When Amy Wells drops out of the sky on her neat, birch twig broom, she tells me, “We have a frogman problem.”
Just like that. She doesn’t even take the corncob pipe out of her mouth. How she can fly with that thing dangling from her lips is beyond me.
“Well, aren’t you going to get up?” she asks and gnaws the pipe stem.
Doesn’t she get splinters?
I’m lying prone on my cloud veranda, a hundred feet over my abandoned apartment. The wind that should be tangling my hair has been skillfully diverted. It took me days of adjustments to get that charm just right. All is still here, and quiet. My back doesn’t touch the cloud, because if it did I’d only feel mist. If I don’t touch it, if I lie on top of the pearly froth, I can pretend it’s soft. I can enjoy the aesthetic, and all my dreams are sweet.
“Julian,” says Amy, in that particular tone she has. So, I begin to stir. Her toes are dangling over my nose anyway. How long could my doze last with Amy’s Doc Martens dripping mud in my face?
She adjusts her shirt cuffs impatiently when she sees me move. “Not speaking yet? Spell still active?”
“Well,” she grunts, spitting out a mouthful of bruised purple smoke, “this is all turning out peachy.” Her fingers drum her broomstick, ba-dum, ba-dum.
Amy likes to fuss. I can tell the frogman situation must be more than a rumor this time ‘round, because this is more than fussing. I float upward to meet her, close enough to kiss her cheek, so I do. I steal the corncob pipe while I’m at it. Amy’s eyes pop, her face a picture of consternation. It’s been six months since we’ve seen each other.
“Of all the bullshit antics,” she says. And that’s how I know we’re still friends.
Of course I go with her. An hour later, we’ve passed out of my dead-end Albany suburb and are soaring in tandem over the Eastern crest of the Berkshires. After half a year spent keeping myself away from loud noises, people, and any activity more exerting than a trip to the 7-11, the rushing air is a slap in the face. It gets worse whenever we rise to avoid a mountain peak. I breathe in sips through a scarf.
The valleys below are dotted with houses and the occasional town, photogenic to the point that it all seems a bit unreal. We are deep in bed-and-breakfast territory here, and the sight of those colonial homes is making Amy even tetchier than she was when she picked me up. She’s a farm witch down to her bones. Witchery in the Berkshires is difficult enough without leaf peepers and their cameras.
“It kills me to see them traipsing all over the towns, cooing over how ‘relaxing’ it is around here while we’ve been up to our ears in everything from pickling curses to summer howlers! It’s been crazy this year!” She has to yell to be heard over the wind. I nod and nod. While some of this is Amy’s annual autumn grumbling, the rest is news to me. I should feel guilty for being so behind, but I don’t.
“Damn near lost a hand to a howler this past solstice. See!” She waves her right hand at me. We’re about twenty feet apart, the minimum recommended distance between flying broomsticks—not so far apart that I can’t see the remains of her pinky, gnawed down to the last knuckle. There’s that guilt-inducing lack of guilt again, dizzying this time. Oh, Amy. I hadn’t even noticed.
I toss her a pot of salve from my backpack. She catches it easily enough, giving me one of her uncertain smiles.
“I’m fine now, Hard-hitter,” she protests. She keeps the salve, though. It goes into the breast pocket of her tweed coat.
We reach the coven at sunset. Stony Ledge unfolds before us as we descend, like a rumpled, granite tablecloth. The Ledge is an ideal spot in the mountains for witches to gather, with easy broomstick landing and a parking lot nearby. The coven is a blob of practical coats and hats from here. I can just pick out Gabriela by her ever-present khaki duffle bag, no doubt packed with ley line maps and her prized Winchester. She’s the first to spot us. She waves us down.
I dip over the top of a beech and let myself float the rest of the way into the clearing. It’s strange to me now, walking. I’ve barely descended for anything other than meals or bathroom breaks in months. Now I wobble along like a sailor freshly returned from sea, trying to keep up with Amy’s efficient strides.
“Julian! Merry met,” says Marissa, the nearest witch. She breaks off from the chattering huddle to come hug me, and slips me a cider donut as she pulls away. I bob my head in thanks. She adjusts her electric green glasses, blinks at me.
“Oh! Still not, um…?”
No, still not talking. I give her a rueful smile, hoping to convey a sense of, ‘Hey, what you gonna do, life’s crazy, right?’
“I see.” She hands me an extra donut. They’re so warm and fresh that I have to cup them in both hands to make sure they don’t fall to pieces before I can get them into my mouth. Amy turns around beside me.
“Yes, merry met, merry met, now are we all here?” She counts up witches like she counts her prize-winning chickens, her lips moving silently over the numbers.
There are twelve of us now. There used to be thirteen. Amy almost forgets. She flicks her head around, and I notice the way her eyes dull when she catches herself. It’s an awkward start to an awkward meeting. Marissa and the twins seem to be the only ones comfortable speaking to me. Our youngest, Sato, was on spring break when I left. I can tell she has questions for me, wants to see how close the gossip hits to the truth. I smile at everyone.
We gather beside a semi-magical and definitely illegal campfire, where the Ledge fades into the forest. Claudia lays out the basics: she spotted the frogman in the kettle bog outside of North Adams. Five cats are missing in the area. There are families with newborn babies living on that edge of the town, so we have to act fast. The main issue is numbers. If this frogman is dug in properly, even a full dozen witches will be…challenged in a fight. ‘Challenged’ is how Claudia phrases it, instead of ‘outclassed,’ or ‘fucked.’
“The last time we did this,” she tells us, “that is to say, the last time the Wells Farm coven went up against a fully grown frogman, was two generations ago.” When Amy’s grandmother was running the show.
We pass around the “Wells Grimoire and Bestiary” for reference, the battered pages held open to Nana Eugenia Wells’ account of the incident. I’ve only seen a frogman in person once, the frozen corpse of a juvenile. The creature inked onto the page of the Grimoire is easily thrice as big, dwarfing the little witch drawn beside it for reference. Above the illustration, someone has scribbled a skull and crossbones in red ink. I rub it with my thumb. Subtle.
“Eugenia manage to beat it?”
“Barely, working with a group of twenty.”
Another round of donuts gets shared out while we absorb this. I realize, suddenly, why they taste so familiar: they’re made with cider from Amy’s orchard. Under the layer of Marissa’s baking charm, I taste apples crushed in a wooden hand-press. I taste the life of a hopeful wasp that got too close, and the muslin Amy used to strain it out. If I concentrated, I’d be able to recognize the individual trees the apples came from. They know me still. Their energy meets mine with a kiss. I am crushed by the memory of two summers past, when Amy and I put in a new herb patch at the farm. She lent me her pipe when we smoked on the porch. Called me Hard-hitter.
I’ve gotten too used to dreaming my days away. I’ve lost the thread of conversation, and only pick it up again once I hear my name.
“Sorry, but are we sure Julian is fit to take part, given her condition?” Hetal says.
Amy rounds on her, jabs her pipestem at my chest. “She’s right there! You can ask her yourself.”
“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here.”
Hetal rolls her eyes and I feel…absolutely nothing. I grope around inside myself, in the place my sense of annoyance should be, but annoyance has passed me by. My chest is full of clouds.
The smoke from Amy’s pipe thickens into a violet coagulation, falling to the ground in tendrils. Hetal’s expression remains aloof, even as the Cup-a-Soup in her lap boils over the lip of her camping thermos.
Witches’ emotions are dangerous. That’s why I keep mine bundled in a quarter-inch ball in my right lung.
“I’ve got a pad of paper!” says Sato. She has it in my hands before anyone can react, and retreats to the other side of the campfire.
“merry met, Hetal. i can fight. my magic isn’t as strong without words, but i can use my will to similar effect.”
I finish the note with a smiley face, for extra reassurance.
Hetal takes the note. She doesn’t look convinced by what she reads; I can’t really blame her. I’ve been an oratory witch as long as I’ve been a witch of any kind. Everyone’s got their knack, their own way to tap into their magic. For Marissa it’s baking, Sato sings. Hetal’s a fire witch. I talk my powers into action. Casting spells without a voice is a real handicap for me, and Hetal’s just making sure I can put up a good fight. That we won’t lose another friend. I flex my fingers thoughtfully, and stand.
I pick out a nearby tree. A sugar maple. This specimen looks old and healthy, its leaves faded on a gradient from yellow to burning red. Sugar maple wood is a bitch and a half to work, which is exactly what I’m looking for.
I scoop up a fallen birch twig as thick as my ring finger and brittle as a saltine cracker. Behind me, the coven falls silent.
First, I address the twig in my mind: Hey, you. Rise, ready yourself. The stick lifts from my palm to hover in the air at nose height. Now for the difficult bit.
Jabforwardpierce. I have to make the thoughts fast to make the spell fast. It zings. The twig pelts forward into the tree, ‘smack’ as it connects like a softball hit out of the park, biting deep. The coven gives a collective murmur of approval. Sato even claps. I bow and recover the twig, presenting it to her with a flourish.
“See?” Amy barks, “And if she could talk, you bet that would have bored a hole straight through the heartwood! She’s fine.”
It’s too emphatic. I’m missing something.
“Amy,” says Hetal, “I mean no ill will.”
Amy’s mouth twists. She’s going to say something she’ll regret. Hetal can see it too, so she holds a hand out over the fire and says:
“Peace be on this gathering.”
It’s an old blessing. The words blanket the group in calm, make the campfire burn brighter. Hetal breathes out slowly and offers her hand to me. She has woken the magic in her bones, the witch’s equivalent of revving an engine, and my own witchcraft flares in response. When I got magic six years ago, I woke up every morning worried it had evaporated in the night, but it was always there, as much a part of me as my ribs. Amy got hers from her mother. I got mine from Imogen. Hetal is a rare example of spontaneous generation, a gift that drew her all the way from the West coast to train at Wells Farm. She’s never held that over any of us, that she’s special.
I take her hand. Our magics burn against each other, hers a marigold orange, mine the color of sunlight caught in a jar of honey. Our bones show through our brown skin, lit from within, deep in the marrow. Like the most beautiful x-ray you could imagine. Hetal studies me.
“You don’t have to fight, Julian,” she says. “I don’t know if anyone’s told you that yet. I’ve always respected you, and that hasn’t changed.” She glances pointedly at Amy. “But no one here wants to see you hurt.”
It’s too late for that.
Amy scowls as our witch-fires retreat, then gives her wrist a distracted shake to blow out the last spark of her own leaf-green magic. She looks like she wants to tell me something. Six months ago I would have been able to hazard a guess as to what, but I’ve been gone that whole time, and I don’t know if—
“Julian?” Hetal prompts me.
I take out the waitress pad. Hetal reads what I write, then nods her acceptance.
“If you’re sure” she says.
The coven settles into camp as the first stars make their appearance. The twins drop by my one-man tent and tap on the mosquito netting.
“Amy wants a word,” Kendra says, “in private. Finally.”
“It took her forever to work up the guts to go get you in the first place.”
“She pretty much crapped herself, is how I’d describe it.”
I shoo them off and find Amy smoking by the brook at the edge of camp. Did she always smoke so much? The tips of her nails are stained brown, but that’s just Amy, never bothering with gloves when she gardens. Her eyes won’t meet mine.
“I’m glad you decided to come along for this, Julian.”
I give her a thumbs up.
“Yeah, so, I’m just gonna be honest. I don’t know how to say what I want to say. It’s, you know,” she glares at the brook like it’s criticized her compost heap, “it’s difficult.”
She holds out her hand, with something cupped in the palm. It’s a human tooth, smooth, the color of old piano keys. A memory from Anatomy lessons long past whispers that it’s a bicuspid. Amy taps it with her finger and it splits down the middle into two even pieces, exposing the pulp.
At the center of the tooth is an unmistakable amber glow. If you sawed my bones in half, you’d find the same glow nesting inside. And I know without a doubt who that tooth belonged to.
“It’s the only new lead we’ve had while you’ve been away. When Claudia brought this back from her scouting mission, I knew I had to tell you. So you could be there for the fight, if you wanted.”
She hands me the tooth. I don’t know what to do with my face. Thankfully, neither does Amy. We sit together in our shared awkwardness, and I think to myself that anger might be the only negative emotion I miss. There’s something to be said for a stomach full of righteous anger. I brush Amy’s shoulder as I leave. I take the tooth with me.
We ride in Catherine’s van to the bog site first thing in the morning. A couple flying witches are easy enough to magic from view, but twelve of us, zipping along in v formation like so many geese, would be harder to manage. We’re crammed in elbow to crotch, quiet the whole way, except for the click of Anita’s knitting needles. She’s knitting pure magic, spells that float and feather invisibly in the air of the van. I wind a silky strand around my finger. Amy gathers fistfuls of protection spells into her lap.
“Suit up, everyone,” she grunts.
What follows is an amusing interlude of witches shuffling around and wrapping invisible ribbons of spell anywhere they can make them stick: around their wrists, twisted through their hair. Sato ties hers around her chest like a bungee harness. We would look absolutely wild to any outside viewer.
Catherine parks us at a point off the road that doesn’t seem any different from the rest of the idyllic forestland. The coven splits, fanning out around the bog’s central pond. As I approach the water’s edge, the ground under my feet begins to squelch. The air has a dirty/clean quality to it, like a mud mask in a fancy spa. Hemlock trees give way to larches, and azaleas to blueberry bushes.
Kettle bogs are glacier-scooped holes in the ground, filled with water, edged with moss, and teeming with boggy life. The sphagnum moss forms floating mats thick enough to walk on. I’ve tried it. It’s not for the faint-hearted. The moss wobbles like a water-bed, and the whole time you’re remembering that if you misplace a step, or press down too hard, you could wind up trapped beneath the mat, alone in the wet and the dark.
Magically speaking, kettle bogs are liabilities, powerhouses so invested in their own balance that any invasion, any little upset, gets pulled in and worked over until it, too, becomes part of the bog.
Sometimes people fall into bogs and die. Sometimes they don’t die. It may happen that they find themselves sucked into a cataract in the water, where the moss grows greener and the bullfrogs hunt. There, caught between life and death and snared by deep magic, they will be made to fit. They will be tapped into a force of nature, and they will be hungry.
Catherine points. I see it now, crouching on a mat near the center of the pool, a sized-up version of the dead one I found floating in the Green River years ago.
Frogmen aren’t some Lovecraftian impossibility, a profanity against nature that sears your eyeballs dry. They’re horrible to look at because they’re so damn plausible. They’re exactly how you’d imagine. You see one, you think, ‘Yeah. Okay.’ Like you wouldn’t be surprised to find one on a missing page of a biology textbook: ‘Rana homina, mankind’s amphibious cousin.’ Six feet of cold skin, big old eyes, a giant bullfrog with a face that hints at its human origins. A monster, but a believable one.
We have it surrounded. Amy whistles like a goldfinch, a party trick she picked up from her dark past as the world’s grumpiest Daisy Scout. So we begin.
First up is the ‘just shoot it’ test. The barrel of Gabriela’s lever-action hunting rifle peeks between the boughs of a nearby spruce. It’ll be best if this all ends before we have to break out the magic. If the frogman’s not in full control of his powers yet, that might be possible. A bullet to the temple will kill just about anything.
It’s seen her.
The frogman turns his golden saucer eye to Gabriela’s hiding place. His cheeks flare soundlessly. Gabriela pulls the trigger—squelch.
The gun doesn’t fire. Two fruitless squelches later, and I see the problem: a patch of muddied sphagnum trails from the tip of the barrel. It wasn’t there a second ago. I imagine there’s more moss stuffed up against the hammer, a chamber of bullets turned to cranberries. Gabby reacts more sensibly than I might, flicking on the safety and tossing the rifle away.
There’s no doubt in my mind that if we weren’t wearing Anita’s protection charms, we’d all be gagging on wads of moss already. He’s come into the fullness of his powers, and he knows we’re here. Guns won’t be enough.
Amy gestures at me to give it a shot, so I try the twig trick. The twig is turned to moss before it gets within twelve feet of him. It hits his chest with a wet sound.
“All right, good to know…”
Amy reaches into her coat and draws out a fat, leather pouch like the kind kids keep their marbles in. The side’s labeled in Sharpie: ‘Home Field Advantage.’ It’s filled with soil samples from every corner of her farm. We say ‘dirt poor’ or ‘dirty’—we don’t give soil the respect it deserves. Amy does, and that’s why it listens to her. It carries her magic. She opens the pouch, licks her thumb, and coats it with dirt. Pops her thumb in her mouth like she’s taking a pinch of snuff. She always does that; I can never get over it.
“Yeah,” she murmurs, “that should do it.”
Amy casts a fistful of dirt over the sphagnum mat. She blows a smoke ring from her pipe, breathes it out to mix with the dust in the air. Smoke ignites dust into a wicked gout of green fire, sucking in air and cannoning it back out with a crack, all the way across the surface of the bog. The frogman shrieks. The tops of my braids singe.
“Boom,” says Amy, like she’s cool. Her accompanying grin almost makes it so. This is her declaration of war. The ragged patches of burned flesh on the frogman’s cheek heal near instantly, but they existed. Amy did damage to him. She’s proven it’s possible, even now.
She tries again, this time whistling to Hetal to join in. Hetal’s fire is hotter, more focused, striking out from the other side of the bog. I’m sure that, between Hetal and Amy, the frogman’s not going to be up for another round. When the twin fires fall away, I see that I’m wrong. The frogman emerges unscathed from a mound of steaming sphagnum. He licks his own eyeball.
“Shit,” Amy hisses, “we’re going to have to send out Sato.”
We all tease Sato about her water-walking. She’s the sort of Catholic who doesn’t mind a joking comparison to Jesus. She sings her magic into power in her flutey soprano, sweet and forceful. Anita watches and twists knots into her skein of invisible yarn, her lips pressed bloodlessly together. We don’t want Sato to die. She shouldn’t be here, really. She hasn’t even finished college. A feeling that is almost unease presses against my throat…and down into my lung. Poof. At ease again.
I still care about Sato.
I had to check to be sure.
Her magic pushes against the frogman’s pebbled hide, and because her attack is force itself, not a tangible object, he cannot turn it into a part of his bog. Invisible fingers press at his clammy throat. The pulse there pounds, blue blood close to the surface, ready to pop. His back legs twitch. The water under Sato lurches and roils, sending the moss mats undulating, but she steps calmly over each wave. The frogman raises another cocoon of mats to protect himself. Sato shivers it apart. She’s close enough to touch him now, her song relentless and sweet. Another eight-count should finish him. He kicks weakly. He opens his mouth wide.
Faster than my eyes can follow, a pink blur of a tongue shoots past the frogman’s lips and grabs Sato around her outstretched hand. It snaps her to his jaws. Sato doesn’t stop singing. She weaves her screams into her song, even as her arm is crushed, even as her legs give out in pain.
I blink and Amy’s gone.
I taste ozone in the back of my mouth.
Amy stands on a platter-sized lump of hardened mud, her right arm raised above her head, palm out like she’s blocking the sun. Blue blood runs over her face. The tip of a severed tongue floats on the surface of the pond. And oh, the frogman is angry. The magic in the air is sharp with it.
“Scatter,” Amy rasps. Sato doesn’t have to be told twice. She dashes back to the shore so fast her feet barely brush the water, and when she stumbles, her song finally faltering as she runs out of breath, Anita tugs her the rest of the way by yanking on the protection charm.
We all know that Amy’s meant to be the last line of defense. She says “Scatter” again, then yells it, and that’s the cue for us all to get out, to get far away. Everyone else obeys her like they should. But what do I have to lose, really? Only Amy. Only myself. I’m willing to fight for one of those things, at least. I swim out to them. Amy and the frogman are locked in a motionless battle of wills. It looks as if nothing magical is happening at all, but Amy’s gone white as milk and the frogman is twitching again. Anything could happen.
My magic slides off of him like beads of oil.
“Julian,” Amy chokes, and somehow, even fighting a losing battle against a monster, she gives my name that same note of frustration she always does. The frogman pulls her to his chest, and sinks.
Down he goes. Down Amy goes, the flailing stump of her pinky finger the last bit of her to be dragged below the mat, and then it’s gone.
What do I do? My will isn’t enough. I’ve never felt like I’m enough. Knowing that hurts me, right now, and all my other emotions rush in with that pain, because I’ve already made my decision.
All those months I spent silent, and I don’t even know what word I break my spell with. I scream a shapeless nonsense. The pain blooms out from my chest, a ring of red, and the only reason I know it’s not just happening in my head is the smell of bog water flash-evaporating.
The pain eats me whole.
It’s a simple spell, the one I cast in April. The different names sound like flowers: “Heart-in-a-Box”, “Consolation,” “Mary’s Breath.” Imogen cast it when her mother died. I cast it when Imogen died.
She told me, “I don’t think we’re supposed to live like that for long. I regretted it after.” But what did she know? She died and left us all behind.
Burn something you love. Breathe in the ash. The particles will form a clump in your lung, a ball of pain and ash and magic, pressed so tight together that it takes ages for it to grow to any significant size. But it does grow. It’s where your pain goes. Some witches have kept the spell going so long that they choke on it. Some must have wanted to let it go, but the pain was too much to ever take back safely. Because it doesn’t go away, that’s not the point. You are borrowing distance from it. Still it remains yours, forever and ever, amen.
When Imogen went missing last spring, I didn’t believe she was dead until we found her right foot at the bottom of a vernal pool in Hopkins Forest. Tadpoles were nibbling at the flesh, a wriggling halo.
I could handle that, nearly. I handled it for weeks. What I couldn’t handle was the argument outside the coffee shop on Spring Street, when Amy admitted that we may never know what exactly had happened. Imogen was taken by some snarl of magic powerful enough to make my eyes water, but it wasn’t like magic as Imogen had pictured it, as she had shown me in the Stop and Shop break room during lunch, braiding heal-all and rushes together into a charm to warm our hands. She loved magic, she loved the forest, and it killed her.
Outside the coffee shop, I said, “Leave me alone, Amy,” spell-tinged, the first time I’d worked magic against her. She took a step back.
“Julian,” she said.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“She was my friend, too,” she told me.
That didn’t help. Even though I knew it was true, even though some distant piece of myself could see that Amy was wrecked, her lips gnawed red at the corners.
I’d kissed her once. That’s what I remembered, looking at her then. All she wanted was my patience, but I didn’t have any. We were both so tired.
I still couldn’t think of anything to say. That’s when I decided I was going to use the spell. Never speaking again didn’t seem like such a sacrifice in that moment. I would leave, I would be quiet, I wouldn’t hurt so bad.
I wouldn’t hurt at all.
This wasn’t what I signed up for when Imogen offered to share her magic with me. I think I loved her then, this focused arrow of a girl, beaming in the honeyed glow like a kid sharing a secret. I could see she’d been dying to show me for weeks, maybe since we talked on my first shift at the store. I was new to the Berkshires, and everything felt possible, even magic. I wanted to believe her. We met at night in the snowy woods behind my dorm. She showed me fire conjured to a candle at will: candle off, candle on. The littlest trick, and I was hooked.
“You can have this too, if you want,” she said. “It’s not giving you something new, it’s lighting up something you already have.”
“Will I be able to do the same things you can?”
“Maybe, but it’ll never be exactly the same. It’s different for every person. Like, the same flame burning from different candles. Personally, I think you’d be a good witch. You just have to promise. There’s a thing we say.”
“Hit me with it.”
“I promise,” she began.
“I promise,” I repeated.
“…not to be a total asshole.”
I raised my eyebrows, and Imogen held up her hands.
“Hey, Amy’s words, not mine,” she said.
“I do like Amy.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her.”
“But you know, it’s fair enough. I promise not to be a total asshole.”
“Now we hold hands.”
There’s no way I can describe what it feels like to catch witch-fire. To have your bones light up. It’s so glorious you think you’ll keel over, but you don’t. The weight of what you’ve been given holds you steady, and who’d want to be an asshole with that joy? Who’d even be tempted?
“Merry met, Julian,” said Imogen.
I answered, “Merry met, Imogen,” and the light around us fractured beautifully at the sound of my voice. I could almost hear an echo: Merry, merry…Imogen.
“Oh man,” she said, “okay, you might having a speaking specialty! Tell your candle to light.”
“Candle,” I commanded, “Light.”
It did. It caught fire like anything. We jumped up and down until the snow around us was crushed into slurry, and then we jumped some more.
I kept the stump of that candle with me for years, until it was time to burn something I loved.
I come to with the taste of candle smoke in my mouth. I’m under the bog, I think, in a red-lit world where every movement hurts. Amy hangs in mid-air above me, un-moving. No water here, just the memory of water. The frogman floats across from me, stunned. I know I have no time. Soon this bubble of pent-up magic will collapse as the bog works to bring itself back into balance. I gather Amy up, swimming through the pain like it’s syrup. Then I face the frogman, wet my lips, and speak.
“You can talk if you want, I bet. Did you kill the witch Imogen Gillespie? Talk.”
It’s the first thing I’ve said in months; the screaming doesn’t feel like it counts. Just when I decide I can’t wait any longer, the frogman’s mouth opens.
“Ribbit,” he whispers. The onomatopoeic word, not the sound. I can’t tell if it’s a joke or not, there’s no way to know. Which would be worse? His jelly eyes are flat and cold. They tell me nothing. I’m out of time.
“Your skull cracks.” It does, I hear the crunch. “You die.” Simple, and I believe it. I leave, swimming to the surface.
Someday I’ll come back for Imogen’s bones.
I burst through the surface of the bog. The water’s back where it should be. A dragonfly drifts past. I tread water, take advantage of my newly reclaimed voice so I can swear, and grab for a floating larch branch. Anything can be a broom in a pinch if you’re panicked enough.
“You’re a broom,” I tell it. It lifts me and Amy out of the muck so fast I gag, but we’re gone, and I’m going to try to help her.
We land near a river half a mile away. I drag us toward the shore. My arms blister with nettle stings and the claw marks of barberry shrubs. Pain is so alien now, each prickle shocks me to the heart. I scramble out of the undergrowth to a beach of river rocks. I sweep them off bare-handed to find the sand underneath. Amy doesn’t stir from the patch of coltsfoot I’ve set her on, not even when I rifle through her pockets for her bags of precious dirt.
I cover the stretch of sand with the last of Home Field Advantage, turning the bag inside-out to get the last grains of earth. I don’t know if it’s enough. Amy would know.
The river’s rushing, cold, deep enough to push Amy under. I hold her down with a granite stone on her belly, and I’m crying so hard my eyes itch. Dark silt pours from her lips. I give her twenty seconds, then I roll the rock aside. Up she bobs to the surface. Now the darkness is just an ink-spot here and there on her pink skin.
She’s heavier than she was before, like all the snowmelt in the Berkshires is resting in her stomach. By the time I’ve got her laid out onto her bed of sand and dirt, everything is scattered all to hell.
“Help her,” I say. A spell.
I swallow. The soil does nothing. It wants to help, I can tell. The whispers it sends back to me are desperate to mend, to soothe, to move. The dirt knows me, but I’m not its mistress. A pouch by my feet stirs. I reach for it without thinking, and it jumps into the palm of my hand. The label reads: ‘Julian’s Herb Patch.’
“Help us,” I tell it. Holding it makes me feel better.
I reach for Amy’s witch-fire. I think, ‘Same flame, two different candles.’ All of us witches bound together by that one thing, in life and death. I say,
“You know me. We’re going to do this together. Show me where the problem is.”
Her bones light up that chilly spring green. There, in her chest, is a lump of silt-black magic that’s definitely not Amy’s.
“Black lump. Bog magic. Ease yourself out. You’re going to leave through the least damaging path.”
It’s sudden. Amy rears up, eyes streaming, and coughs grotesquely. I turn her towards the river. Plop. A piece of nature returned to nature, and good riddance. It dissolves into fir needles.
“Hey,” she manages. Her voice is shredded and will be for weeks.
Through the gap in the trees, I see ten distant spots in the sky. Our coven safe and together. Our coven coming for us. I collapse in the grit. Everything hurts, is gonna keep hurting, but—
“Nothing. I’m just enjoying the sound of your name.”
That flusters her a bit. Her ears flush, and I happily imagine the little blood cells getting on with their business, carrying oxygen to her extremities, everything ticking along just as it should. She’s not so pale now.
“I want to kiss you.”
It’s amazing being able to say that, to sound out the words and see her reaction.
“I mean you can, but why would you want to, I’m absolutely gross right now.”
She tastes like a mud pie, and I only care a little.
“Yeah, you taste like dirt.”
“Julian,” she says, in that way she has.