Our Writer In Motion journey is drawing to a close. Not to sound like a broken record, but I am so happy that I joined in with this blog project! I benefited so much from the opportunity to connect with fellow writers, the experience of receiving and giving CP edits, and the privilege of reading my cohort’s beautiful stories. And I’m incredibly grateful to my CP’s for their kindness, insight, and hard work!
Please check out my fellow writers’ journeys at the Writer in Motion blog.
My second round of CP edits brought more clarity to my piece and highlighted a couple areas where I had tried to contradict myself in pursuit of a pretty turn of phrase. I took advantage of the word-count flexibility to add back in a little meaning where I’d cut for efficiency.
This one goes out to all my queer, gender-nonconforming, trans, enby, and identity-fluid people. You are loved, seen, valid, and valuable.
The Witch of Blue Ridge
The witch of Blue Ridge didn’t come down the mountain by the same paths anymore.
Not by the dizzy switchbacks of the overgrown trail, with its woven wicker wards and mossy branches strung with bells of bone to warn off anyone foolish enough to wander upward. She went down by her own swift secret ways instead, through the labyrinthine networks of root and water, while her coywolf companion guarded her empty body in the cabin above. Down to the woods’ edge she went, to the border of the world she’d left behind.
She’d traded family for the forest, bonds of blood for branch and bone, human company for her constructs and the coywolf. The inhabitants of the town that nestled into the mountain’s shoulder looked past her as if they couldn’t see her at all. Still, they whispered of a ragged, haggard apparition haunting the dusk beneath the trees. A cautionary tale.
But today, at the ministry camp’s margins, a skinny, big-eyed kid looked across the field and saw her fetch walking the boundary line.
“Who’s that?” The kid had a husky voice and long hair tied back in a ponytail.
Reverend Barnes placed a hand on the back of the kid’s neck to steer them toward the cabins. “No one, Riley.” He glanced over his shoulder, but the witch had faded back into the forest’s shadow. “It’s no one.”
He chose not to see her. Once, she’d perched in the boughs of the ancient oak that overhung his eaves, just outside the room where he knelt and prayed aloud for someone whose name she’d shed like an old snakeskin. He’d hunched his shoulders as if sensing her presence, but he never turned around.
The witch flowed back into her body. A massive, furry head pushed under her hand and Lupe’s weight leaned against her legs. She scratched the coywolf’s ears and sighed.
New kid, old story. Always the same end.
Best not to get involved.
In the night, she woke to the rattle of bells and bones, followed by the tearing sensation of a ward breach.
Someone had come up the mountain. She lay still, breathing quick and shallow in the silence, until the crickets struck up their rhythmic song again.
The coywolf whimpered. In the moonlight seeping through the cabin’s single window, she stood stiff-legged, ears aquiver, nose pointed toward the door.
“Damn it.” The witch closed her eyes. Her fetch raced along the rootways toward the ward’s boundary, where the woven branches had entangled a slender form.
She’d caught a child in her wards like a fly in a web.
“Well, fuck me,” said the witch of Blue Ridge, and climbed out of bed.
It took some time to convince the wards to let go. The trees passed the captive up the hill, cocooned in spider silk, and placed them at the meadow’s edge where the witch waited.
She took her knife from her coat pocket and cut the webbing away. The silk cocoon split open. The kid from the ministry camp lay insensate in her meadow. Mascara and tears streaked the rawboned cheeks. A new bruise purpled over their right eye, and they had a split lip.
The witch sat back on her heels. Her breath hitched. Her own cheek tingled, blooming with old pain.
“Devil take you, Reverend.” Her curse had no power behind it. “Not again.”
Lupe whined and dropped her shaggy head to lick the teenager’s face. The kid sputtered awake, then froze, eyes fixed on the looming coywolf.
“It’s all right,” the witch said. “She won’t hurt you.”
Wide-eyed, the kid took in the meadow, the moon, and the witch kneeling there with a knife in her hand. “You’re her. The one I saw.”
She slipped the knife into her pocket. “You got lost in the woods. You ran, didn’t you?”
“The camp.” The kid shivered. “Reverend Barnes says I have to be a boy. I’m not a boy, you know.”
“He said my pronouns are just bad grammar.”
“His word’s no gospel truth.” She bit back her fury hard enough to cramp her jaw. “What’s your name?”
“Riley’s fine.” The kid flashed a tremulous half-smile.
“Where were you planning on going, Riley?”
“There’s a bus to the city,” Riley said. “It stops at the junction every morning. I thought if I hid in the woods all night…”
“The city…” The world had changed its shape since she’d shed her name and bound her soul up in the mountain’s roots. She shook off another pang as she offered a hand and hauled Riley to their feet. “Come on. I’ll get you something warm to drink.”
Riley’s brow furrowed. “I probably shouldn’t. But if you’re going to eat me, you’re being really nice about it.”
“I eat venison and mushrooms. Not runaways from conversion therapy.” The witch gave a dour laugh. “Besides, you’re skin and bones, kid. Not even a meal’s worth.”
The witch drowsed in a chair by the door until dawn, when her wards jolted again. The baying of hounds floated up the mountainside.
She shook Riley awake. “Time to go, kid.”
“Shit. They’re coming for me, aren’t they?”
Another ward snapped. The witch staggered. “They won’t catch you if you hurry. Lupe will show you the way.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me.” Fire ran along her veins. She shuddered. Down the slope, they’d started burning the wards. “I’ll hold them off.”
Face gray in the predawn light, Riley shouldered their backpack with its ripped rainbow patch. “Funny. I didn’t think they cared enough to send a search party.”
“It’s not…caring.” She closed her fist. Deep in the forest, her constructs rose, knitting themselves from scattered bones and branches. “It’s…control. Go.”
“Thank you,” Riley whispered, and took off running across the mist-veiled meadow, long limbs flying like a yearling deer’s.
Alone in the cabin, the witch fell to her knees. She screamed. The forest had caught fire now. Downslope, a bone stag reared, bugling, aflame, as the constructs bore down upon the searchers.
The forest might burn. She might burn. But the camp would burn too.
“Father,” she rasped. “I’m coming home.”
This time, when she cursed, she cursed with all her strength.