“You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.
The body, technically, is still living. The girl herself is gone or erased or sleeping in whatever dream the woods-thing can build for her.
The drifter is in pieces in his potter’s grave. Only the woods-things are allowed to kill in here.
That is, in fact, the subject of this meeting.
Harry Kang shrugs. She can’t argue there–she just got back from Duluth. The ghosts of steel shavings and city smog are still sunk in her shadow. Her brother works there in a warehouse that ships car parts. By all accounts he seems to like it, but you never can tell with Reg.
“I hate it,” the woods-thing continues, “Why do you go?” It seems more petulant than normal, and more on edge. It won’t stop moving — shifting from foot to foot, picking at the moss lining its cuticles, tugging its curls.
“Family calls,” Harry says.
It spits into the leaf-mould at its feet. Woods-things think family means never leaving. Means a fisher-king binding to the land. So none of them have ever thought much of Harry’s brother, when they consider him at all.
Woods-things spare very little thought for humans who aren’t either witches or annoying them. Or both.
“Come this way,” it says, “To see the body.”
That’s the thing about witching. At some point there’s always a damn body.
Harry has always been a witch.
It comes down through her mother, though they are so entirely different that’s it strange they have anything at all in common, even eye color (brown like soaked bark, like forest streams). Her mother’s magic is books and symbols and long bright lines of numbers. Harry’s is dirt and leaves and roots, blood and antlers, deadwood. Like her grandmother, long dead.
When she was younger, no one but her dared enter the family garden, for fear that the herbs growing there would rise up and choke them for daring to not be her.
In the town of Canby, Minnesota, home to fifteen hundred sixty-seven people, there is an understanding about the women of the Kang family and their little cabin just on the edge of the woods. It wasn’t always the Kang family — before her mother married her father Michael, new-come from Korea to look after the paper-mill’s machines, human as human and loving as the whole wide sky, they were the McKinnons. And it was known that the McKinnon women, for a price, would…help. In little ways. Lower a mortgage, ease a birth, punish a wrong the police ignored. A gift left on the concrete stoop of their little house at the edge of the forest could buy much.
(It was also known, although less well, that the woods, too, would answer a request, if paid in blood.)
At school, people would sometimes ask Harry to show them things. Harry, six years old and tick-swelled with pride, said that it was not for showing off.
And she did not, though they sang to her, though she slept and ate and dreamed restless hungry dreams in their shadow, though her father and brother went in with rifles and came out with deer, enter the woods. Her mother had asked her not to, and in those days Harry was a good girl. No matter how much she ached to go in — she was a good girl.
Then there was the murder, in the winter of 1998.
The girl in question, Harry feels it’s important to remember, was named Maisie Grant. Harry knew her, because Canby is so small that one must work not to be known, but not well. She was a junior in high school. She wanted to go to New York for film school, so she could make nature documentaries. Maisie was not afraid of the woods. She loved them, spent her weekends hiking with an antique compass and maps and fair-trade trail mix, taking gorgeous pictures with her little camera and pouring her adoration out over the trees.
The woods repaid her as best they could, but they could not save her from the knife. Woods-things must be woken. And despite all her love, Maisie never knew how.
When she didn’t come home that October Sunday, and when the police found nothing after those crucial forty-eight hours, Maisie’s mother asked Evelyn Kang to find her.
But it was Harry, fifteen and prideful and wanting the woods like some people want a lover, who went in.
The trees said to her: she is here.
The trees said to her: this is what you are.
The trees said to her: is it not time to become?
A good many of Harry’s reasons were selfish.
In she walked, her battered work-boots making no sound on the carpet of pine needles. A ghostlight burned pale gray-white in her upheld left palm. Shadows snapped and rolled around her, thrown into a frantic dance by her light. If she were being honest with herself, Harry would have to admit that the ghostlight wasn’t actually helping,
But witch or no, she was a child alone in the dark forest, and being without the light frightened her too much.
(Some of the shadows were not shadows at all, only things that looked that way, and were watching her. She could hear them whispering right on the edge of sound, but was still too young to know them.)
The trees sang, still, but did not speak. They weren’t going to hand her everything. Witches should know.
For a long time, till past moonrise, Harry wandered, not quite lost but not quite sure of the path. The still core of her where she kept her magic was buzzing with nervous excitement and worry and nausea.
Even then Harry was a realist. She knew how likely it was that there was a corpse waiting at the other end of this night, and that probably she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
The shadows dogged her path. Wolf-eyes gleamed about her, there and gone in half a heartbeat.
Finally she stopped beneath a massive, twisted pine. This wasn’t working. “New plan,” she said under her breath. Her voice trembled more than she’d like, but there was a thin clear thread of strength in it. Harry sat down, cross-legged, on the cold ground, and made her mind into a tiny hard-light sphere.
She breathed in. She breathed out.
She cast her mind like a dragnet over the woods.
Life jackhammered through her. Trees and insects, sleeping birds, owls on the wing, the huge slow pulses of moose and bears, great cats and the bright, brief little stabs that were rodents. The woods-things, alien and familiar all at once. The coiling, endless heartbeat of roots and moss and bones at the center of it all. And she forgot her name, and her purpose, and that she was a her and not part of the woods.
And, as payment for this forgetting, she knew everything.
Later, when she went home, Harry would learn just what she’d done and fear it. Then she knew it well enough that she didn’t fear it, because among the everything she understood how someone might remember she was a fifteen-year-old girl and become that again.
She knew where Maisie Grant was, and where Maisie Grant’s blood soaked into the earth, and she knew where the man who had killed her was, and what had been done to him for his crimes.
Then Harry collapsed back down into her flesh, and was only a girl. But she remembered what she needed. Harry stood on shaking legs, throat dry, eyes burning, and made her way through the dark woods to the clearing. Moonlight lay gentle over the leaves and the blood and the glassy-eyed dead face of the drifter, and on Maisie Grant’s body, which sat primly on a fallen log. The woods-thing inside Maisie’s skin smiled a rictus smile, wide as the ragged slash across Maisie’s throat, and said, “You’re the witch. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Harry swallowed down fear and revulsion and said, “I came for Maisie. Her mother wants answers.”
“And she may have them, but this — ” The woods-thing ran Maisie’s dead hand possessively over Maisie’s dead thigh. “This is mine. She gave it to me. She said I want to live I want to live, and she paid me with all of her blood, and this is what I could do.”
A bargain, freely made and finished in good faith. As much as Harry hated the idea of this thing made of wood and sap and old hungers inside the body of a girl she’d known — it was fairly done. To break it would break her power and anger the woods and a whole host of other things that she, young as she was, couldn’t imagine but knew would be terrible.
“That’s fair. And the drifter?”
“She wanted him to be punished.” The smile, which hadn’t gone away, widened. Maisie’s teeth were white and pearly, straight from years of braces, and gleamed unsettlingly in the moonlight. “I punished him.”
“That’s fair, too.”
“You’re a smart witch.”
“Well, that’s a requirement.”
The woods-thing laughed, and mercifully it wasn’t Maisie’s laugh, but high and chiming and completely inhuman. “Only sometimes. What will you give her mother for answers?”
“Give me her pack,” said Harry, “And a lock of her hair. It’ll have to be enough.”
It wouldn’t be. But then nothing would have been.
Harry buried the drifter in a shallow grave using his own collapsible shovel, and strode out of the woods into the Tuesday dawn with an aching back and blistered hands and a throat full of sour failure.
Her mother waited for her, and Maisie’s mother, and when they saw that she was alone, Mrs. Grant began to wail.
The trees said to her: come back soon.
Now Harry walks with the woods-thing that wears Maisie Grant’s flesh, hand-in-hand in the greenish light. (Over the past months it’s begun to touch her more and more, and she hasn’t found the voice to ask it to stop because she fears it will actually listen to her.) From far away they look almost ordinary, just two girls in the woods. Sideways Hansel and Gretel, ersatz Snow White and Rose Red. It leads her on a long and winding path, over streams and through thickets, skirting copses. She knows where she is, of course. A witch always knows. What she doesn’t know is quite where they’re going.
At last they come to a clearing, blasted and bare, an unnatural miniature wasteland in the heart of the forest. It stinks of rot; where the land is not bare dirt, broken-trunked dead trees stand. The wrongness of this is a coiling physical thing that punches up through her stomach and strikes at her heart. Her power buzzes angrily, shaping itself long sharp spines in answer.
Nauseated, Harry grips the antler-and-deadwood amulet around her neck so hard the points press little dimples into her skin, grounding herself with the pain, and raises a shield around herself. It cuts the feeling. Not enough, but she can work with it. Harry steps forwards. The woods-thing lets go of her hand, and shrinks into the shadow of the trees.
She never thought that she would think this, but it looks afraid. What has happened here?
In the center of the clearing lies a tangle of coyotes, bloodied, eyeless, mouths open in futile, soundless snarls. Even dead the bodies tug at the eye–they run into each other, with no clear ending or joins; they’re all one thing. They cast no shadow.
This was a woods-thing. Was.
“No,” she says, “No — “
“Yes,” says her woods-thing.
“What did this? Do you know?” Her voice is shaking. She lets it.
“One of us,” says her woods-thing. The anger and disgust in its voice are crawling dark things, tangled up and rusted-sharp. “One of us.”
“Help us.” It holds out its hands to her, pleading. “Please. Kill it and we’ll give you whatever you want.”
She’s being asked to answer an abomination with an abomination. And worse, she knows her decision already.
Harry steps out of the clearing, and she takes her woods-thing’s hands between her own and says, “Yes.”
She takes samples, blood and bone and earth and wood, and pictures with her phone. So many pictures that she has to start deleting older ones to make room. Then she plants bundles of green twigs (asked for, paid for, freely given) and tufts of her own short dark hair tied with twine taken from her pack around the perimeter of the clearing. Nothing will get in. If something rises, it will not get out.
Then she texts her mother and Amy Dove, who’s several miles north on the Fond du Lac reservation. By her own hand will the execution be don — but finding the killer woods-thing, that’s not something she has to do alone. It will go faster with three. And the faster, the better. How long before it kills again? How long before it tries to reach beyond the forest? How strong is it, fed on death?
“Stay here,” her woods-thing says as they reach the edge of the trees, “Don’t go.”
This is normal. It asks her, every time, and every time she refuses it because of course she does. She still lives in Canby no matter what she is. It’s a ritual, by now half-meaningless and comforting.
Now, though, it sounds afraid and on the edge of desperate.
Harry notices that more of them than normal are out — tangled through each other, dogging her steps. The trees around them are heavy with other woods-things, clad in shadow and leaves and mud.
They’re not meant to die, and there one of their own has gone sideways and awfully wrong, and so, against their nature, they’re trooping. And hers (since when is it hers? Since she needed a way to differentiate between it and the others in her head.) wants her to stay with it. For comfort. For safety.
It would be sweet, almost, if the heavy sick wrongness wasn’t still lingering in her gut.
“I’ll come back,” Harry says. And then, “Here.” She pulls the chain of her amulet over her head and loops it around her woods-thing’s neck. “There you go. Insurance.”
They stare at each other for a lightning-charged moment, and then it hugs her hard and fast and awkward. On instinct her arms come up, and for a second she hugs it back, breathing in its flowers-growth-sweat smell.
Then it melts away, and so do the others, and she heads out into the field.
The three witches hold their council of war in Canby’s best diner. Harry’s mother looks as she always does: hair falling out of its bun, clothes rumpled, glasses sliding down her nose. Amy is straight from her job as the rez’s public defender, pantsuit impeccable, scrolling forearm tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of her crisp white shirt. Over thick black coffee and cherry pie, amid the noise of conversation and the crackly stuck-on-the-sixties jukebox, they pool what they know. Or rather, what Harry knows.
Amy sums up their feelings with a succinct, “This is shit.”
“Tell me about it,” Harry says, in a tone that more accurately conveys fuck the universe.
“Language,” Evelyn adds mildly, and, “I have a search algorithm I can adapt for you.”
“And I’ve got a devil’s trap I can change,” says Amy. “Tell you what, I’ll stay overnight.”
Absentmindedly, Evelyn makes a sign with her fingers, and in response her phone texts Michael, telling him to make up the guest bedroom.
“Once we’ve got it,” Amy says.
“Once I’ve got it,” Harry says, “It’s my job. I catch it. I kill it.”
“How?” They ask in stereo.
“Greek fire,” says Harry. “Reg knows a guy who knows a girl in Duluth. I can keep a lid on it.” She’s only half as certain of that as she sounds, but she must destroy it on her first try and there is little Greek fire won’t burn. A woods-thing, born of trees, will stand no chance no matter how strong it is. Containing it after —
With a sort of grim humor, Harry thinks, I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.
“Are you sure,” says her mother. “About doing this alone? I know I can’t help, but Amy — “
“Mom,” says Harry. “No. This isn’t the kind of thing you can split.”
“She’s right,” says Amy. “It ain’t the Ides of March, here. Doing it together won’t make it less…”
“Shit,” supplies Harry. It’s easier to say that than to call it what it is.
“Sweetheart, I don’t like the idea.” Evelyn squeezes her hand. “I want you to be safe, you know that.”
“I know, Mom.” Harry manages a smile at her. “But witching isn’t safe. You know that.”
“Oh, save us from overly clever daughters,” grumbles Evelyn, but worry still edges her voice. “Finish your pie.”
Dutifully, Harry finishes her pie, and tries not to think about what she’s going to do.
A day later, in the small hours of the morning, she rides shotgun in Amy’s car, a small pot of Greek fire balanced carefully on her knees. They drive on through the misty darkness, the world narrowed to the sedan and the half-circle of cracked asphalt illuminated by the headlights.
Amy says, “What’ll you do, after?”
Because she won’t be the same.
“Dunno.” Harry smooths one finger around the rim of the pot. “Stay, if they’ll have me.”
“They asked me to.”
Amy shoots her a sideways glance. “They don’t think like us. Sometimes I think you’re too close to them, kid. You think they’ll be grateful, when you’re done? Maybe you’re right. But maybe they’ll kill you for it.”
Harry thinks of her woods-thing lacing its fingers through hers, and she thinks of the shadows weaving behind her footsteps and the gleaming wolf-eyes that follow her sometimes, yellow and utterly alien, and knows Amy’s right.
“Be careful, is what I’m saying.”
The forest at noon is no less dangerous than the forest at midnight, but the sun plays through the leaves and the birds sing, and it seems warmer, somehow. Harry knows that’s just her, but she takes comfort from it. God knows she’ll need it.
At the very edge of the trees, her mother draws her into a fierce hug. Harry breathes in the smell of faded perfume and old books and lavender conditioner and holds Evelyn tight against her. When they part, Evelyn folds a thin silver chain that glitters in a way that has nothing to do with light into her palm. Amy claps her on the shoulder and hands her a tiny burnished-bronze eight-pointed star. The word here is etched on the bottom in tiny Anishinaabeg letters.
Harry does not say the words if I don’t come back. Reg knows she loves him. Dad knows she loves him. Her mother will know what to tell them.
She says, “Thank you.”
And she walks into the woods, and she doesn’t look back.
Soon they close around her.
Soon after that, there is a woods-thing at her heels, and another, and another. Fox-shaped and thicket-shaped and twisting into her shadow. A stumbling bear; a silent shine-eyed moose.
Hers isn’t there.
It isn’t there.
And then, from much too far away, it screams.
The scream isn’t so much a sound as a feeling, shooting up from the forest like a new tree, piercing Harry to the marrow. She hits the forest floor on hands and knees, gasping, retching, and then forces herself to her feet and runs like she’s never run before. Desperation burns new-star hot inside her. Half of it’s hers and half of it’s theirs, spilling over into her through the winding roots of her bond with the forest. The silver chain of the search spell jumps and stutters in her hands and she keys it to her woods-thing and lets it go.
Witch and woods-things sprint through the woods. They bend the world around them by sheer collective will alone, shifting trees and roots and copses and thickets to make a straight path to the growing weight on the skin of the world. Harry can feel it. It’s starting to make her sick, that heavy dark wrongness that wants and wants. Endlessly hungry; endlessly ferocious. A rabid animal with magic twisted in it.
The woods spit them out into another blasted clearing. And there it is, a shifting mass of shadows and roots and what looks like the drifter’s corpse that turns the eye away. There are teeth in there, and a glint of sunlight-through-leaves, and thick gloppy sap. It’s swelled up like a spider full of blood from its first kill.
Harry’s woods-thing fights, stretching past the limits of the skin it wears. It’s not girl-shaped, not quite, not anymore. Fingers have crooked into branches, feet into hooves; where it’s been cut it leaks sap mixed unevenly with blood. Whip-thin thorny branches hang from its curls. It opens its mouth, wide and wolf-toothed, and screams again. Now it’s a sound, ragged, high, sharp and piercing.
Harry can feel the bright little point of her amulet around its neck.
That’s something to work with.
She draws the pot of Greek fire from her coat and holds it at her side, and with her other hand holds the eight-pointed binding star.
One chance. She’s got one chance to pull her woods-thing out of there, and if she doesn’t make it she’ll have to kill them both, because it can’t be allowed to eat her woods-thing and grow stronger. The knowledge is a stone in the pit of her stomach.
No time to brood, though.
“Hang on!” Harry winds up and softball-pitches the binding star into the center mass of the killer woods-thing and yanks, as hard as she can, on the power of her amulet.
The dead earth contracts under her woods-thing, pulling it back. It scrambles towards her, hands outstretched and growing, and loops its fingers around her forearm. She pulls. It’s heavy as lead, heavy as a lake. The killer woods-thing throws out feelers of shadow, clinging to it, but the shadows curl up and die at the edges of an invisible wall. Still it hangs on.
Hers, it’s hers, this monster-thing can’t have it.
“Mine,” she growls, and braces her feet, and gives one last great pull.
With a tearing pop, it comes out of the trap she made and falls at her feet.
It’ll live, she thinks with a stab of relief, but this isn’t over.
The killer woods-thing roars, and, with all her might, Harry throws the pot of Greek fire at its heart.
White-hot flames lick the sky. Heat sears her front, and an awful ratcheting scream drills into her ears, the sound of an animal in pain multiplied a dozen times over and folded back in on itself. The woods-things behind her scream too. Hers grabs her hand with fingers nearing human.
Tree-tendrils scratch and scrabble at the edges of the trap, desperate, seeking. Slowly, they crisp and curl and die. The screaming stops.
And her power snaps and cracks, turning inwards, clawing at her insides and slipping out at the seams. It leaks from her mouth and her nose and streams down from her eyes. Harry’s knees give out and she falls.
(She knew this was coming, she knew, but she wasn’t ready.)
She hits the ground and barely feels it. Someone is shouting at her. Someone is prodding at the sick sharp place where her magic is. Someone is calling, “Harry! Harry Kang!”
The words mean nothing that she can understand.
“Harry! Witch!” A slap cracks across her face. The sting is muted. “The fire is escaping, get up, stop it — Harry, please!”
Hot air rolls over her, intense as a kiln.
Her power curls inside her. Nausea stirs her stomach.
Slowly, she cuts her way through the fog to rationality; realizes that she has to get up, but can’t quite grasp why. She gets one palm flat against the ground, then the other. Then she gets to her knees.
Then she sees the Greek fire eating its way through the barrier.
Oh. That’s why.
With a rush, she comes back to herself. Everything is too much, battling for her attention, scratching her mind raw. The broken pieces of her magic stab at her and at the fire alternately. She’s going to vomit. She’s going to pass out.
She’s going to quell that fire if she dies doing it.
(She really hopes she’s not going to die.)
Fire is hungry, always. There’s no way to feed it to satisfaction; it’ll always want more. But she can starve it to death, if she’s careful.
It’s so big, looming over them all like a wave about to break, and she can feel the weakness running in her bones. Harry swallows and gathers what she’s got left.
It will burn air. It will even burn on water.
But what’s left of her magic —
Maybe not that.
Harry snaps the trap open wide, and holds out her arms to the fire, and draws it inside her.
It burns all the way down her throat and into her stomach, and it fills her to bursting. It hurts so much, worse than the time she broke her arm jumping off the barn roof, worse than the time she left her mind wedged open and spent a week full of everyone else’s dreams, worse than the time she left herself inside a deer while it died.
She swathes the fire with every shard of power she has, cutting it to ribbons and smothering the individual pieces. Tiny sparks escape and bite at her.
Her fingertips start to smoke.
Still she goes on.
The burning climbs her arms, and she breathes out a long stream of woodsmoke with a whimper on its heels. An arm winds around her waist; shadows clump around her legs. The foxes and the moose press into her, their forms blurring. They open the heart of the forest to her.
But the influx of power is not enough. Stretching, choking on a scream, she draws on a year of her life, two, three. Four.
The fire inside her goes out, and Harry falls again, falls a very long way.
When she wakes, it’s to still greenness, and waxy-skinned hands tipping water down her throat.
A bone-deep exhaustion weighs her down. The world is dull and far away and she feels sick, still. Everything blurs. Her tongue is swollen and useless. And something–something else, something worse, is very wrong with her. What is it?
Her woods-thing says, “You’re awake.”
No, am I? she wants to say, but the words don’t come.
Her power is gone entirely, she realizes. She’s empty, drained dry. How is she alive?
Her woods-thing brushes the backs of its knuckles butterfly-wing-light over her cheek. “Do you even know how much you gave us? Everything. You brave idiot. What will I tell your mother? What will I tell your bird-witch?”
What’s going to happen to her?
“But we’ll take care of you,” her woods-thing goes on.
The earth is softening under her, slowly but surely. Swallowing her down. Peace steals over her.
Artificial. Imposed. The woods are doing this.
Harry licks her lips. Manages to whisper, “What are you doing?” Her voice is a barely-coherent rasp.
“Sending you to sleep.”
“For how long?”
“Shhh.” It lowers her to the ground gently and stretches out beside her, curling an arm possessively around her middle. “For as long as you need,” Harry’s woods-thing whispers in her ear. “Until you’re well again.”
Oh. That sounds nice.
The earth closes over them.
She sinks into sleep.
Months later, as autumn marches onward to winter, Amy Dove and Evelyn Kang stand beside a long low mound. Despite the cold, despite the frost, despite the pine-shadow it lies in, it grows with tiny blue-white flowers and nettles and tangled ivy. A many-eyed, many-jointed fox lies lazily atop it, watching them, motionless but for the lazy flick of its tail.
The woods are quiescent.
“I wish I could see her,” says Evelyn. “I wish Michael could.” He knows, but he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that Harry will wake again, a line of code rescued from the cache, a bulb flowering in spring after a long winter. To him, she’s just gone. Reg knows better, but Reg is so far away.
Amy sighs. “Me too.”
They are silent a moment. Then they turn from the sleeping witch, and leave the woods whispering behind them.
In four years’ time, while summer rages green and hot, one short-nailed olive hand breaks up through the dirt of the mound.
K.M. Carmien is currently a fulltime student in Princeton, New Jersey, where she attends Rutgers University. She currently reviews books for SFRevu. This is her first published story.