There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods. No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over. The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion. And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool ’s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea. And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.
Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God. Some said a god died there long ago. Some said —in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher —that something yet more ancient than gods had died there. Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits. And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death ’s release. It was what they strived for beneath the preacher ’s watchful eye. It was what they all wanted more than anything.
That was, all except for Tilda.
Tilda was the preacher ’s daughter. She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers. She especially disliked being the preacher ’s daughter. Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows. Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden. Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes. Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin. Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.
She hated Confessions most of all.
Her father ’s sermons were dreary things. For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored. Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such. Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father ’s mouth. She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons —such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith. She liked how her father ’s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed. She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday. Of all the Biblical passages she liked —few though they were —she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.
There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp. No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like. They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk. The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became. After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash. She was now determined to meet the witch. She knew it was her destiny.
And so one night Tilda crept away from her father ’s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky. The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named. Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch. It was common knowledge. Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp. A candle illuminated the hut ’s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch ’s fireplace.
“Come in, my little fawn, ” a voice cackled from within. “I have been expecting you. ”
Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut. It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also. She was an old crone — as witches often were —and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak. Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time ’s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.
“You will make me a witch, ” Tilda said. She did not cower from the witch ’s scowl, but was emboldened by it. “You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps. ”
“Do I know such things? ” the witch pondered dubiously. She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman ’s of the same-seeming age. “I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn. ”
“I am no fawn, ” Tilda said defiantly. “I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such. I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help. ”
The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.
“Dear me, you are a presumptuous one, ” she said. She looked the preacher ’s daughter up and down —from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul. “You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent? ”
Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly. She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.
The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face. “And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn? ”
“By reaching between the fire and the heat, ” Tilda said proudly. “Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides. ”
“You speak rightly enough, ” the witch said. “And you manage a magic…of a crude sort. But what of your soul, my little fawn? What can you manage of it? ”
Tilda scowled. “You are squandering time, beldam. The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night. ”
The witch ’s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself. For a moment — just a moment — the beldame ’s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree. This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.
“Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron, ” she remarked. She stood up from her stool —or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut. Perhaps both. At length, she settled down, or shrank. Her voice was low; calm and quiet.
“Know you lemongrass, my little fawn? ”
Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.
“And what of belladonna? ”
Again Tilda nodded.
“And hemlock? Wolfsbane? Yarrow root? ”
Tilda nodded to all three in succession.
The witch smiled wryly. “Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me. I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand. Baby ’s breath. A good man ’s guilt. A double heart. And so on. Now leave me. ”
Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision. She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch ’s face had unnerved her. A glint in the witch ’s eye sent her to the door and back home. It was such a glint as a cat ’s eye had upon spotting a mouse.
Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise. She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk. Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby ’s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night. Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats. Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.
Tilda ’s father was summoned. He counseled the aggrieved parents. He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way. Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own. When pressed by Tilda ’s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners. Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.
Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods. While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing. The woods were a haunted place, after all. Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming. Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal. Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere. Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger. The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do. They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.
Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required. Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime. Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day. When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged. Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.
“You are playing with devilish mischief! ” he roared, indicating the basket. He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin. “When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”
He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved. Her hands stung and were bruised. She returned to her bedroom. She did not sulk. She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due. She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts. She thought of power. She thought of revenge.
And so, at the darkest hour of night —when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires — Tilda crept out of her father ’s house and went to find her willow basket. It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.
Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket. Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up. A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.
Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch ’s hut. When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before. Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before. The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.
“Hello, my little kitten, ” the witch said as she stirred the cauldron. Her voice was different. It was lower, older. “She said you would bring what was needed. ”
Tilda approached the witch with empty hands. “I had gathered them, ” she said, trying not to cry, “but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and… ”
She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before. She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.
“Those never mattered, my little kitten, ” the different witch said. “What matters is the trouble of gettin ’ them. The willingness. The sacrifice. Especially the punishment for gettin ’ them. ”
The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.
“Come, my kitten. Hold your hands in the steam. It won ’t hurt you a bit. I promise. In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth. ”
Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron. Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid. But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge. The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.
Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot. The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms. The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer ’s day.
“There we have it, my kitten, ” the witch said. She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve. “Now you must drink it. Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek
Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid. She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation. Her repulsion stayed her.
“Do you desire power or not, my kitten?! ” the witch screeched.
The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater. Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared. Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting. The more she drank, the more she craved of it. She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep ’s gut stuffed overfull. Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron ’s yield. Conversely, she grew lighter. So very light. Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions. She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive. Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.
“Now is the time, my little kitten, ” the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit. The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking. “Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten. Do as you will, and do much. ”
As a dream Tilda went wandering. Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast. The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud. Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her. She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch ’s hut on the Borderlands.
Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name. He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling. He was not supposed to defecate in the brook —no one was —but he did so anyway. His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days. He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook. She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled. Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him. Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.
Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on. She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air. He blinked at her in confusion.
“Wallace Eckridge, ” she said. “You will come with me. ”
Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.
Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch ’s hut. She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him. She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure. The creatures in the woods did not bother him. Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased. A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself. Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.
To the hut they came at last. The witch thanked Tilda for the offering. Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared. She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.
“It is true what they say, ” the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls. “True power does not die, nor does it rot away. It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it. ” Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady. “Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass. My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth. They grow stronger. ”
“What are they? ” Tilda asked.
“What is earth? ” the witch countered. “What is the sky? What is hate? What is hunger? What is the meaning of things? So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things. ”
“Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god? ” she asked.
“How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist? ” the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure. “We exist, do we not, little lamb? And that is all that matters. ”
Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home. The power had gone from her at daybreak. She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air. She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world ’s men with a word. She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.
Her father awaited her in her bedroom. But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise — or worse, make Confession of her —he was summoned away. Wallace Eckridge ’s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft. At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace ’s lecherous advances. Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together. They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers. Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.
But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace ’s disappearance. She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic. Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister. This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village. Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart. Much ado was made of it before the day was done.
Before nightfall Tilda ’s father returned. He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter. Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night. Her tears were her sole company as she waited. Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again. She wept as she walked, each step painful. Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.
The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.
“Hello, my little lamb, ” the witch said softly.
Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.
“My little lamb, ” the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind. “My poor, dear little lamb. Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe. Let it console you. Let it invigorate and strengthen you. ”
Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain —for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone —but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again. To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten. Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep. Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut — which was more a house now than before —and went floating through the woods.
Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook. At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott. Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her. Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin ’s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.
“You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott, ” Tilda said, “for you do not believe the innocence of your wife. Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.”
Tilda ’s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him. She led the man out to the witches ’ hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared. Alongside him disappeared Tilda ’s powers once more. Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.
“My dear little pup, ” the witch said, gladdened by Tilda ’s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott ’s sudden evanescence. Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye. “You have done so well. And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup. For you are strong in the ways of us witches. ”
The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.
“What do you do with the men I bring to you? ” she asked.
The witch ’s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile. “My pup, it is but a matter of conference. We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet. In time, they welcome the Silence. ”
This all meant nothing to Tilda. She could not understand the witch ’s real meaning.
“They are dead? ” she ventured.
“No more than the gods, ” the witch said. “My little pup. ”
Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn. Her father was not there. He was busy blessing the water from the brook. He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening. He also used it for Baptisms. He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort. As a man must, he claimed.
“We should aspire to be as this brook, ” he often admonished his flock. “For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction. We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife. ”
Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.
No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott. Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge. Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin. Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.
Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession. A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron. Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.
Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods. The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns. When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically. For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.
“Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge, ” Tilda demanded. “I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest. ”
The woman ’s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods. Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming. They came to the house-sized hut and entered. Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold. The witch —who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil —told her more arcane secrets.
“Primordial gods do not fade. They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself. We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp. All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands. ”
The next day Tilda ’s father was in a foul mood. Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her. Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life. Perhaps even her soul. The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.
“It is God ’s wrath, ” he proclaimed, “and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety. We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith. We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil. We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire. ”
Tilda ’s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night. After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled. The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.
“My dear little fledgling, ” the witch said. “Whatever is the matter with your legs? ”
She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night. Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however. She muttered through her
“I want to complete my transformation, ” she said. “I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call. Not just borrowed powers. I want to be a master adept, like all of you! ”
“Oh, my little fledgling, ” the witch sighed. “That is such a momentous change. Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now? Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people? Surely it is enough, isn ’t it? It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you? ” The witch smiled furtively.
“I am ready, ” Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I wish to be untethered. I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties! ”
“If you wish it, ” the witch said, “then your wish shall be granted. ”
The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house. A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly. But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated. Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge. Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession. The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself. She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches. Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world. They were not debased. They were exultant. They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.
The steam was not hot. It was cool, like mist. It reminded her of a heady miasma. She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup. Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid. It did not burn. It did not scald her. Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.
What did she feel? She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking. Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness. All grew dark and still within the cauldron. Deathly. Soon, however, she felt life stir within her. It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot. The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her. It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what. At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.
With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods. She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook. To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.
She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell. Tilda floated above him for a time. Then she entered him through his empty spaces — as he so often did her while in Confession —and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her. Taking her time, she led him through the woods. The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut. The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered. Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses. Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.
He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.
“I have made abomination with my daughter, ” the preacher said. “I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years. I have sullied her, and made ruin of her. I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt. I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite. I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be. I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence. God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell. ”
“No, ” the witches said as one. “Not Hell. To something…purer. To something Holier. To the Silence. ”
Tilda ’s father vanished into the Silence.
Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp. As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before. The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager. She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.
Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt —she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings —and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless. Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms. And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago. And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures. One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.