My town is not one you will have heard of. That’s deliberate, it’s a dangerous place, a dark one built on cursed land. There are werewolves in the woods, something old and ancient under the pond and once and once only, our dead can return home.
It isn’t easy, coming back means denying whatever afterlife awaits, turning your back on the light or its opposite and making the long, difficult walk back across the blistering sands. You condemn yourself to an eternity of wandering, of loneliness and introspection, not a choice many are willing to make. Those who return are always one of two things; angry, or desperate.
Four hundred people live in my town. Overall we’re mostly solemn, careful and keep mostly to ourselves, family means everything because it’s all we have. Occasionally someone moves away, they get married, try to settle elsewhere, but we all come back here in the end. My sister Maya always felt like she belonged somewhere else. Our mother died giving birth to her, but none of us ever really blamed her for that: sometimes bad things just happen.
Our house was old and we didn’t realise how dark it was until she came along, her innate vibrancy illuminating every corner of the old, crumbling cottage we call home. We don’t have a father now, he left after Maya was born. We were raised by our grandmother, older than time, hobbled now by the weight of passing years. She was Maya’s opposite: dark where my sister was light and I was grey, balanced precariously between the two, waiting for the scales to tip. Together we were whole. A family.
This place is dangerous certainly, but we protected each other. You soon learn the paths that are safe and the ones where the hungry things roam. Our family has lived here a long time, we made bargains, mutually beneficial arrangements that mean none of us will be stolen away in the middle of the night by the long limbed white creatures that haunt the fields. But, living here takes something from you, eats your light until you are a shadow of what you could be and I couldn’t bear that happening to Maya.
I stood on the bowing porch as she danced gracefully around the sun dappled pines, long blonde hair flowing in the early spring breeze and it was in that moment I knew that I would not let this town have her. I couldn’t know then that I wasn’t the only one watching, if only I had. Someone else in town had seen she was special and they coveted her, at the same time, wanting no one else to have her after them.
She didn’t want to leave, but I think a part of her was relieved, just as I was when I regularly received the photographs showing her with her friends and eventually, with her girlfriend. She was making a life away from here, in a way none of us had been able to, she’d left before this place could sink its claws into her. It hurt to see her moving away from us, but the pain was sweet, she’d never be tainted like we were. Or so I thought at the time.
Our grandmother died suddenly, all bodies wear out eventually, but her death was not natural, nor was it easy. A spell went wrong, badly so, and rather than release what she had raised, she took it into herself, rotting away in a matter of minutes, miles from home. I tried to keep the news to myself, Maya would return otherwise and if she did so, might not be quite as willing to leave me here alone.
She found out anyway, though she later said she’d been thinking for some time about returning, as much as I wanted to deny it, this place was part of her too, fused into her blood and bones. She arrived without warning, coming inside, bowed down by the huge backpack she’d carried all the way from the next town over. I was equally furious and ecstatic, shouting in protest, but pulling her to me even as I did so. There are few bonds sweeter than those between sisters, she made me want to be better and in another life, I might have been.
We cried together, washed our grandmother’s skin and plaited beads into her long dark hair. We sewed the burial shroud together and Maya painted the symbols onto the marker. We buried her beneath her favourite tree, the one with the dryad. Maya lingered on, past the three watching days, when our grandmother’s body was most at risk and I knew then that she planned to stay. I was working out how exactly to change her mind without hurting her when she disappeared. I went to the next town, to sell the statues I had carved. I used the money to buy my sister’s ticket back to the city. When I returned in the thickening gloom of early evening, she was already gone.
I found her three days later, body left on the outskirts of my property, a deliberate act and no doubt part of his fantasy. The thing that stayed with me, through the many sleepless nights that followed, was her hair, or rather, the lack of it. He had cut it off, those beautiful honey strands I had combed almost every day of her life lay around her, stained with her blood. She was missing her jewellery, as he had wanted to keep some parts of her close, so that he might relive her final moments, their first together. I buried her beside my grandmother.
I tried everything to find out who he was, but someone in our town had done this, outsiders never make it through the woods alive. He knew how to counteract spells, to hide the traces of him that I might have found. There is also one rule in our town that no one ever breaks and even in the depths of my despair, I was no different. We don’t involve the authorities in village business.
Six months passed, the grass began growing over the two graves outside the house, eventually the crisp red-orange autumn leaves covered the ground and tucked them in tight. I can’t speak of who I became by the time winters bite hung heavy in the air. Maya’s death left a gaping, bleeding void in me, into which the shadows crept. I was no longer grey, but black, as dark within as the gritty soil that covered the two people I’d loved most in the world.
The turning time approached, the day when the veils between worlds are pulled paper thin, filled with holes through which the determined dead can pour. I knew my sister would come to me, the same way I knew whoever killed her would try very hard to stop this from happening. Death is bad, true enough, but there is something worse, a ritual we call dispersal. The dead are weak by the time the journey is done, diminished and vulnerable. The right combination of herbs and spoken words can scatter them to the void, condemning them to the endless uncaring nothing.
It’s cruel, forbidden, but then so is murder and my sister’s attacker had no problem with that. My second worry was that I didn’t know the route my Maya would take. She knew the roads we walked every day, but the dead need not be scared of the sharp toothed denizens of the forest and so, she might take the quicker path home. Despite my many abilities, I can’t be in more than one place at the same time, so I knew there was a terrible risk that I could miss her, lose her again. I might be too late to save her for a second time. I think even then I knew he was one step ahead of me, had likely planned this for years before he had even taken her. It had not been intuition that had brought Maya home, but words in the depths of the night, our grandmother, trying very hard to tell her something, but fading before my sister could understand. I wondered what my grandmother had been trying to say.
The dark dawned at last and I left the house. The turning day had cast its strange spell over the land and the air was alive with the whispers of a veil torn asunder, the restless dead awake at last. I burned with the need for justice, no, that is a lie and I promised to be honest. I wanted revenge, my pound of flesh.
I donned the black robes, painted my face and wove my spells, so that I might make Maya’s journey a little easier. I wished I could be beside her the whole way, holding her hand and have her tell me another story. One with fair maidens and knights, a world where the good always wins in the end, not this rotten unfair place we are condemned to endure.
The woods were dark and deep and I, like Robert Frost, had promises to keep. Blanketed by night, the miles stretched ahead like an endless, empty highway and I felt more alone than ever before. All was silent, even the wolves stayed snug and safe in their burrows, the crows already flown west, to the dead lands and the masters who waited there. The air was cold, overripe berries hanging bloated and leaking from their branches. Everything smelled like wet dirt and distant graves yawned open, like dark hungry mouths.
I hummed the song I had soothed her with as a child, when she had still been scared of the woods, before she had made her peace with our strange town. I hoped she might hear it, be guided to me sooner, for as much as I wanted revenge, in that moment I wanted nothing more than to see her again. The hours passed and there was no sign of her and I felt something inside me twist, tearing places unseen, for despair gnaws readily on the bones of hope.
I think it was then that I realised something, a huge flaw in my plan that I hadn’t even considered. Most of the towns inhabitants die naturally, a few from mishaps like my grandmother or sometimes from accidents. People fall from ladders everywhere, even here. It had been a long time since someone was murdered and because of that, I forgot something my grandmother had once told me. The souls of the murdered are different, often confused, drawn first to the place in which they died. I’ve already said that the murderer covered his tracks well. Maya had been found in that overgrown field, but had not died there. In that terrible moment I knew I would not see her again. He’d known she would return and of course, he had prepared for that as well. Possibly before he had even killed her.
I howled at the blood tinged moon and for just a moment, I heard my pain reflected somewhere distant, as what was left of my sister was lost in the wind. I felt her absence all over again and a wound within, barely scabbed over, burst open and bled anew. There was nothing I could do to end her suffering, any more than I could end my own, no spells I could weave to bind her scattered pieces back together. There would be no goodbye, no whispered words of love to soothe our raw weeping edges. Maya was gone forever and the world was worse for it.
I had forgotten the one important thing about my sister’s return and had doomed us both to an eternity apart, but I wasn’t the only one who was distracted. Her murderer had been as excited as I was for my sister’s return, albeit in a different way and I had no doubt that he’d overlooked one important thing. My sister wasn’t the only member of my family to die in the past year and was not the only one who could return. I hadn’t expected it myself until I turned to find the shade of my grandmother behind me.
She had sensed something awful was coming to our family, before it happened. She’d decided to call upon a powerful entity, one she didn’t entirely trust. She was too old, too worn out to stand against the entity when he demanded the ultimate payment. She gave her life to see, ahead of time, my sister’s murder, but died before being able to do anything to prevent it. I said that some spirits are desperate, others angry and I’m sure you can guess which of the two motivated my grandmother to make that long, dangerous walk back to me. In the loneliest part of the night we came together and made our plans against him.
The murderer was not someone I knew personally, but I made it my business to change that, after all, I had little else to do. He lived alone in a home as old as mine, on the outskirts of town, split over two levels. The staircase was stone, uneven and mossy, easy to take an unexpected tumble in the depths of the night. I watched them carry his body out. his neck lolled strangely, but he did not have another mark on him, for I didn’t want anyone to suspect he might return on the next turning day.
I said that dispersal was cruel, but it is not the worst thing you can do to the dead, my grandmother taught me that. We have our own version of the voodoo doll, this one not designed to punish an external foe, but instead, to bind a spirit within it. Traditionally, the dead are bound within small earthenware containers, a bit like a genie in a lamp, so that the caster can harness their energy for more complicated spell work. That is not my intention. He is, after all, no longer the only human monster in town. You already know that I’m no fairy tale princess, more like the wicked witch and I want him there forever, able to think and feel every second of his eternity.
I sewed the doll over a few days, making it from one of my grandmother’s old dresses, as she had suggested and stuffed it with my sister’s bloody hair. I took breaks to write this, I think Maya would want her story told. Even so, I’m sure you understand that at its heart, this is a family matter and therefore, my grandmother and sister must be included in his punishment, in one way or another. His prison has to be made from cotton you see, because I will need somewhere to stick the pins.