“We ran as if to meet the moon.” ~ Robert Frost
Jone has suspected the moon is moving closer since her first night out of the hospital.
This is not confirmed until several evenings later, from the pier. It is January, and blood oranges arrive in crates from the southern territories. Acidic air whittles at the pier’s ancient planks, and even pelicans have fled, unable to find suitable perch. In moonlight, the bare masts of ships unloading in the dock remind Jone of an enormous tree, struck by lightning.
Jone is grateful to be working again, despite the oranges. Their juice burns the skin beneath her fingernails, and the men who come to collect crates in the morning never seem to have awakened from dreams of the night before. But this is winter, Jone knows, when dreams are thickest, and the oranges arrive to remind them the sweet, warm wind of the south has long to travel before spring.
Across the bay, the lighthouse continues to sweep its eye across the water. It is the only relic that remains from old Odeliza, in its years before the fire. Jone’s ancestors built the lighthouse, just as they reconstructed Odeliza from its ashes, but Jone has only been to its top twice, but the final time had not ended well.
This is why no one notices the moon is too close, Jone reasons, but the proximity of its pockmarked crust makes her uneasy.
In the morning, Jone rows out to see Erba, the witch.
Erba lives on a slender island where the bay narrows into a river. Erba is another word for hare, which is another word for moon, and she has two white dogs that snap at Jone’s oars as she maneuvers her rowboat onto the beach.
“I told you not to come back here,” Erba says from the tideline. There is kelp spiraled around Erba’s ankles, but her dress is unstained. Erba wears a shoot of coral around her neck, and its orange is that of the sun draining color before night.
“I need to ask about the moon,” Jone calls, and Erba’s dogs yelp and cough and spit foam onto the white sand. Overhead, two gulls narrowly escape collision.
“You’re worrying,” Erba says, knowing Jone cannot ignore things like unexpected weather, or early bird migrations. “Best not to worry about the moon. I’m sure she was just tired of the view.”
They drink bitter hawthorn tea in Erba’s cabin, while the dogs chew on a pair of soup bones beneath the table. The home is small and dark, like Erba. The gold thread weaved into her braids glints in a narrow steam of light from eroded wood in the rafters.
Erba stands a head shorter than Jone, but she has thick hair and thighs and fingernails, and gives the impression of great density.
Jone is tall and can hoist crates of fruit from the ships without assistance. Jone’s hair is copper, but her fair complexion suggests the influence of some vague and untreatable illness. The crook of her left arm is still bruised from the nurses’ injections, so Jone stirs tea with her right, and hopes Erba will choose not to mention Jone’s long absence.
“The moon is getting closer,“ Jone begins, but Erba lifts a hand to interrupt. Erba has always preferred gestures to speech, and when Erba does talk, it is most often with a hand over her mouth, as if she is afraid the words might charge forward too quickly.
Erba is able to light a candle at the table’s center, despite her damp matchbook. The plump flame illuminates conch shells on the mantle.
“I told you not come to back here. Drink your tea before the tide comes in, would you? I have to feed the chickens,” Erba says, with her face turned so that Jone cannot see her mouth.
“But the moon —“
“Will do as she pleases. If you’re worried, I can make you a charm to keep in the pocket of your coat. It will be a gull’s foot, so keep it hidden, or they will want to send you back to the doctors.”
Jone is careful to keep her expression neutral. She takes a sip of tea, and her glasses fog. Erba’s cabin has always smelled soft and damp, and Jone suspects she is allergic to the bright yellow mold spreading in the corners.
Jone coughs into the crook of her arm.
“I understand,” Jone says, and tries to stop looking at the fine black shadows cast by Erba’s eyelashes. For a moment, Jone has the terrible feeling that some sentence has been omitted from their conversation, and Jone will never know what it is.
“I can take care of the moon myself, but give me the charm, in case.”
The first Odeliza burned in its entirety, and was rebuilt by priests of the Four Hundred Gods. Their missionaries had arrived on whaling boats, which paused in Odeliza to restock fresh water and canned fruits as they followed pods on their migratory route north.
Odeliza’s old churches had scorched alongside its canneries, and brothels, and smokehouses, and the missionaries brought gods to replace those destroyed by the flames. They’d rebuilt Odeliza with white rock from vast quarries in the foothills, which had once been the sacred land of whatever had existed here before men.
Jone was born in Odeliza, as was her mother, and her grandmother, and the cats in the alleys of her childhood apartments, descendants of those who’d escaped the fire a century before. Jone’s father was from the foothills, and when Jone was young, he’d wandered into dense white fog squeezing through a mountain pass and never returned.
Jone’s mother never spoke of him.
“This city is your father. Your ancestors built these roads. Before you were born, I carved your face into a stone from the quarry, and you emerged an exact replica,” Jone’s mother assures her, while stirring chunks of crabmeat into a stew of pureed rice. The steam feels too thick to breath. “Your bones are made of white rock.”
Jone’s surname is Aile, which means eel in the language of the missionaries. Everywhere, the silhouettes of these slender fish are stamped into bricks and above doorways. Jone has never thought about this very deeply. There are many Ailes in Odeliza. The missionaries had not only distributed their gods, but their surnames as well.
However, Jone quietly wishes her mother were right. She lifts a pool of stew into her mouth with bread crust. Even in the fundamental familiarity of her childhood home, Jone has felt lost for quite some time.
Later in life, Jone will sometimes find herself in strange parts of the city with no memory of how she’s traveled there. The night she is taken to the hospital, Jone steals a dinghy from the docks and smashes it against the boulders of Lighthouse Island. She does not recall any of this, but when she is arrested in the lantern room, Jone has already been screaming into the sky for some time.
By the following evening, everyone in Odeliza is whispering, in pubs and on the docks and behind stacks of overripe fruit at the market. The air is pulpy, and sticks to the roof of Jone’s mouth, but this is easy to ignore with the moon the way it is.
“You’re not needed today,” says Jone’s overseer at the docks. He does not turn to face her as she approaches from the muddy road that connects the bay to her small room at the boarding house. Jone has a hand pressed into her abdomen, which aches dully from black coffee served on the ground floor of her building. It had been difficult to sleep with moonlight burning through her curtains.
“The ships can’t get in or out of the bay. The tides have gone mad. Oh, you know what I mean, Joney, don’t look so offended.”
The docks are crowded with sailors and fishermen, but all seem frozen mid-movement. Even the seal colony is silent, aside from the occasional crack of a yawning jaw.
Odeliza is small, and its houses are crooked, and its year is marked by what arrives from the ships; oranges in winter, lavender in spring, apples in the fall. Before her time in the hospital, Jone had sometimes worked on the boats, and sailed to places with one temperature and palm fronds that slapped against one another in the wind, but that was before — before everything.
“I have an idea of what to do,” Jone says, dropping a hand from her abdomen to her pocket, where Erba’s charm seems to twitch. Erba’s magic always has a nervous, impatient sense to it.
“Is anyone listening? I’ve known this was coming for some time. The moon has been sending us warnings,” Jone continues.
No one seems to notice her.
It was eight months ago that Jone first attempts to tell Erba there is something peculiar about the moon. In the city, horse hooves pound on cobbled streets, and the trees have not yet begun to bear their slender bones.
This is before Erba asks Jone to leave the island and not return. It is nearly spring, and flowering trees make Jone sneeze into the crook of her arm. Erba’s dogs roam the tall grass, searching for fledgling birds that have tumbled from their nests.
Jone is sore from her work on the docks, but Erba insists they follow the dogs, so Erba can gather holy basil in the island’s meadow. On this day, the sky is orange. The sunlight is filtered and weak through a haze of pollen.
This important, Jone knows, but light is such an easy thing to ignore, especially in the weeks before the moon moves closer. Jone has never before paid attention to highlight and shadow and shade. After the moon comes, she sees nothing else.
Jone reaches for Erba’s hand, and finds it clutched around a bushel of lavender. Erba’s fingernails are pale and violet, but her body heats the air around it. When they had first met, Jone had asked Erba how she’d become a witch and Erba had said: “When I was a child, I fell into a well in the olive groves, and in it found a perfect sphere of white stone, which I felt compelled to swallow for luck. No one saw me fall. I spent the evening in the well with the stone glowing in my stomach, and in the morning, my body floated back to the surface. The robins were singing and I could understand every word.”
They had not spoken of it then, but every child in Odeliza understood that after the great fire, the city had been rebuilt from white rock unlike any other in the mountains. Before the Four Hundred Gods had forbidden such thought, it was common knowledge the rocks had fallen from the sky.
“I have something to tell you,” Jone says later, after they have steeped the lavender and basil into sweet, fragrant water. “I’ve been receiving messages from far away.”
Erba looks back to Jone from her place over the stovetop. Steam winds through Erba’s curled hair. “Say that again, would you, darling? I don’t think I understood.”
“The moon is speaking to me,” Jone says, feeling as though a secret compartment inside of her has been shattered. Jone holds on to physical sensations — the soreness in her shoulders, an old injury in her left knee that aches in certain weather. When the moon whispers, Jone feels as though she is floating directly above her own body.
Erba stares back at Jone. Erba’s hair is dense and shining. The cabin is full of magic, always, but it seems absent now, in the truthful light of afternoon. Erba only ever kisses Jone at dawn, and then again at twilight. Every kiss Jone remembers as having a certain color and weight, like jewels.
“You’ve said a lot of strange things lately. Perhaps you don’t need a witch. Perhaps you need a doctor, ” Erba states, which is the last thing she will say to Jone for some time. There is a windstorm blowing in from the south and the island smells of crab, soon to be washed ashore.
Jone pinches the bridge of her nose, though Erba’s potion has already eased her headache.
In the present, life has paused. During the day, people are moved to speak in hushed voices, but nights are silent, aside from the trill of crickets, unmoved by the vast white landscape overhead. By mid-week, silver dust falls continuously from the sky, like rain. People pull scarves over their mouths, afraid to breath the moon’s shedding skin.
Jone runs out of money, like everyone else. She drinks coffee at the boarding house and eats plain rice at the church and finishes off her prescriptions. The withdrawal takes three days, and after, even when Jone has stopped tasting copper, the muscles in her lower back clench at odd moments.
By then, the moon is close enough to fill the sky. Jone sees her neighbors glancing desperately to the last navy slit crescent along the horizon. Like everyone else in Odeliza, Jone spends every evening on the sidewalks, but less because of the moon, and more because her bed sheets have begun to stink and she feels lightheaded at all times.
Erba can name all Four Hundred Gods, but does not believe in any one of them. This is something Erba insists Jone understand clearly. Erba’s allegiances still lie with old spirits of the fishing line, of high tide, of the gibbous moon.
“Don’t speak of this off the island. They’ve sent me here because they are afraid of me, but they are not afraid of you.”
There was a time before the Four Hundred when the moon had her own name and her own feast and her own priests. Erba says she remembers which herbs will make the moon speak, so Jone helps Erba gather fennel and almonds from the greenhouse. The weeds turn Jone’s hands splotchy and pink, but she obeys Erba’s militaristic commands.
Jone’s heart gives odd vibrations between its normal beats, but it’s good to work again, and feel the calluses on her fingers scrape against thorns on the rosebush.
Erba instructs Jone to drop what she has gathered into a boiling pot of water on the stovetop. It emits a smell that reminds Jone of aluminum, and singes the hairs inside her nose. It is a day of discomfort, in all senses, but Jone finally feels like she is occupying her own body.
“My molars hurt,” Jone tells Erba happily, and Erba knows to ignore this statement.
“Careful, you’ll burn yourself. We’re going to use them to talk to her. Or rather, to listen, if she decides to speak.”
“How does it work?” Jone asks, even though she knows Erba will always decline to explain her spells. Jone has spent her life moving crates and listening to the predictable slap of water against the beach. Jone knows the ocean, but witchcraft is more nebulous.
When the vials have cooled enough to handle, Erba leads them into the island’s clearing. Erba fills a silver bowl with brackish water and together, they pour the mixtures onto its surface. Jone is not cold, although she feels she should be.
“What’s supposed to happen?” Jone says.
“Some versions of this spell make an enemy’s horses go lame. If I had replaced the fennel with toadwort, it would have caused all unmarried women in Odeliza to drown themselves. In this case, it’s a trap. If there is a message out there, it will get stuck inside.”
Erba speaks little when she does magic, but her fingernails and eyes seem clear and bright. Erba motions for Jone to circle the bowl counter-clockwise four times, then crouch alongside her. They stare into the craters reflected on the liquid’s surface.
“It looks like a city,” Jone says, finally interrupting the discordant sound of crickets, confused about the time of day.
“Of course, Jone. Sometimes, I forget you were born beneath the Four Hundred.”
“As were you,” Jone says, feeling as though Erba has meant this statement as an offense, but not sure how.
“Before the Four Hundred, there were roads connecting this world to many others. Even your mother would have been too young to remember that your family helped build those roads, and later, destroy them.”
“In the fire?” Jone asks. There are history books in Erba’s cabin, but Jone reads at a tortuously slow pace, and there are always dogs to feed and branches to prune and weevils to pluck out of the garden.
“No, some things were destroyed by priests of the Four Hundred. What was left burned. It was sad, a long time ago. Now, it’s only history. Oh. I think we’ve caught a message.”
Jone does not immediately understand what Erba is referring to. The moon hovers closely overhead, reflected in the bowl. Erba pushes her shirtsleeve up to the elbow and reaches into the water.
Erba’s hand emerges with what looks like a silver marble. This, she drops onto her tongue and Jone sees Erba’s throat bob. After a moment, Erba coughs and beats a fist against her chest. She attempts to pull something from her mouth, but it is only one of Jone’s hairs, tossed sideways by the wind.
“Bleh. Salty. In a moment, I will need you to pay attention to every word I say. Remember everything, even if you don’t believe it is important.”
Erba’s dress is too thin for the weather. Jone can see Erba’s stomach clenching beneath the fabric.
“When you speak nonsense, it’s witchcraft. When I do it, it’s madness.”
“There are times when you should only listen, Joney.”
Jone does, but hears nothing aside from the dogs barking at rats in the cabin. Erba sits quietly for longer than Jone expects her to, but Jone flinches at Erba’s every breath, assuming she is about to be frightened.
“Hello,” Erba says, finally. It has become either very early or very late. Erba’s leather boots groan in the cold.
“Hello,” Jone replies, as she realizes that Erba has not instructed her on whether or not to respond. Erba’s head falls back, and Jone reaches out to catch Erba’s shoulders, but stops short
“I don’t mean to startle you. It’s only that I’ve been alone for a long time. On Earth, there are maps, but in space, you are always lost, even when you think you know where you are.”
Jone realizes this is Not-Erba. Not-Erba speaks slowly and her voice is thick and sweet, like the drone of bees in summer.
“That is a very frightening thing for you to say,” Jone tells Not-Erba. Not-Erba brushes a stray eyelash away from the cup of her cheek. It feels like there is fluid in Jone’s lungs.
Not-Erba nods. “But that is not what I am here to tell you, of course, that is something you already know. I am here to gather the pieces of myself that I have left behind, but it’s difficult to get so close. You’ll have to come the rest of the way.”
Not-Erba’s words only make sense if Jone is dreaming. She can normally tell she is asleep by the numbers on a clock face, by the alignment of stars, but there are no more stars — the moon has stolen the sky entire.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Not-Erba asks. “The space around your eyes is red. “
“It means I am sad, and also afraid.”
“Why are you afraid? I have been with you for a long time already, in your city and in the belly of your witch.”
Not-Erba gives a terse smile, as if she us using only the muscles of her top lip. It is a difficult expression, and one Jone cannot interpret. Jone watches Not-Erba push the heels of her palms into her eye sockets.
And then, Not-Erba is gone, and it feels as through the ground has exhaled and Jone is sinking into the earth. Erba is coughing dryly into the crook of her elbow. Erba attempts to speak, but her voice is too thin to travel any distance.
“What did she say?” Erba finally manages, through a pair of ill-timed breaths. Behind her, the jagged mountain range across the bay looks like silver.
“We need to get up high,” Jone says, then adds, “You always said I could be a witch too. You always said there was only the smallest of steps between madness and magic. Do you believe that, Erba?”
“No, I only said that to distract you,” Erba says, “Magic is the opposite of madness. Magic is left behind once all the madness has been cleared away.”
Along the docks, the masts of remaining ships wobble together. A handful of sailors in yellow raincoats are untying their boat from the hitches, although Jone knows the swells are too dangerous for a vessel its size. There is a grave for every boat at the bottom of the ocean.
“I thought it was raining,” Erba laughs, her teeth large and reflective. She has both palms open and is gathering dust that drops from the moon overhead. Her hair and the sad slope of her shoulders are coated in silver.
Jone reaches out and touches the bird bones of Erba’s wrist.
“Even if we survive this, I don’t know if we will be able to see each other without thinking of the moment when the world nearly ended. The moon will always be between us.”
Jone agrees with this, but she presses her mouth against Erba’s anyway. Erba tastes of fennel bulb and fresh tea and magic, and the kiss burns.
“I don’t understand your plan.” Erba admits, turning her face away.
“Neither do I. This is what the moon told me. She said some words are spells of their own.”
“I was the one who told you that, Jone.”
“I know. I was just trying to upset you, in hope that you will be less troubled by my next suggestion.”
“Which is what, Jone?”
“We’re going to get on a boat.“
Erba looks from Jone to the rolling green water. Distant lighting strikes the tips of waves, exposing the skeletal frame of sunken ships beneath the bay. Erba hides her face beneath her palm, and Jone knows that Erba wants to be afraid. There is every reason to be fearful of the moon, and none to believe that the moon needs their help.
“This is madness, Jone. We’d be capsized as soon as we left the bay. There are sharks, and they are hungry and we have nothing but soft limbs and skin.”
“We don’t need to leave the bay. We only need to get there,” Jone says, pointing towards the swinging beam of the lighthouse, unattended.
The waves seem to combine into faceted, architectural structures. Erba follows Jone’s directions with terse movements, and their path is lit by the florescent squid that flee their wake. The dock on the island has dissolved with age, but Erba and Jone are able to guide the boat against what pillars remain, and haul their bodies carefully across the planks to the boulders on the shore.
Jone has heard gossip that the lighthouse keeper fled three nights ago, and the door to the cabin is unhinged. However, two yellow galoshes lay abandoned in the foyer, next to a bucket of live bait that struggles dully in reeking water. The cabin is silent, aside from the deep pulse of a pendulum clock behind a door.
Erba says nothing until Jone finds the trail that leads them to the latched door of the lighthouse proper.
“You’ve been here before,” Erba says, watching Jone attempt to force the handle open. “Move aside, I will ask the lock to open for us.”
A gear clicks beneath Erba’s palm.
“Yes. I used to bring the keeper crates of flour and evaporated milk from the docks. Once, she took me up the stairs to see the lantern. It was daytime, but there was a faint half-moon above the horizon. It was the first time I ever saw the moon so close.”
Jone chooses not to mention her arrest. Erba is already aware, and if she is not, then Jone sees no reason to make her so.
An iron staircase rattles beneath their boots. The great hollow body of the lighthouse smells of mold, and even Jone’s shallowest breaths seem to trigger echoes throughout the chamber. Erba’s hand does not leave the railing once they pass the second landing. Erba is a witch of tide pools and conch shells and sand. She is terribly afraid of heights.
By the time they’ve reached the top of the staircase, their breaths sound like a campfire, dying in the morning cold.
The door to the lantern room is unlocked and swings open easily. Jone does not know if the deep vibration she feels is the result of two gravitational forces, pushing against one another.
Jone looks down towards her torso and is surprised to find herself there, whole and unbroken. “I’m sorry. I feel strange, like my body is stretching in all directions.”
“I’ll say a blessing for you.”
“No. I need to feel it.”
“Jone,” Erba says, in the same way nurses and doctors have spoken it before, offering pink pills in paper cups.
“Help me onto the ledge.”
Jone yawns, as she always does when she is nervous. There is a howling from beyond the door, like hounds on the trail of a fox, but Jone cannot remember any stories about dogs on the moon.
“Oh, Erba,” Jone says, as her hand clutches the brass latch that opens to the round balcony outside. “Do you think I’ve called the moon here by accident? Is this my fault?”
“It may be,” Erba agrees, and captures Jone’s hand in her own.
The air smells like ash and wax and the cold high tide. The winds here are stronger than on the docks. An iron railing wraps around the lighthouse’s top without ornament or ceremony, like the bars of a jailhouse. It reaches only Jone’s waist. Any misstep could send them both tumbling into the jagged range of rocks below.
Outside, Erba’s skin seems translucent. Jone follows the trail of a blue vein that travels across Erba’s forehead and through a cheekbone towards her throat. The old dip of a chickenpox scar on Erba’s shoulder fills with shadow. In this light, Erba is brilliant and monumental.
“I thought I might know what to do once I got here,” Jone says.
From the west comes the deep rumble of a landslide, but whether it has happened on earth or on the moon, Jone can no longer tell.
“You’ll have the strength. Imagine your spine is the root of a tree, anchored into the ground.”
“I don’t think you understand,” Jone says. “A long time ago, you found a white stone at the bottom of a well and you swallowed it, and that is how you became a witch.”
Erba is expressionless, but silver bands of light continue to move across her face. Jone looks across the bay to the dark summit of a cloudbank. Along the far horizon, a ship’s lantern blinks, then disappears.
Erba does not answer. Jone continues, “I’ve realized now that the moon is only here because she is missing something. She does not want to harm us. This is the end of a trade.“
From behind them, the lantern flares awake like a snap of lightning, and both Jone and Erba clap their hands over their ears. They stumble back, so that the distance between them is blocked off by light.
“I’m afraid I must ask what you mean by that,” Erba calls, as if there they are separated by great lengths.
If Jone squints into the light, it creates the illusion of a staircase that rises indefinitely upwards. Jone had hoped that the moon would make it difficult, that her expectations would not be fulfilled, and she would be left alone on the surface of a dark earth. Jone had not wanted a choice. Having a choice means Jone might have the opportunity to make the wrong one.
“The moon was your mother once,” Jone says. “This light is not a light. It is a road.”
Erba already knows this, of course. Erba has always been the first to see a trail, if there is one. After all, Erba had been the one to find Jone first, years ago. Jone had been trolling the beach for supplies from cargo ships wrecked by a storm in the night. Erba, searching for shards of sea glass, had worn a scallop shell against her chest.
Jone wishes Erba would run, but she doesn’t. Erba takes a step forward and dips her fingers into the light. As she does, a pulse seems to travel beneath her skin, like Erba’s veins have been refilled with something brilliant and metallic.
“Say something. The moon won’t leave without you. You’ve always said you were tired of the island. The dogs will feed themselves, and the island will feed itself with what the dogs cannot catch. ”
“She’ll kill us all, if you don’t. The sailors and the dockworkers, and the merchants, and the cats who steal fish from the market, and the priests, and any other witches who were unlucky enough to be born from a different mother than you were.”
“Jone, listen. The moon is not asking for me. She’s asking for you. Look,” Erba says, pointing up along the staircase. There is salt on Erba’s fingernails, shining like scales.
There are carvings on the riser of each step, and Jone recognizes the outline of an eel, an Aile, the stamp of Jone’s distant relatives–the same image found on Odeliza’s markets and schools, and even at the base of the lighthouse on which they now stand.
“Your family built this road, like they built all others in this city. You were wrong about me, Joney. I was not the sacrifice, I was the bait. Or, at least, that was what the moon intended me to be. The truth is, Jone, I will never be bait. I will always only be a witch.”
There are bubbles popping in Jone’s stomach. She blinks into the light.
“And above all, witches love the roads that have never been taken. The first step is yours, that I cannot take away from you, but I will follow when you choose to go.”
Jone cannot speak, and so the sea speaks instead, through waves that beat against the edge of the island. The ocean has only ever spoken one word, in all of its infinite lifespan, and that word has been go go go.
“Why do you think she wants me?” Jone says. She is aware that her voice is high and quiet, but Jone knows that Erba will understand. Erba would understand the silent motion of the stars, if by their motion alone they intended to speak.
“Only the moon knows. I don’t have every answer.” Erba’s teeth catch the moonlight when she smiles. “Go on now. I will be behind you. I know a charm that will prevent us from being blinded as we ascend.”
There is dull, thudding pain beneath Jone’s breastplate. The eels carved into the staircase–the staircase made of rock particles suspended in a beam of light–seem to inhale all at once. Jone wipes her palms against the thigh of her trousers.
Erba follows close behind, but it is Jone who takes the first step towards the sky.