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Down in the Aspen Hollow

Content Note: Assault/Intimate Partner Violence

 

We are reborn into light. We push towards it from the darkness, out of the wet winter earth. We are the smallest of our sisters, bone white and thin as a finger. Our roots spread wide, drink deep of the mineral blood of Appalachia. We are ourselves, but also our sisters: a colony of aspens, individual and identical. Spring comes, and summer and autumn. We shake our heads of golden coins.

Annie comes every day to fetch water from the brook. She brings us strange offerings: stones and nuts and robin’s eggshells, scraps of ribbons too short to use, a quill pen cut poorly and discarded. Pretty, unwanted little things, like Annie herself. She secrets them in a woodpecker bore in our oldest sister and speaks lisping nonsense over them, a blessing or a prayer. Our sisters watch her with black eyes of split bark, pleased with her gifts. We are sapling-thin still, hardly taller than Annie. So we are young together, and take her yellow head for one of our own.

Annie is barefoot, always. In the summer her feet are brown and bitten raw by the red mites that tickle in the grass; in the winter they are a bruised bluish white. Her pinafore is grubby from drying dishes. Sometimes, less often, Liza comes with her. Liza is tender as a green shoot, tended like a garden. Annie’s hair is sunlight, Liza’s is moonlight. They have the same noses, the same wide-set brown eyes, but they are children still, and children do look much the same.

Before they wade in the brook, Liza takes off her stockings, her stays, her straw bonnet with its immortal pink silk flowers. Her mother sometimes calls her from the fine house just beyond our sisters, telling her not to spoil her clothes. Liza’s mother loves her little girl like herself; she hardly knows the difference between them.

“What if, in the water, it’s Rawhead-and-Bloodybones.” Liza tucks up her white skirts above her knees, but stays on the bank. “What if it’s an old dead skull with no skin, and long greasy hair, and he pulls me into the water with his horrible yellow teeth and I never go home. My mother said he would get me if I played in the brook.”

“Then only be nice,” Annie says, and wades into the green water up to her waist. “Say, ‘Of course Mr. Rawhead-and-Bloodybones. What a generous monster you are. ‘I’ll wash you and dry you and lay you down easy.’” She chants this, a haunting windy sound. “Then he’ll send you home with gold and jewels.”

Liza shudders. “I could never.”

The days are long and hot and the air is thick with the haze of burning leaves. All that red autumn, they skip stones, play ninepins with fir cones, catch fireflies in Liza’s straw bonnet. Annie likes to pretend that they are sisters, and Liza plays along.

Winters come, and springs and summers, one after another like birds flying south. Liza grows up slim and tall and graceful; she bends with every breeze. Annie is short and sturdy, strong as a fisher cat. Liza’s feet are petals, her hands are doves. Annie’s hands are red and chapped from lye soap, her feet are tough as tanned hide. Still, the girls resemble one another strangely, like a reflection in moving water. They are not as alike as our sisters, but anyone who looks at their faces together might wonder at the relationship.

They are never together now. Liza, who loves her mother as herself, who hardly knows the difference between them, will not have her mother shamed this way. When she sees Annie, she leaves the room. Annie is good enough for fetching water, for lighting the fire or scrubbing dirty linens, but she is a runaway housemaid’s by-blow, not a friend, and certainly not a sister. Liza’s father has only one daughter.

Annie comes to us alone now, sometimes to fetch water, and sometimes only to beat her fists against the earth, to run her devils out, to stand in the center of our sisters and scream herself hollow. She is a talking child, and having no one else, she talks to us.

“I want someone to love me so much, they hardly know the difference between us. I want to love someone so much I disappear.”

She brings red-cheeked, straw-haired boys to the dim, still spaces between us, and they lay their heads on our sisters’ knees. Annie wraps herself around the boys like a choking vine, drinks them down like water; she wants to lose track of whose heart she hears beating. She gives so freely of herself that she frightens them.

Every time they stop coming back, Annie goes deep into the close green company of our sisters and cries very hard for a day. She has a strangling kind of love, she tells us, a drowning kind of love. She wants too much, too quickly. Then she dries her eyes, goes home, and falls in love again.

There is always water to be drawn and carried—water for the coffee in the morning, for the washing on Saturday, for family baths on Sunday. Water for the Colonel’s horses and Cook’s chickens, and to dampen the red clay dust so it does not touch Liza’s skirts.

That’s how the stranger finds our Annie, fetching water, on the path she’s worn with her bare feet. She hears his horse whicker, a false note among the birdsong, and steps off to make way for him. The light casts lacy green shadows across his face.

“Spare a drop for a thirsty man?” the stranger asks her. She dips a tin cup into a pail, lifts it up to him. Their fingers meet around it.

He does not look dangerous. He is a young man, not handsome, with a patchy moss of beard clinging to his narrow face. Annie only cares that he looks at her with both eyes.

“That’s a heavy burden for a little thing like you,” he tells her, though Annie has been walking this path, carrying this water, all her life without him.

“It is,” she agrees, lifting her chin to meet his gaze square on. “What will you do about it?” So he slides down from his bay mare and takes the yoke from her shoulders. His neck is reedy, his hands soft and white and ink-stained. He spills more water than Annie would, but she doesn’t mind.

“Jonathan Burke,” he introduces himself.

“Annie Wise.” She lets her mouth fall open when she smiles, bares her small pearl teeth.

“You have the look of the Allens,” he says. “Are you related to the family?”

Annie shakes her head, then smiles, shrugs. She is not good at keeping secrets.

The fifth or sixth time that they meet again by the brook, by arrangement, Annie lays her head in John’s lap and they play the staring game: her eyes hold his eyes hold her eyes. The game makes the storm-heavy sky and the birdsong and the murmur of green water darken and dim, makes Annie feel larger and the world smaller, until she cannot tell whose eyes are whose, whose heart she hears beating. Sometimes John blinks first, sometimes Annie gets impatient and pulls him down to her, pressing kisses to the rough stubble of his neck.

“What would you do if I didn’t love you,” she asks him. “How would you make me?” He demonstrates, and she pushes him. “No,” she says. “I mean, what would you give me? Would you give me jewels and fine clothes? Would you die for me? Would you kill for me?”

“Guess I’m lucky you already love me,” John says.

The summer is hot, and they take off the rest of their clothes and wade into the lively brook. Annie wears John’s hat, to make him laugh.

While he still bathes, she takes his jacket from the pile of clothing, breathes in the warm animal smell of him, and goes through his pockets. His handkerchief is a finer weave than the rough cotton of his shirt—a gift, perhaps. She takes a fingernail of tobacco from his leather pouch and tries to brush it against the inside of her cheek, as she has seen John do. His pocket watch is silver, his father’s name picked out in black tarnish and the filigree worn smooth with time. She takes that too, to see if he will notice. She has given him everything she has, and expects his everything in turn—what is the unfairness in that?

“Will the Colonel acknowledge you?” John asks from time to time. Annie lets him think he might. And might he not? Perhaps a daughter married to a clerk, with prospects, would make her acceptable to Colonel Allen, who she never dares to think of as her father.

Annie is not good at keeping secrets. She smiles too much, she daydreams, she puts her hand on her trunk and waits to feel a minnow-tickle inside her. She has felt this before, but it did not live. She wants it to be a girl, to love so much she hardly knows the difference between them. She goes to fetch water, but instead lies in the shifting green light beneath our sisters and says names like spells: Laura. Delia. Pearl. Rose. She comes home hours late, in the dark, and lies to Cook about seeing a bear.

Liza finds her the next morning on her hands and knees outside the chicken coop, heaving up her morning toast.

“Were you drinking the Colonel’s port wine again?” Liza sniffs. Her face is Annie’s face, but cleaner and crueler.

“No—I’m saving that for my wedding.” Annie can cross any word from her sister.

“Who would marry you?”

“That would be telling,” Annie smirks, pleased to have something Liza wants.

For a few days after, she feels Liza’s eyes on her as she lights the fire, as she clears the plates and feeds the hens. She does not mind being a problem to solve; love is only notice, beauty is whatever draws attention. But Liza is good at putting her sister from her mind. When she stops seeing Annie again, it’s like the sun going behind the clouds.

When Annie is lonely, she rescues little things for her collection. She comes out into the forest with her treasure tight in her fist. Annie moves lightly among our sisters, takes one branch in her hand, then the next. We pass her each to each like a country dance. Liza watches the stirring of our silver-green crowns, and follows behind her.

Liza wears shoes of stiffened silk, pretty and costly, hardly better than being barefoot. The damp ground soaks through the soles and mud limns the embroidery flowers. She finds Annie hiding something in her old place: the woodpecker bore of our oldest sister.

Liza seizes Annie by the elbow then, yanks her back a step. She tries to pry her fingers apart, and they whirl around hand in hand, like a game they played as children. Something silver flashes in the grass and Liza pounces.

“You’re a sly one! Is that my hairpin?”

Annie shrugs sullenly. Why shouldn’t she have one little hairpin, when Liza has a father? Why shouldn’t she have any poor thing she can grasp? Liza reaches into the opening, and we feel her clumsy, probing fingers drawing it out piece by piece: Annie’s trove of saved and stolen coins. Thimbles and salt spoons and keys that leave rust smudges on Liza’s white hand. A faded pink silk flower. A heavy silver watch with “Burke” etched on the casing. Liza pauses at that.

“Where did you get this?”

“It was a present. John gave it to me. Because he didn’t have a ring yet.”

“Why would John Burke give you a ring?”

“We’re getting married—any day now he’ll ask me. He’ll have to ask me.” She lifts her chin, lays her hand against the bud in her belly. She has something Liza does not, she thinks. She feels no shame in it.

Liza’s brown eyes cloud over in thought. The Burkes are poor, but respectable. If Annie marries John Burke, she will not be a servant. Annie will stand beside her, at the milliner’s perhaps, at church dinners and recitals. Liza’s mother will see Annie in shoes and stockings, her face washed, her hair dressed. Everyone would see the resemblance.

This could not be borne. Annie must not marry him.

It is a long summer this year, like summers when they were children. Liza teases her mother into having a picnic. There will be hampers of cold chicken, cucumbers, pigeon pie, a white cake loaded with strawberries and cream. Liza and a dozen other young people of good families tramp into the forest, and Annie stands in the garden and watches them go. John Burke goes with them, and he never looks at Annie.

In the cool green privacy of our sisters, they are noisier than young foxes; they flirt and squabble and sing. The boys twist off our thin branches to switch each other with; their heavy shoes bite into the mossy path. Liza leads them to Annie’s secret place, and they sprawl on the ground and eat cold chicken with their fingers. One of the girls sneaks sherry into the lemonade, and they play at having drunk more than they have.

There are games—“Pig in the Parlor,” “Sugar and Tea,” and “Needle’s Eye”—excuses for the boys to grab the girls around the waist, and for the girls to let them. They make a ring, girls on the outside and boys on the inside, singing, “Skip-em-a-loo” while Liza, the odd girl out, laughingly breaks up the partners. There is no fiddle, so it isn’t really dancing.

The afternoon light cools and thickens to amber, gathering in the white shoulders of our sisters. Liza makes a show of seeing something shining in the trees.

“What’s this?” She draws it out theatrically. “John, this watch has your name on it.”

“I thought I lost that swimming,” John says, reaching for it. Liza smiles silkily, her suspicion confirmed.

“Perhaps a squirrel took it,” one of the girls suggests. Liza drops the watch through John’s outstretched fingers, and a bit of folded paper falls from the worn silver case.

One of the boys snatches it. “Some squirrel! ‘Missus Jon Burke,’” he reads aloud in a high, flowery voice. “‘Missus Any Burke. Anny Wise Burke.’” Annie’s childish scrawl is blotted and uncertain, she has traced the letters of John’s name from the watchcase.

“Not a squirrel—a pack rat!” Liza says archly, pulling out Annie’s treasures, her bits of frayed ribbon and bright eggshells. She has rubbed the pennies nearly smooth, as if she valued the shine of them more than what they could buy.

“Just like your father wants, Burke! Marrying money!” All the boys laugh at that, and John’s neck turns red. He crumples the bit of paper in his fist.

The others tire of the game soon; they pack up the remains of the picnic and kick Annie’s treasures under the roots of our sisters. John reaches for the watch, and Liza stops him with a gentle hand on his arm.

“Have a care for Annie Wise,” she tells him in a sour milk voice. “Last Spring, she told Paul Toller he had to marry her, had to, you understand. And of course he said no—it could be anyone’s. Every boy in Greenbriar County could be—well, the end of the year came around, and what do you think happened? Nothing. She said she lost it. Convenient. She’ll do it again, see if she doesn’t.”

He takes this in wordlessly, but his face darkens in rage, his hands clench in his pockets. Liza picks up the watch and runs a finger over the blackened filigree. “The Burkes were one of the first families of Greenbriar County. I don’t like to see the name tarnished.” She presses the watch into his palm then, lets her fingertips linger on the inside of John’s wrist. She is the Colonel’s acknowledged daughter, and she is smiling at him through her lashes.

It’s an ordinary evening. They make no unusual plans. They lie in the laps of our sisters, in the deepening shadows by the brook. John takes out the watch, drops it on Annie’s chest.

“What’s this?” she asks artlessly, blinking up at him.

“You know what it is. Why did you take it?”

“You gave it to me,” she insists.

“Like Hell I did! My father’s watch?”

“But when we’re married, we’ll share everything.” Annie wraps her fingers around the watch. It hasn’t been wound, doesn’t tick.

“Don’t be stupid, Annie. I have to marry someone with money. You know how my family is.”

“But we could be family,” she says eagerly. “We will be family.” She takes his hand and presses it to her belly. He snaps it back, quick as a curse.

“How do I know that’s mine?”

“It’s yours.”

“Well I won’t marry you, so you can just get rid of it like you did the last one.”

She slaps him across the face. They stare at one another for a moment, breathing quickly. He seizes her wrist in a crushing grip, and before he can take it back she flings the pocket watch out into the dark water. It barely makes a sound before it sinks.

He takes her face between his hands then, as if to kiss her, and she leans into him instinctively. He slides his hands down and digs his thumbs into the soft pulse of her neck.

Her breath rises and falls frantically, helplessly; the scream is trapped in her throat like a fish in a net. Her hands clutch at his forearms, she tries to pull him away but his arms are dead wood. Her nails bite into his wrists, she swings free to claw at his face, and he pushes her down, pins her arms between them. She thrashes, throws all her weight against him, but he lays heavily across her legs and torso, presses her into the dirt with his body. They play the staring game, while the world darkens and dims around Annie, while the blood beating in her ears drowns out the shrill of cicadas and the shush of moving water and the dry mournful clamor of our sisters, shaking our golden heads in a high wind.

In the deepest part of the river, the green murk holds Annie like a lover, dances her limbs in the current. Her mouth is a slack O in her blackened face, and the water moves through her like wind through the washing. She expands, contracts, a parody of breath.  Minnows weave through her algae-slick hair and nibble at the waxy flesh of her nose and ears. Her brown eyes have long since been eaten away; there is no light in them. The sodden white bark of her comes away in sheets, settles in the black earth of the river’s bottom. Her dress has rotted, she sheds her yellow leaves, she is whittled thin and bare as our sisters in winter.

Our roots drink the blood of Appalachia.

Our sisters along the river’s edge bury our fingers in the clay and draw her into us. We absorb the rich, loamy decay of her. We swallow her like we swallowed her thimbles and salt spoons and stolen keys; she has hidden her wasted heart in us, and it reaches out to her now. Annie becomes larger, the world smaller. She is consumed, transformed, sublimated into the airy reach and rambling sprawl of an aspen grove.

We awaken with our heads in the sky. We are various, expansive, we see from one hill to the next. The air is purer, the sun brighter. We remember being a girl the way we remember winters—a single short, cold day. We remember her joys and her fears, her hollow rages, her desperate hunger, her thwarted love. We remember Liza’s spite, and we remember John’s hands around our neck.

“She’s run away, that’s all,” Liza tells her mother. “With one of her fellows. It’s better this way, isn’t it?”

With Annie gone, the Colonel’s wife doesn’t know who will fetch the water for the coffee, for the chickens, for the Sunday baths. They hire a girl from Spooner, but she doesn’t live in, so sometimes Liza must walk to the brook to fetch water on a chill morning or a moonless early evening.

We watch Liza with scarred bark eyes. Our branches are dry claws, corpse-bare. The wind grinds our bones together. Wordless, we speak.

Sister, he killed me. Sister, you killed me.

John walks Liza home from church. She has him now, so that we would not, and what will she do with him? She never meant to keep him. He is always touching her, his hand on her back to guide her through doorways, to help her down from carriages, brushing imaginary smuts from her hair or her cheek. She ignores him, and he likes it. Nothing that can be easily had is worth having, he says. Anything given freely can be denied as freely, and so is not really yours.

A poor grub of a man, he seems to us now—a dumb, hungry creature that finds a wound and gorges till it bursts. He talks more to Liza than he did to us, because she does not want him. Surely she is safe from him, a girl of means, of good family. But he is always nearby, watching her, smiling his toothless predatory smile. He never mentions Annie. Liza does once, and he looks at her blankly. He is no actor—he has forgotten my name.

Sister, he killed me. Sister, you killed me.

She hears it as if we press our lipless mouth to her ear—our voice on the river, in the shivering branches, in the keen of the wind. She hears us as if we stand beside her, and don’t we, aren’t we always beside her, in the trees that cast long shadows across the garden, that grow ever closer to the fine house at the edge of the wood?

Sister, he killed me. Sister, you killed me.

She sleeps with wax in her ears, but we are not whispering in her ears. Liza grows thin with exhaustion, bruises around her brown eyes.

She knows what he’s done. She has to know. She goes to the brook. She does not know what she is looking for. Liza gathers up her dress, crosses carefully from stone to stone.

A snag parts the brook; the water breaks white around something sharp and strange. It catches on her skirts, and she trips and falls flat into the shallow brown water. Liza cries out, staggers up, drags herself toward the muddy bank. Up from behind her she pulls Annie’s drowned bones in a rush of murky water. Annie’s fleshless head rolls to the side, Liza’s skirt caught between its mossy teeth.

Liza screams, a shrill childish sound.

“John Burke! It was John Burke!” Liza can say nothing else. It is hard for her to tell her own voice from ours, so she speaks as little as she can now. She starts when she’s spoken to, cringes when touched, chokes on her own breath. She will never stop hearing us, sister to sister, a babble of dry windy voices knowing things she should not know, no matter she crosses a sea, builds herself a brick house, uproots every green thing that finds her. She hears us whispering in her blood, the kinship she never owned, the only kin she will ever have. The Allens are cut down year by year; Liza alone lives a long life, in a forest of voices she will not answer.

The bailiff brings John to the river. The townspeople follow like flies to meat, morbidly curious. The pile of Annie’s bones is pitifully small, and John’s eyes are flat and indifferent. He looks at them like a rotted tooth he has pulled, like a cat he has drowned. Too bad, too bad, but what else could be done?

“I didn’t know an Annie Wise,” he says, when the bailiff asks. “Wasn’t she the Allens’ maid?  Likely she got herself in trouble, you know, and did it to herself.” No one finds it odd, that he should know this—it is a common story, after all. The Burkes are an old family, people say. John Burke is a fine boy, a young man with prospects. They dig a grave five feet long and five feet deep. She will be buried in the Quaker meeting place, because no churchyard will take a woman pregnant and unmarried.

But when they take what is left of Annie to be buried, everyone can hear it, a musical rattle from the bones. They find it wedged inside her ribcage—a silver pocket watch, rusted shut, with “Burke” scratched into the surface. For months she has laid atop it in the soft muck of the riverbed.

They come among us with axes then, and we feel the shuddering bite of metal, the ache of saw-toothed blades. We have grown as tall as we ever will, Annie and our self, her age-mate, her yellow-headed sister. We are wrenched from the earth then, and they tie us alone to a wagon.

The town of Spooner is a muddy scar on the mountain. We have been here before, as a girl, but the colors and the light are wrong. There is nothing here we want anymore. The air is acrid with wood smoke and ripe with many human bodies living close together. We have never been so far from our sisters, in this glaring-bright place that is all path, where green things have been flattened by horses and carriages and many busy feet.

They carve us into a gibbet so raw it weeps sap. We can feel the world—the light and color and air of it—only numbly, and at a distance. We can feel ourselves desiccating, stiffening. We are ghosts together now: a girl that became a forest, a forest that became a girl.

John is taken to the scaffold, the hemp noose dropped over his head. The rope is a tether between us. The crowd hums with the high hungry energy of a wasp’s nest—there has not been a hanging in Spooner for too long. Liza is not permitted to attend, but the Colonel loves a just execution, the hypocrite. His face is hard with proprietary anger for the man who stole his maid, the property of his house. John’s beard has grown up his cheekbones, his nails are black and bitten. He looks more monstrous to the people now than he did when he looked at my drowned bones and denied me. Dead, Annie has become a good girl again, their virtuous darling, their unloved green maid. In the songs, John is the only villain.

The ground drops out from beneath him, and his head jerks back.

We play the staring game: John’s eyes look through us to the hammered steel sky overhead, his feet swim in the empty air. His breath rasps and the blood ruptures in his eyes, and we do not look away, not while the sound of the crowd fades to a thin vibration, not while the air clots in his throat, not while the world narrows and stills and vanishes with us.

We are reborn into light. The earth is noisy around us, full of searching roots, living water, the small industries of insects. We are the youngest of our sisters, but we know what the eldest knows. Our sisters nourish us, speak to us, love us like themselves. Summer comes, and autumn and winter. We mature and multiply, we are the size of a hillside, of a mountaintop. We spread like a story. Every spring, we bloom with catkins like foam on water. We dip the downy seedheads into the brook where we died.

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Kristiana Willsey

Kristiana Willsey is a writer and an academic who lives in Los Angeles. She is a 2019 graduate of Clarion West, and has published fiction in Uncanny Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and Toasted Cake Podcast. She has a PhD in Folklore and teaches at the University of Southern California.

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