I will go down into death with you.
I must go where I must go
To see what I must see
In that place where no one knows...
... This is where love is taking me.
Kathy Acker, Eurydice in the Underworld
* * *
A person can be brought back from the beyond, when their soul leaves their body too soon, when they die before their time. They exist in the ether, in a boundless purgatory, waiting for someone to find them. Most souls are never found.
No one can be truly certain when witchcraft began, but it can be assumed that it probably originated when humans first started gathering to celebrate the sun, moon and stars.
Though often gentle, a celebration of the earth, there is a darker side associated with witchcraft, and that is the side history has clung to. Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins spread fear and distaste throughout the United Kingdom in the 1600s, resulting in the witch trials of England. But in a small pocket of the country, tucked away in the countryside, the Holby Coven stayed strong and true - hidden from the worried eyes of the rest of the world.
Most of their scrolls, spells, books, have disappeared with time, but one scrap of paper remains, appearing to those who need it, some magic still clinging to the parchment: A Guide to Bringing Back the Recently Dead.
* * *
The cold spring air whips through the forest, branches crackling, leaves whispering, Serena’s soft footfalls crunching against the forest floor, the moon fading from view the farther in she goes.
She shifts the bulging pack slung over her shoulder, pulls her coat more tightly about herself despite the relative warmth of the evening.
The silence around her is oppressive, like the forest itself holding its breath. Serena glances over her shoulder as she walks, picks her path carefully in the deepening darkness.
“This is it,” she mutters. “You’ve finally lost your mind.”
Still she trudges on, brambles catching at the hem of her trousers, branches snagging the wool of her coat, skeletal fingers reaching out for her through the gloaming.
Deeper and deeper she walks, sturdy boots making her steps heavy and awkward. Above her, the trees have grown into an impenetrable canopy, blocking out the last of the light. The underbrush fades away, a soft mass of moss and foliage crushed beneath her feet, smelling of decay.
Serena’s breath comes quick, loud in the unnatural stillness, fingers white against the strap of her bag. Her steps stutter, stumble, and she comes to a stop, leaning heavily against one of the smooth dark trunks. She peers back over her shoulder, squinting to pick out her path.
A light filters through the darkness, dim enough to be easily dismissed, but growing stronger, pulsing like a distant heartbeat.
Serena hesitates, glances back once more time. She heads toward the light.
With each step, the light gets brighter, but never closer. The trees press in tighter, the path narrow and difficult to navigate.
She fumbles a piece of paper from her pocket, the light now bright enough to read the old-fashioned scrawl.
“Berenice Wolfe.” Her voice is muffled, deadened by the foliage looming all around her.
“So many people miss her. Her friends, her children. I miss her.” The last word cracks, bounces back off the trees.
“It wasn’t her time.” The light throbs. “She is a force for good in this world. The people she can help, can save.”
“I need her back, because…because she’s the love of my life and I don’t know how to do this without her.”
The light flares, casts the trees into dark silhouettes. Serena flings a hand up over her eyes, squinting into the brightness.
The light disappears, its sudden absence leaving a void of inky darkness.
The soft sound of Serena cursing filters through the night, her hands in her satchel, trying to find something with no light to guide her. A click, and the torch blinks to life, yellow beam flashing wildly around the small hollow. Pulling a worn tartan blanket free, she drapes it atop a patch of soft moss, sets the torch beside it and lays down, head pillowed atop her bag.
Sleep steals through the forest, draping all in silence.
The first blush of dawn wakes Serena, though sunlight does little to penetrate the dense hollow. The flashlight is quickly extinguished and returned to the pack, along with the blanket.
Overnight, a ring of small mushrooms has sprouted in the hollow, ghostly pale against the dark loam of the forest floor. She paces around it a few times, peering down suspiciously. Seemingly satisfied, she sits just outside the fairy ring, legs crossed, and pulls a parcel and a bottle from her bag.
The forest is hushed as she mechanically eats the bit of food she’s brought, sips at the tepid water. There’s no rustling in the underbrush, no skittering in the trees, no squawk of birds, even the breeze has fallen silent. It’s as if even the creatures of the forest know better than to intrude in this place.
Once again consulting the paper, Serena places the remainder of the parcel of food on the ground at her feet, props the bottle of water beside it. Pushing to her feet with a groan, she brushes the dirt from her trousers, settling the bag securely on her shoulder.
There’s hesitation in her movements before she steps into the ring.
Fishing deep in her pocket, she sets a single pound coin, tails up, in the center of the circle.
“Bernie, I’m coming for you.” The words seem to shudder through the hollow, shaking the very air. Slowly the coin sinks into the earth, like breaking the crust on day old snow, then all at once it disappears.
A shudder passes through Serena, and she pulls her coat a little tighter, the whites of her eyes showing as she looks at the spot the coin had been.
Her lips move soundlessly as she closes her eyes tight. Keeps them closed as the ground in the fairy ring softens, swells, rises around her legs. Surges like a wave, engulfing her, pulling her under.
The earth finally settles, the empty hollow returning to silence.
A tunnel stretches away before Serena, disappearing into blackness. All around are walls of packed earth, bulging with roots and rocks that glisten, though there’s no source of light. An acrid smell of smoke hangs in the air, like sulfur, and she coughs, eyes watering.
Torch in hand, she walks forward, careful steps settling into a steady gait as the tunnel stretches on. There are no turns, no changes, just endless featureless walls.
Time passes, unmarked, unknown, and Serena trudges onward, shoulders slumped beneath the weight of her pack. Then from one moment to the next, the tunnel opens into a massive cavern, the ceiling vaulted so high that it disappears into darkness.
At the center sits a house.
It’s an odd little thing, covered in greying shingles and listing slightly to one side. The longer one looks at it, the more wrongness becomes apparent. Windows where there couldn’t possibly be rooms, gables that slant to nowhere, the silhouette a twisting jumble of impossibility.
Serena knocks firmly, two quick raps against the rough, uneven wood. Before she can even pull her hand away, the door swings open, and she stumbles back a half step.
A woman peers out at Serena, her eyes oddly luminescent, swallowing the light and reflecting it back like cat’s eyes. Serena averts her gaze, shifting a little awkwardly.
“Have you brought me something pretty?” The Crone’s voice is low and haunting, like distant thunder.
“Uh, yes. Yes I did.” From somewhere in the pack, Serena produces a single white rose, slightly battered but in full bloom. It trembles slightly as she holds it out before her.
The Crone grins, her teeth sharp and white, and she takes the rose, breathes deep its heady scent.
“Come inside, come inside,” she gestures. Serena ducks her head to pass beneath the lintel.
The inside appears to be a single spacious room, the contours and corners of which in no way match the exterior. A fire burns in the hearth, yet the room is still cold, every flat surface covered with bits and bobs. The Crone guides Serena to a small tea table, a tray already prepared, and she places the flower in a vase of dried and wilting roses.
The Crone slides a cup across the table, steam curling up from its rim. Serena takes it with a wan smile, but does not lift it to her lips.
"It has been many seasons since a traveler has come to my home. I thought perhaps mortals had lost the way."
"I found it, uh, unexpectedly." Serena's hands clench tight around the cup, as if to stop them trembling.
The Crone hums softly. "Sometimes it comes to those whose need is great. To those who are deserving." She eyes Serena sharply, pupils reflecting the light for a moment, cat-like. "Are you deserving?"
Serena sucks in a sharp breath. Her face pales, but she doesn't look away.
"And yet still you come? Some might call that bravery. Or foolishness." The Crone taps a finger against the table, considering. "Which is it that brings you to my home, O Tranquil One, stinking of wine and sorrow."
"Both. Neither." Serena's fingers rise to her necklace, clutching at the pendant like some sort of talisman. "I came because...because I had no other choice."
A terrible sort of grating noise slides from The Crone's throat, only the shaking of her shoulders and her mirthless smile indicating it's a laugh. She plucks a pomegranate from the tea tray, red and ripe. Sinks her sharp fingernails into the skin and tears it open, the glossy seeds shimmering in the flickering light of the fire.
"You risk your life for love." The Crone spits the word contemptuously. "Vainglorious enough to think that you can succeed where so many have failed." She holds forth a segment of the fruit, blood red juices dripping from her taloned fingers. Serena shakes her head, and The Crone bites into the other half with a wet, slurping sound.
"Are you so sure that it's worth it? That she loves you in return?" The Crone asks, lips stained and smeared in red. "I can tell you. Before you go any further."
Serena's hands tighten for a moment around the cup, tendons standing out stark white, then relax. She rests them on the table, palms flat.
"It doesn't matter," she says simply. "I still have to try."
The Crone watches her for a long moment, and Serena returns the gaze, unflinching. Digging her sharp fingers into the untouched half of the pomegranate, The Crone pulls something free. Wipes it against her skirts and holds out her hand across the table.
In her palm rests a ring; a simple band of gold, adorned by a single stone the color of blood.
Serena hesitates, then plucks it from her hand.
"You'll have cause to regret those words before your journey's end." The Crone's teeth flash in a grin, sharp and pointed. "Now go. You still have far to travel."
Serena stumbles out into the darkness, again follows the winding path to where it cuts into the wall of the cavern. The walls of the tunnel are lower here, close enough that Serena's shoulders brush them on occasion, sending a spray of dirt clattering across the hard tamped ground.
She walks a long time. Long enough that her steps slow and stagger, the weight of the pack bowing her back. Several times she pauses to lean against the wall, breath coming fast, before continuing on, exhaustion and determination warring on her features.
A sound creeps into the tunnel, grows louder with each step. The soft rushing of water over smooth stone.
The tunnel opens wide, a stone's throw from a great black river, wide enough that the other side disappears into the surrounding darkness. There are no plants on the bank, no grasses. Only sheets of dark, glossy stone.
Standing on the path to the river’s edge is The Crone.
Serena stutters to a halt, glancing back over her shoulder. Slowly she approaches The Crone, who watches her with gimlet eyes.
"You have something of mine."
Serena retrieves the ring from the pocket of her coat, the stone flashing bright as she hands it over. Seemingly satisfied, The Crone reaches into the folds of her night dark cloak, brings forth the single white rose. She steps aside and gestures. Where before there was nothing, a boat now bobs in the water, a small wooden thing with only room for one.
Clambering into the boat a bit awkwardly, Serena settles her bag in her lap. She frowns a bit at the empty oarlocks, but before she can question, the boat begins to move, floating out into the river.
It travels with hardly a sound, the smooth surface of the water breaking cleanly against the prow. The tunnel, the bank, The Crone standing beside it, dwindle rapidly into nothingness, and Serena huddles in on herself a bit.
Eventually the boat slows, and Serena squints into the gloaming. Wisps of fog curl up from the water, lapping against the sides of the boat. It thickens as the boat slows further, nearly obscures the bank as it bumps up against it.
The fog is impenetrably thick when Serena steps off the boat, unable to see where her feet will land, feeling her way forward across the unknown landscape. Fog roils in her wake, swirling and tangling around her legs, a few inches of space opening behind her for just a moment before the fog rolls back in to fill it.
Figures begin to form out of the mist; little more than shadows at first, they take shape and the fog begins to thin.
They’re people. Wraiths. Their skin is chalky and grey, almost blurred around the edges. As if they are a part of the fog around them, made from it.
Serena clutches her bag tighter, eyes darting back and forth, studying each of the faces and just as quickly sliding away. The shades take no notice, wandering past with unseeing eyes.
The fog muffles her footsteps, renders them silent, and Serena starts to hum softly, a lullaby from her childhood. Sound seems to bounce off the fog, the notes twisting and bending, echoing back until it sounds like a chorus.
One song turns into another. Another. Still she walks through the featureless landscape.
Up ahead, the fog pulls apart like a curtain, and Serena freezes.
A wraith sits on a large stone, wisps of mist swirling around her feet. She gazes out into the darkness, eyes rheumy and unfocused, her pale tangle of hair indistinguishable from the surrounding fog.
Serena moves closer, steps faltering, fingers clutching the pendant at her throat like a talisman. She pauses a few steps away.
“Hello,” she says softly. The shade raises her head, lips moving in a soundless response, and Serena inches forward.
She reaches out, hand hovering just above the shade’s shoulder. Snatches it back at the last moment, clutching it to her chest as if it were burned.
“I’m very tired. May I sit?”
The shade only looks away. Serena hesitates a moment, then sets down her bag. Sits with her legs tucked beneath her, a hairsbreadth away.
Serena begins to speak. Softly at first, the words halting and cracked. She speaks of her journey, how long she’s been walking in the darkness. It’s a meandering stream of consciousness, no real meaning, no beginning, no end, the mist curling in around her shoulders, moving with the rise and fall of her husky voice.
Gradually, the wraith looks back toward Serena. Her eyes are a little clearer, focused, as if she’s noticing Serena for the first time.
“You’re…alive?” The shade’s words are reedy, thin as the mist that puffs from her lips.
“Yes, I am,” Serena replies, fingers gripping hard at her knees. The shade seems to consider that, head tilting. It’s an age before she speaks again, her voice a little more clear.
“I don’t remember the sky.”
“It’s beautiful this time of year. Clear and so blue it almost hurts to look at.” Serena swallows, tongue flicking out against her bottom lip. “At night, all you can see are stars.”
The blurry head nods, frowns. A tongue of fog twines around her torso and she shivers.
“Are you cold?”
Serena stands, slipping the bright red coat from her shoulders. She carefully drapes it around the wisps of fog that make this person, and she sighs softly at the warmth, her form solidifying slightly, as if the coat is holding the substance of her together. Serena tugs an extra coat from her bag, a barrier between herself and the mist.
“Do you…know me?”
Serena bites her lip, hard, stifles a pained noise.
“Yes, I do. Your name is Berenice, but you like when people call you Bernie.”
“Bernie,” the shade repeats slowly, the name sitting unfamiliar on her tongue. “Bernie.” A ghost of a smile tugs at her lips, and Serena looks away, eyes shining.
Watching Bernie carefully, Serena retrieves a slim leather journal from her bag, the pages dogeared, the spine creased. She holds it forth, hand trembling like the last brittle leaves on a branch. Gradually, Bernie reaches back, takes the journal from Serena’s hand.
“This is mine.” She looks puzzled, uncertain, her paper white fingers nearly opaque as they stroke the warm leather.
“It is,” Serena says. “I thought you would want it back.”
“Thank you.” Bernie looks up from the book, for the first time directly meeting Serena’s eyes, not flinching away. “Do I…I don’t know your name.”
“My name is Serena.” Their gazes catch for a long, silent moment. Serena pushes to her feet, squares her shoulders. Her words are firm, though her face is ashen. “Bernie, do you want to leave?”
The mist surges, swirls between them. Neither looks away.
Serena holds out her hand, shudders as Bernie’s slides against it, then tightens her grip.
Fingers intertwined, Serena leads Bernie back into the darkness.
All around, the nameless shades press close, indistinct but present. The silence is broken by a faint susurrus, whispers on the edge of hearing.
Serena presses on, fingers tight around Bernie’s icy hand, retracing her path through the fog. She keeps her eyes forward, doesn’t look toward the clustering shadows, the whispers coalescing into a discordant hiss.
It’s only a moment before the fog parts, the black water of the river glinting ahead in the darkness. The Crone stands on the bank, her skin impossibly pale against the surrounding black.
Keeping Bernie’s hand firmly in her own, Serena retrieves the rose, the slightly crumpled petals seeming to glow with an ethereal light. The Crone takes the flower between two fingers, holds out her other hand. In her palm rests the pendant. The chain clinks as Serena picks it up, and The Crone steps aside.
The boat bobs serenely in the brackish river.
Bernie follows as Serena tugs her into the boat, docile and compliant. When they’re settled, the boat slides out into the water. The shape of The Crone dwindles on the shore, finally disappears, swallowed up in the darkness.
It’s not long until the boat bumps up against the opposite shore, the vague outline of the tunnel yawning in the distance.
Serena sets a quick pace, and it’s not long before Bernie lags, their arms stretched to the limit, fingers still interlocked. Serena slows her steps, smiles back at Bernie, urges her forward.
Serena begins to talk once more, filling the silence, keeping Bernie moving. She tells stories of patients and procedures, friends that Bernie knew. Nothing about herself, nothing too personal. Still Bernie turns to her voice like a moth fluttering around a flame, a beacon that guides her forward into the darkness.
The further they go, the more Bernie’s steps slow and falter, as if the surrounding darkness is weighing her down, unwilling to release her. A note of pleading threads Serena’s voice, a tremor of fear.
Bernie stumbles with a cry, trips on an unseen obstacle and falls hard to her knees. Tears slide down her pale cheeks, sobs trembling through her. Serena is by her side in a moment, arms wrapped about her shaking shoulders. Her own silent tears disappear into the lank curls of Bernie’s hair.
“I know, darling,” Serena whispers, lips pressed to the crown of Bernie’s head. “I know you’re tired. You’ll be able to rest soon, I promise.”
“S’rena.” The word comes out slurred, Bernie’s voice slow and faint. “I can’t…”
“It’s all right.” Desperation flicks around the edge of Serena’s eyes a moment, and her mouth hardens into a determined line.
She settles her bag more firmly across her shoulders, wraps one of Bernie’s arms around her shoulders.
Serena rises with no effort, as if Bernie weighs nothing, lets Bernie lean against her. Faltering once, she recovers, pulls Bernie that much closer and sets off into the tunnel.
The featureless tunnels stretches before and behind. Unchanging. Unending. Serena trudges forward, each step the same as the last. She carries Bernie’s weight easily, holds her close as she can, returns to telling stories. Her voice barely stretched beyond them, creates a delicate bubble around them.
Bernie doesn't respond, almost floating beside Serena, still in her grasp, fragile as a baby bird. Only the occasional murmur, the flutter of her hand, show that she hasn't slipped back into the darkness.
The ceiling arcs up and away, and the The Crone's strange little house comes into view.
Serena's steps quicken, propelling them forward.
"We're almost there, Bernie. Just hold on."
There's a flicker of movement in the window as they pass by house without stopping. The path ahead is clearer, dwindling into the other side of the tunnel.
A few steps from the entrance, Serena freezes; spine straight, suddenly alert, like a rabbit that's caught scent of a fox.
She doesn't turn around.
A wariness hangs about her as they enter the tunnel, but still she walks. Eyes straight ahead, hand trembling slightly against Bernie's shoulder. There's no chatter, no energy for speech, just the sound of Serena's fast shallow breaths.
Bernie begins to shiver, muttering brokenly against Serena's shoulder, moves enough that Serena's grip begins to slip. She lowers Bernie to the dusty ground, takes the tartan blanket from the bottom of her bag and wraps it around her shoulders. Swaddles her like a child as she lifts Bernie into her arms.
The lullabies return to Serena's lips, her low humming vibrating through them both.
Something scrabbles in the darkness behind them. The grating hiss of something sharp against stone.
Serena moves faster. Doesn't look back.
They round a bend and suddenly there's light. An archway in the far wall limned in a silver glow, like a lamp behind a closed door.
The noise comes again. Louder.
Serena breaks into a run, hands hard against Bernie's back. Doesn't slow as they reach the light.
They burst forth from the fairy ring, Serena's breath pluming in the chill autumn air. Above them stars blaze in a clear night sky, flooding the hollow with light.
Serena stumbles, sets Bernie on the mossy ground. Her hands shake as she tears the blanket open, chafing a fist against Bernie's motionless chest.
"Come on, Bernie. Breathe." Her voice cracks, tears shining on her cheeks. "Breathe, darling. Please."
Bernie jerks. Gasps. Draws a deep, shuddering breath. Then another. Serena slumps back on her heels with a sob, hand clenched over her mouth.
"Serena?" Bernie's voice is faint with exhaustion, but sounds solid and real, and a smile so brilliant it rivals the stars breaks across Serena's face.
"I'm here. You're ok." Serena shifts, props Bernie up with her back against her chest, an arm wrapped securely around her shoulders, her other hand stroking through Bernie’s lank blonde hair.
As if she's afraid Bernie might still disappear.
Bernie’s hand comes up slowly to cover Serena’s. Solid. Warm. Clutching her close in the stillness of the hollow, Serena presses a kiss to the crown of her head, smiles through her tears.
* * *
The witches offered wisdom, too, for the caretaking of souls beyond the return from the grave, though few have ever had cause to use that knowledge.
Give them food, to sustain them and remind them they're alive. Keep them warm, ward off the lingering chill of death. Let them sleep in the safety of the forest, if they wish, for it will not harm you. Give thanks for the gift of their return.
Most importantly, treasure this time, for most never get a second chance.