Sign up for the latest news and updates from The Dark Newsletter!

The Three Familiars

I. The Tale of Legs

Love has many forms. Some forms inspire love, others hate. The witch was the first and only child of a well-to-do family of Boston Brahmins. The doctors told her mother that she would never bear children, and suggested her father content himself with political fundraisers and season tickets to the Shubert Theatre. For this reason, the witch’s parents, although compelled by tradition to bless their child with a Christian name, always called her Our Little Miracle. She was doted on with a devotion befitting a freak of nature. Her mother breast-fed the witch until the age of three. Her father read her bedtime stories and once stayed up fifty-two hours cooling her fevered forehead with a washcloth.

The witch’s first words were “I love you.” These words were a lie because, in truth, the witch hated her parents. She did not know the primal cause of her hatred but it came to her as naturally as breathing. She lost her pearl necklace to the garbage disposal. She used her best dress to make a kite. She dismembered her dolls, melted their heads on the stove, and fried an omelet for her parents on their wedding anniversary. There were a dozen glass eyes in the omelet. When her parents called in a private psychiatrist, the witch employed the profane language normally reserved for presidents of corporations. The psychiatrist said the witch was testing boundaries to determine if her parents’ love was unconditional. Her parents assured the psychiatrist that it was.

The witch sought refuge from her parents’ love in the attic. The house was old but looked new, and the attic was one of the few places where the bones of the original structure showed. There were thick beams supporting the slanted roof, the gargantuan shaft of a crumbling chimney, and a single window with diamond-shaped panes and spider webs. The space smelled of cardboard and memories. The witch found a hexagonal sewing box to use as a table and a five-legged stool. She set these treasures before the window and in the bleary sunlight played Belly Up, Licorice Hill, and other solitary games of her own devising.

One day, while pursuing the court martial for a truant doll, she was distracted by a white mote floating in a sunbeam. She reached out. The sunbeam lapped at her hand. She called such sunbeams The Devil’s Tongue. She withdrew her fist from the light and, opening it, saw that she had captured the white mote. It was no bigger than a grain of sand but it moved of its own volition, exploring her palm as if delimiting a new kingdom. Closer inspection discovered eight tiny legs. A baby spider!

“I am your god,” she whispered to her captive. “What is your prayer?”

Her answer was a bite that burned.

She laughed. Pain breeds power. “You are hungry. What do you eat?” She scanned her hexagonal table. “Licorice?”

Another bite, one that burned like shame.

“Blood. Blood for you, my pet.”

It was only on their first meeting that Legs was allowed to drink from the witch’s own flesh. After that the witch brought Legs treats from the house and field. Sometimes a blood-smeared butcher paper, sometimes a fresh-caught mouse, sometimes a wren snared with sticky tape and sunflower seeds. The witch sang as she climbed the attic stairs and wound her way past the boxes and dusty furniture. This is the beginning to her song:

“Legs up, Legs down
What’s on my gown?
Legs down, Legs up
What’s in my cup?
Legs out, Legs in
What’s on my chin?
Legs in, Legs out
What’s in my shout?”

The song had many verses and the witch never sang it the same way twice, but she always finished with, “Blood, blood, blood!” At this cry, Legs dropped from her hiding place in the rafters. She landed on the witch’s hair, tumbled to her shoulder, and scuttled along her arm to discover the gory treat for the day. By month’s end, Legs was thick around as the witch’s little finger, her abdomen smooth and pale as a mushroom cap.

Fools will tell you good fortune comes to those who wait. The witch knew otherwise. The average lifespan of a female spider is a little over 100 days but, well before this time, the witch had chosen for Legs a mate. When Legs’s eggs hatched and the baby spiders crawled free from their silken sac, there was one among them that was larger than the rest. The largest spiderling did not float away like the others but sidled over to the witch. “Legs,” the witch whispered, and lifted her new companion to her lips. There were three generations in a year, and Legs grew with each generation. By the time three years had passed, Legs was larger than a dessert plate.

Do not think that the witch’s absences went unnoticed by her parents. When she did not answer their calls about homework or dinner, her parents nodded and pointed upward. “The attic,” they whispered. “Don’t disturb her.” The psychiatrist had warned them about breaking the circle of trust. Nevertheless, like all parents before them, they eventually relented to curiosity. While her mother distracted the witch with sugar cookies, her father snuck up to the attic and there, behind a wall of boxes, discovered the witch’s den. He sniffed the air. There was an unpleasant scent like that from a small corpse but he found no casualty. A pallid fungus grew within a crack between two beams but he did not think to mention this when, in bed with his wife later that evening, he made his report. “She plays house. She has a stool and a little table made from a sewing box. There are a few cups and saucers on the table. She may have borrowed these from the kitchen.”

“What’s in the sewing box?”

The witch’s father had no answer. Lacking this, he returned to the attic. The witch heard every creak as he ascended the stairway and crossed the floorboards. She also heard his shriek when he, rummaging through the sewing box, pierced his finger on a needle. “Jesus,” he cried. He sucked the blood from his finger. From the corner of his eye he saw a movement in the shadows. He had seen a fungus there earlier. Now the fungus dislocated itself from the ceiling and descended as if suspended on twine. “Jesus,” he cried again. The fungus made no sound as it impacted the floor. It made no sound as it scuttled toward him. “My God,” he cried, racing for the stairs, “We need an exterminator.”

“An exterminator,” he repeated to his wife, after he had slammed and locked the attic door and crawled into bed. “Yes dear,” she said. She patted his hand. “I’ll call first thing tomorrow.” The witch was listening outside their bedroom door. Her heart fluttered like a snared bird. She had only the night to save the life of Legs but the nights in New England can be long. The next morning, when the coroner was brought in, he was astonished to find the witch’s parents swaddled so tightly in their sheets it was a wonder they could draw breath. In fact, he concluded, they could not draw breath at all. The sheets, although lacking a manufacturer’s tag, were of the finest weave and it was a pity they had to be cut to free the corpses. To the coroner’s credit, he noted that the witch’s parents died hand in hand and included this in his official report. To his discredit, he also noticed a pallid pillow in the corner of the bedroom but did not find it of significance.

So it was that the witch came into her inheritance.

II. The Tale of Hands

The witch lived in an old house that looked new. One day she awoke feeling cold and hollow as if her body were transformed into a cave of ice. She drank a cup of licorice tea and nibbled on a sugar cookie, but these did not fill her emptiness. She fed the rats in her basement but drew no satisfaction from their glittering eyes and chittering teeth. She dug in her root garden, but the sun on her shoulders made her shiver and the dirt beneath her fingernails made her cry. That night, she danced naked beneath a gibbous moon and, horror of horrors, stumbled and fell. An owl hooted in derision.

There was only one companion to whom the witch could turn. She climbed the stairs to the attic. She brushed past a drapery of spider silk and flopped into a hammock embroidered with images of tangled birds. Her familiar, Legs, dropped from the rafters and nestled against her cheek. Legs was round as a dinner plate and coated with hair so fine and pale it was almost invisible. The witch scratched Legs’s back. “What brings you pleasure?” the witch asked.

Legs purred. “Birds,” she said.

“Anything else?”

Legs craned upward. “Mice.”

“Besides food.” The witch stopped scratching.

Legs bumped against the witch’s hand, begging her to resume. The witch moved her hand out of reach. Legs hissed.

“Tell me,” the witch said.

“You won’t like it.” Legs’s voice was a reedy whistle.

“Tell me anyway.”

Legs climbed ceiling-ward on a silken strand. “Having babies,” she whispered.

The witch shrieked. Although a witch may menstruate, she may never give birth. Her power is in her blood and her womb is as hard as rock. Legs, on the other hand, gave birth to thousands. How many times had the witch watched the spiderling horde gnaw free of their egg sac to then catch air on gossamer wind-chutes and blow across the city? Thirty, forty, fifty times? The sight was beautiful almost beyond belief.

The witch brooded for weeks on the unfairness of life. But she was young and not yet willing to accept the limitations of fate. I will find myself a mate, she decided, and with him create a baby. To find a mate was not a difficult task. The witch brushed her hair until it shone like a favored memory, wound a necklace of pearls around her neck, and slipped into one of her mother’s ballroom dresses. Last of all she pricked her heart line with a thorn, collected tears into her bloody palm, and anointed her lips with the salty mixture.

The witch’s father had been tall with unruly hair and a sharp-edged nose. The man the witch chose at the Beacon Hill bar was nothing like him. He was more like what her familiar Legs might choose. He was shorter than the witch by a good three inches, gelled his hair, and had a vanishingly small nose. He sipped a pear martini, his third, and explained patent law to two interns. “Give me your hand,” the witch said. The lawyer smiled and fell silent. He held out his hand. “Follow me,” the witch said. The lawyer followed the witch to her taxi, and from there to her home. He was drunk and stumbled on the stairway to the second floor, striking his chin on a tread. He cursed. He wiped his hand across his chin and checked for blood, then cleaned his hand on his pants. “It’s nothing,” he said.

The witch led the lawyer to her bedroom. She lit two white candles and undid her hair. Her bed was as white as new snow on ice. She helped the lawyer out of his clothes and kissed the torn flesh on his chin. “You’re sweet,” she said. She pulled him down onto the bed. “Stay the night.”

The lawyer buried his head in her hair. “Your bed is so warm,” said the lawyer. His face was flushed, his arms slick with sweat.

“That is the warmth of fur,” said the witch. She stroked the snowy sheet. The fur beneath it prickled and rose to greet her touch.

The lawyer tried to raise himself above the witch. His knee slipped and he fell beside her. He touched her breast. “Your bed is so lumpy,” said the lawyer.

“There are many furs,” said the witch. She outlined the rippling shapes with her fingers. She nibbled his ear. She slid a hand along his hip and fitted herself onto him.

The lawyer moaned softly. He rolled away from the witch. “Your bed moves,” said the lawyer.

“The bed is hungry and can wait no longer,” said the witch. The strands of the sheets parted and a wave of rats poured forth. They were gray and black and brown. These were the colors the lawyer hated most and for good reason.

The witch remained in bed for three weeks, submerged within her mattress of rats. The rats cuddled against her when they grew cold, they fed on the lawyer when they grew hungry. The witch binged on animal crackers and watched Ratatouille on a portable television set. She sang to the rats in their own tongue. This is the translation to her song:

“Your lives, my life
Your bones, my blood
Hair, skin, teeth, tit
Moon slows
My life, your lives
My bones, your blood
Semen, tears, spit
Life grows.”

The gestation period for a rat is three weeks, less than one lunar cycle. The witch’s belly stretched. Her pointed breasts grew heavy, her nipples tender. At the end of three weeks, the witch gave birth. Legs swaddled the newborn child in a cocoon as if to banish it from its mother’s sight. “Let me see my baby,” said the witch. The bed sheets were barren of blood. Legs cowered at the footboard. These were sure signs that something was amiss, but the witch had eyes only for the pink hands that reached out to her from the cocoon. She touched the palm of one tiny hand and watched with wonder as its five tiny fingers closed around her own finger. She tore the webbing aside, her heart pounding with the same enthusiasm she used to expend on Christmas gifts. Her baby girl, born from a stony womb, was stone herself. Only her hands had life. The witch held the cold hard thing to her breast, but the lips did not search for her nipple. The witch did not speak or weep. She rose from her bed and, trailed by a river of rats, disappeared down to the basement.

Oh mothers, guard your newborns well! A she-beast prowls the city of Boston. That beast is the shadow of the wind and has a touch lighter than milkweed down. She steals eggs from nested robins. She steals kittens suckling at their mother’s teat. The eggs are found crushed, the kittens drowned. Worse yet are the ravaged women. One mother discovered a manikin sculpted from mud and feathers in her baby’s crib. Another found only a bottle of bloody milk. There is a rumor of rats. There is a rumor of hands in the darkness. The witch is jealous and although she might cradle a stranger’s baby on a moonless night, none survive past the morning. “Another,” the witch says to her rat familiar, the largest from the basement brood. The rat has small pink hands. These are sutured at the wrist with threads of finest silk.

In this manner the witch made her peace with the world.

III. The Tale of Eyes

Three is a magic number and so the witch had three familiars. The oldest of these was Legs. Legs was as large as a pillow and trundled about the house on a wheeled cart. The next oldest was Hands. Hands had a touch so deft that she could steal the shadow from the wind. The youngest of the three was Eyes. Eyes was generated from a potato. The witch grew the potato in her root garden between rows of carrots and horseradish. She watered the potato with blood and fed it on crematorium ash. She sang as she gardened and this was her song:

“Heart of my heart
Light of my eyes
Breath of my breath
Rise to my sight.”

That autumn, after the leaves of the maple had begun to blush but before the first hard frost, the witch was awakened by a tapping at her kitchen door. The witch fumbled with the latch. A potato perched on the stoop, russet of skin, pale roots dripping mud. “Eyes,” the witch cried, as if she knew the names of all strangers. The witch carried Eyes to her kitchen table and carved a smile with a paring knife. She skewered twin nostrils and ears with a toothpick. The power of a witch is in her blood and thin white scars criss-crossed her arms. A few more scars and Eyes could speak.

“Food,” Eyes said.

The witch fed Eyes bacon, hot and sizzling from the stove. The breakfast aroma attracted Legs and Hands. Eyes burped. The witch cleaned the grease from Eyes’s mouth. “I have need,” said the witch, “for gold kissed by a virgin.” A memory stirred in Eyes’s potato mind, one bestowed by the crematorium ash on which she was raised. “A pretty girl,” Eyes said. “She steals a twenty-dollar gold piece and when confronted by her mother, swallows it. You will find it in an urn at the Fairview Cemetery.” The witch turned to where Hands hunkered in the corner nibbling on a cockroach. “Fetch,” she said. Hands returned two hours later out of breath but with the coin in hand. The witch praised only Eyes. “You are worth more than gold,” the witch said.

If you think that Legs and Hands accepted Eyes as an equal then you, like the witch, understand nothing of jealousy. Legs and Hands chopped a toothy grin into Eyes for a Halloween trick then mashed her for a side course at Thanksgiving dinner. Winter came and the two familiars buried Eyes in a snowdrift, impaled her on an icicle, and lashed her to the top of the Christmas tree. The witch resuscitated Eyes each time. She sewed Eyes’s wounds with threads of worm gut. “You’re the youngest,” the witch said. “They’ll accept you in time.” When necessary, she spooned the pulped flesh into a fresh potato skin. “A little more time,” the witch said. The scars on the witch’s arms grew more numerous.

At the tail end of winter, the witch called together her three familiars. “I have need,” said the witch, “for a needle blooded in anger.” An ash-fed memory coalesced in Eye’s mind. “A man,” she said. “He paws the oyster-shell buttons in a hexagonal sewing box. He pierces his finger and throws the box to the floor in anger. He is distracted and does not reassemble the contents.”

“Where is the needle?”


The witch sucked in her breath. “In the attic?”

“Yes. Between a crack in the floorboards.”

“Who was this man?”

“Your father.”

The witch turned to where Legs squatted in the corner crunching on moth husks. “Fetch,” she said. You would not think to look at the witch that anything had changed but, in fact, everything had changed. The witch now regarded Eyes with suspicion.

Spring arrived. The two familiars painted Eyes with circles and stripes and rolled her down a slope intending to lose her at the Easter egg hunt. The witch found Eyes beneath a forsythia bush. Beside her squat brown body, peering up from the mud, was a familiar doll-sized glass eye. A little digging and the witch recovered the remaining eyes from the omelet she had served her parents many years before. Staring into those incriminating orbs, the witch knew what she must do.

That afternoon, while dicing horseradish, the witch called to Eyes, “Come help me.” Eyes crawled free from where she napped in the produce bin. The witch rapped the cutting board with the cleaver’s handle. Eyes climbed up and settled on the board. The witch kissed Eyes on her wrinkled forehead and then chopped her into small pieces. At the far corner of her garden, shadowed by a crooked pine, the witch maintained a boneyard of unmarked graves. The witch buried Eyes there. She also buried the needle dipped in anger and the dozen glass eyes. The witch placed a fist-sized rock on the mounded earth. The rock was a common sort, jagged and gray and with hints of mica, but this was the first burial the witch ever commemorated.

That evening the witch drank a glass of wine and joined Legs and Hands in playing Flocks of a Different Color. Legs cheated, producing the Stoat of a Silvery Luster when one had already been played. Hands cursed and refused to pay the loser’s forfeit. The witch drank another glass of wine. Hands laid down a pair of Blunted Knives but these were from a different card game altogether. Legs swore and called her a fool. The witch drank still another glass of wine. She lost count of how much she drank. Legs tried to bind Hands with a stinging cord. Hands gnawed through this and attacked her with a potato peeler. The witch burst into tears.

The next day there were three rocks sunk into the soft soil of the boneyard. The witch spent that summer, fall, and winter alone. She read romance novels and played the solitary card games of her youth. She watched Burn, Witch, Burn on the portable television set. Sometimes she laughed at the funny parts and sometimes she cried.

The seasons are inevitable. Still, it snowed on Easter Sunday, a dreary leprous snow that fit the witch’s mood. She followed the traceries of melted flakes on the kitchen window then wandered out into the yard. The crooked pine was gray in the mist. Three grave markers protruded from the frozen crust. Between them, brown as the mud itself, a gnarled shoot poked skyward. The witch fell to her knees and kissed the tiny fragment that drew its life from those that she had taken. A few days later she saw that a second shoot had joined the first. The shoots grew thick and strong, each crowned with a furry bud.

The witch waited impatiently for the buds to open. This occurred on a glorious spring day when the sun shone bright as butter and the breeze smelled like champagne. The petals were a fleshy pink and there were five to a bloom. The witch reached out, feeling an uneasy sense of déjà vu, and felt the petals wrap around her finger. She touched the second bloom and the petals did likewise. Suddenly afraid, the witch tried to pull away. The tiny hands did not release. For a moment the witch hung suspended, then she sat down with a plop.

The witch had yanked a child forth from the boneyard soil. A girl. The girl’s legs were long and thin and bent in unusual places. The hairs on her legs were so pale and fine as to be almost invisible, those on her upper torso dark and thick as a new fur coat. The girl’s face, to put it kindly, was earthy. Her cheeks were pocked, her hair stringy, and her mouth lipless. She had only two eyes but these were visible from almost any direction.

“Mama,” the little girl said.

The witch took the child to her bosom. The girl wrapped her arms and legs around the witch and wriggled like a nest of snakes. “You’re beautiful,” said the witch. “I will call you My Little Miracle.”

The witch was just as good a parent to My Little Miracle as her own parents before her.

About the Author

Eric Schaller’s debut collection of dark fiction, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, was released in 2016 from Undertow Publications. His stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Fantasy: Best of the Year, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Nightmare Magazine, and Resist and Refuse. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and an editor, with Matthew Cheney, of the online magazine The Revelator (