The witch found the daughter on her doorstep, in a basket, in a blanket. Much time had passed since she’d buried her cauldron under boxes of ingredients: lodestones and soapstones and millstones, old stones and young ones and flat stones burnished by riverwater. She realized that some of her spells must have lingered, that they didn’t break or dissolve the moment she lost interest. The baby girl, she thought, had to be a sacrifice or amends. She felt the familiar press of evil between her ribs, but no pride, no tingle, and only a bit of the anger that used to fuel her. She hunched her old body down and picked the baby up. She held the child’s face close to hers. I could keep you or kill you, she whispered. I could bundle you tighter and leave you on another doorstep. I could make you somebody else’s curse.
The witch found a strange patience with the child, one she hadn’t had since dedicating herself to her craft as a young woman. She was like a concert pianist fingering scales as she fed the baby and put it to sleep and did the same the next day and the next. Finally, the baby stood, and finally she hobbled forward and didn’t fall. The witch watched her awkward movements, she listened to her painful attempts at speech. She remembered her own childhood in the country, her two brothers tying her down or pushing her head under in the stream or lifting her dress high enough to see what was underneath. It hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary, but it was enough, and the witch had been happy to plot her revenge. At eighteen, the woods started beckoning her, calling to her in wind and breeze. It told her to leave, to change her name.
The little girl’s face shone, innocent and beautiful. The witch kept the shades drown in their house, but they went out often, and one day she watched her daughter pick up a rock at the playground and show it to a little boy. The two children stared, curious and impressed, and suddenly the witch was rushing to her child, grabbing her arm and tugging her away. That afternoon blood filled her heart as she sat the girl down on the couch and carried boxes from the basement. She opened one and selected a lodestone and placed it in the child’s palm. Her first spell had been a death spell, she explained. Her second had been a love one. A woman had come wanting a husband, and the witch had warned his love would be relentless, that it would continue even after she didn’t want it any longer. The woman didn’t listen to the warnings, so the witch dizzied the man, until all he could do was focus on his love to stop the spin. Do you see what I mean? the witch asked her daughter. Yes, the daughter said. But she meant, I don’t believe you.
The girl turned seventeen. Lockers banged shut in the hallway at school while the boy gathered his courage. He had the stone, but the girl didn’t remember it until he told her. Then she only recalled the feeling of being dragged away. She went with the boy to a coffee shop after school and they ordered tea. The boy put the stone on the table, where it speckled in the artificial light. It wasn’t special, but the boy thought it was, and the girl blew into her cup. She remembered the witch’s warnings but reasoned that the witch had lived most of her life alone, had lived a life without much happiness or hope. The witch, she thought, didn’t know. When the boy’s parents went out of town, the boy and girl got into his small bed together. She pressed her feet against him, and he flinched at the cold and laughed and told her to keep them there. I’m a witch like my mother, she confessed. They probably won’t ever warm. I can put you under a spell if you want, she said, and you will love me forever. I will do that anyway, the boy said
Now, I roll over, dizzy, spellbound. My stomach flails until I find her picture, until I stare at it. The heat of summer has become too much for blankets, too wet, even, for sheets. I wake with the back of my neck covered in sweat. My heart races, and I wish for the cold touch of her hand, the witch’s daughter, who left me, who followed the voices and set out alone. I hadn’t realized how easy it would be for her to leave. Things fade and don’t, and grow old and stay the same. I pretend she watches me through the window. Kiss me or kill me, I whisper, I will always be your curse. On the dresser is my bowl of stones. In it is the rock from when we were six and some we found together and kept and a few that used to be her mother’s. The birds start their singing, marking the evil of the dawn. Their calls are just another kind of chant, just another kind of incantation.