At first the spell was nothing but a game designed by little girls. As far as they knew, it was only of interest to the three of them. They never imagined what they did that afternoon would matter to anyone else.
For most grownups in Skillute, Washington in the late 1960s few events rose in significance above the routine of work, Sunday worship, and the weekend six-pack. The prospect of someday joining this world of quietly unhappy adults made the three girls long for useless adventures.
They were awkward, slender, average height, age eleven to eleven and a half. They came up with the idea to swear an oath against having babies after another girl, whose mother was overdue with twins, whispered a few mortifying details of the pregnancy while they slouched in the darkened back row of their classroom during a hygiene film.
"For two whole weeks Mama hasn't moved off of the couch. Just sits there all day breathing."
The girl affected a ragged intake of breath.
"Grandma brings her ice chips soaked in Budweiser."
"Why?" Ethel asked.
The storyteller was poor, her green-plaid cotton dress threadbare at the collar and cuffs. After each question she grinned before doling out another bit of knowledge, savoring the discomfort of her audience.
"That's to stop the pain when Mama's gums bleed. They get so raw they break open and her mouth fills up with blood. Then she's got to spit into a cup."
"Sick," Beverly whispered.
"All she does is cry and tell Grandma these twin babies are a curse, and if she could she would cut that man from Wenatchee."
The girl wrinkled her nose. She held her hands up in a loose circle around her neck.
"Mama's ankles are this big around. She can't sleep at night, and she can't wear shoes because her feet are all swollen up."
Mrs. Coffey shushed the class from her dim corner at the front of the room, near the chalkboard. A few silhouettes moved restlessly in the flickering light. The girls ducked lower in their seats.
"Her hair kept falling out of her head until she was bald except for one patch on the side."
"Did it grow back?" Beverly asked.
"Yeah," said the girl. "But now there's hair on her stomach, too, like the fur on a dog's belly."
"No!" Ethel said.
The girl nodded: It was true.
"Grandma shaves it off, but it grows back thicker every time."
"I've never heard of that," Beverly said.
"Doctor says it's pretty common," the girl informed them.
Now Ethel and Beverly turned to Marietta, whose aunt was a midwife and a fortune-teller. They waited while Marietta made up her mind to speak.
"Some pregnant women grow hair in places they didn't have it before," she said solemnly. "That's true."
A shiver ran through the group. All turned their attention to the film screen at the front of the room, where a young woman with pigtails was demonstrating the proper way for a lady to wash her hands in a public bathroom.
The conversation had its effect on all three girls. Later that day, during lunch break, Beverly announced:
"I'm not ever going to have fur on my stomach. That's not even human."
She sniffed disdainfully and picked at her bracelet, turning over each miniature charm until all the painted shamrocks faced outward. The bracelet accentuated a single stroke of pink polish dabbed on each of her nails.
"We're doomed," said Ethel.
All three girls looked down at their untouched sandwiches on the cafeteria table: Egg salad, peanut butter with grape jelly, liverwurst. Knowing what they knew about the world and what it held in store for them had ruined their appetite. They could only sigh and stare at the food with jaded smiles. They were considering never eating again.
"I'm telling you both right now: I won't let my ankles get bigger around than my whole neck!" Beverly said. "That's never going to happen. Never."
Her determination inspired the others. They nodded and, just like that, it was decided.
"How can we make sure we won't have babies?" Ethel asked.
Both girls turned once more to Marietta. Her seriousness, her violet eyes and the lank, black hair framing her face gave her a dramatic air that would have prompted teasing if most of her classmates weren't afraid of her.
"We could have an accident," she said.
"What kind of accident?" Ethel asked.
"No," Beverly interrupted. "I'm not doing that. Come on, Marietta, doesn't your aunt know something we can take, or do? Something that doesn't hurt."
"Maybe there's a way," she said. "Sometimes women ask my aunt for a remedy. That's after the fact, though. This is different. I'll have to look it up in the spell book when she's out of the house."
The other two exchanged a sly look. Marietta went on:
"We can swear an oath. If we use the right spell, it might work."
"Might?" Beverly said.
"It's my aunt that's got the healing power."
"Well, that's no good," said Beverly. "She won't help us."
"If we all say the oath and if we use blood, it could work."
"A spell is the most powerful when it uses the woman's blood," said Marietta.
"She means from your period," Beverly explained to Ethel.
"I know that," said Ethel. She paused and then admitted: "I don't have any."
"I don't either," said Beverly. "And Marietta?"
Marietta shook her head. No. Not yet.
"But that's the point," Beverly said. "We have to take the oath before this thing gets us."
"You're right," said Ethel. "Once we start to bleed, we can have a baby any time. Then we might as well be dead."
They were silent for a moment.
"What can we do?" Ethel asked again.
"Well," Beverly began. "What if we cut our fingers for blood, and say the oath somewhere that's got its own power, a secret place?"
"In the woods?"
"That's all I can think of," said Beverly.
Ethel looked away.
"Don't be a sissy," Beverly told her. "Miss Knocks is just a fairy tale. If the place has any power it's only because people believe it. You don't believe in a fairy tale, do you?"
"Then it can't hurt you. On the other hand, if you swear an oath and you believe it, maybe it comes true."
"You think so?" Ethel said.
"Why not?" Beverly said. "It's the power of positive thinking."
Marietta considered this and said: "I'll look up the spell as soon as I can."
The kids outside this tiny social circle considered Marietta strange, if not dangerous, and they kept their distance. Her mother was long gone. Nobody could say where. The girl never knew her. Her aunt was Delphine Dodd and they lived in a bungalow near the railroad tracks.
Delphine was old, thin as a spindle, with black eyes that sparkled like obsidian. Her house reeked of weeds and incense.
Local women paid Delphine for potions, herbal remedies, and spells. They also asked her to tell the future. Women found their way to Delphine if their family doctors were too expensive or too likely to say no to what they wanted.
Most of Delphine's remedies were cheap. Sometimes they were unnecessary. The ailments women brought to her door varied, but only a few of them were actually sick. Some of them felt they had married badly and they were too ashamed to go back to their families. Others worried that they were too old or ugly, and would never be loved by anyone. Some of the women married men who beat them or cheated on them. After having a sympathetic older woman dote on them for a few hours with hot tea and incantations and the fragrance of rose-scented candles, most of the heartsick women felt better. Naturally Delphine had a good number of regular clients.
The herbal recipes and charms came to Delphine through a long line of midwives. She had practiced these arts since she was a child, even younger than her niece. She could offer any one of hundreds of spells from longevity to fertility, spiritual cleansing, enhanced memory, and more restful sleep. Each spell was accompanied by an herbal formula.
Readings were a different matter. Delphine didn't charge people money to tell their fortune, she said, because that would be the wrong thing to do. Her clients gave her tokens of appreciation. Her predictions only came true about half the time, yet she had a reputation for being reliable. The women who consulted her tended to believe what came true and forget the rest.
Marietta inspired gossip at school with her stark appearance and because people wondered how much of her aunt's gift she inherited. It was rumored that Delphine used the girl as an assistant in even the most delicate procedures, but no one ever confirmed this by admitting they had consulted the midwife to end a pregnancy. Whether it was true or not, grownups regarded young Marietta with wariness and children were careful not to insult her to her face.
One story at school was that the weird girl with lavender eyes had made a grease fire break out at Jessup's Diner just by staring at the kitchen door. On another occasion she had blinked at a passing lumber truck and its load of maple logs had come tumbling down onto the road.
By fourth grade no one spoke to Marietta except Ethel and Beverly. Being friends with her was the most mysterious part of their lives, the only thrilling and spooky thing they knew aside from Dark Shadows. They swooned at the prospect of anything different, even frightening, if it seemed glamorous. They wanted to be part of something darkly romantic and beautiful. Barring that, something peculiar would do. Marietta and her strange pedigree would do.
Beverly was soft looking and perfectly groomed, but not truly pretty. Her nose was a bit too long and her lips were a bit too thin. She sensed that she would never be naturally feminine, and she was learning to be content with excellent posture and an enviable wardrobe. She spent a lot of time choosing and matching accessories. She coveted nice dresses and trinkets. She was becoming a snob about it. She would soon be mortified to discover that her mother was secretly stitching Casual Corner store labels into her blouses and dresses, each piece of clothing home-sewn according to a McCall's pattern.
Ethel's appearance was only mentioned when she was compared to her mother, and then people sighed and said it was a shame. Too bad, they said, she didn't have her mother's pale blue eyes or honey-colored hair. Too bad she didn't stand up straight. Too bad she dragged her feet when she walked. Too bad her fine-looking mama Shirley was mostly known for the men she drank with, loggers and timber buyers and passing salesmen. She wasn't picky about the men or the booze, and it was commonly assumed that her husband wasn't Ethel's real father.
The second bell rang. A few students loitered in the cafeteria. The girls scooped up their uneaten sandwiches and headed for the double doors. As each passed, she tossed the dreaded lunch into an aluminum trashcan and turned away with a mournful expression.
Marietta was as good as her word. By mid-week she had secured the information they needed.
That Friday after school they crossed the deserted kickball field in single file. They clambered up a wide incline clotted with ground ivy and then hurried on. They had to hike for a quarter of a mile, slightly more uphill and slow going across the darkening floor of the forest.
Finally they reached a stand of old growth where they could no longer see the outer edge of the woods. They couldn't hear the intermittent traffic that led north to the freeway. There wasn't even a thin break in the encircling Douglas fir and red cedar. The bracken was heavy here. They picked their way carefully through nettles and twigs to a small clearing and looked up at the motley ceiling.
All around lay a quiet part of the forest the girls had never seen before. They had only heard of it as the background to fairy tales about Miss Knocks. People said she walked here late at night. Miss Knocks with her long arms reaching up into the trees to pull children down to the ground. Miss Knocks chasing kids out of the woods, scooping them up in a pillowcase and hauling them away into the night. She was part of the folklore everyone in Skillute knew. Part myth, part fireside tale, Miss Knocks kept children wondering and watching shadows, at least until second or third grade.
The girls claimed they were too grownup for these tales. Yet they had chosen this location for its promise of dark magic and secrecy. Now in the shadows of the forest they suddenly felt the restless stirrings of fear. They were too stubborn to say so, but they were anxious to be finished and on their way home.
It was mid-October. The forest was several degrees cooler than the outer world. The girls began buttoning their bulky sweaters by the time they had settled on the exact spot.
"I'm cold," Beverly grumbled. "How long will this take?"
She pulled a white beret out of her sweater pocket, put it on her head and tweaked it to one side.
"Let's get started," Ethel said.
"Did everyone bring a piece of string?" Marietta asked.
They opened change purses and lunchboxes and scrambled in pockets. Finally each girl produced a string.
"Come on, let's say the oath," said Beverly.
"Does your string come from something that belongs to you and only to you?" Marietta asked them.
"Yes," said Ethel.
"It has to belong to you, for the spell to work," said Marietta.
"Of course it's mine," said Beverly. "It's a shoestring from my old sneakers. I don't wear them any more. Does that matter?"
"No," said Marietta. "It can be something old. But why is it so clean and white?"
"I washed it," Beverly said and made a "tsk" sound with her tongue.
"Why?" Ethel asked.
"I'm not taking an oath on a dirty old shoestring."
"What's yours?" Marietta asked Ethel.
"It's a strand of rickrack from one of my dresses. Doesn't fit any more, so I pulled this off the hem."
"Good," said Marietta. "That's good. My string is a silk ribbon."
She held up the black silk for them to see.
"That's pretty," said Beverly. "Are you sure you want to waste that?"
"If the spell works, it isn't wasted."
"Okay. Okay. Can we start? I'm freezing! Can't we hurry up?"
Beverly stamped her feet in place.
"You've got to do this right, or it won't work," Marietta reminded her.
"Probably won't work anyway," Beverly said. "If I have to stand out here in the woods for a while, we have to have a fire. It's too cold. My knees are bumping together!"
They agreed to light a small fire to get them through the ceremony. The sky had darkened steadily. Now it verged on a downpour. But in this patch of the woods the trees had been untouched for more than a century. They bowed in and laced overhead. There wasn't a sliver of pure sky between the branches undulating, entwined above.
Ethel crouched to clear a spot in the dirt. She pushed back fallen leaves, and made a face when she accidentally scooped up a banana slug. She scraped her hand clean on a moss-covered trunk then picked the stray dots of moss from her palm.
"Hurry up," said Beverly. "What should we set on fire?"
Ethel sighed and shook her head. Beverly always had the grand ideas. Then Ethel and Marietta had to figure out how to make them work.
"Well?" Beverly asked. She was wearing a layer of lipstick she had surreptitiously applied after school. That morning she had swiped the tube of Coral Pink from her mother's pocketbook.
"Okay," said Ethel. "Over there's a pile of wood chips."
Ethel had spied a fallen branch lying atop and partly concealing a nest of cedar shingles. She hopped over the broken logs and helped herself to three shingles that seemed intact. She had to shake off dirt and beetles. Then she slapped away a bit of moss stuck along the edge and placed the shingles in a rough triangle in the space she had cleared. She was about to start rubbing sticks together when Beverly reached into her pocketbook and produced a Zippo lighter.
"Where did you get that?" Ethel asked.
"None of your business," said Beverly.
The girls crouched, and Beverly popped the lid on the Zippo. She flicked the thumbwheel and held the flame against the corner of the cedar shingles. Once the flame took to the edges the girls leaned in and blew on the shingles to keep them going. At last the girls stood and gathered around the meager fire.
"Now what?" Beverly asked.
"Now take this pin," said Marietta.
She held a straight pin between two fingers, pinching it carefully to avoid being burned, and barely touched it to the fire. Then she stood and pricked her index finger with it.
Ethel and Beverly winced at the sight of red-black blood forming a liquid pearl on the tip of Marietta's finger. Before they could say anything she ran her finger along the black silk ribbon. After the ribbon absorbed the drop of blood she handed the pin to Beverly, who drew a sharp breath and pricked her own finger, then touched the shoestring with it. Ethel did the same with her piece of rickrack.
"Do as I do," said Marietta.
She took the black ribbon now and tied two knots in it. Then she crouched and dug a fistful of dirt from the ground, placed the ribbon in the hole she had made and covered it with the dirt. Beverly, who was still shivering from the cold, quickly tied a single knot and buried the shoestring.
"How many knots did you make?" Marietta asked her.
"What difference does it make? A knot is a knot, right?"
Ethel considered this. Then she tied four knots in the rickrack and buried it. When she finished the other two were staring at her.
"Might as well be safe," she said.
"Why?" Beverly said. "You think a squirrel might dig up your rickrack and untie it?"
"You shouldn't make fun of the spell," said Marietta.
"You should hurry up," said Beverly. "Say the oath and let's get out of here."
In turn each repeated the oath they had spent most of the week writing:
"On my soul and by the name of Miss Knocks in the heart of these woods, I swear to never let another one such as myself issue forth from the sacred temple of my body."
Each girl, in turn, grinned at this bit. They were a little embarrassed by the word "body" in relation to themselves, but they were also proud of the time they'd spent writing the oath. They had stolen phrases from TV shows and from books at the school library, combining them into a speech that was impressively solemn when spoken on a cold afternoon in the gloomy woods.
"By all that is sacred to me, I will keep this vow until my whole life is over and done."
Ethel was the last of the three to repeat the vow. Despite the density of the canopy overhead one raindrop fell through, cold, plump, and glistening, onto her face as she began. It quivered there, broke, and ran down. She looked up with a grimace. The raindrop coursed the length of her neck and dribbled inside her cotton dress. High in the trees there was a pattering rain, but it would take time to soak through the canopy.
Marietta broke the circle, jumped and turned around. She looked over her shoulder and stared off into the shadows.
"What?" Beverly asked. "What happened?"
"Did you see it?"
The other two stared at Marietta. Beyond the dark layer of leaves, above the branches and debris swaying over them, the blackened clouds moved and thunder rolled in. The clouds seemed to jostle and murmur overhead. Beverly's voice broke through the rumbling sound:
Several leaves had blown flat against the small arch of cedar shingles and stuck there. Catching the flame and then dislodging, the leaves tumbled across the forest floor, conjuring a thin corridor of smoke as they rolled. The girls stamped their feet at the leaves outside the circle, but it only stirred up more smoke.
"We can't put it out!" Ethel screamed.
A clap of thunder made all of them jump.
"The rain can put it out," Beverly said. "I don't care. Let's go!"
"Rain's not even touching the ground here," Marietta said.
Beverly wasn't listening. She turned away from the other two.
"I'm late for supper! Let's go!" She yelled.
She leapt free of the encircling smoke and darted off through the woods, back the way they had come. Ethel and Marietta went on stamping at the dirt and leaves, burying the shingles with a shallow pile of dirt. They kept scratching their ankles and calves on stray nettles as they worked. The smoke rolled up around them, making it hard to breathe.
Ethel peeled off her sweater and began swatting the ground with it. She took a step following the flames, and another step. Bundling her pitifully charred sweater, she pressed it against a clot of weeds at the base of a cedar and held it there while smoke rolled out underneath. When it seemed that the fire was extinguished she lifted the sweater. Something on the ground caught her attention, and she poked at it with a twig. Then she let out a cry.
Marietta crowded next to her and peered over her shoulder. Both girls gazed down at what was unmistakably a slender, blackened jawbone protruding from the earth in the spot where Ethel had chased the fire. Like tiny hematite chips several crooked, human teeth jutted from the bone. Neither Ethel nor Marietta moved.
Finally Ethel said:
"Who do you think it belonged to?"
Marietta shook her head.
"I don't know," she said. "Could be really old. Maybe there was a cemetery here, or a logging camp. Or it might be a Cowlitz relic."
"Should we take it?" Ethel asked.
Marietta shook her head. She pushed some leaves and dirt over the jawbone and patted them into place.
"No. Whatever was buried here ought to stay put," she said. "Leave it alone."
"It's a bad sign, Ethel. Leave it alone."
The smoke was rising once more and shifting in the air around them. Smoke shimmied out of the leaves under their feet. Everything seemed to be moving at once. Every scrap of the forest shuddered. More leaves were starting to smolder. A spark shot up from the cedar shingles and Ethel screamed:
"We have to go!"
They ran, with thin fingers of smoke winding upward in the woods behind them. They tore through ferns and shrubs that cut their legs. Back through the fir trees and undergrowth, across the leafy floor grasping at their ankles, down the ivy-covered incline. Marietta slipped and fell on her backside. Ethel scooped her up under both arms and pulled her the rest of the way. They hit the kickball field running.
"I have to go home! My aunt's going to be mad if she finds out!" Marietta shouted.
Then she took off and left Ethel standing on the muddy field. The sky split open, tearing like a sheet, letting the rain down. Ahead of Ethel, across the field, Marietta turned and called to her through the torrent. Ethel couldn't hear the words. She could only see Marietta's mouth gaping.
Ethel looked down at her mud-spattered dress and the charred sweater hanging, sodden and ruined, from her right hand. Marietta shouted again. This time her high, keening voice cut right across the field:
"Don't tell anyone!"
Marietta turned away and Ethel took off running. All the way home she practiced what she would say if her mother questioned her about a fire in the woods:"Must have been lightning split a tree, but I wasn't there, so I don't know."
(To continue, you can buy the novel in a paperback edition published by Omnium Gatherum. Something evil has come home.)