Witches might be monstrous, or they might be heroes, depending on their own definitions. Even the kind hostess with the candy cottage thought of herself as the hero of her own story. After all, a woman’s gotta eat…
In Hex Life, editors Christopher Golden and Rachel Autumn Deering collect 18 brand-new stories of witches and witchcraft written by popular female fantasy authors, including Kelley Armstrong, Rachel Caine and Sherrilyn Kenyon writing in their own bestselling universes! Available October 1st from Titan Books.
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Jennifer McMahon’s witchy tale, “The Deer Wife,” below!
“The Deer Wife”
Loves me not
Pulling the petals off a black-eyed Susan—one of the last of the season, a flower that has somehow survived the first frost—I play the game. A game I played in the schoolyard years ago with a bunch of other girls to see if little Jamie Coughlan whose daddy owned the Buick dealership might really love me, might want to one day make me his wife, have little babies with me that we’d drive around in the backseat of a big old Park Avenue sedan.
Only this time, I’m a grown woman and it’s not Jamie Coughlan I’m longing for.
This time, it’s not a game.
It’s a spell. A conjuring.
If I do it right, she may come. I get to the last petal: Loves me.
I smile and blush, actually blush, as I bury the stem under leaves and dirt, a small offering.
There are other things I do, of course. Other ways I can call her.
I scatter dried corn on the ground in a circle around me. I whisper, “I come in peace, I come with good intentions, I come of my own free will.”
I pull my little wooden pipe with the long stem from the basket I’ve brought, pack it full of mugwort, mullein, willow bark, wormwood and lavender.
I sit on a rock in the clearing, the clearing where I first saw her; the place I’ve come to think of as ours. I light the pipe and begin to puff gently, imagining the smoke drawing her in.
She won’t stay long. Not this late in the season. In the fall, our visits are fewer, shorter, but they burn with a white-hot intensity that comes from knowing that soon it will end. She will be gone for the winter and I won’t see her again until spring. That’s how it is. How it has been for these past four years. I don’t know where she goes or what she does. I don’t know how or where she passes the winter.
Some things are not for me to know. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
I close my eyes, wishing, willing, summoning her with my whole self. The smoke drifts out in circles around me. Smoke from the herbs she blended, the pipe she gave me as a gift on the summer solstice. The smoke is supposed to calm my mind. To make me more open to the possibilities the world around me holds.
She’s taught me everything I know about magic: how to cast a circle, to call out to the elements and spirits, to channel all the powers around us. She’s taught me to use herbs, make charms, to cast runes and read cards. She tells me I have a gift for visions; that I am more powerful than I know.
I hear soft footsteps. Twigs breaking. I feel her near me but don’t dare open my eyes. Not just yet.
Her coming always brings an intoxicating mix of desire and fear.
My heart hammers, my legs start to tremble.
Run, the logical part of my brain is telling me. But it’s too late.
I feel her breath on my neck.
Only when she wraps her arms around my waist, nibbles on my ear, do I know what form she’s taken this time.
“Hello,” I whisper, my body relaxing, melting into hers.
I keep my eyes shut tight, afraid that if I open them, she just might disappear.
She’s unpredictable. Here one minute, gone the next.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve dreamed her to life; if she’s even real at all. “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she says to me now, voice teasing and raspy, like wind scattering dry leaves. She knows I can’t stay away. I’ve tried. I’ve sworn off her a hundred times, promised myself I was done with the whole impossible situation, but again and again I return to this clearing. To her.
“There is nowhere else I’d rather be,” I say. It’s the only truth I know right now as she gently pulls me from the rock, lays me down on the forest floor, unbuttoning my coat and blouse. Her fingers search, go right for the mark—the tiny dot she inked into the skin just beneath my left breast. She used a sewing needle and tattoo ink she’d made herself: a potion of vodka, herbs and ashes. The mark isn’t anything anyone would even notice—it blends in, looks like a dark freckle. But she put it there. She put it there, she says, so she would always be a part of me.
I know what she is, of course. I know what she’s capable of.
I’ve always known. I’ve known and I’ve given myself to her entirely anyway. Given myself over to her not in spite of what she is, but because of it.
I’d heard the stories in town for years before I met her, the warnings not to go into the woods alone because you might meet the witch.
They say she lives in a cave deep in the heart of the forest. No one has ever found it. They say for a bottle of bourbon or a basket of food, she can hex a man or woman for you, a sure way to get rid of your enemies. Leave her a gift in the forest and a note with your request (heal my sick father, make the girl love me, bring my business back from the brink of bankruptcy) and if the gift is good enough, she’ll do your bidding.
They say you can’t hear her coming. She moves like the wind. She can read minds. Can see the future when she casts her runes, looks into her scrying bowl.
She rarely leaves the woods; hasn’t been to a store in years.
If things go missing around town, it’s the witch who took them.
A prize pumpkin, a shirt hanging on a clothesline, a cooler of beer, a pair of boots.
She never takes much, just the things she needs. And you can always tell she’s been because for each thing she takes, she leaves a small gift in its place: a little stick figure, a doll bound up, wrapped in cloth and tied up with string, stuffed full of herbs. A good luck charm.
Some people say she’s old and ugly.
Some say she’s more beautiful than any mortal woman should be. Some say she’s impossible to see—she can cast a spell of invisibility.
Be careful, they warn, looking around nervously, she could be watching us right now.
They say she has always been here; that she’s a part of the forest. The oldest men in town, the ones who gather for coffee each morning on the porch of the general store—they remember hearing about her when they were little boys. They remember their own fathers warning them to stay out of the woods or the witch would eat them up, build herself a bed with their bones.
She has killed those who cross her. She has scared men to death.
If you’re out in the woods at night and you hear her song, it’ll be the last sound you ever know.
But the stories, they’re all half-truths.
For instance, she does live deep in the woods, but not in a damp cave. She has a cabin, a place she has led me to, a place I’ve never been able to find on my own, though I’ve often tried. It’s perfectly hidden in a thick clump of trees. The outside is sheathed with the rounded slabs of rough cut logs, the roof is shingled with tree bark, with moss and lichen growing on top. It blends into the forest perfectly, as if it’s always been there, grown right up alongside the trees. She says she’s cast a circle of protection around the place; an enchantment to make
it impossible to see or find unless she’s brought you.
Inside it’s warm and cozy and smells like herbs and woodsmoke with something else underneath it; her smell—an earthy scent with hints of warm fur and damp clay, bitter roots, the lake after a rainstorm. There’s a cast-iron stove she uses for heat and cooking, a bed, a table with one chair, some hooks on the wall for her clothes. She doesn’t own much (and most of what she owns, she’s taken from other people’s houses and camps—another piece of truth from the rumors). She has a frying pan, a saucepan, a good knife, a single bowl and plate, one fork and spoon. When we eat together, we share the same bowl, the same spoon. We feed each other, using the spoon, and our hands. Her exquisite fingers brush against my lips, drop berries on my tongue; she kisses the juice as it dribbles down my chin.
She gets her water from the stream, says it’s perfectly safe to drink. She has an outhouse behind her cabin that’s tidier than the bathrooms in most people’s homes. It’s got a skylight and a painting of the full moon on the inside of the door.
There are shelves in her kitchen lined with glass jars full of roots, herbs, berries—things she’s gathered in the woods. There are other things too— metal tins of tea, coffee and tobacco, a bottle of brandy, dried beans, cornmeal and flour. Things she’s taken or gifts people have left for her.
I’ve seen the desperate, pleading notes people leave here and there in the forest.
Please, Witch, please, Aunt Sally’s got cancer real bad again and she’s the only one who can take care of Gram and Joey so please make her well . She’s a good person and doesn’t deserve this and we all love her and need her . Here’s a pie, a bottle of gin, my grandpa’s old silver cigarette lighter and some fresh flints and fuel for it . I hope it’s enough .
She enjoys the gifts. Some people she helps. Some, she laughs at with a cruelty that makes me go cold.
Sometimes, she gets a request that she can do nothing with. There are things, she explains, that are outside of her control. I ask her if I’m under her control.
“Don’t be silly,” she says with a wry smile. “You come of your own free will.”
Excerpted from “The Deer Wife,” copyright © 2019 by Jennifer McMahon
Collected in Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery, copyright © 2019 by Titan Books