by Brenna Layne
Granny and her girls lived in a cabin full of seashells on a mountain slope three hundred miles from the ocean. There are places in the Alleghenies where the sun only shines at midday, places for hiding, for cooking meth and brewing moonshine, but Granny’s cabin stood high on the south slope of the ridge because she liked to see trouble coming.
Granny’s girls came to her when their mama died, and no one knew if they were hers by blood or some subtler bond. If Granny knew, she didn’t tell. They were sisters, Rue and Yarrow, with dark hair and wide eyes. But where Yarrow’s hair hung like cornsilk and crackled out around her head before a storm, Rue’s frizzed up in the rain and snapped combs. Yarrow’s hair had a gold streak that Granny washed with vinegar to make it shine. Rue’s hair was the blue-black of midnight and Granny kept it braided tight.
“To hold the magic in,” she said, and collected the snarls in a carved wooden box on the mantle, blue-black and brown-gold woven in a bird’s-nest of tangles that grew until the lid wouldn’t sit straight.
In the summers they gathered herbs early in the morning, the dew still fragrant on the leaves, their fingers numb in the chill that pools in the hollows even in August. At night Granny brewed and stirred and cooked up stories, the sweet slow sap of her voice thick on the summer air. Late at night by moonlight or in the dark of the moon, women came to the cabin with gifts—eggs tied up in the corners of handkerchiefs, loaves of bread still warm from the oven, little boxes of the store-bought sweets Granny favored with candies nestled in crinkling brown paper. They left with old glass bottles scoured clean and filled with Granny’s tinctures and ointments to ease a baby’s croup, to treat poison ivy. To soothe an upset stomach or broken heart. To take care of things when you’d already had too many babies but you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep your man out of your bed. To make your man love you again.
Yarrow and Rue stayed up late to peek at the women from the loft where they shared a mattress on the pine floor. They stifled giggles behind herb-stained fingers at the preacher-man’s wife, furtive-eyed and trailing the cold scent of holiness, when she whispered in Granny’s ear and Granny barked out, “Not so much in bed, is he?” The woman’s face went red-and-white-blotched, and the girls nearly tumbled out of their perch. They blinked back tears when Molly Mackenzie trailed in like the ghost of herself, wearing blue bracelets of bruises around her wrists. But it was the Green Lady who made their breath catch. A waterfall of curls bright as fire against the poison-colored velvet of her dress, and red boots with heels—Yarrow coveted those boots for months afterwards, but what Rue wanted to sink her teeth into was the way the Green Lady moved.
“Like a snake. Like a dance-hall mermaid. Like everybody is watching and you don’t care, you dare them to watch and you laugh in their faces.”
It took her several years to figure out the magic of that walk, and by the time she did, Rue knew enough about the world to doubt she wanted to use it after all. Emmett Miller had started looking at Yarrow in a starved-dog kind of way and Rue didn’t like it. Emmett was beautiful, with a wide smile and blue eyes that crinkled at the corners and hair that curled against the back of his neck just so, but no boy was good enough for Yarrow, and Rue was certain none of them were meant for her, either.
It was early spring and the crick swollen to a flood with the snowmelt. Rue and Yarrow poked along the bank for things Granny could use, the water-song loud in their ears, almost too loud for talking. Yarrow crouched down to pluck a wildflower from the moss, and when she stood up sunlight slanted through the new yellow leaves and struck the gold in her hair. Something in Rue’s innards gave a great twisting wrench. Her fingers twitched with an itch like the one she sometimes felt to crush robins’ eggs between her fingers, or gouge the thin pale skin over the blue veins in her wrists, or squeeze babies until they cried. Rue shoved Yarrow as hard as she could into the crick.
Even as she was doing it she didn’t understand why. She knew it wasn’t because of Emmett Miller, or even the gold streak, or anything she could pin down with words. Delight and horror fizzed up inside her and nearly choked her.
The crick wasn’t all that deep, though cold. It was the rock that did it, that leapt up from the crick bed and cracked Yarrow’s skull like a robin’s egg so that the world exploded in a blinding burst of light—and then nothing but a darkness so viscous it seeped through the water and up the banks, swarming up Rue’s ankles and legs and settling over her heart and eyes so that she could only see the nothing that Yarrow saw. Then Rue screamed, and the scream broke the spell, but it was too late. The crick was greedy as Emmett Miller’s eyes and it tore Yarrow away down the hollow.
Half-blind, Rue ran through the woods after her sister, branches whipping her face and briars tearing at her clothes. She stumbled down the mountainside and along the ravine, her tears mixing with beads of blood, but the magic of the crick was old and swollen and hungry. Rue collapsed by its waters, the damp creeping up through her clothes, through her skin, until she radiated cold like an icehouse in summer. She lay there, spent and empty, while vines twined around her fingers and squirrels stashed walnuts in the hollows behind her knees and a generation of robins were born, bred, and fledged from nests made in her hair. She lay wide-glass-eyed and sleepless through snowfall and snowmelt, so blind and numb that she didn’t see when Yarrow’s body broke free of the last spring ice and floated away like a golden swan on down the crick.
Granny slid in on a beam of moonlight and found her there, the moss sidling up around her, her fingernails stained and her eyes frosted over like seaglass. Granny brought Rue home and fed her brown bread and nettle tea until the hollowness inside her got a little drowsy and tired of gnawing on her innards and Rue could think again.
“Enough moping,” said Granny after seven days had passed. “Make it right.” And she hauled Rue to her feet and tied around her neck a little bag that held herbs for healing, a quartz crystal, and a seashell to remind her that home isn’t always where you think it is. Granny spun her around four times and set her on the path.
“Bring her back,” she said, and was gone, leaving Rue standing in the midnight forest with the cries of coyotes braiding through the autumn trees.
Rue followed the river until it came to the Miller place. They were the closest neighbors Granny had, though they were miles away. Emmett Miller came out of his daddy’s cabin, his eyes sad but not hungry anymore.
“She’s dead,” he told Rue. “I couldn’t bury her, though. I couldn’t put her under the clay.”
That sparked a tiny anger in Rue’s heart. “You should’ve,” she replied. “She’s not for you. You can’t keep her.”
“That’s as may be, but I did,” he said, and he showed Rue the shed where he’d put the bones in one of the huge glass jars from his daddy’s still. Rue shook them out carefully on a cloth she spread out on the ground and pieced them together.
“They’re not all here,” she said. The breastbone and the long finger-bones were missing. “You give me those bones, Emmett Miller, or I’ll—”
“I didn’t take them,” he said. “A fiddler come by before I found her and took them.” He bundled up the bones and gave them to her with a hangdog regretful kind of look.
“Good luck,” he said.
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” she replied, and set off.
She traveled from one hollow to another, over bare ridges where the last twisty pines gave up. She walked through drifts of leaves and mounds of snow, and when the dank earth began sipping up the melt and the birds began to warble again in the bracken, she came to a town where a dance was brewing. The snow and rain had stained her skirts until they were no longer a color anyone could name, but she held her head up and stomped into the dance hall.
A fiddler was playing, and his spell moved the dancers around him like a kaleidoscope. Rue watched him from the corner, and though several young men asked her to dance, she never took her eyes off the fiddler.
At midnight the dance was still a frenzy and the dancers’ brows dripped with sweat, but nobody made any move to go home or even to slow down until the fiddler set aside his bow and fiddle and opened a dark wood case like a coffin. He pulled out a little dulcimer, and Rue’s skin went cold and prickly all over when she saw it was made from a breastbone, pegged with long finger-bones, and strung with golden hair.
She pushed her way through the throng and stood over the fiddler, hands on hips.
“You give me that dulcimer,” she said.
“I won’t,” said the fiddler, and he pressed the hair against the breastbone and plucked out a sad and mournful tune. Outside the dance hall a few fat drops splattered against the windowpanes and the wind began a fretful keening. At once the dancers stopped, like puppets slipped from hands. They shuffled out of the dance hall to their cold beds in their dark houses. “It’s part of my magic now.”
“It’s my sister,” said Rue, and the white-hot anger flared up inside her till her hair burst its braids and stood out around her head and glowed like black flame.
“I’ll make you a deal,” said the fiddler. “You name my tune, and I’ll let her go.”
He played low and sad, like slow drops falling. He made the dulcimer whine a high lament, and when he had played his tune and played it twice again, he paused. “Well?”
Rue thought. It was no tune she’d ever heard, too heart-broke for anyone to sing without going half mad. It would have splintered her own heart as she listened, if the cold hadn’t crept up out of the crick and cased it in a shell of ice.
“That’s not a tune,” she said. “That’s the wind and the rain.”
The fiddler flew into a hot fit. “I won’t give her up,” he shrieked, and he clung to the dulcimer, his hands growing like vines around its neck and middle.
“No!” cried Rue, and the power burst from her, a flock of blackbirds scattering from her hair. They flew at the fiddler and he tried to beat them off, but they dug their claws in and lifted him away and out the window into the storm.
Exhausted, Rue collected the dulcimer and put it in the sack with the rest of the bones.
She didn’t stick around to see what became of the fiddler. She had heard enough stories to know who he was. With her sister’s bones on her back, she trudged out into the howling wind and the battering rain that stung her skin like hurled pebbles. The wind stripped the last of the magic from her hair, but the rain washed away the crust of ice that glistened over her heart.
Back over ridges and through hollows Rue went, the bones knocking a reminder against her vertebrae. At last she struggled back up the ridge and collapsed on Granny’s threshold.
Granny came to the door, tsking and tutting like a ruffled hen, but her eyes sparkled. She bundled Rue and Yarrow inside, poured a concoction over the bag of bones, and made Rue drink what was left of it. It burned, but Rue drank it all and savored its bitterness. Then Granny made Rue lay out the bones again and put the breastbone and fingerbones back where they belonged. The hair she coiled and tucked into the crowded box on the mantle.
“That’s it?” Rue asked.
“That’s never ‘it’,” said Granny. “Where great hurt has been done, great sacrifice is needed for the healing of it.” And she told Rue what she must do.
On a spring night when the moon was new, Rue walked barefoot to the crick and threw in the bones. Then she threw herself in. As the cold sprouted up her spine, she gave in to a second of panic. But she was doing this for Yarrow, she remembered, and she breathed in the icy water, deep and calm. It dissolved the hard knot of jealousy in her stomach and she felt it slip away in the instant before the cold reached her heart.
In autumn, Granny followed the crick and collected the bones. She laid them out by the fire, hip to hip. With the contents of her apothecary, she charted the way back for them. It was a long path, and a dark one, but Rue and Yarrow could walk it together, back to the bones they’d left behind. All winter Granny murmured the songs to call them home, and when spring came again, the bones gave a little shake and a shiver, and Rue and Yarrow stood up in front of the dying fire, hand in hand, Yarrow’s hair gleaming gold in the firelight and a streak of the same bright color in Rue’s dark hair.
Brenna Layne is a writer, teacher, wife, and mother living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. When she is not wrangling words or kids, she enjoys beekeeping, gardening, and broadsword fighting. You can find her online at www.brennalayne.com where she blogs, on facebookand on twitter.