The answers, along with the wicked and the not so wicked, the prisoners of invocation—they have always been in the pines. It is one of the reasons our family has ended up surrounded by them in every life, these familiar souls who have come back time after time. Unlearned, out of sync, they are meant to see what others do not. It is all there for whoever takes the time to see it, along the lines of these wise trees, their bark like the deeply set wrinkles of the ancestors our family has lost over the years.
Then again, if my daughters had been able to see their truths as I have always seen them or held the sort of wisdom these trees are akin to, then there would be no story to tell. And that, dearest witches, would be unfortunate. A story is quite like another lifeform; it is its own energy. I would hate for any life to be kept in the dark, and that is saying a lot, for I have lived many, many lives.
The night it began, in this particular lifetime, my familiar, Mr. Jackel, was sitting next to my foot. Had any stranger stumbled upon the two of us, they may have very well confused him for a statue. He was still because I was still. His feline energy aligned with mine, his neck erect, as he listened to the howls inside what my daughter Olivia always referred to as the folds. Though his eyes were centered before him, they weren’t looking at any particular ghost or goblin—he, as well as I, was only searching. Searching for what we could feel but could not see.
I’d turned on the dim lamp from the porch to witness the snowflakes falling to the forest floor, as big and sparkly as winter fey. The snow grew heavier and the wind began to howl. I could no longer see the pines, for the forest was a blur of white streaks painted over the black canvas of night. The recent blizzard had caused night to fall early, but in the case of this family, darkness, like an oversized cape, had fallen over our coven years ago.
My sister Lana, my husband Ron, and I built this forest retreat before our children were born. We built it with only our wands, and in the case of my non-magical husband, his bare hands. We called it Sage Brook because of what grew next to the creek that ran through the property. The retreat was usually closed this time of year. We shut down just after Yule and reopened after Imbolc, the first day of February. According to an old Gaelic tradition, the Queen of Winter would decide on that day whether she desired to have a longer winter. Winter would be extended if the day was sunny because she could go out and gather more firewood to stay warm, but if it was gray and cold then spring would come early. But Imbolc hadn’t yet arrived, so even if it had been gray on the first day of February, the retreat would still be vacant. The only souls, besides us, taking residence in the forest on
this night were those who came without bodies.
“What is it you are searching for, Arianna?” Lana asked. I didn’t need to feel her hot breath on my neck to know she was standing just behind me.
I brought my hand up to the glass pane embedded into the door, feeling the chill from the blistering wind kiss my warm hand from the other side. Without turning, I replied in a wispy voice. “There’s more than one storm brewing out there. Wherever it is, it’s about ready to show itself.”
It was a curse that plagued our family. One small misstep in a lifetime, buried by so much dirt it could fill a crater. A curse that came for us in each new life, stealing the lives of witches. As I stood there, the stench of rotting flesh surrounded by ocean water filled my senses, and I knew it was only moments before the curse struck us yet again.
I turned and faced my slightly younger sister. Nine months apart. Our mother had always said we’d wanted to be twins but that Lana had missed the first train. She’d returned to the kitchen table, her hands clasped around a steaming mug of tea, two empty shooters of whiskey next to it. Next to her, my husband Ron sat behind a newspaper to which he was only pretending to pay attention. He may not have had a magical bone in his body, but it didn’t take a witch to know that today had been marked for a curse. It was in the air—I’d known from the second I woke up that morning. So had he and so had Lana.
“Have you heard back from Olivia?” Lana asked, her stony features firmly pressed into their places of rest.
“She texted me back,” I said of my oldest daughter. “She said that she’s down with a cold. She didn’t seem to be aware that anything was off.”
Lana scoffed. “Her awareness is not especially one to be trusted these days.”
I sealed my lips together before retorting. “When one is haunted, it doesn’t matter how far they look in the other direction, the haunter will always find them. My Olivia may have run, but she cannot hide, and I very much believe she knows this as well. Her time in hiding is coming to an end.”
Ron looked from me to Lana, before folding up his paper and placing it over the table's
surface. “Well, I’m starvin’ waitin’ for whatever it is that’s out there to show itself to us. How about I make us somethin’ to eat?”
My husband never got the chance to tell us what he had in mind to make for dinner. He didn’t have a chance to even scoot his chair back . . . to take the last swig of coffee from his mug. For in that moment, the shrillest scream I’d ever heard in this life shook every cabinet, every glass pane, every chair, every book—every last lingering spell in this house, and I knew immediately whose lungs that scream had come from.
A small cry escaped my lips as Ron gripped the table and Lana sat straight up, the back of her neck matching my familiar’s.
“Ellie,” was all she said.
I jerked my head to the side, waiting for more—to hear my youngest daughter cry out to me yet again. When she didn’t, it took me but a half second to sprint from where I stood next to the glass door to the scrying bowl I kept charged under the skylight in the living room. Mostly, I waited to see my lost grandson’s face in that watered reflection, but at that very moment all I wanted to see was her. And I didn’t mean Ellie.
“Rowena . . .” I whispered our curser's name so softly that my loved ones wouldn’t be able to hear. My voice was saturated with a hatred meant to draw her out, for that is what she fed upon—hate and fear. Pain. And that name she used—it was but a disguise.
The water rippled inside the bowl, but no face appeared. No shadow. Just an indulgent snicker.
“Nice trick, witch. But do you think one little zap from your spell can keep me away? She lies alone on the closet floor, your Ellie . . . She lies without air . . .”
“You deceive me,” I said back to the invisible monster, my teeth clenched, my hand coming up to meet the necklace strung around my neck—the lock I’d kept in place from the moment I made these charms for myself and my daughters. It had warmed. The spell was in action.
The water continued
to ripple as the whispered cackle persevered. “If I’m not mistaken, you were warned that there would be consequences when you messed with your family’s curse. The game has changed, as have the rules. I will have a witch today, Arianna. It is up to you who I lay my hands on. Ellie is weak. Your spell will only last so long to protect her life.”
The rippling water stilled, and just like that she was gone. It . . . it was gone.
When I finally turned around, I found Ron and Lana staring at me. In my husband’s hand, his phone. “Ellie’s not answering,” he said.
Of course she wasn’t. That scream had been real. That vile energy had my child’s life in its rotted-out hands.
I started to say something, but Lana beat me to it.
“Your lock, Arianna—it has turned red.”
I stared down at the little charm. One of three formed into my hands after locking words with the goddess so many years ago, in the lake that stood just outside this home. The charms were part of a protection spell, or at least that’s what I’d told my girls.
“Never take these off, my little witches,” I’d said to my daughters so very long ago. Ellie had been five and Olivia, ten. “If you ever need me, the necklaces will know, and my magic will keep you safe.” I’d clasped a key around each of their necks, and we’d danced under the marrying tree and watched as the snow fell over our shoulders in August.
My daughters didn’t know then, nor did they know now—all grown up—that it was never a protection spell. It was a spell I’d created under a shower of stars to end a curse plaguing our family for ages. A curse only I knew the origins of because only I could see as clearly into our past lives as my sister Lana could see into the future, as Ellie could create magic from the strings of her violin, and as Olivia could communicate with spirits.
I knew the origins of she who called herself Rowena, and I knew why she came back to us
in every life, plucking witches from our family tree like pine needles from skinny branches. I knew why my two daughters fell away from each other in each life, even hated one another. I knew why Ellie struggled with love, and why Olivia always gave up and danced in any direction other than where she was supposed to be. I knew all these things and I was sick of them. So I created a spell. When Rowena was ready to strike at any one of us, when the time was right, then the truth of her identity would finally come out.
The spell wasn’t foolproof; Olivia’s son’s disappearance early in his life was proof of that, and my goddess warned me that there would be consequences for breaking into such dark magic. But in every new life I was their mother, and in every new life I had to watch them make the same mistakes over and over. I had had enough.
Before walking back into the kitchen, I looked past my sister and husband. As I reached for my coat and car keys, I whispered softly, “It has Ellie. I must go to the city. I have to—”
“It? Who or what is it? Who has Ellie?” Lana questioned.
Only myself and my Olivia knew Rowena’s name.
“Arianna—” Ron started, a crack to his voice.
I squared myself with him, placing my hands over his shoulders. “We’ve spoken about this. We knew this day was in the cards.”
“What are you talking about?” Lana’s eyes, almost accusatory, landed on my husband. “What has she told you that she hasn’t told her own blood?” When neither of us answered, she pleaded in a very unconventional way for her. “At least let me come with you. It is ten degrees out there and the plows won’t come out until tomorrow.”
“I must go on my own.”
“This is stupid, Sister.”
“No Lana, this is a trade.” Somehow, I knew that’s exactly what this was.
There was nothing but silence in the house in the moments that followed my speech, just the sound of the wind howling out of doors. Finally, Ron pulled me in closer so I could feel his heart beating against my own.
“Be careful,” he whispered into my ear.
The skin over my face tightened. Several lifetimes I’d spent with this man, loving him more in every new body I lived in, and now I wasn’t entirely sure when I would see him again. If ever. “I love you so, my heart.” Pulling away, I studied him. “I think it’s time you get that extra guest room back in order.” He raised his eyebrows in question. “Olivia will need a place to stay when she returns.”
He lowered his chin and nodded softly.
“Olivia?” Lana questioned from where she stood, off to the side like a disheveled coatrack.
Biting down over my lip, I stiffened my jaw so I would not cry. Rowena may not have been showing herself, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t purring over my shoulder, waiting for me to break—to quit what I had started all those years ago when I messed with her curse.
“Broom Head,” Lana said, calling me by the name my upsetting hair had earned me when we were just kids. For the first time in our lives I saw a hint of moisture in my sister’s eyes. “The magic coming from your necklace—it’s not emanating protection. That was never your spell’s intention, was it?”
I blinked but said nothing. Secrets were not something Lana and I kept from one another, but for what I’d started under those falling stars to manifest, I had to let all the elements unravel on their own. It was the only way.
“I have to go,” I said. And after one last kiss over my husband’s cheek and one last glance at my sister, I took the door handle in my hand and said to them both before walking out into the storm, “Take care of Sage Brook . . . and watch over my girls.”
Mr. Jackel’s fierce meow was the last thing I heard before the wind slapped my face, and the howls from the spirits I could not see as easily as my first born cried for me to turn around.
My necklace continued to glow a vibrant red as I drove through the snow-packed roads. It took me an hour to get to the highway, and another thirty minutes to get anywhere near Denver, but I was never destined to get to Ellie. I knew, the second I saw the ghostly figure of a witch, with long straggly dark hair down to her backside, her black dress drenched
in the ocean water that she drowned me in the first time—I knew that for Ellie to regain the air she’d lost, it would have to be taken from my lungs.
All I saw before the crash was that same wicked grin I’d seen so many lives ago. The vile expression was painted over the canvas of a witch I’d known when she’d been happy . . . before she’d known pain, and before pain made her body into a monster.
Her song was the last thing I heard after my car slid across the highway and crunched against the guard rail. A song that could chill its listeners to the bone. A shiver ran down my spine as the image of a forest full of pines filled in around the snowflakes. Her words ringing in my head as the car fell from the bridge down into the street below.
Her laughter faded away into the recesses of my mind. And then my spirit left my body. Mostly.
Six Months Later
When I was a little girl, I asked my mother if evil was born evil, just as we were born witches, or as my father was born without magic. She returned my question with one of her own. “What do you think, my Olivia?”
I told her I didn’t know, that’s why I was asking her. She told me the answer was already inside me; everything I needed to know was coded in my bones. It wasn’t a lot of help. Even still, I would’ve given my freewill to have her back just long enough so I could ask that question again. Because maybe this time, all these years later, she would actually help me find the answer I was seeking. But she wasn’t here with me, and she wasn’t there with them. She was gone, and not even the truest psychic of our family, my aunt Lana, could tell us where she was.
The lost coast had been my refuge for many years, but even someone like me—a person who had a habit of finding consolation in sanctioning herself away from everyone who she had ever loved or loved her. Even I knew that my time alone was coming to an end.
It was palpable, the chill of separation hanging in the air. One so cutting that I didn’t have to be on the other side of this window to know that she—it—was out there. That it had been waiting for me like a starved creature of the sea since the moment I was born into this life; waiting for just the right moment to show itself to me. Saliva dripping down its rotted out, graying chin, in anticipation of finally tasting my flesh. When I thought of Rowena, I thought of gnarled hands, like the twisted knots of an ancient tree, atrophied in a claw-like maneuver—poised and ready to unravel just so she could claim my neck. I’d closed the veil years ago, holding my breath of any spirits, not just hers, but just because I couldn’t see her didn’t mean she wasn’t there . . . that she wasn’t floating on the other side of this window, looking in. Just because I had chosen not to see her didn’t mean that she couldn’t see me.
It wasn’t especially kosher to call them ghosts because that wasn’t what all of them were. In truth, there are many variations of spirit, and many folds may or may not keep them in place. Some spirits are manmade: unfortunately those spiritual types do not usually come in the benevolent variety. Others may be imprints of a soul that has moved on, a recording of an identity that plays over and over; these imprints are often responsible for ‘hauntings.’ Some are lost, some are cursed, and others are travelers. Many of them are spirits who are between lives, spirits who may come and go as they please; they are often referred to as spirit guides. As far as other things out of sight—angels and demons—I wasn’t raised to believe in them as far as most theologies describe them. We were raised to believe that there is good and evil in the world, period. Spirits, just like people, come in dark and light.
Even though I was brought up to respect each individual spirit, I’ve still always found it
easier to call all the spirits who flock in my direction ghosts; and as far as Rowena, regardless of what I believe and don’t, I decided long ago that she was a demon.
The front door slammed shut, causing the smallest of vibrations to work themselves through the house to where I was standing. Not even a half minute later I watched as Maddie, my last visible child, stalked past my office window. She had just turned sixteen; and was good at acting like it. Why couldn’t just one thing be easy?
I lifted a pale hand up to the windowpane as she glanced haughtily in my direction, her sharp eyes like seeds being spit from the mouth of a bitter soldier. The pads of my fingers just barely touching the window, I exhaled a breath filled with the sensation of dry sand as my daughter strutted past the old lighthouse, just past my property line, and her back disappeared down the breaks and to the edge of the California lost coast.
I pressed my lips together, the lump in my throat bobbing up and down as a familiar fear settled over me like the hands of a gentle demon. The lack of control that I couldn’t handle, would shake me down to my bare bones and cause Rowena to take notice. I had no choice, I needed to vent, to talk to someone, and there was no one alive who could help me.
I took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly as I followed the instructions given to me by my mother when I was just a small girl. Her voice haunted my thoughts. “You can shut them out, my Olivia, whenever you need. When the spirits get too plentiful, simply build a barrier around yourself and tell them they aren’t welcome to visit during that time. When you are ready to communicate with them again, let out the air you’ve kept cooped up in your chest—as it will be cooped up—for your gift, little witch, is made up of spirit talk. As soon as the barrier is down, they will be able to find you again.”
My mother’s voice drifted back into the shadows as I did what she’d instructed me to do so very long ago. I allowed the barrier I’d kept built around myself (for a much longer time than she’d ever advised me to do) to slowly crumble away. When that invisible cape fell from my shoulders, I heard his voice. He was my mentor, a friend to me when I had
no one else. When I walked away from my old life and into the lost coast, he was the only one who I’d confided to about my magic.
A shudder of a breath fell from my lips. “Hello Gerald.”
“It’s been some time now.”
It had been two years since I’d last slipped the veil.
I suddenly felt like fire ants were crawling inside my veins. In attempt to occupy my shaky hands, I reached for the pen occupying space on the windowsill. I gripped it firmly between my forefingers and thumbs. It was the way I had used to hold my wand.
I turned from the gray sky, looming over the black waters crashing down over the lost coast and faced Gerald.
“I would ask why you’ve suddenly opened yourself up after so long, but I think the answer is plain to see. You’ve fear in your heart, Olivia.”
My words were hostile as I choked out what I could no longer turn from. “I am being chastised.”
His lips were as cherry red as I remembered them, his beard white and trim. He posed his question as if he already knew the name of she who was most likely floating outside my office window. “By whom?”
“You know by whom. I swear, my family’s curse is stalking me—taking bits of my life away so little at a time that it makes every day all that more excruciating. She—it is, like, breathing down my neck.”
I took small, hesitant steps towards the chair opposing the one Gerald sat in. Normally the seat he was in was mine, and the one I was currently sulking down into was reserved for my patients. But just now, I was the patient. Gerald was no longer living in the physical sense, but he was the only psychotherapist I trusted.
He gestured to the window with his chin. “You and Maddie fought—she stalked off. What was it about?”
“I didn’t open the veil so we could talk about my shitty parenting.”
He realigned his gaze with mine. “No, you called on me because of your ghost. But to deal with the past, we must first figure out what’s going on with your present. Now tell me, what have you and Maddie been arguing about?”
My shoulders hunched forward of their own accord, and I glared down at the pen in my hand. When I spoke, I retorted like a stubborn adolescent in starvation mode when confronted with the question as to why he or she was refusing to eat. “Let’s not pretend like you don’t already know.”
Gerald crossed one leg over the other while pressing a pale white finger into his chin. “She’s asked you to return home with her. She, like most everyone in your family, doesn’t understand why you’ve not come home during this dreadful time.”
My pupils were like the pointed ends of sharpened daggers. “I did go home. When my mother was first taken to the hospital—I returned.”
“For a heartbeat.”
“Long enough to see their unforgiving faces all staring back at me.”
“Is that why you didn’t stay?”
“No.” I softened my voice and raised my hand to gently touch the key hanging around my neck. It was warm. Ignoring the strange occurrence, I continued. “I went back to humor my aunt. She had it in her head that the charms our mother gave to us when we were little could unlock her heart . . . that my mother wasn’t in a coma at all but was stuck in some sort of spell. But just as I thought, nothing happened when Ellie and I stuck our keys into our mother’s lock. She remained as still and cold in the seconds that followed as she’d been when I’d first walked into her hospital room.” With my tongue coated in vinegar, I chirped, “It was driving in a blizzard and wrecking her car that earned her that coma—not a spell.”
Gerald strummed the same finger he’d cupped around his chin over his lips, and his eyes narrowed on me as though he didn’t quite buy my last statement. “Why did your aunt believe your mother’s coma was part of a spell?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know.” Staring relentlessly back at him, I replied, “I didn’t stay long enough to ask.”
He bobbed his head shortly and curtly, then added, “And Ellie? How did she react to your short and abrupt arrival?”
I sucked in a ragged breath. “She didn’t say a word.”
He reacted with a guarded chuckle. “Well then, that’s out of character, isn’t it?”
Staring down at the pen in my hand but seeing instead the anger in my sister’s spirit I’d seen that day—the rage, I replied, “She didn’t have to say anything. She didn’t have to speak for me to understand that she wished more than anything that I was the one in that coma instead of our mom.”
Gerald lowered his hand into his lap and dug deeper. “Since we’re on the subject of your sister—”
“Don’t.” I knew what he was going to say. He brought this up every time.
“Olivia,” he stated in a parental tone, “you always say that you don’t blame her for what happened to Tha—”
“Don’t say his name.”
He gingerly closed his mouth and nodded his head before going on. “You are adamant that you are not angry with Ellie for what happened to your son—”
“She wasn’t the one who did this to him.”
And just like that, the memory returned to me. The one where Ellie ran into my room when we were just little girls. The light inside her had been visible—her skin all a glow. And in her little balled up fist, a bit of notebook paper.
We’d been encouraged to write our own spells. It was like poetry, our mother and aunt said time after time. We were never allowed to work them until they’d been approved, but that particular spell my sister wrote, it never got the chance for approval; for I knew with just one look down into her sloppy, childish handwriting, that this spell could never ever see fruition.
She’d called it The Whispering Wind. Once the words had been recited and the magic taken
hold, she or he who was in the throes of the spell would be sucked into the elements and only be able to communicate with the world via earth, wind, water, or fire. Ellie saw it as a whole other way to experience life. Inexperience showed in the spell’s creation.
“Don’t destroy it, Olivia, please! It’s a dance that never ends! How beautiful would this be!”
“No Ellie,” I’d retorted, holding the piece of paper away from her outstretched hands. “Don’t you see, the way you’ve written this, you wouldn’t ever be able to come back. Mom and Dad would be really sad. I’d be really sad.”
She shot me an angry look that I would learn to know very well, then crossed her arms over her little chest before storming from my room. I folded up the piece of paper and stuck it between the folds of my spell book. It had been the biggest mistake of my life, not destroying it. All I’d had to do was burn it. Why hadn’t I?
“Ellie was just a child when she wrote that spell,” I said to Gerald.
“Ellie was not the one who cursed your son, we know who that was. But it was her spell, and if she hadn’t ever created it—”
“She was too young to understand the implications of such magic.”
“Yes, but does that change the way you feel? If she hadn’t ever formed your son’s words, he might still be here instead of lost to the wind. On some level, do you think you do blame her? That that is why you ran away? Because you couldn’t stand to look at her?”
Once more I allowed my surroundings to turn to black, returning to the day my world shook and burned to the ground. I’d woken in the arms of my husband. Tyler was the other half of my heart’s beat. I’d spent the morning with Maddie in the gardens, picking tomatoes and peppers for making tacos that night. Thaden was upstairs in his room with his new little playmate—he called her his invisible friend,
but I knew she was more than that. My son had not only inherited my magic, unlike his twin sister, but he had also inherited my gift.
I wasn’t nervous. I had done for my son what my mother did for me. I allowed him to get to know the spirits who would be flocking to his side for all his living years; and if he got too invested, or felt too crowded, then I would show him how to cut them off, just as my mother had shown to me.
But I should have been nervous. That day, I should have checked in on him earlier.
I’d waited until Maddie was plopped on a pillow on the floor, the sound of her favorite afternoon television show blaring into the living room, to go upstairs and see what my son was up to.
I can still remember the chill that found my skin that hot summer day—the humidity that licked my nose with the scent of rot inside of incoming ocean tides.
As I climbed the steps to my son’s bedroom, I recalled what my mother had told me when I was a little girl. ...