I thought, after, about that moment, over and over, what would have happened if I had simply taken his arm and gone home with him. But, like Lot’s wife, I had to look back at the familiar, at the river. I liked to walk beside it in the daylight. “Look at the moon,” I whispered. Clouds streamed across its face. The wind carried a scent of dry leaves and frost and distant smoke. Something on the air, something on the way.
I had been a witch since I was fifteen. One of my parents worked every weekend, most often, both. My grandfather just said church wasn’t for him. He spent Sundays in his woodshop. My sisters and I got stuck at the old, musty Methodist Church between my grandmother and my aunt. I always ended up beside my grandmother, which I thought was rather stupid because Paige was so young and my aunt always had to carry her downstairs to the nursery. Reading fantasy novels led me to the folklore shelves in the library, and on the other side of those shelves were the books on religion. The Spiral Dance had a red cover and was like a forbidden fruit in a garden of dry and bitter things. I stood reading it until my legs started to ache. I took the book to a quiet room and sat in a cubicle, reading, reading, until a librarian tapped on the glass door. The library was closing. It was almost five on Saturday afternoon. I took the book home and copied much of it by hand into a notebook. I still had the notebook.
I hid my first altars in plain sight by using dollar store figurines as goddesses and other cheap knickknacks, even Christmas decorations, to decorate the altars. My mother thought nothing of my using my grandmother’s old cut-glass salt and pepper shakers as vases for violets and other little wildflowers. My grandmother gave me a little allowance for vacuuming and dusting her house every week. I used it to buy “witchcraft” books that I hid at the bottom of my hamper, the one place my sisters would never look. My mother made us do our own laundry. She laughed long and hard when I fessed up as an adult.
After my grandfather’s death, I took the stepladder from its place on the garage wall. Up in the rafters, I found old bottles with dead flower bouquets, and a wooden box. I took everything, replaced the ladder, and swept away my footprints in the pea stones. My grandmother was still alive, and my aunt might take anything out of the house or any other building on the property.
It was a rough handmade box, like something my grandfather had carved before he even became an apprentice woodworker. There were newspaper clippings, photos, and a postcard. A woman stood at what seemed to be the edge of a cliff, with little boys surrounding her knees. Someone had written Morton shaky pencil over one dark-haired boy. I touched the name. Most heartbreaking, someone had scratched out the face of my great-grandmother, probably, I thought, my great-grandfather’s second wife, after my great-grandmother died in childbirth. There were no other pictures of my great-grandmother in existence.
“I’ve already eaten. I’m just going to have another glass of wine. She’d like coffee,” he said to the waitress.
We sat in companionable silence. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lights of the bookstore go dark. “Oh, shit,” I said. “What time is it?”
“After eight,” he replied. “Your friend is going home, so now you’re alone with me. You aren’t going to turn into a mouse or a pumpkin or some other damned thing and leave me sitting here with nothing in my hands but a glass slipper, are you?”
I laughed. “No, I’m afraid that you’re stuck with plain old me.”
Slivers of unopened buttercups stood as tall as the new grass. I walked in my sock feet to the corner of the house. The stump of the old oak tree was at the back of the yard, between the house and garden, and I didn’t have my glasses, but I could see that new trees had grown from the coppice and that there was a royal purple carpet at their base.
Shay’s friends didn’t like our house. Most of them lived in old houses, but our house was confusing to outsiders. No one else had two kitchens, or windows that opened into other rooms. It was hard for me to be in normal houses, houses that were bright and had rooms that stayed in place. As I got older and started drawing, I sketched the floor plan over and over. It began to seem almost like a labyrinth.
I’ve been mulling over this story for a long time, and I finally got the idea for the beginning when we had a very small tornado a couple of months ago. I didn’t see the actual tornado, but my next door neighbor did.
The oak tree on the hill in the field across the road went down in the tornado.
I heard the siren on the nearby firehouse but didn’t associate it with the storm. I had been on the phone with my sister Shay when I heard the flue over the stove rattling. I glanced out the window and saw the undersides of the maple leaves. The laundry. I got off the phone and ran outside, and I was fighting to hold onto the sheets and get the quilt off the line when I heard a shrieking, tearing sound. The wind almost blew me off my feet. My neighbors’ cat ran across my yard towards her house and I thought, why is she not blowing away? I made it in the back door, pulled with all my strength to close the storm door, and ran to the front door. Something flew from one side of the screened porch to the other, a cushion from the glider. The swirling clouds enveloped the small hill in the field. The odd thing that I told the neighbors about late that night was the way the tornado lingered on the hill before passing on and leaving the giant old oak wrenched out of the earth. I was so appalled that I couldn’t take my eyes off the downed tree, and I missed the tornado’s disappearance.
My house faced a county road that crossed a two-line highway. Brenda said that tornado had followed the highway, then veered into the field at a ninety-degree angle.
“Them storms do strange things,” the lineman said. The tornado had taken branches from trees along the highway. The power lines were down in multiple places. “Shame about that old tree. Reckon people will stop calling it Oak Hill Crossroads?”
“I doubt it,” Brenda said. She ran a finger under each eye, but the tears had already tracked the mascara down her cheeks. “It’s been Oak Hill for over a hundred years.”
“What’s going to happen to the tree?” I asked. I had only lived at the crossroads for two months, and I wanted to cry.
“Don’t affect county property or our equipment. Up to the land owner,” he said, before he walked back out to one of the trucks.
A gust of wind stirred Brenda’s wavy blonde hair. “You got propane for your genny?” she asked.
Brenda was in her early thirties. I was thirty-seven. She was barely five feet tall. I was only five foot six, and I could look down on the top of her head. She was in a tie-dyed red tee shirt, leggings, and flip-flops. Her toenails were painted red. They looked like wild strawberries in the grass. She and her girlfriend lived next door, in a log cabin style house with a blue tin roof. When I moved into my house, Brenda came over with a bottle of white zinfandel and a tray full of handmade hors d’oeuvres, and she made sure that I knew how to use the generator. We were on well water because we were outside the city limits, even though our addresses and zip codes said that we lived in the city. We were largely on our own. I had known that before I bought the house, and I had taken all of Brenda’s advice for a power outage and still, I was afraid to move from that spot in the yard. Already the sun had dipped low enough in the sky to glitter through leaves in the very tops of the trees, but not the oak. Never again.