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Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popovic (1)

Cattaro, Montenegro

MY SISTER AND I WERE BORN ALL TANGLED UP together, both tiny enough that our unruly descent just narrowly missed killing our mother. I liked to think there would have been a fair bit of screaming on Mama’s part in the ruckus that followed, but that’s just my wicked fancy. Maybe she was stoic and flawless as ever, Snow White giving birth under glass. Either way, tending to her, no one spared the time to note which of us had arrived first. And so although we weren’t identical, by sheer bloody technicality we were always the same age, neither a minute older nor younger than each other.

Mama kept us in a single cradle, one that Čiča Jovan had carved for her from cherrywood before we were born. It was a whimsical thing fit for changeling children, wrought with mermaids trapped in ivy, open seashells with tiny apples growing in them instead of salty flesh. Sometimes I wondered if I’d have liked my own cradle as much as I would have liked having my own room once we were older. But Malina still liked to fall asleep by matching her breathing to mine, rubbing her feet together like a grasshopper.

The only real bedtime story Mama ever told us traced back to those early days, when we were both so little the tops of our skulls hadn’t yet hardened into something that could withstand the world. The mother I knew might have been tempted by that fragility, the urge to press her thumbs into such yielding clay. To see what marks she could make.

She must have been so different, then.

Instead, when we were old enough for our pale eyes to focus, she brought an assortment of offerings on a milky sea-glass platter. From it, she plucked tiny slivers of fruit and brushed them over our lips, one by one. Apple, mango, strawberry, papaya, prickly pear, some so exotic she could only have gotten them from the cruise ships that docked in the bay, rather than the open-air market outside the Old Town walls. Each was at its peak, the perfect moment of ripeness before turning. Then she passed violet petals beneath our noses, followed by jasmine, orchid, and peony; small lumps of ambergris; splinters of oud wood and sandalwood and myrrh.

Waiting to see which would bring forth the gleam, the magic that ran through our blood.

For me, it was the hibiscus flower, the petal red and fleshy as our mother trailed it over the tip of my nose, before she let me gum it to release its tart flavor. For Malina, it was a gleaming, perfect cherry, which Mama crushed into a paste that she let my sister suck from her ring finger.

It was bad luck to name a daughter after the thing that first sparked the gleam, Mama said. So I was Iris, for a flower that wasn’t hibiscus, and my sister was Malina, for a raspberry. They were placeholder names that didn’t pin down our true nature, so nothing would ever be able to summon us. No demon or vila would ever reel us in by our real names.

Even caught up in the story, Mama could never quite explain what the gleam looked like once she found it. Maybe our cloudy baby eyes cleared, like a sky swept by a driving wind. Maybe our tiny hands clenched fistfuls of air, seeking the tools that we’d use to capture the gleam once we were older. She never said.

Listening to her tell it, I could have sworn that she’d loved the needy little creatures Malina and I had been. Even if the whole thing was just a story—who rubs flowers and fruit and whale vomit on babies, anyway? What if one of us had been allergic?—it was still beautifully spun. There was love in its very fabric.

Then again, all that was seventeen years ago. These days, had someone asked me if our mother loved us, any “yes” would have caught in my throat like a fish bone. And had someone asked me if I loved my mother, I thought I knew what I would say.

But then she died without dying, and I didn’t know anything at all.

THAT WHOLE WEEK felt like a gathering storm. It was only the end of May, but already so stifling that just the effort of breathing made you mutinous. Malina and I worked split shifts at Café Tadić since school had let out for the summer, and that Tuesday I’d drawn the early straw, which I usually preferred. On my way out at six a.m., I’d see the sunrise over the mountains that Cattaro huddled against, the sky glowing like a forge before the craggy peaks above us lit with the first slice of the sun.

It reminded me of what my world had once looked like, brilliant and blazing and alive from every angle, back when I could make almost anything bloom.

But the sky was still a barely blushing dark as I trailed the side of our tiny house just before five, wincing as the courtyard pebbles dug into my soles. I’d taken my flip-flops off to minimize crunching in the predawn hush. Mama would already be at the café—she’d been asleep long before I snuck out the night before—but Mrs. Petrović next door was a nasty, busybody hag who could have been a KGB spy in another life, or possibly this one. Ratting me out to Mama made her downright gleeful, pointless as it was. Mama knew perfectly well she couldn’t keep me inside when I wanted out. I only bothered with the skulking to avoid the fights—“What kind of mother do you make me look like, sneaking out like a thief in the night?”—and even that was mostly for Malina. She couldn’t stand the sound of our mother’s rage battering against mine.

I was still bobbing along on some mixture of high and tipsy as I hauled myself onto our window ledge and swung my legs over, the contentment lingering round and compact in my belly like a sun-warmed egg. That wouldn’t last. Soon, it would crack into a slimy nausea, just in time for my arrival at the café.

A faint rumble of triumph echoed through me. Along with most everything else that I did, Jasmina the Peerless hated it when I came to work hungover. And this morning I wouldn’t even have time to wash the alcohol fumes from my skin and hair. A small—and smelly—victory, but I’d learned to take them as they came.

Malina was still sound asleep as I gingerly dropped both feet onto our splintered hardwood floor, toe to heel, bending over to deposit my flip-flops beside them. My stomach lurched; maybe that rumble hadn’t been all triumph. I leaned my butt back against the sill, breathing deeply to settle my insides. We kept our window flung wide open in the summer, and the slight breeze stirred the multicolored Japanese parasols fanned out across our ceiling, stripped of their handles and overlapping one another.

This was one of my projects from years ago, before I graduated to proper glassblowing under Čiča Jovan’s watchful eye. When my gleam began to wane, Mama had presented me with a consolation prize, an article about American artist Dale Chihuly’s largest installation: the Fiori di Como, a garden of glass flowers blossoming on the ceiling of the grandest hotel in Las Vegas. Its steel armature alone weighed ten thousand pounds; it had to, to support the forty thousand pounds of glass that clung to it. It was the biggest glass sculpture in the world.

I had painted the parasols with a painstaking, delicate rendering of the wisteria flower tunnel in Kitakyushu, Japan, gridding out the slim ribbing of the tunnel’s truss to create the optical illusion of dimensionality—so that whenever Malina and I looked up, it would feel like we stood in the Kawachi Fuji Garden, beneath a pink-and-violet, pastel rain of dripping wisteria. Mama hated it. She didn’t have to say so, but I’d seen the tightening in the small muscles of her face so many times when she came in to fetch one of us and couldn’t keep herself from looking up into the shower of flowers I had painted for Malina and me.

Maybe her distaste made me love it just that much more; I wouldn’t have put that past me. But that was a fringe benefit, far beside the point. What I really loved was looking up and knowing that a place existed for me somewhere far away from here. A place that belonged to me at least in half.

But this morning, the sight of the paper petals gave me a flutter of unease. Passed out on Nevena’s couch last night, I’d dreamed of flowers, fields of black roses that glistened wet beneath a sky hovering on the brink of storm. Each time I woke it had been gasping and sweaty, heart stuttering in my chest until the alcohol and weed dragged me back down. I hardly ever remembered my dreams, but I could still nearly smell those dark roses, taste the slippery dew on the petals as I tore them off their stems and placed them on my tongue.

Shaking off the sudden chill, I tripped over one of Malina’s strappy sandals and banged into our vanity table, cursing under my breath as our perfumes rattled. Our room was so tiny that we could reach out and bridge the gap with touched palms when we sat on the edge of our beds. On cue, Malina flung herself over from her stomach to her back, like a breaching dolphin. She draped an arm over her face and mumbled thickly. I caught a drawn-out “Riss,” followed by what sounded suspiciously like “calzone.”

“Oh, I think not, milady,” I told her. “Fetch your own lunch. You don’t have to be at the café until one anyway, so just grab a sandwich on the way or something and we can have calzones from the Bastion for dinner, if you like.”

She gave a disgruntled groan and rolled back over to face the wall. I shrugged and turned to our tarnished mirror. My black tank top from last night was at least three years old and too small, embossed with a pair of glossy red lips pursed around a sequined skull. With my low-slung denim cutoffs, it showed the canvas of lower belly pinned between my hip bones—and if there was one thing Mama couldn’t stand, it was an unseemly amount of daughterflesh on display. My hair was too straight to tangle, but the eyeliner had smeared nicely in my sleep. The overall effect was a little like something wary, pale-eyed, and possibly bitey peering out from the overhang of a cave.

Perfect. Degenerate chic, at your service.

Before I slipped out, I darted over to kiss Lina’s sleep-mussed temple. Her black curls—so dark they seemed nearly blue in certain light, but with the most surprising sable undertone where the sun caught their depths—were bird’s-nest tangled, and she smelled warm and sleepy, Dove soap and the lingering patchouli that was the base of her favorite homemade perfume. Beneath it, I could smell her skin, and my stomach bucked with love. For a moment I had a pang of powerful longing, like a gong rung inside my belly, for the nights when we had slept cuddled together, our sweet baby breath whispering over each other’s faces.

Lina stirred, scrunching up her face like a little girl. “Riss,” she mumbled, “is there a reason you’re sniffing me like a truffle pig?”

I dropped down onto my own bed as she propped herself up on her elbows, yawning hugely. “Maybe I just relish the scent of sister in the morning.”

“That sounds purely wrong.” She wrinkled her nose. “Can’t say I reciprocate, either. What were you doing at Nevena’s, anyway, bobbing for apples in a tub of rakija? I don’t know how you stand that stuff; you’d think they could make apricot brandy taste better than rat poison mixed with cheap perfume. Who else was there?”

“That is for us, the cool and popular, to know, and you to find out.” I grimaced. “Or more like the cool and the popular and yours truly, Nev’s impostor tagalong. No one else much worth talking to, really. But you should still come out with me sometime. Get all wild and free and such, for once.”

She gave me a sleepy half smile, a glossy black curl sliding over her rounded cheek. My sister had the sweetest face, a gentler rendering of our mother’s that drew from our father mostly in the slight slant of her gray eyes. Her full lower lip was cleft like a cherry, and it made all that beauty somehow both playful and kind. You could easily see the shared blood between us, and maybe on the surface, you might even mistake us for the same substance.

But like water and alcohol, the resemblance ended there.

“Maybe I like staying home?” she said. “Maybe I have better things to do with my nights than tag along to your spite parties?” It always got under my skin when Lina talked in questions; she’d picked it up from years of playing ambassador between me and Mama.

“Oh, like maybe walking on eggshells around Jasmina the Peerless while she plans the next day’s menu and ignores you?” I mimicked. “And I don’t go out just to spite her, you know. Not everything I do is about her.”

“Seems like it is, these days,” Lina said quietly. She dropped her eyes, black lashes fanning lush against her cheeks, her fingers twisting into the sheets. Her hands were the unloveliest part of her, wide palms and spidery violinist’s fingers with cuticles run ragged from her nervous nibbling. My own had gathered a respectable collection of burns and nicks from glassblowing and working at the café, but they were still fine-boned and pretty, the nailbeds slim. I won when it came to hands. At least there was that.

“A little easy for you to say, isn’t it? You can still sing like you used to, back when she still let us practice with her.” I couldn’t keep the bitterness from my voice, like one of Mama’s orange rinds before she candied them. “I can’t make anything bloom other than flowers anymore, and even then only I can see it.”

Except for when I drink just enough, I didn’t add. Or smoked so much that my thoughts sparked around each other like a school of minnows, slippery and silver, impossible to grasp.

You can sing like you always could, and still she doesn’t even hate you.

“I’m sorry,” Lina whispered, struggling to meet my eyes. I knew she could feel the roil of my emotions, that it chafed her not to sing it back at me or soothe me, but sometimes I couldn’t curb myself just to ease her. “I know that’s hard for you. But maybe it’s better this way? I can sing, but that’s all it is—weird, maybe, but just song. There’s nothing for anyone to see. But you, it used to be like New Year’s Eve when you made things bloom. And you know we can’t be all flash and glitter like that. It’s not safe for any of us.”

I clenched my teeth until my jaw burned. Safety was Mama’s eternal refrain. It was why we’d only eaten the moon together at nighttime in the tiny garden behind our house, hidden by the trellis of creeping roses and oleander, back when Lina and I were little. “Only in the dark, cvetiću, and only with each other,” Mama would whisper in my ear, holding my hands in her strong grip as I bloomed the starlight dappling through the canopy of leaves above. “That’s the only place we’re safe.”

I couldn’t remember the last time our mother had called me “little flower,” or touched me with such tenderness. As if I had grown into a cactus instead of something softer, and she didn’t want to risk my spines.

“The townsfolk with the pitchforks, I know,” I said. “Lovers and neighbors and friends, all turning to burn the witches. But don’t you wonder sometimes if it’s worth it, giving up so much? When we still have to keep folding ourselves so small all the time?”

Lina looked away, a soft flush rising on her pale skin. “Of course it’s worth it,” she murmured. “Beauty’s worth it even in the smallest scale. You have your glass, I have my violin. It’s enough, like Mama always said.”

Yet even as she said it, she began humming under her breath. The back of my neck prickled, and a wash of goose bumps spread down my arms. Even after all these years, hearing Lina harmonize with herself always gave me chills, the way it sounded like three voices in one. This melody was subtle, three layers of a bittersweet arpeggio that split and reflected my emotions like a prism: the anger, the loss, and the biting sense of injustice, along with a gentle apologetic undertow that was her own offering.

There was another hue to it, too, a tinge of guilt that didn’t feel like mine. Even as the song melted my annoyance with her like spun sugar in water, I frowned, trying to place it.

She caught herself abruptly and cut off the melody.

“Sorry,” she said, clenching both hands in her lap until her knuckles turned white. “I know you hate it when I do that. Do you—will you be going to the square after your shift today? If Nevena stays longer at the café, I could leave early and bring my violin, come keep you company?”

Coming from Lina, this was a fairly high-level peace offering. I sold my glasswork figurines to tourists in the Old Town’s Arms Square, and Malina’s singing and playing always meant I’d sell more that day. It made customers pliant, more willing to part with their money for a pretty piece of glass. Mama had no idea we ever did it, of course. And if it felt a little swindly to sway people like that, it only added to my thrill. Lina had never liked that part of it as much as I did, even if she was only making it easier for people to do what they already wanted. It baffled me how much this bothered her; what was the point of power at all, if she shrank back from it anytime it caught and flared?

Especially when hers still gleamed so brightly while mine guttered by the day.

“I thought you had a violin lesson with Natalija this afternoon.”

“I can cancel that, if you want. I already saw her earlier this week.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said curtly, stepping back into my flip-flops. “I only have a few pieces left from the last batch, anyway. Not enough to show.”

She sighed behind me. “Riss—”

“I’ll see you later.”

I could feel her eyes heavy on my back as I left.