Based on a story I was told by the women of Kilroy Bay, Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho
When the witch was a just a girl, living in the middle of the dark woods above the big lake, her mother fell ill with pneumonia. The father refused to saddle his horse and convey his wife down the hillside to the outpost, declaring it God’s will, so the mother grew sicker and sicker. The young witch had never seen the outpost, had rarely met its few residents, except for the trappers and rumrunners and hunters who passed through – crude, scarred, rank-smelling men like her father – but she knew there was a boat there that could ferry the infirm to a doctor in Sandpoint, and she pleaded with him about it until he beat her silent. The witch cared for her mother lovingly, but her powers were immature at best, and soon the older woman was dead. The father buried her behind their small cabin near the creek and prayed over the grave. Then he turned to the young witch and told her that she was old enough to take up the housekeeping.
“You are now my wife,” he said.
The young witch couldn’t read or write. She rarely spoke. The father said that it was the mother’s wish that she take her place. “God’s will,” he repeated. He took her into his bed. She spent most nights awake, watching him curiously, and she slept during the day in short spurts when he hunted or descended to the bay for supplies.
Just like that the witch transformed from daughter to wife. She was 13 years old.
The woods were the witch’s schoolroom. The woodpecker hammering a tree was the school bell, the wind speaking through the aspens was the day’s lesson. She was the lone pupil but there were numerous teachers: the hornet that stung her; the fuchsia foxglove that she brewed into tea for her father’s headaches; the baby moose that she startled from the underbrush. She listened carefully and absorbed their distinct knowledge.
One day she came across a deer carcass lying half-buried near the creek bed, its throat torn-out, the ground beneath it washed with blood. A fresh kill, and the witch knew better than to linger, but she lingered, anyway, and eventually she saw it: The big cat, watching her spitefully from the trees. The cat eyed her much like the witch eyed her father. It was a watchfulness that could end in death.
She spoke to the cat in a voice she’d never used before, her witch’s voice, and the cat rose up on its paws and shook its head back and forth as though to dislodge the words from his ears.
You will eat when I say you can eat, she commanded. You will eat only when I leave.
The cat yowled and sat miserably on its hindquarters.
She came forward and shuttered the deer’s eyelids, first one and then the other. She remembered drawing her fingers over the delicate shades of her mother’s dead eyes.
The cat snarled but did not move.
Come forward and feast, she sang to the cat, and she turned her spine to him, unafraid, aware of her own broad power, knowing the cat would wait for her to leave the deer trail before slinking back to his kill.
Two rumrunners arrived from Canada, having hiked most recently from Hope. They aimed to reach Bayview by week’s end. Their hinny limped beneath her cumbersome packs, whiskey and rum and food and supplies, and the men left her outside, entering the little house. They yammered and drank and cussed with her father. The witch went out to the animal and stroked her soft nose.
We’re unnatural creatures, you and I, the hinny told her. Help me off with these bags.
But what will you do for me? the witch asked.
I’ll teach you the art of being sure-footed, as steady as you are strong.
The witch worked at the straps and unburdened the animal, and all the while the hinny whispered to her with her heavy gray tongue and big teeth.
When the witch returned to the cabin, she held herself 2 inches taller, and she could walk backwards in a perfect straight line. This was how she crossed the threshold, and the men quieted and rose from the table in alarm.
“This is my wife, Dinah,” her father said. “Dinah, turn around so the men can see your face.”
She obeyed, regarding the men with unflinching black eyes.
“Young,” noted one, grinning. “Howdy, ma’am.”
The other gaped. “Ain’t natural to come into a home backasswards,” he said. “That’s black magic right there.”
“Look at this room,” her father said, and he almost sounded proud. “If there was magic, black or no, surely this house would be better kept?”
In the corners hung dust webs and spiders; the floor was caked with dirt and the wood stove with grime. The unwashed linens reeked of both her herbals and his pungent sweat. She was a horrible housekeeper and cook. From time to time the father beat her for what he cried was her laziness, but his beatings did nothing but thicken her hatred.
“It’s not my name,” she told the men, and her voice, rarely used, was scratchy and wicked. “It’s my mother’s name.”
“It’s the name of my wife,” her father countered.
She thought of the clouds rolling across the sky, their fleece pierced by the spears of the rangy pines. There were clearings, she knew, where she could see the lake and sky unhindered, but they terrified her, that brightness, that open space. She was more free, she felt, in the shadows.
Her eyes rolled back into her head. Her mouth opened as though to let out the cloud’s rain.
In her witch’s voice she told them, A man kills a woman and a woman kills a man.
The rumrunners, terrified, swore they saw lightning shoot from her spread fingertips. They hustled out of the cabin and cursed when they saw their hinny free of her packs, grazing peacefully on a patch of queen’s cup.
The beating her father gave her left her nose permanently crooked.
When her period came, she thought at first she was dying, and she lay beside the spindly creek and waited for the world to blacken. Slowly, night fell. A pack of she-wolves neared, howling, and one of them came close enough to snuffle her ribcage and tell her, growling, It’s the opposite of death. You’re fertile now, a woman. The witch’s relief gave way to a new fear. She returned home beneath the wincing stars.
Her father took one look at her bloodied drawers and said, “We’ll plant a baby in you yet.”
When the blood returned, she was ready for it, and she cleaned herself mechanically. Then it stopped returning. In her grew a being that was both her daughter and her sister.
The wind shrieked, and the forest trembled around her, and the autumn leaves fell all at once from the trees.
The pregnancy did not survive the harsh winter, and the witch, herself, nearly died of fever. Another year went by, then another, and stillborn followed stillborn.
When the father approached her now, she gnashed her teeth at him and threatened him in her witch’s tongue. He grew nervous around her. His hands shook when he wielded the lash.
When the fourth baby entered her and her belly grew bigger than it ever had, the witch took up her father’s shotgun. This daughter, she sensed, would survive. It was spring, the serviceberries in bloom. She found him outside chopping wood, and without a moment’s thought, she aimed the shotgun rock-steady at his stomach. The blast lifted him clear off of his feet, and the birds burst from the trees. He fell, gasping, and tried to crawl away from her. She went to him and rolled him over and with his own bowie knife removed his heart. She ground the organ into a poultice and poured it into a small jar that she tied around her neck with twine.
When she arrived at the outpost, pale, dumb, covered in her father’s blood, the first thing she saw were the windows of the tavern, illumined by chandeliers. She’d never seen anything so bright and beautiful, candles and crystals flickering behind the unwashed glass. She was far along in the pregnancy now, but she walked fluidly, the way a river otter swims, slick and graceful. A man stepped out onto the tavern deck. He noticed her on the dirt path and gave a sharp whistle. The tavern emptied, the patrons staring at her in wonder, this strange bloody witch who’d wandered to them from out of the woods.
Two women approached her, one wide and one tall, and their questions streamed out too quickly for the witch to comprehend. She marveled, instead, at the sight of women. Other than her mother, they were the first she’d ever seen.
It’s not my baby’s blood, she told them in her witch’s voice. I killed my husband and my father, one and the same.
If the women understood her, they didn’t comment. They clasped her wrists and dragged her into the lake. She thought they meant to drown her but they only scrubbed at her bloody arms and hands, washing her clean.
The witch faced the broad open water for the first time. To the east rose the Cabinet Mountains, the cones of their heads crowned with snow. To the west was the setting sun, and beneath it the high hills bunched and dark like the sleeping children of giants. Above, an osprey wheeled. Below, a salmon leaped.
The witch shook off her caretakers and waded deeper into the glacial cold. She uncorked the jar at her throat, pouring the poultice into the water and moving her hands over it as though coaxing it to spread. One of the tavern men gave a shout. The entire lake washed incarnadine.
The women, frightened, moved away onto the shore. They conspired there, murmuring. The red waves lapped at the stones of the bay, tinting the beach crimson.
The witch, unshaken, turned her attention to the osprey.
And what will you teach me? she asked of the bird.
In response the osprey dove and caught the salmon in its talons. The witch shivered, not with cold or fear but with possibility, pinned as she was like the fish to the shimmering air between two worlds.
Lead photo credit: Summer stories illustration for Sharma Shields short story