The Willows

It’s not often a city girl like me gets to haunt an ancestral home as summer dies. The Willows is less a swooning plantation estate and more like a calico cat, a farmhouse cobbled together of mismatched parts and sprawled out proudly among the fields and forests. Still, it’s romantic as hell, and I will proudly declare that there’s some fellow feeling between me and the manor, or else why would I love it already as much as I love its master?

He’s chopping wood by the back door, his long hair pulled back and his plaid shirt peeled down to his waist. The tattoo over his heart is so wet with sweat that it looks like paint about to run down his suntanned chest. I can’t help thinking about him as an object, from far away. Hand to the warped kitchen window glass, I’m dreaming about licking ink from his flat stomach when my phone buzzes in the pocket of my sweater. I turn it on but say nothing.

“April? Are you there?”

I rub my bare foot over the wood boards, press down on a handmade nail with my big toe until it punctures. I hiss and pull back, but I’ve had my tetanus shot, so this is just an inconvenience, just the house getting under my skin. I drop the phone on the table and stick my foot in the sink, running it under the cold well water until the bleeding has stopped. The rusty smear on the old worn wood of the floor won’t wash away, but I’m almost pleased to have made my mark here.

“April!” my phone screams.

I pick it up, tuck it against my shoulder.

“I answered, didn’t I?”

Marty sighs. “Sure you did, sweetie. I didn’t even know if there was cell service out there. How’s it going?”

Chop. Thunk. Toss. Somewhere far off, a dog barks.

“Fine. Quiet.”

There’s a peculiar pause. “Too quiet?”

Chop, thunk.

“Just quiet enough.”

Chop, thunk.

“April, honey, is that an ax? Do I need to worry? Are you safe?”

O’Leary’s ax thunks into another log, and he tosses it on the pile and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. When he’s done, we’ll stack the wood together under the eave just like he did as a boy. O’Leary says the stack needs to reach all the way up the kitchen door if it’s going to last us through winter. I can’t wait until it’s cold enough for a fire in the stone fireplace. It’ll be all the more delicious, warming my hands over the work of his.

“Of course it’s an ax. That’s how we get firewood out here, Marty. Wood doesn’t chop itself. Fire can’t burn without something to consume.”

Marty ignores the poetry. She always does. “So I hate to ask, but have you got any tracks for me? The studio’s all set up in the barn, the guys said.”

It’s my turn to sigh. “Music takes time, Marty. Words are fickle. But the songs will come.”

“The drop date is the drop date, sweetie. Time’s running out. Deliver the album on time or you break contract and pay back the advance. And you two are out of money. You remember that part, right?”

I trace a finger down the window glass, making a smudge over O’Leary. “We’ll do it later.”

“Later? What are you waiting on?”

If I were a diva… but I’m not, even after the platinum record and the world tour. Sure, our process is as particular as we are and as cobbled together as the Willows. But we’ve never let Marty down before. And for all that she thinks I forget, I know all too well how much we need this album.

As much as I need this place. As much as it needs me.

We’re hungry, all of us.

“We’re waiting until the wood is stacked head-high, Marty. Until the geese are flying south in the morning like winter is biting their butts. Until ice kisses the edges of the lake like a gentleman nibbling a lady’s glove. Until the junebugs take their hum underground to sing to speckled eggs. Until the horses get shaggy as velvet and the deer creep close for the cabbages and the rabbits only come out to drink dewdrops under the dryer vent. Until the nightingale’s call echoes all the way to the stars. When the snow knocks on the front door and the only sound is winter’s muffled sigh, then we’ll start recording.”

Marty’s silent for a moment.

“Sounds like the words are there, at least. Are you writing that shit down?”

My silence speaks for me.

“So can I talk to O’Leary?”

I say nothing.

“Honey, be careful, okay? You know that—”

I turn off the phone.

“Goodbye, Marty,” I say to the empty room.

Something about him is different. I don’t want Marty to know. She might take him away from me.

Or me away from him.

Weeks pass by with the soft rhythm of heron wings, stirring up the morning clouds. I’m picking the last of the blueberries when O’Leary’s spotted dog runs up from nowhere, barking happily.

“You got a housewife in that fancy development down the street slippin’ you sugar, Beast?”

In response, he just wags. Playing dumb. As dogs do.

“You think that ol’ boy’s been cheating on you, baby?”

When I hear O’Leary’s voice, I open up like night blooming jasmine. His hand on my shoulder surprises me, and I let go of the corners of my shirt. Blueberries rain down and bounce on the summer-hard ground around my bare feet. O’Leary stoops to pick a few, rattles them in long fingers calloused by steel guitar strings.

“He wouldn’t go doin’ that,” I say. “He knows which side his bread is buttered on.”

Selecting a blueberry, O’Leary steps close and brushes my lips with it. I know he sees me shudder. He rubs the blueberry back and forth, eyes crinkled up and dark mustache twitching over his beard. I make him wait a few moments before I open my mouth, and he pushes the blueberry in with his flat thumb. The berry bursts on my tongue, perfectly ripe and warm with the afternoon sun. They’ll begin to rot soon, but now, they’re perfect.

“Sweet, ain’t it?”

I just nod and swallow and open my mouth for more.

“Greedy little thing.”

He tosses back his head and tips the rest of the blueberries from his palm into his own mouth. Grinning as he chews, he wags his eyebrows, lakewater-green eyes deeply amused at the look of annoyance and hunger I’m sure is written on my blueberry-stained lips.

“Got to keep something for myself, sugar.”

I don’t realize until he turns away that I always thought his eyes were deep brown, like melted chocolate.

Or were they? I don’t remember. This place is changing him, making him harder. Seems like he didn’t used to be the greedy sort, either, although he’s never been the kind for answering questions.

As he disappears into the pasture with the dog wagging at his side, I watch his ponytail swinging against that tender place where his shoulder blades have sweated through his shirt. His sleeves are pushed up, his arms pale despite all his time in the sun, tending to things. I thought all this work and good food would fill him out, but it’s almost like he’s wasting away, his arms and legs wiry and hard. He’s still strong, though. So strong.

I squat and make a hammock of my shirt, plucking up the blueberries that can be saved. Some are so ripe they all but exploded when they hit the ground. If I can get another shirt full, I’ll make him a blueberry buckle I found in his grandmother’s recipe book. Maybe I’ll eat it all myself and make him watch. That’ll show him who’s greedy.

Suddenly, inexplicably, he’s on the ground, crouched, facing me, fierce green eyes piercing mine, and I’m starving for him. I lean in, and the wind changes before I reach his lips. Breathing in deep, I draw back, trying to suss it out.

“What’s that smell?” I ask.

“Something dead.” O’Leary pulls me close, and kisses me hard before adding, “Possum, maybe. Probably crawled under the porch to die. He won’t bother us.”

He kisses me until I forget, until all I can smell is him.

Rain wakes me, hammering the tin roof overhead like the fists of a tantruming god. Something drops on my face and rolls down my cheek to the crease in my mouth. Curious, I stick out my tongue to taste it. Metal and coolness, like wrapping your hands around the bars of a cemetery fence and moaning for dirty reasons. O’Leary and I did that once. Just once. I was a little scared, but O’Leary said there was nothing to fear. Now I wish I could wrap my arms around his waist and snuggle close, but he’s not here, and the bed is cold.

Another drop. Another lick.

“Roof might be rusted,” O’Leary says.

I turn in his childhood bed, another drop plunking in my hair as I face the dark corner where he stands.

“We can fix it.”

He chuckles. “I can fix it, you mean. Once the storm is done. Let’s move the bed and put a pot under that hole. You’re wet to the skin.”

“Just give me a minute, first.”

I lay on my back, listening. All around us, music. I can already hear my plucked violin strings and his guitar, settling together in perfect harmony. Something’s dripping on the dresser, hitting the porcelain bowl where I keep the jewelry I no longer wear. Another raindrop hits the wooden boards with a hearty plop, like it’s been trying to reach that wood since one was a tree, the other an ocean. Inside, we’re protected, but outside, the storm pounds all around, the wind lashing the shutters. It’s a symphony of neglect, and I can already hear the song in my head. When I reach for my notebook, raindrops splatter on the inside of my bare arm.

He tries to pull me up, away, toward the corner. “Forget the words. Dance with me.”

And it’s tempting, but I shake my head, snap my arm back. “You know I can’t sleep when there’s music. And you told me you didn’t dance.”

“C’mere, sugar. I can teach you.”

“Stop teasing me, O’Leary. This album won’t wait. Marty won’t wait.”

“Anything can wait, if it wants something badly enough.”

Irritated, I flap a hand at him and flick on the lamp and start scribbling. Raindrops plunk on the paper, smearing my hasty cursive. He watches me from the dark, head cocked like a cat. I crook a finger, but he stays there, stubborn as a shadow. The rain that falls in his night-loose hair is muffled, but a few rogue drops streak his black hair white. With a sly grin, he seals his lips and starts humming a bar against the rain, and it’s flawless, so flawless. Like he can already hear what’s in my heart.

The moment he starts humming, my words deaden like birds falling from the sky.

I stop scribbling. The song is gone.

“I can’t,” I mumble, “I don’t know…”

But O’Leary just swallows heavily and hums like a man with a full belly.

First the blueberries, now this.

Something ain’t right about that man. But somehow, I always forget.

When he curls around me, I don’t relax into him. He’s colder than the rain dripping down my face.

In the morning when I wake up, it’s still raining. O’Leary is gone, and I am soaked. I push the bed across the room, corner by corner, to a dryer spot. Downstairs, I fetch armfuls of dusty teacups and ewers and mismatched china bowls to catch the leaks. An especially drippy spot in the corner merits an old copper washbasin, one O’Leary said his grandmother used to wash her delicates, long ago. I stand back, hands on hips in O’Leary’s white shirt, watching the rain fall straight through the rusted hole in the roof to bounce against the oxidized metal. I know then exactly how I’ll sit in the dry, state-of-the-art studio, this very tub between my bare knees, banging on it with an old wooden spoon as I try to remember the song I started writing last night.

Downstairs, wet black footsteps glisten by the front door. Maybe O’Leary’s picking on one of his guitars in the studio, like he should. Or maybe he’s off with Beast, wandering the fields in the rain or tending the family cemetery out in the woods again. Or just doing what lost men do.

I remind myself that me and O’Leary are wild things, and we both need room. I think that’s part of why going on tour makes us bicker, makes him run off. We don’t like being trapped, even with each other. Leaks and all, this rambling old farmhouse is a thousand times better than the nicest hotel room we’ve been stuck in. Of course it’ll take us some time to settle in. But I can feel the house making room.

Thunder booms, white light flashing through the kitchen window’s gloom. The sweet potato vines are dying, curling away from the dimpled glass like brown spider legs. I run water in the kettle, put it on the new stove. The old one was a fire hazard, which we discovered the first time he brought me here. I tried to make tea one night while he was asleep upstairs and nearly burned the house down. After that, O’Leary bought all new appliances, and they look unnaturally sleek against the worn wood boards. He said the wiring’s so old we might catch aflame in our bed one night, but neither of us is worried.

Later that afternoon, I’m in the studio, laying down the second part of the second song. O’Leary still hasn’t put down guitars on the first one, which isn’t like him. My phone rings, and my mood completely deteriorates. I click everything off, remove my headphones, and place my violin on the music stand.

“What?” I nearly growl.

“Haven’t heard from you in a while, sweetie. You okay?”

“You just ruined the second song.”

Marty is silent for a minute. “You never sent me the first one.”

I pluck the E string on my fiddle. I won’t tell her the truth.

“You can’t hear nothin’ til the whole album’s done.”

I can almost hear the steam coming out of her ears and ruining her perfect ringlets, all the way up in New York. “Sweetie, that’s not how it works. That wasn’t the deal. You guys asked for space and time, and you got it. But the schedule’s not changing and it’s already tight. You’re usually so good about sending tracks. April, you…”

She trails off.

“What, Marty?”

“You sound different, kid. Like you’re getting an accent.”

“That’s what happens when you move to a new place, become part of it. O’Leary’s accent got deeper, too. Look, I’m in the studio like you want. I was recording. I’m doing what needs to be done. Art takes time.” I pluck the string again, listen to it vibrate in the still air. “It’s gonna be so good, sugar.”

She snorts in frustration. “How high is the woodpile, April?”

Of course she would ask.

“Up to my waist. I’ll finish the second song today. Everything will be done in its own time.”

“I need a song this week, sweetie.”

But I know the truth. Without me, without this, without us, they’ve got nothing. So they’ll wait. They won’t like it, and they’ll apply pressure, but they’ll wait. Something big’s gonna happen soon. I can feel it.

But Marty isn’t done.

“Where’s O’Leary? Let me talk to him. He’s always more reasonable than you are.”

“Who knows where O’Leary is? Call him if you want.”

“I did. I have. Many times. He won’t answer.”

“Smart man. I could learn a thing or two from him.”

“April, don’t you hang up—”

I hang up and turn off the phone. She won’t interrupt this again.

When I go into the studio to record, the song comes back to me—most of it. But I can’t remember O’Leary being in the room during the storm. He was there, wasn’t he? I put down layers of percussion, the rust of his grandmother’s washtub staining my thighs red. As I hear it all come together for the first time, I shiver like there’s still cold rain dripping down the inside of my arm, like a goose walked over my grave. He tried to steal my song, but it didn’t work. I took it back. The blueberries are gone, but he can’t take this away from me.

And Marty can’t take this place away from me.

I was meant to be here.

The sun is barely up, and I stand at the edge of the still black lake. The water’s deeper than it looks, or so O’Leary told me. He used to swim here as a child, and he promised he’d take me skinny-dipping one day, for all that I don’t know how to swim. I woke up because I heard a horse out here, screaming bloody murder, and I came to help. But it’s just an old black mare knee-deep in the water, and she looks more bored than anything.

“Where’d you come from, girl?” I say, and she twitches her ears.

O’Leary’s family used to raise Tennessee Walkers, and the barn’s full of rotting bits of leather. There hasn’t been a horse here in twenty years, so she must belong to a neighbor. With a gentle tug on her long mane, I pull the mare back onto the muddy shore and lead her all the way around the lake to the place where the rusted barbed wire pokes out from thick prickle bushes. I pull her to the gate to the neighbor’s horse pasture, but she won’t go through. She just sniffs and snorts, indignant, like the metal’s an insult to her sensibility.

“Then stay as long as you want,” I say, leaving her in the pasture. “I’ll try to find a halter. Maybe O’Leary knows who you belong to. Or maybe you belong here with us.”

The mare blinks at me like I’m a fool, and when I walk away, she doesn’t follow. When I come back with an old, crusty halter, she’s nowhere to be found, which is just fine, as I have other business today.

I leave my boots by the kitchen door and pad barefoot into the cellar, daydreaming about what it’ll be like next summer, traveling from kitchen to garden with handmade baskets full of produce. Peaches, berries, okra and squash. Now the cellar shelves are full to bursting with glass jars of jelly, marmalade, jam, chow-chow, pickles, and peeled tomatoes the warm, wet red of baby hearts, but it’ll be my job to replenish the stores next year. O’Leary women are always good in the kitchen. Onions and garlic hang from the ceiling in braids, and barrels of squash and potatoes lurk in the cellar corners like fat trolls. I don’t know who collected them, who lovingly dusted the jars so that I found them sparkling clean, but I do my best to keep things nice in my turn. I like the feel of the dirt floor under my bare feet, solid and dusty and cool, as I run my hands over the army of winter supplies sprung from this very land. They feel like a part of me, like they came from me, for all that I just arrived.

There’s a cradle in the corner of the cellar, hand-made of well-oiled wood. O’Leary told me they used to carry it upstairs every time a cousin with a baby came by. The women would sit on the porch with fans, long limbs spread out over the porch swing and rocking chairs. The woman closest to the cradle would push it gently with a foot until the baby inside went to sleep, and they’d take turns swatting the flies and skeeters off as they chatted and gossiped and shared recipes. Many a night he fell asleep in his attic room, he told me, the laughter of O’Leary women carrying on the still night. But when his grandparents died, right here in the house, the laughter ended and the house was closed up tighter than a turtle’s butt. Until we came back.

Every time I’m on the porch alone, I wish to be among those women, learning their secrets. In my dreams, sometimes, I imagine cousins and aunts flitting about me as I stand on a milk crate, taking in and letting out the antique O’Leary white lace wedding dress I found in the attic closet, the one worn by his great-grandmother, grandmother, and a passel of cousins and aunts. His mother never wore it; she just dropped him off as a baby and ran. It’s perfectly preserved, the hand-tatted lace and hand-hemmed edges calling to my fingertips. I’ve pored through the photo albums and the family Bible, and I know this for certain: O’Leary brides always wear white and marry in winter. They’re all virgins when they take their vows, and they rock their babies to sleep in that cradle while sleek black horses graze in the fields.

I want that, too.

This place is wriggling under my skin like worms turning soil, like little carrot roots grasping deep. I realize I’m wearing someone else’s old, faded apron over my dress, over the growing bump of my belly. I don’t know where I found it, don’t recall putting it on. But it feels like mine.

Humming to myself, I select a jar of preserves, twist open the top with a delicious pop, and smother the disquiet with sweetness, digging my fingers deep into the jar and scooping long-kept strawberries into my mouth while sitting on the cellar stairs and covering my apron with new stains the color of blood.

I’m elbow-deep in peaches when O’Leary walks in.

I’m canning now. I know just what to do, barely even have to look at the old recipe book. Stacks of jars glint in the afternoon sunlight, and there’s a pile of tops and stems for the compost heap. It’s my job to keep us alive through the winter, to provide the sweetness to O’Leary’s meat. Despite the mess, the man’s hands slide around my waist like a hot knife in butter.

“Well aren’t you the little helpmeet,” he says, but he might as well ask me to get down on my knees, the words are so loaded with meaning.

I don’t turn, just let him see the cut of my chin over my shoulder. “Well, I hear it’s the job of O’Leary women to keep their men fat through a hard winter.”

“Nobody ever got fat off jelly.”

I lay the knife down gently and wipe my hands off on my apron, adding another layer of stains to three generations’ worth of juice. Oh so carefully, I select a strawberry, an utterly perfect red missile aimed right for his mouth. The pad of my bare feet on the hand-hewn wood boards and the tick-tock of the cat clock are the only sounds as I cross the kitchen and rub speckled seeds against his lips, just like he did with me and the blueberry.

“Then just get sweet,” I say. “You been mean, lately.”

He turns away, lips drawn down, and I eat the berry myself. But it tastes rotten.

“You know how my Great Aunt Mary Lou died?” he asks, and it surprises me so much that I spin around and stare, waiting for another drop in the bucket of his family history, for the sort of thing that’s not covered in the giant leather Bible in the living room. It’s got birth dates and death dates and sometimes a line about dropsy or gunshots or influenza, but it never brings me close enough to the folks who lived and died here. I long to know every bit of this place.

“She ate a bad strawberry?” I say teasingly.

He shakes a finger at me. “Don’t speak ill of the dead in their own home, sugar. Never know when they might take offense.” Sauntering over, he selects a strawberry of his own and chops off the top with my knife, hard enough to leave the blade embedded in the woodblock chopping board. “Long ago, Great Aunt Mary Lou was canning in here, and one of the jars took wrong. Something to do with heat and chemicals, and… Lord, I don’t know. Damn top popped off and struck her in the skull. She fell over and never woke up.”

“You’re saying your aunt died in this kitchen, canning strawberries?”

With a smirk, he drops the berry and saunters right back out the door. I fear he’s left me hanging, but he speaks from the darkness outside the open kitchen window, his voice as rich as syrup.

“No, sugar. I’m just saying canning ain’t for the weak at heart. You’re saving things that God never meant to last.”

And then, like a cat, he’s gone.

When I slam the door and turn back around, there’s a new layer of shadows stirring along the haint blue ceiling. Running a finger down the recipe for strawberry jam, I see measurements and directions and even some hand-scrawled notes on when exactly to pick the strawberries and where to buy the cone of sugar. But there’s nothing on how to not die like Aunt Mary Lou did. No hints on staying in the good graces of ghosts. No warnings for new O’Leary women, telling them how to keep their names out of that Bible.

For a moment, I imagine Aunt Mary Lou in this very apron, barefoot in this kitchen a hundred years ago. I imagine her in the antique O’Leary wedding dress in the closet upstairs, a bleached white I don’t deserve to wear, because any ghosts in this house know damn well I’m not pure. She was thin, with a pinched face, this woman. Maybe she lived here during the hard years when the fields didn’t produce, when the foals were thrown weak and the rains never came. I imagine her hand shaking as she sliced the strawberries, her frown deepening as she measured out the sugar. Did she skimp on the vinegar or salt? Was she too busy worrying about her man to pay attention to tablespoons? What can I do to avoid dying here with my hands stained strawberry red?

All in a rush, I dry my hands off on my apron and scurry to the living room. The Bible’s cover is heavy, and it creaks as I open it. My red-stained fingertip trails down the long list, past brown ink and black, until I see Mary Lou O’Leary, born 1897, died 1949. Cause of death: mule kicked.

I run to the kitchen door, fling it open, and yell, “Damn you, O’Leary!”

Somewhere, far away in the fields or forest, I hear laughter.

But I have a new worry to consider:

O’Leary has never lied to me before. He can’t even lie to Marty. He’s a terrible liar.

Or he was.

I spend the night in the studio to formally register my complaint. I don’t see him in the morning, and the gun is missing. My oatmeal tastes like dirt. When I hear the horse bellowing again, I slip the halter off the fence post and go searching through the tall, golden grass. I realize I never mentioned her to O’Leary, and he never asked about the halter on the post or the tossed rooms of the barn.

I find the black mare by the lake, tail switching like I’m late for a promised appointment.

Instead of heading directly back to the barn, I decide to explore a little with my new companion. It’s a beautiful morning, warmer than it should be, a soft exhale like a dying swan. We hit the corner where the white fence turns back to twisted wire crusted with rust. Here and there, hair is trapped in the twists, brown and black and white, even a shiny dark one that definitely isn’t equine, as if O’Leary bent close to fix something and got caught for a moment. We soon reach the forest, but I don’t lead the horse under the shade. If she wants to explore within, that’s her business. I’ll enjoy the autumn sunshine while I can. It’s almost the equinox—I can feel it in my bones.

We pass by the wooden arch over the path to the O’Leary family cemetery, the road wide enough for the old farm truck to rumble down with a coffin tied in back. I shiver and keep walking. I saw the cemetery once, when we first got here, and that was enough.

I lead her deeper into the pasture, running my hand over the crisp brown grass, and when the horse stops to graze, I give her more rope and watch her delicately lip the green shoots near the ground. When I go to pat her again, she screams, and her face slams into my shoulder, knocking me sideways. I fall flat on my belly, breathless. Grunting and squealing, she half-rears and dances back, eyes rolling.

I press up from the ground to face five feet of pissed off snake as thick as my arm. It strikes and misses, and I barely manage to jerk back out of range as it regroups and coils for another shot, tail rattling like pennies in a metal cup. My heart’s in my throat, my hands are cold, and my arm throbs where the mare’s skull clocked it, but all I care about is not getting bit. I roll away, dizzy and shaking, caught between angry horse and angrier snake, one step away from walking the path of Aunt Mary Lou. Before I can stand up and run, black hooves strike out and stomp, one-two-three, and the snake goes from tense alien eyes and vibrating tail to a long rope of limp, speckled-brown meat nearly cut in half.

I stand on shaking legs and look back to the gate, but O’Leary’s nowhere in sight. The horse is still upset, still dancing and stomping like the snake might rise up again, so I pick up an old branch, scoop it up like a noodle, and lob it into the forest. When I go for the mare’s halter rope, she pins her ears and rolls her eyes like she thinks I’m the enemy, and it takes five minutes of calm assurances before she’ll let me grab it and stroke her neck. She’s as rattled as I am, but she handled it a damn sight better. O’Leary said there were snakes out here, but I’ve never seen one before, and he hasn’t mentioned seeing any since we arrived, not on all his long walks alone. Suddenly, the idyllic pastures don’t feel as safe.

That’s one more thing to look forward to, with the fall of winter: the snakes will go to bed.

There will be one less way to die.

I need to get back to the house.

I stumble through the pasture. No matter how many times I tell myself to relax, my heart is fluttering like sparrow wings. The house feels like it’s miles away. Finally I fumble past the gate and pass into the shadow of the barn. It takes me two tries to tie the mare’s halter to the hitching post with shaking hands, and when O’Leary finally returns, I’m crumpled into a heap on the kitchen floor, sobbing.

“What’s wrong, sugar?”

“There was a snake.”

“Did you get bit?”

I shake my head.

He’s on his knees before I can draw another breath, his arms wrapping firm around me and drawing me up to carry me like a child. His shirt is soft and worn, the black fading to a comfortable gray. His chest is so cold, like he’s just come from the wood’s cool shadows.

“What kind of snake?” He turns me sideways to get up the narrow stairs.

“Timber Rattler, I think. It came so close. But the horse killed it.”

“What horse?”

“The one tied up by the barn.”

He’s oddly quiet, but his boot heels echo. In old houses like this, they always built a trip stair, so if you didn’t live there and you tried to sneak in, you’d trip. I used to trip a lot. But O’Leary has always known where it is.

He pulls me close and carries me sideways down a narrow hall and into the master bedroom, the one where his grandparents slept. It’s barely been touched since they passed on, and he told me never to open their door, that it was private. Panic gives way to curiosity. It’s dark inside, the curtains drawn, but O’Leary takes me straight into a sunlit bathroom with an old claw-foot tub and jerks the hot tap on, the copper colored water gushing to clear as he plugs in a rubber stopper, holding me on his knees. I sling my arms around his neck and whimper, but I’m not sure why. I’m not a girl who scares easy. But I’m not a girl who ever had a snake strike for her face until today, either. And there’s something about this room, as if it’s holding its breath. Waiting.

With one arm behind my shoulders, he tugs off my muddy boots and undresses me until I’m completely naked and undone. My belly stands between us, and I think I catch him frowning at it. It’s too big to miss, now. The room’s not cold, but I am, and he is, and he’s soon holding my hand to help me step into the steaming water. It hurts, but it hurts good, and I sink down to make an archipelago, all high, round mountains and wet valleys.

“You okay alone for a minute, darlin’?” I nod, my hair floating around me. “I’ll be back.”

Closing my eyes, I think back to the sweet times, to August and berries and rocking porch swings and tying apron strings around my slender waist. At first, this place felt like a dream, a honeymoon. Nothing was wrong, nothing hurt. But one snake has reminded me of everything that can go wrong, of black widows in the mailbox and poisoned berries and chimneys catching fire. We are such fragile things in such a hard world. No wonder Marty keeps asking me if I’m safe here. No wonder I keep checking that list of deaths in the Bible.

I don’t realize I’m holding my breath underwater until O’Leary shimmers above me in the low light. Breaking past the surface, cheeks burning, I take in a deep, steaming breath and feel my lungs clear and my eyes sharpen. His face is a war of love and annoyance, like how dare the Willows almost let me get hurt? His bones are sharper than they used to be. He holds out a crystal glass of amber-gold liquid, and I sit up with my back against the tub to sniff it.

“Makes my nose burn.” But I sip it anyway and love the fire seeping down my belly and out through my limbs, making me limp. My heart slows to a steady thump, my fingers stop shaking and warm back up, and O’Leary sticks his hands in his pockets and pulls out fistfuls of rose petals, letting them shower into the bath around me.

“Roses and rye,” he says. “Cure for anything.”

He settles onto the tufted vanity cushion and pulls it close. I feel naked suddenly and reach for a faded old box of bubble bath, sprinkling the crusted pink flakes into the running water as the level rises dangerously high. I’m sure to keep one hand firm around the whiskey. I need that heat.

The water’s high and the bubbles foam over the edge, so I switch off the taps and lay back, blowing white billows and petals away from my chin. O’Leary sets down his glass and kneels at the end of the tub. After taking off his shirt, he reaches into the hot water and pulls out my left foot, already pink and wrinkled. My toenails are painted a dusty pink like the flowers on my favorite teacup in the kitchen. I can’t reach them anymore, and I don’t remember painting them.

“That’s my pretty little Rose,” he mutters, and his big thumbs trail down to my arch and press in, massaging. It occurs to me that my name’s not Rose, not anything close, but he always likes his pet names. Especially since we got here: sugar, darlin’, baby. I like it. Mostly.

As his hands move up and down my foot, pressing and kneading, we don’t speak, barely blink. If I gave him the slightest sign, I know he would pluck me out of the bath, slippery as a carp, and carry me to the nearest bed and take advantage of the wetness and softness and tipsiness, belly or no. But I’m still shaken up inside, and he knows that, too. And I want him to do the other foot. So I don’t even smile; I just sip and stare. With a last stroke that makes my toes splay out like a stretching cat, he releases my left foot and reaches for the right to repeat the entire process. He’s never touched me this way before.

He’s beautiful to watch, head bent over his task and dark hair hanging down as it does when he’s playing guitar. Long, strong fingers, calloused and sure, nails trimmed short for his work. I imagine what he will look like cradling a baby, holding a child in his lap.

Then it hits me. My eyes burn with tears, and I drop the whiskey glass. It shatters on the wood boards.

“I’m not supposed to drink,” I say, flooded with shame. “It’s not good for…”

But we never speak of my belly. O’Leary brides wear white.

He finishes with my right foot and slips it back under the velvety water like an apology.

“You done some things you shouldn’t have done, sugar.”

I shake my head, the hot water soaking into my nape. “I reckon we both have.”

He stands, not quite hiding a sneer.

“Enjoy that hot water you’re in, baby.”

And then he’s gone.

I reach for him, and the water plinks onto the wood floor as it overflows the tub. Where did these petals even come from? The knock-out roses have been dead for months. O’Leary’s boots go down the stairs, thumpity thump, and I’m alone in this place I thought I wanted to see, but now I don’t. Everything in here—it’s like they died and he closed the door and didn’t touch a thing. It’s thick with dust, the hairbrush still has white hairs in it, but there are auburn ones, too, and there’s a red stain on the edge of the tub I didn’t notice when I got in. That’s right—his grandmother slipped and hit her head on the tub, and his grandfather fell down the stairs carrying her. Tripped on the tripping stair.

I lurch up, but the bottom of the tub is slick, and instead I sink down. It’s as if someone’s holding me underwater, and the hot liquid fills my nose and mouth and ears, and I open my eyes and look up, and someone is there, someone’s hands are on my shoulders, holding me down, a black-clad preacher, some sort of sick baptism, and it’s O’Leary but it’s not, and then I push up hard and heaving and take a deep breath of cool air and cough up bubbles and roses.

When I open my eyes, no one is there.

That night, I sleep alone in the attic bed. I don’t hear him come or go. I sleep like the dead. When I wake up, I’m wearing an old white nightgown that isn’t mine.

The next morning, I hear clanking outside. A tall metal ladder leans against the edge of the lower roof. This house has all sorts of rooms tacked on by different O’Leary men, and now my O’Leary is halfway up with a hammer, a tool belt full of nails, and one arm loaded up with tin sheets. He steps gingerly off onto the lowest roof, the shingled one over the kitchen that isn’t low at all.

“Hand me up the ladder, will you, darlin’?”

No good morning, no apology, no nothing. As if he never put me in that bathtub at all. As if he never held me down.

I’m stunned to realize he’s gonna take the tall, rickety aluminum ladder up with him. It’s light, though, and I hold it up until he catches the wobbling rungs and tows it onto the roof. As he fits it against the wall and climbs up to the top roof, worry clutches at my throat. He’s got to be thirty feet up now, stepping onto the sloped tin in his old work boots. Soon he’s on his hands and knees, nails stuck between his grinning teeth. No wonder he loves this place. Anything that breaks, he can put it back together. Whereas I just keep falling apart on him. I haven’t told him that I’m seeing things. That I’m having trouble telling what’s real. But with this distance, with me out of his reach, I have the gumption to ask him a question.

“What happened last night, O’Leary?” I call. “In the bathtub?”

He spits the nails into his hand and stands and stares at me, green eyes like ice.

“Darlin’, have you by any chance heard the call of a nightjar since you came here?”

Lord, this man makes me crazy in a dozen ways, even if he don’t make sense. “What the hell’s a nightjar, and what the hell’s it got to do with the bathtub?”

He nods once and smiles and kneels to hammer down another chunk of tin. In between clanks, he says, “It’s a bird, ugly little brown thing that looks like a pile of leaves. Only sings at night. Lot of superstitions about ’em. Story goes unmarried girls always listen for the nightjar. One call means she’ll be married after a year. Two calls means she’ll be married even sooner. Three means she’s doomed to be a spinster.”

“What’s four calls mean?” I ask, the hair rising on my arms.

“A funeral,” he says, and he looks goddamn serious. I struggle to fill that silence, because not one bird will do me the kindness.

“What’s it sound like?”

He hammers for a minute, then says, “You’ll know it when you hear it.”

I cross my arms over my belly and feel tears prick at my eyes. “But before it can call four times, it has to call once, right?”

O’Leary stands and walks to the rusted place, his steps even and sure although he looks like he’s about to slide right off the slope like an Olympic ski jumper.

“I know what you want, baby. But you got to change, too. You’re not an O’Leary yet. We’re trying, but Lord, you’re stubborn.” He kneels, and his face disappears behind his hair. “Hard as rocky soil. Don’t you think I might have plans for you?”

I stomp in the dirt, little good as it does. I’m glad he can’t see how red and splotchy and near tears I am. I can’t take his baby back, can’t be his perfect bride.

“What about my plans, O’Leary? What about the album?” I swallow hard, halt the hitch in my breath. “You said you’d marry me when it was done.”

His face goes dark, and the sun shining behind him makes his hair glow white. “It’s already too late for that, ain’t it?”

“How dare you?” It’s barely a whisper. “I thought you were a better man than this.”

He stands. “You don’t know what kind of man I am.”

“Don’t lie to me again,” I say. “You’re the kind of man who takes a girl’s virginity and then won’t marry her because she’s carrying his baby, because of some strange ol’ family rule. You been acting all kinds of strange, O’Leary. You ain’t even wrote a single song. You left it all to me. Now you come on down here and tell me how we’re gonna go on like this.”

He sneers and jumps. I scream bloody murder as he plummets, but he lands on his feet right in front of me as if it doesn’t hurt a goddamn bit.

O’Leary cracks his neck, and he’s not O’Leary anymore, he’s this pale old man, a different version of my O’Leary, one who doesn’t smile, whose eyes are the wrong color, whose touch is like drowning, who has the angry green eyes of a preacher.

“I’ll tell you how we’re going to go on, you whore,” he says in an old man’s drawl.

This man is a stranger, I don’t know who he is, he’s all wrong, and I don’t know what else to do so I snatch the hatchet off the head-high woodpile by the kitchen door and bury it in his chest.

Somewhere, out in the pasture, a bird sings plaintively.

One call. Then two. Then three. Then four.

And he falls to the red dirt.

I don’t know what to do. He doesn’t look like my O’Leary any more. He looks like his grandfather, but his eyes are white now, his lips shriveling back, his hair falling out in tufts. The blood pouring out where the hatchet was is slurry and as black as the lake. The horse is gone, if she was ever here, the broken halter hanging from a rusty nail. I don’t know where I left my phone. I haven’t seen it in days. The nightjar calls again, for all that it’s daytime. Four times, clear as a bell.

It’s up to me, isn’t it?

I am an O’Leary now, for good or ill.

I fetch the old wheelbarrow. The barn smells freshly of horses, and it sighs as I leave, as if I’ve made some grave mistake. It takes everything I have to get O’Leary in the barrow, but I have to. This is what he would’ve wanted—my O’Leary. It takes hours to trundle him out to the family plot, his shriveled arms and legs jiggling like fatback as the wheel skips over rocks. It’s cool again under the shadows, the afternoon suddenly as chill as a winter’s night. As I pass, adders strike at my bare feet and the thorns of knock-out roses pluck at my nightgown, and somewhere, a black mare screams, but I don’t stop. Step after step I follow the path O’Learys have walked for generations, weeping my sorrow to water our weeds.

The iron gate squeals, and the grass slices my feet. O’Leary said he kept it up, but the entire cemetery is overgrown and crooked, the tombstones leaning and the fence half-down. Oddly, there’s a candle shining in the single window of the mausoleum, the one O’Leary’s grandfather put up because he didn’t trust future generations to respect the dead since his own daughter had a baby at sixteen and ran off, breaking the O’Leary ways. The small white stone building beckons me, and I drop the wheelbarrow handles gratefully, my hands curling over their blisters like salted slugs.

The door is closed, a key in the lock.

I turn it and pull the door open. There’s that smell again—dead possum, O’Leary said. But what tumbles out the door and into my arms isn’t some dead thing the dog dragged in. It’s O’Leary. My O’Leary, with hair of black and eyes of brown and skin tanned by the sun, the tattoo over his heart split as if with an ax.

He’s still warm.

He’s still alive.

“Mama?” he says wonderingly.

And when I look down, I’m bleeding everywhere, and my belly shifts, and I hope everything I’ve heard about O’Leary women birthing strong, good babies is true. Because this O’Leary will be the right one, a better one, and he’ll grow up here, surrounded by the Willows, part of the Willows, as he was meant to be.

(Editors’ Note: “The Willows,” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris and Delilah S. Dawson is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast 26B.)

Delilah S. Dawson

Delilah S. Dawson is the NYT-bestselling author of Star Wars: Phasma as well as the Blud series, the Hit series, Servants of the Storm, Wake of Vultures and the Shadow series (written as Lila Bowen), and Kill the Farm Boy and the Tales of Pell series written with Kevin Hearne. Her comics credits include the creator-owned Ladycastle as well as Star Wars Adventures and Forces of Destiny, The X-Files Case Files, Adventure Time, Labyrinth, and Rick and Morty. Find her online at whimsydark.com.

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