As she regained consciousness, Olivia thought she could hear the opening chords of “The Bridal Chorus.” She expected to see her husband’s apologetic face when she opened her eyes, but instead she gazed up at a rust-red sky. The spindly arms of dead trees waved above her. Her head was throbbing with pain, and her jaw ached. The ground was warm and soft, far from the hard, cold kitchen tiles she remembered lying on before. She struggled to get up but no muscles responded to her mind’s commands. Thunder rumbled overhead. Only now did she begin to wonder where she was.
Several women appeared before her, all wearing dark robes, with hoods lowered. Among the ones she could focus on, one had short cropped hair, a black eye, and a missing ear. Another had dozens of long braids trailing down to her waist, and around her neck was a large purple bruise. The third was plain and unmarked but for a haunted look in her eyes. It was the haunted one who spoke. “Don’t try to move. You can’t anyway.”
“Where am I?” Her voice was more panicked than she would have liked to reveal.
“A place to make a choice,” said the one with cropped hair.
“What sort of place is that?”
“We’re not here to explain,” said the haunted one. “Where were you before?”
Olivia closed her eyes and searched through her jumbled memory, even while it made her head hurt.
She was in her garden. The squash was ripe and she had shears in her unbandaged hand to cut them from the vine. She hummed along to “Habanera,” as she’d been playing and replaying the recordings of Carmen. She had often been praised for having a gifted ear, but not much had come of it. She could play piano, too – at least until her husband had slammed the cover over her fingers. She had pulled her left hand away in time, but the fingers of her right hand had been crushed by the blow. He apologized immediately, kissing her fingers before driving her to the hospital.
At some point, in the garden, she heard the back door creak open and slam shut. Her husband had returned. She stopped humming when his footsteps thumped on the dirt.
“In my garden,” Olivia said, looking up at the red sky looming above the women.
“It’s harvest season.”
“What happened?” the haunted woman asked her.
She clutched the shears and squash in her hands as he approached from behind. He whipped her around and slapped her in the face. Olivia’s cheek stung at the memory.
“What the hell is this?” He waved a paper and a torn envelope in her face. “What is this check for? And why is it made out to you and only you?” He tore up the check before she could even respond, letting the shredded pieces sprinkle onto the ground. Her chest hollowed. He grabbed the wrist of the arm holding the shears with such force that she dropped them. He squeezed, numbing the tips of her fingers. “You better not be leaving me. Are you?”
Olivia kept her jaw shut as she clutched the squash. She knew speaking would be of no use.
“Answer me!” He thrust her arm out of his grip, grabbed the basket of squash beside her and turned it over, scattering the gourds in the dirt.
Olivia cried out and went to collect the squash before her husband stomped on them all. He had already destroyed her tomatoes, the cucumber plants, the strawberries — she wanted to at least save the squash. She covered her small harvest with her body, leading him to kick her in the ribs. Dirt rubbed into the knees of her trousers, she felt her chest heave, and finally, she collapsed on top of her squash, in the end crushing them into the dirt herself.
Her husband withdrew his blows, and her arms shook as she righted herself, her ribs sore.
“Well?” he said, standing above her.
She looked up at him from her spot on the ground. He wasn’t a very tall man, but when he was overcome with anger like this he became a giant. Her courage retreated, and she considered assuring him. “No, of course, darling, I would never leave you —”
“Liar,” he spat. “Where’s your go bag, bitch?”
He grabbed her hair and dragged her through the garden, knocking over several plants along the way. She felt the rough stems of the eggplants buckle beneath her weight, smelled the scent of basil as she was dragged past the leaves.
The panic was so great that Olivia returned to the strange world in which she lay. To her amazement she was able to move her head and twitch the fingers of both hands.
“So the garden is your place,” the haunted woman said. Though strangers surrounded her, Olivia felt comforted by their presence.
“Why can’t I get up?” Olivia asked. She strained to lift her arm up but it remained stubbornly on the ground.
“Keep going,” the woman said. The sky still rumbled with thunder.
Now Olivia was on the kitchen floor, her head and legs and torso all throbbing with pain as her husband hit her with the leather bag she’d hidden in the depths of the linen closet. After a few more blows her husband tossed it away and used his fists. White light burned through her vision, and she could hear the bulb buzzing with electricity. “Tell me,” he said as he kicked her (Olivia felt her ribs buckle), “Where you planned on going.”
Olivia normally suffered in silence through the beatings. She knew that opening her mouth would just make things worse. It had knocked a few teeth out of her. This time, though, she truly had done him wrong. She knew he would beat her until she wouldn’t be able to leave the house.
She closed her eyes to return to her garden, the only place on the entire property in which she felt safe. But it didn’t work this time. She saw the trampled strawberries, turnips torn up from the ground, tomatoes scattered and smashed.
When the blows paused for a moment and she only felt a dull pain, Olivia opened her eyes and looked up at him. He repeated his statement, barked like an order.
“What are you planning, you fucking bitch?”
Olivia looked up into his face, blown out into shadow thanks to the light overhead. She clenched her left fist and gritted her teeth, mouth tasting of blood. The last time it had been this bad he had beaten the baby out of her — and since then she had made sure there would be no more babies. She recalled the sharpest pain, the abyss of sorrow she had fallen into afterward… how the garden, with its endless cycle of reproduction and regeneration, served as her only reason for living. Now that, too, was in shambles.
“Mind your own fucking business.” She spit out every consonant like a bullet.
She braced herself for a new round of blows, but instead she just heard her husband breathing through his teeth, then footsteps as he turned around and left the kitchen. Despite the pain, she took the chance to sit upright, and leaned against the cabinets. She focused on the tap of the sink, which gleamed silver like polished gunmetal. The light briefly faded to a soft yellow. She looked for the bowl of fruits she always had on the table but it was absent.
A wave of relief crashed into dread. The door opened and closed and her husband came back armed this time. “I’ll show you when you talk back like that, bitch.” He raised his arm holding the pistol. “You all get what’s coming to you.”
Her last memory was dotted with red spots that appeared before her, the sound of a crack, the cold odor of metal.
Olivia came back to the place with the red sky. The redness matched the shade of the spots that can appear before the eyes when looking at the sun. Now she was sitting upright. The plain woman now knelt beside her, at eye level.
“So you know what brought you here.”
Olivia looked around her. Other than the crowd of robed women, the red place was populated only by crooked, leafless trees. Off in the near distance stood what looked to be a small chapel.
“Am I…?” she began to say.
“Yes and no,” the haunted woman answered. “Can you stand up?”
Olivia’s legs shook as she struggled to stand and she had to accept the women’s help to steady herself. Once she stood on her own, she saw that the scene had changed. The sky remained red, and the chapel still stood, but now her surroundings were rich gardens in full flower. The barren dirt had sprouted into short grasses, and ripe raspberries dangled from nearby bushes. The wind picked up, tickling the grass against her legs. She heard a child’s bubbly laughter carried to her ear.
The woman relaxed her grip on Olivia’s arm. “Let’s go to the chapel.”
Olivia took one hesitant step after the other, looking not ahead at the chapel but at her feet. There were a lot of thorny plants afoot —raspberries and blackberries and rose bushes — and there was no clear path leading to the chapel. Olivia took long strides through the flora, concentrating so hard that she forgot about the women and soon left them behind. She walked alone through the garden, and before she knew it, she had reached the modest stone steps of the chapel.
The woman who was apparently her guide reappeared at her side. Now that she stood upright properly, Olivia could see faint traces of scars on her long, plain face.
“Before you choose,” said her guide. “Be aware, Sister, that if you accept this power, you must take your husband’s life without delay. This power is not granted to those inclined to pacifism. Those women pass on. It is no small thing to deal death as well as give life. The good news for you is that this is the only death required. If you don’t take his life,” her guide took a breath, as if she struggled to keep her calm, “your own will be taken back. That is the bargain. Don’t take this power unless you are willing to kill.”
Olivia looked to her guide. Her jaw was set firm. “So you…”
“Of course I did. And I would do it again.”
“And so how are you here?”
“My time on Earth is at an end for good now. I am here to help other women such as yourself make the choice. I must warn you,” the guide added, “While you don’t have to make the choice now, once we are inside the chapel, it can be very persuasive to go one way. So I will ask you now: are you willing to kill?”
Olivia pictured her trampled garden, the empty hollow of her belly where a baby once grew, recalled the numbness in the fingers of her right hand, the hoarseness of her voice that lasted for days on end whenever her husband choked her too hard. Her husband was a killer and a torturer. She could imagine standing over him, with him lying spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, cold and still.
She turned to her guide and nodded.
Her guide rapped her knuckles on the door, reproducing a familiar pattern that Olivia couldn’t yet place. The door opened, revealing a cavernous, candle-lit interior empty of pews. Rather than an altar, a piano stood at the opposite end of the hall, with her wedding bouquet resting atop in a vase. The scent of the lilies overwhelmed her, and she hesitated.
Olivia stepped inside, and voices began to whisper. With each step, they became louder, clearer. After three steps, Olivia stopped. The voices were familiar to her.
“Do you recognize the voices?” the woman asked.
Olivia heard the mutterings of her mother, her father, her brother, her old school friend, her husband, herself… the last one being that strange voice that remained at once recognizable and completely incongruous with her own experience of it. The voices all addressed her in different tones: scolding, pleading, laughing, whispers, shouts. After another few steps she became immobile. She grasped the hand of her guide.
“I know it’s hard,” the woman said. “But you must go on, to make the choice.”
“Did you have to do this?”
For a moment, Olivia could only hear the voices echoing in the chapel.
“It wasn’t exactly the same,” the woman said, observing the interior of the chapel. “But yes.”
As Olivia approached the piano, a five-point star appeared in the place where the sheet music would go, luminescent like the full moon. She paused for a moment in front of the bench, the voices still a constant low whisper, the scent of the lilies fainter now despite her closer proximity to them. She looked to her guide, who nodded and gestured for her to sit. She obeyed.
The voices grew ever louder, and Olivia finally discerned what they were about: they were all about her. And her husband.
You have such a beautiful voice, Olive. You should join the church choir!
What are you doing with yourself? Sitting in the garden all day? Get up, do your chores!
Go to music school? Where in the world did you get that idea?
Alice is going to music school. I don’t see why I can’t.
You’re such a lazy girl. No wonder you failed the exams. Do you spend every day like that, playing records while staring out the window?
I think you’re beautiful, and you can do whatever you want to do. You should try it.
He’s such a handsome young man.
How did you get so lucky, Olive, after all that?
Where were you last night? Don’t tell me you were with that friend of yours again.
How many times do I have to tell you, we’re only friends. We’ve known each other since we were in school.
How did you get that bruise?
Why haven’t you called us? It’s been six months.
I just lost track of the time. I’m busy taking care of the home and garden now.
When will there be children?
Soon, I hope. We’re working on it.
What’s wrong with you? You sound so sad all the time.
It’s nothing. I only wish things were different.
It’s complicated. You won’t understand.
My husband, He won’t let me leave the house without his permission anymore.
Why don’t you stand up to him?
He needs me. He’s told me that so many times. What will he do without me?
I don’t know how.
You two deserve each other.
At least he keeps you in line.
Olivia’s rage expanded from her chest until it coursed through her whole body, culminating in an almost automatic movement to bang on the keys of the piano, creating a deafening cacophony of random notes until her fingers found the melody they sought: Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier,” which she had since given up attempting to play, the hope of music school long dead. She didn’t miss a note in this supernatural rendition, applying her full furious energy and pulling back when the piece called for it.
The anger drained out through her hands as she played, until she felt so weak she could hardly lift her hand to press another key. She became still and hung her head. The voices roared, then faded into low moans.
Another voice pierced through the moans: her guide. “Sister, answer honestly: what brought you here?”
The words came with little thought. “My husband.” She regained enough energy to touch the five-point star on the piano.
“Where do you want to go?”
“To my garden.”
“How will you get there?”
Olivia felt her veins coursing with lifeblood — she was alive, vital, not done with this earth yet. “By my own power.”
“What is your own power?”
She easily imagined the network of roots creeping further and further underground, stems rising and flowers blossoming with the rising sun. She felt expansive. She was the roots, the stems, the trunks, the leaves, the flowers, the pollen floating from one plant to another. “The power of the earth.”
The five-point star brightened to blinding proportions so that Olivia had to squint to keep it in sight. The scene around her darkened. The pain subsided. Instead, an intense sense of confidence unlike anything she had ever felt before filled her. She could make plants grow and wither, flower and wilt, manipulate herbs and fruits so they became poison, or palatable. Before the scene of the chapel in the meadow completely vanished, she heard her guide cry, “Go forth, Sister, and enact your revenge!”
A deafening rushing sound filled her ears. Everything crumbled around her. No ceiling fell, but she shut her eyes and braced for impact.
Then all was quiet.
She took a moment to savor the sensation of breathing — her chest rising and falling, the passage of air through her nose and lungs. Her fingertips were warm, tingling with electric currents. She was once again lying on the kitchen floor, her back cold from contact with the tiles. The charge of energy congealed to dread. She opened her eyes.
The harsh light of the kitchen hurt to see at first, and the floor was quickly sapping the heat out of her. She twitched the fingers of her right hand and, with a thrill, she realized she could move them. To get a better look, she tilted her head to her right side, and saw the bandage unfurled, her hand lying open as it hadn’t since before the injury. Happiness at this small instance of good fortune coursed through her. She heard the hiccups of sobs and shifted her focus: her husband sat in front of the back door, hands over his face. The sight surprised her. Olivia had never seen him weep.
Still, the dread controlled her breath and kept her on the floor. Her head throbbed and she couldn’t completely open her left eye. She closed her eyes again, considering the scenario. Surely he thought her dead. What would he do when he learned otherwise? Hold her tight and apologize over and over again, promise that he would get help, blame it on drinking despite the lack of alcohol in his breath, tell her that he would make it up to her?
Her husband stopped sobbing and sniffed at the click. He lowered his hands, revealing a face red and wet from weeping. Upon meeting her gaze, he lifted his hands above his head, his breaths shallow, swallowing the sorrowful spit in his mouth. She could smell the shock in his sweat.
“I thought you were dead.” He forced a smile on his face, superficial as a salesman’s.
The pistol was light in her hands, and Olivia smiled at the turn of the tables. “Only for a moment, darling. Please, let’s go to the garden, shall we?”
Her husband stood as she stood, his hands still held up. She noticed dampness in his trousers, and smiled wider to contain a laugh. She tightened her grip on the pistol as she followed him out the door, staying just out of arm’s reach in case he turned around and tried something.
The air in the garden was fresh and cool. The impressions made in the dirt from when he had dragged her just minutes? hours? ago remained clear. She clutched the pistol tighter so as not to show her shaking. “Turn around and kneel.”
Slowly, her husband turned around and lowered his knees into the dirt. A sense of power coursed through her hands, and she directed her right hand toward the trampled plants. She felt her veins extend toward the veins of the leaves, reviving them with vital energy that made the leaves perk up and the stems bend toward her husband, until she had his hands and feet bound by plants. Only now did she feel comfortable coming within his reach. His eyes were wide and wild with shock. Fear seeped through his pores.
“What is this… magic?”
“Oh, honey…” this strange confidence made her laugh. This, more than the magic plants, proved to her that it had not been a dream. And if she were still in a half-dead dream, so what? She would have her fun. “Of course it’s magic.” She shoved the pistol in his mouth “Shall I tell you why I wanted to leave?”
The man’s breath was shallow, and his whole body shook. She could do what she wanted with him so easily. She imagined the pistol having the texture of flesh, and pushed it farther down his throat. “See how it feels to be forced to suck your cock. Awful, isn’t it?”
As she thrust the pistol deeper and deeper into his throat, her free hand grabbed his hair to stop his resistance. She let out a cruel laugh, then caught his wide, shining eyes —
She saw him as a boy, huddled in his bed with his brother as shouts of his father and broken glass sounded from somewhere beyond the door, his brother holding him close, but touching him where no one else could touch… Then him as a young adult, fighting with his brother as his mother (no father around) pleaded for them to break up the fight. He was charged with virile rage, punching him and kicking his teeth out, not stopping until his brother crumpled into a heap on the floor. Then him fighting with his mother as she gripped his arm, insisting that he visit his brother in the hospital, and he tore his arm away and slapped her. His vision blurred with tears, he hurried to his room, throwing clothes, books, necessities into a bag and heading out the door, the sounds of his mother weeping following him all the way to the train station. Then lungs burning from chain-smoking, vision blurred with alcohol, fumbles in the dark with faceless girls, sparks of anger at rejection that led him to slap, to hit…
Then she saw herself as he saw her, several years later, sitting alone on a platform bench, her socks bunched around her ankles. She felt his compassion, his desire for her, as he imagined himself just a few years ago in that same position. He had approached her with no hesitation.
Olivia took the pistol out of his mouth, leaving him gasping for breath. She remembered her own compassion, her own love for him which had persisted even after her miscarriage. Though he had caused it, her husband made sure she was fed and washed and played her favorite records without prompt. He gave her the first plant she cared for: a lavender bush, whose scent soothed her, which awakened in her a desire to perfume the entire house with more scents — mint, basil, lemon verbena — which in turn inspired her hunger and drive to care for green creatures from sprouts and seedlings. Her husband had thrown her down the well, but he had also pulled her out of it. Why did she have to be so ungrateful and insist on her own way?
Her neck prickled as she felt a brush of cool air against the skin. She turned her head slightly to the left, the pistol still pointed at her husband, and out of the corner of her eye she saw the woman who had guided her to the chapel.
“What are you waiting for?” the guide said, her voice hoarse, eyes stone-cold gray. “You have him. Now you can finish him. Remember, it’s him, or it’s you.”
Olivia’s arm shook as she held the pistol. She kept her voice to a whisper, in case her husband could hear. “He wept for me…”
“Many of them do,” the woman said. “Many of them had horrible childhoods, abusive family members, soul-sucking jobs, a sense of what was once attainable irrevocably lost. Many make their wives their whole world because they feel that’s all they have left. But what about you? What have you lost, Sister?”
Brambles burst from the ground, wrapping her husband in its thorny branches, as her tame garden plants released him. Olivia squeezed the pistol, keeping it aimed squarely at his head. She stepped closer to him, the brambles squeezing him tightly, tearing holes into his clothes. “I’m taking this garden, and this house,” she said, her voice as stiff as her limbs. “And you will be buried, become feed for my plants, just as you deserve.” She cocked the pistol. “Any last words, darling?”
He looked into her eyes, and she could see that he hadn’t stopped crying. Her arm wavered. “I’m so sorry, Olive, darling,” he said. “Please forgive me. Baby, I love you. I adore you. I couldn’t live without you. I will do as you want. Please let me go. Let me live.”
Olivia sensed not just her guide, but the hundreds and thousands and millions of ones who had become witches before her, who had performed the blood ritual to secure their powers and enact revenge. He could not live. He would harm another. She would again be on the floor, turning as cold as the kitchen tile. She closed her eyes, feeling the power — power she had never felt before in her life — course through her. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking into his shining eyes. “But I did not come back by virtue of my mercy.”
She squeezed the trigger, and a bang burst out, resounding in her head like the ringing of a bell. Screams — whose? — echoed like music in an empty church hall. Her eyes closed as she flinched, and she opened them to see a berry-black hole in her husband’s head, which lolled to the side. She tossed the pistol down and used her other hand to guide the brambles and roots back underground, wrapping themselves tightly around her husband as they returned beneath the earth, going down, down, down, down…
Until her garden returned to the state it had been at the start of the day: the squash restored, the basil plants returned to their typical perkiness. She slumped onto her knees, the presence of the other witches vanished, tears gushed from her like an endless fountain. Her body shook and shook and shook, all her power draining through her tears, until she herself collapsed into the dirt.
No one knew what happened to the husband — presumably, like too many miserable men, he had up and left without a word. But by the next summer Olivia’s garden became the envy of the neighborhood. How could she grow so much — berries and beans and nightshades and all kinds of herbs, not to mention cherry trees —on such a small plot? The town rumor was that she had some kind of green thumb, allowing for all plants to grow. As she was the only one at the house to eat it all, she invited many of the other village women to her home to gather ingredients at no cost and hosted weekly Sunday dinners after church. She had begun singing in the choir, her voice enchanting all within earshot, and she started advertising services as a voice and piano teacher. How had this village darling been so hidden for so many years? Olivia would laugh and say, “My husband was a jealous bastard. He hardly let me have any fun without him.”
Despite the dense fertility of her garden, there was one part where nothing grew. If anyone cared to measure, they would find it to be about a hundred and eighty-one centimeters long, with the width equivalent to the space a broad-shouldered man would take up. If anything started to grow in this patch, Olivia would remove it immediately so as to keep the dirt patch free. Sometimes she would lie in the dirt patch, when there were no visitors over and no piano lessons to teach, looking up at the sun and the leaves of the nightshades swaying in the wind above her. She would start humming Dido’s Lament before bursting into song, tears streaming down her face like rain. She would feel the heat rising from the dirt, seeking to embrace her, and for a moment, she longed to be pulled in, below —
But the pain in her head would return, her jaw would throb, and she yanked herself up, brushing the dirt from her back. She ended with a spit on the ground, her power imbuing her saliva with poison, and would return to her home, her music, her piano, her kitchen, her bedroom — all hers and hers alone.
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