The witches weren’t evil. Like most creatures, they wanted their kind to survive. Since they refused to lower themselves to having sex with males, they had to find another way.
They called it casting a need.
Now one of their kind had determined to use this method for communicating with the aliens who had arrived on their shore. Unfortunately, she netted the wrong kind of alien.
’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
’Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
--Hard times come again no more.
“There’s a pale, drooping maiden who toils her life away,” I sang softly into the phone. “With a worn heart whose better days are o’er,” (I pretended to choke back a sob) “Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day. Oh! Hard times come again no more!”
“Lizzie, please,” said my mother. “You really should be in drama, not debate.”
“I’m a singer, not an actress. I’m seventeen, and I’m scrubbing the sick from my little brother’s t-shirt and if that’s not hard times, I don’t know what is!” I cradled the cell phone against my ear as I tried to rinse off Kyle’s shirt.
“I’ll be home early tomorrow morning. I’m sure you can manage ’til then.”
“What if Jason catches it, too? What if I catch it?”
“This is Kyle we’re talking about. It’s probably not contagious,” said Mom in her ultra-reasonable voice.
“I wonder what my debate teacher would say if I threw up every time someone disagreed with me?”
“I imagine she would say it was an invalid argument,” said Mom.
“Mom! I’m tired. My eyes are bloodshot and there are dark circles under them. I need a shower.” I wanted to throw the phone on the floor and scream. “I have homework!”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but I have to do this conference to pay for your music competition. You know that. Get Mrs.Vinson to come in and watch the boys for an hour.”
“It’ll take more than an hour for me to prepare for semester finals. And if I don’t pass them, I won’t be graduating. Then there won’t be any point in my going to the choir competition because the scholarship won’t do me any good without a diploma!”
“Oh, Lizzie, you’re always jumping to conclusions.”
“That’s not jumping to conclusions, that’s hyperbole. Or maybe the logical fallacy slippery slope.”
Mom laughed. “You’ll pass your debate test, anyway!” I groaned, and my mother sighed. “I’m tired, too, Liz. You know it wouldn’t be like this if I could help it.”
“I know, but --”
Jason was yelling, “Lizzie, Kyle’s throwing up again! Ewww! All over his teddy bear! Aww, don’t cry, Kyle.” Jason was being nice to his brother. Probably because he was the one who had gotten Kyle angry in the first place.
“Did you hear that? Please, Mom!” The phone slipped off my shoulder and into the sink, along with the shirt. “Shylock!” I screeched. I grabbed the phone up. Damp and disconnected, but still working, thank God. I went to clean up Kyle and teddy and whatever else Kyle had managed to spew on.
“I can do this,” I said, as I wiped Kyle’s face with the towel. I assured him his teddy would be fine. “I can do this.” I was only seventeen, but I felt one hundred. I needed to sleep. “To sleep, perchance to dream…” Hamlet had been talking about suicide. I didn’t want to commit suicide, I just wanted to rest.
I carried Kyle into the bathroom, sat him on the toilet and put the thermometer in his mouth. I glanced at the calendar Mom used to track Jason’s asthma attacks. None so far this month, thank goodness, but -- Oh, Shylock -- I stared at the day of the month. Surely not. My period was due already? I got out the ibuprofen and took a few -- just in case the cramps were about to start.
The thermometer beeped: 100.2 degrees. I was tempted to throw it at the wall. Jason triumphantly carted Kyle’s bedsheets and blankets in and dumped them in the bathtub. “These stink!”
“It all stinks,” I muttered. “Every stinking bit.”
Jason looked up at me, so serious. He worried too much for a five-year-old. Ever since his dad -- my step dad -- had left for Afghanistan, he had had a crease between his brown eyes. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. I opened my eyes, picked up Kyle and smiled at Jason. “It’s okay, sweetie. Mom will be home tomorrow morning. Everything will be okay.”
I got the boys ready for bed, and read them a story (One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish) and sang them a song (The Wreck of the Sloop John B) and cleaned off Kyle’s teddy (whose name was Zeep) and fixed myself hot tea -- my grandmother’s recipe, with just a “swidge” of whiskey. I sat down on the couch with my AP Lit book (The Merchant of Venice) -- and fell asleep.
At some point I woke and went to my bed, tossed and turned for awhile, got up and checked on the peacefully sleeping Kyle, and took a couple of my mother’s sleeping pills. At last I swirled away into sweet unconsciousness. And then I dreamed:
Pinpricks of light and soft voices, singing a chant. Was this a new song for the choir contest? At first the words made no sense to me, but gradually they came into focus.
Awaken, Oh dreamer,
Come to the Land
Your voice is needed here
Help us understand...
My head was pounding. Far from feeling rested, I felt like I had passed through a tornado. Had I caught Kyle’s flu? There was an annoying swishing sound. Were the boys trying to paint their bedroom again? Mom would kill me! I opened my eyes and sat up. What the heck? Where was I? Was this a tent? Shylock! What was going on here?
Swoosh swish… a woman sat at a -- a loom. A loom? The woman rose. “How are you feeling?”
“What?” My voice squeaked as I stared up at her. “Who…?”
The woman felt my forehead. “I will summon Genvieve.” She went to the door and made a low trilling noise.
I gripped the bedding as I looked around. Canvas walls. A large room -- a yurt? I swallowed and tried to steady my breathing. We had stayed in a yurt once on a camping trip, but this was not it. The lighting seemed to come from pottery bowls. This was not my home, and it was like no emergency room or doctor’s office I had ever seen. “I – I need to –“ my voice was raspy. Panic made my need to pee more urgent.
“Of course. Come, I will help you.” The woman’s dress was a complex pattern of red and gold and orange. I locked my eyes on it, taking deep breaths, striving for calm. My choir teacher said breathing from the diaphragm could calm anyone. It wasn’t working. The woman’s arm was firm and strong, lifting me from the bed.
“Shhh. I am only a nursemaid. I am Yolanda. Genvieve will explain.” She towed me across the room.
A nursemaid? I walked as the woman guided me.. A curtain concealed a carved wooden seat. A stone conduit continuously sent water through the bowl underneath. What the --? The woman took her arm away and paused to be sure I was steady on my feet. A long, light blond braid hung down the middle of her back, swaying as she walked out.
I eyed the unfamiliar seat. Carefully, I lifted my cream-colored woven robe. No underwear. I relieved my body, while my mind hammered my confusion. My legs were slim and shapely! My skin -- my skin was toffee-colored! -- my pubic hair was dark brown. I grabbed at my head and pulled dark curls into view. I was not me! -- Spots danced before my eyes. I seemed to be the right height -- an average five feet five, but slim! -- no remains of my recent tendency to overeat when stressed. I had been stressed a lot lately -- Could this whole situation be a delusion brought on by worry and frustration? Could all of that lead to this? Whose body was this? And what was happening to my own?
I was shaking so badly I could hardly stand, but I needed to see myself in a mirror. I leaned over the washing bowl and peered into the smallest mirror ever. These people were clearly not obsessed with their appearance. Dark hair, dark face, dark eyes -- I was not ME! “Who are you?” I whispered. “Where am I?”
When I came out from behind the curtain, an older woman stood with Yolanda. “Ahh.” The elder seemed pleased. “She is repossessing herself.” She smiled and bowed. “We summoned you. You have left your world and entered ours.” Her hair was gray and thick, braided like Yolanda’s, the plait wound around her head. Her gown was a deep purple shot through with blue, her face finely wrinkled, purple eyes a little faded --purple? -- Her eyes were purple. So were Yolanda’s. Were mine purple, too? They had just looked dark in the dim light of the bathroom.
I shook my head and kept on shaking it. “I -- I don’t understand.” My voice trembled. A tear tickled my cheek and I swiped at it.
“You perhaps do not have the skill of need casting in your world?”
“Casting? As in fishing?”
Yolanda chuckled and brushed back wisps of her fair hair. “Similar as a child’s mud pies are to a baker’s fresh bread.”
“I’m not mud or bread! And this isn’t funny!” I clenched my teeth. I would not scream. If I started, I wouldn’t stop.
“Of course not. We cast a need,” said Genvieve, “and you were connected to us.”
“Cast a need?” I swayed dizzily. “Connected by whom?”
“The One Over All.”
I was seeing spots before my eyes again. Yolanda hastily put her hand under my arm and brought a chair forward. I sat with a thump, the world whirling. My hearing was fuzzy, but I thought I heard Yolanda say, “Do you think she is the one?” I put my head on my knees.
When my brain cleared, Yolanda had opened a cupboard and was taking out tall, shiny goblets. Genvieve sat next to me and leaned forward to take my hands in her own. I stared down at five long fingers. And a thumb. My breath came in short gasps. I pulled my hands away from her abnormal ones. Looked at my own hands. I was abnormal, too. I panted, “I don’t understand a word of what you are saying. What are you?” What am I?
“It was like this with the other,” said Yolanda softly.
Genvieve frowned. “This one is not the same. The connection felt entirely different.”
I put my head on my knees again. I can do this. I can do this. Whatever this was, it couldn’t last forever. I just had to wait it out, go with the flow -- dream, nightmare, hallucination -- it would end.
Yolanda brought a tray with the goblets and a plate of brown rolls. “Refresh yourself,” she said, smiling. I took the drink cautiously with my six-fingered hand. Six-fingered -- like in The Princess Bride! I smiled. I was in a comic fantasy. Yes. That was it. I smelled the fruity liquid. “It’s safe for you,” said Yolanda. I shrugged. I could die of poison or a strange bacteria -- What is my immune system making of this? But this wasn’t my body -- it was all a fantastical delusion, so -- I put it to my lips and drank. I ate one of the brown rolls and then another, and drank some more. I sat back, my head a little clearer.
Genvieve smiled at me. “We require help,” she said. “And you were sent.”
“Back up.” I shook my head. “Who are you? Where am I?”
“We are witches of the Village. You are in the Land Between the Seas. You have left your previous life.” Genvieve’s purple eyes bore into mine.
“Witches? Previous life?” I gripped the empty goblet. “What do you mean, ‘previous life’?” My heart started to thud again. “Do you mean to say you -- you fished me out of my life? What -- what gave you the right -- how could you --?” I stood and threw the goblet across the room. It slapped against the canvas wall. Anger was good. Anger held the panic at bay.
“We did not lift you out of your life.” Genvieve shook her head. Her tone was gentle. “You must accept this. You came to us because you were already on the threshold -- if you had not been on the threshold, we would not have been able to connect with you.”
I sank back into my chair. “Threshold? Connect? What does that mean? I wasn’t on any threshold.”
“Oh, yes,” said Yolanda earnestly. “You must have been on the very cusp of death. We could not pull someone out of a viable life!”
I whispered. “You mean I was dying? No, no, that can’t be. Kyle was sick, but it wasn’t catching. Mom said so. Mom! Jason, Kyle... my family, my friends, my life. Shylock!” I covered my face and shuddered, trying to draw a deep breath. “I was not!” I gasped. “You’re lying! You’ve got to send me back!”
“We cannot do that,” said Genvieve.
I leaped up again, knocking over the table. The other goblets rang as they hit the wooden floor, orange liquid spattering. The noise was very satisfying, somehow. I grabbed Genvieve’s arms and shook her. “You’ve got to send me back! I want to go home!” I sounded like Dorothy. There’s no place like home.
Yolanda pulled me away from Genvieve. “We cannot do that,” she said firmly. “It is not a choice we are making. We could not do it even if we would.”
Genvieve made an opening motion with her fingers. Yolanda paused, looking at her in surprise. “Something is not right,” said Genvieve. “She does not feel -- there is wrongness.” Her pupils were slits and the purple irises seemed to glow. “Yolanda, your hand.”
Obediently, Yolanda put up her hand, palm forward, fingers up to meet Genvieve’s hand palm forward, fingers down. Their longest fingers touched each other’s wrists, and they each put out a hand to me.
I instinctively shrank back. “You will return me?” I asked. They merely stood, waiting. Hopefully, cautiously, I put my hand out and held still as their hands touched mine. Our palms touched, and warmth coursed into my hand and up my arm.
A faint glow shone from our connected hands, and Genvieve’s slitted eyes opened wide. The purple all but disappeared. “Oh, what is this horror?” she murmured. “What have we brought? Oh, wrongness...” She took a deep breath, let it out carefully and drew her hands away. “You must not stay here,” she said.
“I don’t want to stay here,” I cried. “I want to go back to my family!”
“You should have thought of your family before you attempted an abomination. We cannot undo what you -- and we -- have done.”
“An abomination? What do you mean? You brought me here! It wasn’t my choice!”
Genvieve looked at Yolanda and gestured to me with her fingers spread wide. “We must not allow this to remain in our Village.The call was too broad. We will not attempt this cast again.” She narrowed her eyes at me, the purple iris opaque. “You must begone. We will provide you with supplies. At sunrise you leave.”
“What? What are you talking about?” My voice rose as I looked from one to the other. “You can’t be serious! Where am I supposed to go? I don’t even know where I am! You have to return me!”
Genvieve’s lips thinned with contempt. “Yolanda will see you to the shore. Perhaps you will find the Sea People compatible as the Other did.” She shook her head, staring at me and murmuring something. She lifted a short cloak from a hook by the door and put it on, tying it around her neck. She looked at Yolanda. “I go to prepare a Purification Ceremony. I will see you on your return.” She went out the door. A cool breeze swept in, carrying a scent like cinnamon.
“Yes, Genvieve,” said Yolanda. She bent to pick up the cups scattered on the floor.
Shrieks rose in my throat. I pressed my fists to my temples. I couldn’t start screaming, or I wouldn’t be able to stop. Surely this was just a bad dream. I’d awaken in a hospital, with an ER doctor bending over me. The walls would be white, the lights bright. The air would smell of antiseptic and sweat, and the chrome gurney would be hard beneath my back. I squeezed my eyes shut and willed it to be true. When I opened them, I saw canvas walls and dim lights emanating from earth-colored bowls. Swallowing hard against nausea, I whimpered.
Yolanda pressed a cup to my lips. “Drink,” she ordered. I drank and my worlds-- both of them -- slipped away.
When Yolanda woke me, I put on the clothes I was given, ate and drank, and accepted a pack of supplies. Putting on similar attire, she gestured me to follow. I sat down.
“No.” The memory of Kyle, plopping down on the floor, shrieking, “NO!”swamped me. I wasn’t shrieking. Not yet. “Tell me where we’re going, or -- or I’ll start screaming.”
Yolanda’s smooth-skinned face wrinkled. She licked her lips. “I am told to take you to the Sea. There are ships there. People we do not know. They are very strange to us. Two of our elders attempted to speak to them. They --” She shook her head. “They ignored them! They ignored Genvieve and one other of our elders! It passes understanding. Genvieve conceived of a plan. We do not normally cast outside our own Villages. Normally, when a young woman has died, we cast for an old woman who is on the cusp to fill her empty body. We prefer to net a trained witch who has experience and can be a leader to our people. In this way some of our witches live very long and amass great experience. But this time we attempted a much wider cast. Genvieve wanted to net one of them -- one of the Sea People... ”
She gestured to the door. “Come, we must go, or we will not have time. I pledge to answer your questions as we walk.”
I stood slowly. Strange people with ships, I thought. Perhaps, if the witches can’t or won’t send me back, the strange people with ships could and would. Hadn’t Yolanda said the other had gone to the Sea? That must have been their first “wide” cast.
I stepped out into the Village. I saw other yurts and curving hedges separating compounds, a great hedge surrounding the whole Village. Everything was circular -- the yurts, the hedges, the whole Village. Even the crops were planted in curves rather than rows. People paused to look at me with slitted eyes. When I looked at them, they turned away.
I walked behind Yolanda, watching her braid swing back and forth. “Why won’t they look at me?” I whispered.
“You are an abomination.”
Yolanda stopped and turned on me fiercely. “Is it acceptable among your people to destroy your self?”
“Destroy myself? I don’t understand you!”
“You were on the Threshold because you tried to end your life. You have contaminated our Village.” Yolanda marched ahead, her braid swinging militantly.
“NO! I did not!” I looked wildly around, wanting to tell them all. “I wouldn’t do that!” I yelled. No one would look at me. I stopped. I reached down and touched the ground -- clawing up pebbles with my fingers, too many fingers, getting dirt under my nails -- short, uncolored, unfamiliar nails. I scraped my fingers raw. I felt pain.This was real. This was truly happening to me. And they said it was because I had tried to kill myself.
Yolanda had already reached the edge of the Village. There was a great hedged archway through the outer wall. “It’s not true!” I screamed. She paused, waiting.
I stood and followed Yolanda through the arch. Fields stretched before me, with a grove of trees beyond. My eyes were riveted on Yolanda’s back, on the deep green cloak swinging gently as she moved, on the pack jutting up like a strange growth from her left shoulder, on the long plait of hair hanging down her back. Yolanda walked steadily, with the easy stride of one accustomed to long walks. We passed through the fields of waving grain-like crops, passed through rows of low bushes.
My mind slipped into some other place. This cannot be happening.
We came to a line of trees, and Yolanda stopped to take careful note of the sun and examine the trail leading into the forest. There were carved sticks lying on the ground and she picked up a half dozen, putting one by the tree to my left.
Yolanda walked on, and I followed.
We walked through enormous trees. The trail seemed clear to me, but Yolanda stopped whenever we reached a small clearing, peered at the sun and placed one of the sticks in the ground.
“What are you doing?”
“Marking the path.”
“What am I supposed to do when we get to the Sea?”
“Contact the Sea People, I suppose.”
“How did you expect me to be able to help you?”
“We cast a need for one of them -- one who would communicate their needs -- and you were sent. You must have some affinity or understanding of them. This is very disturbing because you are an Abomination.”
“Stop saying that!” I grabbed my unfamiliar hair and pulled on it hard enough to hurt. The witches thought I had an affinity with the Sea People. Maybe I did. Something had to make sense here. As I trudged on, the song the boys had requested at bedtime last night -- last night? --ran crazily through my head. “Send for the Cap’n ashore, I want to go home...Let me go home, I feel so broke up, I want to go home.”
When the sun was overhead, Yolanda stopped. “We eat,” she said and sat down next to a tree. She opened the pack and removed food packets and drink bottles. I stood next to her, staring down. “How? How do I contact them? Am I speaking your language?”
“Yes. It is part of the transition. You -- you gain the language with the body.”
“Will that happen with the Sea People?”
“I do not know. But the Other --”
“Yes, the Other. I am not the first, am I? You did your little fishing trick and caught some other unfortunate person on your hook, and when she was not right for your purpose -- whatever that may be -- you took her to the Shore and left her, abandoning a human being like stinky garbage.” My voice was rising. “Even a fisherman will throw a catch he doesn’t want back into the sea, but you can’t even do that, you--”
“No,” said Yolanda sharply. “It was not like that. We did not take him to the Shore to be rid of him. He left us. He chose to go to the Sea People. We used a male body because it was the only one we had... we do not usually deal with males. We thought perhaps it was his sex which caused him to be unsympathetic. We would have allowed him to stay...He was not an Abomination, like you.”
“Abomination?” I crouched down in front of Yolanda. “Who are you to speak of abomination? You used the body of one of your people -- you gave it away?” I ran my hands down my sides, shivering. I was inhabiting the body of a dead person! “You stole me out of my LIFE and now you’re going to maroon me, and you accuse me of committing an abomination?”
Yolanda jerked back, crying, “Me? You gave up your life! You deliberately tried to --” Yolanda stood and backed away. “I am risking my spirit by being in your company! You have contaminated our Village. It will take weeks of work for Genvieve to purify us.”
“I didn’t give up my life! You stole it!” I tried to find words for my anger. “I did NOT try to kill myself! Whatever reason I was on the cusp, as you call it, it wasn’t that! And my people can bring people back from the threshold! They might have been able to save me!” I leaned over, clutching my stomach, retching, but nothing came up.
Yolanda sat, staring at the trees, waiting.
Eventually, I gasped, “But... this other, he chose to stay with the Sea People, didn’t he? Maybe he didn’t stay, though! Maybe they were able to send him back!” Yolanda was shaking her head. “But why? Why not?”
“He did not want to go back.”
“He expressed no wish to return. He said he had an incurable disease. He had known for long that he was dying. That is why he was on the threshold. That is why we were able to summon him. I brought him here to the shore because we hoped he would help us understand. But he was -- “ She looked down at me and smiled faintly. “He did not appreciate our way of life. When he saw the Sea People, he said,” she paused as though the words were strange to her, “he said, ‘That’s more like it, that’s the ticket!’ He left us because he wanted to live with the Sea People.”
“So he just stayed with the Sea People?”
She nodded. “He hailed them. I hid in the Forest. He communicated with one -- I do not know how exactly. Then he came back to tell me thank you.” She smiled, and her eyes slid away from mine. “He thanked me for my care of him. He told me they have the life he wants. He asked if I wanted to go with him! Of course, I did not.”
I sighed. “Is that all he told you?”
“He said they are here for red stones, which makes no sense. Then he went back to them, and I have not seen him again.”