Turn And Return
It was in the rain beating the earth into submission outside. A calling. The quiet sort of call that drew Rhea from her bed. It was in the mice that brushed their heads with moistened paws beneath her cat’s lazy, yellow gaze. It was in her bundles of herbs and her books with thinning paper, their spines cracked by generations of female hands. It was a quickening, a tightness in her chest, a fizz in her hands, a siren call that pulled her from a nest of blankets. The rain beat out it’s song: rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat, and her fingers began to move. It was time to conjure; a time for magic.
Power curled around Rhea’s fingers and trickled through her palms. It danced through her hair and flitted in and out of her sight. Her feet knew their way to her work bench and books, and they shuffled forward over the floor littered with sigils and half done spells. She didn’t mind the charcoal and chalk that clung to her skin as she moved through the diagrams, nor did she mind the hedgehog, Bumble, that stubbornly waddled behind her footsteps. She accepted his intrusion into her home the way she had all the other animals she’d sheltered through injury or stormy days. It was Rhea’s duty as a witch to take care of them and their forest.
Her potted plants shifted beside her ankles, their vine-like tendrils seeking the magic she brought, the flowering faces turning to her as she selected a book. They could feel it too, she thought. Today was the day. Thunder crashed around her home, the wooden frame creaking but holding strong. The scent of upturned earth and wind from the sea drifted through her window. The rain kept singing rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat. Yes, today was a day of change.
These books were old. Their titles long faded by fingertips and time. Still, the leather covers greeted her, and the wispy pages came alive at her touch. Each book had been annotated, different handwriting gracing each page. Some letters curled and sprawled on the headers, others were squeezed into spikes in the margins. Some hands had written with the exceptionality of scholars, others with the perfunctory bluntness of farm or factory workers. Her own handwriting was printed in neat, methodical strokes on the corners of multiple pages. The hedgehog climbed his way onto the table, marching over her cat in the process. The feline halfheartedly batted its spiny back before relaxing in it’s bed by the window. He settled by her elbow as she flicked through the pages, dust and the smell of aged paper rising.
She’d never used this spell, never had a need to. It was a spell for turning, for calling. One that was only used once in each witch‘s lifetime. It was the only clean page in all her books. She found it interesting that this spell had no notes. There were no secrets written in code, no hints or tricks to adjust its effect. It laid unassumingly between two other liberally marked pages, waiting for it’s time to be used. Rhea frowned in thought. Maybe there were no notes because the spell had never failed before? Rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat.
She didn’t have time to think; the spell was calling to her. Magic twined its way up from her toes and gathered around her hands as she read the words. There wasn’t much to the spell. It was a simple question. A prayer more than anything. The words ghosted over her tongue, pulled from behind her teeth. Bumble bristled and the cat hissed as magic flooded her senses and filled the room. It gathered, stronger and stronger, as she chanted and wished. She could feel it fill her, using her body as a vessel that was set to overflow. Just when she could hold no more, when her eyes filled with images of forests and mountains and roots that connected all things, and her breath began to stutter in her chest, the magic left.
In a silent roar, the power fled the room. It set the boards and walls creaking and slammed the front door against the house. Rhea wanted to cry. She’d never before experienced something so raw yet so sweet, burning yet soft. Aftershocks kept her hands trembling. Rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat. She needed to sit down, she thought, falling into the chair by her work bench. Bumble crawled into her hand when she offered it, curling himself into a small, quivering, pincushion. Rhea stroked him and let her thoughts drift.The spell would take days to work, at least. She couldn’t wait to see the results.
The shakes continued to come days after her casting, but finally subsided. Rhea focused on her tasks, wandering about the woods, keeping the trees green and the animals healthy. The occasional visitor came to bother her for a spell of good fortune or a malady. She heard them out and gave them what they asked for, taking their offerings of food or money in return. She didn’t care much for people, and didn’t seek them out while she waited. Mostly, she watched the woods.
She watched the paths that ran through the trees, and the ones that crossed by the beach. Rhea collected her herbs and her odds and ends. She made her pastes and coughing serums. She even cleaned the house and organized the still room, shooing out the rabbits and mice and colorful lizards that had made their nests between the bottles. She waited for a sign, but nothing came. There was no indication of when her spell would work. The books remained closed, and the magic stayed silent. Rhea wanted to scream with impatience, but she knew better. Magic could only be guided, not rushed, no matter how much she wished for it to hurry up.
It was another two months before she heard it. The rain beat on her window panes again. Rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat. With the rain came the magic, and the taste of change on her tongue. Much as she had last time, she rose from bed. Bumble came with her again, riding on her shoulder, nestled in the waves of her hair. His soft squeaks at being disrupted alerted the cat, who curled more tightly into its bed. Rhea could feel it approaching, the magic she’d let loose. It rang in her bones with all the ferocity of lightning. Restlessness set her fingers twitching. There was a wave rising in her lungs and nothing could tame it. There was a call to flee, to run. She wanted to feel the rain on her face and the soft loam under her feet. Without conscious thought, she flicked a finger and the door opened. The chill breeze, scented with rain water pulled her outside.
Rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat. She left her house, setting Bumble on the counter. The small structure was hidden by the trees and marker stones. Taller rocks, set by hands she could not name, towered over her head and marked the border of her home, but not of her territory. To the West lay the trees, thick and green, sheltering millions of lives. To the East, just beyond the border stones, laid the beach, filled with secrets and shifting tides. The history of the ancients echoed in her ears with every breaking wave until she turned away. The forest breathed her in and she did the same. This land was under her protection; it called to her. She still felt the pull, but there was another call far stronger tonight. The moon peeked out from behind a storm cloud and retreated, leaving Rhea wrapped in dusk and rain.
The droplets drenched her, flattening her curls to her face in a cluster of slick ringlets. Her dress stuck to her body, pulled tight by the water. Rhea didn’t feel the cold, just the power that surrounded her. The rain pulled the sky to the earth, and the earth rose to meet it. The trees reached for the music that echoed in endless taps throughout the forest, their broad leaves catching drops, lending to the symphony. The waves joined in, thunder and lighting whipping them into meringue-tipped peaks. Rhea threw her head back, water sliding down her jaw and off the tips of her fingers. This was what she’d wanted all those years ago. This was the power she’d worked so hard to earn when she’d started her apprenticeship. Now the earth spoke to her the way it had to her predecessors, and she listened with glee.
Her feet beat the ground in time with the rain. Rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat. Water flung up and suspended in droplets like diamonds before crashing back into muddy puddles. She spun and turned, twisted and stamped. Motion and magic acting as one, being the world and listening to it, dancing along with the rain. There was something ethereal about the way her body twined and curled beneath the boughs and between the stones. Joy winked out with her smiles, but she didn’t make a noise. She danced for hours, until the storm grew quiet and her feet began to feel numb. Like a dreamer, she returned to the night. The wind blew through the thin cloth of her dress and the stars began to litter the blackness as clouds faded. There was a knocking on one of the border stones. Tock-tock-tack. Water rained from her hair as she turned to greet her guest.
A young girl waited politely to be noticed. Her short ponytail was slicked to her neck from the water. She wore dark jeans and a colorful t-shirt. Her cell phone was held aloft, illuminating the way up the path from the forest to Rhea’s cottage. What must she think of this mad woman who danced in the rain and was both young and old, healer and death, human and magic? She didn’t appear frightened. The girl was quiet but not meek. She waited until Rhea nodded before slipping her phone into her pocket and approaching.
“Why do you come?” Rhea asked. She knew the answer. Her spell rang in her ears. Those words from months ago when she’d spoken the same spell her mentor and the witch before her had.
“I was called here to continue the cycle. Please, make me your apprentice.”
Rhea nodded and pulled the girl into her home. Magic danced between their joined hands.
“Learn it,” Rhea whispered. “This is the mantle you will inherit.” The young woman seemed entranced by the shifting power that encased her fingers. She would know in time how to wield it as Rhea did. For now, her new pupil should sleep.
As the lights were turned out and Rhea set her pupil up in a bed, the forest sighed. There had always been a witch in these woods. It was a rule as old as the first seed. With each new apprentice the wheel turned, the trees grew, and the forest changed. The cycle would continue; a new witch for a new age, chosen by magic and brought to this sacred place. Witch and apprentice, woman and girl, experience and youth. Turning, turning, changing and returning. Rat-tat-ta-tat-ratta-tat-ta-rat.