Our mothers were fearful that summer. They sewed rabbit skins into our clothes and threw the scraps from our haircuts into the fire. When they said I love you, it sounded like a warning. Meanwhile we swam in swollen creek beds and hemmed our hand-me-down dresses so they would ride high. We cast adoring looks at half-formed boys from across the room. The boys of our town felt nothing back, they were incapable of the passions that possessed us like fevers; they were like pieces of cardboard that we decorated with our desires. If we had gotten one, our mothers sighed to one another, we wouldn’t have known what to do with him. They all lamented having daughters. How could you not, in Linden, lament having a daughter?
The witch died in the middle of May. Everyone said that after she was gone, her daughter stayed in their sagging old bungalow for three days without telling anyone what had happened. The mailman came and saw that last week’s letters were still there, and he told Mr. Hest at the corner store, who told Mrs. Hest, who told the minister’s wife, and soon enough, a crowd had gathered before the house where the witch and her daughter lived. Someone was brave enough, at last, to confirm that the witch was dead. Then there was the orphan to be dealt with. Obviously, we could not have someone coming down from the city and placing her; she was to be our witch someday. But no one wanted her in their home. At last, they drew straws, and my father got unlucky. The witch’s daughter was to be, for a while at least, my foster sister.
The witch’s daughter had almost no possessions. Dragging a mostly empty carpetbag into the bedroom we were sharing—my bedroom, formerly—she slowly laid everything out on the floor. An aluminum lunch tin, lacy yellow socks, a Barbie doll with ragged-looking black hair. We were fifteen, much too old for Barbie dolls by then, and I was embarrassed on her behalf.
When she was finished unpacking, she stood motionless in front of her belongings. She hadn’t said a word since she’d been left at our front door by the minister’s wife, not even when she saw the sprigs of camphor nailed to my bedroom walls. Camphor for sense and sweetness, my mother had said as she secured the bundles with twine. Camphor was supposed to soothe women’s problems; I suppose being a witch’s daughter is a problem peculiar to women, but I still couldn’t figure what my mother thought a remedy for menstrual cramps was going to do if the witch’s daughter made up her mind to work a spell on me while I slept.
“You can have a dresser drawer,” I said to her. I was uncertain of how I was supposed to speak to the witch’s daughter. She felt both older and younger than me.
Her eyes fell across me. They were uncannily pale, almost translucent. I couldn’t meet her gaze. She lowered her head and stuffed her clothes inside half of an empty lower drawer.
“You don’t have to stay,” she said to me. So I didn’t.
At church, at the Thursday night ice cream social, where I assumed that the witch’s daughter wouldn’t dare tread, stares and whispers followed me as if I were her familiar. I explained to the other girls that I didn’t know, really, what the witch’s daughter was like. “She’s a stranger,” I said. “She doesn’t talk to me. And what would I say to her? It’s like when you have to share a room with an out-of-town cousin you don’t know or something.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to sleep in the room with her,” someone breathed. And someone else, “I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes.”
“You should protect yourself,” said Mary Cinch, who was eighteen and wizened by our standards. She lowered her voice in case anyone got interested in our conversation. “Would you ever think of making an effigy?”
I glanced at Ellie, who was pretending to be fully engrossed in licking a trickle of melting ice cream from her wrist. Ellie’s official stance on the witch’s daughter, as of the day that she took up residence in my house, was that she was wholly uninteresting. “Seems like bad luck to hurt the witch’s daughter,” I said, although that made it sound like I was afraid, and I didn’t want to seem afraid, only unimplicated. “Especially before Saint Agnes’ eve,” I added. They all understood the force of that.
“Well, you don’t have to use it,” Mary said. “Unless things get desperate.”
Ellie wiped her mouth daintily with a paper napkin. “If I were you, Laurie,” she said, “I’d want to use an effigy before Saint Agnes’ eve. Let her know you’re dangerous. That she had better not think of wedding you to a hollows man.”
The other girls had been tossing anxious shut-up-please glances over my shoulder while Ellie spoke, and I felt with a sinking certainty that the witch’s daughter was behind me even before she emerged from the crowd. She had no paper cup of runny Neapolitan, no sun-faded second-best summer dress. I wondered how she’d even known to find us in the church basement.
“The witch doesn’t make the marriages,” said the witch’s daughter, tonelessly, as if she were repeating something she’d read. “She only helps to reveal them.” She’d positioned herself beside me, we were standing shoulder to shoulder, and I was excruciatingly aware that me and the witch’s daughter were looking for all the world like true foster sisters.
I mumbled some excuse and hurried up the stairs out of the church basement, guessing that Ellie wouldn’t follow and feeling disappointed just the same when she didn’t. Ellie was supposed to be my best friend, but when her eyes fell on me lately I could sense her disappointment, her boredom. A bright fierce spark of life beamed inside her that was quiet in me. She talked of changing her hair and her name, of going to college, of moving away from Linden. Away, she didn’t say but meant, from me.
Once school was out, me and Ellie spent most days holed up in her bedroom with a sputtering old box fan aimed at our faces, doing various forms of nothing: smudging yesterday’s nail polish from our fingers so that we could waste half an hour repainting them, half-listening to soap opera reruns that we had already almost committed to memory, attempting without success to scry in a grimy old cosmetics mirror that had once belonged to Ellie’s mother, who was now dead, but was supposed to have been more powerful than anyone in Linden besides the witch herself. I didn’t think much of scrying, hated the plasticky scent of the candles that Ellie lit and the grave stagy tone of her voice when she spoke an invocation, hated most of all the squinting into an inexorable too-near future, but Ellie wouldn’t tire of it.
“I want to see him,” she said.
“Why can’t you just wait for Saint Agnes’ eve to find out?” I said.
“I’m not letting her determine what happens to me.”
“She said herself she’s not the one to determine it. And you know she’s not. The witch just doesn’t. It’s the fen itself that does. She’s just helping us see.”
“I don’t trust her to tell me the truth. Can’t you see her saying that I’m supposed to marry a hollows man when I’m not? It’d be like what happened to Camilla Blackburn.” She spoke the last few words in hushed tones, even though no one else was in the room. Camilla Blackburn was a secret regardless of who you were talking to.
“It wouldn’t,” I said. “Camilla was supposed to marry a hollows man and she wouldn’t. You’d be marrying a hollows man when you didn’t have to.”
“That’s what I don’t want to happen,” said Ellie, drawing her knees to her chin. “Do you ever think about just—not doing it?”
“I guess,” I said, but truthfully I hadn’t. The choice had never seemed like much of one to me. Some Linden girls married ordinary men, had ordinary children, carried on. Other Linden girls married hollows men in unintelligible rites held in the fen’s black heart. This we knew before we finished kindergarten. “But if I do think about it, then I just remember Camilla Blackburn,” I added, feeling primly dutiful, feeling also some twinge of cruel satisfaction that Ellie was afraid and I wasn’t.
Ellie shook her head. “I don’t care if Linden has the worst drought in a century. I don’t care if there’s fires and salt in the soil and calves born with two heads. Whatever happened. I think half of it is just stories anyway. If I had been Camilla Blackburn, I would have refused to go back into the fen.”
In spite of the heat, a shiver passed through me. “I don’t think she had a choice,” I said.
“She surely did. What could they have done, if she’d made effigies of all of them?”
She was only being contrary now, I thought. “Effigies of the whole town?”
Ellie scowled into the scrying mirror. “I won’t do it,” she said, ignoring my question. “Cross my heart and hope to die, Laurie.”
“Don’t say that,” I said.
“Hope. To. Die.” She struck the surface of the mirror with a fingernail as she intoned each word. I felt, inexplicably, that I was seeing a ritual performed.
“Can you scry?” I said to the witch’s daughter when I got home that night.
The witch’s daughter blinked at me in her unsettling, deliberate way. She was folding the new clothes that my mother had ordered, unasked, for her from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. A bribe, I had thought when I saw the heavy package come in the mail. Or else a burnt offering. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten catalogue clothes instead of homemade or hand-me-downs from someone’s older sister. “I can scry,” the witch’s daughter said, setting the clothes tidily inside the other half of her empty drawer. “But I wouldn’t.”
“If you look when it’s not safe, you might see something you shouldn’t. Or something upside-down, backwards, inverted,” she said. Then she made a face that was almost but not really a smile. “Does Ellie think she can avoid the Linden women’s bargain?”
I thought it safest not to answer that, in case the witch’s daughter was half as vindictive as Ellie thought she might be. “She can’t get it to work,” I said. “Her mama used to do it.”
“Didn’t her mama, uh—” The witch’s daughter was, for once, discomfited. “You know.”
“Die,” I said.
“Die,” she repeated. Like yours, I thought, but didn’t say, because really there was no like the witch, although Ellie’s mother might have been as close a second as anyone could be.
“She’s afraid you’re going to marry her to a hollows man,” I said.
“The fen can do that well enough on its own.”
Something in her voice made me nervous. She spoke as if she’d seen omens, had premonitions.
“I’m not looking forward to it,” the witch’s daughter told me, suddenly.
“Saint Agnes’ eve?”
“My mother didn’t teach me,” she said. “She wasn’t supposed to be dead for many years yet. She used to say that everything would come natural to me, but I’ve never communed with the heart of the fen before. Never even seen it done. And I know that it matters to people. What happens on the eve of Saint Agnes. I know.”
I couldn’t make myself comfort her, even though I half-wanted to. I realized what everyone else must already know: she was loathsome to me partly because she was the only girl in Linden who didn’t have to contend with the eve of Saint Agnes. Her fate was already decided.
The night before the eve of Saint Agnes, Ellie managed to scry for the first time. At the moment of her accomplishment, I was leaning over a page of notepaper and performing that lower-grade form of adolescent magic known as MASH, calculating not only the name but the car and occupation of my future husband. I’d just eliminated movie star as a possibility when Ellie gasped and launched herself back from the scrying mirror with such force that she tumbled down from the bed and onto the floor.
My eyes fell to the mirror, but I could only see the blurry upside-down reflection of my own hairline.
“It was one of them,” Ellie said. “Skin too white. Eyes—black, endless-deep, Laurie, with barely any pupils. And a mouth like a wound.”
I swallowed hard. “It’s not reliable,” I said.
“How should you know?”
I didn’t want to admit that I’d mentioned Ellie’s scrying to the witch’s daughter, but she was so afraid and I was too—that she’d run away, or do something else stupid. “I heard that you can see things wrong,” I said.
“You heard,” said Ellie, narrowing her eyes. All the while, she kept glancing back at the mirror, but it only reflected her own shaky motions. “Did you tell her about this?”
“No,” I said, but my voice rose too high, sounded a little too pleading, a little too desperate, and she knew how I sounded when I lied.
Ellie’s cheeks reddened. I thought her eyes were wet when she looked at me, but then she glanced away and tucked her hair behind her ears and when she faced me again, she wasn’t crying. “Fine,” she said, crossing her arms. “You know, I feel like I’ve kind of been outgrowing our friendship and, really, this just clinches it.”
“I hope you do marry a hollows man,” I said, and the words were halfway out of my mouth before I regretted them, but by then I’d already said the worst thing that I could think to say, and she’d said the worst thing she could think to say, and we were both sullen and miserable as she escorted me to the front door.
Ellie and I had always imagined that we’d dress for the eve of Saint Agnes together, but we didn’t. As the sky got rosy, I shrugged my ceremonial dress over my shoulders and ran a comb through my hair while the witch’s daughter sat across the room and scribbled frantically in the margins of a battered old composition book that had belonged to her mother, cramming last minute for the only test that would ever really matter for her.
“Are you wearing that?” I said to her as we descended the stairs. She was in a dress almost as featureless as the one that I was wearing, but a pale mottled-looking yellow. I felt somehow responsible for her appearance, as if she was really my sister.
“My mother’s,” she said firmly.
At the foot of the stairs, my mother met us with a crown of marigold and linden flowers. The powdery medicinal scents made me think of staying home sick from school, of running a fever. “For protection,” my mother whispered, and she kissed my forehead as she settled the crown across my ears, which felt to me like a ceremonial and strange thing to do; a thing she would not have done if she hadn’t known the witch’s daughter was watching. I started out the door walking fast enough to lose her, not wanting to show up together. It would, I thought, somehow be like coming in from the schoolyard with the teacher.
When I reached the mouth of the fen, most of the others were already there. One of the other girls was pouring raspberry wine from an overturned old barrel. I could see Ellie across the grove talking to girls she didn’t even like, tossing her hair carelessly across her shoulders and swaying slightly in her white dress, half-drunk or pretending to be. I stayed where I was; I wasn’t going to be the one to come crawling back first. When the darkness of the sky was glossy and complete, we assembled ourselves in order of age, with the witch’s daughter at the head of the line. Ellie reluctantly filed into line in front of me, but we didn’t speak. We might not have spoken anyway. No one said a word as we shuffled into the swamp. A few minutes ago we had been anxious and giggling. Now we were acting our parts in something so many generations older than us that we weren’t really us while we did it. Locks of our foremothers’ hair were sewn into the linings of all our dresses, scratching our thighs and shoulders, reminding us in a soft but forceful voice that this was our birthright. On the eve of Saint Agnes, we all dreamt of the faces of our own husbands, but we were dreaming of them for the sake of Linden.
We were sweat-soaked and mosquito-bitten and weary before we reached the middle of the fen. The witch’s daughter emerged from the muddle of bodies in front of me and drew a small blade that I hadn’t known she was carrying and cut the twine that hung in generous loops from the sagging branches of five old cypresses. We formed a circle inside the trees. All the while, I could see—and feel, with the same prickle of fearful recognition as if it had been a panther slinking closer to me—the heart of the fen, a dark and horribly old pool ringed naturally by cypresses, and unnaturally by the protective ropes that the witch’s daughter had cut.
The words she said in the circle were archaic words in a language that surely no one taught in school. But her accent sounded native, perfect, as if she’d always spoken this other tongue. I felt something like pride, listening to her. When she was done, she nodded to the first girl in line, who stepped forward and threw her sacrifice into the oozing black heart of the swamp. One-by-one, the others followed her. Some of the girls had brought baby teeth; some had locks of hair. I had a braid that I’d chopped a few months ago. When the witch’s daughter nodded to me, I stepped closer. Ankle-deep in mud, shivering despite the clammy heat of the night, I clutched the braid inside my fist for a long hesitating second and then opened my fingers. I barely saw the sacrifice leave my hand before it was eaten up by the blackness.
I was the last to make my sacrifice. Afterwards, the witch’s daughter stepped so close to the heart of the swamp that I was afraid she would slip and fall inside, and she spoke again. Then we retreated from the circle of trees and laid down in the undergrowth nearby. Ellie still wouldn’t speak to me, but she laced her fingers with mine, something she used to always do and never did anymore. For hours, I laid as still as I could with Ellie’s clammy hand in mine and listened to the wind hiss inside the sheaths of moss that hung from the trees. And then, when I had half-abandoned all my hopes of dreaming, I fell asleep. And I dreamt, and I dreamt vividly, and I dreamt of skin that was too white and eyes that were black and endless-deep, and a mouth like a wound.
The witch’s daughter knew what everyone had dreamt, and she was supposed to be the only one who knew. It was a secret. But Ellie’s face told me what she’d seen, and my face must have told Ellie what I’d seen, because she was already stricken when she looked at me and still more horrified after our eyes met.
Across the clearing, the witch’s daughter met my eyes and lowered her chin. She was a true witch, after all; she knew. She mouthed the word, “sorry.”
Ellie was crying, but my eyes were dry. I felt a dull calm, as if a door was shutting inside my head over and over again. I resented Ellie for her gasping sobs, her muttered oaths and curses, her obvious panic. She was making a hard thing unbearable. I walked back across the fen and onto the streets of Linden like I was still dreaming, awakened every few steps by Ellie’s fingernails digging into my palm.
The feast of Saint Agnes was the only saints’ day feast that anyone in Linden still went to the trouble of celebrating, on account of the eve’s importance. It was a day-long affair, pancakes and eggs at church in the morning and an old-fashioned pig-roasting at night. I was so busy that I didn’t see the witch’s daughter gather her few belongings into her carpetbag and sneak out of my house. When at last I came home, exhausted and smelling of fire smoke, I saw that she’d stripped the sheets from the trundle bed. I opened her dresser drawer and found that it was half-empty. She’d left the catalogue clothes and taken only the ones she’d already owned.
Everyone assumed that I knew where she’d gone, although I didn’t know anything. After a week or so, I heard a rumor that she had holed up inside the old bungalow at the mouth of the fen where she had lived when her mother was still alive. It was determined that she should stay where she was, at least for the moment. Everyone was acting as if they were being charitable, being polite; in fact, I learned, she hadn’t named any names yet, and they were afraid she never would. As long as she had something that Linden needed, she couldn’t be abandoned. Groceries were left at her door; sometimes other trinkets. Ellie said she bicycled past the bungalow one day and it might as well have been a shrine to a dead girl on the porch. The witch’s daughter took the groceries but almost nothing else. The offerings formed a mounting pile.
While the rest of Linden was determined to bribe the witch’s daughter into naming names, Ellie was trying to curse her into silence, although she wouldn’t admit that’s what she was doing. She had lost interest in scrying after the eve of Saint Agnes. Now she was lining her windowsills with canning jars of still water and leaves and roots that she’d collected in the mouth of the fen; her bedroom was an impromptu apothecary, better stocked than my own mother’s pantry. But she never had anything to show for it, at least not to show me. I was afraid that she was making an effigy, and it wasn’t such a leap to guess who was the object.
The witch’s daughter was not my friend and she was a mile from being my sister, but I was afraid of what would happen to Linden if Ellie got her way. Someone had to warn the witch’s daughter, I thought. Someone had to get her to name the names. I understood, could see from the looks on people’s faces and hear in the murmured asides that they directed to my mother and not to me, that the someone had to be me.
It was a few weeks before I got up the nerve to go to the bungalow. The house was in worse shape than I remembered, practically collapsing into the fen, the clapboard splitting and warped. I ascended the porch steps, fearful for a moment that the wood wouldn’t hold me, and knocked. Hesitantly, the witch’s daughter peeked around the door.
“When are you going to tell them the names?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. She looked at me with those uncanny light eyes, now too familiar to really be frightening. “Are you going to go willingly into the fen and marry a hollows’ man? Is Ellie Mayfair?”
I couldn’t speak for Ellie.
“I always thought the hard part would be doing the ritual,” she said. “I didn’t think about what it would be like afterwards. That I would be the one who makes you go, and that I would know you who were going.”
I felt like she wanted me to say that I consented, that I longed to marry a hollows’ man. “It’s the Linden women’s bargain,” I said. “It’s the same no matter who the witch is.”
The witch’s daughter glanced past my shoulder. I looked; no one was there. “My mother told me a story, Laurie,” she said, her voice low and urgent. “About Camilla Blackburn. Do you know who she was? I think everyone thinks they do. She was supposed to marry a hollows man, but she refused to go. And then, everyone says, the fen was angry with us. Lightning storms for days on end, poison in the soil. You know. But my mother said, that didn’t really happen. It was a bad year for crops and it was a bad year for storms, but not because of the fen. The fen did something else. The fen let the hollows men out, and they didn’t just go into Linden, they went everywhere. You can find tabloid stories from that year. Blurry photos. Some people thought they were Sasquatches, some thought they were Moth Men, some just thought they were big feral mountain men with no manners and no intelligible speech. Everyone was very interested in where they’d come from, obviously. You’d think maybe Linden would’ve seized the chance to tell the world. But they didn’t. Didn’t want eyes on them. Or—maybe they just liked carrying on the bargain.” Her voice faltered. “The day after a reporter showed up in Linden, people stormed Camilla Blackburn’s door and dragged her out to the fen and tied her up and left her there. And after that, the hollows’ men who had already got out stayed out, but the rest of them stayed in, and the interest from the tabloids died down, and Linden’s been closed-up tight ever since.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, you’re just the lock on their door.”
I was not really listening to her then. When Camilla Blackburn refused, the crops had died; the river had flooded; there had been a curse on Linden. This I knew. “That’s what we’re supposed to do,” I said. “Lock the door.”
“I know,” the witch’s daughter said, and I remembered that she too would have to go one day into the depths of the fen, lie down with a hollows man, do it again and again until she produced another witch’s daughter for Linden. “And I know they’re not going to wait forever for me to tell. It’s almost midsummer. Someone left a poppet with a fork stuck through it on my porch last night. A boy I’ve never spoken to before came this morning on his bike to scream and scream at me. I know I have to tell. I just wanted you or someone to say that it was all right. Laurie, please. Tell me it’s all right.”
When Ellie’s father answered the door he said she wasn’t at home, but he said it so unbelievably, so half-ashamedly, that I only had to look at him for a moment before he relented. “It was just a silly fight, wasn’t it, you girls,” he muttered, opening the door and shuffling to his careworn recliner. “Something about boys,” he continued to himself, his back to me now. I stepped inside. The entire house stank of an acidic weedy perfume, but the smell was clearly emanating from Ellie’s bedroom.
Ellie caught me in the hallway, before I could open her bedroom door. She was wearing an old housedress of her mother’s dappled with faded rusty old stains and dark new ones. She stood with her back to the door, arms crossed before her chest. She looked like nothing so much as a witch.
“What do you want, Laurie?” she said to me.
“Let’s go get a Coke,” I managed. I could hardly breathe, let alone think, in that hallway. The scent pushing through and around and underneath the door was too powerful, choking-thick, nauseating in a way that made me feel slightly drunk.
Ellie narrowed her eyes, but she said, “Hold on a second,” and she disappeared into the bedroom, and when she came out she was wearing a cotton school dress and saddle shoes. “Let’s go, then,” she said.
We sat on the curb in front of the corner store as we’d done a hundred times before, only this time we were silent as we sucked the air out of our empty Coke cans. I couldn’t make myself look at her. She had carried the stench of her secret labors from the house out onto the street and even into the sun-washed normalcy of the corner store.
Finally, I said, “I just want to warn you that the witch’s daughter said they’re going to make her tell.”
Ellie nodded. “So that’s how she’s selling it to you,” she said.
“I’m not telling you so you can finish your effigy in time,” I said, getting to my feet. “You can’t hurt her. It’s not fair. She didn’t ask to be born the witch’s daughter.”
“Well, I think it’s not fair that I had to lose my best friend and my future to her all in the same summer,” Ellie muttered, kicking at the dust. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. “But if you must know, Laurie, it’s not her that I’m after. The effigy is for me.” She was visibly pleased with herself, unable to keep a smile from the corners of her lips. “I’m nearly done. Hard to know when something like this is finished. How long do you figure I have? A week? Less? More would be better.”
“You’re going to—bewitch yourself?” I said.
“Well, I suppose I should say I’m bewitching the town. So they don’t remember me. So they don’t know who I am. The only thing left of me will be a pile of 4H ribbons with a name that no one can pin to a face.”
I couldn’t believe that Ellie was capable of such a thing. A few months ago, she hadn’t even been able to manage simple divination. “Do you think you can really do it?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Ellie admitted. “Laurie,” she said then, urgently. “I could try to do it for you too. I want you to go everywhere with me. To see the whole country and graduate from college and—everything else.”
For a second, I imagined the two of us fleeing Linden together, leaking into the strange landscape like the hollows’ men did the summer of Camilla Blackburn’s refusal. Cutting each other’s hair, choosing each other’s new names. But I knew that it wouldn’t be how I wanted it. That Ellie would get bored with me out there even quicker than she did in Linden. And, anyway, I didn’t want a new name.
I didn’t see Ellie again until midsummer night, when she and I and the three other girls who had dreamt of hollows men on the eve of Saint Agnes stood at the mouth of the fen, wearing our ceremonial garb. Ordinarily only the minister and witch’s daughter would have been there with us, but Ellie had put up enough of a fight that they needed two men to escort her down the path out of Linden proper, and now they hung back, a sheriff’s deputy and Mr. Hest from the corner store, palpably aware that they didn’t belong here but terrified of the consequences if she somehow managed to escape.
Ellie refused to look at me, refused to acknowledge me. I had kept her secret for only a handful of hours before I told: first the witch’s daughter and then, when the witch’s daughter shocked me by saying that she wanted Ellie to go ahead and try it, see what happened, see if they could take her too, everyone else I could think of.
“You did the right thing, Laurie,” everyone had kept saying.
The moon was rising; very soon, the hollows men would be here. I could still hardly imagine what it would be like to become a hollows man’s wife. But it was a comfort to me that in the fen, we would all be together at least for a time, and eventually Ellie would grow bored, as she always did after we fought, she would remember that really I was her only friend, and she would have to forgive me.