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The Key to St. Medusa’s

My parents knew I was a witch before I was born. The signs were there, they told me. They were unmistakable.

Well. Not all of the signs, or they never would have kept me as long as they did. But enough: My mother’s hair, previously sedate and well-mannered, turned curly and wild during her pregnancy, sometimes even grabbing forks from other people’s hands at meals. Clocks ran backward when she went near them, and thirteen grey cats took up residence in our front yard for the last month before I was born.

Also, I was born on a Tuesday.

• • • •

They named me Agatha, which was not at all a witch’s name, because they wanted me to be good.

When I was five, I asked my father what a witch’s name might sound like. He smacked my mouth, and told me such things weren’t spoken.

• • • •

As far as I could tell growing up, being a witch was a curse. Or at least my being one was—my whole childhood was made of lists of things I could not do if I wanted to be a good girl. It was imperative to be a good girl, otherwise my witchiness would take over. Good girls did not walk backward. Neither did they walk in the forest at night. They did not leave the house when the moon was full. Good girls did not talk to any of the grey cats. Or the black ones. Speak in rhyme. Wear red. Dance.

There were other forbidden things. More and more each year. An ever-growing list of mustn’ts and don’ts and shouldn’ts that bound around me tighter and tighter, until it seemed like “cautious” and “safe” and “good” were as much curses as “witch.”

I tried to follow my parents’ rules. They only made them, they said, out of concern for me. If I was a witch, I would never have a home. Never be allowed to live in civilized society. No one would be my friend. I’d never be able to get married, have a family. They were only trying to make things easier for me. I never asked why what was supposed to be easier felt so hard.

I wanted to be good. I truly did.

Until the day I didn’t.

It would be a better story, I know, if there had been a reason. If my parents had inflicted one final unfairness, done something so cruel that it left me with no reasonable choice but to undo all they had so carefully tried to prevent. But that’s not what happened.

The truth was, I was simply tired. Tired of the effort it took to remember all of the things that good girls didn’t do, tired of being afraid that one wrong step would be all it took to cancel out all of the proper ones that had come before, and render me not a good girl. I didn’t want to be tired like that, not anymore.

So I stole a red dress from my mother’s closet—red, it seemed, was safe for mothers in a way it was not for witches—and ran to the forest, under the full moon. I spent the night out there, dancing.

I didn’t even do any magic. Not then. Not that it mattered—as far as my parents were concerned, I had gone full out witch, and it was off to St. Medusa’s with me.

• • • •

This is what I had been told about St. Medusa. She had been a witch once, too. A terrible, notorious one. Even her name from that time was so dangerous that it was no longer spoken. She had done a spell so dark, so dire, it had turned her hair to venomous snakes, snakes that would whip out and sink their fangs into anyone in reach.

But she had repented her actions. Had mortified her flesh, and done all the proper penances. She achieved control of all those wild snakes. She bound them down, every day, with a scarf of red, so that anyone who saw her would know, and would learn from her example.

And she opened up a home for witches.

I sat with my parents in her office. I could see her snakes beneath the scarf. They made the fabric bump and ripple like waves. They were beautiful.

“I do have space here for Agatha,” St. Medusa said. “But you must know this is not a temporary solution. Once you leave your daughter here, you cannot reclaim her. Do you understand?”

“She’s a witch,” said my father, as if those were the only words necessary.

My mother said nothing, only smoothed her hands over her hair, kept very short now so that errant strands could not be tempted to acts of thievery.

St. Medusa looked at me. “Agatha, do you want to live here?”

“I didn’t realize I had a choice,” I said. There had been no discussion. I hadn’t even been allowed to change out of my stolen red dress. I had come home, been told I was a witch, and we had come here.

“You don’t—” began my father, but St. Medusa held up her hand, silencing him. In seventeen years as his daughter, I had never seen such a thing happen before, that someone could keep my father from speaking when he wished to. I wondered if perhaps the stories that St. Medusa had renounced her witchery weren’t quite true.

“There is always a choice,” St. Medusa said.

I looked at my parents. My mother wouldn’t meet my eyes. My father’s face was hard as stone. He had spat on me when I came home that morning.

I didn’t think that was my home anymore.

I looked at St. Medusa, who had said that what I wanted mattered.

“Yes,” I said. “I want to stay.”

• • • •

Neither of my parents said goodbye. My mother would have, I think. She paused in the door, and turned toward me. But my father grabbed her arm, and pulled her with him, and the last I saw of them was their backs.

I don’t miss them.

• • • •

St. Medusa gave me a key, that first day. “I give one to everyone, so that you will know it is your choice to stay here, or to leave, and if you leave, that you may return. This place will always be your home, and there is no one who will force you from it, or bar its door to you.”

It was a small key, bronze and many-toothed, hung on a chain. “Turn it to the right, and it will open a door anywhere. Turn it to the left, and that door will bring you back here, safely home.”

I wasn’t sure that I believed in home, but I wore the key around my neck, that day and every one after. It made me feel safe.

• • • •

St. Medusa’s was not what I had been expecting.

“Certainly you can learn to use magic while you’re here, Agatha. There are a number of people who will be happy to teach you.”

“But I thought that I was here to learn how not to do that. How to be good. How to—” I waved my hand over my head, a scarf binding snakes that weren’t there. The ends of my hair reached up, witch-like, toward my fingers, and I blushed.

“We can teach you that as well, if you like. There are girls and women who come here because they want to move more easily through a fearful world. Learning how to bind your power down, to hide it, to give it up altogether may make that easier, and for some, it is the right choice.

“But that does not have to be your choice. You are the one who gets to choose, Agatha.”

I wanted power. I wanted magic. I wanted to fill myself full of both until my hair crackled with it. “But if I choose to be a witch, I can’t ever go back and live with civilized people.”

The snakes of St. Medusa’s hair curled and hissed under her scarf. “And did you enjoy living with civilized people?”

I hadn’t particularly thought about it like that. “I want to be a witch.”

• • • •

And so I was.

I remember the first time I did magic, real magic.

“It’s customary,” St. Medusa said, “to begin the study of magic with the lighting of a candle. It is a request for illumination as well as a demonstration of power. And so.”

She had set a circle of candles around us, and as she looked at each, a flame flickered into being. She didn’t need to speak words, or make gestures. She just looked, and there was light.

It was not what I had been told magic was: lies, trickery, evil. Rather, it was beautiful, so beautiful I felt like I might cry. My hands tingled like flames flickered and burned on the ends of my fingers.

“Do you see?” she asked, and extinguished the candles.

I nodded. I turned, once, slowly, all around the circle. Seeing that it was whole, no beginning, no end. Seeing the candles, and understanding that they wanted to light—that was their purpose. In seeing theirs, I knew mine.

I felt magic rise up in my blood. With a look, I set them all alight. Power burned through me. In that moment, I finally felt the truth of what I had been told my whole life: I was a witch.

I learned more things, after that. I drank in magic like I had been dying of thirst. I learned how to call cats and how to tell the future on the petals of a rose. How to dance a storm into calmness, and how to turn it the other way and dance it hurricane-strong. How to speak to the dead and how to bind them to silence with silver and salt. How to wrap a curse like ivy around someone’s house without their notice. How to set wishes, burning, inside of stars.

I learned that not everyone who lived at St. Medusa’s was a witch, even if that’s what those who lived on the outside called them. There were banshees and oracles. There were women who lived on others’ blood and women who lived on others’ memories. There was a pack of girls that slid into wolfskin once a month. There was Lucy, who knew everything about St. Medusa’s, who had been abandoned at its gates when she was five, lived here until she died at thirty-seven, and had been a resident ghost ever since. “Forty-two years now. Or forty-three. Counting gets hard when you’re noncorporeal.”

While I was there, I did something I never had before: I made friends. Saoirse, who looked like a storm, all cloud-white and rain-grey, and her hair a blood-red tangle on her head. Her voice, when she spoke, had the clarity of glass. A banshee. Irena, who was a seer, petite and dark and lion-hearted. You could see universes spinning in her eyes. From them, I learned what it was to share secrets, to feel like I was part of a family. To be loved.

I began, slowly, to make a home in that love. Not a civilized one, but one rough-shaped and outsized and beautiful. The key around my neck had a door that it would open.

• • • •

When Irena had the visions of the murdered brides, Saoirse and I were the first ones she told. “I see a wedding in bits and pieces. White and candles and a grand cathedral. I see his hands. A door, a key. Then blood, blood everywhere, on the white, on the door, on the key.

“He’s killing them.” She turned to the side and vomited. “Sorry. Visions make me seasick, and these are foul beyond that.”

We went with her to tell St. Medusa. “I want to help—I don’t want to have to watch another girl die,” Irena said.

“I can help you focus your magic,” St. Medusa said. “It may not be pleasant.”

“Neither is this,” Irena said.

That was the day I saw St. Medusa take off her scarf.

She unbound the red and loosed the snakes. They slithered and hissed, a wild tangle. One detached itself from the rest. It crawled down, and bit Irena’s wrist.

Irena cried out and clutched at Saoirse’s and my hands. The universes spun in Irena’s eyes, faster and faster, and her visions came clear from Saoirse’s mouth. She told us where to find him. She told us that he had married four women. That they had all been called witches. That they were dead, and their ghosts were bound.

The snake, turned white with the force of the magic, crawled back to St. Medusa, and nested itself with the others. She rebound her scarf.

“I’m going to be number five,” Saoirse said. She sat, calmly, as Irena and I babbled out warnings, begged her not to.

“I saw them. The visions in your head. What he did. I don’t mean to let him kill me, but someone needs to stop him. To be their voices if they can’t speak. Who better than a banshee?” She was unmovable.

“You don’t need to do this,” St. Medusa said. “No one will ask it of you.”

“Four dead women,” Saoirse said. “Four dead witches. Who will care enough to stop this, if we don’t?” There was no arguing with that.

So we dressed her in red and equipped her with spells and we kissed her and sent her off to her wedding.

• • • •

I knew the moment Saoirse died. We all did. A great keening filled the air, a voiced that cried out, that rang through us like bells, that set hair on end, and even the clouds to weeping.

They cried tears of blood.

“He’s killed her.” The voice low, rough, like it had walked up out of a grave. Irena.

“Did you see?” I asked.

“Everything,” she said. She couldn’t speak, just clawed at her throat, trying to let Saoirse’s words out. But Saoirse’s voice was too far away to be heard.

I stood, red rain pouring over me. My heart felt empty, its beat the rattle of a broken door. There was no magic I knew for this.

• • • •

The problem wasn’t just the serial-killing husband. There are any number of ways to kill effectively at a distance. None of us would have needed to put ourselves in danger if his death had been the only necessary thing.

The issue was the women. As those of us at St. Medusa’s knew, dead didn’t necessarily mean gone. We lived with ghosts, those who had chosen to linger, to stay. They were our friends, our family. We had made a home for them. But ghosts can’t come back on their own. They need to be called, to be given the choice. If there was a chance, even a piece of one, that we could get any of those women back, that we could help them choose the place they would be after their death, we would take it.

Irena went next. You don’t need to be a seer to know how her story ended.

• • • •

“I need to go,” I told St. Medusa. “To fix this.” As if Saoirse and Irena and the other wives were broken things I could put back together.

Her snakes hissed caution at me. “I am going to tell you two things that you already know: You don’t have to, and it will be dangerous.”

“I do. Have to. He has to be stopped, and I can’t bear the thought of sitting here, doing nothing, and then hearing he’s murdered another one of us. Plus, Saoirse, Irena. I have to bring them home.”

• • • •

I left St. Medusa’s then, for the first time in years. For a moment, my heart clutched in my chest, warning me to go back, to be safe, to not walk in a world that had told me the only good thing I could do was shut myself away.

Saoirse. Irena. Four names I didn’t yet know. I clutched the key around my neck and kept walking.

I rented a room in a house near his. I wore a red dress, so he would know I was a witch. I caught his eye, and I flirted and enchanted.

“You should be careful of that one,” my landlady said.

“Why?” I asked. I was curious—did she know that a monster was her neighbor?

“It was my daughter that was his second wife. Anna. She told me that he would be a home to her, and so I gave her my blessing. But she never came back to visit, and then she never came back at all, and then there was another girl in a white dress in the cathedral and I knew.

“That’s why I have a room to let out.” She turned away from me and into silence. I set my hand, gentle, on her shoulder.

“She was a good girl, and I miss her. You remind me of her a bit. You have a smile like she did, a kind one. Be careful of him.”

I was not here to be careful. He asked. I said yes.

• • • •

I am not going to tell you about him. He does not even deserve a name.

• • • •

I found Saoirse the first night I spent in his house.

When I turned on the tap to run a bath, wash myself clean of the dust of travel and the feel of his hands on my body, her voice poured out with the water. There is nothing like water to hold the spirit of a banshee, nothing that carries their voices, all tears, so well.

I sank below the surface, and let her words pour over me.

They were all together, she said, all the dead wives. Trapped, their ghosts unable to free themselves. Forced to linger and bear witness each time he brought in a new wife.

They were in a room, she said. A room that he would tell me not to enter, and as soon as he warned me, I would want to go into that room like I had wanted nothing before. A curse, she said. A compulsion. I wouldn’t be able to eat or sleep until I had taken down the key from the way, and turned it in the lock.

Once I did, the key would turn from silver to red, the rust-red of blood.

That was how he would know. That was why I would die.

She told me to get out, to run from the bath, to go now, before he forbade me the room and set the curse in motion. There was no magic, she said, that would break it.

I did climb from the bath and I did run, but not out of the door and away. I ran down. Down to the room where the wives were. To where Saoirse and Irena were.

At the door, I reached for a key. Not the one that hung beside it, that would bleed and give away my guilt, but the one around my neck. I set it in the lock, and turned it to the right. The door opened.

He’d kept the bodies.

I clapped my hands over my mouth, holding back the sob, the bile, the rage that bubbled up through my throat. Beyond horrible. I should have known—it is easier to bind a ghost when its body remains. Still. Knowing someone is a monster is one thing. Seeing the proof of it is another.

This is how you bring back a ghost, if you are a witch: You call their name. If the body is there, you place your hands on it, so it will remember having a body, being touched. You look. You see. You remind them of what it is to be seen. You call their name a second time. You offer them reasons to return. Vengeance. Love. Unanswered questions.

You call their name one final time. You give them a choice.

Irena returned first. “I saw. I knew you would come. Thank you.” She passed her fingers through me, a ghost of an embrace.

I turned the key to the left, and opened the door to St. Medusa’s. Irena walked through. Home.

In the end, I sent the ghosts of two of the other wives, Eva and Larissa, to St. Medusa’s with Irena. There were two who chose not to return. Tania was one of them. My landlady’s daughter, Anna, was the other.

And Saoirse. Saoirse had chosen to bind herself to the water in order to preserve her voice, to be able to speak a warning to anyone else who followed after her. She had known what that choice meant when she made it. “It won’t be so bad,” she said, “being here now. It was my choice to stay.”

St. Medusa stood on the other side of the door. “Agatha. It’s enough. Come back.”

We could, I knew, see him dead after I was safely away. But I had put my hands on their bodies. I had seen what he had done. And a ghost will linger where it dies. “It’s not enough,” I said. “Not yet.”

I closed the door to St. Medusa’s, and I left that room. The silver key that hung in the hallway dripped with blood.

He stood at the top of the stairs, smiling as he watched me walk up. I smiled, too. I smiled as I stabbed my key between his ribs, and turned it. I smiled as a door opened, and his life walked through. I closed the door behind it—I couldn’t bring Saoirse home, but I could make sure he wasn’t here with her.

The coils of my hair hissed. Snakes now, after such magic. I turned the key to the left, opened the door to St. Medusa’s, then dropped the key into the water with Saoirse’s ghost. I couldn’t bring her home, but I could leave this piece of it with her.

I stepped through the door.

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Kat Howard

Kat Howard by Shane Leonard

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot, named one of the best SFF books of Summer ’16 by Publishers Weekly. Saga Press will also be publishing her next novel in late summer ’17, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in early 2018. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press. Her short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and performed on NPR.