I follow him for a few steps, my feet silent in the newly fallen snow. His back disappears into a flurry of white as he heads down the hill. I should yell for him not to go, not to abandon us, but it sickens me that I need him for anything. I want him gone. I always have.
Still, it’ll hurt Mamma and Becca.
And what I want never matters much, anyhow. Not even when his knuckles left purple blossoms on my skin. Not even when he tore into my clothes and called me names I can’t bare to think of now. Not even when . . .
Mamma’s cries mingle with the wind, calling me back to the sorrow of today. She moans and weeps of her lost love, until the cries turn into a string of coughs, sharp and full of death’s keening. Before, when I was tiny, she would have burned lavender and called on God to give Pa true direction, she would have crushed rabbit bone and ash from his left-behind shirt and sprinkled it on the threshold to draw him back home.
Now, she can only curl on her pallet like a wounded bird and hope.
“Rose,” my sister calls from the shadows. “Come inside.” There’s fear in her voice. I can’t allow myself to feel it. I can’t allow Pa that much victory.
I turn back to our shack. It’s nestled on a rise, against a backdrop of forest, fir trees as thick as wool and aspen that grow gold like butter in the fall. Beside it is a small barn that could hold animals if we had some left alive. Remnants of a picket fence poke out of the snow here and there around the yard, forgotten ruins from ancient days. And once there was a path of dark, coal-colored stones leading from the abandoned garden to the front door that Mamma could walk on when the rains came in spring.
Before the herbs and vegetables withered and curled up into rotten piles. Before Mamma got sick and Pa drank the whiskey to hide—so he could do his dark deeds and not feel them twisting his soul and mine.
Before this endless winter.
The shack itself is small, made up of only one room. The walls are warped and the door hangs crooked, patched up with old newspapers and branches from the forest floor. Wind whistles through neglected cracks in the panels like the voice of a weeping child. It’s as if we haunt this place even before our death. A sick woman and two thin, pale girls, no good for anything much.
I push open the door and walk across the wood floor to my pallet without a word.
Becca looks at me with tears in her eyes. “Will we be all right?”
I stare back at her. Is she really older then me? She seems younger in so many ways. In all her sixteen years she still hasn’t learned to harden her heart to life.
Well, she’ll have to soon enough.
* * *
A man comes to our shack five days later. I go out to chop fire wood and see him emerge from the falling snow, at the bottom of the rise. His broad shoulders and coal-peppered coat tell me he’s from the mines and his firm jaw and smooth skin say he’s a little younger than Pa.
He comes into the yard without an invitation, walking right up to the corner of the house where I stand. We stare at each other for a second and I make myself stay still and not shift my feet. His eyes are dark and hard, like the bowels of the mountain he emerged from. His beard is trimmed, his lips chapped and red. He has a small grain sack in his hand, no bigger than a mouse. A smile tugs at the side of his mouth. “You Rebecca?”
I shake my head and clutch the ax tighter.
“You might do well enough.” He leans down to my level, the white puff of his breath coming at me. “You’ve got ice-eyes, Little One.”
I take a step back and the door creaks open behind me.
“We have nothing you’d want,” Becca says from the doorway.
“Ah, well, not so sure ‘bout that, now. Town’s been shut up a month past—us miners are the only souls left ‘top this cursed mountain.” His brow goes up a little, like he’s enjoying the idea. “Your Pa came to us, says you’d be needin’ help. He says you’d be needin’ grain and meat.”
My heart lurches at the mention of Pa. This can only be more of his madness coming to haunt us. I hear it in this miner’s voice, slow and heavy with drink.
“Go away!” I shout.
The man just smirks at me and looks back to Becca. “You’ve got plenty of what I’m needin’, I think. Plenty to trade. We got a deal?” He watches my sister with hunger in his eyes.
“No, Becca! Tell him to go.” I lunge at the wall of flesh in front of me and push with all my ninety pounds.
He laughs and pulls me up close, his grip digging into my arm, my feet nearly coming off the ground. The smell of his breath tastes sour and rancid in my mouth. He licks his cracked lips, the sound of teeth and tongue and what’s to come filling my ears. “You’re a fine pile a rags. I should teach you some manners.”
The ax falls from my grasp; my heart pummels my ribs.
“No!” Becca says. “Please, let her go. I’ll take your deal.” Her face goes white, and thick tears streak down her cheeks, freezing at her chin.
He looks back at my sister, then at me, like he’s trying to decide, but it’s Becca he settles on. “One pound of grain per visit,” he says, and then pushes me hard into the snow. “Half for this lump, if you’re willin’.” And his smirk returns.
I spit at his feet and scramble up to get further away, shivering in relief and hating myself for it. The lingering feeling of his fingers on my arm burn terror and rage into my skin. No control. Always at a man’s whim.
He moves forward and takes Becca in hand. He tugs her to him and smells her neck, then looks over her shoulder at me, daring me with his hard eyes to try and stop him.
Becca goes still until he moves back, then she shoos me away gently. “Chop the wood, Rose,” she says, voice weak and tired. She backs through the door, and the miner goes with her, his tiny bag of grain in hand.
* * *
More miners come every week, sometimes two at a time, emerging from their holes in the rock, trailing up the road, to darken our life with their shadow and put their blackened hands to my sister. It’s like I’ve entered my own personal Hell, and I can’t think how to stop it.
We can’t leave. Mamma’s too sick to travel and even if she could, where would we go? It took Pa a month to move us up this beast of a mountain and stake a claim—hoping to win his fortune—hoping to escape some trouble he’d left behind. We’re surrounded in dense forest, riddled with wolves, paths that lead only to sudden drops. And as you descend, the main road becomes all crags and crevices to fall in—a death-trap in the mellowest of weather. And now, with Winter settling her thick, white arms around us constantly, we’re trapped.
In a slow smothering of the soul.
Becca cries in the night like a babe. She prays to God and speaks of sin and torment in judgment and fire. She’s in pain, I know. She’s in sorrow. And I understand that pain from inside, deep down—at least a part of it—but still, somehow, I hate her. If she’d only resisted with me.
If she only said no.
I know, I can’t blame her. She was trying to save me. But because of her sacrifice I have no peace.
Still, we have food and shelter. One visit gains a ham steak or a sack of wheat, one a withered bundle of corn; corn that makes my stomach retch ‘cause it carries the lingering taste of miner sweat.
* * *
A week later, just after my fifteenth birthday, Mamma’s coughing stops. Her eyes go dull and stare off into another world. Her lips part, just a little, like she’s in the midst of a gasp from what she sees.
Becca doesn’t even seem to notice the death. I sense the loss like a hole in the air. Something’s gone missing. I wonder at the silence and study Mamma’s still face, wide eyes circled with blue and purple rings, cheeks drawn in from hunger and sickness. But she’s at peace now.
I drag the body out into the snowdrifts, as far away from our shack as I can muster. I put her in a thicket of trees, where the green seems to still have a voice in the branches, and try not to think about the beasts that’ll soon be gathering. There’s no way of burying her; the ground is a solid rock of ice beneath us.
I kneel beside her and want desperately to weep. My throat tightens and my head aches.
Everything hurts inside. But I have no way of releasing it. I’m locked up and hard as stone.
“I’m sorry, Mamma,” I whisper to the shell in front of me. I take her hand. It could belong to a glass doll. There’s no life there anymore.
So I gather rocks, one by one, and set them over her, trying my best to protect her from the birds, the beasts, keep her safe as much as I can now. I pile the dark stones gently on her stomach, her arms, and over her face, until she becomes one with the mountain.
I stand and study my work, feeling like the rocks are on me instead, then I leave the body for the forest and ice.
* * *
Time passes in a blur, and I become aware of names.
Jack, Ben, James, Robert…They sound so normal. Like you might hear them and smile a hello.
But I hear them and cringe. Especially at one in particular: Hunt. The man who came with the cloud of darkness that very first day. He always eyes me like he has ideas.
I see him ahead, making his way toward us, up the path, and I clench my jaw to hold in the shaking that fills me. It’s been a few weeks since he visited last; I was almost comfortable again. The other men aren’t like Hunt. Yes, I hate them, but the hate keeps me safe. This man I can’t hate enough.
“Well, if it ain’t my peach,” he says as he stops in front of me.
My insides churn and I look down. I’m a coward, but I can’t help it. His eyes say too much about the evil inside him. I can’t let them connect with mine.
“You’re lookin’ softer each day, little one. And your sister is only lookin’ thinner. Best tell her to eat more or the men’ll be movin’ on to you sooner than you’d like.”
“Just go,” I say, feeling small and terrified by his words.
“They’re sayin’ she’s a witch, you know.” He looks at the door of the shack to where Becca now stands, and a smile grows on his face. “All those crazy mutterings she blathers are makin’ them nervous. Ben’s lost chunks of his hair, and James swears he saw her in the mines one night like a ghost.” He laughs low, almost like a growl. “Fools. They think she’s prayin’ to God to curse ‘em, or somethin’.”
The idea gives me strength. “Not a bad idea,” I say, wishing Becca really was a witch. Wishing I was.
I walk away, letting him finish what he came for.
But that night I ask the wind to howl through the tunnels and scare the men away, I ask the ice to come to them in the night, so they’ll wake to find their fingers and toes frozen off. And for the first time in a while, I sleep soundly.
* * *
A few weeks later Hunt comes again. There’s only two men now, besides him, who dare come to the witch for a respite. The food is dwindling, but my spirits are higher. Even Becca seems to be emerging from her sad world a little.
We’re probably just getting used to depravity.
Hunt stumbles, coming up the hill. He’s drunk, eyes glassy and head cocked to the side. His sluggish movement makes him a thousand times more frightening, like Pa come back to have his revenge on me for letting Mamma die.
“My peach,” he slurs as he comes closer. “Ah, my succulent girl. I’ve come for you, little Ice Witch.”
His voice is a hiss. My whole body shakes as it slithers around me.
His feet shuffle closer and leave black stains in the snow. He stops and sniffs and watches me. His face is marked with coal and ash. Darkness is palpable in the air, a cloak over us both, the weight of death, hanging heavy as it reaches out with cold fingertips. “I saw you down there, in the mines. Following me, haunting me.”
My heart thunders from the madness in his eyes.
I look to the doorway, but Becca isn’t there. She’s gone to fetch water from the creek.
“Go away,” I say. But even I’m not convinced by my words. They disappear into the grey sky the second they leave my mouth.
He tips his head and frowns, like he doesn’t understand me at all. “You’re not gonna trick me no more, Witch. You and your sister, like cancer in the men, like a fever. You’re always there. Always there, in my dreams, teasin’ with those light blue eyes, like winter frost.” His neck muscles flex.
I back away a step, my legs turned rigid with terror.
“You’ve cursed me,” he says, “I gotta be free.” And he lunges in a flash, grabbing my shawl, getting a fist-full of wool to yank me closer.
His knuckles hit my sternum and the scream lodges in my throat. I huff out air and fall back from the blow, pushing us both off balance. I tip over into the snow. I try to scramble away from his fumbling hands. He tosses my shawl to the side and catches at my ankle, jerking me toward him. “Mine,” he growls.
I kick and flail. I catch him with boot and fist, but it doesn’t do any good. I’m a rag doll. I’m a piece of goods to trade for. I’m his now.
He’s yanking me under him, he’s tearing at rotted cloth and uncovering bare white skin. I find my voice and screech curses at him. My heart pounds and pounds, terror filling my veins, rushing through me. Everything turns stark and sharp. Each breath quick. Each movement an extension of panic.
“Hush now,” he says as his body crushes me into the snow, his weight grinding my wrists into the icy mud. “Just let me have it. I need it. Let me take it.”
Bile rises in my throat. The frozen ground beneath me numbs my muscles, becomes needles and pins in my flesh. “No,” I say, praying to God, to the air, to anyone who’ll listen. “Please.”
He leans in and I turn my head, I clench my eyes shut, trying to get away from him any way I can. His whiskers are rough and painful, his chapped lips scratching at my skin. And I drown, choking on my own horror. I start to slip away, to go to that secret place inside where Pa and Hunt and all the men can’t touch me. Where all this is just a bad dream.
Then I feel something hard beneath my arm.
I open my eyes in a surge of awareness, realizing what it is. The ax handle.
“You smell like roses,” Hunt says into the side of my neck.
But I don’t feel him anymore. A strange calm settles over me and I let it fill me to the core.
No man’s ever going to touch me again.
And it’s like I detach from my body and rise to watch from above. I see Hunt over me, his weight shifting to lift my skirt, to reach his belt. My hand flails for the ax. My fingers grip white on the handle. The weapon rises up, up to swing. Silver and sharp.
Hunt never even notices it coming at him.
The blade cracks into the side of his face and neck, spraying a veil of red across my world. I push out from under his shocked face and raise the ax again.
Until I’m sure he can’t come back.
He twitches at my feet as I embed the ax into his skull with a sound like smashing pottery.
His body slips a little in the snow and the ax falls from my hands. Sticky red.
I stumble back, sinking into the snow. The red follows, slinking from my attacker. A pool of crimson spreads out, melting the snow at his head, under his chest. It moves slowly, with frighting sloth, dark and thick, reaching out to me with bloody fingers. Accusing me as it gathers at my feet.
But all I feel is relief.
The pungent stench of sweat and whiskey fill the air. The smells of Pa, of what might be coming. Pa and his anger. Pa and his fists. Pa and his dangerous grip . . .
He killed the rest of our chickens last night in a rage when Mamma wouldn’t stop her coughing. Tore them to pieces. All blood and floating feathers. I was glad it wasn’t me, but now we have nothing except grain to eat all winter. And what’s left of that fills the sack that’s thrown over Pa’s broad shoulders—the sack that says he won’t be back for several months. By then, Me and Becca and Mamma could be dead.
He walks past me, out the door, not even acknowledging my existence with a look or a goodbye. I might as well be a ghost or a puff of smoke in his way.