The cave sits in a hillside, with its mouth yawed wide open. It is the kind of cave suited for raising the dead. Shadows move across dark spaces as the witch drags the shattered spines of small trees across the entrance. She stacks them high, leaving a small space to wedge herself through. Soon a fire is lit, its dull glow chasing away the lingering shadows. The fire flickers, and smoke curls in ribbons towards the night sky, pulsing out in breaths.
The witch has an old cauldron, rusted at the bottom, with sharp flakes of metal peeling from the sides. She loosens the drawstring of a cotton sack and reaches inside. The handful of bones are smooth against her fingers, and she carefully places them at the bottom of her cauldron. The bones are all she has left of her son. There are no more silky wisps of golden curls, no milk teeth, no fingernail clippings. All these have been eaten by the cauldron before. She has been casting this spell for so long nothing else exists to her. Her son was the sun that illuminated the whole wide world. He is gone and now her vision has buttoned up tight around the bitter taste of loss and the spell she casts over and over again.
There is a small, silent bundle beside the cauldron that she doesn’t look at as she prepares the ceremony. She cannot. She still has a ghost of the heart she was born with, a heart so large she had to carry it outside of her body. As time went, as people carved slivers from her heart, the tissue thickened and twisted, as sometimes happens. Her heart of hearts, the one protected by her own skeleton, that one became wound up with her son’s, more enmeshed with every laugh, every coo, every step. Their hearts beat as one, their breaths inhaled and exhaled together.
Most of her heart he took with him to the beyond.
Many years have passed since she woke to find his cold body still bundled in his bed. Her ears dulled at the crack of his ribs under the press of her hands, her lips are cold and numb since she blew her own breath into his mouth, even though there was a small quiet voice in her head that whispered ‘too late.’ But she didn’t give up until her arms shook from the effort, until they gave way and she collapsed on top of him.
Raising the dead requires sacrifice. It always has. She knew that from the moment she was born and from when she left the castle with the spell clutched in her hand. It was all she took with her from that place.
Perry needs to cast her spell and make it last for a moment. She does not wish this world upon her son. Perry herself was raised from this cauldron. She had no parents, no sisters or brothers, and she has had a long, lonely, and desperate life. No, she does not want her son forced to endure the same kind of existence she has. All she requires is a moment long enough to feel his body solid and warm in her arms, to look in his eyes, to whisper she’s sorry. There is always too much to apologize for when it’s too late to do so. She needs to say sorry she made him sleep in his own bed that night, that if she had cradled him in hers, maybe, just maybe, she would have woken to breathe for him. Sorry for all the times she grew impatient and shouted, sorry for the time he bit her while nursing and she slapped his cheek.
Sorry, sorry, sorry, and I love you. Then, he’ll know. Understand the magnitude of her love.
When they began to lower the wooden box into his grave, she tried to throw herself in with his body and tell him one last time. To warm his body against the cold ground. They restrained her. They meant well, but what if she’d been able to say it? Would she be here?
If she wanted to be understood, she would say that when her son was born, her heart came with him, that she watched it learn to crawl and walk and live outside her body. That his life so short left a long, desolate road ahead for her. That living was just another form of torture.
Twenty-five years ago, Perry opened her eyes for the first time. This spell, the same one she holds now, was cast by a desperate witch, for a rich man, over a pile of bones the man brought. The spell was cast, the old witch went into the pot and out came Perry.
The paper the spell is written on gives its ingredients and the proper way to cast it. It does not tell you that what rises from the cauldron is not quite the same person as the bones within. The marrow in the bones is the same, the appearance the same, the winding strands of genes climbing the same ladder. But there is the sacrifice, whose essence is absorbed, and then there is the Beyond. All dark magic comes from the Beyond, from another world that is full of darkness stretching an unimaginable distance. And when magic comes from the Beyond, something comes with it.
When Perry was created, made of bones and magic, she opened her eyes and saw fire, felt it shimmy along her bones, liquid inside her. She stepped from the cauldron a young woman. She was fed and clothed and given shelter. From the bones came love for the man who raised her, faint but a flame nonetheless. The old witch’s essence is where Perry’s magic came from. From the Beyond came a spot of pure darkness, the blackest sort of magic. But Perry was happy then and the darkness found no room to grow, with Perry’s big heart taking up so much space. It wound itself into a tight little knot and dug itself deep into her core, waiting for the time it found a hollow to crawl into and blossom. That is the thing about darkness—it is very patient.
For the first six months of her life, Perry lived hidden away in the rich man’s home, knowing she was an awful secret but not why. She did not much care. She was happy with her small existence, with the quickening in her belly that soon would become a bright beaming light to lead her.
The rich man’s wife found out, as they always do, and Perry was deposited outside the gates with nothing but the spell that raised her, that ancient parchment, clutched in her hand. Inside her swollen belly, her son grew, and feeling his movements inside her, she forced her heavy, aching body to move west, to knock on doors and ask for work, work of any kind. It was the beginning of a long journey.
She has a box of memories. It’s a box she built inside herself, where she put the memories when they washed over her and left her chest aching and her breath coming in blasts of pain. She clings to the box, but she can’t open it. Even as the loss cuts away more of her each day, she cannot open the box. The memories come anyway, at odd moments. Sunny days dipping their feet into ponds, a small hand on hers. The tug at her breast. His feet curled in her hand. The look in his eyes at the discovery of every new thing. The smell of his hair, soft and clean. A person cannot take reliving this kind of moment. It would the undoing of anyone.
Loss can define a person, can be vast and heavy, can spread black wings of grief across all that’s left. She was hollow when he died. To live, she had hold on to something. For some it’s a mother, a father, a sister, a brother. For Perry, it was the spell.
It was the same spell she smoothed out and memorized seven days after the funeral. The paper it was inked on was thin and translucent and bits of it clung to her fingers when she touched it. Perry had never learned to read. But magic is magic, and the language on the parchment came off the page and whispered right into her ear.
There was no other witch that Perry could turn to, to learn the rules of witchcraft. No one to warn her that the little dark knot of the Beyond was gaining power, free to balloon into the hollow space inside her. Perhaps if she had had a teacher…
The what if! Oh, how it sticks in your side sometime, sharp and double edged with regret and hindsight.
Perry just wants to see her boy again. To speak to him one more time. She always knew the spell demanded a life for a life, but she could not, would not cast another into the cauldron. She would not bring her boy back to abandon him, the way she had been abandoned. And though she could not read or write, Perry was smart. She thought she could find a way around the live sacrifice the spell required. A body, newly dead, must still have a glimmer of life in it. She thought that since she did not need to make a new life—she merely needed a small window of time— a fresh corpse would work.
It was hard digging up the first grave. The smell rose up and slapped her face, while the blue skinned girl stared out of empty eye sockets. A worm sat up, looked at her, this strange, wild haired woman, weeping bloody tears.
There weren’t enough recent deaths in any town for what she needed. She packed her cauldron and a small bag and travelled from graveyard to graveyard. She learned things, as people do when they do the same thing over and over. She went further south, where the ground was softer. She camped in forests and hid herself away during the day. She had to remain separate and move unseen. The cost was immense. All the dead bodies she carried left marks on her soul. Even though it was born from ugliness, her soul came pure and white and unmarked, as all souls do. It was the world that left dirty prints all over it.
If her soul were detached from her body and held up to the light, where each stain could be pointed out, the tale behind it told, maybe there would be a different story. A different understanding, at least. But that’s not how this story goes.
They will come. They always do. Just as before, she will hear the heavy tread of boots ringing out over the words she chants. There will be the dull flickering light of torches, the sound of a club slapping a thigh. She knows they will come with a heavy burlap sack, a noose of thick rope, the accoutrements necessary to bind and kill a witch.
Each time before, when she cast the final word, the smoke would thin and drift away, the bones of her boy still scattered and motionless in the cauldron. The sound of angry men would be so close so she had to pick up the cauldron and run with the handles blistering the tips of her fingers as she fled men and failure alike. The pattern took its own payment, in the form of her own life ebbing away. It was a little life, a lonely life, but still a life. Years not yet lived were drawn away, leaving a withered old woman with a rust spotted cauldron and a grief-stained box of memories.
The roots of bitterness grow inside her core and flesh out through her body. This is a requirement of black magic. Grief is not enough. There must be something more, a streak of hatred or rage or the like, something that digs in early and festers and sprouts. Inside, her grief is wound up with something more complicated, something black and red and humming.
This is why she crouches by the fire and heats a cauldron of bones and gathers her energy, drawing from the shadows of the cave, from the energy of the fire, from every living thing and object she can. It is time to bring him back from the beyond.
The walls swell from the pressure building in the cave. You might not see it, but it is happening all the same. The air is heavy and difficult to breathe, and burning embers float in the air.
Perry begins to mutter. Words drop from her lips and land in fat sizzling drops where the boy’s bones float. Steam rises and hisses, and the witch prepares to knit the bones. This part has become easy—the round ends of the humerus bones fitting themselves into the circles made by the scapula and clavicle. She knows how to form tendons and ligaments and lay muscled sinew over the top of it. She has done this all before.
The cave is sweltering. It takes effort for the witch to draw a breath as she sweats out what little water her body holds. Strands of her hair drift up to the ceiling. She looks mad, and of course she is, but Perry has never had it easy. The years have been relentless and awful and endless, like a machine whose sole purpose was to grind her down.
Does the bundle whimper before it meets the cauldron?
Does it matter?
It doesn’t, for the record. This is the first time the witch, who used to be a good witch named Perry, has prepared to give something living to the cauldron. She plucked the babe from its crib only because it was near death. Whether it was a boy or a girl, she never looked. All she saw was the sunken plates of the soft spots, the blue tinged lips, the glassy eyes. Another babe starving while they held feasts in grand houses, in palaces, while she and others not born with fists of gold went cold and hungry and full of impotent fury.
Never underestimate the power of bitterness.
She doesn’t look at the babe, but she cradles it against her chest for a moment, feeling its cold skin. Perhaps she could be satisfied with another’s child. Perhaps this child could soothe her torn heart. But then the babe exhales a ragged half breath, and she knows this babe cannot be saved either.
The babe goes into the cauldron, and the rooms breathes. There is something faintly beating, as soft as the wings of a hawk gliding down to snatch his prey.
Inside the cauldron, a liquid sheet rises up and draws itself over the skeleton.
Perry cries, but even she doesn’t know what for. For her son, for the babe she just let go of, for who she once was paling in the face of who she’s become, for the loneliness and the hollowness and for that shred of hope, the hope of all hopes. Her weeping shakes the walls of the cave, and the men below the mouth of the cave hesitate, but of course they still move forward. This was always going to be how the story ended.
Perry weeps as she watches the skin-covered skeleton rise. There is little time. The men are arriving at cave’s entrance. They are shouting about something, but she only hears a muffled roar. She feels the cave falling away from her. She reaches out with trembling fingers, to touch the boy, but it isn’t her boy.
He’s too tall. Her boy was just past a year, just tottering around on fat baby legs, just saying “Mama, mama.”
Do they grow in the Beyond?
Perry touches rough sandpaper skin, nothing like the soft smoothness of her boy. When she removes her hand, the body crumples back into the cauldron, accordion-folding itself back to where it came from.
“No, no, no,” she wails. She has gone and done the thing, the thing the spell demanded, that she didn’t want to do, for nothing. It was all for nothing. She has been dog paddling her way through this darkness and now she stops swimming, now it swallows her whole. Down and down she goes, where not even the sound of trees being dragged from the entrance can reach her.
She steps to the cauldron, her bones cracking, and peers in it. A person might say she could not fit inside, but only a person who does not understand that the world is vast and does not care to be understood.
The men move the logs. The little space Perry wriggled through is growing wider, almost large enough to fit a man’s shoulders. There are shouts and grunts and Perry hears none of it. She steps onto the rim of the cauldron, her old, wrinkled toes gripping the side. “I love you,” she says. “I love you, I always loved you. I do still, always.”
The first man into the cave sees the old woman tottering above a black pot of fire and shouts for her to stop. She turns to him, eyes full of broken things. Then something happens to her face, something breathing the fire of life across it, a shared moment.
“I’m sorry,” she says and lets herself fall backwards into the cauldron. She makes no sound. The cauldron burns hotter and hotter, until it holds no bones, just dust and ashes
What a lovely but sad, sad story. Well done!