How love and magic make up the fabric of our lives…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
My uncle was a witch.
He didn’t like the term ‘warlock’. “Do I look like I’m going to war to you?” he’d say. “No. I do not.”
I asked him once if that was his way of telling people he was agender and he wrinkled his nose. “I guess,” he replied. “But also, I mean the thing about war. I just don’t like the word. It feels pompous. Like you can’t admit that you work magic that’s tied to the home and aligned with nature. I never had time for that sort of thinking.”
And that was true enough. Uncle Robin worked subtle magic. You might not even realise he was a witch if you didn’t see him at work. He wore big, lumpy jumpers and lived in a cottage in the middle of nowhere–or so it seemed to my city-child’s eyes.
When I was small there was another man who lived there with him: Uncle Kevin. Tall and willowy and stylish in every way that Uncle Robin was not. They were never married–Uncle Robin didn’t believe in it–but they were partners, and Kevin was my uncle too. After a while, Kevin just wasn’t there anymore, and Mum sternly told me not to ask about him. I nodded with wide eyes and understood that this was a Grown-Up Thing. I never did ask what happened to Uncle Kevin. Now I wonder if I should have.
The first time we visited after Uncle Kevin left, Uncle Robin had expanded to fill all the spaces where Kevin had been. All the little modern, stylish touches had been covered over in cosy throws and comfortable armchairs. Kevin’s study had been converted to a guest bedroom for me, so I didn’t have to share with my sister. It had views across the road to fields that always seemed smothered in thick fog. Old, gnarled trees would peek through the mist and, to me, those trees seemed more magical than Uncle Robin did. They were mysterious, knowing, witchy.
But his kitchen was full of dried herbs and jars of things through which I longed to riffle. I wasn’t allowed in there unsupervised. That’s where Uncle Robin did his business–meeting clients, brewing potions, making poultices–but it wasn’t the only place he worked his magic.
Presents from Uncle Robin were always a little special. They might not look like much–a scarf, some socks, a lumpy jumper (Uncle Robin liked yarn crafts) –but they were.
The first time I got socks from Uncle Robin I was not impressed, but do you know? Those were the toastiest socks I ever owned. Every time you put them on it felt like you’d taken them fresh off the radiator on a cold winter morning. They were snuggly and warm and comforting, like a hug for your feet.
And the scarf… When you wrapped it around your neck, it was like looking at raindrops on the window while you were warm inside by the fire.
Spells were woven into everything that Uncle Robin made.
I studied magic at school, though I never had the knack for it myself. I liked the theory of it. It helped me understand what Uncle Robin did. Sometimes I think about how every stitch of those lumpy jumpers was wound about with his love for me. Wrapped around the yarn with needles that moved like wands. It makes me want to cry.
I should have asked him about Uncle Kevin.
I should have wondered more about the explosion of throws that appeared all over his little cottage. About his complete redecoration of Uncle Kevin’s study.
I should have wondered what happened to Kevin’s expensive leather armchair and the little bits of modern art he made room for in Uncle Robin’s homely space.
But I was a child. I didn’t question what went on when adults changed the arrangement of their worlds. I just inhabited the places they built around me.
And later, when I grew up… well, it was too late to ask. Kevin, I assumed, was just an old boyfriend who at some point had moved out. Such things happened, I now understood.
Or I thought I did.
I didn’t really understand until Uncle Robin was gone.
Somehow, I never expected that he’d leave the cottage, and the bulk of his things, to me. I probably visited him the most out of all of the cousins, but I had not a whit of magic in me. I thought he’d leave his things to Margaret or Darran. Neither had followed him into witchcraft as a career, but they dabbled.
I guess they never took it seriously. No one ever said anything about it, but I think we were quietly steered away from magic. But me? Well, there was never any danger that I would pick up the craft. So, I’d visit with Uncle Robin and show him my terrible embroidery, and I guess he liked that.
It was a comfort as well as a sorrow to find so much of him woven into his things. Who knew he was walking around some days wearing a shirt with summer thunder sewn into the seams? Or a kilt that felt like dawn?
Then I found the trunk in the attic. The one where he kept the things he made after Kevin left.
How can I describe a half-finished quilt that’s stitched with grief?
Or a partly unravelled scarf that’s made of longing?
How many projects did Uncle Robin make and then unmake in those first few months when Kevin was gone? And why did he keep these ones?
Maybe he kept them to honour the love that was bound up in that grief. That’s the reason I kept them.
It’s always hard to go through a loved one’s things and decide what to keep and what to give away. Even more so when every piece is embedded with memories.
Except, that is, for the bed sheets he hemmed with sex. Sorry Uncle. No power on Earth could make me sleep on those, and giving them to charity seemed even worse.
Thankfully, the Museum of Witchcraft agreed to take them off my hands, much to the curator’s amusement.
I handed them to her wearing thick gardening gloves. Then we sat and drank tea in his kitchen while I told her all I could remember of him. The curator, Aggie, said his works were remarkable examples of a rare art form, and she begged me to let her have a few, less sexually charged items as well.
Afterwards, I showed her the trunk of grief and the few items of Kevin’s that Uncle Robin had kept.
Her intake of breath as she fingered the quilt brought the feeling back as though I’d touched it myself.
“He must have loved your Uncle Kevin very much,” she said.
“We never knew what happened to him,” I replied. “Or at least, I never did. Maybe my parents knew.”
“May I?” she asked, gesturing to what I believed to be Uncle Kevin’s leather gloves. Uncle Robin never wore leather.
I nodded, and she ran them through her fingers. I wonder what she found there. I never had any kind of memory kindled when I handled those.
She opened one and slid her hand inside. The slender fingers were longer than hers, leaving empty ends. She flexed her hand and grunted, as though this confirmed something.
“Your Uncle Kevin was fae,” she said.
I blinked. “What? No… he… Why do you say that?”
She took off the glove. “A few things. The disappearance made me wonder, and you mentioned he was very tall and slender. It’s not uncommon for magic-sensitive humans to make friends among the fae, although it’s rare for them to become lovers–the fae have as much stigma about that as we do. Rarer still for one of them to choose to live with one of us, away from the Realm. But the fingers of this glove–you see? They’re unusually long. And when I touch the inside… well.” She shrugged. “You wouldn’t feel it, as you’re not sensitive at all, but there are traces of raw fae power left in the seams. He probably kept it so he could feel as though Kevin were with him. Maybe to feel like they could still hold hands.”
I stared. I’d never considered that Kevin could be more than a particularly stylish man.
“Kevin might not be dead, you know.”
“What?” I asked, still absorbing that he was fae.
“You said you didn’t know if Kevin had died or just left.”
“Yes, I…” My eyes trailed over the unfinished quilt. “But that was before I found these things. You can feel the grief.”
The curator shrugged. “That’s true, but the thing is… fae-human relationships rarely last, though not for want of feeling. Kevin lived with your uncle for years. His court won’t have liked that. It’s possible they called him back and barred him from visiting the human world.”
“They can do that?” Shock and hope warred within me. Uncle Kevin might still be alive.
She nodded. “Some fae courts are more permissive, but it’s not unknown for a court to lay a gaes–a kind of magical prohibition–on a member of the court who’s too familiar with humans. Perhaps I shouldn’t get your hopes up.”
I raised my eyebrows. “But…?”
“Well,” Aggie said, “if it is a gaes, it may have been tied to your Uncle Robin. And… it might be lifted now that he’s passed.”
I ran a finger over the soft leather of one of the gloves. How sad that would be. To only be able to return when your partner had died.
“I could try to call him here,” she said, quietly. “I can’t promise you anything. I might be wrong, and I don’t know his true name–it could be Kaefin or something similar, but it’s unlikely to be Kevin.”
I frowned. “Is it even possible, if you don’t know his name?” I had only studied human magic; they didn’t teach much about the fae at school, except the old fairy tale rules: don’t step inside a fairy circle, don’t follow them into the Realm, never eat their food. I had eaten Uncle Kevin’s apple crumble, but perhaps food made outside the Realm didn’t count.
Aggie looked around at the room, full of Uncle Robin’s things, Uncle Robin’s memories, Uncle Robin’s love. “Maybe not. But if he was as attached to your uncle and your uncle was to him, I imagine this is a place to which he’d want to return. Do you want me to try?”
A giddy lightness rose in my chest. Did I want to see Kevin? I barely knew him. A vague memory of a tall man with a broad grin and beautiful curly hair. But I could remember sitting on his knee. I remembered him winking and slyly sneaking me sweets. And I remembered how much Uncle Robin had loved him, and how I’d never even asked him where the love of his life had gone.
“Yes,” I said. “Please.”
I’d never seen a spell this complex before. Most of the magic I’d known had been Uncle Robin’s, and that had seemed as simple to him as breathing.
It was a ritual, with symbols to draw and incantations to speak.
We did it in the kitchen so as not to make a mess, and because it had been the heart of Uncle Robin’s home. We moved the table to one side and Aggie drew a summoning circle with chalk. She had me light candles while she drew the runes.
And then she called to him:
“Kevin, beloved of Robin. Kevin, who once made this your home. I call to you.” It was a simple, plain-spoken invocation. Some older beings preferred to be called in the languages of their youth, but Aggie said most British fae spoke English, and we knew that Kevin did. No ‘magic’ words were needed, just the call to hearth and home, pulling on the strings that were already tied to him.
“Kevin, beloved of Robin, come to us here in your home. Come to this glove, which you wore. Come to this ring, which you gave.” Not a wedding ring, but a ring Kevin had given to Uncle Robin all the same. A symbol of their bond.
The candles flickered, though there was no draft.
“Kevin, beloved of Robin, come to blood of Robin’s blood who longs to see you. Come home.” She chanted on in this theme: calling on Kevin, invoking the power of Robin’s name. His connection to me and to this place.
And then, in the space of a blink, and with a whoosh of air, he stood before us.
It must have been thirty years, but he hadn’t aged a day.
He was still beautiful. Tall and slender, with curly hair that brushed the shoulders of a silk jacket.
“Uncle Kevin,” I said.
He looked surprised. I suppose being summoned must be a surprising thing.
He glanced at me, and then around the room. I saw the recognition in his eyes.
“Where’s Robin?” he asked, but I think he knew the answer.
“Not here anymore,” I said. “He passed on a couple of weeks ago.”
Sadness drew across his elegant features. He gave a small, sharp nod, and swallowed. “Of course,” he said, his voice a little rough. “I think I felt it, but… I didn’t want to believe.”
He closed his eyes, and I let him take his time. I pretended not to see the tear that he brushed away.
Eventually, he looked at me again. “And you are little…”
“Nat,” I supplied.
“Little Nat,” he said, and smiled in recognition. “You grew up.”
He glanced at Aggie. “And you are…?”
“Oh, don’t mind me,” said Aggie “I’m just helping Nat out. She didn’t inherit her uncle’s talent for the craft.”
He looked back at me and nodded. Perhaps he could tell I had no magic.
“Why am I here?” he asked.
I realised I didn’t know. When Aggie had offered, it had just seemed the right thing to do. “I suppose… I didn’t know where you’d gone. He never spoke of it. But then I found your things, and the things I think he made after you left, and I thought you should know–that he passed.”
Perhaps my motivations were not so pure. I admit, I was curious about my uncle’s fae love. But I did also want to share this with him. This grief.
He stooped to pick up the ring and the gloves. “I did wonder,” he said, “if he ever thought of me. Whether he knew what had happened. It was so sudden.” He turned the ring over in his hand. “We never said goodbye.”
“A gaes?” I asked, hoping I’d said the word right.
“Mmm,” he nodded, not looking up.
“He thought of you a lot,” I said. “He didn’t talk of it, but he put it into these.”
I laid my hand on the scarf, which rested next to the half-made quilt on the kitchen table.
His gaze tracked my hand, and I thought I saw a longing there that matched what had been woven into the scarf.
“He did?” Uncle Kevin swallowed. “May I?”
I stepped back and let him walk to the table. Our summoning circle had not been binding. He laid his hand on the scarf and stood there with his eyes closed for several long seconds. Then he raised his other hand and reached for the quilt.
I almost stepped forward to stop him, knowing the pain that lay in its stitches, but Aggie put a hand on my arm and shook her head. He had a right to that pain, if he chose it.
He made a little noise, and closed his fist on the cloth.
After several hard breaths, he let go again, brushed tears from his eyes, and began pulling on his gloves.
“I’d like to take these home with me, if I may,” he said, his voice rough.
“Of course.” I couldn’t imagine wanting to bring that pain into your life, but perhaps, after all this time, it would help for them to be together in grief.
His hands now insulated by the leather, he took the quilt and the scarf back with him to the circle.
“And, uh, might I also ask for something else of his?” Kevin asked. “Something with his love.”
“Of course.” He must have known there were dozens of items in the house like that. I rushed off to grab one of Uncle Robin’s thick woollen jumpers, and knew I had chosen right when Kevin’s eyes filled again to see it.
He enfolded it in his arms without saying a word and held it close, the tears tracking down his face.
“Yes,” he said eventually, “this is just like him.”
I gave him his time with the objects. With his memories of Uncle Robin.
When he recovered himself, he folded his items into neat little squares, and I began to worry he would simply go–vanishing as quickly as he’d come.
“Will you come back and visit?” I asked, “Now that you can?”
He hesitated. “Not often,” he said. “You understand. They could ban me forever if they think I’m still losing myself to him.”
What a terrible thing–was that how they saw love? But then, were my people any different? Did we not tell stories that warned not to lose yourself to the fae? “Whenever you’re able,” I assured him. “Can you move freely, now, or do I need to…” I gestured to the candles and the chalk.
He laughed. “No, no. Now I know the gaes is lifted, I can come and go as I’d like. Just… not too often.”
“Good. I’d like to know you better.”
Kevin smiled–almost that same smile I remembered from childhood. “And I’d like to know what Robin was doing all these years without me.”
I thought he might go then, but his eyes caught on the folded bed sheets at the end of the table–where Aggie had set them down as we drank our tea. The pink flush in his cheeks said he knew what they were. “Oh,” he said.
“Would you like them?” I asked. “I didn’t quite know…”
His eyes skipped to mine, and then away. “Well,” he said. “If you wouldn’t mind…”
“I can’t think of anyone else who’d deserve them more.” I’d promised them to Aggie, but I didn’t think she’d mind. I’d given her several other objects for the museum’s collection.
“No, I suppose not,” he murmured, still not meeting my eye, and added the sheets to his small pile of Robin Things.
He cleared his throat and looked up. “Thank you, Nat, for your unexpected call, and for letting me know. About Robin. I’ll return,” he said, “I promise. But now I think I need some time alone, with his memory.”
I nodded. “Of course.”
He held the objects close to him, and then he was gone.
Aggie and I returned order to the kitchen and we had another cup of tea. She didn’t mind about the sheets. We agreed it would have been wrong for strangers to handle or study them, knowing that one of the people who’d made the memories they held still lived. But she would share the story of their love and their parting to help lessen the stigma of loves like theirs.
After she left, I wrapped myself in one of Uncle Robin’s love-filled blankets and went up to the guestroom that had once been mine, and had been Kevin’s before that. There was no mist, but the old gnarled trees still held their witchy magic, and in the twilight, I pretended to myself that this was something of what it felt like to peer between the worlds.
I hoped that wherever he was, Uncle Kevin was OK. And I was glad that he’d taken some of Uncle Robin’s homely magic with him.
Ro Smith writes fantasy and science fiction that challenges preconceptions and revels in change. As an agender author she’s delighted to represent her identity in her story, ‘Homely Magic’.
Ro has a doctorate in epistemology and metaphysics from the University of York and her short stories have been published by Hub, Behind the Wainscot, and Fox Spirit Books. She’s given several papers on the relationship between speculative fiction and philosophy, and her article, ‘Remembering Margaret Cavendish’, was published in the award-winning Speculative Fiction 2012. You can find Ro on Twitter @Rhube