Note from YARN: The readers and editors loved this submission, and were tickled to discover that weather witches are in the air . . . Shannon Delany’s novel of the same title will be coming out June 25, 2013, from St. Martin’s/Griffin — but featuring a very different weather witch and setting. (Teachers, maybe this would make a fun comparison and contrast assignment for your summer writing students?)
By Cynthia Heinrichs
Raindrops splatted a sharp staccato against the single window pane. In a pot on the floor the incessant drip drip drip from the thatch replied.
She pressed her forehead against the cold glass. I must ask Bran to patch that. If this rain ever stops, the whole roof needs doing.
If this rain ever stops.
The wind moaned. More drops tinkled in the pot.
The fog from her breath and the scratches on the old glass distorted her view, but she knew that outside nothing had changed. The sky still hung low and heavy, and the waves still thrashed, black and angry far below.
She could almost hear her mother’s retort: Don’t say it’s angry. Wind is wind. It has no more feeling than a rock. It blows because that is what it does, what it is.
Her mother had been wise. A wise woman.
If she was so wise, why did she not prepare me for this?
The stones that hung from ropes across the roof’s spine to keep the thatch down twisted and swung. One clapped violently against the wall, startling her. She needed no weather vane to tell her the wind still blew from the north, hard, as it had for so many days.
They will not wait much longer. I cannot wait . . .
Bran’s soft snoring from the loft both comforted and annoyed her. How could he sleep? He was the one who had come huffing up the steep cliff path to tell her the village elders wished to speak with her in the morning.
And then spent a good part of the night huffing and puffing some more, she thought wryly.
And then he had curled his body around hers and told her not to fret and had gone to sleep, while she lay awake, worrying about why the elders wished to speak to her, pretending to herself that she did not already know.
Does he not see the danger?
Bran had ever been a calm boy, never the sort to show alarm. When they were children and the others said things about her mother, about her, he had smoothed the waters, made them all friends again. When she had taken her mother’s place and the others turned their backs on her, he kept coming to see her and to help her and then, sometimes, to stay with her.
She wondered what her mother would have thought of the man Bran had become.
Useful enough. As high praise as any man could hope for from a woman who had little use for men.
He’s kind, thought Avelin, and reliable. Solid as a rock.
For now, her mother replied, somewhere in her mind.
The snoring stopped. She listened, hoping to hear his feet drop onto the plank floor, for him to come down the ladder, to wait by the fire with her. A grumbling purr told her he had only rolled over.
She pressed her forehead hard against the glass.
Men give what they give, Avelin. If you’ve a penchant for hurting yourself, expect more.
Her mother had never been wrong about much.
She was wrong about me.
So many times Avelin had tried to twist a current of air into a spiraling loop to spark the changes necessary to breed a strong wind, had sought to smooth rough waters with a caress of her focused mind. She might as well have asked the cliffs to dance a jig for her. But if her mother had worried that her daughter might prove talentless, she never said so.
Let them believe what they will. Then turn it to your benefit. That is true power.
But it was not enough. Not anymore. The villagers were angry, their patience worn thin by the storm that did not end.
With the end of her braid she swiped at the glass. Sea and sky were a roiling blue-black mass. Nothing separated them. She squinted. No, the horizon was still blotted out.
Many times she had watched Bran disappear beyond the horizon in his small fishing boat. Once she had asked him what lay beyond the line that was as far as she had ever seen.
“Of course. This is a small island, Avelin.”
“You’ve been to other places?”
“Sometimes. To sell a catch.”
“What’s it like?”
“There are people, houses. I don’t know. Why do you care?”
Bran had no care for life beyond the island and the small patch of sea that surrounded it. None of the villagers did. They liked their ignorance.
The less they know, the more you know by comparison.
But what did Avelin know? Very little, she felt.
The drip from the hole in the thatch became relentless. She felt the urge to bark at Bran that he had slept long enough, that she needed him. She pressed her braid against her lips and stopped the words with the softness of the entwined hair and thought about the last time the roof had been thatched.
The day had been gloriously bright. Indeed, most of that spring had been kind and mild, and that was reflected in the mood of the men who came to help, some of them sacrificing a day of fishing, despite ideal conditions. For a time, as the afternoon grew hot, there had been a lull in the work and Avelin remembered laughter and her mother, white teeth shining, blue-black hair glinting, as she smiled up at the men who gleamed shirtless in the sunshine on the top of their world.
Her mother had always had a way with men. Even when they were angry with her because the elements were not working in their favour, she had always found a way to temper their frustrations.
Avelin counted on her fingers. It had been four years. No, five. On a house in the village, in the lee of the cliff, the roof might last longer, but exposed as hers was, five years was long enough.
With a sudden fierce ache she wished that her mother were there, that she would turn the storm or turn the people. But Avelin had no more power over death than she had over the elements.
In the first few years on her own she had been blessed with remarkably good weather. But the past winter had been harsh, the spring little better. For every day that the sun shone a week of cold storms from the northeast had kept the fishers in their tavern in the harbour where they grumbled and counted the days lost, the catches lost, the coin that should have been theirs. And then this storm had arisen—had it been three weeks already?—and never left. No, even if the weather cleared now and stayed bright for the rest of the year they would not forget. They credited her with the clearing of the sky. It was natural that they would suspect she had something to do with the clouding of it.
She knew they were coming, yet when the heavy knock landed on the door she jumped.
“Bran,” she said softly. “Bran, get up.”
The snoring stopped.
“Bran. They’re here.”
There was another knock, then the sound of Bran’s feet hitting the floor and the rustle of him pulling on clothes. He padded over to the ladder and let himself down, his eyes on his feet all the way, as if they did not intimately know each branch of the ladder. When he reached the bottom he looked at her, then at the door. When the knock came again he gave a sharp snap of his head that made his tousled hair flop to one side, but he did not move toward the door.
Well, it is my door, she told herself, but as she lifted the cold latch and felt the wind push at her she did wish he had opened it for her, that his face would be the first they saw.
There were four of them. They entered silently, dripping, and stood in a knot as they watched her fight the wind to push the door shut again.
“There you are,” Tomas said to Bran. “We wondered.”
Avelin looked from Tomas to Bran. Wondered?
Bran stuffed his feet into his boots. “I told you I would be here.”
“You were to bring her. We’ve been waiting. We thought—”
“Sorry. I was sleeping.”
One of the men sneered and Avelin felt her face go hot. And what was this of waiting? He had only told her that the villagers wished to speak with her.
“You are wanted in the tavern,” said Tomas to Avelin.
As she draped her shawl over her head and around her shoulders she tried to catch Bran’s eye, but he was pulling on his oilskin and didn’t see. She stooped to put on her boots, feeling the eyes of the men on her. She straightened, pushing her shoulders back.
Carry yourself proudly, but not too proudly.
Why was her mother’s advice the sort that was never easy to follow?
She was dressed, but she still felt naked, unprepared. She saw her eating knife on the table and reached for it.
Tomas put a hand on her arm. “You won’t need that.”
Avelin stood, looking at Tomas’s hand. She told herself that Tomas only meant she would not be gone long, that she would not be eating.
We wondered. A cold dawning came over her.
“What’s happening here, Bran?”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry.” But the way he looked away when he said it made her stomach plunge. He had not come for her sake. He had come for theirs.
Winds change. It is the only thing upon which you may rely. The men went out. There was nothing to do but to follow, flinching as the wind and rain hit her face. She clutched her shawl tightly to her throat, but that did not ward off the chill she felt running from her core out to the ends of her limbs. There was a click as Bran latched the door shut behind them and then the four began to make their way down the cliff stair. She went after them.
Going up the cliff stair always winded her, but at least it allowed her to look up. She never felt afraid of falling when she was looking up. Now she crept slowly, hunched and leaning into the cliff wall, her feet slipping on the drenched stone. Below her four heads bobbed, all focused on the steep descent which was awkward at the best of times, the stairs being cut roughly, this one too high, that one too long, making the most graceful person appear a galumphing brute as they clambered down into the village. The rain pelted her, soaking her skirt and shawl, making the rock slick. Once her foot slipped and she was certain she would fall onto the men below and send them all tumbling down into the village like a jumble of living boulders, but one of them caught her, easily, as if he had been waiting for just that moment.
As he pushed her back onto her feet she felt Bran’s hand come down on her shoulder, steadying her. She flinched away from his grasp. Her legs trembled as she returned to her descent. She dared not look over the cliff edge for fear that she would follow where her eyes went. With every step she felt as if she were sinking.
The steps became the path that twisted into the upper end of the village and then a street, narrow and empty. Curtains flickered in a few windows, but no one appeared. For some reason this comforted her. The six passed through the middle of town to where two streets branched off like the arms of a twisted cross, one ending abruptly at the cliff-face, the other straggling down to the rocks and the waves. They stopped where the main street died, on one foot the tavern, on the other the wharf jutting out into the sea.
One of the men opened the tavern door. Avelin went in. The door closed, muting the howling wind. As she pulled the shawl from her head and shook it, showering those around her with droplets, she saw Bran leaning against the door. Their eyes met. He looked away.
She had not been in the tavern since she was small when, with boys and girls of the village, she had taken turns running in on a dare. She recognized a few of those boys in the faces of the young men before her, young men who sat with their fathers and regarded her coldly.
Mother would have cleared a space for herself with a look, with the arch of a brow. Men were inclined to be intimidated by a woman who could summon up a wave to flip their craft over with a word.
But I am not my mother.
She was given a chair in the middle of the room with no table beside it, so that when the tavern-keeper’s daughter brought her a cup of ale she had to hold it on her knee. The cup was very full. She sipped a few mouthfuls so it would not spill onto her skirt while she fought to compose herself.
There was no preamble. “This storm must be turned.”
Did they think she had not been trying?
Make them believe in you. Believe they will, and they will.
“It is a difficult storm.”
“It has been too long.”
She lowered her head. “I’m doing my best.”
“Some believe you have no power.”
The cup on her knee jiggled. She had tried her best, for them and for herself. She had stood on the cliff edge and begged the sky to stop its raging, but the wind had snatched her words away, unheard. She had stood for hours in the driving rain so that the villagers below would see that she was working, that they would see she tried, yet all she had accomplished, it seemed, was to prove that she was a fraud. Which she was!
She looked up, looked at the faces in the room. Some of them were averted from her. Could it be they felt sorry for her? The tavern-keeper’s wife looked disapproving, but Avelin thought she seemed displeased with the men. Or was it that she saw through Avelin? It was difficult to say. Should she admit it? Should she tell them that, though her mother had been a witch, she was not?
She took a sip of ale. What would her mother do?
Her mother had owned power. She would have calmed the storm.
She tried to read their thoughts through their eyes, their faces, in how they regarded her.
Are they wary or angry? Either way, they do not like me.
No one likes a witch, even when she gives them what they want.
But what if I am not a witch?
They will like you even less.
“I will try again.” She fought to keep her voice even. “You must have faith in me. These are great powers and I am young.” She sounded like she was pleading.
Give a man power and he will use it. Keep the power for yourself, always.
If they knew how afraid she was, she would be lost.
“Your lack of faith in me makes my task difficult,” she accused, trying to sound like her mother. “It is like rowing against the current, sailing against the wind, working to help people who drain my power from me with their doubt.” She held her breath as she watched a few faces register that remark.
The men conferred. Avelin stared into the cup of ale. The light from the lamps swirled like golden oil on the surface. She could not see to the bottom.
Tomas turned on the bench where he sat and addressed Avelin. “What do you want?”
I want you to leave me alone.
Bran had moved to stand by the bar. He watched her, his face stone-like.
Cold as stone. But why?
“To turn the wind. What do you want from us to make this storm pass?”
Then she saw it. They didn’t know what to believe either. They were confused, desperate. They wanted a solution to their problem as much as she wanted one to hers. They wanted the storm to end.
Avelin felt the cold slate floor slip beneath her feet. But what if she couldn’t end it?
She put the cup on the floor beside the chair and shoved her trembling hands deep into the folds of her skirt.
“I do not want anything but your patience.”
“You have had enough of that,” one of the older fishers growled.
The men turned away to talk amongst themselves again. She watched them and wondered if this was how they had talked the day her mother went to stand on the wharf in the middle of a winter storm, her arms held up to the sky in apparent supplication. For two days she had stood, under lashing rain and such violent winds that Avelin, watching from the doorway of the tavern, had been certain that she would be scooped up, light as a kerchief, and taken into the depths. But the storm had broken and her mother had walked, spine straight, head aloft, up through the village to the cliff stair, accepting every word of thanks with only the slightest of nods, as she would have on any typical day.
But it was no typical day. Avelin had been young, but she knew her mother. At the first high step Avelin had put her hand on her mother’s elbow to aid her and the woman had hissed, do not touch me! Only when they were alone behind the walls of their house had she allowed her daughter to help her strip off her sodden clothing. Then she had climbed into the bed they shared and pulled the blankets over her, but not before Avelin saw the blotchy red patches, like bloody blossoms, on her ice-white skin. A week later she was dead
“And if that doesn’t do it?” demanded Tomas.
She had missed something. What had they decided? Did they plan to make her stand on the wharf as they had her mother?
Bran looked at her. “We should put her in a boat instead. If she cannot turn the storm then let it take her.”
Avelin gaped at him, her heart shrinking with shame and horror. How could she have known him so little? The fishers were ignorant, but she was blind. She sat, clutching her thighs beneath her skirt, wondering at her own stupidity.
It must be a mistake. There has to be a mistake. She had to speak to him, even if he only told her he hated her as the others did. She had to know. But there was no time to ask. Bran slipped out the door and was gone, leaving her alone in the tavern. She felt a surge of anger at herself because, as he disappeared into the storm, she felt abandoned.
He got what he wanted, whispered her mother. Now he’s gone. You’re a fool for being surprised.
She was a fool. Why else would her heart be telling her that he was her friend?
He is my enemy. He is my enemy. He must be my enemy. How had he ever managed to fool her into believing otherwise?
After a time Bran returned and spoke to Tomas and his knot of men. The men got up and went to her. She did not wait to be told. She stood and went out the door. The tavern emptied out behind her.
The sea hurtled waves at Avelin and the villagers, drenching them all. Some retreated to where the surging water could not reach them while others walked her to a small boat that tossed and leapt at its moorings, as if struggling to be free.
She stared at the small vessel as it writhed on the roiling water. She had never been on a boat before. A woman on a boat was considered the worst sort of luck. She thought that she might start laughing at the irony of it all, but was afraid that if she did she might never stop. She gazed at the boat, wondering how she would get into it, wondering that it continued to float despite the violent thrashing of the water beneath it. Surely the storm would devour it and her immediately.
Then Bran was holding his oilskin out to her. “Put this on.”
“What?” she said incredulously.
“You’ll find it useful. Put it on.”
It was too much. “Useful?” she hissed. “I don’t know you! Get away from me.”
“I’m doing what I can,” he said in a low voice.
It was the worst thing he could have said. She knew she was lost.
She turned and put her hands in the sleeves of the coat, felt him pull it up to her shoulders. Like a child she turned to let him close the buttons of his coat down her chest, his eyes on his fingers the whole while. She watched those thick fingers make their way down her body and did not recognize them.
He finished with the buttons. He looked at her and nodded.
“You should have helped me,” she said.
And then it was easier because she hated him.
She put one foot in the boat and recoiled. It was like walking on a cat, the way the surface under her rolled. The oars slipped around. She pushed them aside with her foot, put the other foot in and dropped to her knees huddle low in the cup of the vessel as Bran untied one rope and threw it into the boat. The other he allowed to drop into the water as the sea drew the boat rapidly away from the wharf. She saw why a moment later. He was tying the end of the rope to a metal spar. He had tethered her. She would not escape.
The boat spun and tossed like a leaf on the water, lurching around so that she faced the open sea where the horizon should have been, were it not blanketed with dark clouds and darker water. The waves flung the boat around again. At any moment it would spill her out to be dragged beneath the waves. She was farther out now, farther than she had ever been from home. She looked at the island. It was strange to see it from the water. It did not look like the same place at all.
A wave slammed into the boat and, with a sickening swing she faced the horizon again.
Bran had told her that the horizon was always moving away from a person, that one could never reach it, could never know what it hid. So why did she feel closer to it now? Perhaps Bran had been wrong.
Or he lied.
And then Avelin realized she was seeing the horizon. For the first time in ten days a thread of pale green split sea and sky.
It is my hope speaking.
But, no, there was a fine division of the two darknesses, a green line that split them into two. She squinted, focusing on that line, peering into the wind and rain, concentrating on the narrow band of green, wishing it to expand, wishing green into gold, for light to expand and encompass her, to take her into it. She wished it and wished it.
The boat jerked. The rope had played out to its full length.
The most powerful word in any language is witch said with malice and fear. Killed more women than birth, it has.
But I lack the power, mother.
Appearances are more important than the truth.
So it is a lie?
Her mother slapped her. Never say it.
But we are alone. No one can hear us.
So, was it true?
Being a witch means being alone.
But if I am not a witch?
She looked about her in despair. There was nothing she could do. She was trapped, doomed.
But that green line on the horizon. Oh, how she wished for that green line.
What would Mother do?
Avelin got to her feet. The boat dipped and swayed. She scrambled to brace herself, feet far apart so that her skirts spread tight against her legs. The wind pushed at her like a sail, making the boat dart out, snapping the rope taut.
I am going to die, she thought, but she raised her arms to the sky, beating them like wings as she sought to remain upright. She closed her eyes and tried.
Contrary to what the villagers believed there were no incantations, no words of power.
It is a matter of will, of joining with the wind, of being carried upon it, lifted up out of life by it, of embracing, balancing, gentling . . .
It. Whatever it is.
A particularly violent wave slammed her down. She crumpled, hugging her ribs where they had hit the bench, hard. The turning of the boat showed her the wharf again. Some of the men still watched. Others had gone back to the warmth of the tavern. Bran stood at the back of the group of men. She could not see his face. She did not want to.
If I die and the weather turns they will say it was appeased. For all I know they would be right. But if the sea does not kill me, will they grown impatient and haul me back and punish me? Will they slit my throat, let my blood fly in the wind? Would it appease the weather? Would it appease them?
The boat twisted horizon-side again pulling the rope so tight it sang. Lightning seared the sky. The smell of it burned the sensitive skin in her nostrils. The boat heaved and tossed. She found the band of green. It was still there, the blackness of the clouds pressing it thin.
Avelin took a deep breath and got to her feet again. Bending her knees made it easier to balance. She closed her eyes and did not fight when the wind entered her. She allowed it to expand her lungs, felt it eddy and flow back out. In and out she breathed the wind. She gave herself up to the rocking of the boat. She let the storm tug at her, spin the boat, spin her. She felt the sea under her feet, felt the wind holding her. The waves thrashed, the wind did not relent, but Avelin stood, her arms spread for balance. Everything became the rocking of the boat, the gusting of the wind and her balancing in the midst of them. She stopped wondering if this was how her mother would have done it.
The wind did not throw her into the sea. The waves did not spill her out to be swallowed. She stood and balanced and when she opened her eyes, she saw that the band of green had widened. Was it her imagination or had the wind gentled? Were the waves less fierce? Could it be so easy in the end?
She felt the boat jerk, but this time the sea was not to blame. Hands were pulling on the rope. Hands were pointing to the sky.
The storm was passing.
She slumped down onto the bench. Had she done that? Did it matter? She was saved. They would not slit her throat. They would let her walk up to her house on the cliff. They would let her climb into her bed to warm herself. They would bring her food and be grateful to her.
The gap between her and the men on the wharf narrowed. Their faces became clearer. She looked over her shoulder. The green had become a kind, pale blue.
They would believe in her now as they never had before. She would study the weather and the men and learn to dance between them the way her mother had. She would return to her old life—maybe it would even be a better life. So why, as the faces on the wharf grew noses and eyes and smiling mouths, did she find herself shuddering?
She picked out Bran’s face in the crowd. He alone looked grim. How could he not even be pleased that the storm was gone?
Their eyes met and held. This last time she would look him in the eye and then she would climb out of the boat and give him his coat and never look at him again. Never again.
As the rope drew her closer, the longing to stretch it out again, the desire to shift, to reach, to run, to do whatever she must to put distance between herself and the villagers and Bran and the sense that she was about to drown, throbbed in her. But there was nowhere to go. She was trapped. In a moment hands would reach out to return her to land, to return her to her old life.
And what of the next storm?
The boat was a few feet from the wharf when Bran’s eyes broke away from hers to look over her head.
He can’t even look at me.
But then he was looking at her again. And then he lifted his chin and looked over her head. She turned to see the sky splitting open, blue pouring through.
Again their eyes met. He nodded. The boat was a foot from the wharf.
She thrust her hands deep into her pockets—Bran’s pockets—to still their trembling and snatched one back out again.. A streak of blood ran from her stinging knuckles. She reached back in, groping more cautiously and pulled a knife out of the pocket. Her knife. The one Tomas had said she would not need.
In the other pocket were coins. Dozens of them, far more than Bran would ever have carried at one time. How had she not felt their weight before? Or noticed the jug of water in the bottom of the boat, or the blanket-wrapped beside it? She pulled back the blanket. Food? She looked up and met Bran’s eyes. He stood behind the others, shaking his head. His lips made a circle as he spoke a silent word.
And in that instant she knew things her mother never had.
Hands were reaching for the boat when Avelin lifted the knife and leaned forward and grasped the rope with one hand. With the other she sawed until the frayed ends split apart. The boat sighed, free.
The men began to shout. Some went to untie their boats, to give chase, but already she was drifting out of their reach. There was no time to tell him she was sorry. It was her only regret.
Bran put his hand to his mouth. She did the same and her regret was a new one.
Beyond the horizon was a place Bran had never cared to go. That did not mean there was nothing beyond the horizon.
The wind and waves caressed the boat, rocking it gently, while some other force—the current, she thought—caught hold of it and pulled it and Avelin farther and farther from the island until Bran’s face blurred and only his large, solid form was visible to her. She kept her eyes on that form until it blended with the bulky shadows of the men around him. The boat drifted around the narrow promontory that sheltered the harbour and the village disappeared from sight. Avelin looked up at the cliff to catch a final glimpse of her house. Too late. It was gone. Soon the island would be as well.
Avelin carefully stood and turned herself around to face away from the island, to face the sea, her eyes on the horizon so that she could watch as it swallowed her up.
Cynthia Heinrichs is the author of two books: “Mermaids,” a picture book about the diving women of South Korea, and “Under the Mound,” a novel for young adults set in 12th-century Scotland. Cynthia is also a regular contributor to British Columbia Magazine. She lives in Vancouver, BC, where she writes and tutors college students in academic writing. To learn more about Cynthia, please visit her website at: http://cynthiaheinrichs.com.