Issue No. 6, Autumn 2013

The Witch’s Daughter
Shannon Phillips

What Susan did was terrible, of course; but, although Rob couldn’t have deserved it, exactly, it was certain that he had handled the situation badly.  Though it’s also true that trouble was brewing from the very moment Susan turned her dark stare on young Robert Miller, and maybe there’s nothing anyone could have done to avert it.

Susan was the witch’s daughter, for one thing–though she never sold any of the potions, charms, and cures that her mother had peddled.  Instead she spun, and searched out herbs from the forest to sell, and then there were always rumors that she lived on coin her father gave her. (One story did claim that her father was the Devil Himself, though the rumors named Thomas the blacksmith.)

Susan was, to be sure, a completely improper young woman, with her dark hair unbound, bodice always worn loose, and brazen stare never softened, but all and all she was rather liked in town. She certainly provided a welcome subject for gossip.

Rob, the miller’s son, was born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, and as a baby took so long to learn to walk that his mother feared he was slow.  In time it was clear that he had nothing more serious than a limp, but he had also become painfully shy.  The only thing he did unselfconsciously was play the reed-pipes, and that only when alone.

Somehow he caught her eye; in a duck of his head, or a lilt of his voice, she thought she saw something wild and estranged after her own heart.  So she sought him out where he played alone, approaching him as she would any timid creature, with gentleness and courtesy.  And after initial disbelief he was charmed enough to accept her praise.

Very soon the scandal was generally known: Susan and Rob had been keeping company unchaperoned.  The disapproval of Rob’s family was inevitable; though they had no dislike for Susan, she was far from a suitable marriage prospect.  And yet Rob was prospering.  He was smiling, speaking up more, even walking with less hesitancy.  Susan, on the other hand, was more withdrawn, seeming most of the time to be lost in thought.  Her eyes drifted restlessly through every crowd, searching for a single face.  Those who remembered what a first love could be shook their heads, but if they tried to warn her she would not listen.

Then there was a harvest dance, to which both Rob and Susan came; but Rob, with newfound boldness, stayed by the grocer’s daughter Lily.  And Susan, who had given her whole heart freely, was forced to barter it away piecemeal to any power that could keep her from crying while everyone watched her walk away.

#

Alone in her cottage, the witch’s daughter collapsed on the flagstones before the cold hearth.  She stared into the darkness and rocked herself, whimpering. Then she screamed aloud suddenly and plunged her hands in the ashes.  She smeared the soot up her arms, in her hair, down her face.

A small mostly-black cat stood up from a pile of rumpled bedding in the corner, stretched itself lazily, and stepped over to Susan, pushing its head insistently against her knee. “Hello, mother,” Susan said hollowly.

The cat said nothing, but fixed her with its round green eyes. After a moment Susan spoke again: “No, it should not be so easy for him! I thought love had power!”

The cat only yawned, but Susan tilted her head, as if listening. “I remember the cursing stone, of course I do, but—”

The cat looked away, and Susan broke off. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “I don’t care. I will bind him to me somehow, in death if not in life.”  She stood up then, and brushed the palms of both hands across her face to wipe the tears away. The wetness left a pale stripe against her soot-stained skin.

She stalked to the door and flung it open, pushing heedlessly back into the night. She was almost running as she made her way through the woods, following a crooked downhill trail.  Stones cut into her bare feet; brambles grasped her tousled skirts.  She pulled them free impatiently.

When she broke free of the trees it was at the bank of a stream, in a place where it collected for a bit into a wide eddying pool.  A huge oak dipped tangled roots over the bank, and under them, wetted by the water, was a large rock pocked with many small depressions.  Susan jumped directly into the stream.  She strode forward, fighting the water and her encumbering clothing, until she stood before the cursing stone. Then she bent down, dredging the stream bottom for a pebble.

When she straightened, her arms, the front of her, and the ends of her hair were all wet.  Her skirts pooled up and eddied about her waist.  Her teeth had begun to chatter with the cold: the harsh noise joined in with the splashing of water and the tossing of the oak’s higher branches, dried leaves rattling. Behind the branches shone a half-moon. Its reflection wavered brokenly in the water as Susan weighed her pebble, formulating her curse.

She lifted a thumb to her mouth and bit down almost savagely, then wiped the thumb against her pebble, leaving a dark streak on its surface. Then she began to speak. Her voice was rough and low as she chanted:

“Until you see the moon again
I shall not shed my blood again
And all things that in cycles go
Shall be bound by you to be hard and slow
In Robert Miller’s breast;
Not by all that flows with the tide
Or is ruled by day and night
Shall he have any rest.”

Then she turned the pebble over, hiding the smear of blood, and laid it in one of the depressions on the larger stone.

The wind shook the branches of the oak.  The moon’s reflection wavered on the disturbed surface of the water.  There was no other sign given as Susan turned and clambered back up the bank of the stream. She staggered home, walking much more slowly than she had come.

#

Susan did not go into the town the next day; she did not go in for a week, and then only to buy food and leave again without saying more than one word to anybody.  She looked terrible, dirty and sullen, with sunken, feverish eyes.  Opinion was that she was a queer girl to take things so hard, but stronger opinion was that Rob had used her thoughtlessly.  Maybe he felt the blame, for he started to look poorly himself.  He said that he couldn’t sleep.

By the next week he couldn’t drink anything, either.  He would vomit it up as soon as it passed his parched lips.  He sank into a restless fever, tossing and muttering, pleading for water.  Then it was wondered if Rob and Susan had given each other some sort of sickness.  No one would go near the mill after that, and Rob’s family tended him by themselves.  Lily Edwards stopped in daily to bring them milk and eggs.

Rob’s skin turned grayish.  His throat was so hoarse that they could not make out his words, even when he looked straight at them as if trying to tell them something urgent.  One evening he reached out to his mother, his long piper’s fingers clutching at her skirts; but he could only move his cracked lips soundlessly.  “This is nothing natural,” Lily said then, and left the mill to find the witch’s cottage.

#

Twigs snapped loudly beneath Lily’s shoes; she pulled her shawl close about her shoulders.  Dark clouds scudded past, overtaking her, and a cold wind stirred her skirts.  Night would find Susan before she did.  The trail she followed was very narrow, and in the dimness she had a sudden fear of straying onto a deer-track or dry stream bed.  If she wandered the witch’s woods into midnight . . . .  She quickened her steps.  She would not falter from her decided course.

She was nearly at the doorstep of the little stone house before she saw it; the light from its window was too dim to travel far through the forest.  She went to the doorstep and knocked.  She waited, then lifted her fist to knock again.

“Go away,” called Susan from within.

“Susan?  It’s Lily Edwards.”  Her voice was strong and angry.  “I know you’ve done something to Rob, and I’ll not be leaving your doorstep until I’ve spoken with you.”

There was only sullen silence.  Lily hammered at the door with her full strength, and to her surprise it creaked open–it had been left unlatched.  She stepped around it into the cottage.

The fire was so low that she could make out little of the house, but what she saw seemed simple and common enough.  Her eyes went to Susan and stayed there.  The witch’s daughter was huddled by the fire, wearing only a loose muslin gown.  Her dark hair was lank and matted.  She gazed angrily at Lily for a moment, then turned back to the fire, as if Lily’s presence was no more than an unwelcome distraction.  But what most drew Lily’s stare was her distended belly.

Things shifted in Lily’s mind.  If Susan was with child that meant the affair between her and Rob was more serious–and, by the size of the swelling, had begun much earlier–than anyone had thought.  She wondered how Rob could have been so callous.  He must not have known.

“Go away,” Susan repeated wearily.  One glance at Lily had told her that the other woman did not belong in her house.  Lily was dressed neatly and somberly, her dull blond hair pulled back properly, her features marked with unapologetic shock.  She wore her shawl as tightly as if it were armor.  Susan wanted to push her, all protesting, out of the cottage, but she could not summon the energy.

“No,” said Lily flatly.  “Susan–are you . . . expecting?”

“Ha!” breathed Susan sharply.  “No.”  She continued to speak into the fire.  “I’m only two weeks late.  This is blood, nothing else, gathering in me.  It was part of the curse–I sealed it with my blood.  I didn’t anticipate this, but it’s fitting enough.”
Susan’s words were diffident, almost off-handed.  Lily stood at the threshold, still filled with offended grief; but she sensed it would gain her no response.  She paused a moment longer, then stepped into the house and knelt beside Susan at the hearth.  Susan shifted away but did not rise.

Lily watched the low flames flicker.  There were a few logs piled at her side; she pulled out a narrow one and added it to the fire, which sparked briefly, then settled.

“It must anger you to know that Rob is so well nursed,” Lily said softly, “while you are abandoned to your illness.”

“I have my mother,” Susan said dryly, with an unreadable twisted smile.  Lily saw that she addressed a green-eyed cat, and for the first time it occurred to her that Susan might not be magical, but simply mad.  As she searched Susan’s face, the witch’s daughter finally returned her gaze, her dark eyes challenging.

“I think,” Lily said, “that my claim on Rob is as great as yours.”

“It is not,” Susan hissed.  Her black eyes flashed with hatred.  “He said he loved me.  He talked of marriage.  But he wouldn’t even look at me to tell me he’d lied.  Go back to your safe neat house and your bright new dresses, Lily Edwards.  This is far beyond you.”

Lily drew back in the face of Susan’s venom, and forced herself not to look away.  She groped for the words to break through to Susan, to penetrate the darkness she’d pulled around herself.  “I will not,” she said with quiet force.  “There are others besides you who can grieve.  I don’t love Rob.  But some do, and if you loved him truly you would not be trying to hurt him now.  And it is not his right to kill you!  Susan, I know that boy, and he has a weak soul.  Why have you given him this power over you?  He could never have gotten it on his own.”

“I want to die,” said Susan clearly, and sudden tears dropped down her face.

Lily hesitated a moment, then reached across and clasped the other woman’s shoulders.  “Susan, Susan, Susan!” she cried.  She gave Susan’s shoulders a little shake for emphasis, and the witch’s daughter quieted for a moment; she stared back at Lily, wild-eyed and vulnerable.  Lily took a careful breath, scared of breaking the fragile connection.  “How did you go so wrong?” she whispered.  “You are better than this!”

Susan broke down completely and collapsed against Lily.  When Lily’s arms closed tightly about her she cried harder still, unable to refuse the unexpected solace.  She barely heard the other woman’s soothing words, assuring her that all could be set right.  Her only coherent thought was that Lily’s shawl was the softest thing she had ever felt in her life.

#

Susan led Lily down the forest path.  The night was black and chill, and the wind had grown stronger.  Lily’s shoes crunched the fallen leaves; her own bare feet made less noise.  The strongest emotion she felt was surprise:  she had never thought to be walking this path again, never thought to be keeping her present company.  The surprise was good, hopeful.  She had thought all the ends were certain.

The moon fractured on the upset surface of the little pool.  The stone at the oak’s roots gleamed wetly.  The high heads of trees bowed and heaved in the fretful wind, casting untraceable shadows across the luminous surfaces.  The rattling of the leaves mingled with the distant rushing of water in an aloof, unbroken conversation.  “What is this place?” Lily whispered.

“That’s the cursing stone,” Susan said, pointing.  She stepped carefully into the water.  The stones bit into her feet.  She waded across and bent over the boulder.  Her little pebble was there, in the hollow she had laid it in.  She picked it up, turned it over, and dropped it in her palm.  On the shore, Lily held very still as Susan lifted her head, turning toward the moon.  She stood with her hand half raised to the sky, watching tattered clouds race past overhead.  For a moment the moon shone whole.

“Light—dark—light,” Susan whispered.  “All the heart knows.”  Then she flung the pebble away with sudden violence, and in a tiny splash it was gone.

“What is it?” Lily cried.  Susan turned back to her, her drawn face etched with shadow, and waded back to shore.

“Nothing,” she said.  “It’s all over.”

“That’s it?  The curse is broken?”

“Yes,” said Susan, then her eyes flew wide.  “Unh!” she gasped, doubling over.  Her hands flew to her stomach.

“What’s wrong?” Lily asked sharply, holding her up.

“I don’t know–a sharp pain.  In my stomach,” Susan said.  Cautiously, she straightened.  “No, it’s gone.”

“Come on,” Lily said, pulling her along.  “We’ve got to get you home.  I think you’re having a miscarriage.”

“I tell you,” said Susan, “it would be a miracle.  A botched one, at that.”  But she walked quickly, and her eyes were worried.

She had another pain before they reached the house, a longer one.  Lily brought her into the shadow-haunted cottage, built the fire up again, and spread a blanket before the hearth for Susan to lie on.  She hung a pot of water to boil, and tore up a clean sheet for rags.  “It’s as I thought,” she told Susan after examining her.  “You’re bleeding between the legs.”

“Mother,” Susan whimpered, “what’s happening?”  Again she addressed the cinder-colored cat, which picked its way delicately over the blanket, waved its tail, then leaped away to a shadowed ledge.  Its green eyes gleamed from the darkness.

“Hush,” said Lily, “it will be all right.  I’ll have no deaths tonight.”

She kept up the fire, made tea, and chattered of inconsequentials to keep Susan distracted.  Outside a storm began in earnest.  Rain dashed against the roof and door, and the wind sang a mad song around the corners of the house.  Lily wondered briefly of Rob, whether it was his side she should be at; but something was happening in the witch’s cottage that she could not turn her back on.  Susan’s pains began coming closer together and lasting longer, leaving the young woman trembling with effort.  She clung to Lily’s hand.

“Can you feel anything to push?” Lily ventured.  “Anything to bear down on?”

Susan nodded.  The sweat stood out on her forehead.  Her gasps and small moans were the only sound other than the crackling of the fire.  Lily held her hand in both of her own, looking on anxiously.

The cat yowled, a long, rising and falling meow that blended with a rumble of thunder. Lily’s neck prickled.  When she looked back at Susan, she saw a dark shape half-protruding from her womb.

“It’s coming!” she cried.  “Push as hard as you can!”  She moved around to catch the infant, but when her hands brushed the dark glistening mass, she knew it was not a baby’s head.  It gave under her fingers like pudding.

Susan’s fists pulled at the blanket, and her voice sounded wordlessly from behind her gritted teeth.  The thing slid out into Lily’s hands.  It was a deep red, like clotted blood, and its skin was slick and quivering.  It twisted through Lily’s hands and dropped to the floor.  She saw then that it had something like limbs, four of them, strangely jointed–but no head or face that she could see.  She shrieked and jumped to her feet, but the thing was moving, crawling away.  It pulled itself along the floor with unnatural speed, making for the door.

But something else was faster.  A dark shape leaped past Lily and landed on the bloody creature with a loud hiss.  It was the cat.  The thing Susan had birthed writhed against it; ears flattened and tail lashing, the cat swiped and snapped at it.  The two dark shapes closed in a violent struggle too quick-moving for Lily to follow.  She pressed her hands to her mouth and stared in horror.

Locked together, they rolled against the door, which Lily had thought latched; but it nudged open.  Rain streamed past the threshold and drenched the combatants in seconds:  the cat seemed suddenly very small.  The slick bloody thing gave a sinuous heave, gaining the top of the battle, and Lily could not see the cat.  But she heard it give another long yowl, for a moment drowning out the noise of the wind and rain.

“Mother!” Susan cried from the hearth.  Then the newborn creature gave another twist, and both it and the cat rolled beyond the door and out of the circle of firelight.

Rain streamed into the house, and nothing else.

Lily stepped to the door, struggling to close it against the storm, against everything evil.  “No,” Susan whispered behind her.  “Wait.”

The wind dropped for a moment.  Lily, scared to her bones, squinted against the rain.  A hundred shadows tossed just beyond her feet; then one moved closer.  The bedraggled cat, dragging an indistinct carcass in its teeth, crossed the threshold and dropped its burden at Lily’s feet.  Its luminous eyes held hers for a moment.  Then it lowered its bloody muzzle back to the shape, and Lily could hear it chewing.  She slammed the door quickly and moved back.

“Susan,” Lily said, her voice cracking.  “What was that thing?”

Susan pushed herself upright.  “Something evil,” she said tiredly.  “But we don’t have to worry about it now.”

Lily looked slowly from Susan to the cat.  “It was born out of your curse,” she guessed.

Susan only closed her eyes.  “It tried to be,” she said.

#

Lily returned to the mill as the sun rose, to find Rob sleeping peacefully.  His fever had broken early in the night.

And that was the last that was ever seen in town of Susan, the witch’s daughter–or, from Lily’s story, witch herself.  She left that same day, a bundle of possessions on her shoulders, and a black cat at her heels.  But it’s assumed that she’s doing well.  Apparently she was sighted not too long after at one of the country fairs, in the company of a dark-eyed, slow-voiced Spanish man:  they were selling love potions.


Shannon Phillips lives in Oakland, where she keeps chickens, a dog, three boys, and a husband. She likes old things, wild places, tall tales, and the people who tell them.