What if …a witch had …an intern?
I moved into the old witch’s cottage in Old Susquehannock, Pennsylvania, the day after my 46th birthday. Unpacking was easy. I never needed much and I liked it that way. Most of the little things were my tools: vials, strainers, eyedroppers, a thousand little jars I had bought in bulk, and printed paper tags to go with them. Sonia’s Mountain Witchery. The mountains were a ways off, but people associated them with folk magic. It was good branding.
I did it, I thought, as I retired to my new bedroom—mine, the first I had ever owned. I have just the life I want. Outside, the dark concealed the fallen blossoms, the bright green grass of Apple Blossom Hill Cemetery, the woods at the back of the property.
I grew up in Old Susquehannock, lived here on and off. Southern California for college, about as far away as I could get on the mainland; a couple years in Vancouver after Jonas and I divorced; back home to be with my mother during the cancer—none of her spells, or mine, worked for that—and then a year teaching English in Korea after she died.
This was my home, and yet, I had forgotten how the edge of town was louder than the center. Old Susquehannock grew noisier as the population thinned. My only neighbor, a fox, shrieked periodically, its cry coming through every window, as if it circled the house through the night.
The next morning, Jonas arrived dressed in work boots and faded jeans, his Old Sus High t-shirt stained with white paint. I showed him the yard, beautiful and overgrown, full of things the dotty old witch had left behind—an array of ceramic polka-dotted toadstools, gnomes with runes painted on their conical hats, a shed half-cloaked in ivy. It was spring and the yard was beautiful—the sod brilliant green with frequent rain, blue and pink flowers sprouting between the tall grasses bordering the property.
“This is really great, Sonia,” he said. “Congratulations.” He looked me in the eyes, smiled—a smile that lasted an instant too long. This is what we did. We had been best friends since junior high, and even through the divorce—we were too young, he wanted kids, I didn’t—we never hated each other, even if I needed to move a couple thousand miles away. Close enough that he was the one I called to replace the shower head and repaint the bedroom ceiling—the old witch must have kept her cauldron on a hot plate up there.
He squinted into the green distance behind me. “What’s that?”
I turned to look, too, and he clutched my elbow, stopping me. It had been years since we touched.
But I turned anyway, and he let go, and there, amid the tall grass, was a furry gray mound, the size of a large cat.
“Possum?” I asked, but the wind shifted, revealing the body was too big. Curled hands and pointed black ears of a raccoon, but sparse fur and no tail. I had never seen one before, but I knew.
“Albatwitch,” Jonas said, his eyes still fixed on the creature. “Go call animal control.”
“The property line is a few feet behind it,” I said. The mortgage documents had been a blur of acknowledgements and promises, but one came back to me. Albatwitches had been spotted within 50 feet of the property in the last 20 years. Albatwitch presence could lead to forfeiture. I had signed. It was part of the risk of buying, or buying in the mid-Atlantic, anyway.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
Very little scared me, yet I nodded mutely, hurried through the kitchen door, and stood at the window with a phone in hand. Albatwitches carried disease. They attracted predators. And they had mysterious funerary rites one did not want to interrupt. They mostly kept to themselves, but they were quick to retaliate, and usually as a chorus—that was the name for a group. Conflict stopped after the 1979 Treaty of Half Moon Rock, sealed with an exchange of apples (from us) and a mound of empty soda cans, a few nuggets of raw garnet, and a deer carcass (from them).
As I gave my report, Jonas broke the combination lock on the splintering shed, ducked inside and reemerged with a muddy shovel. He approached the corpse haltingly, poking the creature and jumping back. Finally, he wedged the metal head underneath and rolled the thing over the invisible border, onto state land.
Men in yellow suits arrived and paced back and forth across the yard. Finally, one came to the door.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s an albatwitch.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Jonas, who had been installing the shower head, stood halfway down the staircase, listening.
“Looks like natural causes,” the man continued. “We’ll take it back and test it, of course.” He scratched his head, looked back up the hill, where his partner was spraying the spot where the creature had lain. “Sometimes the old and sick ones wander away. They don’t blame us for that. We’ll give the body back. In the meantime, keep an eye out. You got any pets? Dogs or cats or anything that would be out in the yard alone?”
“I thought they were vegetarians,” I said.
“They are. But sometimes they catch little animals.” He looked away. “They do other things with them.”
When he left, I took a new batch of prosperity candles to the organic market and returned with a chicken for dinner, or a few dinners. Jonas was deliberately pacing from tree to tree, counting his steps. “The old witch left a lot of stuff in the trees,” he said. Bronze chimes, a string of fuchsia beads dangling above our heads. “That generation was different.” His curly hair was laced with gray, and the skin next to his eyes crinkled when he smiled. Mine did too, but my hair was the same cornsilk blonde it had always been, and I still kept it long.
“Stay for dinner?” I asked. “Or do you—”
“I would,” he said. “But—”
“Just thought, since you were here, but—”
“Yeah, thanks, thank you, but Gina’s coming over tomorrow, and I have to clean the house.”
But still, he stayed, drinking from his plastic water bottle while I cut out the chicken’s spine and cracked the carcass flat on the cutting board.
“How is Gina?” I asked. I put the backbone in my freezer. My business wasn’t licensed for spells with animal parts—the inspections were more expensive than they were worth—but I would use it for myself, or for a friend.
“Sixteen,” he joked, but there was no humor in his voice. He leaned against the sliding glass door, one ankle crossed over the other. Behind him, the yellow ceramic windchimes twisted slowly in the sky.
“Shouldn’t she be past all that by 16?” All that—hormones, the divorce, whatever it was.
I paused with my hands under the running faucet. Reddish smears of chicken innards collected on the stainless steel basin.
“I honestly don’t remember.”
“Come on,” he said. “We’re not that old.” He grinned, and I looked back down at the pink water. It’s not that I wanted to get back together. It’s just that I had started thinking about how I didn’t want to get back together, which is a step farther than not thinking about it at all.
“I don’t feel old at all,” I said. “But I definitely feel like an adult.” Just the life I want.
I had sent a birthday gift when Gina was born—an amulet to ward off fevers, meant to be tucked under her crib mattress. I don’t know if they used it; I didn’t want to know. It was a strange balance. I felt a kind of connection to her, a fondness, the same I might for a distant cousin. She was Jonas’s. I wished her well. And, no, I didn’t want to seem bitter. I didn’t want him to think I envied him, either, even as I waited for that envy to come and prove me a fool, like my mother said I was. I should have waited instead of divorcing, she said; that maternal urge would come, and when it did, I would be alone while my husband became a father to another woman’s children.
I was relieved, then, when that envy never came, not even when I finally spied her, at age 6, through the car window at the next gas pump, while I kept my head down lest Cecily see me—not even when I met her, formally, at the garden supply, at age 7, holding Jonas’ hand and a packet of marigold seeds
Gina. 16. The child Jonas had wanted now nearly an adult, off into the world, leaving us both back where we were two decades ago.
“She’s looking for something to do this summer,” he said. “Well, I’m looking for something for her to do. Cess is going away for a three-week training thing, and she’s supposed to stay with me, but—well. There was some trouble at school.”
“She’s got a bunch of stupid friends,” he said. “So now she’s become stupid too.”
It didn’t take us long to decide: Gina would be my summer intern. My orders were backed up after the move, and I needed time to tinker with some new spells for summer. There was a super moon coming in July, the Apple Moon, the perfect time for love and fertility spells, always popular. Jonas refused to let me pay her because the job would be, in a way, part babysitting and part punishment. I didn’t take that last part personally. With my new mortgage, money was tight. Being a type of punishment was better for my bottom line.
“College admissions like this kind of thing, anyway,” he said. “Personal enrichment, folk arts. She needs to get the hell out of Old Susquehannock for a little while.”
I wasn’t used to such a grim tone from him, especially not where Gina was concerned.
After he left, I lived dangerously and took a glass of wine and a fragrant chicken leg outside. The sun sank into the trees, a yellow melt, and shards of glass twinkled in the trees dividing my yard from the land beyond. A canopy of suspended rain drops, or owl eyes. The old witch’s trinkets seemed to multiply.
After the wine, my earlier hesitation seemed silly. The dead creature was a very rare stray. I tossed the bone into the sea of ivy.
The leaves above ruffled, reflecting the disturbance of the ground cover. There, crouched in the low crook of the tree, was an albatwitch. The skin beneath its spare fuzz was the same gnarled texture of the bark, its belly was round, its fingers articulated. One ear lifted in a point, the other folded, drooping. The eyes were yellow-green like a cat’s, almond-shaped like a human’s. Fixed on me.
I jumped up and it ascended into the trees, vanished before I could open the door.
In the morning, I found the chicken bone on my kitchen doorstep. One of the lawn gnomes I had collected in the driveway, ready for the dump, was perched in a tree, watching me.
Gina had a thick sweep of honey-brown hair pouring over her right eye and a round, flat face saved by plump lips. In other words, she looked exactly like Cecily. She had none of Jonas’ height or sharpness. I couldn’t, even for a moment, imagine that she was ours; not that I would. But, I guess, here I was thinking about how I couldn’t.
Gina carefully positioned each label on its bottle—this corner a little up, then this corner—and then smoothed it into place with her thumbs. She didn’t look up. There was a kind of effrontery to her care.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“He didn’t tell you?”
Another bottle, another label. She didn’t look at me. “Drinking.”
“It’s really not a big deal,” she said. “But they have to punish me. I have to drink shitty beer and they have to punish me, even though they also drank shitty beer in high school, because their parents punished them, and if they don’t punish me, how will I ever grow up to live a middle-class existence in this boring little town?” Now she looked up. Smiled bitterly. Batted her eyelashes.
Jesus. She really was 16.
“Sure,” I said. “Makes sense. I’m going to get coffee. Would you like some?”
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks,” she said, shaking the hank of hair from her eyes. Her voice lighter. I had just wanted to get out of the room—was just being polite—but, of course, adults probably never offered her coffee.
In the kitchen, I poured two mugs, looked over my shoulder to call, “Milk? Sugar?”
And right there, outside the glass door, was the albatwitch—the same one. I recognized the drooping right ear.
“Can I have both?” Gina called back.
“Yes,” I answered, but too low for her to hear, my gaze caught in the creature’s. My wrist burned—coffee spilling. I set the cup down, swatted at the patch of pink skin. When I looked up again, the albatwitch was gone, just the shuddering of the branch it had leapt from.
I let out a breath and turned to find Gina in the doorway. Her gaze locked on the glass, and then locked on me.
“Oh my God,” she said. “My dad would flip.”
“Don’t tell him,” I said, an instinct I couldn’t explain, and a mistake.
“I won’t,” she said quickly. “Oh my God, I would never.” And smiled at me.
That night, I double-checked the locks on my windows and doors, but left the windows in my room cracked. There was still the faint odor of paint, and I wanted to hear its cries—not a fox, I was sure now, but an albatwitch.
I had never seen a live one before. There used to be a taxidermied specimen in the county courthouse, back when my mother was a kid, but then the albatwitches found out—somehow—and vandalized the building. Broken windows. Dead squirrels. A whole summer of it, before everyone realized the problem: they didn’t take kindly to their dead being used as decoration.
“It was kind of cute,” my mother had said. About two feet tall, like a monkey but tailless, with a human nose instead of a flat muzzle, and gray leathery skin where the brown fur was sparse.
There was the truce in 1979, and another truce later on, when someone got the bright idea to paint the Old Sus High mascot on the outside wall of the gym. It looked more like a sasquatch—hulking and gorilla-like—but it must have captured something, because soon the parking lot was full of offerings. Apples, of course, but also stolen bicycles, ripped trash bags, side mirrors from cars, and just as the hoarding was veering into a property damage issue, a dead deer appeared, its belly gashed. Their offering a mix of scarlet guts and lawn mower parts.
The town painted over the wall and it stopped.
Years ago, a lost child reappeared at Half Moon Rock, three days after she had wandered off from her camp site. She said she had been living with the teddy bears. They fed her apples. That spurred a media attempt to reevaluate the albatwitches. Maybe they were friendly after all. That brief hope ended when they threw rocks at a TV crew, giving a handsome reporter a concussion, and not even in service of a great clip—all you can see, before the photographer drops the camera, is a hail of stones from the trees.
I remembered because Jonas and I were students then, and I remember the lost girl because we were two years into our marriage, living in an apartment near the drugstore that now carries my line of skin ointments. Everyone was happy the child was safe, everyone was intrigued about the albatwitches’ benevolent return to human society, and Jonas and I were too wrapped up in it to realize our marriage was about to end. That little girl sparked something in his heart that later became Gina.
“One thing you can say about them,” my mother had said. “They don’t hide their intentions. They want us to keep to ourselves.”
Her generation had learned that, and then our generation had to learn it anew.
Every generation did.
For a week, Gina labeled bottles and measured oils and poured candles. She was very reliable, despite having zero interest in the magic business. She told me this several times, as if she feared I wanted a protégé. We drank coffee, and took turns choosing the music, and I made deliveries and spent time in the backyard, planting herbs, harvesting roots the old witch had left behind. I stirred my cauldron over the firepit while cataloging the growing number of trinkets in the trees. I didn’t see the albatwitch again.
But Gina did.
I returned after a delivery to find her in the backyard, down on her knees, rolling an empty glass jar to the creature standing ten feet away from her. Tiny dark hands flexing. One ear drooping. It nudged the jar with a foot, and it stopped in the grass between them. Gina crawled forward.
“Gina!” I shouted. The albatwitch fell onto four legs, bounded away. At the back of the yard, it leapt into a tree. Its body stretched, mid-air, claws reaching. Then it disappeared, its movement detectable only as tree after tree shook with its weight, and then the wind blew through all the trees, and the albatwitch was lost.
I ushered Gina inside and locked the doors.
“That was really reckless,” I scolded. “Really dangerous.”
“It’s ok,” she said. “They like me.”
The drinking wasn’t even half of her crime, she confessed. The stupid friends—her boyfriend Mike, his best friend, his best friend’s girlfriend, who was now kind of like her best friend—had shitty beer, yes, but it was in a cooler, and they were drinking it out at Half Moon Rock.
“Jesus,” I said. “Half Moon Rock?”
“It’s not a big deal,” she said. “Lots of people hang out there. Didn’t you ever hang out there in high school?”
I felt like she was testing me—who was I in high school—so she could imagine me in relation to her. She wouldn’t believe the truth: I genuinely didn’t remember, and it had been a long time since I thought of 16-year-old me as an iteration of myself.
“It was a full moon. They fucking love full moons!” she cried, her face flushed. “We heard them singing.”
I refilled our coffee cups.
Their singing, she said, is a rolling, mournful sound. When the group realized it wasn’t the wind, they hiked toward the music, up the hill behind the falls. Down below, on the gleaming rocks, were a hundred albatwitches, or hundreds, their faces tilted back, their scraggly hair lifted on the slight breeze, their jaws open like they could catch the stars. The sound was round and clear, like blowing over an open bottle—but bigger, a thousand mouths over a thousand bottles.
Then Gina’s boyfriend—ex-boyfriend, she called him—threw his head back and started howling. But not like the albatwitches. An “ow-ow-owwwww” suited to catcalls and concerts.
The chorus stopped all at once, the night ringing with the absence of their ringing, and turned two hundred—or many hundreds—of yellow eyes. He stopped laughing. The group ran to the car, the whole time looking over their shoulders, but none of the creatures followed.
They fled home. Mike blew a stop sign and a bored cop pulled them over. They all had to do a breathalyzer. Somehow, her stupid boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—passed and argued he was just trying to get the rest home before curfew. Which worked well enough to avoid charges, but they still had to pile into the back of a cop car and wait while their parents showed up one by one or two by two to collect them.
“And Mike was laughing,” she said. “Like we pulled off some great escape.”
“From the albatwitches or the cops?”
She lifted her hands, shrugged—I had never seen someone shrug sarcastically before. “I don’t know! Like it was all some big joke! When, like, forget about—” she counted off on her fingers, “being pulled over; the possibility of getting arrested, ok, no thank you; being grounded as all fuck; but like…” Her shoulders sank, and her gaze too. “It was amazing. They were amazing. Beautiful. And how many people have seen that? Maybe no one ever. Maybe we’re the only ones.” She paused. “And he didn’t even get it.”
So when Jonas and Cecily said she wasn’t allowed to see this guy anymore, Gina didn’t resist. They thought she was depressed. Cecily had even, kind of, apologized. Gina didn’t want her mother to feel bad, but she also resented being in trouble, and she couldn’t explain it all anyway—not without getting in even more trouble.
“I’m not scared of them,” she said.
“You should be,” I answered.
“Well, what about you? You have one in your yard, and you didn’t call the police.” She smiled again. She had been waiting, I guessed, to reveal her secret to someone who would share her wonder. “I don’t think you were even surprised.”
“I’ve seen them before,” I said. “That one, anyway.”
“You can tell their faces apart,” she agreed. “They’re distinct. Like human faces.”
“For God’s sake,” I said. “Don’t tell your dad.”
Which, again, was a mistake—a bond between us, a secret, like the offer of coffee. But I didn’t mean it that way. It just came out. Jonas would be upset if he knew what she had seen, and she was right—he wouldn’t understand. His punishment was genuine. He wanted to protect her and he grasped at the things all parents seem to grasp at, because they’re the only things in reach.
I wasn’t a parent, though. I didn’t think there was any reason to punish her for something she hadn’t done on purpose and couldn’t very well do again. Something that meant so much to her.
And meant something to me. I opened my windows a crack wider that night, and sat with my ear to the screen. Old Susquehannock had always called a group a chorus, but without remembering why. I strained for a note beyond the hum of the insects, like the forgotten meaning of our words. None was there.
Maybe I scared it away. Maybe it would never come back, I thought, and something inside me sank.
Jonas dropped Gina off in the morning and she took her backpack to her work-station. Jonas touched my elbow and whispered, “How’s she doing?”
“Great,” I said.
“I try to talk to her, but she just.” He shook his head once, twitched the corner of his mouth. “Silent treatment.”
“Like you said. She’s 16.”
“Is she on the phone during the day?”
“No,” I said, though I couldn’t be sure.
“She had this boyfriend. I blocked his number,” he continued. I felt a flash of distaste. “But I’m paranoid she knows how to get around whatever parental controls I put on.”
I raised my eyebrows. I shrugged. What did I know? Stop asking me.
“How is the shower head?” he asked. “I got it as tight as I could.”
“I could try to tighten it more.”
“We can look at fencing this weekend,” he continued. “There are a million different options.” He scratched his head. “The kind with spikes at the top is expensive, but we could jerry-rig something.”
I didn’t want the fence, but if I rejected the idea, I’d have to explain why. I didn’t want to frighten the albatwitches away. I hadn’t heard them sing yet. I imagined them, clustered behind chain links, or perching on top of picket-planks, gone gray in the light of the full moon.
I said I was busy that weekend. I didn’t realize, until he let go, that he had been holding my arm the whole time.
Gina greeted me with a sly smile and maroon-canvas-covered book. “So I’ve been reading about them, and this book describes the singing.”
I took the library book and read the passage she tapped.
Markus Wieland, an early German farmer and diarist, wrote that albatwitches are kin to werewolves. They are cursed men who grow pelts at the full moon. In 1703, Springett Penn mentioned “the monthly choruses of the forest’s little people” near his country estate. Legend urged children to stay inside during the summer Apple Moon, a time of celebration for the creatures.
Modern scientists had classified them as American apes, miniature cousins of the vanished western sasquatch. I liked this version better: forest people celebrating.
But all I said was: “Interesting. I’m going to get the last of the angelica root.”
Kneeling among the bright green pom-poms, my knees and fingers in the dirt, I wondered why the albatwitch had come for Gina. The creature sprung away when we locked eyes, but he had come to stand in the open for her. Could she be right—they liked her? Why would they like her? Because she was young? Because she belonged to Jonas? Because she looked like Cecily?
I broke the rough, brown braid of the roots from the stems, tossing the latter. There was a clothesline inside, where I had clipped other plants to dry, but I didn’t feel like making conversation with Gina. I eyed the old witch’s shed. She had left me the angelica root. What else might she have left behind?
I opened the door.
Trowels hung from a pegboard on the wall, and stacks of milk crates and cardboard boxes leaned against each other. The ceiling was curtained by thick spider webs. A pair of small rain boots, dingy white with a ladybug print, in the corner. One lay on its side; I bent to right it and a tiny face peered at me, black and shaggy. Two glinting red eyes.
The figure was no taller than my palm, carved out of raw garnet, ashy black stone with an auburn grain. The shape was crudely humanoid: oval with gritty slashes to suggest arms attached to the torso, and another one dividing the base into two legs. The face was flat, except for two glass beads for eyes. On the shelf, I found a velvet bag of the same glass beads.
The albatwitches had made the figure and the witch had added the eyes. They had their own truce—or maybe, something greater than a truce. A collaboration. A friendship.
I wondered if the creature with the crooked ear had carved the statue, or if she had just been the messenger.
The old witch had also left behind her cauldron. It was the sleek, bumpy black of a grandmother’s cast iron pan, and not big—about five quarts, I guessed. It would fit on a stove. It would only need a few logs to boil, outside, under a rising Venus or a lunar eclipse, the crickets trilling, the voles rustling, the albatwitches…
Watching from the tall grass, the high branches? The low branches, the near shadows?
Singing, Gina said, like the wind.
That night, I scrubbed the pot with salt, brightened it with mineral oil. I found the method in my box of newsletters from the National Association of Witch Practitioners (Mid-Atlantic Chapter). Their tips were all simple and clean. Garden and grocery store ingredients. Witchery as home-making.
When my great-grandmother passed away, my grandmother had claimed the family cauldron by boiling well water with a drop of her blood, invisible in the bubbles. So she said. That cauldron was lost, though, and she had bought my mother a new one, and my mother had bought me a new one, and how sweet a gesture it was, how pleased I was, peeling off the tape, unwrapping the bubble wrap.
That night, I waited for the gibbous moon to rise, and started a fire in a round, coal grill. It was spring, and most of the yard was lush, moist, but I found some long-dead twigs and added them to the small blaze. After all, it was my land now; it was my right.
The water came from the sink. I had found a potential underground vein of water with my dowsing stick, but there was no time, no money, of course, to drill.
When the fat, lopsided moon was overhead, and the north star in sight, and the water—replenished several times as I waited for the correct sky—at a rolling boil, I pricked my right index finger and squeezed the knuckle. A drop of blood fell, and then a broken rivulet. A single drop, my grandmother had said, though not to me, so I squeezed again and again until my fingertip was a cap of pain, and then I held the wound in my opposite fist and waited—for what exactly, I didn’t know.
It took time for the fire to go out, the pot to cool. The cauldron was heavy and I didn’t want to slosh scalding water on myself looking for a drain. My land now, I thought again, and decided to pour around the yard’s perimeter. There wasn’t enough water—just enough for a yard or two. When the last drop hit the ground, and there was just the afterthought of steam hovering at the earth, I realized this was the side of the yard where I had spotted the albatwitch. It could be there, now, in the shadowy tree tops.
They smell blood.
I hurried inside, locked the doors, but left my bedroom window cracked. If the creature came, I would know; I would hear it, pawing the damp earth, chanting softly, calling. To me.
The next morning, I told Gina we would spend the day sorting through the items in the old witch’s shed. When we stepped into the yard she paused, swinging her gaze around the treeline. “Whoa,” she said.
Last night, those treetops had been a field of darkness, but now they were strung with stars: glass chips, metal shards, empty plastic cups.
I hadn’t heard a thing.
I had told myself that the shed was the biggest task, and important, and Gina wouldn’t notice the albatwitch’s—many albatwitches’?—work, but I admitted now that I wanted her to see it. I wanted her eyes to go wide, and her breath to go light. I wanted to share it with her. I wanted her to see what I had conjured from them.
“Let’s get to work,” I said.
We unpacked boxes—notebooks of ball-point runes, jars of small bones, tufts of dried herbs—and I talked and talked. Witchery, I said, is both science and art. You must know the local plants and insects and animals. You must know the rhythm of the seasons, find our precise position in the angle of sunlight, the soil conditions, the variety of wildflowers, the animal songs. And the skies. The geometry of the stars. The stuff of textbooks and almanacs and old-fashioned observation. The quiet mind. The focused mind, open and humming.
How that mind will flicker. See what draws it, like a sunflower to the light. What tints it, the flush of love and happiness, the deep blue of sadness, the black of fear. What makes the surface shimmer with new understanding. What makes the depths ripple with energy, like a blood solution over an open flame. You must bring the two together. You must find where the mind meets the world, the eternal energy that makes that border. You must reach for it with a rising palm, and it will follow your mind’s direction.
Gina listened, and made piles, and walked around and between them, and listened, and brushed the dirt off her jeans, and gazed out the open door to the trees. She was listening, but not enough.
“Do you understand?” I finally asked, an unexpected note of desperation in my voice, and she looked at me, startled. I had startled myself.
“I understand,” she said, and it was both enough and not enough. She looked back out the door, her fists in her back pockets. “What do you think they’re trying to tell us?” she asked.
Could the necklaces around the trees be for Gina? She thought they were. She only said “us” to be kind, to include me. But no, it was my blood watering the dirt, scenting the air.
“This isn’t a game,” I said. “They can be very dangerous.”
Her eyes narrowed, almost imperceptibly. “How would you know?” There, unsaid—she had heard them sing and I hadn’t. She had visited their home. I just lived in a little cottage full of wholesale-bought mason jars.
“Everyone knows,” I answered.
She stared at me for a second and then nodded once, almost to herself. Our lesson was over.
That evening, I was restless. I ate cereal for dinner, holding the bowl against my chest as I walked from window to window. Occasionally the trees moved—the wind, a squirrel jumping off a branch. The reflective detritus in the trees twisted and tilted, catching the occasional bit of light. It was as if the world itself were chipped—that the trees and sky were just so much paint, flaking off to reveal a brilliant glow beneath.
But no albatwitch.
A knock at the door and I spilled milk on my shirt.
I put the bowl aside, brushed the stain on my chest, and opened my door to find Jonas in his office clothes, a rumpled button-down shirt, dress pants.
“Can I come in,” he asked, “before the albatwitches get me?”
My throat went dry—Gina had told him. But he smiled as I stepped aside. It was just a joke.
“Have you eaten?” he asked. “Do you want to go out?” But he sat on the couch, leaned back, crossed an ankle over a knee.
I folded my legs beneath me on the armchair. “What a weird night,” I said, expecting him to understand, and he did.
“Yeah,” he sighed, and leaned forward. “You know, I felt such relief when I finally moved out. Not just because Cecily and I could get on with our lives, but because I could have a place to myself. I thought parenting part-time—that I could get a break, and be better on the days I had Gina. More…” He opened his palms. “Attentive. Enthusiastic.” He paused. “Does that make me a bad father?”
“You’re a great father.”
His mouth twitched, a half-grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “I dropped her at Cecily’s after we left here this afternoon, and that 15-minute drive—I need a week to recover.”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Silent treatment. But that doesn’t explain it. It’s like she weaponized silence. It’s like I can feel silence like fucking fire ants.” You must reach for it with a rising palm, and it will follow your mind’s direction. “She keeps telling me I don’t understand her, but she doesn’t want me to understand her. Or her mother. Or you. ‘Witchery is stupid.’ ‘Witchery is just consumerism.’”
I drew inward, stung. “As you know, I wrote my college thesis refuting that sexist claim.”
He laughed. “Oh yeah, you did, didn’t you?”
I had been going for that laugh but I couldn’t share it. I felt cold inside. If I died today, Sonia’s Mountain Witchery wouldn’t leave behind a blood-oiled cauldron in the dirt, yellowed pages of symbology, polished bones of wild creatures. Though it could, I guess. It still could.
I went to the back window, unlocked it, lifted it, held my hand against the screen, reaching desperately for the night air. I had left my blood for the albatwitches and they had brought me pieces of the human world, broken into jewels, but they still hadn’t sung for me. Our exchanges—chicken bones and lawn gnomes, blood and glass—were minor transactions. They might as well have been using credits for vanilla-scented prosperity candles.
She hadn’t opened her gray lipless mouth, or if she had, I hadn’t heard.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Jonas said, and I turned around, away from the night, but the small wind arrived like a belt around my waist.
Upstairs, together under a canopy of shadows, the world sighing at the open windows, I admitted this was what I had wanted when I moved home, when I called Jonas, when I invited Gina in. Jonas was familiar—his chin rough with stubble, his scent—and then he was different, his hair speckled silver. His cheek gray in the strange light. Gray skin beneath dark hair. His hand trailing down my side and then gripping my hip, fingers long, too long. Kneading my skin, insistent but dumb. Not weaving the sun into the trees. Huffing in my ear. No song. No song at the window.
I was different.
I had just fallen asleep when Jonas’s phone rang—a digital chime, a square of white light, his gruff hello, and a woman’s tinny voice. Cecily.
“No, she’s not here,” he said. Then, “I mean she wasn’t. I’m not home.” He started pulling on his clothes as he talked. “Right. Doesn’t matter.” Paused. “Cess,” a single weighted syllable. His married voice. This is how he talked to her, how they talked to each other for nine years. How he still talked to her.
Jonas hung up. “I have to go,” he said, barely glancing back at me.
“I know.” I was dressed now too. “When did Gina go missing?”
“They had an argument at nine and she went to her room, but now she’s not there. Not anywhere.” He shivered, glanced at the open window. The cold air pricked my collar bone, my spine, made me feel awake and ready. “Cecily’s calling the boyfriend—”
“She’s not with him,” I said, and he cocked his head. She gave him the silent treatment, but she had talked to me.
“So then where is she?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I lied. “Does she have a key to your place?”
That set him back in motion, stomping his shoes on, grabbing his phone. “Yeah, of course. She’s probably there. Shit. She’s going to ask me where he was.” He looked at me again, as if I could give him an excuse. His eyes wide, but not yellow.
“She’s probably at your place,” I agreed. “Let me know.”
He left and I entered the backyard. The insect orchestra buzzed in the tall grass and the high branches. The moon a bright disk in the sky, its canyons shaded the barest pink. The summer Apple Moon. Love spells. Little people celebrating in the forest.
I opened the shed and started searching.
That morning, I had tried to explain witchcraft to Gina, explain why I had devoted my life to it. It wasn’t because I had grown up with it or because I hated offices and liked putting little pretty things in jars. It wasn’t because this kind of work let me stay, then leave, then come back again.
The albatwitches had reminded me that I became a witch because of the feeling. The flush of putting your intention into an object, the flush of giving that object to another to use, to feel themselves. The mystery in that communication. The mystery of all life, just a little closer to me than it might have been otherwise.
Gina had pretended to listen, but she thought I was another stupid adult, self-absorbed, self-satisfied, in love with my own voice, unable to really hear her, or see her, and she was right, because I didn’t see her slip the raw garnet figure into her pocket.
It was gone, and that meant she had stolen it.
It had been the old witch’s, but now it was mine. Just like the land was mine. Just like the albatwitches on my land—they should be mine too.
I filled my backpack with shiny things—stainless steel spoons, glass marbles from the bottom of a decorative vase, my mother’s costume jewelry—and set off. I crossed my yard and passed the shed and when I walked into the trees—the trees I had been warned against—when I walked over the line Jonas had imagined for the fence—I wasn’t afraid. I was exhilarated. I hadn’t realized how stiff I had become, how tired, how single-minded about the banal. Organizing my cabinets. Signing mortgage documents. Shower heads and cards printed with my name in calligraphy.
Gina, that sneaky self-righteous little bitch, knew something I had forgotten long ago.
No, she wasn’t a bitch. She was sixteen and she was wrong. Gina was certain that the albatwitches would accept the figurine as a gift, and she expected they would give her something far greater than a trinket in return. She thought they would accept her.
The thing was, I didn’t know how long ago the witch had taken possession of the figurine, and couldn’t be sure, either, that it was a friendly exchange. Maybe the witch had stolen it. Even if she hadn’t, this generation of albatwitches may not know otherwise.
I walked on and on. The trees thinned and grew thicker again. Half Moon Rock. I used the GPS on my phone, and I felt like a fraud, but what other way was there? Maps and compasses? I imagined a needle swinging on my palm, the forcefield in the hand mapping to the forcefield of the globe, and my skin felt warm.
I wondered how Gina found her way, or if she was lost.
I followed the path up, into the same mountains I had named my business for, and the Apple-Moon sky expanded, a glowing apparatus with no tree branches to support it. It was beautiful—worthy of a chorus. Did the albatwitches worship the stars? Did they throw their light skyward and celebrate when it stuck?
Jonas messaged me and messaged me again but I ignored him.
After two hours of walking, my phone went dead.
Just when I began to fear I was lost—I should have gotten there by now, I had no screen to confirm, my sneakers and ankles were wet with dew, and there was an ache in my right knee—I heard it.
A kind of low, hollow whistle. I closed my eyes and found the sound, let it build in my dark mind. It seemed to be coming from all around, though I saw nothing but the swaying branches, the diamond stars overhead. No yellow eyes in the trees.
To the right, the trees parted, revealing a plateau, layers of rocks and stone. Half Moon Rock.
I ran the last of the way and the sound grew louder.
I climbed on to the platform, which shifted a bit under my weight. It was engraved with tiny crescents and circles and half-circles. Chains of them. I had assumed the place was named for the shape of the rock. I crouched down, ran my fingers over the albatwitches’ writing, followed it to the edge, peered down the cliff.
I wanted to see what Gina had seen, a chorus singing to the orange moon, but the space below—a rocky hollow in the earth, disappearing into a cavern in the side of the hill—was empty.
And then a whistle and I looked up. Across the cavern, there she was—the albatwitch from my yard. I knew that crooked ear, the hair bristly on the side of her head, sticking up straight. Her eyes were bright in the darkness. She worked her mouth like she was chanting, but it was silent again. Maybe the singing had been my imagination, or the wind carrying across the pit.
I opened my mouth, encouraging her, and she opened her mouth—opened it wide—and the sound was back, everywhere, spinning me like a winding sheet coming loose. Shadows bounded over the rocks, a hundred albatwitches, a thousand, circling the ravine. I stood, backed up to the center of the rock. Turned around. They had gathered behind me, four of them surrounding Half Moon Rock, and more inching up behind them.
I was startled, my heart speeding, but I wasn’t afraid. Their faces were curious, human. They had built an altar in my yard—a gift. Their singing was beautiful, otherworldly, a world we had cut off from ourselves.
I held out my hands, palms up, like I was making an offering—but they were empty. One of them put a hairless foot—the size of a child’s, but leathery and gray—on the rock, and then another one did, and as the crowd of them thickened, the platform began to shake. I stepped back, trying to widen my stance and catch my balance. I glanced at the one across the pit—my friend, I thought—but she was lost in the chorus, all of those faces, gray and yellow, all the same.
Albatwitches leapt onto the rock, and it seemed to slide. I fell, one knee exploding in pain and then the other. I slid backwards, my hands scraping across the surface as my feet waved in nothing. And then I fell.
The drop was impossible to measure. The eternity of weightlessness, of not knowing what would happen—the swiftness of gravity, the inevitability of the bottom. My feet hit first, the pain vibrating up into my ankles, my hips. My left shoulder hit the earth. I struggled onto my hands and knees, but my knees were screaming. I sat back on the rocky earth. The moon bared down like a bruised eye, and around the lip the albatwitches jostled each other, a continuous, wriggling shadow.
The ground was half soil, half broken rocks. And there—a red spot. And another. I checked my palms, my elbows—red and abraded but no blood. My knees, the fabric dark but untorn. The blood was too bright. Fresh.
I wrestled my phone out of my pocket—dead.
Above me, the albatwitches stood shoulder to shoulder, still. They tilted their head backs and it began again. Their song. Clear as a chime, and low as a drum.
I didn’t want it anymore—my cottage, Jonas. My life. I wanted this sound to last forever.
But then it stopped. They looked down at me. They wanted something from me—a reply, I thought. An offering. I opened my mouth but nothing came. I should have brought something of the old witch’s, but I hadn’t. I had only brought myself, and I was empty.
They catch little animals, the animal control guy had said. They do other things with them.
Seduced by mystery—it doesn’t mean you’re sensitive.
It means you’re stupid. Stupid as a kid.
“Gina!” I shouted, half to them, half to her. “Where is she?”
The albatwitches tilted their heads, some to the left, others to the right. I climbed onto my feet. I was battered but fine. I was fine. Behind me, the cavern opened. It emitted a faint glow, and as I crept closer, I saw why: it was filled with shiny things, ours and theirs. Reflected light—both familiar, and strange, like the mountain itself, the birthplace of my magic, a magic I never really understood.
Gina was in there, and it was my fault.
I had made just the life I wanted, I thought when I moved into the witch’s cottage; and since that time, I had done nothing but work to dismantle it.
The albatwitches waited. Gina, somewhere, waited. And with no reason left, only instinct, I ran into the mountain.
“The albatwitch chorus” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
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