For years after she left the coven, Martin’s wife left small markers outside the door of their house. Pieces of cloth and wood, bird bones tied together with knotted twine. She said it was so that any other young girls who might have fallen in with the group would know they had someone there to talk to, and she wished she’d had something like that when she was a teenager. The markers perturbed Martin, particularly the little bones, toothpick-thin — but it was the one strange thing about her, and apart from that his wife, whose name was Melissa, was a picturesque woman.
They lived in rural Indiana, low in the state where the land is hilly and the trees go violent and rich in the autumn. Martin worked as a line cook at a restaurant and Melissa was a teacher. They’d met in their twenties, when Melissa was student teaching and Martin was still toying with the idea of moving to a city, maybe up to Detroit or Chicago. Both of them coincidentally were recently out of bad relationships: Martin’s had left him with a bruise under his cheek that just wouldn’t seem to fade away, except under the most particular lighting, and Melissa’s had left her with a mortgage to pay off and no one to do it with. Neither of them considered themselves particularly country people — they appreciated Indiana and its seasons and farms, but they weren’t the types to buy into aesthetic — which was why it was hard to tell who was more surprised when they started falling in love with each other amidst country landscapes, driving around in the pickup truck Martin had gotten from his older brother. Any time they had off, they snatched it — not just days off, but nights off, early mornings off, muddled afternoons and strange middle-evenings. Any pocket of time they could spend mapping the state, traversing steep hills and farm fields and forest-shaded roads where the light moved as it passed over their heads. They were transfixed with each other: Just talking, that was all they ever wanted to do.
Their family all lived in the Midwest: Melissa’s mother and brother were up in Michigan, which to date was the farthest north Martin had ever been, and Martin’s own family was scattered about the nearby towns. Columbus, Vincennes, Seymour, Hope. In the winter, Martin and Melissa would watch Martin’s brothers’ children go sledding. Melissa and Martin visited each other at work: Melissa would slip through the saloon doors into the back kitchen of the restaurant and give Martin a kiss, or he’d poke his head in her classroom and watch her commanding the children’s attention like a conductor, her cheeks full and eyes bright. At home together, at night, Melissa would make dinner and join Martin on the couch, curl into him softly, and they’d eat and watch TV until their eyelids began to drift and it was time to surrender. Melissa’s past as a witch was very much a lovable quirk; Martin loved everything about her.
One September day, he brought up the idea of kids, delicately, for the first time in he couldn’t remember how long. He didn’t know what brought it on — maybe another visit to Melissa’s classroom, or a phone call with one of his brothers, Ray, whose own toddlers had all been grappling and giggling around the other line. A quick talk, Martin had thought, couldn’t hurt. Melissa reminded him gently that she had no interest, and he accepted this like a gentleman — he’d expected the answer, had known when he’d married her, after all, and fair was fair — and they kissed and then went to sleep. An issue cleanly resolved. Until the next morning, when Martin found blood in the sink.
He wandered back into the bedroom with his toothbrush still poking around his mouth, and asked around the foam, “You get blood in the sink?”
Melissa was nine-tenths buried under the covers, her eyes still hazy with sleep. “I what?”
“You, blood in the sink?”
She got up and crossed to the bathroom. Examined the streaks of red along porcelain and frowned. “Huh,” she said. “Weird.”
She ran the water until all the blood washed away, but a stain still lingered beneath, a faint dark wave tracing where it had been. Melissa pushed at it with her fingertip and nothing happened. Martin remembered a party once when, on an impulse, he’d tried sending half a solo cup of cheap red wine down the bathroom sink. The stain had been instant.
“Huh,” Melissa said again, and went back into the other room to get dressed.
They’d gotten a lot of the frightening conversations out of the way early, to ensure they both knew what they were signing up for. Do you want kids? Do you see yourself getting married? I’ve always wanted to live in a big city, but I wouldn’t mind sticking it out around here. I used to be a witch for a while.
She’d told him this in the back of his pickup truck, under a scratchy blanket and a dusting of stars, which was how they’d had most of their major conversations. How could he object or complain? With her watching him, and the entire sky full of stars, each one of them bright and watching him, too, from just behind her back.
Witches aren’t real, he’d thought. And when they’d kissed just after, he’d felt so immediately full, like that kiss was more knowledgeable and meaningful than the others before it and like it carried the promise that there would be no secrets between them.
The day after the blood was Thursday, Martin’s day off. He brought Melissa lunch from the restaurant in a paper bag and kissed her. He ran into one of her coworkers at the school, who told him he was a sweetheart for bringing his wife lunch.
“Least I can do,” Martin said, with a gratified smile.
Yet on the way home, by himself in his truck, he found himself thinking about the coven his wife had been a member of several years earlier. He hadn’t thought about the coven in quite some time, and in fact he didn’t think about it often, even as he saw the little markers outside their doorway and even as he knew instinctively never to bring up his wife’s teenage years in conversation. It was strange how easily one grew accustomed to the idea of living with a witch wife, how quickly it fell into his other day-to-day patterns.
His brothers had all been stunned when he’d married her. She’d had several ex-boyfriends — everyone who’d met Melissa, Martin was sure, had at one point or another been obsessed with her — but still they’d asked him, Don’t you remember how creepy she used to be? He supposed she wouldn’t have fit their standards. But he loved her because she was beautiful and when she looked at him, when she smiled and laughed at him, he was filled with such a light and easy warmth that it was like the sun was hiding behind her eyes. He’d told her that one time, expecting her to be pleased or flattered, and instead she’d laughed.
So yes, he’d married a witch woman. He’d married a woman who as a teenager had snuck out at night and come home with dirt and blood caked under her fingernails. A woman who still kept in the back of her closet a red cloak, and God knew how many of her friends had matching red cloaks in the backs of their closets, too. A woman who’d once performed a spell on him, just as a joke, but she’d known how to do it. But she was so beautiful and so good to him that none of it mattered.
It didn’t matter to her, either. She always said the same thing to Martin: “I know who I am.” And it wasn’t that girl anymore. It was Melissa Patrone, wife, teacher. Happy.
That night, on the couch, Martin whispered into his wife’s dark hair: “You love me, right?”
She laughed in response, reached up so that her elbow crooked around her head and her fingers tangled in the mess of his hair. “You’re silly.”
“But you do?”
“What more do you want?” She sounded a little serious.
“What we talked about the other night — that didn’t bother you?”
“You bother me.” She swiveled to face him and planted a full kiss right on his lips. “Don’t worry about that sort of thing, Marty. Okay? We’re good. I told you. Trust me.”
But very late that night, after they’d both gone to sleep, Martin rolled over still half in a dream and threw his arm out beside him and felt nothing there but an empty mattress. Later, when he woke up in the morning and strained to remember, he couldn’t think whether he’d seen his wife there or not, and he didn’t want to ask.
Things kept cropping up, little by little. If it had been just one thing, Martin could have dealt. But it wasn’t. Increasingly often, he’d get the sense that his wife was not in bed with him — sometimes he’d know she wasn’t, and then she’d appear in the doorway and say, Relax, Marty, I was only getting a midnight snack. Relax, it was just a bit of sleepwalking. But he wasn’t sure if he could believe this. Sometimes he’d see bits of dirt on his wife’s pillow, or smudged between the sheets.
Then the girl showed up at their door. She had scraggly, dirty-blond hair, a striped pastel jacket, and a red hat, and she always kept her head half-bowed. “Oh,” she said timorously when Martin opened the door, “I’m sorry. I was looking for Melissa.”
“I’m here,” said Melissa, whom Martin hadn’t even realized was nearby. She glided past him, lifting her coat off the hook and draping it back over her shoulder, and stepped out the front door.
They were walking back together toward the sidewalk when Martin found his voice. “Uh, Melissa?”
She turned as if surprised. “What?”
“Oh, I’m sorry — Marty, this is Lena. Lena is a student of mine.”
“Oh,” said Martin. A student, but she called his wife Melissa? Not Mrs. Patrone? He felt a little dumbfounded, but lifted one hand for a wave nonetheless. “Hello, Lena.”
“Hi, Martin,” said Lena quietly.
Without any further explanation, Melissa tucked one arm around the girl’s shoulders and led her away down the cold, leaf-strewn street.
Lena kept appearing. Gradually color filled her cheeks and her eyes brightened, her voice steadied. But all the same, Martin never had any real conversation with her. He was fixated on his wife, whose eyes, he was convinced, were changing color. He started taking down the bird bones and knotted-together sticks by their mailbox, but they always reappeared. One day he went to the school to visit Melissa and was told she wasn’t there; in fact it was her third sick day that month.
Driving around town afterward, he called his brother Ray and told him what was going on. “I don’t know what to do, Ray,” he said. “I’m scared. I just don’t know.”
“Have you tried talking to her?”
The steering wheel felt cold under Martin’s curled hands. He couldn’t figure out how to put it to Ray that what was growing between him and his wife was different from silence. Melissa was still acting more or less normal — the only difference was in what he could feel.
“I haven’t,” said Martin. “No. It would be impossible.”
Already Ray’s kids were bubbling up in the background, high-pitched, creating pillows of static.
“Impossible!” Ray laughed. “She’s your wife!”
Was she? Later that night, while Melissa was out with Lena — studying, Melissa had said, as if she, too, were a schoolgirl — Martin paced around the narrow house, and then, after a bit of internal warfare, looked through Melissa’s dresser drawers. The red cloak was still there, folded neatly. Beneath it he felt the hard edge of something he’d never known to be there before. A book?
He lifted the cloak to see. A book was what it was, old and dark and leather-bound. It had no label or title.
He touched the ruffled pages, but then he heard a door opening and closing somewhere else in the house, and in a hurry he tucked the book away. The next time he went to look for it, it was gone.
Around mid-October, Martin decided it was time to try a new tactic. “Melissa,” he said, “I’d like to join the coven.”
Melissa had the gall to act surprised. “What are you talking about?”
They were in the kitchen, where Melissa was washing a raw, skinned chicken in the sink. Martin was sitting at the island with a beer in his hand, trying to avoid the sight of Melissa’s wet hands moving around the shiny meat, prodding and tearing at the pink flesh.
“Your witch thing,” said Martin, averting his gaze before she even looked at him. “I know you’re — you know — back at it.”
“Martin.” She turned off the faucet and turned around to face him, resting both hands on the counter behind her. They were still covered in rawness, but she didn’t seem to mind getting it on the counter. Martin struggled to raise his eyes up to meet hers, away from the chicken and the hands. “I thought we agreed never to talk about that,” she said.
“Melissa, it’s okay. I know you’re a witch. You don’t need to worry. I still love you,” said Martin gallantly. “I’ve always loved you.”
Melissa’s eyes narrowed. It was the look she gave her students when they were acting like what they were: children. “Well, isn’t that nice of you.”
Belatedly, Martin realized what a tool he must have sounded like. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. “I’m just saying, I want to do whatever I can do to work this out.”
The words came easily to him, and he did want to believe his main motivation was compassion, or a will to work together with Melissa to sort their marriage out and make it smooth again, like it had been before. But deep inside him, beneath all the good intentions that were still completely real, he would have been lying to himself if he hadn’t also acknowledged a root of anger.
“We promised not to talk about it,” Melissa repeated.
You promised, Martin thought, that you were done. He bit the inside of his cheek and leaned over the kitchen counter, past her, and grabbed a leg of the chicken. He turned on the faucet and started to wash it the way she’d been doing, without even rolling up his sleeves. Melissa watched him as he rolled the tender flesh beneath the water.
“You really want to join?” she asked after a moment.
“I really want to. If you care about it,” he said, “then I care about it.”
When he finally looked up again, Melissa’s eyes were darker than he could ever remember seeing them. All right, she said. She told him they were having a sabbath for the full moon that Wednesday and that he would be welcome to come. Lena would be there, and, Melissa said, “a lot of the other girls.” Martin didn’t ask what this meant. Her friends?
As Wednesday drew nearer, Martin found himself looking more and more forward to the idea. A sabbath, he thought, over and over, newly electrified. He hadn’t thought the witchery itself might excite him, had only wanted to support his wife — but then, a part of him deep down inside kept egging, was it support? Or was it just that this was Melissa’s thing and so he wanted a piece of it, he wanted answers to all his many questions and also he wanted control?
Well, and who didn’t?
All day Wednesday Martin let the thoughts of the sabbath roll around his head, ricocheting like marbles while he chopped onions and carrots and labored over the steaming stovetop. So this was how it would be, when he and his wife would be together again. Because although they had always been together it did not always feel that way — tonight, at last, he’d understand her in full. Even better and clearer than any of those nights in the truck. He hoped this wouldn’t change anything. Completing her had always been his job, as her husband. But tonight, he was to see her in full, the way she was and always had been.
When he got home from work, Melissa was already getting ready. She wore her red cloak — it was a grand look, like on their wedding day — and her hair fell down around her shoulders in loose, dark curls. Her lips were red.
“I’m so glad you’re coming,” she told him, linking her hand with his.
Lena knocked on their door at eleven o’clock. She wore a red cloak, too. Martin himself was still wearing his work clothes, jeans and a tee shirt, only with an old woolen jacket on over the shirt. Only when he saw Lena in her matching cloak did he wonder whether he ought to have put on something nicer and more fitting. Melissa hadn’t said anything.
The three of them got in the truck together, and upon his wife’s direction, Martin drove them as a group out of town and to a trailhead somewhere along the edge of the Deam Wilderness. He turned off the headlights and the car and they got out.
“Was I supposed to bring anything?” Martin whispered to Melissa as they started together down the path.
“I don’t know.” He had the sense that he was missing something.
“No, silly. You’re perfect just the way you are.”
“I love you,” he said, but he didn’t know if she heard.
The late fall night was cold and sharp, and Martin was shivering even with his jacket. He didn’t know how Melissa and Lena were getting along, what with their own arms being practically bare.
Somewhere along the late walk through the forest, the thrill Martin had felt so acutely earlier began to translate itself into fear. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe because Melissa wasn’t saying anything and neither was this Lena girl, or maybe because the woods were uncannily bright. It was nearing midnight, but the full moon had cast a ghoulish light through the trees so that the Deam felt steeped less in nighttime and more in a mass shadow. The wrong kind of darkness.
“Melissa,” he said softly, and reached out ahead of him, but instead of her hand, he caught only the folds of her robe.
He kept moving, reminding himself to be brave like his brothers and that, after all, he’d said he would do this. A promise was a promise. Fair was fair.
And then, when he saw the circle of matching red robes in a clearing up ahead of them, his dread became complete even as his legs kept propelling him forward. They were all women, which Melissa hadn’t told him, although in retrospect it seemed obvious. He thought he even recognized a couple of Melissa’s coworkers from the school. Could it be that every woman he knew had a cloak hiding in the back of her dresser drawer? A secret? He felt dull all of the sudden and certain that he’d been brought here for some reason other than the one he’d thought.
It was a strange state of fear, muddled and imprecise. Maybe he was afraid that the women would sacrifice him to some pagan god, lay him out on a stone slab and bleed him dry, or some other violent, nightmarish ritual. Maybe he was afraid that in order to join them he’d have to do something heinous, like kill something. Or maybe it was just the last outcome, the one that felt oddly more certain and, even more oddly, more dreadful: that he and Melissa would return from the sabbath together later that night, unscathed, driving slow with blank eyes and the radio off, and they both would have seen everything. Each other. How Martin admired himself for a whole series of exploits that had felt heroic at the time — bringing his wife food, loving her on her worst days — but which all felt pale and insignificant compared to this, the woods at night. How Melissa had been revered her whole life by a long string of people, Martin being only the latest, and still she turned to this, turned to red circles and chanted incantations and bird bones, to build something new up, to admire her own self. Martin knew this was really happening, but there was still a part of him that felt as though Lena and the other women were hardly real, that he and Melissa were the only ones there. In the bare moonlight, alone together like teenagers, like children. Not really knowing one another, but wanting to, pretending to, the usual and true way, the way you love someone.
Laura Dzubay recently graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she received multiple Hopwood Awards for short fiction. Her work has previously appeared in Blue Earth Review, Bad Pony, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @lauradzu.