When you were a child, white skulls used to follow you through the woods. You tried to catch a glimpse of them, but when you turned your head, their skeleton bodies would disappear, fading into the canopy. Only their bone-voices remained, clacking through the trees, knick knack, knick knack.
And then how you ran! Not because you were scared but because running made it easier to see them. With the trees blurring and the wind in your ears, they were like stars in a velvet-green sky, their empty-eyed faces tilting sideways in comic curiosity. How you used to laugh at their songs and sing along, your child-voice making a sweet harmony with their bone drumming. Then, at night, how they climbed down to the lowest branches and watched you sleep through the window. How they shone like shadows of the moon.
You were always a smart and fierce child, but you were also half here, half there. Their world was never that far from you.
You can’t help but remember as you drive the familiar old path, laughing to yourself in the silent car at your memories. Now the woods are just woods. You’ve put away your castles in the air, your Ferris wheels, puppet strings, and sealing wax. It’s so hard being responsible and knowing when to stand up for yourself or when to let go. But you’re still strong.
Your mother’s house is a bit of a burden now, all rattletraps and dust, tucked between the oaks and Spanish moss. You are tasked with emptying out this old witch’s hut, folding blankets between papers and placing them in trunks, packing spell books in boxes where their charms will lose their enchantment. Words are powerful, but without someone to read them their beauty diminishes. Rolling scrolls with careful fingers, you slip them into tubes to send to local historians. Perhaps you don’t have the heart to throw the scrolls out because they’re written in your mother’s handwriting. You open the aviary to the elements and all the chickadees, sparrows, and cardinals stare at you in wonder. They’ll come back anyway, silly things, for years to come, looking for the old witch who loved to feed them. You shake the herb jars out the window and not a single thing sprouts in the earth where they fall, not a single snake or rosebud-child. They’ve lost their potency, those old gray herbs. You used to wonder over their jeweled delights, the star-stout, fish scales, mushroom ghosts, and river rocks. You’d run your finger over the glass, asking what each one did, begging to be let into the locked cabinet where the skull-and-crossbones jars hid. Now their labels are faded and the jar-tops dusty, the cabinet half-empty.
The furniture’s not worth keeping and there are few things which come to rest in your rental car’s back seat. A little doll, white-faced and round-bellied, made of carved bone. That’s all you take back with you.
It pleases me, this last thing you keep for yourself.
You were supposed to be a witch’s daughter, but I see how wrong it was to want you to take my place.
It’s lonely out here in the woods.
I taught you all the spells but you don’t need them now. You lock the door, placing the key in your purse. The house gets one last long look as you memorize the bell beside the door, the crooked windows, the gingerbread-lattice roof, the silent feeling of the woods.
Do I imagine your eyes flick once more to the treetops? Do I imagine you drive a little faster, take the turns a little harder, so you can catch the spirits on the wind? Do you see us, our white faces a thousand and one?
We watch your car wind its way through the trees down the birch path. Your face is hard and you never look back.
I tilt my head, not confused but pleased. I call out to you in my bone voice.
knick knack, knick knack.
I love you. I love you.
Originally published in Fireside Fiction, February 2018. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2018 Holly Lyn Walrath