Read The Year of the Witching Online
Authors: Alexis Henderson
Father help them. Father help us all.
THAT NIGHT, IMMANUELLE
dreamed of the forest. In sleep, she conjured visions of the Dark Mother wandering the corridors of the woodland, cradling a slaughtered lamb in Her arms, Her black veil trailing through the brush. She dreamed of scarecrow witches burning like torches in the night, tangled limbs and stolen kisses. In her nightmares, she saw the Lovers toiling in the dirt, grasping at each other, teeth bared, pale eyes sharp with moonlight.
When she woke, she was sweating cold, the back of her nightdress damp, clinging to her shoulders like a second skin. She sat up, dizzied, her heart tapping a sharp rhythm against her ribs. Her ears rang with a plaintive bleating.
At first, she thought it was the echo of a dream. But when it sounded again, her mind went to her flock, the shadows of her nightmares fading as she sprang to her feet and took her cloak off its hook on the door. She shoved her feet into her muck boots, snatched her lamp off the bedside table, and eased down the attic stairs and into the hall.
The farmhouse was silent, save for the wheeze of Abram’s
snores. She knew he’d taken Anna’s bed because of how close he sounded. He took Anna’s bed often those days, rarely, if ever, haunting Martha’s.
Immanuelle was glad of it. On the nights that Abram did go to Martha, she didn’t sleep, and often Immanuelle would hear her pacing through the halls. Once, years ago, near midnight, Immanuelle had caught her grandmother in the kitchen with a mug full of Abram’s whiskey, staring out into the black of the forest while her husband slept in her bed.
Another cry cut the silence, and Immanuelle’s thoughts returned to her flock. She dashed downstairs as quietly as she could. Her lamp swung as she hurried, throwing light and shadow. The wailing continued, a hollow, keening sound that seemed to slip through the bones of the house. As Immanuelle crossed into the back pasture, she realized—with a cold twist in her belly—that it was coming from the Darkwood.
Stepping off the back porch, Immanuelle crossed into the pastures, the glow of her oil lamp a spot of warmth in the black tide of the night.
Another cry, this one sharper than the last, and louder.
Immanuelle broke toward the pastures in a full run, only to find her flock clutched together against the midnight cold, still and silent and entirely unharmed. She did a quick head count. Twenty-seven in total, every lamb and ewe accounted for. But the crying continued, now more a howl than a wail.
Then, something else: a scream, ripped straight from a woman’s throat.
At the sound, a sharp pain shot through Immanuelle. She doubled over, the lamp slipping from her hand. She snatched it from the ground before the oil could spill and the grass catch fire, her teeth set against the pain in her stomach.
The cries became more frenzied, until Immanuelle realized
that they weren’t cries at all, but rather a kind of song. She knew she ought to go back to the house, return to her bed where it was safe and leave the wood to its own evils. But she didn’t.
It was as if someone had tied a thread around her sternum and pulled, drawing her closer. As if something, or someone, was leading her to the Darkwood. Perhaps she could fight it if she really tried. She could listen to every instinct urging her to turn around and return to the farmhouse. She could keep her promises.
But she didn’t do any of those things.
Instead, she took a step toward the tree line, wading through the swaying grass of the pasture, climbing over the fence that encircled it, lured by the forest’s cries. Lamp in hand, Immanuelle picked through the thick of the underbrush, following the woodland call through the trees. She didn’t know where she walked, or what she walked toward, but she knew—without really knowing—that she wasn’t lost.
On and on she went. Brambles snatched at her nightdress, and the cold breathed down the back of her neck. The cries seemed to slither between the trees, though they were softer, dying into gasps and whispers that lost themselves in the hissing wind. She could hear her name now in the chorus:
But she didn’t feel afraid. She didn’t feel anything but dizzy and light, as though she wasn’t walking as much as she was skimming between the trees, as weightless as the shadows themselves.
A branch snapped. Her hand tightened around the lantern’s handle, and she winced a little, her burnt hand chafing beneath her bandages.
She smelled something wet and heady on the air, and as the cries quieted, she heard the soft lapping of moving water.
On instinct, she followed the sound, raising her lamp high to illuminate the trees. Shouldering through the brush, she entered a small clearing. At its center was a pond, its water as black as oil.
Like a mirror, it reflected the moon’s face back at itself. She paused by the water’s edge, her hand tightening around the handle of her lantern.
“Hello?” she called out into the night, but the forest swallowed the sound. Despite the silence, there was no echo. The cries died. The trees were still.
Immanuelle knew then that she should have run, retraced her steps and fled back to the farmhouse. But instead, she squared her shoulders and braced her feet, finding a scrap of strength to cling to. “If there’s anyone out here, show yourselves. I know your kind lurks in the Darkwood. I know you knew my mother, and you call to me like you called to her.” Whatever evil they sought with her, Immanuelle needed it to be known now and done with.
A great, rippling ring formed at the center of the pond. The waves licked the shore and Immanuelle’s lantern sputtered as if the oil was running low.
In the flickering light, a woman emerged from the shallows. Immanuelle staggered back a half step and raised her lantern. “Who’s there?”
The woman didn’t answer. She skimmed through the shallows like a minnow, her limbs tangling in the reeds. As she drew closer, Immanuelle saw that she was beautiful, with the kind of face that could turn a prophet’s head or snatch a man’s heart from behind his ribs. And then Immanuelle recognized her from the pages of her mother’s journal. She had the same harsh mouth as one of the women in the drawings, which would have been almost comically wide if her lips weren’t so full and beautiful. Her hair was dark and slick, the same color as the pond scum that clung to the rocks in the shallows. Her skin was as pale as a corpse’s, the same as the skin of the Lovers, and like them, she bore a mark between her brows, a seven-pointed star in the middle of a circle.
Immanuelle knew then: This was Delilah, the Witch of the Water.
The woman slid her belly along the slope of the shore and dragged herself to her feet. The black mud covered her naked breasts and modesty, but in the warmth of the lamplight, Immanuelle could distinguish her every cut and contour. As the witch drew nearer, she realized she was not a woman at all but rather a girl of about her age, no more than sixteen or seventeen, eighteen at the very oldest.
Delilah drew so close, Immanuelle could smell her. She reeked of dead things, all lichen and leaves and pond rot. It was then—by the moonlight—that Immanuelle saw her bruises, black splotches as dark as ink stains marring her cheeks. Her right eye was slightly swollen, and both of her lips were split.
The witch extended a hand, fingers folding around Immanuelle’s wrist. In one swift movement, she shredded the bandages, exposing Immanuelle’s burn to the cold night air. Despite all of Anna’s ointments and tending, it hadn’t healed well. It was red and angry and weeping pus, likely to leave an ugly scar once the scabs flaked away.
Gingerly, the way a mother holds a child, the woman brought Immanuelle’s palm to her mouth and licked it. Her lips radiated a numbing cold.
Then Delilah kissed her: first the meat of her palm, then her wrist, the witch’s lips trailing along her tendons to the tips of her fingers. She kept her dark eyes on Immanuelle’s as she did this, never breaking her gaze.
Fear flooded through Immanuelle’s chest and her vision blurred. She caught snatches of the pages of her mother’s journal transposed with the woman’s face—her slim, pale, dead face. The lantern slipped from her grasp and struck the dirt with a dull
Delilah tugged on her hand. Immanuelle took a half step forward, then another, slipping out of her boots as she walked. She entered the water barefoot. She felt the waves rise around her, up to her ankles, her calves, her thighs, licking at the curve of her crotch, the swell of her breasts, until her feet skimmed the bottom and the water kissed her chin.
Delilah led her on, deeper and deeper, wading backward so that she could look at her. Those dead, swollen eyes fixed on Immanuelle’s.
And then they were under, lost to the black and the cold and the shadow. The witch’s grip slackened, her fingers slipping from Immanuelle’s wrist as she slithered into the dark depths of the pond.
Immanuelle tried to follow her, but her legs were dead beneath her, so leaden she had to fight for every step. The cold rose from the depths of the pond, and she was sinking like she had bricks chained to her ankles. Her chest seized as she slipped down into the dark.
She saw faces, passing figments, in the cold blackness: the flash of her mother’s smile, the moon-pale portraits of the Lovers, the wicker corpse of a witch burning on a cross, a baby girl, a woman with her hair shorn as short as a boy’s.
Immanuelle reached to them and tried to call out, her voice warbling, lost to the waters.
And then—just as she was surrendering to the darkness—she ascended again, breaking the surface with a gasp. Across the waters of the pond the distant tree line blurred and doubled. The witch was gone. She was alone.
In Bethel, it was a sin to swim. It was not modest or prudent to enter the water, for it was deemed the demons’ domain. But Leah had taught Immanuelle in secret one summer, when they were both young and bold. The two of them had bobbed up and down
in the shallows of the stream, plugging their noses and paddling until Immanuelle learned to breathe between strokes.
And it was Leah whom Immanuelle thought of now, as she paddled and kicked, following the glow of her lantern back to the pond’s shore. A deep-moving current pulled at her ankles, and every stroke was a struggle. When she finally made it back to the shallows, she crawled up the bank on her hands and knees and collapsed, retching sludge into the shore.
Her sin had saved her.
As she pressed off her belly, arms shaking, she glimpsed two bare feet stride through the shadows of the underbrush and step into the pale halo of the lamplight. Pushing wet curls from her eyes, she peered up to see a form that was feminine—yet bestial—looming over her.
She—for Immanuelle was certain it was a “she”—had a tall, crude shape. Her legs were long and slender, her arms low-slung, fingertips skimming her knees. And she was naked, so much so that not even a fur of modesty covered her groin. But it was not her nakedness that drew Immanuelle’s eye so much as the deer skull that perched atop her thin, pale neck. A crown of bone.
Her name rose to Immanuelle’s lips like a curse. “Lilith.”
The Beast huffed hard. Steam churned through the cracks of her skull, coiling around her antlers.
Immanuelle squatted low to the mud. Even in her terror, she had the good sense to know a queen when she saw one. She dropped her gaze, her heart pounding so hard within her chest it hurt. And there she lay, prostrate in the muck and shadow, her breath hitching, her tears cutting tracks through the grime and pond sludge on her cheeks.
She was going to die there; she was sure of it. She was going to die like the others who’d been fool enough to cross into the woods
at night. She had no faith that she would reach the heavens—not after all of her sins and folly—but she prayed anyway.
The Beast’s feet shifted. Her bare toes clutched the mud as she lowered herself to a crouch. Immanuelle risked a glance upward. That great skull head angled to the side, a motion so human, even girlish, that for a fleeting moment, Immanuelle was reminded of Glory.
The Beast raised a hand that looked only loosely human. With fingers that were long and impossibly thin, she skimmed along the bridge of Immanuelle’s nose, then slipped down to the dip of her cupid’s bow.
Transfixed, Immanuelle searched for Lilith’s eyes, staring into the fearsome skull’s black, empty sockets. But she found nothing within them but steam and swirling shadows.
Her knees went weak beneath her.
Lilith wrapped a giant, cold hand around her wrist and dragged her to her feet. The wind shuddered through the forest, and the trees seemed to bow and tremble in her wake. The waters of the pond churned and surged, and fog flooded the clearing, swirling around her ankles. As the creature raised a hand to tuck a curl behind Immanuelle’s ear, something like a sob broke from her lips.
Then pain pierced through her stomach once more, and Immanuelle doubled over, barely staying on her feet. Again, she begged for salvation—this time out loud—calling to the Father, then to the Mother, and finally to Lilith herself, whatever gods might deign to listen.