The words that you hear are long dead. I speak in the now, but you hear in the afternow, on the other side of all that displaces us. Like the light of a distant star (or even the closest one, your godly grandfather), my words take time to traverse the lacuna between my mouth and your ears.
I know it’s useless to expect anything from you. All I ask is that you listen. And, if you care at all, that you try to cross the separation, too, in reverse. Even as I drag up memories from before, I hope my words pull you to where I am now, kneeling in the dirt and the dark. I hope you feel the wet earth on your hands and the worms writhing beneath you.
My words are long dead. I hope you can smell them.
When you came to me, I was neck deep in death. I’m sure you remember. I bet you thought you’d find an oracle, craning her body in an elegant display of madness. Instead, I was crouched over a dead animal on the side of the path you had followed per the vague instructions of some superstitious villager. Before you could smooth your face into respectful admiration, I watched it burst with horror as you registered the pinkish juices rolling down my chin, the slippery organs dripping in my hands. I smiled, and the half-chewed meat poked out between my teeth. I thought you were going to vomit.
“O Great One,” you said, kneeling in supplication. “You can coax the dead from their graves. You can reveal people’s fates and deflect things coming from their course.”
I could tell you had practiced the words and the movements. It gave me some pleasure to hear you praise my power, but so many had come to me as you did. I thought you were a pretty imitation of those desperate men, nightcrawlers begging for a glimpse of the future. I wanted to watch you scurry away on all fours, whimpering in fright.
“I pray you, let me learn—”
“No,” I said. I made my words sound like rocks colliding deep beneath the earth and broken glass crunching underfoot. “I am weary of helping the weak who cannot answer their own questions. Leave me to my solitude.”
“I wish to join you there,” you said quickly. “So I may learn from the finest.” You looked up with defiance in your eyes — a young lioness, still growing into your ferocity, playacting boldness.
You probably think I’m being unfair, making you out like some scared little girl. And maybe I am. To be sure, you weren’t afraid of me the way men are. My reek of destruction is too strong for them. They hire a hunter to drive me out, to burn me at the stake, to throw me in a river to see if I’ll sink.
“Witch” is such a vague term, and you know I hate labels. But, when the powers inside us recognized each other and sparked, we knew what we were. I understood then the energy you held, the copper dragon of potential coiled inside you.
Visions are a rare occurrence; it takes work and craft and patience to tell what is to come. But in that moment, I saw what you would be. I saw you harden and sharpen. I saw you float aloft, your eyes and hair ablaze with fire of your own forging. I saw how death would come to cling to you, too, like a too-tight dress or a terrified child.
I never told you exactly what I saw when we set the air crackling.
Our hair lifted up, frizzing outward, and you laughed.
I still don’t know whether it was my vision or your laugh that made me change my mind.
In these aftertimes, I stir up your laugh, and I let it ring in the emptiness. I’ve made myself hoarse trying to get the sound just right. It still scrapes my throat on its way out.
I am not used to apologies, so I hope you’ll understand if the words sound unfinished.
I know I sometimes pushed you too hard. I didn’t know how to treat you, at the beginning. I didn’t know how to want someone to stay.
I regret how difficult I made it for you.
The first day, I turned homeward and did not look back, even when I heard you struggling to keep up behind me. That was your first test.
I crafted words carefully, but you let them flood out before they solidify. You hated how I forced you to bottle them up. I held my words tightly, making you watch without explanation my hexes and habits. I sensed the power pulsing inside you as you yearned to use it, and I laughed at your frustration. Patience has never been one of your virtues.
“Please, Great One,” you begged after too many days of watching and waiting. I was quietly picking herbs, spitting on their leaves and rubbing them between my fingers. “Let me try something myself! Or at least explain what you’re doing.”
I continued to pick my poison, unmoved.
“Answer me!” I had never heard such force in your voice before. I turned to find sparks in your eyes. “I have the fire of the sun in my veins. I will not be ignored.”
You spat on the plants at your feet and they sizzled, burning brown and exhaling noxious smoke. I blinked. Carefully, I coaxed the tendrils of smoke into my hands and breathed them in deeply.
“Show me,” I said.
“Show me what I was doing.”
You hesitated, then knelt down and pulled a plant from the ground. You spat on its leaves and hissed, your spit corroding your palm.
“Too much,” I said, picking up the leaves you dropped, now shriveled. “Do it again. Find restraint.”
You picked up another plant and let spit slide onto it. Cautiously, you rubbed the leaves between your fingers, crushing them down. I touched the paste with my finger and smelled it.
“Good,” I said. “Again.”
That night, I heard quiet whisperings from your room. From the doorway, I saw you kneeling by a candle, caressing your burned palm with your long fingers. I watched you carefully knit new skin, like a spider spinning her web, and when your palm was finally smooth again, you looked up at me and I knew you were watching the scars I wore on my face shift in the dim light.
Your lips slid into a smile. “See?” you said, waving your hand. “Like new.”
I’d like to say that I required so much of you in those early months because I could see your potential. But I am more selfish than that. I needed to make sure you were worth it, the effort it took for me to open up my knowledge and my life. The way you punctured my silences, upset my routines, infiltrated my thoughts — the time you unknowingly demanded my eyes spend looking at you — you needed to earn all of that.
You didn’t make it easy for me either. When I put up walls, you learned to push back. When I tried to scare you away, you laughed and called my bluff. When I crawled into corners, you pulled me out and sat me down with a cup of tea, even when I snapped and clawed at you like a threatened wolf. You’ve always had a talent for plants and living things, coaxing out their hidden powers and properties. You did that to me.
But even then, I had never had a pupil before, and I found it difficult to translate what was second nature to me. The knowledge of growing, light-loving things danced so easily on your fingertips, but I struggled to teach you the languages of night, the spells that could only be spoken in the dark. You’d grow so frustrated with the incantations, struggling to twist and tame them in your mouth. Do you remember how I’d put my hand on your lips to feel the words as you spoke? At first, you thought it was silly, but when I tried to teach you the words to harness the power of the stars, you pressed my hand tightly against your mouth and repeated them furiously.
“Show me!” you shouted into my hand. “Show me where it’s wrong.”
You pushed my fingers into your mouth, and I held your tongue gently between my fingertips. I looked at your dark eyes and your flushed cheeks, and you exhaled against me — once, twice. Slowly, I pressed your tongue to the roof of your mouth, to that place behind your teeth.
“Here,” I said. As I pulled my fingers away, I let them linger on your bottom lip. “And here.”
I brought your hand to my mouth then, and I spoke the words so you could feel each movement of my lips and teeth and tongue against your fingers. And the incantation became your name, and I held your palm against my lips so I could press its first letter into you again and again.
I loved to speak your name like that, so you’d know just how wide it left my lips.
I should have known that you wouldn’t stay forever. I did know that, I suppose, from the moment I saw your future without me.
But each morning, when I watched you read in the big chair by the western window, your eyes alive from the words on the page — written words never did for me what they could for you, but if I looked closely enough, I could see reflections of the magic you saw in the shine of your eyes and the movement of your lips as you unconsciously mouthed the words — how could I have believed any other moment existed but then?
We were Daedalus and Icarus if they learned to love the labyrinth, so they never desired to venture out toward the sun. We were Circe and Odysseus if he had no home worth returning to, so he made the witch and her island his Ithaca. What need had we for the world of men, of laws and lineages? Our power was our birthright, the energy that coursed within us our inheritance.
You must be laughing at me, in the afternow. You usually laughed when I tried to explain the state you put me in.
When I told you, “I am a rock inexplicably grateful for the stream which slowly wears it away.”
When I whispered, “I am a leaf, tumbling from a tree. But there is no ground.”
When I reached over to brush the moonlight in your dark hair and could make no words, only tears, and I felt the wetness on my cheeks and couldn’t believe those drops of saltwater had come from within me.
You laughed at me, and I think I deserved it.
I knew the man was coming long before you told me. In my paranoia, I periodically cast my future to prepare for what might be coming. In entrails and auspices, his shape was a permanent feature.
I didn’t tell you what I saw. I asked, “Are you happy here?”
You blinked. “Of course. Of course I am.” You wrapped your arms around me, and I believed it. I think you believed it, too.
That night, we ran with wolves and sent our voices careening through the darkness. I loved those forest nights spent stirring up storms and racing lightning. We huddled over a corpse, and I began to pick it apart, sorting the pieces into piles to use in our craft. For the first time, you joined me with your hands and teeth instead of tools. I looked up and saw you dipped in moonlight, the blood staining the bottom half of your face like a beard, and I thought, nothing could ever be more beautiful.
I took your hands and, gently and lovingly, sucked the gore from under your nails.
It is a strange form of anger, difficult to cure, when two friends turn upon each other in hatred.
When you first came begging for my guidance, you claimed I could deflect the future from its course, but I’ve never had that power. I tried everything to remove the man from our path, to send his boat careening into the rocks, but I could not do it.
I smelled him on you the moment you came home.
“He is on an impossible quest,” you said.
“His kind always are,” I replied.
“He needs help. Or he will certainly die.”
“Don’t play at selflessness.”
“I’ve had a vision,” you said, and I saw the hunger in your eyes. “He will be a great king.”
“He will betray you. I have seen it.”
I tried to craft the words, to make you see how I had abandoned my solitude and my self-reliance for you, how you had taught me a new way of growing and how I had come to expect that you would be there to tend to what you’d unearthed.
“I will follow him for glory,” you said. “For my place in the stars.”
I tried to speak with the voices of thousands of years of witches to tell you about that man you had found. He cared only for himself and his own sovereignty; you would use your brilliant power, far greater than anything he could ever dream of wielding, to secure his position, his legacy, his victory. Like so many before you, you’d abandon everything to follow him, but he’d cast you aside, underestimating the fire that burns within you. The heat would curdle the love you claim to feel and destroy the self you struggle to maintain. I didn’t need a spell to tell the future.
“My name will echo in the mouths of many,” you said.
I tried to say you were right, of course, and that you would have me to thank for all you’d accomplish. I was the one who taught you the ways of cheating death, the deep midnight dances that summon Hecate, the words that can shift forests and split mountains and draw the moon from the sky. You’d speak those stolen spells with my voice.
But in the end, that’s not what you’re remembered for. I tried to tell you what you know now: your name is commonplace, but it does not equal glory. It is the danger of woman — the foreign, the jealous, the mad. It is unmoored and unmaternal. It is your children killed by your own hand and little more.
“I am not like you,” you said. “You lost your edge and ambition long ago, but I cannot stay here, rotting in obscurity, wasting my power.”
I still don’t know when you started seeing me like that, the way so many of them do: a shriveled, ancient crone. Do you forget the power of my body over yours, how I pleasured you with my tongue that compels the gods above and pierces Tartarus below? Do you forget how you hungered for my thin and ugly frame when I left you hot and panting?
After all we shared, you still failed to understand me. You frowned at the way I said the words “man” and “woman” like I was laughing at an old joke. You couldn’t comprehend why I knotted my dark hair and tied it back with vipers, why I wore a Fury’s robes and purposely dressed myself in monstrosity. How could I explain — to you, the one who dances in her body when she moves, who slips her dark lips into an easy smile and sets all hearts ablaze — how could I explain to you the freedom of feeling more like a Gorgon than a woman?
I wanted to say all of this, but you had already left. You had always already left. At our first meeting, the versions of ourselves in the afterthen had already said their parting words. Together, in our ignorance, we traveled predictably and ceaselessly toward that gaping wound that divided the landscapes of our futures. We needed only to catch up with the moment, with the rending.
I wanted to write you a letter, but I’ve never been good with written words. I need to taste the sentences in my mouth, suck on consonants and vomit vowels, spit verbs or pinch them, wriggling, between my teeth. Words on a page don’t sound like anything. They lie there, silent rows of the dead, buried in mass para-graves. The written word can only imitate, approximate.
But the sounds in my throat are alive and expansive. They aren’t limited to languages that can be pinned down in words, and I have adapted to the inadequacies of my human lips and tongue. You’ve heard my party tricks, the screeches of lonely owls and the growls of possessive canines. But I can speak with the sobs of the tide untimely ripped from the shore; I can sing with the striving of the bud working diligently to bloom. My larynx holds all these things.
That’s why I sent you this. That’s why I slipped out after dark between the ghosts and the shades and I knelt on the graves and I plunged my hands into the writhing soil. That’s why, as the moon kept watch, I pulled up a corpse from the clutches of the earth and I laid my body on top of it like a gentle lover might. As I pressed my mouth to its dead lips, I thought of kissing you, and I hope you can feel that now — my teeth pulling open your mouth, my tongue encircling yours. I thought of you, and I bit off its tongue, so I could fit all my sounds into its mouth.
I sent you my voice so you can hear what I have to say — all of it. I want you to hear the shriek of an oak’s bough breaking, the snap of bark and the rip of woody sinew as the branch is torn from its trunk. I want you to hear the quiet weeping of moonlight on the open sea, rippling and flashing with the futile effort to become liquid. I want you to hear the tearing of resistant tendons, the gush of hot blood, the crackling of burnt skin, the deep groan of decaying flesh.
My voice in this borrowed body has carried them to you now. I sit picking dirt and skin from under my fingernails, and I hope that you will listen.