issue 5

The Lake, the Valley, the Border Between Water and Wood, and the End of Things, by Watson Neith

Standing in their galley kitchen, Juniper sank her knife into a soft block of smoked goat cheese. She had left it out to soften for so long that the cheese practically parted before the knife touched it. She considered the other sliced and chopped hors d’oeuvres on the tray: cheeses, check; sliced cucumber and whole cherry tomatoes, check; olives stuffed with garlic, just needed straining; sliced baguette, check; blueberries from Laila’s enspelled hothouse, check; seasoned almonds for Lydia and salami for herself, check. All foods she loved, but she was starting to get sick of snacking for all her meals. She was reaching for the wine when the pipe that ran from the kitchen down into the shop’s back room peeped to indicate someone was talking.

“I’m about to run out of matchbook cases.” Lydia’s voice was an echo distilled and transmitted by the charms drawn onto the body of the pipe; their living space above the shop was otherwise too well insulated for voices to carry unless someone started shouting.

“I’m almost done.” Juniper grabbed the corkscrew and cut the seal off the cork so she could start prying it out of the bottle. “Which ones do you need?”

A moment’s pause. “All of them. But we’re especially low on inner peace, uplift, and instant seagreen hair, style #3, all hair types.”

She should have guessed. Everyone liked an instant hair transformation that left no bleach damage and looked exactly the same on any hair color or texture. She would make more matchbook cases for the other popular colors while she was at it: silver, style #2, which was currently streaking through Lydia’s tight curls and therefore extremely popular; electric blue, all styles; bright violet, all styles. Juniper sighed. The matchbook charm packs were Lydia’s idea. They were brilliant, easy to use, very popular, and right now, the absolute bane of her existence.

“Ok. I’ll stamp some in a moment.” Juniper gave the corkscrew a good yank and the cork popped out in her hand. She splashed wine into two glasses, grabbed them by the stems, and caught the tray in her other hand. “But I have to eat something first or I’ll die.”

She heard the pipe whisper, “You’ll be fine,” as she pushed the door open and trundled down the stairs.

When she reached the bottom step, she turned left past the wooden bookcase of practical craft books, past the natural history, environmental sciences, gardening and nature books, and edged past the table of fiber arts books and kits they had discounted for the visiting artist workshop this month. On the far wall was the always-open door where they kept their crafting space; built around it was a floor-to-ceiling brass and glass locked case that held their inventory of charms. Or would, except that they desperately needed to restock.

Thus: why they were eating cheese plates for every meal and busy drawing and assembling matchbook charm packs at nine at night. Juniper set the tray down and relinquished one of the glasses. Her wife glanced up, smiled at her, and kept putting the finishing stitch into a little matchbook of migraine relief charms. To activate the written charm, all the user needed to do was tear it from the pack.

“Are those for Marcel?” Juniper asked, a dim memory surfacing of him stepping in while she was counting inventory.

Lydia nodded. “Special order. The last session for his tattoo got bumped and it’ll be two months before the artist can complete the spell.”

“That’s too bad.” Juniper rolled up several slices of salami and stuck them in her mouth before going to the supply cabinet and bringing down a carousel of inks and the rubber stamps for the hair matchbooks. Then inner peace, uplift, and restful sleep, another popular one even though it required a prescription.

“He also wanted to know if we will have a matchbook for lactose intolerance soon.”

“Um.” There were still enough pre-cut matchbook cases on the table, each one printed with the logo for Matchbook Remedies & Sundries, that she didn’t need to grab more. “Don’t you think there are too many factors to offer a generic? We’d need metabolic labs… and better make sure that it’s not really a milk allergy with accompanying intolerance…”

“That’s what I said. I told him what tests he would need, but I think something over-the-counter would work as well as a bespoke charm.”

“Well, it’s nice that he keeps bringing us business.” Juniper held up a stack of freshly stamped ‘seagreen hair, style #3, all hair types.’ “I will give this to you if you take five bites of anything on that tray. There’s three types of cheese and the almonds are dusted in cocoa.”

“And I appreciate it. I’ll get to it.”

Juniper set the stack aside, out of Lydia’s reach, and picked the inner peace stamp. The wind rattled against the door. “Did you know,” she said, pausing to take a sip of wine, “That some couples spend their evenings together doing things that aren’t work?”

“I’ve heard that before,” Lydia said, rethreading her needle, “But I don’t really believe it. There’s too much to do.”

She looked up, picked up a wedge of brie, and popped it into her mouth.

“One bite down,” Juniper said. “We should revisit hiring a shop assistant. Or maybe an apprentice; we might be eligible for a grant if you’re worried about the cost.”

“I don’t think we have enough experience. We’ve had the shop less than five years.”

“People drive hours to get here. I think we have the reputation to—”

The doorbell rang.

The sound rose and faded. Juniper glanced at Lydia. “You didn’t schedule a night appointment, did you?”

The doorbell, again. Now Lydia glanced at Juniper. “It might be an emergency?”

Juniper closed the inkpad. “I’ll check.”

When she walked into the front of the shop, no one was visible through the picture window in the door. The doorbell still rang.

“Lydia,” she called, “I think something is wr—”

A vortex of air shot the door open, sending the stack of paper bags beside the till flying. Books ruffled and fell from their tables; the tools on the wall behind the counter rattled; Juniper jumped as she heard a sharp crack and realized a pebble had struck the glass display case. Behind her, Lydia shouted a word of power to the security ward.

If it did anything, Juniper couldn’t tell, but the wind died and the milling papers began their featherfall descent to the ground. Her pulse raced in her ears as she glanced around the shop for the culprit, seeing nothing—oh. There. A translucent being, coiling and uncoiling around the display tables. It grew in opacity as she focused her attention. Serpentine—no,vine-like—fronds unspooled and retracted among books and scattered knickknacks. Ephemeral water pooled across the floor. Small yellow flowers budded from the walls.

“You damaged our home. You should have asked permission to enter,” Juniper said. Her mouth felt dry, but what she felt more than fear was bafflement; this wasn’t some mischief sprite or a ghost. It was a great spirit of the earth. They had immense power, but they were sedentary things. She knew the one anchored to the town’s surroundings. What was this one doing here?

This is a place of business. You run an emergency clinic. The voice formed soundless, wordless, and physical, all at the same time, in her head.

“Only on Tuesdays,” Lydia said, finally committing to the policy Juniper had insisted on three months ago. “The rest of the week there are two witches in residence at the Greenscale ER.”

They are most proficient in flesh magic and that is not what I require. I must have assistance with a binding. It is urgent.

Juniper felt Lydia’s eyes on her back. She sighed and unlocked the glass case so she could take their second to last matchbook full of energy blast charms out of inventory. She ripped away the first sheet and felt a sunbeam of vigor flood through her. “Why do you need a binding?”

I have been attacked. We are still fighting and it has been three days.

“You’re projecting,” Lydia said. “How far away?”

I am the lake the valley the border between water and wood.

In some ways, the great spirits were not good conversationalists. Juniper felt all of these things—land and water, treeline and shore—but she couldn’t tell how far away or in what direction. “We have to prepare some things first,” she said. “And you need to show us the way to go, or we won’t be able to find you.”

The tendrils flexed and grew across the walls, winding around chair and table legs. Then they weren’t. A small, warmish orb rested in the palm of Juniper’s hand, colors swirling in a way that reminded her of an oilslick.

It will show you the way. Come soon.

The store was left quieter, less vibrant, but no less of a mess. The door wavered on its hinges.

Lydia said, “I thought you were retired. It was too dangerous. Retail is safer.”

Juniper turned around. As she did, she brushed one of the books on the fiber arts table and it thudded to the floor. “What would you rather we do?” she asked. “How is this any different than you taking housecalls at all hours? The spirit came to us because it needs us.”

“Charms for migraines aren’t dangerous.”

Juniper went upstairs to get her kit, which she kept packed and stowed under their bed. Maxine, their geriatric calico, was slumbering there too, having apparently abandoned her favorite spot at the foot of the bed during the spirit’s visit; Juniper ruffled her ears, then backtracked to open a new can and top off her water in the kitchen. Then she jotted off a text to her sister, asking her to check in on Maxine if she didn’t hear from Juniper by tomorrow evening. Lydia was exaggerating the danger, but time could go strange around the great spirits.

When she got back downstairs, Lydia had put a note up on the door and was furiously ripping through their inventory, pulling charm packs and papers out of their supply cabinets.

“You’re mad.” Juniper stayed near the door.

“I’m not… mad.” Lydia shuffled through the papers in her hands, made a small noise, and then tucked them away in the messenger bag she carried everywhere. “I’m… frustrated.”

“Now you know how I feel. Have you taken an energy blast? You’ll need it tonight.”

Juniper touched her shoulder and went outside to work on the motorcycle. Where they were going, they couldn’t necessarily expect a road, so she turned on her phone’s flashlight app and checked the intactness of the flight and weightlessness engravings she had etched into the fender and the sidecar. They were fine, and so was the energy efficiency charm the company had branded the tank with. She dropped her supplies into the sidecar.

Lydia came out with their helmets and passed one over, saying, “Unless you plan on eating bugs?”

Juniper took the offered helmet and leaned over to kiss her. “Thanks. I’m glad you’re coming.”

“I couldn’t leave you to do it alone.” Lydia climbed up behind her and leaned into her back, watching over her shoulder as Juniper released the orb the spirit had given her.

It bobbed in the air before them and took off before she got the motorcycle aloft. A luminous streak shot over the tops of trees like it was drawn magnetically back home; miles passed below so quickly Juniper couldn’t look down unless she wanted to make herself nauseous. Houses scattered and gave way to rolling hills blanketed with trees.

“What if we’re late to open the shop tomorrow?” Lydia shouted.

“Tell me what you said when we land,” Juniper shouted; it wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have mid-air, even if the answer she wanted to give was “I plan on sleeping in and everyone can just deal with it for one day.”

The air rushed around them. The skin on her slightly exposed wrists and neck ached with the chill. Lydia kept a firm grip on her waist. On the horizon, Juniper saw the lake, fringed by forest and distant ridges. She pointed and a blast of wind swept straight down the sleeve of her jacket.

The orb hovered stationary over a patch of ground. As they closed the distance, Juniper was relieved to see a gravel parking area, clear enough that they could land without worrying about striking branches on the way down. Nothing about the great spirit had made her think it could be thoughtful. As she turned off the bike’s engine and grabbed their supplies, the orb wavered impatiently; then it shot down a beaten path so quickly they had to run after it. The path cut down along a bank and then veered up, turning into steps in a concrete embankment over a run-off drain that fed water into the lake.

It has retrenched itself. I trapped it here. Look.

Juniper glanced down, not certain what she was looking for. The spectral presence must be slight; she could not see it in the water.

There.

Oh. The run-off bubbled slightly darker than the rest of the water at night, as if reflected starlight and distant city light couldn’t touch it. Or as if…
“It absorbs light,” Juniper observed, very quietly. “Do you know what it’s called?”

The great spirit shared a ripple of sensations: spoilage entropy imbalanced the-end-of-things. Scenes of their battle flickered into her mind.

Picking a bottle from the half dozen empties in her kit, Juniper swiped impressions of the entity’s essence onto the bottle’s surface with a paint pen. This didn’t require precision, just intent: once the target was tethered to something, it would be considerably easier to bind or banish. She could recognize the phenotypes of dozens of mischievous spirits and hauntings by sight alone, and this was something different. That she didn’t know it left her uneasy. But there was a time and place for dealing with those feelings, and it wasn’t now.

I will rile it so you have access. Are you prepared?

Juniper nodded. She could see the great spirit in the water, or more accurately, of the water and the land surrounding it. Translucent waves jumped up into the drainage pipe, surged back and forth like the ocean at high tide. She might have to wade over there.

“Something is wrong,” Lydia said.

“Where?” She didn’t want to look away from the drainage pipe where her target foamed and bubbled against the energy of the lake, the valley, the border between water and wood. But her eyes followed when Lydia pointed to something floating in the moonlit distance. Then she spotted another object in the mud several yards away. In the dark, it was hard to make sense of the sight, but the smell guided her along the shore. With her flashlight app, Juniper stared down at browned grass and beached fish, their eyes silver and scales patchy and slimy. They seemed to crumble internally under her glance.

The great spirit was surrounded. Their opponent had used the naturalness of death and decay to circumvent its sense of what belonged in its territory and what had invaded. The thing hiding in the drainage pipe was a—“Trap!” Juniper yelled, and ran into the shallows.

The great spirit reacted just before the decay struck. Juniper was knocked off her feet in the spray of water as the spirit spun and lashed out. She caught her breath just before going under; submerged, all she could see was the rainbow energy of the spirit. She came up easily ten feet from where she’d been, in waist-deep water, her cell phone and the bottle somehow still in her hands.

The cell phone, she dropped into her jean pocket. It was probably doomed. The bottle she upturned so the captured water could escape.

“Get out of the water!” Lydia shouted from shore. She was on hands and knees, probably soaked from the wave.

She’d love nothing else. But if they couldn’t capture part of the assailant, they couldn’t banish it. Juniper forced her way through water that resisted like cement, focusing on the identity of the decay and trying to ignore the brilliance of the great spirit. Decay. What did it feel like? The frailty of cobwebbed leaves, skin sloughing and fungus blooming. Death and rot. She imagined it in the bottle, trapped and vulnerable.

The decay hiding in the drainage pipe shot toward the great spirit in a viscous arc. Juniper slipped in the roiling water and regained her footing a second later, and found her victory in her hands; her intent had diverted some decay into the bottle. She turned to face the great spirit.

Her hope died in her mouth. The decay wasn’t fighting the great spirit. It was trying to entangle the great spirit. Its rainbow energy was struck through with spreading, brackish veins. Green, she’d almost call it, green like a muddy pond, but that was her mind trying to fit it into the world she knew. Moonlight touched the veins and vanished.

That was the plan, she realized. To possess the great spirit or force it from its territory. To leave a vacancy that could be filled.

Juniper stoppered the bottle and shoved it into the inner pocket of her jacket. If she didn’t stop this, she didn’t know what would happen next. All she knew was that it would be terrible.

From the banks, Lydia shouted indistinctly as Juniper waded deeper. The waves were too violent for sound to carry. She wanted to reassure her but there was no time. Honestly, she didn’t think she could make it to shore if she tried; the undertow was too strong. There was just her intent and the rising water.

When the height reached her chest, she started swimming, all her thoughts on the essence of the great spirit. The lake, the valley, where water meets wood. If she could ignore the water that kept dashing into her mouth and nose, could envision it purely enough, she might be able to force a split between the two beings. The lake, the valley, where water meets wood. The scent of pine and cedar, squelching mud, dry sand and rocks on the waterline. Sunbaked earth and birdsong.

She thought about the shoreline in summer, and about it blanketed in snow and a thin crisp of ice in winter. Dragonflies on the water. The shifting, multi-colored aura of the spirit.

As a wave glugged over her head, she realized the decay had expected this, too. It found her like it had her name. For an instant she thought she was sinking, the water both bright and brackish, and then there was nothing. It wasn’t darkness; it was nothing. She could not see anything, even the veins on the insides of her eyelids; she could not hear her pulse, much less the torrent; she couldn’t tell if she was swallowing water or breathing dry air. Everything was gone.

Was she cold? She thought she should be cold.

The lake, Juniper thought. The valley. Where water meets wood.

Oh shit. Lydia.

No, she had to concentrate—the lake, the valley, where water meets wood. The lake, the valley, where water meets wood.

The lake.

She saw the rainbow radiance of the great spirit, and reached for it.

Juniper gasped for breath. She was on land. On her back. Her head hurt like she’d been punched. She turned and retched up water, and saw her name in green paint on a flat rock. To her left, further down the beach, another written rock, and the great spirit vast and semi-translucent, its myriad forms shifting beneath the moonlight. And further still, the end of all things, intact and vast, imploding on itself a hundred times over, flesh fading and bacteria blooming and vanishing—and between her and it, Lydia, her back partially turned and a matchbook in her hands.

Juniper shoved herself to her feet.

Something flashed like sheet lightning and she heard a popping sound. Then there was nothing on the beach except for the two of them and the radiant vines of the great spirit. Juniper ran anyway, grabbed Lydia by the shoulders and hugged her.

Lydia leaned into the embrace and then said, “We got lucky. I think we have a very big problem.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that.” She swallowed and stepped back to regard the great spirit in its full colors. She reached into her sodden jacket and found the bottle there, still capped. The wind ruffled through her layers and she shivered. “Thank you for getting my idiot self out of the water. I don’t think I could have made it back to shore.”

“I’m going to get the first aid kit,” Lydia said.

As her wife walked up the incline to the parking lot, Juniper knelt by the great spirit’s rock. With the same paint pen she’d used to write Juniper’s name, Lydia had scribbled the valley and the line where the woods met the lake. One summoning and two bindings— the signs were quickly done and yet they had all still worked. She would never stop being astounded by Lydia’s precision. “She had to separate you from the decay,” she said, by way of explanation, “Or you might have both been banished.”

She scratched through the sketch with one of her keys, breaking the link. “I think—”

That is what it wanted. If it could not subsume me, it wanted to leave a void here that could be filled.

“It seems like it.” If the spirit was angry at Lydia, it wasn’t showing it, which Juniper would count in their favor. “Do you know what it was?”

It could have destroyed everything. When a bobcat catches a hare, it feeds on the death. Scavengers consume the remains. Life grows in the hare’s bones. When a fire passes through the woods, new growth springs up among the fallen. Death foreshadows new life, and new life foreshadows death. That… it would have broken the cycle. Death would have offered more death, and nothing new would be born.

“What do we do?”

There must be a great convention.

Juniper held up the intact bottle. Inside it, nothing swirled, but she felt it, knew it was there, as real as she was. Lydia’s matchbook spells had were directionally focused, and to banish this shard of the end of things, they would have to conduct another ritual. Unless… “What do you want to do with this? I don’t want to take this into my home.”

It will be examined by the convention. The bottle vanished from Juniper’s outstretched hand as Lydia reappeared on the banks, the first aid kit in her arms. She pulled out a blanket and handed Juniper a warmth charm.

You saved us for now, the great spirit said to Lydia. We will speak further.

It collapsed into the land around it.

“I want to go home,” Lydia said.

Wrapped in the blanket like a cloak, Juniper walked up the concrete steps to gather her scattered kit. “When,” she asked, “were you going to tell me you’d made matchstick banishment charms?”

“When I knew they would work,” Lydia said, sounding hoarse. “I’d never used them until tonight.”

“We’re double lucky, I guess.” She zipped up the kit and swung it over her shoulder. “The banishment charms are brilliant, Lydia. Game-changing.”

“They need improvement.”

So did the warmth charm; Juniper was still soaked, but now the wetness was warm, and that was a different unpleasant feeling. “Come on,” she said. “We’ll find out what is coming next soon enough.”

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. First they checked everything they wore for remnants of the end of things. Then they combed through everything they’d brought through them. Juniper convened a precautionary banishment on the motorcycle.

After that came the cold flight back and, still later in the night, a steady search of the shop for anything the contaminated great spirit touched. They cast precautionary binding spells and reset the wards; Juniper roused and checked Maxine for signs of possession. The cat grumbled through the spell-casting and demanded new, fresh food in her bowl.

Sunlight made a red line on the horizon before she tossed her now-stiff clothing into the hamper, checked her phone—dry, but probably an expensive brick—and climbed into the shower. Her hair felt so greasy she shampooed twice before stepping out into the terry cloth bathrobe she almost never had a chance to lounge in.

Lydia had chamomile tea waiting for her before she even finished toweling off her hair. Juniper had heard her at the sink during her shower; she had scrubbed and changed and wrapped her hair in paisley silk.

“I’m not sure I’m awake enough to drink that.”

“I put a new sign on the door of the shop. We’re closed for the week.”

Juniper nearly fumbled the mug. “The week?”

 “I’ll drop Marcel’s migraine charms off this afternoon. And I’ve texted your sister.”

“Thank you.” Juniper took a sip of steaming chamomile and then set it on the bedside table so she could worm under the sheets. Maxine climbed up the little stairs they’d built for her and lay down on her feet after kneading the blanket and her skin into a suitable bed. “The week, though? Are you sure you won’t explode?”

“I might explode.” Lydia rolled over behind her to wrap an arm around her shoulders. If Juniper hadn’t been so exhausted, she would have turned over and kissed her. Instead she melted into the sheets, enjoying the weight of Lydia’s arm and the gentle presence of her breath on the back of her head. “But something’s coming, and I realized I don’t have the energy for it. We’re stretched too thin at the shop. What we do is important for people but we still need time for ourselves or we’ll burn out.”

Juniper was warm, and comfortable, and her life was not in danger. She could barely keep her eyes open. “Can you bring me a pen and paper?” she asked. “I want to write that down so you can’t walk it back when we wake up.”

Lydia laughed and leaned in to kiss the back of her neck. “I don’t think you’ll let me. But I’m leaving the grant applications up to you.”


Watson Neith is a writer and multimedia artist. Past work has been published in Corvid Queen. @watsonneith on Twitter.

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