When Sylvie was eight years old, she became very sick. Her parents, too, became very sick. And while Sylvie burned in fever dreams, her parents died.
When she could move again, when she had stopped crying and wiping her dripping nose, Sylvie dragged her parents to the back of their small wooden home and laid them out on the ground. She found a trowel in the dried-grass basket near the hearth, and with that trowel she buried her parents. On her ninth birthday, Sylvie was alone.
On a brisk fall morning scant weeks after their deaths—a morning where the dead leaves of creaky old maples danced in circles on the ground—Sylvie pulled the last of the carrots from Mother Shabna’s garden. They were her mother’s favorite carrots, clothed in burgundy skin with centers orange and sweet. Sylvie called them dragon carrots, because their hearts were filled with fire. She had seven carrots, which was very good, as she’d already eaten all the cabbages, the pumpkin, the squashes, and the potatoes. She’d saved the carrots for last—they were her favorite.
But there, under a small drift of leaves, she found an eighth carrot. Sylvie delighted in her bounty and pulled the carrot with careful hands from the hard earth. It emerged screaming. Sylvie threw it to the ground.
“Wicked child, wicked child,” it screeched, “look what you’ve done! I was dreaming the most delicious dream, a dream of hot rabbit’s blood on the frozen ground. How will I slake my thirst now?”
Sylvie was a cautious, calculating child, and regarded the indignant carrot from a distance. Its face was small and wrinkled, heavy in the jowls. It looked to Sylvie like Farmer Seless’s baby boy, and it screamed just as the baby had.
“Young carrot, please forgive me. I was foolish, and did not think you might be sleeping, even though Mother Shabna told me to always check for ones with faces. How do I put you back to bed?”
The carrot rustled its lush greens in irritation and crossed its spindly root arms. “It’s too late for that, too late, too late. Now the great spirit in the sun has seen me and named me, and so I must take up my purpose.”
The carrot opened a crack in its front wide like a grin and stretched its taproot taut.
“Start with the bargain, start with that. ‘The bargain always comes first,’ the great spirit taught me. Young girl who has woken me early, who pulled me from my sweet dreams and soft earth bed, there must be something you want. What is it, then? What, what do you want?”
Sylvie’s heart picked up its beat. Spirits were wild things, Mother Dar had said, remainders of the fertile earth, the world’s birth blood. Not the seed but the chaff. She remembered Mother Dar pressing a carved stone into her hand, pressing so hard the swirling design in its surface had etched briefly in her skin.
“When someone you do not know tries to speak with you, clutch this stone as I’ve shown you and think of the fire holly wreath above our door. Then I will know, and will find you, and be certain you are safe.”
Mother Shabna had clicked her tongue from beside the hearth where she bent over a fat pot bubbling with lentils. “You’ll put fear in her heart if you speak to her thus. Fear will not help her.”
Still, Mother Dar had pressed the stone into Sylvie’s palm and closed her fingers around it. “A witch’s daughter is a rare and precious thing, as you are mine. Take the stone. Think of the fire holly. Be safe.”
Sylvie had put the stone in the safest place she could imagine; Mother Dar had guarded it so dutifully, it was only right she take it to her grave, as Mother Shabna had taken her trowel and her seeds.
Sylvie pushed her curling unkempt mane from her eyes and dashed away with dirty fingers the tears that burned her cheeks. She kneeled beside the carrot.
“I have never seen a carrot strike a bargain. What manner of carrot are you?”
“A hungry one!” The carrot threw itself into the dirt and whined.
“How might I feed you?”
“With rabbit’s blood, with rabbit’s blood! Wet and hot and fast in the veins.”
“I thought carrots only desired water, a kiss of sunlight, and dirt.”
“I am different, yes. You’ll see it’s true. What bargain, then? What? What?”
“What can you do?”
“Anything you want, anything. It is easy. I am a carrot of great power! See my stalk, this green? Yes, I am strong, strong.”
Sylvie thought of her parents in their cool earthen graves: Mother Dar, her face hard-planed, lined, and deeply brown but always soft in the eyes for her, redolent of oak moss and sweat; Mother Shabna, ensconced in a rushing tide of skirts and shawls of indigo blue, her fingers long and finely-boned, webbed with old scars and laden with rings of twisting grapevine and woven river grasses.
It had taken Sylvie many days to get strong enough to sit up after her illness, to get off her pallet on the floor, to dig their graves and plait their dark hair and find the right rounded river stones for their cairns. Her mothers had raised her a practical girl, and she didn’t cry until she’d put them to bed. They had only smelled a little bit. It hadn’t been so long.
“What of my parents?”
“Parents, parents, what parents? I see an impertinent little girl with nosy fingers, yes, rude little fingers. There are no ‘parents’.”
Sylvie twisted the hem of her homespun—now threadbare—dress in her fingers. Her legs beneath the dress were bony and knock-kneed, a patchwork of scrapes and dried mud. “I had parents, once. Then Farmer Seless came to the door and cried of sickness and begged Mother Shabna for a draught. Then we got sick too, and then there was only me.”
“Dead parents!” The carrot squeaked. “Dead parents, dead parents, you must find me a very large rabbit for ‘dead parents’.”
Fear fought with longing in her chest. Fear was strong but longing larger and always growing. Nothing the carrot could do to her was worse than life without her parents.
“Will you swear it? You will return my parents to me for one large rabbit?”
“Yes, for the largest rabbit you’ve ever seen, the most tender, succulent rabbit. Yes, I can do it. Bring it here, and I can do it.”
Sylvie glanced once at the forest of spindly alders just beyond her home, where Mother Dar had warned her spirits dwelt. Mother Dar had told her spirits could deceive, but they did not always; they were bound by a different charter not always at odds with our own.
“And you will not try to trick me?”
“Certainly not, certainly not! Faithless girl, how mean you are, how cruel! A generous spirt offers you life and you call it ‘liar’!” The carrot formed its little mouth into a perfect ‘O’ and screeched long and loud.
The carrot’s screeching was an awl between her ears. Fear of losing the carrot and its bargain was bitter nettle on her tongue. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!”
The carrot ceased its screaming and glanced sidelong at her through the drooping greens at its crown, its empty, bottomless mouth still round as if it might resume its wail at any moment.
“And so generous!” Sylvie appeased it. “The most generous spirit I’ve ever met. Please—will you keep our bargain?”
The carrot tittered and bobbed, waving its crown at her in sweeping arcs. The crown’s green tips whipped back and forth as it nodded. “I will, I will, I will! But until you return with my feast I will sleep, sleep well. I am very tired, you see, because some girl, quite disgracious, yes, disturbed me. Go on, little girl, and find me a rabbit.”
The carrot dug itself back into the earth and went still, not even a fluff of its top in goodbye. Sylvie poked it—gently!—and it did not stir.
Sylvie set out to find a rabbit.
She would need a weapon; Sylvie knew from watching Mother Dar that a weapon is what you needed to kill a rabbit, just as she knew from watching Mother Shabna that you needed a spark to make fire and fresh water to prepare gruel. She shoved the larder stool against the wall of her cottage and strained on tip-toes for Mother Dar’s bow and quiver of arrows.
Sylvie struck out into the forest surrounding her home and walked until she could not see the garden. This was where rabbits lived, Sylvie was certain, for when Mother Dar left to hunt in her dark, smelly leathers, it was in this direction she walked. And while she had never strung a bow—Mother Dar had promised to finally teach her come spring—she figured it couldn’t be too difficult.
Sylvie had a sense for figures. As she crept through the underbrush, she noted the types of trees and the condition of their leaves. The sun was low on the horizon, and Sylvie knew that with the leaves as they were and the sun it was, she had perhaps forty-two days before the first snow came.
Two seasons prior, when Mother Shabna was fretting about when to plant her seedling herbs, Sylvie had told her not to worry, that the last frost was but twelve days away and there would be none after. Eleven days passed, and when on the twelfth they woke to find a crown of ice on the young sea holly umbels, Mother Dar had clapped Mother Shabna and the shoulder and said, “You were right—we’ve raised ourselves a weather witch.” There were no frosts until the fall.
For forty-two days, Sylvie woke each morning, prepared herself a small bowl of amaranth soaked in well water, then set off into the forest with a Mother Dar’s bow on her back and a crisp apple in her pocket from their last old tree that hadn’t caught the blight.
For forty-two days, Sylvie strung the too-tall bow and loosed wobbling arrows at every rustle in the underbrush.
On the tenth day, Sylvie struck a crow; it fell like a cast stone from its lichen-limned perch. Sylvie offered it to the carrot, but the carrot refused it. Sylvie tried to cook the crow and discovered why Mother Dar never brought them home, dangling from a cord at her waist as she did the cryptically colored quail of late summer.
On the fifteenth day—now plagued by angry crows—Sylvie caught a long black snake, but the carrot refused it, too. She peeled off its skin as Mother Shabna peeled ground grapes, and nearly choked to death when one of its needle-thin bones caught in her throat like a curse.
On the twenty-first day, Sylvie saw her first rabbit, fat and thick-furred, eating fallen hazelnuts. The arrow she loosed flew over the rabbit’s head and lodged in the bark of the tree behind it. The rabbit fled, and Sylvie saw no rabbits after that.
On the thirty-eighth day, Sylvie threw Mother Dar’s bow in the river and sat on its serpentine bank and cried.
On the forty-second day, Sylvie woke to a light dusting of snow on the ground and knew that her days of stalking the forest had come to an end. She put on her coat—thick and molded from boiled wool, now awkwardly small—and went out to the garden to speak with the carrot.
She brushed the snow off its crown—still green as the new growth of spring!—and tapped the earth beside its head. “Carrot, you must wake up. I need to speak with you.”
The carrot waved its crown at her as if to shoo her away.
Her parents had been dead so long already, so many days now. “No, you will speak to me!” She grabbed the carrot by its greens and yanked it from the earth.
It promptly took up its ghastly screaming. “Horrid child! Horrid child who cannot keep a simple bargain! Away, away!”
She shook it ruthlessly until it quieted. “The first snow has fallen, and I have yet to find you a rabbit. Is there not something else I can bring you? Something that I already have?”
“Hmm!” The carrot kicked its twisted legs and scrunched up its face as if thinking very hard. “You know I must have the rabbit blood, you know it, you do. There is power in the rabbit’s blood.”
“But I cannot find you a rabbit—”
“There are other kinds of rabbits, yes. Fat and sweet-blooded, yes. Other rabbits, soft-skinned rabbits. Do you know them?”
Sylvie racked her brain but could think of no such rabbit.
“They are like you, yes? But small, smaller. And too loud, much too loud! But their blood is so sweet and full of life.”
A rabbit like Sylvie, but small? Sylvie was already so small and whip-thin, and there were so many things in the house she still couldn’t reach. A terrible thought leaped before her. “A baby? You want me to bring you a baby!”
“Yes, yes! That is the rabbit I seek!”
“No, I will not. I cannot. I do not have a baby and even if I did, I would not give it to such a dreadful little monster as you!” Sylvie thrust the carrot back into the dirt and ran into the house. She slammed the door and secured each of Mother Dar’s seven locks.
A baby! What an evil thing that carrot was. If only she had kept Mother Dar’s carved stone, she could have— But Mother Dar could not come to her, could not protect her, because Mother Dar was dead.
For sixty-three days, Sylvie did not leave the house for fear of encountering the carrot in the garden. Her larder and water barrel grew empty. Her carefully collected grain became infested with weevils. She shivered the long days away under Mother Dar’s leathers and Mother Shabna’s woolen cloak, until the woody smells of Mother Dar’s skin and the herb-rubbed hair of Mother Shabna faded from their garments and they became only things, only filthy blankets Sylvie must wrap herself in to keep warm.
On the sixty-third day, Sylvie ate her last apple and burned her last scrap of wood. On the sixty-fourth day, she went again to speak with the carrot.
“You’re back, yes, I hoped you would come back! Do you still remember our bargain?”
“Your bargain is foul. I will not do it.”
“But girl, girl, the figures are quite simple. Two lives for one. A bargain indeed! Two lives, two mothers, a warm home, a barrel of juicy apples. Two lives for one fat rabbit. Yes, yes, I must say, you are getting quite the deal!”
Sylvie drew her knees up into her dress and pulled Mother Shabna’s cloak more tightly around her. Her tailbone ached from sitting on the hard ground. Her stomach no longer burned in hunger. She had nothing left. A heavy snow fell on her shoulders like a freezing blanket, and as Sylvie sat, she considered the carrot’s offer.
Two mothers for one baby. Two was more than one, her hunger-fogged mind knew. Two was twice as much as one, in fact. With two mothers she could eat again, and be warm again. With two mothers she would not have to sleep alone in a dark house where centipedes and mice climbed in through the walls. Mother Dar had always killed the centipedes, and Mother Shabna had trapped the mice. Two mothers meant twenty fingers to comb out her hair, to repair the holes in her dress, to weave new fabric and grow new food. Two mothers meant four arms to hold her, two tongues to speak her name. What was one rabbit to two mothers?
She knew where to find one.
“Carrot, I will do what you ask, if you will keep your end of the bargain.”
The carrot scoffed. “A carrot always keeps its bargain.”
Sylvie did not waste time preparing. She took Mother Dar’s old boots from the scrap basket and stuffed them with bits of yarn and torn rags. She shoved her feet inside them and tied them tight with the string Mother Shabna used to hang her herbs. Then, she started for the road.
Farmer Seless lived a day and half’s walk away. If she hurried, if the carts from the far distant town had made deep enough ruts in the snow, she could get there before she fainted from hunger.
Sylvie set out at a brisk pace and walked through the day. When the sun set, she built a shelter under a pine tree with drooping boughs and slept. She dreamed of coughing, chills, and boils, and woke with anger in her heart. The next day, she arrived at Farmer Seless’s homestead before the sun reached its apogee.
She crept toward their home on snow hare’s feet, silent after all her weeks spent hunting in the forest. She pressed her ear to the home’s one tightly shuttered window and heard voices within. There was Farmer Seless, high and sweet and laughing. There was Farmer Shyn, her voice deep and rich like late summer honey. There was a rattling cough she could not place. Then there was a cry, and shushing sounds. There was the rabbit.
Sylvie settled down to wait for night to come. She pulled Mother Dar’s leather jerkin over her head to keep the snow from falling down her back. She was so tired. Her feet, which had ached as she’d hiked through the snow, felt like cracked quarry stones in her boots now, riven with an aching chill that threatened to break them. Soon, she fell asleep.
She woke with a jerk to the sound of a crow cawing in the dim. The sky was dark and void of clouds. The stars were a cobbled road above her on which the wheel of the world rolled around and around. Sylvie pressed her ear to the window and heard nothing. She peeked through a crack in the shutter and could see no light. The house was asleep. Sylvie eased the door open and crept inside.
Farmer Seless, Farmer Shyn, and the rabbit slept together on a wide, straw-stuffed mattress covered with furs. Carefully, so carefully, Sylvie crept toward the bad. Farmer Shyn’s face was slack in sleep, round and lined about her eyes. Farmer Seless, her back to the door, lay with limbs thrown every which way. Sheltered between them was the rabbit, fat and sweet, as the carrot demanded. It was wrapped in a blanket, arms swaddled close to its side. Together, they were two mothers and one baby, just as Sylvie and Mother Dar and Mother Shabna had once been.
Why were they alive when her parents were dead? All had been well until Farmer Seless had come pounding at their door, her horse lathered and panting in the clearing outside their home. She cried of sickness, her eyes rimmed red. Mother Shabna had sat her down and fixed her a soothing tea. She fed her a hunk of fresh walnut bread. Then, she sent her on her way with a satchel of herbs and careful instructions. Farmer Seless had cried in gratitude. Mother Shabna requested only a small portion of their next year’s wheat in payment and a few weeks worth of eggs if they could spare them.
Then Mother Dar and Mother Shabna had fallen ill. Sylvie fed and comforted them as best she could, took to their bed to warm them when they shivered. Soon she could not breathe as they could not breathe, the breath in her chest rattling like rocks thrown down a well. After four days, she woke up and could breathe again. Her mothers breathed not at all.
Two for one was a good bargain, Sylvie believed—and one that Farmer Seless would pay.
Sylvie slipped the rabbit from between its mothers and crept toward the door. Farmer Seless stirred and reached insticntively for a warmth that was no longer there. Sylvie froze, willing her not to wake, and the rabbit began to cry. Sylvie stifled its mouth with her dirty hands. It twisted in her arms, struggling like a cat that did not want to be held. Its muffled cries grew louder and almost slipped between her fingers.
Scant feet from the threshold, Sylvie tripped over the sleeping form of an old man bound up in blankets. The rabbit tumbled from her arms as she crashed to the floor. The old man’s arm whipped out from his blankets with a viper’s speed and caught her around the ankle. Sylvie kicked out with her oversized boot and caught him a cracking blow in the jaw.
She pushed herself to her feet and scooped the screaming rabbit up in her arms. Farmer Shyn fell out of the bed in a scramble and lunged for her, catching her about the waist in ropey arms braided with muscle.
An animal panic ran through Syvlie; a deafening buzzing flooded her ears. She bit and kicked and tore at the ensnaring arms. Farmer Shyn threw her back, swearing, and she careened through the cottage door, the rabbit howling in her arms, and stumbled out into the snow.
With Farmer Shyn’s mad shouts at her heel and the rabbit’s shrieks piercing her heart, Sylvie fled into the dark. This time she took the deer paths in the forest—the paths she knew so well now—to avoid meeting any carters on the road or being overrun by Seless’ horse. She knew the freshly fallen snow would cover her tracks.
Sylvie returned home in just a day. She’d run the entire way with the rabbit screeching in her ear and crows screeching at her back. She burst into the garden and found the carrot buried beneath the snow. With one arm, she shoveled the snow away, searching for the patch of earth where it waited. When she could no longer feel her hands and was sure the carrot had left or been eaten by some wild beast, she found the bright green spray of the carrot’s crown. Holding the rabbit tight to her chest, she once again ripped the carrot from the earth and unceremoniously dumped it on the ground.
“I have brought you the rabbit you asked for, fat and sweet as you said it would be.”
The carrot yawned enormously and smacked it rooty lips. At least it had the dignity now not to scream. “Place the rabbit on the ground before me, yes, let me look at it.”
Sylvie did as it asked.
The carrot cooed and whistled. “Oh yes, oh yes! This will do very well, very well. What a lovely rabbit you have brought to me, sweet girl. Yes, yes, a lovely rabbit. I shall love to eat it.”
Without another word, the carrot opened its little mouth, which grew and grew until it was large as a stew pot. The carrot lifted the rabbit on stubby arms still speckled with dirt and hastily popped the rabbit into its mouth. Its eyes closed in bliss, it let out a large belch and spit out the blanket the rabbit had been swaddled in.
“Lovely, lovely, lovely! Oh yes, what a treat! A sweet treat for me indeed.”
For a brief, panicked moment, Sylvie saw the rabbit for what it had been. A sick revulsion caught her up like fever, and her her empty stomach tried to turned itself inside out on the ground. Just a few drops of bile fell at her feet.
Shaking, she asked: “You have your meal. What of our bargain? What of my parents?”
“Oh-ho, yes, the parents! Two for one, how could I forget such a deal, such a marvelous deal. They should already be stirring, little girl, already be turning in their soft, shallow graves.”
Sylvie scrambled to flee, to push through the deepening snow out to the back of the house and pull her beloved parents from the ground. She was halfway through the garden when the carrot’s voice stopped her where she stood.
“There’s one thing, one thing, yes, just one little thing. A wrinkle! Ah, a wrinkle I forgot to share with you. You see, you see, our deal is not yet done, oh no.”
The sky turned on a pin and Sylvie stumbled to stop herself from falling. Two for one—that had been the bargain. Two parents for one rabbit. Had she not fulfilled her end?
“But I promise you will not mind it!” The carrot trilled and cooed and rolled about in the snow, an exultant grin upon its wrinkled face. “Now you must eat me.”
Sylvie collapsed woodenly to the ground. Snow seeped down the back of her mother’s leathers. “I won’t do it.”
“But I am food, don’t you see? Delicious and perfectly crisp! The best carrot you will ever taste.”
“No, no, you horrible thing—“
“Your parents are waiting, girl, your parents are waiting for you. You must help them from the earth or they will stay there forever, yes, forever!”
“It would be such an easy thing to place me in your mouth and swallow. Then you could run to your parents and all would be as it used to be. Wouldn’t it?”
The carrot shook the snow off its crown and inclined its vivid tops toward her.
“You must eat me, or I will leave your parents in the dirt.”
Sylvie picked the carrot off the ground. She held it to her mouth to bite but was sickened by its smell—it reeked like the slimy stalks of rotting flowers kept too long in water. Worse was the thick, cloying sweetness beneath the reek, identical to an orchard full of windfall apricots rotting in the summer sun. Bile flooded her tongue and she retched, but she bit into it as it had said she must. It snapped with a satisfying crunch. She expected its taste to match its smell, but the spirit was right—it was the best carrot she’d ever tasted, sweet and juicy with a hint of spice that burned her tongue and throat.
She ate the whole thing, and was immediately doubled over with a terrible pain. And then, in just a moment, the pain passed through her and away with a departing shudder.
She dropped the carrot’s crown in the snow and raced through the garden. All would be as it used to be—she knew it like she now knew the greedy emptiness in her gut. She had kept her half of the carrot’s bargain and deserved her just rewards.
Sylvie cleared the river stones from their grave with trembling hands. She pressed her ear to the earth and heard their breathing, heard the slow, shushing tu-tum of their heartbeats. The dirt split easily in her fingers, and she scooped it up in great, heaving armfuls.
But she slowed, though she wanted to shove the dirt away, wanted to grab them by the arms and drag them from their graves. But fear coiled slick and thick as eels in Sylvie’s stomach, writhing, twisting, snapping at their own tails.
The carrot was a spirit of the tricky sort, that was clear enough—what if it had lied to her? What if the hearts beating in the earth beneath were not theirs? Hot tears trailed her cheeks. But what if it were their hearts? What if it were them? Then all would be well, and all would have been worth it. Sylvie kept that thought close to her chest and steeled herself, biting her tongue against a sob that clawed at the back of her throat. She would not cry. Her tears wet the earth anyway.
With shaking hands, Sylvie brushed the last of the dirt away. She blew fine grains of earth from Mother Dar’s long eyelashes and thumbed it from the corners of Mother’s Shabna’s thin lips. Their eyes did not move beneath their lids as they had in sleep, but they were warm and breathing and unmistakably alive. They smelled as they always had, of oak and sweat, of young spring river grass sheared at the ankles, but there was a new smell beneath it, too, lingering on their skin—a smell not unlike the carrot, overripe and darkly vegetal. A shaking breath snaked past Sylvie’s lips. Had they been too long in their grave to rise?
Sylvie shook Mother Shabna’s shoulder, but Mother Shabna didn’t wake, only breathed on, sending plumes of hot breath into the frigid air. Sylvie shook Mother Dar and found her just the same. She spoke their names, shouted in their ears, begged them to open their eyes, but they would not answer. She pinched them hard in the cheek, the neck, the breast, but they did not stir, only breathed on, on, on.
Something built in Sylvie, rolling, rising in her blood. It was anger, and it spilled from her eyes in tears that fell on her mothers’ faces, that rolled down their cheeks and wet the earth beneath them. The carrot had betrayed her after all. She knew it like she knew that she would never be sated again, for the emptiness of that knowledge was a mirror to the emptiness in her gut.
Sylvie shoved the tears away, wiped the snot that fell from her nose, but she couldn’t stop the sobs that tore their way out of her chest. She fell limp into her parents’ shallow grave. If she could not have them, she figured, they would have her—they would have her nestled in the dirt like a rabbit kit in a burrow. She wiggled down between them, held tight in the warmth of their breathing, dreaming bodies. She threw an arm over Mother Dar and pulled her close. She pressed her back against the hills and valleys of Mother Shabna’s side.
Sylvie closed her eyes. As she drifted off to sleep, she felt herself grow long, felt her limbs delve into the earth, her throat thirst for its first gulp of warm spring sunlight.