The Brook Witch
by Daisy Pearce
It was the night the snow came and swallowed us whole. It blankets everything, thick and white and heavy. An eerie silence. No birdsong. That is what I remember.
My younger sister has been sick for days. Her room smells sour, like curdled milk, and when I sit near her on the bed I can hear the rattle of her breathing. Dark hair fanned out on the pillow like black ferns, tightly coiled.
“Esther needs medicine,” Mama tells me as she pulls on her thick overcoat, her boots. It is a bright afternoon at the start of the year and the ground is hard with frost. Snow has been forecast overnight but for now, the air is high and clear as spring water. Mama has taken the keys from the rack beside the door and fixes me with a brittle smile. Her eyes are shining with unshed tears. I am nine years old, itchy in my woollens.
“I won’t be long. Keep the door locked, don’t go outside. Keep an eye on your sister.”
She plants a distracted kiss on the crown of my head. I watch her climb into the cab of the old truck, the only thing left of my daddy. Mama used to say that he was a good man who hadn’t been ready for a family, but once when she’d been drunk she’d called him a feckless son of a bitch. I watch her sit for a moment with her hands against her temples, unmoving. Then she wipes her eyes with the tips of her fingers and pulls away down the narrow dirt road. I watch her until she is out of sight.
It is an eight-mile drive to town along a pitted road lined by firs. It skirts the edges of the great lake, where dark water shimmers like mercury. From the window, I can see the clouds thickening over the tops of the trees. The sky turns lavender, sketching the steeples of the pines against it like calligraphy. Mama will be gone two, maybe three hours.
I sit in front of the stove where it is warmest and open my book but I can’t be still. I feel nervous, jittery. I draw water and boil the kettle, using a wadded towel to lift it away from the stove so I don’t scald myself. I make tea the way I have been shown, stirring the leaves in the dented metal pot, and take a cup to Esther.
She is sleeping, sooty eyelashes skimming the soft curve of her cheek, eyes fitful beneath closed lids. She is getting weaker.
It has begun to snow. I stand and watch for a while, my breath frosting the window. The sky has deepened to heavy chrome, darkening the room. The shadows of the trees lengthen, skeletal fingers creeping over the ground toward the farmhouse, toward my sister and I. Esther turns over in her sleep, moaning. I go to her bed and curl up next to her, like a cat, my hand on top of hers. Outside the snow falls and falls.
I wake as though swimming slowly upward, breaking the surface of sleep with a gasp. The room has a peculiar brightness, silvery-white, the colour of bone. The bed is empty. I can see a depression where Esther has been lying but my sister is no longer there. A space, cold to the touch. I sit up, call her name.
Into the hallway, I peer down the dark stairwell. It is cold and I shiver violently, my skin prickling.
The bathroom is dark, the door slightly ajar. I pull the cord but no lights come on. Just a hollow click, just darkness. The towels with the embroidered roses hang on nails beside the enamel bath, like a line of little ghosts.
Downstairs it is cold. I try the hallway lights and then the kitchen, standing on tiptoe. Nothing. The phone which hangs on the wall beside the larder pings once and is silent. When I lift the receiver there is a distant buzzing sound, like cicadas beneath the earth. The stove has gone out, the fire guttering to embers. Through the kitchen, over the cold flagstone floor to the back door, which hangs open into the night.
There is a coat rack here. I see Esther’s boots and winter coat – bright and red as holly berries – still hanging on the peg. I lean outside. The wind is sharp and lethal as a blade. It scissors my hair and chills my skin. The snow, still falling, blurs everything like static. I call for my sister into the eerie stillness, the glittering, silent tundra. Footprints are just visible in the drift, leading away from the back door, away from the house. I pull on my thick socks, my boots, lacing them with fingers I can barely feel. I take the torch from beneath the stairs, slip it into the pockets of my heavy coat.
Outside the sky is star-speckled, a bright round moon ringed with frost. The light is silvery and spectral. In some places, the drifts swallow me to the thigh. I think of Mama in the truck with the creaking gearbox and grimy exhaust, the broken passenger window fixed with tarpaulin and tape. I hope she is somewhere safe and warm. She will not be home tonight, unless by snowplough.
There is a creaking noise to my left, somewhere in the darkness of the trees. It sounds like branches snapping, the cracking of ice. The woods are huge and we are not allowed to go near them. Brookwitch forest covers almost thirty miles of rough, wild land. The old paths, of which there are only few, peter out and turn to bramble and nettle and fern, clumps of poison ivy and marshland. As children, we were told that the Brook Witch lived in the forest where she ate bark and tore at raw meat with dirty fingernails. We were told she could make us lose our way, send us deeper into the woods to be lost. That the flesh of her throat was black.
I hadn’t remembered her in years, that old legend of a feral woman with kinetic powers. I thought of her now though, in that strange lunar light, and I was afraid.
I reach the barn where the snow has banked almost to the roof. I can still pick out the little depressions my sister’s feet have made. They end at the door. Inside, darkness and a strange animal smell; fur, old hay, ammonia. My torchlight swings about the rafters, the dirt floor. There is a scuffling noise, claws scratching at wood. My heart is thunderous in my chest. The Brook Witch, we were told, had long incisors and lips the colour of fresh bruises. Outside, that brittle cracking noise again. Coming closer, I think. I try to speak and it is a whisper:
I catch her in the slow swing of my torchlight, her face a waxy, floating moon beneath the corona of black hair. Her eyes are polished marbles of astonishing blue. She lifts her head as I cross the dirt floor.
All the saliva in my mouth dries up. When I lift my hand to take hers I am trembling. We both hear the cracking sound this time, the knitting together of old wood and old bone. Esther looks at me with cloudy, feverish eyes, alarmed. Her bare feet are stung red. I think of frostbite, the teeth of the winter, and I shrug off my coat, putting it over her thin shoulders. Her skin is like a furnace. I tell Esther we need to go back to the house, back to bed. I tell her it is snowing, that the noises she hears are the weight of the snowfall snapping branches. I tell her the Brook Witch is just a story. She looks through me, and again,
Fright is a splinter of ice lodged just beneath my ribs. Her eyes roll and I catch her as she falls. She lands like sticks in my arms, with no more weight than a promise, hastily made.
I lift her and carry her back out into the snowy night, following my own footsteps back toward the house. From the edge of the trees comes a great tearing sound, heavy material, old silks, rotten with age. I am shivering with fright. Metallic water floods my mouth, the taste is old copper. With Esther in my arms I can’t turn so I hurry, stepping clumsily through deep snow, clutching my sister to me like a cherished toy. My breath is ragged, pulse a thick percussion in my ears. I swing through the back door, clattering us both to the floor. Kicking it closed with my heel I think I see a dark shape in the garden, splay-fingered and moving fast. I latch it and turn the key. My chest hurts. Esther is on the floor and she is not moving. The cold is killing us, I think and I hammer my fists against the back door, making the old wood shiver. My breath is heaving. I hear it then. Close by. A creaking, as of ice, an Arctic shelf sliding into the sea.
“Go away! You can’t have her!” I shout and my voice cracks, and my face is wet and cold.
“Get away from this house.”
I am quieter now, really weeping, voice thick with tears. I lean against the door frame and think I hear something on the other side, just outside the door.
“Please leave her alone. She’s my sister and she’s sick.”
By the time I get Esther back into bed, I think for the first time that she really might die, slip away in the night while Mama sleeps in the truck of the cab, far from home. Esther’s eyes are half-open, glazed like a distant shock. Her lips are chapped, her tongue cracked. Her skin is scorching the tips of my fingers. I hope she isn’t going to have a seizure. She’d had one before, as a baby.
I prop her up on her pillows and open the window. Leaning outside I scoop a handful of powdery snow from the window ledge. I take it to Esther and press it to her burning skin. She gasps, arching her back. I rub it over her lips, the hot hollow of her mouth. I smear snow at her temples until it pools beneath her neck. I put clots of it onto her breastbone and cheeks where it melts away.
Quickly I go to Mama’s tiny room with the sloping eaves and view of the pine woods. I draw the curtains and pull open the second drawer of her bedside cabinet. Inside it, beneath a litter of old documents, is a lockbox. I stand on top of the trunk in the corner of the room and feel along the top of the door jamb. Just for a moment, I think there will be nothing but dust, but suddenly my groping fingers chance upon the key. I open the box just as I think I hear a rattling noise. I tell myself it is just the wind, jolting the back door in its frame. The wind which makes the snow flicker and dance. I unlock the box and take out my mother’s pearl handle snub-nosed revolver. She told me once that she used to carry it in her handbag, before Esther and I came along, before Daddy disappeared.
I do not know about guns. I do not know if it is loaded but the heft of it in my hands makes me feel safe. I hold it the way I’ve seen in films, with the muzzle against my cheek.
“You can’t have her,” I whisper, and I look up at the ceiling as something moves along the roof. Snow falling, I think as I hurry back down the dark hall, just snow falling. It hadn’t sounded that way. It had sounded like something crawling over the slippery tiles.
Esther is murmuring, saying my name. I cross to her and put the inside of my wrist against her brow. Her breathing is steady and I think she has cooled, just a little. Her cheeks have lost that hectic flush. I curl up beside her with the gun in my hand.
I tell Esther that we are safe. I tell her that in the morning the snow ploughs will clear the roads and Mama will be home and that all will be well. I close my eyes.
Outside, the snow falls.