Clutching the lantern beneath her woolen cape, Prudence scurried through the opening in the stone wall framing her family’s farm and dashed along the main route leading to the Putnam’s. Once covered in moon-cast shade, she lifted the flickering light out from under her cloak. The yellow flames illuminated the smashed deer trail meandering off the wider path and fading in the undergrowth.
Pausing at the fork, Prudence stared into the darkness. An owl hooted from distance branches and the wind tossed summer-flushed leaves.
After a shudder at the sudden gust, she took a quick glance at the paneled house visible through the foliage, its squared edges silhouetted against the starry night sky. Each window remained black, and only a faint trickle of smoke drifted out of the central chimney.
Through the solid walls, however, she imagined her three brothers and two little sisters asleep, and the pinched faces of her parents as they tossed in pained slumber.
“Let them rest,” she whispered, the sentiment half order to her hesitant feet and half prayer.
Firming her grasp on the lantern, she started down the side trail at a trot.
The shadows danced as she made her way by lush oaks and maples, down the valley’s first slope and along a small tributary of water her older brother Malcolm had named The Twig. Up ahead, where the hill rose, she spied the dents of caves sunk into the granite. She heard giggling and spotted wavering figures stretched upon the stone by other flames.
Hitching her petticoats, Prudence exposed her leather shoes and stockings, and started her ascent. Leaves crushed under her soles and she grasped onto lower branches to aid her climb. As she neared, the laughter died beneath someone’s hushing.
“It’s me,” whispered Prudence.
Coming to the cave’s entrance, she held her hand against her waistcoat atop her fluttering stomach, and fought to catch her breath.
Someone who sounded like Ruth coughed and her voice emerged in a melodious base. “Speak your name so we may know the truth.”
Another round of shushing quieted a rise of giggles.
Prudence straightened, pushed back the hood of her cape to reveal her face and coif, and raised the lantern. The light fell upon her flushed cheeks. “It’s me, Prudence Woods.”
“Oh, let her in, Ruth,” said Aphra.
“We have to be careful,” said Ruth.
Aphra came to the cave’s mouth shaking her head. She grinned, showing off her best feature: an almost straight set of teeth.
“Come inside, Pru.”
Prudence handed over the lantern to the shorter girl. Ducking to keep her head from brushing the rocky ceiling, she followed Aphra’s waddle into the shallow shelter and past Ruth who stood with her hands on her hips.
“It’s almost time,” said Ruth.
“I didn’t mean to be so late,” said Prudence. “My mother’s cold is keeping father awake. I’ve been making pot of tea after pot of tea to soothe her cough so he can sleep and get enough rest so his leg can finally heal.” She covered a yawn with her hand. “They’ve just gone to bed.”
“Don’t worry,” said Aphra. She placed the lantern onto the cave’s floor beside two others, and knelt by the far wall. Plucking a brush from a clay pot, she dabbed at a thin patch in the ebony oil coating the stone. “We’re all set.”
Frowning, Prudence unbuckled her cloak’s wooden toggle and folded the cape over her arm. “Really? It looks like a mess to me.”
“That’s because you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Ruth. She strode in and passed a reverent hand over the painted surface but kept her fingers from touching the slick.
Prudence cocked an eyebrow. “And you do?”
“Tichia showed me how.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
Prudence jumped when the familiar voice seemed to resonate from the stones. Goosebumps covered her skin and she clutched her cape close.
“You were always a disbelieving child,” said Tichia.
This time Prudence turned and spotted the hunchback woman at the cave’s entrance where she stood, bent and angled like one of the old apple trees in the Putnam’s orchard. With her similarly gnarled cane in hand, Tichia shuffled forward. Her limp left leg dragged along, making her gait a steady stump, stump, and scrape.
“Sit, sit,” said Aphra.
She jumped to her feet and snatched Prudence’s cloak. Making a quick cushion on the ground before the rock’s face, she smoothed the wrinkles from the wool.
“And you are a sweet one,” said Tichia.
Aphra smiled when the older woman patted her head, her own white coif covering her frazzled mousy plait.
With the help of Aphra’s stubby arm, Tichia worked herself onto the cloak. She crossed her legs beneath skirts of stitched rags and laid her cane across her lap.
Ruth dropped down beside her, eyes locked on the oiled wall. “How does it look?”
Tichia tipped her head and passed her hand over the circular smear, the movement more graceful and ponderous than Ruth’s had been earlier. Slowly, the older woman began to nod.
“You’ve listened well.”
Prudence stopped behind them and hugged her arms. “Then it’ll work?”
“There is only one way to tell.” Tichia beckoned and Ruth collected one of the lanterns. With a sweep of her fingers she motioned for the light to be set before her. As if fueled by fresh oil, the flame flickered and rose until it licked the wrought iron lid and caused blackened smoke to coil toward the ceiling.
“The time,” said Tichia, dropping her voice to a hushed low, “is nearing.” She opened one of the lantern’s glass sides, allowing more light upon the stone. “You should prepare yourselves.”
With a hoot and clap of her hands, Aphra settled on Tichia’s other side. She adjusted the fall of her apron over her dull-gray petticoats and seemed to fight to stay still.
Ruth, on the other hand, settled like winter’s first flake. She mimicked Tichia’s crossed legged stance, set her hands on her knees, and lifted her chin.
Prudence’s stomach rolled. “Are…are you sure about this?”
Tichia bowed her head. “You’re scared?”
“Maybe,” whispered Prudence.
“Of what?” Ruth scowled over her shoulder. “It won’t hurt.”
“What if it doesn’t work?” Prudence stared at the oil. “What if it does and I don’t like what I see?”
“Life is nothing more than moments of bravery,” whispered Tichia. “Sit if you like, go if you wish. You must make your choice.”
“It’ll be fun,” said Aphra with an eager bounce. She patted the stone behind her and beamed an encouraging smile. “You’ve already come all this way. Stay.”
Prudence nibbled on her thumbnail and glanced at the cave’s entrance. The dark oval gaped like a giant’s maw and she quivered at the thought of being swallowed. Pivoting back to the trio, she tried to claim a sliver of Tichia’s calm, Ruth’s belief, and Aphra’s sense of anticipation. She knelt on the spot Aphra had indicated and kept her eyes locked on the oiled wall. Within her chest, her heart fluttered like a hummingbird’s wing.
Around her though, silence fell while the air warmed with the lanterns’ light and their collective body heat.
Prudence’s legs began to tingle and then numb. She fought against looking over her shoulder, wary dawn might have arrived and taken away her chance. A deeper part of her feared looking might steal her courage and send her racing back along the deer trail and into the safety of her bed.
Before one won her over, Tichia finally whispered, “Now we begin.”
She drew a stem from the coiled mass of silvery hair and weeds lumped upon her head. Dipping the tip into the lantern’s flame, she brought the ember end to the oil’s edge. Before putting the two together, she started humming a jagged tune. The rhythm reminded Prudence of her little brother Ethan clanging pots in the kitchen. But when the older woman cycled through the pattern, Ruth, and then Aphra joined in.
Wetting her throat with a gulp, Prudence added her voice to the song.
The notes seemed to soak into the rock and the very earth carried on even when Tichia spoke.
“Hold your questions close, my sweets.”
Ceasing her hum, Prudence gripped her petticoats and set her gaze on the wall. In her mind she repeated the question she had wanted to answer, the one she had worried over and discussed with Aphra, then Ruth and then with Tichia when the older woman revealed this spell, the one that promised to open windows into the future.
Will Mama and Papa get better?
Her mother had been sick for so long, Prudence barely remembered her well and Papa hadn’t stood under his own power since last winter’s snows had fallen and he’d taken that tumble on the ice. Now Mama lay withering and Papa needed Thomas to help him about the house while as the eldest, she knew Malcolm stewed in silence about how to pay their dues. With all her cooking, caring and cleaning, she couldn’t recall a time she didn’t feel bone weary, and what it felt like to be carefree and hopeful about what the day might bring.
She held on to her question, on her need to know how it might turn out, assuming Aphra would be asking about a husband and Ruth about fame or adventure. Both seemed somehow too childish, too selfish to waste on such magical energies, whether they really could be conjured or were simply Tichia’s make believe.
If this spell worked, reasoned Prudence, my question should be the one answered.
And so, when Tichia touched the flame to the painted smear, Prudence put all her concentration on to pleading for an answer, to seeing what the future might hold for her and for her family.
The midnight oil caught and carried a sapphire tinge toward the ceiling. The fire, however, remained trapped in the prepared circle and instead of heat, a crisp coolness radiated. Tendrils of wintery breath washed out with the smoke and Prudence shivered when they wrapped around her as snug as an icy blanket. The scent of mildew and pine burrowed into her nose and cast a sudden serenity over her agitated thoughts.
In the lull, she repeated her question again and again. She heard the words in her ears as if they fell from her lips and they blossomed until they filled her skull and seemed about to leak out the tips of her hair. She shut her eyes, riding on the wave of her query’s chant.
“No,” whispered Tichia, the older woman’s voice sounding from deep within Prudence’s chest, “you must look, you must see.”
Tightening her grip on her petticoats, Prudence willed herself to peer into the oil-fueled fire. Her eyes opened as slow as sun rise, but once she stared at the flames, she found herself sinking into the stone’s depths. Shadows and light played with the shape and size of the cavern, of the forms of Aprha, Tichia and Ruth, shrinking and warping until only the wall remained in view.
Shades of blue swirled and then other colors swam in the ebony pool, mixing together into bodies and landscapes. Prudence spied the empty bed waiting for her back at home, and then the scene expanded to show her the house itself. A fresh swath of paint coated the planks, their whitewash glowing in an autumnal sun. Tall stalks of corn and wheat filled the eastern fields while green rows lined the kitchen’s garden with fattened squash and tomatoes, lettuce and the leaves of half a dozen vegetables swelling under the earth. Laughter blended with the chipper call of birds soaring overhead and a cluster of children poured from the front door. Floating like a cloud, Prudence followed them around the house. They chased one another beneath a line of laundry drying in the wind and gentle rays. A linen sheet billowed and Prudence spied a woman.
Her heart leaped.
Mother, she thought.
She noted the woman’s rounded belly, plump with child and then her darker hair, dark like her fathers, dark like hers. The woman pulled a clothespin from her apron and straightened from her bend over a mounded basket. With a hand to her mouth, she called to the romping brood. Her lips moved but Prudence failed to hear the words. One child spun, however, and pointed toward the path leading to the Putnam’s, where she knew the break existed in the stone wall.
Following the child’s tiny finger, Prudence spied three men, one gray-haired, a second middle-aged and a third younger and coming to the older men’s shoulders. They strode out of the shade and the middle-aged one waved. A haze obscured the details of their faces, but a flicker of clarity seemed to hint at familiar features.
Prudence squinted and thought of rubbing her eyes, but her hands seemed tied. She looked down and discovered she had no hands, no body. The blades of grass beneath her hovering consciousness blended together, their green fading into cooler shades of gray and merging with the darker soil underneath. Edges began to blur and Prudence found herself falling into the darkness and then facing the oil smear and dimming flames.
“Oh my….” Aphra sniffed and covered her face with her hands. Her curved back began to shake with her quiet sobs.
Meanwhile, Ruth, her mouth hanging open, reached out, almost touching the glistening slick.
Suddenly exhausted, Prudence drooped forward, catching herself with hands on the cold rock. The jarring impact rattled up her arms. In her mind, her thoughts whirled with the images, the smells, the scents from the vision.
“What…” She licked her lips, working her tongue back into motion. “What was that?”
Her voice filled the cave and echoed when no one replied. A part of her, however, already knew the answer.
Looking up, Prudence found the spot where the older woman had been vacant, her cloak-cushion smooth as if no one had ever sat. Glancing right and left, she discovered stone, damp and bare. She spun and sought the mouth of the cave.
Morning light trickled through tree branches, creating columns in the fog. Birds chirped and she sensed the sun rising and the world rousing as it would every day including one where she’d be pinning laundry in the backyard, flanked by her own children, and waiting for her son, her husband, and her father to return.