HOUSE, ORCHARD, WELL
Behind the witch's house, there is an orchard. Under the orchard are the witch's dead. Between each set of stiffening jaws, she once laid a fruit, and every skull was shattered in slow motion by young, implacable roots.
In the attic, Ugly Tess is cawing. The witch put her voice into a crow, because she said in a fit of pique, that the bird was smarter than the girl. Ugly Tess hopes that, when the witch tires of the crow, she remembers to put her voice back. In the meantime, she calls to the crow's siblings, who roost in the orchard: Help me! I am not your brother; the witch has stolen my voice and put it into someone else! They laugh amongst themselves and do not come, mocking their youngest brother and his cheap tricks.
At the vanity in their bedroom, the triplets comb their hair. Three men in pinstriped vests, their identical faces each as pale as a barn owl's, they do not preen in unison. Istvan parts his hair on the side; Igor splits his down the center; Ignatius combs his straight back. They have always lived here, since they burst their birth mother like an overripe squash, and their father brought them, wet and squirming, to the witch. She finished growing them in the pot she used on Sundays for soup-stock, and after they were birthed a second time she let them nurse on a series of harried cats.
The greenhouse is locked, but when Istvan goes to the bedroom window he can make out the beating of innumerable wings behind the glass. When Owen, the alchemist, returned a month ago from his last buying trip, seeds and bottled grains of metal were not all he brought. (He had been there longer than Ugly Tess but not so long as the triplets, and sometimes dared ill-advised projects. The witch did not object, usually; to her mind, Owen was a guest, and not a rival.) In an iron box that he rattled but still gripped tightly, were seven chrysalises the color of exposed muscle.
"I don't know if they're still alive," he told the witch, lying through his teeth. "They're dormant. The man who sold them to me said they're carnivorous."
The witch considered. A miniature, translucent lizard emerged from the snarl of hair at her left temple, and she crushed it absent-mindedly between her thumb and forefinger. "All right," she replied.
That first generation of butterflies is dead (as is the second, which consumed the last of the carcass laid out for them), and their descendants now threaten through sheer volume to crack the greenhouse open like a ribcage. The witch is determined to wait them out, though she looks at the door uneasily when she passes by.
Istvan turns from the window, trying to shake off the image of a stone flying from his own hand to smash one of those rectangular panes. Behind him, the thousand thousand wings boil in their confinement. "It's time," he says to his brothers.
It is not quite correct to say that the witch's house is ‘in the forest.' It would be closer to, though still not exactly, the truth to say that her house is ‘on top of,' or ‘halfway in,' or ‘slantwise to' it. Like most places that are very old, the forest is really several places at once; the witch, not finding any of them precisely to her liking, built her house in between her two favorites. And so it happened that there were many byways and back-doors into the witch's property, and that things often found their way in by mistake.
That was how the lizards who infested the house and orchard had gotten in. The tethers that kept the witch's property anchored to both of the neighboring forests were intensely attractive to them, but they proved more of a nuisance than a genuine threat; they behaved like people would who subsisted entirely on wine and cake.
This was also what had happened to Ugly Tess.
People who are as unsightly as Ugly Tess (though without any features of the altborn), who are not often addressed in company, grow accustomed to watching and listening. Ugly Tess, lost in the forest, felt a prickling on her skin as she approached a patch of light between two boulders. Being the sort of child that grown-ups did not think to protect from things, Ugly Tess was not afraid of much. And so instead of running away, she went right up to the boulders and laid a hand on each mossy side.
A sudden warmth slid over her, and for a moment, Ugly Tess thought she might vomit. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she found that she was looking, not at the spindly oak that she had seen on the other side of the rocks an instant before, but at a neat row of apple trees.
She was still standing there, blinking in astonishment and trying to decide if she should turn around or walk forward, when Ignatius, pruning shears in hand, appeared at the end of the row. (Of course, he wasn't Ignatius to her yet, only a very tall and very skinny man with a feline walk and untidy dark hair.)
"Come in, come in!" he shouted, waving the shears above his head. "You'll catch your death, standing in the door!"
Ugly Tess took a step forward, into this improbable orchard, and felt the world settle into place around her. She had caught something, all right, but it wasn't her death. It was the thrill of being seen by someone who does not then look away. That feeling, not just of being acknowledged as human, but of being welcomed. It is not love, though it can feel very like it; all Ugly Tess knew was that something important beyond her power to comprehend why had just happened. And that, for this reason, the orchard was a better place to be than all the others that had preceded it.
It transpired, later, that Ignatius had called out to Ugly Tess because he thought she was a girl from two villages away, who was overdue with a delivery of wax. (The witch had not yet started to keep bees.) By the time he realized his mistake, Ugly Tess was sitting wide-eyed in the kitchen, watching a pair of lizards gnaw at a baseboard.
Ignatius knew, from the rips and patches in Ugly Tess's dress, the clumsy stitching which the girl had clearly done herself, that if he put her back through the door he would be returning her to a life of neglect, of living on the margin of a margin. For it was equally clear that Ugly Tess was not actually deformed, and thus not entitled to the protection and care allotted to the altborn. Not for her, the life of the pet monster huddled by the fire.
Still, Ignatius hesitated. He had thought nothing about their arrangement remotely odd until he and his brothers were old enough to run errands in separate towns; after that, he understood why most people came to the witch's house in fear, or not at all. However ignored and neglected this girl was at home, he thought, she was still only a child of eleven or twelve and should not be expected to reckon with the orchard, or Owen (who, at that time, was still living in the cellar), or the witch herself.
But ethical decisions made Ignatius anxious and a little sleepy, and as he was putting off making this one by getting Ugly Tess a mug of goat's milk, the witch returned home early and took the choice away from him.
There is one dead creature on the witch's property who is not interred beneath the orchard, and that is Owen. He lies curled at the bottom of what used to be the only well, kept from floating to the surface by the thick iron chain that links his wrists and ankles and holds his body fetal. His head is perpetually flung back, his loosened jaw dangling open. Owen's bones had been soft to begin with, and his work made them softer, so it is not rot that causes his face to sag out of shape and his limbs to bow and ripple like soaked banners. "Glow" is not the right word for the aura spreading around his body; if you stand at the edge of the well and look down, then turn away, there will be a brief pulse of nothingness in your vision, a splotch of blindness shaped like Owen. It is like the visual aftermath of looking at the sun.
Igor does this often, sitting on the rim of the well and looking in, then gazing elsewhere to watch the imprint of Owen fade from sight. Sometimes he hovers one palm just over the water's surface. Always his brothers come to call him back, softly so as not to startle him over the edge, but firmly, their arms clasped around his ribcage, their three hearts trapped winged creatures struggling in unison as they lead him back to the house.
In her attic, Ugly Tess rests from cawing. She can hear the witch downstairs, speaking softly to the crow.
"Impudence!" the crow shrieks. Ugly Tess winces and rubs her throat, wondering if she will have much of a voice left by the time the witch gives it back.
A knock on the attic door startles a small avian croak out of her, but it is only the triplets, Ignatius in front, beckoning her down the narrow staircase.
"Don't you look forlorn," he says, forcing a smile. Ugly Tess, forgetting momentarily that her answer will emerge in crow, attempts to snap back, "I'd like to see you try this," but her words sound like someone trying to saw through slates with a dull knife.
The triplets laugh quietly. (Even Igor.) "No time to waste," they say, talking all three at once as they sometimes do. "No time to waste."
So Ugly Tess creeps down the attic stairs after them, as the light pouring in through the tall window begins to die away. Down to the first landing, where the door to Tess's old room stands ajar and the flicker of a golden-irised eye peeps out. Down the next set of stairs, which slant past the triplets' room and into the hearthroom at the front of the house. The hearthroom's dimensions are tricky, and each of them focuses intently on the number of flagstones between their feet and the door. Eventually, they all get there, and Istvan turns the handle slowly, slowly, and then they are outside.
As they pass the greenhouse, Ugly Tess hears the rustle and scrape of those uncountable, predatory wings. They are close enough that she can stretch her right arm to the limit of its span, and run a finger along one of the rectangles of glass.
Instantly, the noise from inside changes, as the butterflies closest to her hurl their tiny bodies against the wall. Ugly Tess whips her hand back as though she'd dipped it into boiling water, but she's not fast enough. The greenhouse begins to shiver under the assault, and the distant voices from the house stop abruptly. Without speaking, or making any sign at all to one another, the triplets and Ugly Tess begin to run.
Being grown men, and long-legged with it, they quickly outstrip her, gaining the cover of the orchard long before she can hope to. Hearing the witch descend the porch steps, Ugly Tess abandons the idea of reaching the orchard in time and instead flattens herself to the ground behind the heavy bole of a yew tree that the witch planted when she built the house. Its roots serve as one of the anchor points that attach the house and grounds to a neighboring forest, and as such, it is infested with the tiny, voracious lizards. Several of them crawl companionably up Ugly Tess's shirt as she lies there.
The butterflies' frenzy quiets as the witch comes around the corner of the greenhouse. It's fully dark now (night falls here with a suddenness Ugly Tess has known nowhere else), and when she peeps around the trunk she sees the witch as only a more solid darkness, faintly picked out by the light spilling from the kitchen window. The crow is perched on her shoulder. Ugly Tess is relieved to see that they're both gazing in the wrong direction, towards the silent boxy hulks of the beehives.
"Tess," the witch calls again, "is that you?"
Ugly Tess does not move. Part of her would like nothing more than to go back into the bright kitchen with the witch and the crow, even if it means a night spent listening to the bird abuse her voice. Certainly she knows, and craves, the sense of absolute peace and security that comes over the witch's kitchen on some nights in the spring, when all the windows are flung open and strange insects crawl the perimeter of the ceiling. On such nights, the witch seems less like herself than like a mother, and Ugly Tess feels safe with her, rather than only loved. (These are not the same feeling, though, again, one can seem dangerously like the other.) She can taste in the sweet air that this would be one of those rare, precious nights, and she almost rolls out from behind the tree and forsakes the triplets for it.
The witch passes a hand across her face, and turns back to the house. Ugly Tess does not move, or even exhale, though she feels immediately bereft. The witch looks smaller somehow, less substantial, diminished by having called out and gone unacknowledged. Again, Ugly Tess's guilt nearly prompts her to reply, but she thinks of Owen folded up at the bottom of his well, Igor trying to cry quietly enough at night that no one can hear him, Ignatius's face (well, really every triplet's shared face) a mask of serious pleading with her, and remains silent. As if he'd heard her wished-for call, the crow twists in her direction for a second, head cocked. But even the crows that roost in the witch's orchard do not have night eyes, and he turns away unsatisfied.
Overhead, boughs shift and murmur. Ugly Tess cannot escape the mental image of the triplets creeping beneath flower-laden branches, each bloom a mouth closed against the night. Boughs like the ever-open jaws beneath them, fluted petals recalling the scalloped, lopsided teeth that will not again gleam under sun or moonlight, hidden as they are in the black earth. In her mind and in the real orchard, the triplets continue on their way, stealing backwards glances between the tree trunks.
They will wait a moment longer. Ugly Tess presses her face to the ground between two of the yew's knobbed, exposed roots and shrieks without a sound.
Sometimes, Owen stops being dead for a little while. He never opens his eyes when this happens, because he isn't sure he'll be able to close them again if he does. And he already knows what he would see—the bare walls of the well-shaft stretching up and up, a wavering circle of light at the well's mouth if it's daytime and an uneasy directionlessness if it's night, and in any illumination at all the dim spectacle of his fettered, wavering limbs. He has seen these things many times in his mind, and has no desire to confirm them with his eyes.
Desire is not a thing Owen has much of, even in the brief periods in which he stops being dead.
Being not-dead is not the same thing as being alive. On the whole, Owen prefers it to the existence he had before he died; now, he has no need to breathe, and his warped-candlewax body does not give him pain. It is, in fact, a state defined primarily by negation; he is not-dead, not-hurting, not-thinking of Igor's fleeting smile or the fumes that once drifted in a blue-grey shimmer from the mouth of his alembic or the frightened gaze of the girl Tess as she poked her head in at the cellar door. Not-dead Owen knows that he has made many mistakes, of varying degrees of severity, and regards them with a detachment that he never achieved in life. There is no guilt, no shame, in his netherworld.
Owen would have liked to be buried in the orchard alongside everyone else, but he knows, when he is in any condition to know things, why it was impossible. The matter of him was too unstable, prone to tainting his surroundings. (Is the cellar not still closed off from entry by any but the witch, the stones of its floor turning runny and dribbling down into the foundations of the house? Are his tools not at the bottom of the well, too, sealed in an iron box that once held seven chrysalises, the lock now melted shut?) Any seed planted in his skull would, if it thrived, have borne perilous fruit.
Owen was still alive when the witch lowered him into the well, and he had had no wish to see his body engender further monsters. He thinks his last words were an apology to her; the last thing he saw with his eyes was her face growing indistinct through a thickening layer of water as he dropped down, down. The well had been his idea, the water a seal to keep whatever warping forces bled off his limp frame contained. The witch was the only one permitted in his presence in those last days, and when the time came he had raised what was left of his wrists and ankles for the manacles, and did not even murmur at the pain when she lifted his chained body off his bed and carried him from the house.
Now, he fluctuates in peace, unconcerned that he, like the witch's house and orchard, is no longer tied to one forest, one place, one plane. This state is what permits him, sometimes, to stop being dead for a little while; it is also what fuels the ruin of his corrupted body. Owen is beyond repair, but he does not mind. It does not occur to him that seals can fail, that locks can shatter, that the work he began in the witch's cellar has not halted.
When Ugly Tess reaches the orchard, the triplets are nowhere to be seen. But a few minutes of searching reveals them huddled behind the thornbushes at the orchard's outskirts.
"We tried to go in," Ignatius whispers in her ear, "but the crows were starting to make noise."
A smile grows on Ugly Tess's face when she hears this. (It does not, by any means, make her beautiful.) She holds up a hand, motioning Ignatius to silence, and goes alone to the nearest tree.
Hello, she says softly. There is a rustling of branches, and three crows flutter sleepily to perch on a low bough. Still, she has to tilt her head back to see them.
You are not our brother, the first one snaps. What have you done with him?
I tried to tell you before. The witch changed my voice for his. He is with her in the house. He will not come to harm.
Harm? The second crow cocks its head, regarding Ugly Tess as if she were a peculiar variety of beetle. We are not concerned with harm.
The volume of the crow's voice has risen almost to an ordinary level, and at an impatient glare from Istvan, Ugly Tess whispers, Please, can't you speak more quietly?
At this, the second crow breaks into raucous laughter, and even the first titters. The third crow, who has not yet spoken, pecks at the second and rustles a wing in the direction of the first. When they quiet, it turns its attention to Ugly Tess.
Small human, it says, mirror-bright eyes sizing her up, what do you want?
Quiet passage through the orchard. That you will swear not to tell her which way we went.
Assured young one. Did being ugly make you smarter?
Ugly Tess glares at the third crow. The third crow glares back. Finally, she says, We'll trade. What will you accept from me, in exchange for your silence?
The third crow opens its beak slightly, in what Ugly Tess takes for a smile. Wear our brother's voice for a year and a day. It will be amusing to see him mute among our flock, for once.
Ugly Tess considers. She does not like it, but she can feel the triplets breathing at her back and realizes for the first time that she may not have a choice. The three men have not ever in their lives together seemed menacing before; but now Igor vibrates with uneasy excitement, and Istvan stares into the distant shadows of the orchard, and Ignatius, who has never been anything but gentle to her, is tapping his fingers on the ground in an impatient rhythm that makes Ugly Tess wonder what those same fingers would feel like wrapped around her throat. Though she does not turn around, she imagines that the triplets are baring their teeth at her, are slavering in the thick night that the new moon occasions, have only brought her this far to use in trade with the crows of the orchard.
It is not in love, but in the depths of a betrayal that has not yet happened, that Ugly Tess says, I accept.
The crow nods and flaps away into a persimmon tree, as does one of its fellows. The sole remaining bird looks Ugly Tess up and down, then makes that same open-beaked gesture like a smile.
You give up too easily, it says. What are you doing, that's worth a year of silence?
Ugly Tess gazes at the crow steadily. Then, using the voice that will be hers for a long, long time to come, she replies: Planting a tree.
Here are some of the things the witch did, when she was making ready to live in her house:
She dug a well, one so deep that it tunneled down into the very bottom of the crack between the two forests, the crack in which she was building her home. Into this dry shaft she let down a drop of icy water, which she had taken from the base of a glacier in the utmost north of the world. And the nothing at the furthest reaches of the well produced more water like it.
She walked every inch of the land that she wanted, pushing aside the two adjacent forests as she went but never letting go of them altogether. When that was done, she called her own crows, and instructed them to raise the sky for her. They agreed, although there was a price. (There is always a price.)
She planted the yew tree that Ugly Tess would hide behind, so many years later. She planted her house, which grew like the well from a vacancy, this time with a pebble dropped into its depths, and her coaxing it as if fitting a vine to a trellis. She killed the first thing that strayed onto her land—she was a fierce witch then, with little regard for accidents or excuses—and buried the body, with its spreading antlers, lean torso, and childlike clutching hands, with a plum between its teeth.
If the witch seems a little unfixed, scattered even, to those who share her house now, it should not come as a surprise.
Here are some more of the things that Owen does not remember, as he lies at the bottom of the well, being not-dead:
The weight of the doe-carcass against his back as he helped to drag it into the greenhouse, where the seven chrysalises bulged on a ceramic tray. The witch, panting over the stiff, blood-matted shoulder beside him. Standing the next day with his nose pressed to the greenhouse wall, watching as the new butterflies perched on the doe's coarse hide. (He wouldn't live to see the next, more populous generation, or the third, which stripped the deer down to her bones and was eventually reduced to feeding on the bodies of its predecessors.)
The day that he and Igor slipped away on separate pretexts, meeting in one of the forests that overlapped the witch's house. His own irrational worry that Igor would turn out not to be Igor, but Istvan or Ignatius instead, which did not vanish until the moment Igor pulled a pair of bottles from his satchel. "For your experiments," he explained, grinning. Igor started to say something else, something that Owen would later wish he had attended to, but he was impatient and pressed his mouth to Igor's, cutting off his speech.
The days after he thought he had made his great breakthrough, during which time he did not leave the cellar. The way he slept one night there, dreamlessly, stretched out on his back in the same posture he'd always imagined he would assume in the orchard one day. How, when he awoke and saw smoke curling upwards from his mouth and nose, his first thought was of how much it resembled a trunk and branches. How beautiful that was, in the moment in which he lay there watching it, before he tried to move and understood immediately that something was very wrong. Igor's bottles at the edge of his vision, empty on the shelf where he had set them after pouring their glistering fluid contents into the apparatus whose soot-coated belly nudged against a low fire.
The way that he could stand—when eventually he dragged his protesting body upright—with his left foot in one forest, and his right in another. Then the exultation, and the terror that followed closely on its heels, when his legs crumpled without warning and he understood that starting to warp forests together was an entirely different matter than stopping. Igor calling to him from the top of the stairs; his own voice, hastily stifled at the thought of Igor melting away, separated irrevocably from his brothers. The shame and relief that rushed over him when, instead of shouting back any of the things he wanted to tell Igor, he said, "Don't come down here. Get the witch."
They have reached the outer edges of the orchard now, near the end of a great, open aisle of trees whose leaves shiver, whose blossoms gleam faintly. Ugly Tess, having nothing to write with, cannot explain the bargain she has made with the crows. The triplets press on ahead of her, their backs rising and falling in a furtive, animal gait. She thinks resentful thoughts about them, as they do not even now look back to make certain that she is following.
At last, the triplets stop, and Ugly Tess catches up to them. Ignatius turns, bending down to speak in her ear.
"Sorry," he says. "I'm sorry. We couldn't stop." He nods in Igor's direction. Even in the dark, Ugly Tess can see that he's trembling from head to foot. He is clutching something small and round in one hand, and neither of his brothers seems to want to touch him. They stand a little apart, Ignatius by Ugly Tess and Istvan leaning on a shovel he must have secreted behind the pomegranate tree to their left.
Whatever sense Ugly Tess had felt, in the attic, of even a forced good-humor among the triplets has utterly vanished. She feels herself what she is: not a co-conspirator or an equal, but an outsider who has lived with the witch only a year, at thirteen, barely more than a child. These men have used her, even though they are beyond her, and she regards them now with mournful eyes. She had not known Owen well—had, in fact, been afraid of him, with his complexion that was alternately flushed and ashen, and the stink of hot metal that seemed to emanate from his very skin. She was not like Igor, who had tried to see his beloved at the last and found his way blocked by the witch; instead, she remembers the witch returning from the well at a hobble, looking very old, her arms still wet to the elbows. The way she wailed, "Don't touch me!" when Ugly Tess made as if to set a palm on her shoulder, in such a terrible voice that she had halted cold.
But it is too late; Ugly Tess has made her choice. So she watches, determined not to miss a second of her own self-betrayal, as Istvan digs the little pit. As Igor, his face unreadable, sets the round thing he's been clutching—an apple, Ugly Tess guesses—at the bottom, then takes the shovel from his brother and mounds the displaced earth back over the top. Ignatius is the last to step forward, taking a tiny stoppered bottle from his vest pocket. He uncorks it carefully, then pours its contents on the dirt.
"Owen," the three of them murmur in unison, heads bowed in the direction of the bare patch of ground.
Just as they finish speaking, there comes a great flash from the far-off house, a thing like the afterimage of Owen's body that blots out everyone's vision for a moment. There is no sound with it, but as Ugly Tess's sight returns, she becomes aware of a deafening chorus all around her, as every crow in the orchard caws triumphantly and lifts from the trees into a single tumultuous mass, the darkness apparently no impediment now, to spiral higher and higher as in celebration of a bargain fulfilled.
The hinges and lock of the greenhouse door have rusted considerably since the morning they were closed against the mass of butterflies, but after some labor with an oiled rag, Ugly Tess manages to drag it open. A rustling drift slides out around her feet, followed by a draft of stale air laden with the wet reek of decay. Two weeks, she thinks, was too long to wait for this, too long for the heat and water to have the greenhouse in their sole grasp. There had been no sound from within it since that night in the orchard, but the escape of even a single surviving butterfly would have been a disaster beyond the abilities of any of the house's remaining inhabitants to repair, and so she had waited. Ugly Tess ties a square of muslin over her nose and mouth, nodding to the single crow that has been watching from the peak of the greenhouse as she does.
The crow turns its head to the looming house and, in what used to be Ugly Tess's voice, calls, "Everything is ready!"
From around the side of the house, the triplets appear. They are masked like Ugly Tess; in gloved hands, they carry shovels. Istvan holds an enormous, empty sack under one arm. When they reach the greenhouse, Igor hands her an extra pair of gloves and a shovel. She nods in thanks, and then leads the small procession inside, wading into a layer of insectile husks up to her thighs.
At first, Istvan has to hold the mouth of the sack open, and the rest of them shovel dead butterflies. The top layer is dry enough, but as they work down they come to a damper stratum, where the creatures are welded together in clots by a slimy, pale fungus. At the very bottom, there is nothing for it but to scrape their shovels across the tile floor, bringing up thin sheets of indeterminate dark matter which they wipe onto the inner lip of the sack. It is vile work, but Ugly Tess insisted—through the crow, who now accompanies her nearly everywhere—that it be done.
As they shovel, gagging behind their filmy breath-masks, no one speaks. Istvan looks up occasionally, unable to keep himself from checking for damaged roof-panes. Once the sack is full enough to stand open on its own, he digs alongside the others, remembering that the last time he used a shovel was to make a hole in the orchard. Yes, he regrets it; but he has, in some sense, hurled the stone that he imagined grasping on that evening, and since then there has been a calm about him, the peace of someone who no longer has to wonder what the results of a terrible event might be.
Igor works methodically, not flinching at the renewed stench every time he exposes a new patch of mouldering insects to the air. His eyes have a cloudy, mottled look to them, as though they have been imperfectly washed, and he grips the rough handle of his shovel as tightly as he might a single branch that held him suspended over a chasm. He can no longer speak in unison with his brothers; he spends long hours sitting in front of the locked door to the cellar, looking down into the well, or wandering the orchard, always ending at the same bare patch of ground. At night, Istvan and Ignatius abandon their own beds for his, curling around him as they did when they were children, trying to hold him in place with a snare of arms and legs and breath. Even so, when they lace their hands across his chest and feel his heart beating out of time with theirs, they know that he is going somewhere they cannot follow.
The shovels rise and fall. Slowly, the four diggers carve out space. The sack never quite fills. It was made by the witch many years ago, and holds more than its external dimensions suggest. Ignatius, working beside Ugly Tess, notices a pair of shriveled wings caught in her hair but does not pull them loose. He is muffled in exhaustion; every morning since that night in the orchard—since the disappearance of the witch—he has crept from bed while it is still dark, and ranged into both of the forests that overlap their home, looking for her. Once, he found a ruined well with an apple tree rooted amongst its stones, but there has been no sign of either the witch or her companion flock. If Ugly Tess's crow knows what happened, he refuses to say anything about the matter.
Ignatius remembers bursting into the kitchen after racing out of the orchard to find the witch gone, and that single crow perched on the back of one of the cane-seated chairs. Ignatius had expected disarray, a charred ruin, furniture overturned. This orderliness, this terrible quiet, was somehow worse than all the varieties of destruction he had envisioned as he panted and stumbled between the fruit trees. Later, as he sweated in the close air of the greenhouse, Ignatius would wonder if things might have been different, had he asked a better question at the start. Instead, he could only think to ask, stupidly, "Why aren't you with the others?"
The crow made a shrugging motion with its wings. "It'll be more interesting around here," he replied, and Ignatius shivered to hear Tess's voice emerging from that throat.
He opened his mouth to try another question, but just then the door behind him slammed open, and he was nearly trampled by his brothers. The crow went quiet and huffy then, and refused to speak to or even look at anyone until Ugly Tess arrived, at which point it abandoned the chair-back for her shoulder, looking for all the world as though it had always ridden there.
Now, in the greenhouse, Ugly Tess pauses to wipe sweat from her forehead with the back of her wrist. Istvan looks at her, as if to suggest that she take a rest, but she shakes her head at him and resumes work. She has a slate and a finger-length of chalk in her dress pocket, but dislikes using them. It is easier to ask the crow to translate for her, or to remain silent. She has discovered that this second option is not much different from the way she lived before; now that the initial panic of being without something she'd considered intrinsically hers has passed, Ugly Tess finds her crow-voice almost comforting. The need she has for the crow, and its mirroring need for her, their mutual dependence, is satisfying in a way that the triplets do not understand. Ugly Tess feels more complete without her own voice.
And what would she say to the three of them, if she could speak as freely as she used to? That she sees their eyes searching for exits, sees them each planning what they will do if the witch does not come back, plans that do not include her? That she has been to the well, and that because the light was at just the right angle she could see Owen's ruined face tilted up at her, and that it seemed that he was smiling? That she knows as well as they do the abandoned feeling the whole place has taken on, the decay and hollowness that seem ready to collapse it altogether?
No, silence is better. And she will keep them working as long as she can, because it will take more than her small pair of hands to keep away the rot.
As she is thinking this, and resolving again to open the door to her old room and see what has become of the creature with the golden eyes, Ugly Tess's shovel strikes something hard. From the way it doesn't simply halt, but crunches ahead a little before stopping, she guesses that the object is a bone. She kneels, not caring that she's smearing dead things across her shins, and begins clearing away the rotting mass with her gloved hands. The triplets see this and begin to work around her, clearing space until they, too, can kneel.
It is a long time before they can see the discovery clearly. But, when at last the entire skeleton lies exposed on the filthy tile, Ugly Tess is the first to recognize it: something they had all forgotten, the remainder of the doe they left to feed the butterflies, stripped utterly bare by those creatures many times smaller than itself. So small that, if you held one in your hand, you could close your eyes and believe that it weighed nothing at all.
L.M. DAVENPORT is a first-year MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. Her work has previously appeared in Shimmer, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere.