Witch Country — Savannah Eden Bradley
*TOP CONTRIBUTOR IN FICTION, VOLUME TWO, 2019*
“Witches,” Carrie told me, “they're still kicking up in Appalachia. Not even kidding. Went up last year.”
We had met the night before in the bathroom of the bar. Drinks were half-off if you showed up to the joint in costume; she redid my black lipstick, and I touched up the crimps and folds of her Stevie Nicks hair. There was an unspoken energy in that act—something sisterly; intimate, even. The more we talked about going to see the witches together, cheap beer in hand, the more excited each of us got. The spontaneity—the urgency!—of chasing something with someone unknown was enticing, she had told me. We left at dawn, staving off hangovers with bottles of ginger ale, burgers and fries both bleary with grease, and a map to witch country.
“Give me the rundown,” I said in the passenger's seat, adjusting my makeup in the mirror. “You from Wilmington or are you just passing through?”
“Oh, I don’t stay in one place for very long,” she said.
“So where are you from, then?”
“Oh . . . here and there, I guess. We moved around a lot when I was a kid. Louisiana, then Oregon, Florida, Vermont, San Francisco—”
“No.” She quickly changed the subject, and I don’t know why I didn’t think to press her on it. “So, Meredith . . . you from Wilmington, then?”
“No, New York, but I moved out here for school and just ended up staying after graduation.”
“Why not go back to the city?”
“Well, you know, I had gotten married, and he wanted to stay too. Just one of those things that felt right.”
“Gotcha,” she said. “I love cities, personally. Although I don’t really think that’s where all the culture is. I like exploring, seeing as much of the world as I can. Venezuela was a real blast, let me tell you that. God, it’s beautiful. It really reminds you that the Earth does not belong to us: we belong to the Earth.”
I struggled not to roll my eyes. That was how Carrie talked, all in schmaltzy platitudes. It matched her exterior well; Carrie had the aesthetic of a storefront psychic with her chiffon blouse and an abundance of gold rings, bracelets, flower earrings. She was lithe, delicate, and romantic, even, yet inscrutable, as if the world was naive about what she was really capable of. All air, all joy, like she was buoyed by this sort of subtle optimism. I, however, was cerebral, a little gritty around the edges—more androgynous than I’d like to be; my hair all reddish and tangled, my body rangy and underdeveloped in overalls and mary-janes. I just couldn’t talk the way Carrie talked, cheesy and childlike. It’d seem unnatural.
We listened to the radio, with the only station that didn’t fuzz out with static being an 80s throwback channel permeated by lots of synthesizers and rubbery, overdubbed production. “It’s alright, it’s alright / To be standing in a line / Oh, I would cry,” voices echoed.
“What are you looking for—with the witches, I mean,” Carrie asked me.
“Don’t know, to be honest. I’m just looking for a quick escape, I guess,” I said. “I want to see something new. Didn’t really get to do that much when I was married.”
“Oh, damn. How long have you—”
“Around a year,” I said, cutting her off. I’d practiced and perfected my “I’m not married anymore” speech to various family members, old friends, and casual hookups for the past year—I thought that I’d might as well utilize it again. “You see, he—”
She laughed. “So, you’ve been free for around a year and haven’t had any fun?”
I didn’t like the way she used the word “free” to describe it. “What do you mean?”
“You know, gone out, seen the world, sown your wild oats?”
“Yeah, well—no, no I haven’t. I have trouble making friends. Any friends, really.”
“Well,” she said, rolling the windows down. “You’ve got me now.”
I laughed. “I do?”
She rolled the windows down. “Come on, Mer. We’re gonna get fucking crazy this weekend.”
Words can be violence. That’s basically what I told Mark, all those months ago. I said, Mark, you don't understand, you don't get it, not all fights begin when blood is drawn, God, you never get it. He said he didn't know we were fighting, much less arguing, as we waited for the elevator. I told him two weeks prior that he had to bring his share of the drinks to Holden and Sara’s place, but it had “completely slipped his mind.” He groaned, said I was overreacting; I studied him. I always studied him, especially when he was angry. I remember that he looked taller then than before when we were out on the street, waiting in blue streetlight; or perhaps he only seemed taller in memory, where everything was beautiful and inerrant.
Mark and I had met our freshman year of college. My mother convinced me to go to UNCW, as we had family there, even though my financial aid would’ve been a million times better if I had just stayed in Queens. I didn’t think to fight her on it. I was 600 miles from home and wanted to be somebody new; the thing nobody ever talks about, though, is that we all want to be somebody new. I craved two things: money and identity, and so I turned a quick buck by pretending to read tarot cards in the quad. They called me the “High Priestess,” which I guess was supposed to make me feel capital-I Important but instead made me cringe every time it was uttered. It was kind of sad, the way everybody wants to believe magic exists. But money was money. I’d turn cards over—Temperance, The Moon, The Magician—then improvise a fortune.
“You’re having financial problems, recently,” I said to one girl, sheepish and spacey—which, in truth, was interchangeable with all the girls across campus. “Maybe you need an additional reading. It’ll cost extra, though.”
And then they’d all fork over the necessary cash and I’d have enough money to order some takeout and eat it in my dorm alone. On my floor, listening to Dylan records, I considered drawing cards for myself, just to see what would happen. I drew The Fool, reversed—a man in a floral, smocked tunic, white rose in hand, head to the ground, standing away from the sun. Holding back, fear of the unknown, lonesome demeanor; disregard of others’ feelings. I shoved it back in the deck.
My money-making scheme was stopped when Mark approached me in the quad one day. I remember it clearly; he was wearing a red t-shirt underneath a black jacket, his hair a mop of wild curls, his voice boyish and clear. “Bullshit,” he said. “All of this is bullshit.”
“Nice outlook you got on the world, there, bud.”
“Then give me a reading,” he said, slamming a fiver on the table. “Prove it’s real.”
“Fine. Ask me a yes or no question.”
“Will I end up okay after college?”
I swayed my hands over the deck as if I was conjuring up an ancient power from the cards. He let out an involuntary giggle at my theatrics, then covered it up with a deeper, more masculine laugh, like he was trying to impress me.
“Ten of swords, upright,” I said, showing him the card: a man lying face-down in the dirt with ten rapiers impaled in the spine. “Unexpected failure or disaster, whereby a power beyond your control crushes you without warning or mercy. Sometimes you’ll be able to alter the course of the impending disaster, but most of the time you will simply have to let go and take the hit.”
“You sound very cheery for somebody who just resigned me to death.”
I rolled my eyes, shuffling the deck. “Well, I never said I believed in this shit.”
He laughed and handed the card back to me. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re very cute, but damn, dude,” he said, motioning to the table, “you’ve got to work on your sales pitch.”
I froze. “Well—sometimes the types of jewels on the blades mean different things, based on what deck you use. Look them up,” I took a pen out of my bag and circled the swords, and then, before he could fight me on it, wrote my phone number down.
“Call me again if you want another reading,” I said. “Maybe I can get it right next time.”
I never got it right, as there was no next time. Instead, I showed him my record collection—I thought Highway 61 Revisited was much better than Freewheelin’, he disagreed—and ordered takeout for two, the way we would do every Friday night until after graduation. We moved into an apartment together two weeks later and got married precisely one year after that on the dot, after careful planning and consideration, the same way we did everything.
By the time Carrie and I made it outside of Wadesboro, we had run out of things to say. Her hair, golden reeds, filled with air and swelled outward, billowing out of the window. We stopped, smoked some weed she’d stowed in the glove compartment, listened to music for a while, then let the high go down. Then we drove again. She drove the way Mark did: a little reckless on the long stretches and heedful on the turns, in a way that said I want you to think I’m gutsy but I’m secretly very, very scared.
Charlotte wasn’t much better in terms of conversation. In silence, we passed the itz-Carlton, the oyal, the movie theat-e, all the glowing R’s burnt out. The city was all sirens, red, lost time. Streets bled together. As we left the city, we passed the skeletons of tulip trees, and then Carrie broke the quiet.
“So,” she said. “Do you believe in witchcraft?”
“I’m pretty middle-of-the-road,” I told her. “Guess we’ll see when we get up there.”
“I’ve always believed. Always.” Her voice grew sharp. “My parents were real hippie types, that’s why we moved around so much. They were trying to find a place to fit in, all around the country. We moved to Oregon when I was in high school, and a few months later, we all became Pagan. First my mom, then my sisters, then me.”
“Interesting,” I responded, unsure exactly what else to say. “Moving around a lot, though, that must have been tough.”
“I liked it fine, though, I did. But my mama always says that anything alone is a haunting. Two or more things together are a terror. Mind you, I’d rather be a terror,” she laughed.
I didn’t quite understand what she meant by that, but I moved on. “You don’t get homesick? If you jump from city to city, do you, y’know, still stay in touch with people? I just—I couldn’t live that way, I don’t think.”
“People are people, and people are temporary,” she said. “For better or for worse.”
“So you don’t miss anybody?”
“No,” she told me, in earnest. “I think of it this way: I try and meet all the people I can, hear their stories, get touched by their lives . . . and sometimes that means the others fall behind. That’s what life’s about. At least that’s what I think. What do you think?”
“Think about what?”
“What life’s all about.”
“I don’t know,” I said, welcoming the silence back into the vehicle. “I don’t.”
Carrie was untouched by grief. That’s why I found her mesmerizing; she acted as if nothing had ever hurt her before. When she talked about the past, she never ruminated on things for too long. No longing, nostalgia, regret, as if to say that she had nothing to regret. She was the exact opposite of Mark; how fickle he was, how grounded in reality he just had to be. Marriage had made us coalesce, and I grew the same set of characteristics as he had, over time. Or maybe I was always that way and never realized it. Nevertheless, I was envious of Carrie’s freedom, and I didn’t want her to leave me like she did most people. At the time, I thought being around people who had a stronger backbone than I did made me have a stronger backbone, by proxy. I could give in, sink my teeth in, stop being so insatiable; the way Carrie could do it so intrinsically like disregard was born into her. I wanted to be that way so badly. Perhaps, looking back, that was where the trouble had started.
“Mark, Meredith,” Sara told us after she opened the door, her voice high and steely—like silver bells. “Come on in.”
Holden and Sara’s apartment was one of the last real gems this side of the Village; they’d moved there after graduation. They were originally Mark’s friends, but I’d gotten to know them well during our time in college. Sara made it a point to tell us the story of the apartment every time we visited them, usually when we flew up from Wilmington for a conference. She began it: it had belonged to a famous performance artist in the 1970s, and, at one time—according to the broker, anyhow—Warhol had come over for a party, and, in a coke-fueled frenzy, he demanded that the polyester carpet be peeled from the floor. Then, once he was finally placated, he put down layers of peacock-colored linoleum. His handiwork remained untouched; as the heels of my mary-janes clicked against it, I made note of how it was now streaked with faint shades of teal and Turkish blue. Maybe it had been weathered by time. Or maybe it was intentional—a product of Andy’s eye.
“Mark, honey,” I said, turning to him. “Maybe you should go back out and get the drinks.”
Sara nodded. “We don’t have a lot here. If that’s no trouble, I mean . . .”
He turned closer to the door. “If you think I should, sure, but maybe we could—”
“Mark,” Holden announced, emerging from the kitchen. “Leaving so soon?”
“Getting drinks. A few bottles of Morgan and Bacardi coming your way.”
“Attaboy. Mer, come in. I want to talk to you about something later.”
Mark mumbled goodbye’s under his breath, eyes looking down at his keys as if he was ashamed of his temporary role as the group’s courier. I grabbed his hand—an inflammatory response—and rubbed my thumb against his.
“Honey,” I said. “Be safe. Don’t forget your coat. Call me if you need me.”
And so he left and I floated towards Holden, the way I always did, his presence more authoritative than Mark’s—like I had something to lose if I didn’t pay him any attention. Holden was tall, blonde, Germanic in the face, with an aura that suggested that perhaps he’d be better suited for the 1950s—white sleeves pushed up to the elbow, loose tie, rough hands—painter’s hands—with his back slumped against the doorway, arms across his chest, as if he was waiting to be looked at.
We stood around the kitchen waiting for Mark to get back with the drinks—we were only allowed to drink in the kitchen, Sara said—nursing cups of mango Malibu that Holden had finally found buried in the back in the liquor cabinet, talking about college, talking about what we're doing now.
“Consulting is consulting,” I said. “Sara, how’s dealing going?”
“It’s going well. I just sold a piece to a gallery on Bleecker Street. It’s a crazy story, actually, we had . . .”
Sara’s voice faded into obscurity as I made eye contact with Holden, his hair moussed and slick, gold and poker-straight against his scalp. How weird it was to be in the same room as him again, I thought. The more we stared, the more we darkened by looking at each other.
We were snapped out of our mutual gaze by the sound of ringing, emanating from a buttery yellow rotary phone Sara had clearly picked out not for its functionality but for the retro design of it all. “Sorry, let me take this,” she said.
“It’s no problem,” I told her. “Mind if I use the bathroom?”
She shielded the phone away from her ear, pointed down the hallway, and mouthed three words to me: “Go right ahead.”
I walked down the hall—it was marked with a gaudy, dark green wallpaper printed with black and white swans taking flight—before I heard the steps of Holden behind me, his fingers wrapping themselves around the soft white skin of my wrist. I stopped in my tracks, turning around to face him for the final time.
“Hey,” Carrie announced. “We’re here.”
Witch country was about four stretches of clay road tucked between the mountains, lined with small shops, barns, and ramshackle dogtrot houses the color of rust and squash. On the outskirts of town sat a Food Lion, a post office, and what looked to be a dilapidated Dairy Queen, now a neon shell of concrete. Some of the women in the village called themselves witches; others said folk healer or granny woman was more politically correct. Whatever they were called, they were hagglers. Fifteen bucks for a protective charm; ten dollars for a dream-catcher; fifty smackers if you wanted some tea leaves to read.
“There’s a distinct line to be drawn between Southern tradition and these women,” Carrie told me. “It was different than, say, how my mama painted our porch ceiling in Louisiana a thick coat of blue in order to keep the haints away.”
I thought about how my elder cousin who'd moved to the city had started seeing naturopaths, letting complete strangers place their warm fingers on the back of her neck or scrape her naked body with polished wooden blades. These witchy women weren’t like that—they were healers, seers, midwives—part mysticism, part fatalism, all death-touched and autumn-raw.
Carrie and I walked through the village, passing women behind tables in dowdy dresses, their faces embossed with thin, fine lines, and their gray hair all tied back. They’d offer up their prices, and—as I had perfected in the years I’d lived in the city—I calmly raised a hand and gave an noncommittal grin, brushing them off. Carrie, however, clearly wasn’t raised to keep her head down. One woman—clothed in a flower-sprigged sack dress, her hair arranged a bit girlishly in dull, silver ringlets—asked Carrie to pay $70 for a pair of cheap-looking divining rods. She obliged, and it made me wonder how much Carrie had spent in total during her trips to witch country. You’d have to factor in a lot of variables– gas money, food, lodging—and all the little trinkets she obtained during her pilgrimages. Her glove compartment had been full of them: anklets, votive candles, a broken wooden staff, to name a few.
“Meredith,” she said. “Are you not getting anything?”
“Maybe later. I just want to get my bearings a bit.”
“Suit yourself,” Carrie told me, moving onto another table.
I moved along with her and came upon a booth adorned with little vials of colored water—rich pinks, soft yellows, little petals floating around a clear liquid. I picked one up. The woman behind the table—no, in fact, a girl, maybe even younger than me, equal parts sylphlike and well-muscled—was adorned with a marker bearing the name Willow, scrawled in choppy handwriting. She raised her eyebrows.
“What is all this, exactly?” I asked her.
“Kind of like a perfume, kind of like essential oils,” she said. “Some can relax the mind, soul, body, others can energize it, increase your chances for a baby, maybe—”
“Ten dollars a bottle.”
I picked up two vials, the pink and the clear petals. “Which two are these?”
“The pink one’s hibiscus, the clear one is jasmine.”
I quickly put the jasmine vial back, unable to bear the thought of the last time I had worn it; sure, it had been an actual perfume, but it was too similar to risk. I pulled a ten-dollar bill out of my pocket, placed it in her hands, grabbed the hibiscus, then made my way after Carrie, intent on distracting myself before the past crept back into my brain.
His gaze touched me before his hands did. Holden spun me around, then pulled me into an alcove near the stairs, making his way closer to me, into the radius of my jasmine perfume—the only bit of traditional femininity I tried to observe—and then he kissed my neck.
“You haven’t called me back in weeks,” he whispered. “I’ve texted, I’ve called, I tried sending letters—”
“We can’t,” I told him, pushing him off of me. “Keep doing this. We can’t.”
“I say.” I smoothed my smocked blouse down, then readjusted my collar. “It’s wrong. Plain and simple.”
He laughed and raked his hands through his hair. “Since when have you been big on propriety?”
I first kissed him at a party in the apartment; I last kissed him at a party in the apartment. It wasn’t like I didn’t love Mark—I certainly didn’t love Holden—but I needed to feel something. I wanted something sharp to wake me up. No city allowed us to haunt corners and have affairs like New York did; no other place existed where we could contrive such insane, bending coils around morality. Everything in the city was ubiquitous, a little hazy if you didn’t pay enough attention. Nobody paid enough attention, and so that’s how our relationship worked. And so, there we were, in Holden and Sara’s apartment, on the subway, at the Met, in his bedroom, in my hotel room, having our clandestine rendezvous, him getting off on the surge of power and promiscuity, me doing anything just to feel something again. Holden was the knife I explored myself with; I tolerated him despite the all the pain he caused me, all the arrogance radiating off of his chest, and he loved me despite all the indifference clinging to my lips and the boredom drying at their corners. What a pair we made.
Last time we met in the city—a few weeks prior, I had flown up—he told me he loved me. Well, not quite. He looked at me, wearing his dress shirt, bottling up the wine, and said the most pathetic phrase I’d ever heard: “Do you want me to love you?” It was something about it that made me feel so gross and spineless; and, so, I left the city that day intent on ending our relationship.
“It’s just wrong,” I reiterated. “I’m done.”
“Then tough luck.” I turned out of the alcove, but he pulled me back in.
“Look—God—okay. Sara wants a baby. And I just . . . I think I’m going to leave her. I want you to move up here. There are already a few apartments I’ve been looking at in Bedstuy, they’re not the biggest but they’re—”
“Listen, I love Mark. I’m staying with him.”
He laughed. “Do you really?”
“Yes, I do—”
“Does he make you laugh? Does he make you happy?”
I grabbed him by the wrist and deepened my register. “He doesn’t make me unhappy.”
Shoving him off, I slinked down the hallway, then quietly entered the bathroom. After locking the door, I examined my face in the mirror: red cheeks, tired eyes, and an apoplectic mouth. Then I considered the trade: I gave Holden my isolation, my numbness, my uncertainty; in return, he gave me the hunger of his heart. Not the most lucrative deal. And then you had to factor in the innocents: Mark and Sara, both tender-hearted and irreproachable, thrust into No Man’s Land to fend for themselves. And, at the time, I thought that maybe that’s what love really was: deception, artillery fire, then silence.
“Hey,” Carrie said. “You hungry? There’s only one restaurant but it ain’t half-bad.”
Carrie took us to a diner on the edge of town, where a teenager in purple chevron stockings worked as the hostess. She smacked her gum—when she opened her mouth, I counted the teeth missing, around four—then sat us in a booth and took our respective orders. Carrie got the banana-nut pancakes and some coffee; I got a burger and some Cheerwine.
After our food was brought out, she leaned into me, across the cream leather of the booth. “Between you and me, this whole town is a big tourist trap. Except for Ronella. Ronella’s the real deal.”
“She’s the best seer here,” she told me, cutting into her pancakes and stuffing them into her mouth, bite by bite. “She’s omniscient to a T.”
We swallowed our food down, not talking to one another, intently listening to the sounds of yacht rock ringing out of the jukebox. The diner wasn’t particularly well-kempt; the leather covering the booths was breaking, revealing plumes of dirt-colored foam; the lights flickered in and out; dishes and cups from earlier patrons still lined tables; napkins were scattered on the ground. The only thing you could do in this place, it seemed, was to eat as fast as you could and get out as fast as you could.
“Had gotten married, you said,” Carrie started. “Earlier, in the car, I mean. Had. Past-tense. Divorced?”
I almost choked on my fries. “No—”
“Separated, then? Been there, done that, let me tell you,” she laughed.
“No.” I thumbed the rim of my drink, eyes glued to the ice shrinking in the glass, then swallowed. “He passed away. Around twelve-odd months ago.”
“Yeah. I’m okay, though. Well, not really. But I will be, eventually.”
“I understand. Getting over it probably takes some time.”
“Well, I mean, it’s not like I can ever really get over it. Believe me, I’ve tried. I asked everybody I knew after it happened, you know, how long does it usually take to get over it? And everybody told me that the day I decided I was over it, I was over it. But I don’t want to decide. Deciding erases him, I think. And that’s why—that’s why you never get over it.”
She was silent for a few moments, eating her food, then opened her mouth again. “No, I get it. It’s like he’s laced in your bones . . . and you don’t know how to untangle the strings—”
“No. No. God, it’s not that fucking melodramatic. That’s not how grief works. I just miss him. In no big spiritual way, okay? In a quite simple desperate futile human way. I want to see him when I get home from work, go to the movies, get dinner together again . . . just see him again . . .”
Carrie rested her hand on mine, smiling. “And you can see him. Ronella can help.”
I pulled my hand away. “God, you’re really that dense, aren’t you?”
“Look, it’s not my fault if you don’t know how grief works because you’ve never cared about another person.”
“I’m never going to see him again. Don’t act like I am. That’s just cruel.”
“But Ronella, whoever she is,” I said to her, “is just trying to turn a quick buck. Believe me, I know. I came up here with you to have a good time, okay? To try and get away from my life. Not to get healed.”
“Wow,” she told me, low and breathy, masked by a bit of a laugh. “You must be really damaged if you don’t want to see your husband again.”
“Don’t,” I started. “You don’t know what grief is. You don’t know half the pain of it. It’s like, how do you make it through life, man? Just meeting people, constantly, and then dropping them when you get bored? How do you put your body through it? You don’t. Don’t act all empathetic when I’m talking about caring about somebody like you have some sort of muscle memory.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“You want to help so bad? Stay out of my shit.”
I slammed my fist onto the table, sending silverware winging its way to the ceiling then surfacing back onto the table. The other diner patrons stared in our direction, while Carrie, hurt in a way that couldn’t be described in words, shifted her eyes away from me while she ate her pancakes. Then there was me, grabbing a copy of the town newspaper from a stack next to the door, killing time.
They found Mark’s body on the corner of East 14th Street and Avenue A. A taxi had off-roaded onto the sidewalk and sent him flying, legs parallel to the sky, skull to concrete; a paper bag of drinks spilling down the drain pipe. I remember the police officer well, sitting on Sara’s couch—he looked like the buffalo on the tail side of an old nickel: all shaggy and blunt-snouted, with a hunched back jilted up to the sky, maybe out of deformity, maybe out of shame, holding his hat.
He had told me it was instantaneous, like that was something that would make me feel better about the situation. It’s not like I wanted Mark to suffer, obviously—but it was a little dehumanizing for his final exit to be all pithy and completely transitory. One minute here, the next gone, like he wasn’t even a person, but rather something fleeting and incorporeal.
I started daydreaming as Officer Buffalo talked about all the technicalities—was I suing the cab company, what funeral home should his body be transported to, did I want an autopsy, Miss I just need you to talk to me, Miss I just need you to look at me, Miss, just look at me, please, just look at me, Miss, Miss, Miss. The only way I could stop myself from wailing, fists to the carpet, was to daydream. Root myself in something unreal. Then maybe I could make the real unreal. I dreamt, at that moment, that Holden, all sleek and full of hell, came over and put his hand on my shoulder, overstepping his boundaries. I’d yell, I’d kick, I’d scream, tell him that it was over, everything was over, don’t insert yourself into this, go talk to Sara, Sara, I’m so fucking sorry, you didn’t deserve this, Holden don’t you understand, it’s over, Mark probably knew we were together and threw himself in front of that car on purpose. Then he’d retreat for once in his life. I would get even. I would get some retribution for Mark. I would get the final blow.
In reality, though, Officer Buffalo was still hammering on about how sorry he was for me and how he knew of some group therapy sessions through his church. And Holden, in reality, sat on the other side of the room, not looking at me, his body damned with quiet and marked without any color. He didn’t touch me. He didn’t need to. His presence affected me in such a way that I felt breathless, claustrophobic, even as I was only twelve feet away from him.
“Meredith,” Sara told me after the police had left, raking her hair behind her neck. “If you don’t want to spend the night at the hotel, feel free to sleep here. It’s no trouble at all.”
And so I took her up on it, a little out of guilt, a little out of necessity. I slept in the guest room, in the very bed Holden and I spent countless nights in; green linen sheets with thin toffee stripes. Next to me sat a bedside table lined with a glass of water and two Advil Sara had laid out for me, along with a book we had talked about earlier in the kitchen that I’d been dying to read. “If you wake up and can’t sleep,” Sara had told me, placing it on the table’s wood. The room made me feel dainty, immature, like I was a child again, getting tucked in by my parents. I rolled over, out of routine, and squeezed the pillow next to me, forgetting Mark would not be there. I woke up at the sound of a cough being sent out from the doorway.
“Hey,” Holden whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t need you to be sorry.”
My rudeness didn’t deter him. “What do you need me to do? I’ll—I’ll do anything.”
“Tell me, then,” I said. “How to get through it.”
“I don’t know,” he told me. “I don’t think you can get through it. Pain doesn’t really have discrete edges, it moves and bleeds into everything. So maybe try going around it.”
“Hey, Holden, I—I think I know something else you can do.”
“Anything, anything . . .”
I sat up in bed and looked him dead in the eye. “Make yourself useful and go the hell to sleep.”
It was the last thing I’d ever say to him. He reminded me so much of Carrie: cheesy truisms all wrapped up in bows, trying to help me, with both of their hearts splintered into thin shards when it was revealed I was not the type of person looking to be fixed. Instead, I was the type of person who withered into their silent center—all in all, across the years, I would never stop having enough of people trying to make a good thing out of me.
“I want to see Ronella,” Carrie said. Ronella lived in the biggest house in the village; it jutted up from the hilltop, crusted with Antebellum detailing and flanked with long, white columns. Kudzu and dirt had both found their way into the cornices and indentations in the pediment. Ronella was the oldest seer in town, according to Carrie. She saw her the last time she came up. When we got up to the door, we didn't even need to knock—Ronella swung the door open and invited us inside, shuffling past her plastic-covered couch.
“Carolyn, nice to see you again,” Ronella said, a round, sad-looking woman in an old-fashioned dress, her gray hair edged with two silver clips set with pearls in the pattern of Asiatic lilies. “And you are?”
“Meredith,” I told her. “You have a lovely home.”
The house was all candles and incense and macramé plant hangers. I sat on the ottoman, a soft claret color, next to Carrie, while Ronella sat in a Victorian-style chair across the way, pouring holly tea. I knew Carrie felt me watching her and so I watched as she shifted her thighs closer to the edge of the seat; then she took her gum out, bound it in its silver wrapper, then stuck it in the ashtray, crossing her arms. I guessed that meant I wasn’t supposed to observe her, so I faced front.
“No time for pleasantries,” Carrie said, guiding Ronella’s hand—and the kettle inside of her grasp—away from her teacup. “I know what I want.”
“And what would that be?” Ronella asked. “The usual?”
“Yes.” She swallowed, then looked at me. “A commune with the dead.”
“Okay, well, then . . . but if it’s fine with you, Carrie, why don’t we give our guest a turn first? Let her get her bearings and such.”
“Sure, that’s fine with me.”
“Meredith,” Ronella said. “Do you have any loved ones you’d like to reach?”
I felt Carrie’s eyes on me, then knew what I needed to say. “No,” I told her, blowing air out of my teeth.
Ronella straightened her posture. “Alright, then I guess we’ll be moving on—”
“She does,” Carrie interjected in a bruised voice. “She has someone. She’s a widow, she told me all about it.”
Ronella turned towards me. “Well . . . it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try, dear. We’ll do yours after Carrie’s. I mean, after all, what would you say to him—I’m sorry, what was your husband’s name?”
“Okay,” she said, “what would you say to Mark if you never got the chance to see him again?”
I paused for a brief moment, eyes affixed to a plant hanging in the corner, then looked back at her. “What would I have said to him if I’d known I would never see him again? I . . . I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d say what I said before it happened. Be safe. Don’t forget your coat. Call me if you need me.”
Ronella and Carrie shared a look that reminded me of the looks I shared with Sara, back before all the chaos surfaced. The looks we gave one another when Mark and Holden were talking about football, video games, music; a look that yoked us together and established them as Other. Suddenly, I knew, in Ronella and Carrie’s eyes that I, now, was the Other. The city folk who didn’t understand how witches worked, the unperson—them versus me.
“Meredith,” Ronella restated. “We’re doing yours after Carrie’s. Just watch it and you can see how freeing it is. Now, onto you, Carrie.”
Ronella began Carrie’s ceremony with a sagacious, measured presence, like the act of a seance was somewhere between a ceremony and a chore. She drew the curtains, lit lavender votive candles, then took Carrie's pink hands in hers. A moment later, she asked for my hands, too, then told us to take our shoes off.
“We need to complete the circle, dear,” she told me. “No spectators allowed.”
And so the ceremony began, Ronella and I standing in silence, Carrie quietly humming.
“Anne,” Carrie breathed out. “Anne, can you hear me? It’s me, your sister, it’s Carrie. I’m here.”
I looked at Carrie, then thought about the diner, her big doe eyes glossed over, about to cry into those pancakes after I accused her of not knowing how grief worked. I felt the same way I did when Holden asked if I wanted him to love me: ashamed, pathetic, a little gauche. Then I thought about the present, with Carrie standing there in that circle, thrashing blindly against the invisible, with nothing left to do but admit to herself that despite all her efforts, she was not in control.
“Can you see her?” Ronella asked. “Can you see her, here in the dark?”
“I—I can’t.” Carrie broke the circle, then began pouting, then blubbering, like a child. “I hate it fading away. I hate it echoing away. I hate it leaving me. I hate losing it, Ronella. I hate losing it.”
“It’s alright. We’ll start again. Bring the energy closer to you, dear.”
We reformed the circle and started again, Carrie taking a big deep breath. “Anne,” she sobbed. “Please come to me.”
As Carrie’s pleas continued, my heart began racing, anxiety threading itself throughout my body. There were two horrors in my head: what if I see Mark again and what if I don’t? Or, if he was somewhere out there, what if he just chose not to respond to me? Or maybe he wasn’t out there at all, to begin with. Maybe he died the way he thought the universe worked: six feet gouged out of the Earth, body resting, rotting in loam, mind detached from the body, surfacing in blackness, forever. Then any “ceremony” these women would force me to conduct would all be for naught, and there he would be, Mark, eighteen again in his red shirt and black jacket, looking at me and my cards, calling bullshit on the hereafter.
Her flared chiffon skirt went askew, and Carrie, now looking like a featherless peacock, turned her pleas into sobs and then her sobs into shrieks—animal screams from the pit of her diaphragm. Anne, where are you? Anne, why can't you come back? Anne, are you here? Anne, please! Please! As Carrie's volume crescendoed, with an undulating, galloping quality, I, without thinking, pulled my hands to my sides, then ran out the kitchen door, unable to take the noise anymore, unable to see myself in the circle, crying out for Mark, my body drenched in heartache. I did the only thing me or Carrie, really, knew how to do when the going got tough—I left.
The clay road seared against my bare feet, but I didn't have time to go back for my shoes. By the time I was halfway down the road, I had realized that I had somehow gotten in and taken Carrie's car, my hands shivering against the metal of the wheel. I could hear her yelling my name down the way, but didn't think to look in the rearview mirror. I just kept going—a village talisman around my wrist—and drove back over the mountainside, my body on autopilot. It was as if, once the car was started up, there was no slowing down, no stopping; just careening down the way. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror; my cheeks glossed with sweat, my eyes something animal, like I had finally figured out how good it felt to just let go.
I wondered, at the time, and still wonder now, if Mark had a say in death. He never believed in any type of higher power, but I was ambivalent. Maybe, just maybe, he was flung into outer space, and something kind asked him if he’d like to go back—that it was completely up to him, that his body was salvageable and that the world was waiting for him to return. I knew Mark well enough to know what he would say: “No, thanks, I’ve had enough.” He wasn’t coming back. I knew that. Carrie didn’t.
Mark, like grief, still lived in things. His smell: Irish Spring, sweat, leather. He would lurk forever in ordinary things. In coat hangers. Malibu bottles. Thick tar on highways. Blue streetlights. Records. In certain colors. In the changing of the seasons. In the absence of words. And in the emptiness of a dining room, marked by a table setting with no cup left to fill. That, in my eyes, was what Carrie had meant about one thing being a haunting and two things being a terror. It would be one thing if Mark died and that was that. But Mark died and I still beat on, desultory, into the future. That’s two things. That’s the terror.
The problem with Carrie was that she was lost in that very real, fixed sense that there was nothing beyond her own experience. To her, whether she admitted it or not, I think she thought that there was only one way things could go in this world, and she was waiting for the hand of God to lead her down the hallway and welcome her into the room, the room where the rest of her life waited, embryonic, ready to burst. It was sad thinking about how most of us never got there. Mark certainly didn’t. Or, maybe, in death, he did, I don’t know. Sometimes, like Carrie, though, you can live a whole life skittering across the surface as the years passed, unblessed, anticipating, heaving and begging like a half-burnt dog, then—before you know it—you’re unchosen, peripheral, dead.
At night, all these years later, I think about Carrie's wounded desperation—her act of feral grief—and how cyclical it was. She'd been to witch country before and there was no doubt in my mind that she'd visit in the future with another stranger—she’d find somebody else to shack up with and make her way to the mountains. Carrie, Sisyphus. Carrie, burning out. She would burn and burn out, then she would get healed and come back again. Dreams were cyclical like that, too. Nowadays, I go to sleep and try to change what had happened that day; I try and apologize to Carrie in that car, in that diner, in that circle. Every time I dream about it, though, it always ends the same way: I run away, I get in the car, I leave her. I run away, I get in the car, I leave her. I run away, I get in the car, I leave her, and all of the candles go out.