Once upon a time, there was a witch.
She lived in the woods, in the eerie, blown-out carcass of an old duchy—a place of crumbling bricks and tarnished silver and lush velvet curtains gnawed raw with age and dust and ruthless, pitch-black winter—and she died in a half-rotted drawing room, its ceiling rimmed with ash and its walls stained gray from a ghostly barrage of gunpowder.
She was nameless, pastless, confined to a world in which magic was a price to pay and a bargain to make.
There were tens upon dozens upon hundreds of stories—warnings—about what the witch was capable of. About what she could do to you if you weren’t careful enough, weren’t clever enough. She had dark magic, old magic, forest magic. The rumors spanned curses and jinxes and soul eating, fortune telling, amnesia spells for newlyweds and bloody, blistering vengeance for the heartsick. She could trick you—she could turn you.
She was a monster, snarling and rabid, and she needed to be put down. Needed to be buried. Needed to be returned to the cracks between here and there, that nightmarish neverland realm that could only exist if summoned, and could only be summoned if the moon was missing and the bones of her cage were already warped and gaping. She could not be reborn if she was forever undead.
It would be a thankless task, of course.
Oksana knew that. Knows that. Vanquishing such a creature would not be an adventure. It would be a chore, treacherous and labyrinthine, and there would be no glory on offer upon its completion. But someone had to do it. Someone must do it. And she, Oksana—
She is someone.
For her fourteenth birthday, Kirill gives her a book.
It isn’t a new book. It doesn’t even have a title, not that Oksana can tell. It’s large, thick, heavy, bound in musty black linen—the pages are off-white, well-worn, crinkled brown and yellow, waterlogged and brittle.
“The woman at the shop said it’s about—” Kirill breaks off, gesturing vaguely with one hand, sending formless clouds of cigarette smoke spiraling through the air. He’s smirking, teeth glinting white and sharp as he drags the toe of his boot along summer-soft porch wood. “All that stuff you’re interested in.”
Oksana snorts, thumbing at the cover of the book. The insects are out already, chirping and buzzing, a firefly-studded net of them blanketing the tree line. “You can say it.”
“Magic. It’s just a word.”
Kirill takes another drag of his cigarette, ice-chip gaze wandering from her parents’ station wagon to his own ridiculous, frankly ugly red motorbike. “You’re getting a little old for that, aren’t you?”
Oksana rolls her eyes. “For using my words?”
“No, for believing in—” Kirill gestures again, less vaguely, the casually bunched-up sleeve of his flannel shirt drifting farther up his forearm. “Whatever you believe in.”
“You really can’t say it, can you?” Her lips curve upwards, practically on their own. “Magic. Come on. Just once.”
He shakes his head, exaggeratedly rueful. “Boys won’t like you if you’re too weird, you know that?”
“Boys like me just fine.”
“Oh, yeah? Which boys?”
A delighted laugh bubbles up and out of Oksana’s chest, robust enough to startle the birds nesting in the lichen-fuzzy, gingerbread-scalloped eaves of the roof. “None of your business.”
“It’s the American, isn’t it? The one next door?” Kirill teases. “No, no, you have better taste than that. Russian taste. Good taste.”
Oksana hums. Wispy, feathered strands of hair are escaping her ponytail, brushing against her bare shoulders. “I agree, obviously, but how would you recognize that, exactly?”
“How . . . would I recognize an American?”
“No,” she says gravely. Solemnly. Like church bells. Like her father calling her in from the woods at suppertime. “How would you recognize good taste?”
Kirill huffs out a laugh of his own, twisting the lit-up end of his cigarette and dropping it onto the ground, stomping out the embers. “Don’t do anything stupid with that.”
He jerks his chin at the book tucked under her arm. “It’s fiction.”
Oksana lowers her voice to a smug, conspiratorial whisper. “Did the woman in the shop say that, too?”
Kirill sighs, scrubbing at his forehead with the heel of his palm, reaching down to untangle the thin silver chain of his crucifix. There’s a knotted, waxy, not quite forgotten starburst of scar tissue on his chest, peeking out from the three undone buttons on his shirt.
“At least—not alone,” he amends. “Don’t do anything stupid with it alone.”
The book is legible, but not necessarily readable.
There isn’t a table of contents, aren’t any page numbers or chapter titles. Nothing is organized, and most of the passages—the spells, Oksana thinks with a thrill, with a flutter—seem to be written in Latin. The margins are dotted with drawings, scribbles, more informational than artistic; wolves and flowers and triangles and eyes, mortars and pestles, a worrying number of swords, knives, daggers, needles. There are runes, too, glyphs, nonsensical numbers and starkly foreign symbols she doesn’t understand how to interpret.
She walks deeper into the forest, and the ground is spongey beneath the soles of her feet. Burnt pine needles, crunching leaves, worm-churned earth. It sticks to her skin, night-moist and unseasonably loamy. There’s a path somewhere, unmarked and overgrown, neglected by the living and long since reclaimed by the dead, but she isn’t following it. The duchy is a relic, its purpose all but erased by the passage of time, by how callously its own history consumed itself, ravaged itself—Oksana knows where it is, still.
Everyone knows where it is.
A pair of weathered cast-iron gates sway and groan as she approaches the winding drive. The cobblestones are dark, slick, spackled with weeds and moss, dandelions and detritus, and with every step she takes, with every slimy, trawling, shuffling inch she manages to move forward, her grip on the book—on the spell book—it grows tighter, white-knuckled with nerves or excitement or both. Not too far away, the hulking, fossilized skeleton of the main house looms. She can hear it, wind whistling through the cracks, tree branches whipping against the walls.
Oksana drifts, wraithlike, past a ransacked guard tower that’s surrounded by splintered wood and broken glass, her gaze skimming over the familiar remnants of a rusted oil lamp and a collapsed apple crate and a haphazard pile of half-melted bullet casings. The lawns on either side of the drive are sloping, run roughshod by a century’s worth of brambles and stumps, and it’s disquieting, how sprawling they are. Acres and acres and acres, an endless panorama.
There’s a weight to the atmosphere.
A presence, oppressive and hypnotic, an otherworldliness that blankets the house, the land, seamlessly suffocating whoever it deems a trespasser. That’s where the stories about the witch come from, Oksana is sure. This fear. This feeling—of being watched, of being judged, of being scraped raw and bled dry and inspected, thoroughly, diligently, with pins and tweezers, with a scalpel and a magnifying glass.
Oksana walks steadily up the short, wide steps to the front door. It’s unlocked, tall and big and swollen and peeling, hanging on bullet-scorched, squealing hinges, a border of roses—vined and thorny and full—carved around each of its four panels. They’re pretty. Lovingly, expertly rendered.
There, on the threshold, amongst the powdery fragments of red and gray brick, is a bowl. A stone bowl, small and smooth, shimmering white quartz with a matching pestle. A bundle of dried herbs rests in the bottom, hand-tied with a coarse snippet of burlap string. Sage. Rosemary. Lavender.
A lukewarm breeze tumbles out from the woods, rustling through the too-long, moon-dappled, yellow-green grass, mystifyingly fierce.
Her scalp prickles.
For her fifteenth birthday, Kirill gives her a pen.
It’s a good pen. Heavy and elegant, scroll-tipped and shiny. The box it comes in is sturdy, slender, velvet-lined, the name of the German manufacturer stenciled across the front in flaking gold-leaf, and the ink—the ink is a deep, dark, lurid shade of red.
“It’s morbid,” Kirill says, nudging her with his elbow as he leans back against the graying wooden fence post. He has his legs stretched out, his ankles crossed. He smells like tobacco and mouthwash and the astringent pink soap he uses to cut through the leftover motor oil that’s always on his hands. “It’s really, really morbid, Ksenia.”
Oksana gently places the pen back in its box. “The color?”
“The reason for the color.”
“Why? It’s not like I’m using real blood.”
He nudges her again, more forcefully. “Not anymore.”
“It was once, and it was just to check.” She scrunches her nose up, toying with the frayed denim strings dangling from her shorts. “I wanted to know if it worked.”
“And now you know?” he asks dubiously.
“Since it didn’t work.”
Oksana lifts an eyebrow. “Why do you think that?”
“Because it’s not real,” Kirill says, exasperated, snatching up the discarded brown butcher paper he’d wrapped the pen in and shoving it into his green canvas backpack. “It’s—”
“Morbid, yeah,” she interrupts, unable to hide her amusement. Her smile. “You mentioned that already.”
He looks at her askance, his expression tense, cool, rumpled with equal squirming pinches of impatience and fondness. “Don’t laugh at me.”
“But it’s so easy to.”
“How did it work, then?”
Kirill clenches his jaw, the perfectly square knife-cut of it, bones shifting, grinding. “Yeah. Tell me. I want to know.”
“No, you don’t,” Oksana says mildly. “You’ve never wanted to know.”
“If magic is –"
“It’s not magic.”
“It’s not magic,” she repeats, drawing her knees up to her chest. The grass is itchy against the backs of her thighs, like it’s sentient, like it’s crawling beneath her, inside of her. “It’s more complicated than that. Magic doesn’t have an explanation. This does.”
He hesitates. “You used to call it magic.”
“Yeah.” Her smile finally slips a little. “I did.”
Kirill doesn’t leave.
He’s reluctant, uncomfortable, loudly trampling through the woods, his movements jerky but still in sync with the swinging, see-sawing, back-and-forth arc of his flashlight; he scoffs when they reach the duchy gates, scoffs harder when Oksana thrusts a thermos of iced tea at him.
“It will protect you,” she says matter-of-factly. “Hurry up. I drank mine already.”
“How? It’s tea.” He takes a tentative, dutiful sip, grimacing at the bitterness. “And also—protect me from what?”
The moon—slivered, crooked, dangling from a cluster of clouds like a fish on a hook—is behind them as they walk towards the duchy. It’s largely unchanged; the fallen guard tower, the jungle-thick pasture, the already-open front door. The bowl with the herbs in it isn’t there anymore, but Oksana wasn’t expecting it to be. Not really.
“You don’t have to come with me,” she tells Kirill. She’s standing at the top of the stairs, leaning away from him. Her skin is clammy. “I’ll be fine.”
He squints at her, and then up at the sky, and then back over to the forest, to where the trees are blurry from the distance, murky with it, somehow more desolate, too—not brimming with the same kind of strangeness, the same kind of promise, that the main house is.
“Christ, Ksenia, of course I’m coming with you,” he says, flattening his palm against her lower back and pushing her forward. He’s warmer than the summer’s been so far, like a fresh sunburn, like she might be able to see the tender, pink-white outline of a handprint when she slips her shirt off later. “Go. Let’s get this over with.”
The house is a dank, cavernous maze of uneven floorboards and torn, graffitied wallpaper, mangled furniture and shattered windows and sunken ceilings. Everything is dirty, dilapidated, decaying, like a mouth full of cavity-pitted teeth threatening to rattle themselves loose, pulpy and weak with infection. She ignores the entry hall, and then the dining room, and then a storage closet that must have been for cleaning supplies, judging by the stack of scummy tin buckets in the corner of it. Eventually, there’s a door. The third door on the right side of the second hallway she wanders down. It leads to an empty room.
A mostly empty room.
The parquet floors are just as uneven, the buttery yellow wallpaper just as torn. There’s the soot-streaked, hollowed-out ribs of a brick fireplace, and a bruised violet coil of lace-trimmed brocade curtain snaking across the windowsill. There isn’t any furniture. There aren’t any shadows.
“What is that?” Kirill demands, maneuvering himself around Oksana so he can point his flashlight at the center of the room. A lopsided, disturbingly brown-red circle has been drawn directly onto the floor. Smeared. Dabbed. A tiny, misshapen twig doll—not a toy, it’s too spindly, too delicate to be a toy—is sitting inside the circle, on top of a very slightly singed nest of flower petals. “Who did that?”
Oksana stares at the doll. At the circle. The spell book she keeps hidden, wedged between her mattress and the springy pine slats of her bedframe—it contains several pages’ worth of highly detailed instructions for spirit summoning. She recognizes the signs. It occurs to her, with a frantic rush of dread, of queasy excitement, that she’s supposed to recognize the signs.
“It’s a warning,” she says, and then swallows. Corrects herself. “It’s an invitation.”
Silence swims around them, dripping down, seeping out from the pinprick-black holes in the ceiling where a chandelier probably used to hang. There’s pressure, too, pressure she can feel mounting, cresting, stomping on her chest, on her sternum, on that eggshell-fragile cage her heart likes to beat its bloody, fickle fists against—it reminds her of Kirill putting out a cigarette and of the American boy next door tripping over his shoelaces and of some nameless, faceless scientists in lab coats and plastic goggles, fiddling with buttons and switches, sending rockets into space and satellites into orbit and accidentally cranking up the dial on gravity like it’s the volume on a car stereo. Unnatural. Absolute.
“No,” Kirill says abruptly. His flashlight flickers. Quakes. “No, fuck this.”
Oksana doesn’t protest when he grabs her by the wrist and drags her off, back through the unexplored grime of the house. She stumbles after him, an icy, wickedly clawed fingertip trailing down the notches of her spine, an undeniable shiver of disappointment.
For her sixteenth birthday, Kirill gives her fire.
It’s a red-orange Nike shoebox, all the stickers and labels in English, packed with flint rocks and magnesium bricks and water-proof matchsticks and a fancy antique bronze lighter that makes Oksana think, inexplicably, of the John Wayne posters her father keeps tucked away in the attic. Like it belongs with a sheriff’s badge and a gun holster and a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate.
“Thank you,” she says primly, hugging the box to her chest. “This will be very helpful for . . . arson.”
Kirill chuckles. “If you wanted to be a criminal, I doubt you’d need my help.”
“It’s true,” she says with a mournful sigh. “You and your morals would only ever hold me back.”
“Morals,” he repeats, porch steps creaking as he leans forward, plants his feet, spreads his legs wider. “Really?”
He tilts his head, blows out a ring of cigarette smoke. “Morals.” He chuckles again, more darkly. “How much older am I than you? Six years? Almost seven?”
“What does that matter?”
“Galina says it’s weird, you know? Inappropriate.” Kirill hunches his shoulders in a lazy shrug, bent mostly in half. “That you’re not my sister, not my cousin, that we shouldn’t be so close just because our families—”
Oksana sneers. “Oh, well, if Galina says it.”
“I could put a curse on her.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“Yes, I could.”
“Fine, then you won’t.”
“I don’t understand what you see in her.”
“No, seriously, she’s—”
“Yes, I know, we all know,” Kirill snaps, uncharacteristically terse. “She’s stupid, she’s boring, she’s—” He waves his hand, another ruffled plume of smoke floating up into the eerily blank night sky. “She’s not like you. I get it.”
A blush stings the exposed nape of Oksana’s neck, splotchy and hot. She isn’t used to feeling so young. So off-balance, so frustrated. Talking to Kirill has never been this hard. Sinkholes, quicksand, land mines; all of that would be easier to navigate, lately, than a conversation with him.
“I’ll only do it if she hurts you,” Oksana says, awkwardly clearing her throat. Picking at the sleek cardboard corners of the shoebox. “Curse her, I mean.”
A pair of anemic yellow headlights pop up on the horizon, then, along the farthest edge of the road, like crocodile eyes in a river. They blink at her and Kirill through the densely wooded barricade, through the fanning branches and the crinkling leaves, compounding the swirling, rapidly approaching haze of dust and mist, counting down to—
The end of something.
Galina has a younger brother.
Ilya is eighteen and broad-shouldered, with big hands and a booming laugh, all clumsy kindnesses and earnest compliments and jokes with dull, harmless edges, too gentle to leave marks. He looks at Oksana with a kind of reverence, with a kind of greed—it makes her squirm. Press her thighs together. Wonder what he would say if they were alone, if she climbed into his lap, if she let him do more than just toy with the zipper on her shorts.
Oksana sneaks off with him, vodka on her tongue and moonlight on her back.
The forest is the same as it always is. Dark. Foreboding, forbidden. The duchy, too. It’s that richly tapestried, petrifyingly desolate pallor of being forgotten, of bearing witness—to what? To who? Once upon a time, there was a witch, but she didn’t come from nowhere. She didn’t come from nothing. Chickens laid eggs, and bloody, violent, unimaginable horrors—those spawned ghosts.
Oksana has thought about this a lot.
The witch isn’t a normal monster. Normal monsters have teeth, agendas. They creep, they crawl, they bite, they kill. The witch has a connection to this house, to what happened to this house, unsevered and unexplained, that Oksana suspects might be growing stale. Might be molting, shedding skin and scales and secrets and reasons—reasons, the currency of the underworld. Everyone has a price.
The front door swings open, hinges twisting.
Behind her, the trees are singing, a deep, throaty, windswept growl that soaks through their roots, through the trenches in the ground, like sticky-sweet liqueurs flooding out of expensive European chocolates. Flavorful. Decadent. Her hair is tangled, flying, unwinding from its sloppy, day-old braid.
“You want to go in there?” Ilya asks, a thick, callused finger hooked through one of her belt loops. His gaze is fixed on the curve of her lower back, on the slope of her waist. “Why?”
“You know what else could be interesting?”
Oksana quirks her lips. “I’ll race you.”
“There’s a ballroom.”
“Like, for dancing?”
“You want to dance?”
“No,” she says, and it’s true, she doesn’t want to dance. “I want to—”
Ilya playfully tugs her backwards, breath scraping warm and moist against the shell of her ear, and Oksana uses the momentum to slink free, to propel herself right through the front door and into the gloom of the house. She hears him curse, low and bemused, and then chase after her as she moves from the foyer to the dining room to the narrow, greasy, zigzagging cleft of a servants’ corridor, all the way to the drawing room.
The drawing room—the one with the parquet floors, with the fireplace, with the twig doll and the crudely-etched summoning circle. It’s haunted her, a little. The memory of that sensation, that overbearing avalanche of emotion, so alien and uninvited; so uninformed. The flimsy, moth-eaten cloak of disappointment that wasn’t truly hers. There wasn’t as much in the book about what that meant. That power, that illusion.
“This isn’t a ballroom,” Ilya says, coming up to sling an arm around Oksana’s neck. He reeks of department store cologne, of sweat and blackberries. “This is—what is this? It’s empty.”
Oksana nimbly ducks out from under him. “Haven’t you heard the stories? About the witch?”
“Fairytales,” Ilya grunts. “Bullshit.”
“This is hers,” Oksana says, walking carefully towards the center of the room. There isn’t any light, not like last time, but she can still see that the twig doll and the summoning circle are gone. “This place. This is where she is.”
Ilya doesn’t reply. His bushy blond eyebrows are pinched together, like the skin between has been caught in a mousetrap. He keeps looking around, too, sea-glass green eyes flitting from the shadows in the corners to the mildew streaking the walls. He scratches at his chin, at his wrists, crossing his arms and shivering theatrically and scrubbing the heels of his palms over his elbows like he’s trying to get the cling-film whisper of a spiderweb off of himself.
“Are you alright?” Oksana asks, watching him with some consternation, with some dismay, with some churning, unfamiliar, high-tide current of anger because she should be the one feeling that strangeness. That wrongness. She should be the one the witch is paying attention to, the one the witch is noticing, not Ilya. Ilya the idiot. Ilya the imbecile. Ilya the—
“Ksenia?” Kirill’s voice—sharper, louder, closer than expected—echoes from down the hallway. He sounds worried. “Where the fuck did you go?”
Ilya coughs and jumps, immediately forcing a sleazy, half-cocked grin as he turns back to the door. The closed door. The closed door that wasn’t closed, Oksana is sure, almost sure, just a few moments ago. His footsteps stutter at the sight, like he’s stubbed his toe and is waiting for the pain to fade.
For her seventeenth birthday, Kirill gives her protection.
A small cedar chest full of cork-stoppered glass vials and wax paper packets—herb seeds and tea leaves and salt, lots and lots of salt, pink and red and gray and white and dark, chalky blue, some of it fine-grained, some of it coarse, from Africa and Italy and Australia and the barren crystal shores of the Dead Sea.
“You’re really too old for all of this,” Kirill says, reaching out to tap his finger against the lid of the chest. His thin black t-shirt is stretched at the seams around his shoulders. “When are you going to grow up?”
Oksana grins, unabashed. “When you realize I already have, maybe.”
Kirill’s gaze, not quite cool, not quite steady, drops from her face to her hands. To the loose gravel and tri-colored river rock painting the ground. “Grown-ups,” he says slowly, “don’t usually care so much about magic tricks.”
“Not magic,” she reminds him. “Not tricks.”
“Magic isn’t real.”
He clucks his tongue, but the sound is hushed. Delicate. “That’s a very grown-up thing to say.”
“This,” she says, holding up the chest, hugging it close; her own kind of quiet, “is real.”
“I know, I bought it.”
“You believe me,” she goes on, squarely meeting his eyes. “You wouldn’t be so scared of it, if you didn’t.”
He swallows, pupils quivering—expanding. “You think that’s what I’m scared of, Ksenia?”
“I think you’re—”
“I told him to buy you something else,” Galina suddenly cuts in, hopping down from the ledge of the rugged dirt path to join them by the stream. Ilya is behind her, a rattling case of imported American beer tucked against his side. “Something nicer. Perfume or lipstick, you know? I could’ve helped.”
“I don’t wear lipstick,” Oksana says, her good mood evaporating like a splash of cold water in a sauna. “So. This is perfect. Actually.”
There’s a beat of silence, but then Galina is giggling, overly bright, audibly vexed, and Kirill is clenching his jaw, snorting, producing a beat-up stainless-steel flask from the back pocket of his jeans and taking a long, two-gulp swig of what smells like vodka.
It’s an hour past midnight, the sky vast and velveteen, more purple than black—a fading bruise, a pulled punch.
Ilya’s bed is bigger than Oksana is used to, and he doesn’t wake up when she rolls away from him, from the smooth, sturdy heat of his bare chest. She rummages through the scattered mess on his floor, candy wrappers and auto racing magazines and questionably clean clothes, hunting for her shorts, her bra; she trips over the partially frayed cord of an unplugged alarm clock, swearing viciously as she stumbles into an open dresser drawer, and freezes when Ilya snuffles. Groans. The sheets are slipping down his hips, a rippling line of lean, corded muscle in his upper back going taut as he stretches his neck out, buries his nose in the sleep-warm indent she left behind on his pillow.
The sight does something to her.
Wrenches something out of place, fractures something deep inside—but not too deep, not too irreparable—like a softball hitting a windshield, that gentle splintering give of glass cracking, separating, refusing to break.
Ilya snuffles again, and Oksana quickly dresses herself, escapes.
The salt line comes first.
She uses plain table salt, pours a solid ring of it around the middle of the witch’s drawing room. A piece of notebook paper is next, letters carefully written in blood-red ink, spread out and laid flat, covered in a palmful of week-old violet anemone petals and a dry sprig of lavender. A lighter, then, stolen from Kirill, chipped green plastic and scarred metal ridges coated in engine grease.
The summoning is easier than it should be, a wave of certainty, of otherness, that eclipses the stagnant shadows and pervasive gloom.
The witch appears gradually, in static-fuzzy bursts, and she isn’t much of a witch at all.
Not outwardly. Not physically. She’s young, maybe Kirill’s age, pretty in the same way a doe-eyed, long-lashed, chubby-cheeked porcelain doll is. The virginal white nightgown she’s wearing, with the scalloped lace collar and the puffy, oversized sleeves, does little to dispel the image, to negate the impression. She has dark hair, curling thick and glossy down her back, neatly braided strands still pinned around the crown of her head, and even darker eyes. Unnaturally dark, unnaturally hard, gleaming like arrowhead shards of obsidian, irises flickering inky black and emerald green beneath the spotty yellow glare of Oksana’s cast-off flashlight.
There’s a hole—a bullet hole; a firing squad hole; a tiny, close-range, blood-crusted wound—in the middle of the witch’s forehead.
Rope-burn, too, a rash of sickly red encircling her throat.
“Hello,” the witch says, and her voice is placid. Serene. Unsettling. Scratchy, like cotton wool snagging a hangnail. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?”
“Yes.” Oksana glances at the salt line. “I have.”
The witch smiles, sweetly secretive. “You’re anxious.”
“Not really,” Oksana lies, stepping backwards until her ankle brushes the strap of her backpack. The herbs she needs, the spell she needs—the words—they’re in there. “When did you die?”
Oksana shrugs. “The stories never said. No one even knows what your name was.”
The witch’s smile changes, twists. “A question for a question?”
“No.” Oksana huffs, shaking her head. “An answer for an answer.”
“It was 1896.”
“It’s been a hundred years,” Oksana says. “We should celebrate.”
The witch tilts her chin up, considering. Cautious. Like she’s finally sensing the threat. “You didn’t come here to learn my name, did you?”
“No.” Oksana glances at the salt line again. “I came here to get rid of you.”
“Because you’re dangerous.”
“How am I dangerous?”
Oksana pauses. “I’m not sure,” she admits, because she’s read and reread the book, inhaled and devoured and memorized its contents, could recite whole pages of it backwards, forwards, in Russian and in Latin and in her fragmented, imperfect English—but it isn’t forthcoming, not about this. Spirits are predatory. They have their own brand of power. “But you are. I can feel it.”
The witch lifts a dainty, pink-knuckled hand to her throat, rubbing curiously at the marks there. The movement is innocent, childlike. “There is such a storm inside of you,” she murmurs. “Why is that?”
“None of your business.”
“It is if you’re banishing me,” the witch says. “You could make a mistake.”
“It’s not about you.” Oksana’s lip curls. “You don’t belong here. You belong in your world. That’s where I’m sending you.”
The witch’s eyes—dark and strange and beady, reptilian, for all that they’re wide-set and almond-shaped—twitch down to Oksana’s backpack. To the pocket where the sachet of herbs and the second piece of notebook paper are.
“A deal, then,” the witch says slowly.
“A bargain,” the witch amends. “I shall tell you your fortune, and you will spare me my banishment for another year.”
Oksana’s scalp prickles. “Why would I do that?”
“Because you’re anxious,” the witch repeats, echoes, only this time—it’s less understanding. It’s a petty accusation, a schoolyard taunt. “Conflicted. Jealous. Guilty. You said it once already, didn’t you? An answer for an answer. You crave answers. You need them.”
A gust of wind blurs through the grass outside, flattening it like a rolling pin. The noise is eerie, how it oozes through the walls, the windows.
High-pitched and inhuman.
For her eighteenth birthday, Kirill gives her a knife.
It’s ornate, razor-sharp, small enough that it comes with its own little textured leather sheath. It fits in her hand, in her pocket—in the looming, bottomless, ever-broadening crevasse splitting her conscience in two, the one she buries all of her doubts in, self-inflicted or otherwise. The blade glistens ominously, matted starlight beneath a moonless sky, and Oksana feels an uncanny thrill when she drags the point of it across the meat of her palm, not quite deep enough to cut, to bleed.
“It’s supposed to be decorative,” Kirill says, tapping the end of his cigarette, looking askance at the pink plastic thermos full of iced tea at her feet. “Like those swords that people hang on their walls.”
Oksana cocks her head. “Do you expect me to hang this on my wall?”
“No.” Kirill takes a long, tired drag of his cigarette, blowing smoke rings out towards the trees. “I expect you to do something terrible with it, which I never want to hear about.”
“Liar,” Oksana says blandly, affectionately.
A smirk curls around one corner of his mouth. “I’m not very good at lying to you, Ksenia.”
She slides the knife back into its sheath. “No,” she muses, knocking her knee against his, pressing their legs together. “You aren’t.”
Kirill sighs, his breath whistling through his teeth, and tosses his cigarette down, grinding the embers out with the toe of his boot. His jeans rub against her skin, rough and tantalizing, cool metal rivets scraping, digging.
“So,” he says, the timbre of his voice grittier, less polished. He’s idly prodding at his chest, at the scar there, his eyes sweeping over the length of her thigh, tracing the soft, pillowy shape of it where her shorts are snuggest, where the button-fly ends. “Is magic still not real?”
Oksana smiles, ducks her chin. “Do you need for it to be?”
He licks his lips, a slow, careful swipe of his tongue. “What does that mean?”
“It means that magic is just a word,” she says, leaning forward, putting aside the knife, grabbing the thermos and unscrewing the lid; the scent of the tea, herbaceous and bitter, fills her nostrils, settles her nerves, wafts out to snake around the woods, around the fallen logs and the tangled branches and that bristle, that thrum, that ancient, earthen, treacherous heartbeat. She straightens back up, turns towards him. “Remember?”
Kirill stares at her, very close to expressionless, a muscle in his cheek ticking like a clock. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “Yeah, I remember.”
Oksana offers him a sip of tea before they leave.
He hesitates, his reluctance—his unease—about as palpable as the rainstorm that’s brewing, pulsing veins of lightning and a cloud cover that shifts and ripples with every gust of too-warm summer wind.
“Okay,” he finally says, squaring his shoulders, reaching for the thermos, his knuckles grazing the back of her hand—
“There you are!” Ilya calls out, bursting through the trees and swooping in, down, to plant a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss on the side of Oksana’s head. “Sorry I’m late, I lost track of—oh, hey, is that vodka?” He doesn’t wait for a response, just plucks the thermos from her grasp and takes an enormous gulp of tea, almost immediately wrinkling his nose and spitting it back out. “What the fuck is that?”
“Not vodka,” Oksana says, short and blunt, impatience roiling in her gut. She glances down, away. “Obviously.”
It’s different, performing the summoning spell with an audience.
Oksana’s scalp still prickles with that same peculiar awareness, that same peculiar otherness, and the atmosphere seems to flicker, seems to blink, seems to slather itself in grainy streams of black and white and gray like the dusty screen of an old television set. But unlike before, she’s certain, now, of what will happen next. Smug about it. Exhilarated by it. The thin, womblike barrier between the seen and the unseen, between the living and the dead; it will rip open, a jagged, misshapen tear from which a pale, jarringly real figure will emerge.
Ilya yelps in surprise, tripping over the battered blue composition notebook on the drawing room floor, windmilling his arms, his heel skidding dangerously close to the salt line. Kirill visibly stiffens, goes breathless and still with a shrewd sort of wariness; his gaze flattens, sharpens, pierces, while his face contorts—disbelieving, betrayed—and his mouth slants like a cellar door that won’t just close properly, that sticks and jams and can’t keep the vermin out.
“You again,” the witch says, greets. “Has it been a year already?”
“It has,” Oksana confirms, raising her eyebrows and holding up her new knife. “Any last words?”
“Ksenia,” Kirill mutters. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, is that your name?” the witch asks, oddly pleasant. Oddly urgent. “Ksenia?”
“I’m banishing a wrathful spirit,” Oksana says, ignoring the witch and smoothing her thumb over the hilt of her knife. “She’s poisonous, can’t you tell? The house, the land—it knows.”
Ilya chokes out a strangled, guttural whimper. “The what knows?”
The witch looks at Ilya, and then at Kirill, and then at Oksana, too perceptive, too thoughtful, too intent—and she throws her head back to laugh. It isn’t a nice laugh. It’s harsh and grating and mean and lances through the gummy, splintered rafters of the drawing room like hailstones, like frostbite.
“Of course,” the witch simpers, flicking those dark, awful eyes down to the floor, to where the salt line’s been broken. Accidentally, by Ilya’s foot. “I understand now.”
Oksana does, too.
The witch darts towards Ilya with lurching, jerky, preternaturally fast movements, like a spider with too many legs, a monstrous medley of crisscrossed limbs and impossible shadows. Kirill is shouting, Ilya is scrambling, floundering. The witch’s nightgown billows around her legs, swishes around her ankles—she’s hissing words that Oksana recognizes as Latin, words that Oksana recognizes as spells, and there’s an eerie, sudden solidness to her form, to the youthful bloom of pink in her cheeks, to the healthy auburn gloss in her hair, like she’s mid-transformation, a molting bird, a shedding snake.
Oksana blinks, and the witch has her hand wrapped around Ilya’s throat.
Oksana screams, and Ilya’s knees are buckling, his skin gray and his eyes wide, bulging, lifeless.
Oksana freezes, paralyzed by something that must be shock but stings like magic, like fear, and Kirill snatches the knife from her, shoving her behind him, charging forward just as the witch changes direction, switches her attention to Oksana.
It’s the work of a moment, a second, less than that. Either Kirill stabs the witch, or the witch runs into the blade of the knife; the result is the same.
So much blood, too much blood, red and thick and potent and terrible.
Oksana screams again, her stomach twisting, churning, in open, violent revolt.
Kirill drops the knife and staggers backwards. Both of his hands are shaking, and he’s staring down at the witch, at the ragged, glistening hole in her nightgown, with rapt, slack-jawed horror. She crumples, hunched over, gasping in pain, before vanishing altogether, like ash in the wind; in response, Kirill looks over at Ilya’s body, and the horror, Kirill’s horror, it spikes, shrivels, turns melancholic.
Oksana mashes her teeth together to reign in a third scream, a worse scream, a more useless scream. There is no one left to hear her but Kirill, who shouldn’t have to hear her at all.
She deserves this.
This bloodletting, this punishment, this fractured, empty silence.
“He was afraid of you,” Kirill says, his voice breaking, rifling wetly through the space between them, whatever’s left of it. “Ilya.”
Oksana’s lower lip trembles. “Stop.”
“He asked me once, why you made him so nervous,” Kirill goes on. Helpless. Merciless. “If it was just what being in love felt like. Galina thought it was sweet. I didn’t.”
“You know what I said?”
Kirill shakes his head. “I said—I told him—I said, ‘She makes me nervous, too.’”
It’s hard to breathe around the stillness of the night air, like it’s too heavy to swallow, like it’s too weighed down by the heat and the moisture and the whip cracks of thunder to do anything but sink and wilt, leach and linger.
“But you aren’t,” Oksana says, the words emerging with far more desperation than she intends for them to. “You’re not afraid of me.”
“No,” Kirill agrees. He glances down at her, and his eyelashes—a darker, rustier blond than his hair, than the stubble on his jaw—they flutter. “Not of you, Ksenia, never of you.”
And then, with a faint, bit-back shudder, he hauls her in close, tight to his chest, dropping a kiss onto the lowest, softest part of her cheek.
A goodbye kiss.
A what-if kiss.
She aches to tilt her head back, to chase his mouth, his lips, the future that had felt so inexorably, invincibly inevitable—but there’s blood on his hands, seeping into the cuffs of his flannel, drying tacky and stiff across the calluses on his fingertips, and his heart is beating fast, unsteady, like the whirring snare-drum whine of his motorbike when he finally fits the key into the ignition, and it hits her too viciously, too unapologetically, the understanding—the realization—
Of what she would risk, of what she would do, to win herself a second chance at it.
Once upon a time, there was a witch.
Except she was barely a witch at all.
She was a duchess, she was a ghost, she was an omen. Something to dig up and study; a Grecian temple, a Roman catacomb. She was twenty-three years old, fond of horses and dancing and poetry and the exotic, brightly-colored flowers that could only grow in the gardener’s hothouse. She wrote a lot of letters. Kept a lot of diaries. Not many of her personal effects survived a hundred years of ransacking.
A book did, though.
A spell book.
Oksana traces the name inscribed onto what must have once been the title page. She hadn’t noticed it before, too distracted by the rest of it, by the magic that wasn’t magic. The ink is faded a dull purple-brown, charred black around the edges, and the script is elegant, feminine, unwavering:
originally published july, 2021