remember. It’s been ten years since I left Desterro, and the rules of magic have slowly vanished from my memories.
Well. I can only imagine that her spirit longs to torment me one last time; she has never accepted my departure, but I am ambidextrous and can use one hand as easily as the other.
She will tire eventually.
March 17, 1886
I was mistaken in thinking that my dear old mother would find it enough to force me to perform small acts of witchcraft or even prevent me from writing for a while. Every day I wake in the middle of the night with my face being slapped and my hair pulled, a fact that amuses other sailors but causes me intense headaches. I told them I suffer from somnambulism, although there was no need to lie, as all know about my mother’s lineage. But I admit I am quite angry.
Mother used to wake me every day at the witch’s hour, even when we had no group meetings to attend. The gatherings happened every Saturday; the witches sang and danced around a bonfire. As a boy, I was fond of watching the flames grow and form the image of the Horned God amid the smoke, but I grew to hate the meetings when I reached puberty because their rules included partial or complete nakedness. Back then, I was so bitter about my body that I wanted to remove my breasts with my bare hands, which ended up not being necessary at all. The displeasure is not yet gone, but the sorrow I felt during those shirtless nights got slightly better when I realized I could spend the meetings looking at the naked bosoms of witches of my same age (and even some older than me).
Sometimes, I miss my deceased magic, especially where levitation is concerned, a gift that would be useful on this ship, with all the weight I have to carry. But an exchange is an exchange, and I have never regretted mine. One cannot be a man and a witch at the same time, and I gave my magic for a straight chest and a deep voice, like some witches give their manhoods away to be blessed by the Horned God. There was no magic left to give me the manhood I desired, but I still have my hands, and no woman has complained about my fingers so far.
Still, I hope the possession ends before we reach shore.
March 20, 1886
most ungrateful daughter, could not even visit her dying mother, how dare you? Because of you and your absence, I was buried in There are times that I forget I can no longer write with my left hand. I think mother broke the nib of my pen; I need to find a new one.
The possession has worsened, and my mother likes to pinch me, causing bruises in the region around my waist. How naïve of me to think that beatings would only be a nightly thing—now they also happen near lunch. Did she always have this habit? I don’t remember (see how much I forgot about my old life? Perhaps my memory explains the violence of her spirit—she must be foaming at the mouth to realize she has no space in my mind).
Not only that: I had to ask Damião, the cabin boy, to finish my services for me since my lady mother is forcing me to move my elbows up and down like a chicken. Public humiliation: how typical of her character.
Nothing like this has ever happened to me; I have no idea what I must do to exorcise her.
March 24, 1886
Mother has taken hold of my entire arm. I covered my possessed hand with an old sock and used the other one to tie my arm around my torso, or she would keep pinching my leg. It's uncomfortable. Mother insists on scratching me even with the sock and the layers of clothes around my body, but it helps with the bruises. Some of them were black by now, especially the ones scattered around my belly.
She kept clawing at me when I went to the deck to drink and play cards with my shipmates, and when I tried to mend my shirts. It’s childish, really—she just wants to make my life hell. When I escaped to have fun with a girl, or when I bought some silly nonsense to make myself a little less unhappy, she used to levitate a fork to scratch my arm. She would scratch me until I went back to the shop, returned the object, and bought something for her instead.
Good news, though: I remember what I must do. A witch burial! Witches must be put to rest in a rather peculiar way: their ashes must be divided in four equal parts, and each part given to one of the four elements. I only need to discover where she was buried. I asked the captain if we could spend three or four nights at Desterro and he agreed.
A good omen, at last!
- Some nibs for my pen (two pointed, two stubs)
- A good ruler for drawing
- A new pencil case (I don’t think I will have enough money left)
April 7, 1886
My tied arm behaved well during the day, probably because I am returning to my hometown in Southern Brazil. We arrived at Porto Rita Maria, and I was received gleefully by a pair of endearing little mutts that live near the pier. The dogs followed me to the room I am renting for a few days, but I dismissed them after they tried to eat my lunch (fried mullet made by the innkeeper—the lady is far more exquisite than the fish, which was too savory and full of bones for my liking). I saw familiar faces, but fortunately, none of them seem to remember me.
Later, I went to Old Gumercindo’s Haberdashery, and discovered that he, like my mother, has died. His son, a man whose name I don’t recall, found the nibs for me and a fine pencil case made of polished metal. They were out of rulers.
The island is as beautiful as ever, and considerably more urban than it used to be. There are now rows of houses and Portuguese buildings, and the gardens of Barão de Laguna square have been enclosed by elegant English fences. There is also a new café made for the wealthy; they did not allow me to get in. I spat in front of the door and in front of the Cathedral to pay my respects to my dead mother. She hated Christians as much as Christians hate witches, and I must confess that the same dislike runs in my veins, just not as strongly. During my childhood, she used to walk before me, spitting toward the priest while I ran to imitate her.
I also visited a stone grotto today, on the shore close to the Public Market, a few meters away from the abandoned fishing vessels. From downtown I walked to one of the hills, toward the unpaved, nameless street where mother and I used to live. None of the witches of the coven I was part of when I still believed myself a girl were there, but I know witches only appear in front of men if they desire to; none of them wish to meet me, it seems.
It took me a while to realize I was going around in circles. In the plot, there is now a sobrado house where a pharmacist lives with his wife and their two ugly little boys. The pharmacy must be in debt, because the couple thought I was a moneylender. I asked the wife if she knew what happened to the witch that used to live there, and this is what she told me: she died of a heart ailment, they burned her belongings, and she was not allowed to say where they buried her body.
Had she missed me? Was that my mother’s heart ailment? Not my person, of course, but the feeling of having me close, of having power over me. I can’t know. I returned to the inn, accepting that I would have to keep ignoring my arm.
I like the island more than I allowed myself to believe; I won’t let mother take this from me again.
April 8, 1886
Damned and disgraced witch, shameless in her I was sixteen when mother first found me under another witch’s skirts. I had two fingers inside the girl, and my left hand on her tits, and that’s when the old hag decided to appear. She dragged me out of there by the hair, and even when I tried to argue that there was nothing more pagan than lying with another witch, she had already decided to punish me by shoving the same two fingers inside a boiling cauldron. There are no scars of the incident (how lucky), and it was not enough to persuade me to stop what I was doing.
I never imagined this would happen again so many years later. This time without a cauldron or a witch, but even the hand was the same. And what did you expect? Fine. I no longer remember what I did during the day, because of my nerves—see, she is messing with my head. I ended up on a street I did not know, and there I chatted with a lady in front of a pub without any ulterior motives, but she liked me well and took me to her little room. She grimaced when she saw my tied arm, Way to go! What you deserve or treating your mother like but her humors changed when I began to kiss her neck, then between her thighs, I should have expected that you would be perverse like this and when I lifted her legs to remove her underclothes, my arm—the healthy arm, my free arm—moved to suddenly hit the woman, then my own face, and then grabbed my neck to strangle me for good.
An uncontrollable rage took over my senses when I realized my mother had control of my two arms, and I used all my strength to strike my body against the wall until the blood stopped flowing in my hands. I asked the woman to tie my wrists together and said I suffered from convulsions, an explanation she seemed willing to accept. After that, I took her with my mouth, out of pride rather than desire, as I no longer had any wish to continue what I was there to do. I left her place with two arms tied to my back like a madman, stomping toward the inn, and from the inn to the haberdashery.
Old Gumercindo’s son was closing the shop, but I screamed that I wanted my money back in exchange for the pencil case I had not yet opened. The poor man was terrified at the sight of me: words muffled with the case between my teeth, shouting nonsense and throwing the object at him with a violent movement of my head. He ended up handing me more money than I had hoped to get.
I have recovered partial control of my right arm, but the fountain pen trembles in my hand.
April 9, 1886
There is a shovel in the middle of my room.
I stole it from the backyard like a witch girl witchy little girl like a witch girl witchy little girl of the pharmacist’s neighbor early in the morning, so early that the roosters had not yet sung the witch's hour witch's hour witch's hour I bribed the pharmacist’s wife to tell me manipulation is a witch's weapon, your blood is the proof where her body rests you would know if you were here with me.
It worked. for whom? They had buried my mother in the graveyard behind the damned be they damned forever damned Cathedral. The Cathedral! That's what they do to abandoned mothers you see Behind a large statue of Virgin Mary another witch, a woman, witch witch. An attempt to purify a lost soul not as lost as my daughter’s, she said a witch witch all of them witches I had to control my laughter spiteful child.
I gave her the money buy something for your mother instead, took the shovel, and returned to the inn.
Tonight I will do what she requires of me.
Horácio Dias had a shovel, not in his hands, but tied to his back.
The trees of Barão de Laguna square darkened the Cathedral’s stairway with their shadows, and there was no one else there but a scoundrel or two. He had to climb the wall, with the difficulties expected of someone who could only use the equivalent of half a limb on his upper body, and fell to the other side, almost breaking his left foot. He muttered a sacrilege, and the most possessed hand moved its fingers in the air with triumphant satisfaction.
Horácio understood the act as mockery, and struck the hand against the first tombstone he saw. His knuckles were raw, and a few droplets of blood sprouted from his skin. There was a life-size statue of an angel with a lifted finger pointing to the skies, made in homage to Father Celestino Belfort Gomes. Horácio frowned. Maybe this was the same priest his mother used to harass. Responding to her son’s thoughts, his sore hand raised a thumb. Another tombstone adorned by flowerpots said Beloved father and shopkeeper Gumercindo de Oliveira 1798 – 1884.
A couple more angels, countless dried flowers. Horácio found a grave marker with the name of a known witch, and wondered if she had family to unbury her. Again, the hand waved in the air: no.
He limped toward the other side of the cemetery, barely seeing in the darkness as he passed rows of polished stone, until he found a statue of the Virgin Mary. An old thing, full of cracks and covered in moss, like she had spent the last century under the sea. The tombstones near it were broken and most of them were nameless, but the hand guided him toward a simple stone that said Eufémia.
Horácio wiped the sweat off his face and grabbed the shovel to dig. First, he removed the thin layer of grass, then the dirt that looked black under the moonlight. He dug, and dug, and dug, and only noticed his two hands were functioning normally when the shovel touched the coffin underneath the earth. The nails fell off the wooden lid on their own.
It was magic—not his own, but what remained of his mother’s power. Horácio watched the coffin open on its own to reveal an ancient heap of bones, as if Eufémia had been dead for longer than he had imagined. Her tattered dress danced around the bones, enveloping the dead woman, and neatly rearranged the body inside an improvised bag. Horácio raised an eyebrow and almost thanked the Horned God for the easy task, or he would have, had he not been covered by bruises with an additional strained foot. He grabbed the bag, shoveled the soil back into the hole, and left after finishing the deed.
It was a long walk to the grotto on the beach. He lit a fire, and wondered if he would hear the coven’s chants, or if an image would form in the smoke: a witch, the devil himself, his mother, or all of them. But none of that happened. The fire kept burning, and burning, in the most natural and ordinary of ways. Four hours later, there was no fire left, and he used a rock to smash the embers into a thin powder, then placed it inside the sock he had used to tie himself.
He made another fire for the ritual, but her ashes burned alone, as he had already left.
For the earth burial, he chose the gardens of Barão de Laguna square. A beautiful place, he thought, no longer limping. Horácio knelt down and allowed his possessed hand—how calm it had become—to choose a flowerbed, where he dug a small hole and buried another handful of ash.
For the air burial, he held another fistful with his free hand, and the ashes flew in front of Our Lady of Exile and St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral. It was part vengeance against his mother, part mockery against the church. The son of a witch, he thought.
He went back to the ship, greeted the captain, patted the back of the cabin boy, drank a few gulps of wine, stole a card from the deck, all of it with the hands that were slowly finding their lost freedom. He took a deep breath of salt air as the ship sailed and held the almost empty sock against his chest. In a way, that had been his last act of witchcraft, the last spell before leaving that old life behind, now and forever.
With that wish in mind, he bent over the stern, and threw the rest of his mother to the sea.
© Dante Luiz
Dante Luiz is a Brazilian illustrator, occasional writer, and art director for Strange Horizons. He is the interior artist for CREMA (comiXology, 2020), and has appeared in several comic anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Shout Out, and Mañana: Latinx Comics From the 25th Century, among others.