Authors: Alexis Henderson
I first saw you by the riverside. There was sun on your cheeks and wind in your curls, and you sat with your feet in the water, smiling at me. I don’t think I’d felt real fear until that moment, but Father as my witness, I feared you.
EIGHT DAYS PASSED
without event. In the mornings, Immanuelle sent the sheep to pasture. Sometimes she walked the children to school. She sold her wool at the market and avoided the temptations of the book tent and the woods. On the Sabbath, she went to the cathedral and laid her sins at the feet of the Prophet. She closed her eyes in prayer and did not open them. She sang her hymns with so much vigor she went hoarse halfway through the service and had to whisper her way through the remaining hours of worship. At home, she did not disobey Martha or bicker with Glory.
She kept to the creeds and commandments.
But in the nights, after the rest of the Moores had retired to their bedrooms and the children were asleep, Immanuelle slipped her mother’s journal from beneath her pillow and read it with reverence, the way Martha pored over the pages of the Prophet’s Holy Scriptures.
In her dreams, she saw the women of the woods. Their tangled legs and grasping fingers. The dead gazes that stared, unseeing, into the black of the forest’s corridors, their lips split apart as if
they’d been caught in the midst of a kiss. And in the morning, when Immanuelle woke from those wretched dreams—sweating cold, her legs tangled in her sheets—she thought only of the Darkwood and her growing desire to return to it once more.
THE MORNING OF
Leah’s cutting and her binding to the Prophet, Immanuelle woke with her mother’s journal beneath her cheek. She sat up with a start, smoothing the pages before she snapped it shut and slipped it under her mattress.
After forcing her feet into her muck boots, she trudged downstairs and out the back door, crossing through the farmyard and down into the paddock to let the sheep out to pasture. Then, in preparation for the buggy ride to the cathedral, she took the old mule from his shack and brushed him down, then fed and bridled him.
Across the fields and pastures was the black of the woods, the trees cast into shadow by the light of the rising sun. Immanuelle found herself looking for faces among the branches, the Lovers she’d seen in the woods that night, the figures sketched in her mother’s journal.
But she saw nothing. The distant woods were still.
By the time Immanuelle returned to the farmhouse, the Moore daughters were eating breakfast in the dining room. Honor sat at the table, spooning up the last of her gruel, and Glory studied her reflection in the bottom of a polished pot, tugging at her braids and frowning.
Anna wore her Sabbath best. Her hair was heaped atop her head and adorned with wildflowers. She was beaming; she always beamed on cutting days.
“To think it’s Leah who drew the Prophet’s eye,” she said, almost singing the words.
Martha rounded the corner of the kitchen, bringing Abram with her. He leaned heavily on her shoulder, his mangled foot sliding across the floorboards. Martha stared at Immanuelle pointedly, a frown creasing the seal between her brows. “It speaks to her virtue.”
Immanuelle’s cheeks burned with shame at the subtle slight. “That it does.”
With that, she dismissed herself to the washroom, tripping on the hem of her nightdress as she went. She set about the task of readying herself. There was little she could do but wash the dirt off her hands and wet her curls in a sad attempt to tame them. She tried to pile her hair atop her head the way Anna did, but her ringlets tangled, devouring pins and snaring the teeth of her comb.
So she let her hair hang long, the thick curls sweeping the base of her neck. She pinched her cheeks to give them color, bit her lips and wet them.
She frowned at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. The longer she stared into her own eyes, the more her face warped and changed. Her skin paled. Her eyes gaped wider. Her mouth twisted into a sneer.
All at once, it was not her face in the mirror at all, but that of one of the Lovers. The same ghoul that had given her the journal. Her lips twisted apart. A strange and warbling voice echoed through her mind:
“Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.”
Immanuelle staggered back from the sink so fast she crashed into the tub and hit the floor. Upon scrambling to her feet, she fled the washroom and scaled the iron stairs up to her attic bedroom, kicking the door shut behind her.
She snatched a few long breaths in an attempt to still her racing heart. Her hands shook as she pressed them to her face, squeezing her eyes shut as if the dark was enough to keep her memories at bay. But there was no forgetting the woodland women. And worse
yet, Immanuelle wasn’t sure she wanted to forget. Surely if she did, she would have abandoned her sin and turned over the journal. Or better yet, cast it into the hearth fire to burn. But she hadn’t. She couldn’t. She would sooner take a branding iron to the cheek than watch what little she had left of her mother turn to ashes.
But the witches who had given her the journal, and the evil they wrought, were a different matter entirely. She refused to fall prey to their torments the way her mother had. She wouldn’t abandon her faith so quickly. She resolved to keep the journal, if only as a reminder of what sin could do to someone weak enough to succumb to it.
Lowering her hands, Immanuelle found the dress she had worn to Judith’s cutting stretched across the foot of her bed. It was a faded sable color with a thin skirt, long puff sleeves, and a string of rusty copper buttons that stopped just short of the bosom. A child’s dress, better suited to a girl of Glory’s age than Immanuelle’s.
She sighed. There was no help to be had for it. She certainly couldn’t wear her Sabbath attire. It was far too informal for such an important occasion. But then she remembered the drawing of her mother she’d found in the back of the journal a few days prior. The sketch of her standing in front of the forbidden woods.
Immanuelle dropped to her knees in front of the hope chest and rifled through her belongings. Most were just keepsakes, quilts and bits of ribbon, dried bouquets and other tokens she’d collected over the passing years. Nothing as important as the journal, nothing forbidden. But at the bottom of the chest, wrapped in parchment paper, was her mother’s dress, the same one she had worn in the portrait.
It was nothing special like the gown Leah would wear to her cutting, but it was a well-sewn Sabbath dress, wine red with copper buttons at the throat. On the odd occasion when Immanuelle
wore it—in her attic bedroom when all of the others had fallen asleep—she felt perfectly presentable, pretty even, like the girls she often saw wandering the shops of the market with their gloves and silken shawls.
She stripped out of her nightgown and slipped into the dress. It wasn’t a perfect fit, the waist was cut too wide and the hips were perhaps a little tighter than what Martha would deem wholesome, but it was a better fit than Anna’s hand-me-downs and much finer. Plus, its hem fell low to the floor so it would easily cover the tops of her boots, which were too scuffed to be suitable for any occasion more formal than a romp across the pastures.
Once dressed, Immanuelle took a wreath of wildflowers from the top of her wardrobe. The blossoms had dried nicely in the week after she’d picked them with Leah, and the band of the crown—a twisted web-work of braided stems—held fast. Gingerly, she set it atop her head, pinned it in place, and turned to peer at her reflection in the bedroom window.
She couldn’t call herself a vision; her lip was still badly split and bruised from her tussle with Judas days before. But she thought that, alongside Judith and Leah and the rest of the girls who would attend the cutting, she wouldn’t look so out of place. The color of the dress complemented the rich tan of her skin and pulled the color from her eyes, and with the flowers in her hair, her curls looked rather nice.
Immanuelle slipped into the hallway, her skirts rustling around her ankles. She took the stairs slowly and entered the kitchen. Honor was dressed in a dusk-colored smock, her plump feet stuffed into tiny leather boots. She was the first to spot Immanuelle, and she shrieked with glee at the sight of her.
“Let me wear the crown!” she pleaded, laughing and clawing at the air. With a wry smile, Immanuelle obliged her, balancing the wreath atop the child’s ginger curls.
“That’s Miriam’s dress.” Martha stood at the threshold, grasping a damp dishrag.
Immanuelle couldn’t remember the last time Martha had said her daughter’s name. It sounded strange in her mouth, foreign.
Immanuelle took the wreath off Honor’s head and placed it on her own again, quickly adjusting the pins. “I found it at the bottom of my hope chest. I thought I might wear it to the cutting, if you think it fitting.”
“Fitting?” Martha’s lips twisted. “Aye, it is that.”
Immanuelle stalled, unsure of what to say and wondering if she ought to return to her bedroom and put on the dress Anna had laid out for her. But she couldn’t bring herself to move.
To her surprise, Martha’s gaze softened, not with affection, but with what Immanuelle could only describe as resignation. “You wear it like your mother,” she said.
THE MOORE BROOD
took the buggy to the cathedral, the mule dragging the lot of them across the plains. It was a bright day. The sun was a hot kiss on the back of Immanuelle’s neck and the air smelled of summer, all sweat and honey and apple blooms.
As they rode, she was careful to keep her eyes off the Darkwood. Martha had been watching her ever since the night she’d returned from the forest. Her eye was keen, and Immanuelle knew that the punishment would be swift and painful if she was ever caught wandering the woods again. So she kept her gaze trained on the floor of the wagon, her hands clasped in her lap.
By the time they arrived at the cathedral, most of the congregation was already gathered in fellowship on its lawn. Immanuelle hopped out of the buggy and scanned the crowds for Leah, but instead her gaze found Ezra, who stood with a few boys his
age and a gaggle of girls, including Hope, Judith, and a few of the Prophet’s other wives.
At the sight of Immanuelle, he nodded by way of greeting. She waved in turn—conscious of the way Judith and the rest of the girls studied her as she did—and escaped into the shadows of the cathedral. There she found Leah kneeling at the foot of the altar in prayer. At the echo of Immanuelle’s footsteps, she opened her eyes and turned to face her.
Leah was a vision, draped in white, her hair hanging so long it touched the small of her back. She broke into a smile and sprinted down the aisle, catching Immanuelle in a fierce hug.
They held on to each other in silence for a long time.
This was to be the end of them, the end of what they’d shared in girlhood. Somewhere amidst the passing years, Leah had become a woman and Immanuelle had not, and now the two of them would be split apart.