Dark and Deep
by Holli Mintzer
The wind slaps at me as soon as I open the door. It's bitter cold in the predawn grayness,
especially after the warmth of the cabin, but Mama's been out hunting and she always leaves the
meat outside the door. It keeps best in the cold.
It's a deer this time, or most of one, what's left after Mama takes her share. She's skinned it
neatly for us, jointed and cleaned it and bled it off, and it steams a little in the dry cold air. I
heave a haunch of venison onto my shoulder, turn, and duck back through the door into the
J.R.'s still sleeping, just a lump of quilts unmoving in the big bed. She needs the sleep.
Mama would have said, once, that J.R.'s growing and needs the rest for her bones to stretch. My
bones are all done stretching, so I wake up early.
Some of the venison goes into the stewpot; some gets cut into strips, to dry on the rack in front
of the fire. The rest will go into the cold cellar, to keep until spring.
By the time I'm done with the venison, J.R. is stirring. Once she's up and dressed, teeth cleaned
and hair braided, I send her out to check the curse nets. She grumbles, though it's been her job
every morning for going on three years now. I promise her hot porridge by the time she's done,
and that gets her moving.
The porridge doesn't take long, and I find myself with a moment to steal before J.R. comes back.
I pull a book off Mama's shelf, and sit down to read.
The book falls open to my favorite poem, the way it always does. I smooth a hand over the faded
page, my eyes trailing over the words. Before I get very far, though, the door swings open and
J.R. tromps back in, trailing snow over the floor. And then the day is started, and there's too
much to do, and I have no time for poetry.
There's wood to chop and food to cook and venison to carry to the cold cellar; there's J.R.'s
lessons and my own; and there's laundry and sewing and darning and spinning. There's spells to
make up, of course, and a new curse net to weave. Installing it in the high bare branches of the
oak outside the house takes up precious hours.
It's a long day, and we don't see Mama at all. By the time the light is fading I'm bone tired, and
J.R. is yawning. The two of us change into our nightdresses, brush out our hair, and climb under
the heap of old quilts that Mama made for us, once upon a time. I'm half-asleep before I hear the
heavy tread on the porch, and the knock-knock-knock at the door.
Mama doesn't come in, of course, but the knock is enough. She's all right. Reassured, I fall
asleep between one breath and the next.
The next day goes similar, and the next. It's the deepest part of winter, and J.R.'s and my world
narrows to the cabin and the few yards clear of snow around it. Sometimes we bicker, the way
sisters do, but this is our third winter on our own, and we're pretty well used to it. After a
particularly nasty fight, one that leaves J.R. in tears, I use some of our precious store of bought
flour to bake her a little cake, filling it with jam we put up last summer. She takes it for the peace
offering it is, and I don't turn her down when she offers me a bite.
Things change when the man comes from town to buy a spell. He comes by snowshoe, tossing
up a cloud of powder with each careful step. When he hammers at the door, I am in the midst of
washing dishes and the sound makes me startle and drop the heavy ceramic mixing bowl into the
stone sink. Thankfully, it doesn't break.
The man is fair-haired and bearded, his cheeks and nose pink with cold, and he carefully stamps
his boots clean of snow before he comes into the house. This endears him to me, just a little - so
few people take the right kind of care when they come to a witch's house. Ordinary politeness is
all that's called for, really, but we don't often get it.
He looks around the cabin while he pulls off his heavy coat and muffler, his hat and rabbit-skin
mittens, and I can see that his pale eyes are sharp, missing nothing. They linger on J.R. for just a
moment, but jerk back to me when I clear my throat at him.
"Sorry," he says, a little abashed. "Never been out here before. I'm here to see the witch-woman."
"Well, here we are," I say, just a little tartly. "What do you need?" Folks aren't expecting two
girls well shy of twenty when they come here, that's fair enough, but there's no need to assume
we don't know what we're doing.
He takes the rebuke for what it is and acts mannerly again. "It's my wife," he says. "She's in a
delicate way, and I want to be sure the birth is easy. We weren't expecting this one - thought we
were too old for another - and the last one near killed her. I don't want my children motherless."
I nod, because this of all things is a commendable reason to go to a witch-woman. "I've got
some herbs that will ease the labor," I say, "and I can weave you a curse net to hang from the
bedstead. Have you got a midwife who knows her trade?"
"She lives in town," he says, and names a village two days' walk from here. He must love his
wife, I think. "Don't know if she'll make it out to the homestead in time, come the day."
"I'll teach you what I can," I say. "We've got some books and I've attended a few difficult
births." I don't mention that I was twelve last time I did it, not even J.R.'s age, and only
watching over Mama' shoulder. "Now, we ought to talk payment."
He nods. "I've got a little cash, and eight yards of calico, and I brought a few jars of honey from
our bees. That sound fair to you?"
J.R. had nearly outgrown her summer dresses by the time fall set in this year, and I haven't had a
new dress since I stopped growing. It's downright generous, is what it is, but I'm not going to
The bearded man, who gives his name as Tom Miller, helps me set up J.R.'s old truckle bed in
front of the fire so he'll have a place to sleep tonight. He'll be scrunched up some, but I'm
already sacrificing some of the quilts from J.R.'s and my pile, and not feeling more charitable
than that. He offers to bring in some firewood and I let him, because that will give me time to
weave his curse net.
Mama's big chest of little drawers holds all sorts of things. Packets of herbs, sea glass carried far
inland, bits of colored stone, twigs from rare trees. And commoner things, too: scraps of paper
clipped from almanacs and catalogues, acorns, iron nails and eggshells.
"What do you think, J.R.?" I ask her, and she tips her head to one side, considering. We make
our selections carefully, thinking of the child to come.
When Miller comes back in with the first load of firewood, I am sitting in Mama's rocking chair,
my hands a tangle. J.R. is sitting on the truckle bed, sewing. "You didn't bring a lock of your
wife's hair, by any chance, did you?" I ask. His hand goes to his chest, as if by instinct. "Got it in
a locket, then? Or a luck pouch? Good. I only need a few strands, and some of yours. It's good to
have both parents in the net - better protection."
So far the net has leaves of chamomile and sage to ease the mother's pain, raspberry leaf and
thistle for a quick and easy birth. There's a few bells, to jingle a warning if something's going
wrong, and pictures of healthy children for encouragement. It looks like a crooked spiderweb in
my hands, one with bits and pieces carefully knotted into it in place of flies.
Miller fumbles with a leather cord around his neck and pulls a little leather bag out from under
his layers of clothes. A luck pouch, then: backcountry magic, the kind of thing a wife puts
together to keep her husband's fingers free of stray axes and his feet on the marked paths. He
pulls out a lock of reddish-blonde hair and teases a few strands free. J.R. hands him her little
sewing scissors to clip a few of his own. He thanks her, but she only blushes and stares at the
"J.R. doesn't talk to strangers," I say.
He gives her an odd look, but doesn't say anything, just hands me the hair and watches me
weave it into the fabric of the net. I yank a strand of my own hair out - there's power in a little
pain - and knot it in last of all, adding my own power to what's worked into the net already.
"There," I say, and lay it out flat on a muslin on the table, carefully folding the cloth around it.
"You hang this above the bed as soon as you get home. The bells should ring when labor's about
to start, and again if something's not right, so you should have plenty of time to fetch the
midwife. In the morning I'll make you some teas and tisanes that might come handy."
He nods assent, and J.R. and I get dinner ready. Miller's a big man, and we're not used to
company, so it's a bit surprising how much stew he puts away. But there's still more than
enough, with the venison Mama left in the morning, and we go to sleep that night with full
When Mama knocks at the door, Miller sits bolt upright in the truckle bed. I prop myself up on
one elbow, and wave a sleepy hand at him. "Go back to sleep," I say. "It's nothing. It's all right."
"There's no one else living out here," he says, not relaxing an inch. "What was that?"
"It's witch stuff," I tell him, which isn't even a lie. "Nothing you need to worry about. Just go
back to sleep."
He lowers himself back into the truckle bed, but it's a long time before his breathing evens out
again. I wonder if I shouldn't go find Mama in the morning, warn her to stay clear of the cabin
until Miller's gone. But who knows if she'd listen?
In the morning I wake to the muffled hush that means snow has fallen in the night. It's still
falling, in fact, thick and soft and silent, and there's no way Miller can leave yet. "You'd get lost
in a minute, once you get off the trails nearest the house," I say when he makes to gather his
things and go. "Your wife still has, what, two months? You can wait two days."
It snows all day, and wind picks up too, whipping the snow into drifts along one side of the
cabin. Miller and I go out with shovels a few times to keep the path to the chicken coop clear.
J.R. busies herself around the cabin, cooking and knitting and working on her sampler. I let her
mix the powders for a tisane for Miller's wife, and she smiles up at me, pleased to be treated like
Around about noon Miller and I go out again to clear the paths, and when I open the door there's
a brace of rabbits, another gift from Mama.
"The hell'd those come from?" Miller demands when he sees them. "You said there was no one
else out here."
"I did," I say, "and there's not. There's not a living soul for miles except J.R. and me. So mind
There's a reason Mama brought us out here, to the deep woods, back when we were small. She
told me once that people don't like having a witch-woman around, that she makes ordinary folk
nervous. "They like us well enough when their babies don't die of illness and their cows start
giving milk again," she'd said as she brushed my hair, the two of us sitting curled around each
other in her chair by the fire. "But the first time they see something they can't explain - the first
sign of any real power - well, they get uneasy. They like a witch-woman best when she's a long
way off, and they can come get what they need and not see her between times."
I see it now in Miller, the uneasiness. He doesn't like not knowing.
He's going to have to get used to disappointment.
The rest of the day is not half so nice as the one previous, with Miller's edginess lending the air
an unpleasant charge. But snowed-in days mean one thing to me and I'm not about to let him
deter me. Once we've done the chores that can be done, there's always a lot of time to spare on
snowed-in days, so as soon as I decently can, I get a book from Mama's shelf and sit down in her
chair by the fire to read. J.R.'s sitting at the foot of the chair as soon as she sees me go to the
shelf, her face upturned, expectant.
Miller scowls at us, confused, but I ignore him as I turn the pages to find the right one.
I start to read.
J.R. and I know all Mama's books by heart, but that's all right. This is an old ritual, one that
started with Mama and passed on to me as soon as I knew my letters well enough, and its
familiarity is soothing. Once Miller understands what we're doing, he takes a half-made wooden
toy out of his pocket, and sits and whittles at the table, and the tension in the air slowly
Mama knocks at the door again late that night, as we're drifting off to sleep. Miller stirs this
time, but he doesn't sit up.
In the morning, the snow has stopped. There's a stack of chopped firewood by the door, and a
line of footprints leading off into the woods. Miller eyes the firewood and the tracks, but says
nothing, just gathers his things and makes ready to leave. He pays me for the curse net and the
herbs, and straps on his snowshoes. I pack him up food for the journey home, and he lets himself
out the front door. We don't watch him go.
Later, though, I wish we had. When I go to the door to sweep out the day's accumulated dust, I
see that Miller's tracks follow Mama's into the woods. I swear under my breath, and turn back
into the house for my warmest things, my boots and fur hat and the snowshoes I rarely use.
"Stay here," I tell J.R., and she looks first at me wide-eyed, then looks out the window at the
tracks. She sets her jaw at me, mulishly, but she doesn't argue.
The tracks, both sets, lead to the lake. Of course. I don't know what it is that draws Mama back
there, but something does, time and again. When I catch up to Miller, he's halfway out across the
frozen water, following the tracks that cross the lake. I can see Mama's dark shape on the far
side, making her shuffling way through the snow.
"Don't follow her," I warn him. "She can cross the ice safe, but that don't mean you can."
He whirls on the spot to look at me, his eyes a little wild. "You knew," he accuses. "You knew
about that thing, and you never said -"
"I did say," I reply evenly. "I said it was witch business, and I didn't lie. Best keep out of it, Mr.
Over his shoulder, I can see Mama coming back across the lake towards us, which is the last
thing I want. I shift my feet a little, trying to get myself between Mama and Miller, trying to get
him away from the ice. I push at him with all the power Mama ever taught me, trying to creep
into his thoughts enough to move him, using body language and tone of voice and magic and all
the tricks a witch possesses. It's not something I've had much call for in my short career, and it's
harder than I'd hoped it would be. But I keep talking, keep my voice level and keep my feet
moving, and slowly Miller and I describe a circle around each other. It means I step further onto
the ice as he steps closer to the banks, but I'm lighter than him, and I know the country better.
I'll be all right.
"What did you expect when you came here?" I ask him, keeping his eyes locked with mine. "Did
you think what we do is all teas and blessings? There's a reason we live out here, away from
everyone. Sometimes the things a witch has to do aren't nice, and they aren't easy, and the good
folks in their villages don't much like having us within shouting distance."
The ice creaks behind me and I blink. Miller's eyes snap free of mine and his whole body gives a
jerk. I can feel Mama's presence in back of me, steady and solid and cold. Miller's breath comes
faster, clouding up the air, and he asks me, "What did you do?"
I don't owe him an explanation; I don't owe him anything. But I tell him anyway, even though it
hurts a little to say it out loud.
"It wasn't me," I say. "Mama went through the ice, three winters past." Tears prickle at my eyes,
cold as snowflakes. "She drowned. But she didn't leave us, because she promised us she never
"It ain't right," Miller says, his eyes still wide enough to show the whites. I look over my
shoulder. Mama shifts her weight, watching him through the tangle of her hair. Her expression
doesn't change, but then, it never does. She's still wearing the clothes she drowned in, worn to
rags, and her skin shows blue-gray through the tatters. She doesn't speak - but then, she never
"It is what it is," I say. Because what business of his is it? "She promised not to leave us, and she
hasn't. So you go on back to your wife and take your herbs and charms, and you leave our family
He backs away, back towards the banks of the lake, and I put my arm out to stop Mama from
He only takes a few steps across the ice before I hear the tell-tale, ominous creak. The lake ice
only ever looks thick.
That's when J.R. emerges from the woods. "Mama!" she cries, and she calls my name as well.
She runs through the snow towards us.
"Keep back!" I holler at her, and I take a careful, sidling step towards Miller, avoiding the cracks
that have already formed in the surface of the ice. He's standing frozen, arms out, trying not to
make the ice break any more than it has. But it's no good: the ice gives way and he plunges into
the cold water.
I only just avoid going in after him, skittering back to where the ice is more solid. J.R. stands at
the bank, mittened hands at her mouth, her eyes huge. Miller flails in the icy water, scrabbles at
the broken edges of the hole he's punched in the lake, but they only crumble further in his hands.
He goes under once, twice, a third time, and then Mama is pushing past me and stepping into the
She sinks like a stone.
Miller surfaces again, and stays up. Something under the water is holding him up to the air,
pulling him to where the ice is thick enough that I can clasp hands with him, that J.R. can yank at
the back of his coat. Together, we heave him free of the water. As soon as he's collapsed onto
the ice, I lean out over the water again, reaching for Mama. But she's not there. The water roils
for a moment, something moving beneath it. But there are no bubbles, and slowly, eventually,
even the ripples fade to nothing.
Miller groans and shivers beside me. J.R. pushes herself up into a sitting position and the two of
us watch the water until I break the silence. "We'd better get him back to the house."
"But Mama -" J.R. begins, and I cut her off.
"Mama saved him, didn't she? Best not waste her work by letting him die of cold." Together, we
haul Miller to his feet, and begin the slow, unsteady walk back to the house. He's near frozen by
the time we get him there, but he'll live.
It's morning before he's stopped shivering too hard to speak, a fact for which I'm a little
grateful. When he finally emerges from his nest of blankets by the fire, he only says "I'm sorry."
I look down at my book, tracing the letters of the notes Mama scribbled in the margins. Her
touch is everywhere in this house, even now, on the books and the quilts and the furniture, on me
and on J.R., too. I miss her more than I can say, and I've been missing her for three years. It
doesn't ache more now than it did, not really. "It's not your fault," I say. "She made her
"Still," Miller says.
When he leaves, the next day, it's with a promise.
I don't expect him to keep it, not really, but when spring comes he returns with a handful of folks
from town. They say they're here because they need spells and cantrips, curse nets and tisanes,
but they bring more in trade than those things are worth, and they do more work around the
house than they need to while they're waiting. Miller shows us a tintype of his wife with the new
baby, who is strong and healthy. It was an easy birth.
"You could move back to town, you know," he offers, before he leaves again. "I don't like
leaving you two alone out here."
"We're not alone," J.R. tells him, threading her arm through mine. "We've got each other."
When Miller and his friends leave, the house seems quieter than it ought to be.
"There's still chores to do," I tell J.R., who seems inclined to sit at the window until they're well
out of sight.
"They can keep, can't they?" J.R. asks, her voice a little pleading. "I'd rather read with you."
"All right," I relent, and take a book down from the shelf. It falls open to the same page it always
does. "Just for a little while."