Bad Survivalist Short Story: “In the Afterlife Your Landlord Is a Witch” by Maggie Nye

In the Afterlife Your Landlord Is a Witch

She does not wear a pointed hat around the property, except in winter. And the hat is not so dramatically pointed as to be ridiculous. The underside of the brim is lined with white rabbit fur. It looks warm and stylish. Your landwitch also keeps a huge hound-sized rabbit for a pet. There are many rabbits in the Afterlife. They are boiled into vegetable stew, which is the main food your landwitch eats. There is no partitioning word between the living animal and its flesh. A deer becomes venison, a pig becomes pork, but the meat of a rabbit is just rabbit meat. You admire the honesty of anyone who will eat an animal called an animal. You eat beans and cereal and are forbidden from eating vegetables and rabbits.

Your partner’s name is Canteen. You don’t know if this is an Afterlife name or if her parents were just survivalists because you don’t remember if she was your partner in the Beforelife, too, or if you got paired together here. And you think it would be hurtful to ask, regardless of the answer.

In any case, she goes by Cant. You go by Liz with a long i, but you don’t feel attached to the name. Or to Cant. Or to anything, particularly.

In the Afterlife you and Cant share a one-bedroom apartment in the landwitch’s mid-rise complex. In the Beforelife, you were also a renter, but you lived in a two-bedroom apartment, and your landlord was a normal human to whom you deposited half of your paycheck monthly. Of this one thing only, you are certain. It is the only incontrovertible fact of your Beforelife. You remember many other things vaguely: delivery trucks and block parties and strip malls and jogging, but none of them are particular to you. You remember them as you would side plots in a movie.

“Do you remember the Beforelife very well?”

You ask Cant this question as she brushes her teeth one morning. “Was it really so much better?” You are careful not to say, Were we really so much better? because you aren’t sure if there was a we at all.

“Yes, I remember it perfectly, don’t you?”

“Yes,” you agree. “Perfectly.”

It is possible some rift occurred, some wedge drove itself between you in the Beforelife: she cheated on you, belittled you, gambled away your savings.

“What would you say is your clearest memory?”

“I don’t want to talk about before,” she says sharply. “It makes me depressed. Why do you always want to talk about it?”

“Sometimes I talk about work,” you protest.

“Worse,” she says and spits without running the tap. Foam-and-blood streaks candystripe the sink.

It is equally possible that you have never been a good partner, never been comfortable sharing your body and mind.

In the Afterlife, you don’t make money.

You work to earn your food and your right to rent in the landwitch’s complex. You don’t know if landwitches use money. You’ve never seen tender—paper, coin, or plastic—change hands here. Everyone who rents from the landwitch works in the fields of her massive garden, coaxing vegetables into tender, fat fruition. You have never left the landwitch’s property. There is no barbed wire, no stone gate that keeps you trapped inside, but there is also no promise of life beyond the farthest reaches of her land, the end of which cannot be seen without binoculars.

You are a carrot whisperer. You tell the carrots: Be good, grow long and smooth. You praise the arrow straightness of their feathered tops, the equidistance of their spacing in the ground, the identical vividness of their flesh when they begin to peek from the soil in orange halos. When you suspect a carrot of tending toward digonality or excessive bushiness or scraggliness, you tell it what you think it needs to hear. Not coddling, not the ‘You are special and your disuniformity contributes to the charm of this plot’ speech but the ‘You are ruining this for all the others who have worked so hard to dig their roots in good and right’ speech. They are responsive to your methods.

Your apartment is sparse, the objects of entertainment and decoration are few. You don’t know which things belonged to past tenants and which are yours or Cant’s. A relationship self-help book on your shelf called Rekindle recommends a change in perspective. “Being your partner is just one of the many contexts in which your loved one exists.” You try to imagine who else Cant might be, what other contexts she might exist in. The book makes suggestions such as seeing your partner “shoot hoops, play an open mic, bathe your child, reel in a bass, or flombé a baked Alaskan!”

Based on what you’ve seen so far, you can’t help thinking that whatever else Cant might have been in the Beforelife didn’t make it here. But there is one other thing Cant is, something you both are: a worker.

Just once, you snuck over to her plot. On a day when you felt you could whisper your carrots no straighter, you skulked between rows of turnip and collard fields—each tended by a different renter you never saw—to the cauliflower plot on the other side of the property. You hid behind a trellis thick with wax beans and listened to her whisper, her cheek laid flat to the ground:

Remember all the different contexts in which you have existed.

Remember how you burst from the round of your seed pod, how your shoot gasped toward the sun’s warmth.

Remember the pain and the pride of growth, how your wax bloomed protection as your seed leaves fell away.

Remember when and how the sun shone on you and when it left you to shadow.

Remember the others, your siblings, how the tendrils of your roots sought their touch in the blind, warm earth.

Fill your dense hearts with these green thoughts.

The next day she was fired for sleeping on the job.

She tried appealing to your landwitch. She swore she wasn’t sleeping, that actually she was listening. That at the time she was observed the cauliflowers had been daydreaming and she didn’t want to wake them by plucking slugs from their sleeping heads. The cauliflowers had been murmuring in their sleep, and if she laid very still, with her ear to the ground, she could almost make out what they were saying. It sounded important. If anyone had come by and said, ‘Hey you, get up off the ground, and tend these heads,’ she would have done it, but no one had.

The landwitch has no need of a foreman because she has a cauldron dedicated to magical surveillance. It projects images of her tenants at any time of day and is especially good at witnessing aberrant behavior. Cant is frequently projected on the cauldron’s liquid surface.

You considered speaking up on her behalf, but that would mean risking your own job. And how would the two of you survive if you got fired too? Better for you both, you reasoned, if you kept your mouth shut.

“Such beautiful voices,” Cant had mumbled to her feet on the slow march back up the staircase to your sixth-story apartment. “Speaking a language both ancient and cute.”

You have never heard your carrots so much as yawn.

You try to not to be irritated that you have to share a bedroom with an unemployed stranger while you work all day.

You try not to imagine Cant taking mid-day naps, wiping her nose on the arm of your sofa, using up the last of the milk. You try to care for Cant like you would a partner who felt specific to your emotional memory: you slip out of bed without waking her, pour her a cup of coffee, ask if she slept well, what she dreamed about. Neither of you has instigated any kind of intimacy beyond the routine spoonings your sleeping body performs. You have twice now woken up to find her backside nestled into the cradle of your lap. The first time, you quickly put distance between your body and hers. The sudden withdrawal of warmth kept you awake for hours. The second time, you lingered.

Your landwitch praises your work.

“You produce very straight carrots,” she tells you. “Past tenants have whispered carrots that were twisted and gnarled, but yours are like tapers. Slim and excellent.”

You are very proud in this moment. It is your first Afterlife complement.

“And I have never once seen you in my surveillance cauldron. You must be exceptionally rule-abiding. Do you play TAROT?”

You don’t know if you’ve ever played TAROT. You have a vague notion of it from the Beforelife: hanged men and chalices and magical dogs. But you have a good relationship with your landwitch, as far as owners and renters go, and you’re determined to keep it that way, so you tell her yes, you do play TAROT.

She invites you to her Thursday game. Your hard work is paying off. You are being given an opportunity to advance yourself—to what unknown end you do not contemplate.

“Bring that roommate of yours” she says, and the rising delight of your newfound recognition is stoppered. “It’s a partnered game.”

You thank her for the invitation without committing to attend.

Cant won’t go. She hates your landwitch. She thinks you both deserve better than to be penned up, treated like rabbits. Her words. You wouldn’t mind living a rabbit’s life: valued, kept and petted.

The landwitch detests Cant, in kind, thinks she’s a careless worker, disrespectful of property—which is maybe not untrue, but Cant is your partner, your bedmate. Are you the kind of person who would trick your partner into attending a TAROT game with a witch she hates? And if not, are you interested in becoming that kind of person?

You could tell her you’d discovered a choir of beets, or a vegetable Rosetta Stone in the parlor. That would get her to the game. On the other hand, you don’t know how long the Afterlife extends. An eternity, maybe. And after that? No, it would not be wise to try and fool the partner to whom you are bound for an indeterminate amount of time.

But how else to get her there? She has yet to reveal any weakness for your charm, or perhaps you are objectively uncharming. But kindness, gentleness, support: these can be persuasive. And besides, it would be good for you both to be a little gentler with each other, especially in the beginning of this eternity when everything is still so new and disorienting.

How soon the darkness comes on in this place. It seems you’ve hardly dawned your overalls, hardly had time to utter your daily self-motivations—You are an OK person—if not then, well now, at least. You are good at your work. You are doing your best to achieve an objective beyond your understanding—before the sun has set behind the landwitch’s mid-rise.

Yes, you will make a sincere effort to be affectionate and sympathetic. You send Cant to the commissary to fetch a package of beans for dinner. While she is gone, you light candles, put on powdery music. You cultivate atmospheric intimacy.

“Romantic,” she scoffs, returning with a bag of lentils—your least favorite legume. “Expecting someone else?”

 “No,” you say, glad you didn’t have time to scatter the makeshift rose petals. “I just happen to like—” you have no idea whose music is wheezing through the boombox speakers left behind by another renter “—candles.”

“Sure, who doesn’t like candles.” She says and drops the sack of beans. “What’s that awful smell?”

“It might be the candles,” you admit. “I found them in the back of the pantry. I think they’re rabbit scented.” You pick at the knot that holds the bean sack closed.

She makes a disgusted noise in her throat and blows out the one nearest the door. A ribbon of gamey smoke slinks across your patched-up sofa.

“Thanks for the beans.” You crack open the kitchen window to let out the smoke.

“Cant?” you begin, feeling foolish.

She blinks boredly. “Liz?”

“How would you describe me to someone who’d never met me?”

“Is this a trap?” she says.

It seems you’re the kind of person who sets traps for your bedmates.

“Of course not,” you tell her sweetly. “I’m just curious.”

“OK, I’ll bite.” She says, following your lead.

The two of you move around each other, fanning the smoke, opening windows. You are careful to make ample space for her to pass without touching.

“What kind of a person am I describing you to?” she asks. “A child? A friend? A coworker? A first date?”

“Yes! That.” The knot won’t budge. Your fingernails are too short to work it open.

“Well,” says Cant, “I would say to my date: Liz? Oh, she’s the kind of person who would ask you how you described her on your first date.”

“Why are you like this?” You demand to know.

“Like what, Liz?” She beams. “Let’s hear it.”

“Why are you so sarcastic and resentful?”

“When Liz was only trying to be decent!”

“And careless and lazy.”

“She just wanted to have a pleasant evening for once.”

“And sloppy!” You slam the bag of beans down on the kitchen table and it explodes open, raining green lentils down on the linoleum.

Cant is in stitches. She tugs a painful lentil from your hair.

“What on earth did I do to you to make you so—is that a jar of slugs?”

Yeah,” she says. “They’re from the cauliflower heads.”

“You kept them?”

“They know things.”

“And brought them into our apartment? That’s disgusting.”

“They know what the cauliflowers know.”

“They’re going to die in there without food and then we’ll have a jar of dead slugs.”

“They wont,” she says, and taps gently on the side of the jar. “I’m feeding them.”

“You’re what?!”

“Rabbit poop.”

“Are you insane?” You grab the jar and unscrew the ring that holds in place the piece of cheesecloth serving as a lid.

“So they can breathe,” she offers, as if you care.

You take it to the window and flip the jar in one sweep of movement, the mouth open to gravity, but they’re glued to the wall of the jar, which you shake with all the force you can muster without losing control of your grip.

“Mucus” Cant giggles. “It’s very strong.”

You won’t be laughed at by this loafer and keeper of weird pets. This odd little thorn.

“I want you gone,” you mutter to the jar and thrust your hand inside, feeling around for the first squidgy body. Revulsion ripples up your spine like a centipede, and you tear the slug from its slimy roost, dangling it out the window.

“No!” screams Cant, suddenly hot and fearful at your side. “Please please don’t,” she says, one of her hands wraps your wrist: she holds you, you hold a slug. “They’re important.”

“This is what’s important to you?”

“To both of us,” she pleads. “They can help us find answers.”

“Answers to what exactly?”

This,” she says, “all of it.”

You want to tell her there are no answers. No stupid-such-thing as a magic slug burping up an easy fix for your disappointment. No prescient cauliflowers. There’s just doing your job and doing it well and getting on with it and maybe some fucking gratitude for everything you do in spite of all that she undoes. Maybe a little thanks. Her fraying white t-shirt is so thin you can see the outline of her small, soft body. Maybe a little physical thanks. She smells like leftover cereal milk, your Cant. And now you’re confused and angry and sort of turned on, and what you actually say is: Make me a deal.

 “If you go with me to the landwitch’s card game, play with me, as my partner, and try not to mess it up, I’ll put this disgusting bug back in the jar, which you’ll hide somewhere I never have to see it.”

“I hate cards.” She says in a tiny voice, like a child with a head cold. “But if you really want to, we can play here.” She speaks not like an adult affecting little girlness—it isn’t cute or coy—it’s childish in a sad way. In a helpless, lonely-girl way, a child talking to an impossible listener: an absent parent or God.

“You remember how to play Euchre, right?”

“Yes,” you respond automatically. And then you realize it’s true. You do remember how to play Eurchre: trick-taking and kitties and trumps. You can visualize the whole, remarkably complicated game in your mind, though the players are faceless. “But you can’t play Euchre with two people,” you say apologetically.

“Yes, you can! We have!”

“Well, you’re not supposed to.”

“Why aren’t you supposed to? Who says?”

You shrug.

“Why? Why can you never do anything how you’re not supposed to? Even if the supposed-to way is the wrong way. Why can’t you ever be on my side, Eliza? I always want to be on yours.”

Does she? You’re galvanized by her sudden desperation, proud even. You mean something to her after all: you are necessary.

“Eliza,” you repeat the name. It’s yours. A name that promises something better than the you you’ve been constructing.

“Do you really want to keep doing this?” she says.

“What else is there?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’m working on it.”

“Working, huh?” You rattle her jar of slugs. “Hard labor.”

She snatches them back, blinking tears into the open mouth of the jar, then panics about the salt and uses the hem of her fraying shirt to wipe the inside dry.

“I guess you do,” she says.

“Of course I don’t,” you tell her, unsticking a coil of her hair from the slick of slugy mucus below her nose. You want to mean it—for her—but you’re not sure if you do. “I want—”

“Yes?”

“For you to go with me.”

You and Cant attend Thursday TAROT.

“Liz, dear,” your landwitch greets you between slurps of soup. “So pleased you could make it.” Sitting opposite her, paws crossed on the table, is her hound-sized rabbit. “And you brought your partner.”

“Sit,” she says. “I’m just finish up my equinox stew. Are you hungry?” She gestures toward a small, decorative plate of cereal, the beige, frosted pieces of which are shaped like vegetables.

“I believe you know Beta,” the rabbit’s long ears rise off of her white back at the mention of her name, “my long-time TAROT partner.”

The rabbit’s nose pulses with the steady intake of information.

“She may not look it, but she’s a mean cardsharp.”

“Thanks,” you say. “We, uh, we’re happy to be here.”

“I’m not,” says Cant. You kick her swiftly under the table.

Partners sit opposite each other. Cant sits next to the landwitch, and you sit next to Beta. You glance to the rabbit for clues about how to proceed, but she yields none. Her black eyes are fixed on the deck. They register no change. She’s waiting out the round, the game, the night, possibly the entire Afterlife.

Your landwitch deals so fast you barely see her hands move. Before each of you is a spread of five cards, face down, in the shape of a cross. She nods to you, and when you fail to act, she flips your top card over herself.

“3 of Cauldrons.” Not a suit with which you are familiar.

Beta’s whiskers vibrate against your elbow. The landwitch nods at her, and she lowers her head to the table, flinging her top car face up with her teeth.

“7 of Carrots.”

Cant flips her own card: it’s blank, but it emits an audible sneeze.

Your landwitch tongues a little tisk of disapproval before finally flipping over her own top card, a face card: her face.

“The deck has spoken: my trick,” she says and sweeps her winnings into her hat.

“Your deal, dear,” she prompts Cant, who shakes her head at you frantically.

Cant tries to explain that she’s no good at shuffling, but the landwitch is distracted. She swirls her equinox stew three times and squints into its chunky face. Cant gathers the remaining cards into a loose pile and smears them around the table until they seem sufficiently mixed, then begins to lay them out in the cross-shaped spread the witch had used, but she loses track of how many cards she’s dealt. She forgets to deal herself in and has to skim five cards from the top of the pile.

“You don’t know how to play, do you, dear?” the landwitch’s lips unfurl into a starved smile. “You should have said so. It’s a common game here: a little bit of cartomancy and a little bit of Euchre. TAROT is an acronym for a Latin phrase meaning thaumaturgic equity appraisal. So, the goal is to—”

“It’s a magical credit check?” blurts Cant.

“And repossession, if you want to be crass about it.”

Your heart issues a of flurry of jabs to your throat. This isn’t what you came here for. This game isn’t for you, your hard work and skill, it’s not a hint at your improving future. You’re merely the partner, the innocent accessory to Cant’s negligence.

“It’s time to discuss your tenure here,” the landwitch says and collects the clumsy spread Cant assembled.

“You’re evicting me?”

“Well, you no longer work for me and are therefore delinquent on rent.”

You don’t want Cant expelled with nowhere to go, to witness a tragic ending to the joint history you supposedly share but don’t recall. But the prospect of her replacement is intriguing.

“Whose fault is that?” says Cant.

“Yours,” the landwitch answers matter-of-factly. “You’ve been lucky so far. Liz had been working efficiently enough to cover your deficit—until you stole from me.”

“What are you talking about?” Cant looks to you for help but you’ve fanned your hand of cards over your face to cover the inadvertent smile your pride provoked.

“The jar of smuggled slugs you keep in your apartment.” The ladwitch begins to shuffle expertly.

“I told you!” you can’t help chiding from behind your hand.

“What do you mean smuggled?”

“Do those slugs belong to you?”

“Well no, but they’re slugs, they don’t belong to anyone.”

“Everything belongs to someone.” She picks up your hand, and you don’t pull away. It’s nice to be relieved of the weight. You hadn’t even realized your hands were tired until the landwitch unburdened you.

“You see these fingers?” she says to Cant and wedges a butter knife under the nail of your middle finger, prying the grime free. It barely hurts. “Who do you think this dirt belongs to?”

The question is addressed to Cant, but you answer it: “You.”

“It’s not like they have collars,” Cant grumbles.

 “Every last spec of matter, visible and imperceptible, belongs to someone. You collected those slugs from the heads in my cauliflower field. If you steal from the property of my property, you steal from me. And I’m not just evicting you. I’m—”

The landwitch drops your hand and its weight doubles. She sniffs deeply and gulps the last of her stew straight from the bowl, a hand bracing either side as she brings it to her face and tips back her head. Beta’s ears are goal posts.

“There’s a disturbance in the cauliflower plot.” She purses her stew-stained mouth at Cant, the orange fat finding creases of fury in her lips. “A riot.” She says and rises from the table. “Beta will host you until I return.”

The rabbit does not blink or otherwise acknowledge her owner’s directive.

“A riot?” You jab Cant in the forehead once the landwitch is out of earshot. “What were you thinking?”

“I guess I was thinking it would be pretty cool if we could convince the cauliflowers to do what we can’t and—I don’t know—strike? But I wasn’t even near them. I could only see them out the window when you gave me back the slug jar earlier. I just thought it in my head, and now…”

“Slugs are very intuitive,” says the rabbit.

You yelp and leap from you chair. You hadn’t realized the rabbit could follow conversation, let alone talk.

“And surprisingly receptive to well-reasoned argument. So, they probably told the cauliflowers to do it.” Her voice is a little dusty, like an old person’s, and she has a distinctly ironed-out accent you recognize as midwestern.

“See?” says Cant. “Not me.”

“Still technically you,” says the rabbit, stretching out of her chair. “Not a criticism,” her ears flatten along her back. “This buys us time.” She lopes into the landwitch’s kitchen.

What can you do but follow?

The room is trimmed in a walnut so dark it looks black. The glass-door cabinets reveal row upon row of neatly labeled cannisters: castor bean, may apple, tongues, St. John’s wort, Jimson weed, gold fillings, elderberry, phalanges, menstrual blood, ginseng, antiacid tablets. In the center of the kitchen is a giant vat. Not the black cast iron cauldron of fairytales but a shiny silver stainless steel vessel that sits atop a floor-mounted gas stove. The flame is adjusted by an oversized knob on the wall. You press your hand against the white granite countertop. It comes away cool and crumbless, like the furnishings of a showroom kitchen. The whole set-up looks modern and well-maintained.

“Pick me up,” says Beta, stretching onto her hind legs to look over the lip of the cauldron. “I may never get another chance to do this.”

Cant sweeps her up, one arm under her long belly and the other under her back feet. The cauliflower plot is projected onto the cauldron’s surface. Everything about the plot looks normal, if a little weedy. The heads are in rows, their curds white and billowy. Only the landwitch looks riotous. She is crouched low, her mouth open in a silent scream. She beats her fists on the earth with such force it roils the liquid surface.

“I don’t get it,” you say. “The cauliflowers look fine.”

“The rebellion is underground,” says Beta. “Their root systems are traveling beyond the borders of their plot, spreading the message to the other vegetables.”

“Cool,” says Cant.

You have a vivid fantasy about adding her tongue to the landwitch’s collection.

“The witch’s vegetables are heirloom spies. She’s cultivated them as informants for longer than I’ve been around, which is over a hundred years. Well, actually, there aren’t years here, but you know what I mean. You think of her merely as your landwitch, but she makes her fortune as a surveillance manufacturer. Her homeopathic technology is highly sought after by witches across the Afterlife.”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” you say to Beta, bowing slightly to indicate your respect for the landwitch’s pet, “but how long do rabbits live in the afterlife?”

“My lifespan is a punishment,” the rabbit answers. “The landwitch prevents me from death with a potion.”

“A punishment for what?” asks Cant.

“A carrot I once ate from the landwitch’s garden.”

“Isn’t that what rabbits are supposed to eat?”

“Not here, where the carrots are spies. Here rabbits are supposed to eat their own. It keeps the population down and intensifies the flavor of their meat, which she uses to cover the taste of her stews. She hates vegetables, but she has to eat them to harness their intelligence.”

“Listen,” Beta says and cranes her neck back to look at Cant, her ears framing her face, “I’m sorry about this.” Then she kicks out of Cant’s hold with her hind legs, dives headlong into the cauldron, and screams not like an old woman or an animal but like a child in agony. She thrashes in the hissing liquid. Cant reaches a hand into the cauldron to grab the rabbit back, but pulls away screaming, her hand blistering and bleeding.

 “You jumped in and I couldn’t”—Cant is sobbing now—“Liz, can you?”—sob—“why did you?”—sob—“I am so, so sorry.” She nurses her wounded hand. “Are you going to die?”

“I sure am!” Chunks of Beta’s fur have begun to yield to the boiling broth.

Cant sobs some more. You join in at a more modest level. This is the worst night you’ve had since the Afterlife began.

“Don’t be sad, humans. We rabbits are always yearning toward death.”

“That’s so sad!” says Cant.

“It’s not, actually. We live backwards in time. Dying shortcuts this Afterlife and sends us to our Beforelife, which is mostly just about rabbits. Renters and witches are peripheral.”

“But you’re in pain!”

“Actually, my nerve endings are dead now. I feel better.”

“Maybe you should run your hand under some cold water,” you tell Cant, whose hand is oozing unsavory colors. She ignores you.

“So if I die here,” Cant puzzles through this revelation, “I can go back to the Beforelife?”

“I think it’s just a rabbit thing,” says Beta. “I don’t know where you two would go.”

“Oh.”

“Listen,” says Beta, floating on her skinless back, “I’m about 95% dead, so I’m just going to say goodbye now. Good luck!”

With that she sinks below the opaque surface and disappears. The cauldron stills its surface and returns itself to its surveillance duties. Every cabbage in the plot has been ripped from the soil, roots and all.

Cant is trying and failing to breath evenly, to stop the tears running down her face, inhaling through her snotty nose and puffing it out her cheeks, now streaked white with salt. She looks like a stained tea kettle.

“That wasn’t your fault.” You put a gentle hand on the back of her neck, which is lightly moist, as if it too has been crying.

“But we have to go.” You can feel her tense up at your touch and then melt into the comfort of it. Perhaps you are a good partner, or at least you could practice becoming one.

“Go?”

“Back to our apartment. We don’t want to be here when the landwitch realizes Beta’s missing.”

Cant wipes her face dry, takes a steadying breath and says, “You go.” She inches forward just enough so that your hand slides wetly off her neck.

“You go back if you want to. I’m leaving.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” you say, though she doesn’t sound dramatic. She sounds stoic, almost bored. You wipe your hand on your pants. How many times can she make you a fool before you get stuck that way?

“You could come with me. And don’t say where; you know I don’t know,” she adds before you can so much as roll your eyes. “But does it matter?”

“We have a life here.”

“That’s not what this is,” she says.

 In the end, it doesn’t matter where because she’ll never go. She’ll be your little pet thorn, your gentle infection, the sand in your bed for all of time and whatever comes after.

“I’m going upstairs. I’m tired, and I have to be up early to work,” you say, your frustration with her dissolving into the exhaustion of routine labor.

“I would say take care of yourself, Eliza, but you always do.”

“Don’t wake me up when you come in.”

She nods and you turn away.

You climb the staircase without looking back. Tomorrow will be a long day, and you will need to work harder than ever to get back in the ladwitch’s good graces. You focus on the plodding rhythm of your feet, their square ache, so you don’t see Cant approach the cauldron. You don’t see her turn the temperature dial on the wall all the way to right, from simmer to incinerate, and walk out the front door. You don’t see her remove a jar of slugs from her satchel. And you don’t hear what she tells them as she sets them free.

Maggie Nye is a writer and editor hailing from Maryland. She is the former Writer-in-Residence at St. Albans School, a Tin House Scholar, and a MacDowell Fellow. Her work has appeared most recently in UnchartedX-R-A-Y, and Passages North. She is currently hard at work on a novel about Medusa! Follow her on Instagram at @MaggieSchoolbus for so, so many pictures of her rabbit, Grimoire.

Image: shutterstock.com

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