Lisa Lo Paro
Our mother’s name was Lavender. One of my earliest memories was watching her wash our linens, hanging them on a clothesline in our garden, her clothes blowing in the breeze—everything pure white. It was sometimes difficult to discern her among all the cotton, her dark hair the only clue of her presence. I always remember her doing this on late spring days, grass beneath her feet, a soft wind animating the sheets. My sisters never enter this dreamy picture, but they were always there. The three of us: Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.
By the time we were in high school our difference from our peers was clear. We’d had issues before then—our names for one, our differing appearances for another—but adolescence distinguished us enough that we couldn’t ignore it anymore. Our peers were wary of us, sensing something more mysterious in our eccentricity. We were often stared at, talked about, as if in fear. So my younger sisters and I clung together and were content.
And even though I can’t remember Rosemary and Thyme watching our mother as closely as I did, they were always the main characters of my childhood memories. Beautiful Rosemary and confident Thyme, their green eyes matching mine, our only physical similarity. Together, we created the energy needed to sustain our family, our mismatched little foursome.
Until Rosemary left.
I know Sage blames our mother’s death on me but I never let myself succumb to that kind of misplaced guilt. It’s just plain resentment at my leaving rather than fact, or anger that she always had to clean up my messes when we were younger. I have too much of my mother in me, which is why I was always her favorite.
I looked the most like her as well, my brown curly hair matching hers the way Sage’s thick knots and Thyme’s loose waves never did. I was also pale like her, whereas my sisters looked too much like the fathers they’d never known. We’d never known. Not that it matters. All our lives we’ve only ever needed our mother.
Our beautiful mother, idealistic and steady, made reckless by the counterculture lifestyle she chose twenty-odd years ago. She called herself an activist and a hippie but really she craved all the things she initially rejected: family life, stability, the whole white-picket-fence. I always knew having us and settling down made her happier than following some unwashed band around the country, especially since she was such a slave to her compulsive cleanliness. I never minded her careless side; knowing all about who she really was made me feel closer to her. So it’s savage of Sage to say I’d caused her death. If Sage is to be believed, then why did our mother die at all? For that matter, why didn’t Thyme see it coming? And anyway I’ve never really believed in all that lore.
But—maybe—I do believe in Thyme.
These days, psychics are a dime a dozen. I go to the summer fairs with Will and see them in their billowy cloaks and brightly-colored headwraps, orbiting a crystal with bejeweled fingers, humming nonsense under their breaths. I know it’s all a show but it annoys me as if it weren’t.
There’s no shortage of either the con artist or the gullible in the village of Woodstock, New York, where we three grew up. My mother lived and died here, in view of the mountains she loved, those mountains made soft and green throughout the centuries. Will and I have made our home just steps away from the village square, close to my mother’s old house. Our new house is a haven, with wide windows and a wild garden, and on summer days you can hear kids playing in the square. Best of all, it’s only a ten-minute walk to the high school, where I’ve carved out a career for myself since my sisters left town. My gifts, if I’m cautious, are perfectly suited to guide those who are still young enough to be set upon the right path. And I help those who seek it.
As a rule, I don’t take a client I don’t know in some way, whether personally or through a friend. And as a rule, I don’t take payment unless they’re satisfied, and I don’t have a rate. I’ll take a pie, or more often in the country, a casserole. I’ll take an odd ten dollars. I’ll take a handshake.
I won’t pretend that my neighbors and clients aren’t a little unnerved by me, even if they’re friendly. It’s the same reaction we got our whole lives: They do and don’t want to believe. Maybe that’s how we felt too, unnerved by our beginnings, eager to be normal, but relishing our difference.
Will proposed three months ago, and I accepted right away. We’re having the ceremony in the garden out back in two weeks’ time. And in one week, Sage and Rosemary will come home. I’ll see both my sisters again for the first time in five years.
From the minute Rosemary started high school she was worshipped by all. I’d be lying to myself if I said I wasn’t jealous. In our small town, her beauty and complexion made it so easy to fit in, while Thyme and I had it harder. But Thyme could make herself popular anywhere, with her charm. With her gifts.
Rosemary had a way with men. To be fair, she never asked for it but that didn’t make a difference—the collateral damage had to be dealt with either way. If it wasn’t the entire boys’ chorus then it was the principal himself, and if it wasn’t him then it was my prom date. She bewitched them all.
Before those years, formative for everyone but definitive for us, I had only been able to fix minor things: scratches from brambles, bruised toes, my mother’s headaches. She used to come fetch me some mornings, lay my hand on her head. At once she’d smile and sigh in relief. Thyme was a busy child, always getting injured because of her relentless curiosity. I was the guardian angel big sister, there to help when she got hurt. It was a harmless game when I was a child, a way to show off to my sisters, something I could do that they couldn’t. Not even Rosemary.
The first time, I’d found a small sparrow in our backyard with its feathers ruffled, twitching unnaturally. I bent to touch it, afraid I would hurt it but hating to see it jerking in pain. I had hardly grazed it with the tip of a finger before it straightened like nothing. The bird eyed me for a moment, confused, but a second later it had flown away. I watched it until it was a speck, eyes wide in my small face.
Men were not birds. For love of Rosemary they fell victim to a great many ills, both mental and physical. Rose was at a party when two boys decided that jumping out of a third-story window onto a rickety trampoline was the easiest way to impress her. She and I had attended the party together but I’d lost her after we arrived; she’d been harangued by a gaggle of popular friends. When I saw her again a couple hours later, she was on the back lawn, her face was contorted in fear. I remember her yelling at the boys to stop. They didn’t.
I’ll never forget the sounds of bones breaking, cries of alarm, sirens wailing. Rosemary grabbed me afterward, begging me to help, her perfect face stricken and tear-streaked. I visited the boys every day. The hospital never quite figured out how they made a full recovery.
There were other things: the school principal was so smitten he never punished her for skipping classes freely and talking back to teachers, and at my senior prom, my date confessed to me he’d grown depressed he was escorting me to the event rather than my sister.
Rosemary was a walking love potion and I was the only antidote, relieving men of both their injuries and their lovelorn despair. And after all of her destruction she just left, vanished, without even a thank you. Without a goodbye.
Sage and Thyme saw my mother differently than I did. Sage was always trailing after her wanting attention. Thyme didn’t understand our mother, laughing at her quirks and eccentric habits, never looking beyond the surface to see what was underneath. I was the one who truly saw her. Maybe it was because we spent so much time together, my mother and I. She taught me things she never taught my sisters, things about the harmony of all living things, the language of the universe, the magic of the earth. It was hippie stuff, it’s true, but my mother could make anything sound like music.
I would watch her while she sat at our broad kitchen table, cutting herbs from our garden and creating her concoctions from it: a salve to soothe pain, a drink to put us to sleep when we had insomnia, little solutions for our simple lives. It reminded me of that song she loved by Jefferson Airplane, Alice in Wonderland-type stuff. She explained what each herb did, and told us how we got our names.
“I knew you’d be special,” she told me once. “I named you after some of the most powerful herbs on earth. So you three would be strong.”
Whenever I asked about our fathers, she told me it didn’t matter. “I wanted you, so I had you,” she’d said. Those vague answers used to bother Sage and Thyme, but I knew my mother always told the truth, even if it wasn’t easy to understand.
She taught me that there are some things we can’t control, and others that we can ward against if we learn to read the signs. She was always telling me that truth can be found at the base of things, that we can get so caught up looking at the sky that we forget what’s at our feet. I found out other things she could do too, things she never taught me. Strength. Intelligence. Fertility. My mother had a technique for everything.
If we’re talking about truth, then I guess I have to admit that I regret leaving. She told me not to, right before, said that if I looked around me I’d know the reason. But I couldn’t risk it. In the end it didn’t matter either way, and by then I had gone too far to come back.
I never meant to cause her grief. Maybe I never really figured out what she was trying to tell me.
When you think the way I do, with past and present and future mingling with scents and sounds, it’s hard to think of time as linear. In a way I always knew it would come to this: having to snatch my sisters back from the jaws of the world, coaxing them back home and reminding them how much we mean to each other. But truly, I have a different reason for keeping my sisters close, apart from my selfishness, apart from my missing them.
I took a walk toward the old house last week, after I’d called Sage and Rosemary and asked them to come home for my wedding. I wanted to feel close to them, to look back on those times before we all became women and the world became dangerous. The house has been empty since my mother died; it’s nothing more than a small cottage with a leaking roof. Holly bushes had been growing unchecked in front of the door, but something was calling me there.
I walked through the house, softly lit from the afternoon sun, and went into the garden. I imagined my mother in her flowy whites sitting under the elder tree, like she used to do so often. I mimicked her path, gathered my skirt into a knot and sat, looked at the gnarled old tree. Scratched at the base of the trunk was a verse:
Three blooms sprung from a lavender seed,
Rootless, strewn, these leaves of green.
One to hear and heal but bleed,
One to worship as a queen.
The third with sight and fate to read:
If one should fall all three picked clean.
Thyme’s phone call jolted me out of what seemed like a long, deep sleep. Unlike with Rosemary, I’d kept in touch with Thyme after I left Woodstock three years ago, but it had been more superficial than not. Thyme had kept her updates basic: which neighbor she’d met on this day or that, how she’d gotten a job as guidance counselor at the high school. She told me when she’d met Will, the musical director there. I relished her happiness, her bubbly nature coming to the surface after she’d seemed sad for so long. So now, hearing the news of her engagement, I imagined her bustling around her house, dark waves flowing, her caramel skin flushed with pleasure.
At the end of every conversation she would invite me to visit.
“Maybe sometime soon” was the basic form of my answers. I kept it vague, and then switched the subject to my life in New York: the job Peter had gotten for me at his firm, our Central Park West apartment, the sights and sounds of the city. I knew she could tell my show of happiness was a bluff but she didn’t push it.
Ever since I’d moved away from home, I’ve felt as if my axis has shifted. I’d wanted to leave home so badly, especially after Rosemary’s sudden departure ruptured our peace and made my mother’s demeanor turn so sullen. Anywhere had to be better than home, I’d felt, and then I’d met Peter. He spirited me away, saving me from what I had begun to think of as a dysfunctional home.
How naive I was.
It’s not easy to feel safe in this world when you’re me. Los Angeles has welcomed me the way no other city has in the past few years, but there are so many things I can’t do, or places I can’t go. After all, Sage isn’t here to lean on. When I do go out, to markets during the day or around the corner to work, I wear head scarves and shawls and loose-fitting clothes the way Mom did—it’s just easier if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. I keep my friends mainly female and I hardly go out at night, always on the lookout for someone who could harm me. Or themselves.
Then again, there are some people who don’t cause trouble. I’m living in a studio now, with plenty of light during the daytime and far enough away from the center of the city that I can sometimes see stars in the sky. My landlord doesn’t kick up a fuss if I miss a payment, or if my apartment smells like an old-fashioned apothecary and looks like a messy greenhouse. I know he doesn’t see me the way others have—like a trophy, or a weapon. Since I left home, it seems like almost every innocent thing in the world has suddenly turned hostile.
Instead, I fill my days with learning more of what my mother taught me. I learn so I can try to squash the sense of powerlessness I feel in this world, the feeling that I’m never protected. I get lonely sometimes, and I wish I had my own family to share it with. Or someone to pass the knowledge to.
So when Thyme called a few days ago, I was relieved.
“I’d like you to come home,” she said in that spunky tone I knew so well. “Did you get my invitation in the mail?”
“What invitation?” I realized I hadn’t told Thyme about my most recent move.
“Rose, I’m getting married. Soon.”
When she said that, I felt wonderful and terrible at the same time. I want to go home to see my little sister, but I dread seeing my older one. There’s still so much anger between us. Smart, sensitive Sage, always looking out for other people, always the one people turn to when they’re in trouble. I wish Sage knew that I envied her as much as she envied me.
“I’ll be there. Tell me when.” Even through the phone I could tell Thyme smiled.
When I left home, it was because I didn’t feel safe. Now that I’m going back, I feel like it’s the only safe place left.
We met in my sparse garden. I never did have the patience to plant as much as our mother did, so I arranged my rickety old lawn furniture close to the wilting roses and made some lemonade, thinking it’ll have to do. Domesticity was never one of my strengths.
It was a warm day in late spring, mist swirling cheerily on the mountains in the distance like they were waving hello to long-lost friends. These were the days I loved the most, the ones that remind me of when my sisters and I would play fairies in our backyard. My mother sewed each of us a pair of silk wings we’d tied to our backs, and we would pretend we could do magic. That was before we’d grown up.
I sent Will away for the day, promising real introductions once I’d caught up with my sisters. Somehow it didn’t feel real that he’d never met them, like he’d never known a piece of my soul. Strong, supportive Will, who was never alarmed by me.
Sage arrived first, all the better to have an upper hand and feel like she’s occupying space, I guessed. Even without reading her I knew her so well. She wore her hair loose and free, the gold circles in her ears perfectly complementing her chocolate-brown skin and green eyes.
“Thyme,” she whispered like a breeze, a smile on her face yet seeming weary. I stood up and hugged her, not fully believing she was here, in my new home, after so long. I had been nervous about this meeting, but Sage’s soothing presence instantly put me at ease.
She sat in the chair closest to me and we studied each other, comfortable, but not knowing where to begin. I wondered how I looked to her, years older, not a girl of eighteen anymore but an adult. Homeowner. Engaged. I was not the carefree child she knew.
“It’s wonderful to see you,” she said, reaching for the lemonade. She poured me a glass, set it in front of me with a smile.
“It’s wonderful to see you, too,” I said. “I’ve missed you.”
Before long we heard Rosemary’s footfalls through the house and into the backyard. She walked up to us shining and guileless, lighting up my drab garden, the sharp planes of her face at odds with her sweet nature. Rosemary was always the most honest of us, the most open-hearted, often to her own disadvantage.
I watched Sage as Rosemary bent to greet her, Sage’s movements slightly awkward. There was still so much unsaid between them, but Rosemary closed the distance between them without hesitation. I sighed in relief when Sage’s arms closed around Rosemary’s slim frame. The three of us: reunited. Did I imagine a slight shimmer in the air, like something settling?
Rosemary made herself comfortable, grabbing my glass of lemonade and taking a long drag off the straw before placing it back in front of me, then putting her arm around my shoulders and squeezing me tight.
“Thyme, my little doll, I’ve missed you.” Her face was all happiness.
Rosemary was as intoxicating as ever, chestnut curls bouncing around her pale face, green eyes shining brighter than mine ever did. I hugged her back, a familiar feeling in my heart. My sisters’ protection, their affection, meant more to me than I’d ever known after a five-year lack.
Rosemary spoke first, breaking the ice with her unselfconscious attitude. She asked about Will, about our life. I told her everything: our mortgage issues, the kids at school that gave me trouble, and why my garden looked like such a mess.
“Any herbs?” she jokes. I tell her no. I never knew what to do with them, like Mom did. “Like you do,” I added. She smiled.
Rosemary changed, and I can’t entirely isolate what it is. She remained her bubbly, assertive self, but quieter somehow, more self-aware. Her eyes focused on more, I thought, and were distracted less. But before long we’re talking to fill the distance between us and I had to suspend my study of my sisters. I’m surprised how quickly the pleasantries fade, as if the intervening years left no mark at all. Soon we three were laughing at happier times, at our mother’s constant concoctions of salves and solutions, her strongly-held opinions about the world, her messy attempts at dressmaking, and the way she played with us as if she were a child herself.
Rosemary swiveled her body, studied Sage for a second. “And how have you been, Sage?” she asked quietly. “How’s Peter?”
At the sound of her husband’s name, Sage stiffened. Is this the shadow I saw on her face, the shadow I read in her mind so long ago, before she moved to the city to marry him? There was a tense pause while Rose and I waited for her response.
“He left me,” Sage said finally. She had that blazing look in her eye, that “I dare you to pity me” look I had memorized. Rosemary reached out a hand, then withdrew it, not sure how to act.
“Apparently there was someone else,” Sage said. She took a sip of lemonade, then continued: “Isn’t there always? Someone more charming, someone younger, someone easier to live with.” Her eyes flickered between the two of us, landed on Rosemary. I saw the faintest glimmer of accusation there, and then the anger reflected in Rosemary’s eyes.
“I tried,” Sage continued, eager to speak now that she’d shared the truth. “I tried to make it work after he got well again but it was clear he saw me differently after what he went through—and what I did. I helped him—healed him—and he still left.” She let one tear escape. Rosemary and I reached out instinctively, our arms encircling her, mimicking the way we used to fall asleep. We poured our strength into her.
After a few minutes I gathered the courage to ask.
“Same as Mom?” My voice was a quivering thing. “Cancer?”
She nodded. So Sage could have helped if she had been here. The knowledge sank in, as I know it must have for Sage, and there they were: the things unsaid among us. The things we do. The things we could have done. They hung in the warm air, stifling.
At once Rosemary’s face changed from a look of comfort to one of blazing anger. She pulled away from Sage and me, ferocious.
“So it wasn’t me. I didn’t cause any of it by leaving, it wasn’t my fault. And you left too, Sage, you left too. When you could have helped.”
“I didn’t know she was sick,” Sage said, defensive. “I wish I did.” Her eyes fell on me.
Why didn’t I know? It was time to loosen the burden I’d felt for three years. I took a deep breath before beginning.
“When you two left, she was down for a long time,” I started. “And you know I can’t see things if I don’t physically touch someone, it’s not involuntary like it is with you two.” I saw Rosemary crinkle her nose. “And even then it’s hard. I have to try, and it’s not always clear. You know that.” Sage and Rosemary’s eyes meet. They knew what I could do all too well; hadn’t they always asked me the outcomes of their scattered high school relationships? Hadn’t they asked so many questions about their futures, and been unsatisfied with my amorphous answers?
“I didn’t realize anything was wrong until it was too late,” I said. “When you two left, she didn’t let me read her at all, wouldn’t even let me touch her. I realize why now. She didn’t want me to know.”
The loss of our mother, still fresh, weighed heavy on us. She had been like light, keeping us warm and nourished and happy, and without her, we’d scattered into our own personal darknesses, unable or unwilling to see the sun.
“What I still don’t understand,” Sage said, facing Rosemary, “is why you left.”
Rosemary took a breath. “I don’t need to justify myself to you, I never have and never will, especially because you’ve never really tried to understand.”
“I’m trying now,” Sage said quietly.
“You always took care of me, but you never stopped to ask me how it felt to be so destructive, to be the girl everyone wants and no one loves, not really.”
“We love you,” I said. “We’ll never stop.”
I kept my eyes on Rosemary, and the truth I’d known for years came rising to the surface. Finally, she was ready.
“I left because I was pregnant,” she said. “And I didn’t want you to fix it.”
Sage stared in shock, then her eyes flickered to me as if she wants me to tell her it’s true. I kept my gaze on Rosemary, saw the longing in her eyes for a child she’d never known.
“It fixed itself somehow. I lost the baby.”
“And you didn’t feel like you could come back.” It wasn’t a question. I knew the feeling: like if you left here the path vanished, and you would never be able to find the way back again.
“Thyme was the only one who knew,” Rosemary said. “She read it on me, but all she saw in the future were different scenarios, none of them fixed.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that! I never would have done it anyway,” Sage said.
“Who knew what you could do, even if you didn’t mean it? What if it had been an accident? I decided to leave rather than risk it.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in all that,” Sage said. “Thyme’s sight, my…ability. I thought you never believed in it.”
“Maybe I do now. Maybe I’ve seen miracles happen because of who we are.” Rosemary became radiant suddenly, her dimpled smile shining on her face. I laid a hand on her arm and saw it a split second before she said it.
Two years later
On the day Sage finalized her divorce, Rosemary gave birth to twin girls. They came out early, and close together, as if they couldn’t wait to be with their mother. Rosemary had beamed with pleasure, prettier than ever with her brown hair fanned across the pillow and her freckles dotting her sweaty face.
After my wedding, Sage and Rosemary moved back into the village, renting an apartment above one of the incense houses. They say the smell is unbearable, but they make a lovely little foursome. Sage is there to help the children with minor cuts and scrapes, and when they’re ready to start school I can help them in my own way.
The twins are almost two years old now. Rosemary named them Lily and Briony, innocent enough names. Their last name is Ford, like ours, indicating industry and innovation, but their bright green eyes hint at something else, something less straightforward, something elusive and fey. I haven’t read them yet but I don’t have any reason to believe they will be different from us. We asked Rosemary who the father was that day we reunited two years ago, but she gave us the same vague answers our mother always did.
Sage is healing, understanding her worth as well as her power. Rosemary has her children, her devastating beauty, and a new man—if she ever wants one. I have my work, and Will. I don’t know if he and I will ever have children.
There’s a thyme plant in my garden I’d never noticed before. It must have been a holdover from the previous occupants since I definitely never planted it. They say that thyme bushes are where the fairies play.
Lisa Lo Paro is a social media manager living in New York. Her fiction has previously appeared in Visitant Lit and Here Comes Everyone. She is interested in mythology, the hero’s journey, and everyday magic.