It’s easy to shoot a dog. Susanna watched Papa do it one bitter morning, winter before last, when old Karo couldn’t get up off his blankets, so she knows how it’s done.
You tie the dog to a fence post, put a soup-bone on the ground, load the musket with the right measure of powder and a lead bullet, aim it at the dog’s head, and light the charge with the match-cord. Long as your hands don’t shake, and the dog doesn’t move, you’ll blow its head clean off.
“It is an act of kindness and of mercy,” Papa told her when he saw her watching from the porch, “to spare him the suffering otherwise to come.”
Then he lit the powder, rough hands steady as the discharge scattered a flock of crows into the clouds.
Restless now on her cot beneath the rafters, listening to the quiet breaths of her own dog asleep beside her on the floor, Susanna hears that musket blast again, feels the shudder of the recoil through her bones, the sting of powder in her nostrils sharp enough to make her wince.
Judging by the moonlight, it’s long past midnight and she knows it’s time to go, yet she lingers beneath the covers.
She thinks of how she brought this dog home as a pup one October day ten years ago when she was seven, same year as Mama raised a stone with her brother’s name in the boneyard; thinks of how old Karo took to that pup right away, watching it with kindly hang-dog eyes as it blundered wobbly-legged through the yard and garden.
That pup grew up with her; became this rangy, flop-eared mutt that curls up beneath the table when she eats, sniffs out hares and grouse in the woods for her, twines its body ‘round her knees to greet her when she comes in from the barn. For ten years, she’s cared for it with gentle patience, the way no one’s ever cared for her, and for ten years it’s followed her wherever, sharing her bed, her paths, her warmth; its soul and shadow mingling with hers beneath this tarred roof, beneath this well-worn patch of sky and heaven.
It’s easy to shoot a dog. Easier still if you don’t think about it too long; if you can heft that musket clean of doubt or guilt.
Cold floorboards bend and creak beneath her stockinged feet as she gets up, reaching for her clothes in the darkness. There’s the gleam of frost outside, even though it’s only early fall, but then, it’s been a hard year already. A year of bad omens; a harsh winter followed by a slow spring, wolves ravaging sheep, church-silver stolen off the altar. They even burned a witch in town, just after Easter. She went to look, but though the woman’s hair was shorn and she was already burning, Susanna could tell it wasn’t anyone she knew. After, when the bones still smouldered, the priest in his stiff black cassock puffed himself up before the crowd, assuring them the witch’s spells and crafts would all unravel now that she was dead. Susanna stood there until dusk, waiting to see if anything would change, but the world remained the same as far as she could tell.
Beneath the shearling coat and felted woolen breeches on the chair beside the bed, Susanna’s fingertips brush the embossed cover of Nana’s ancient hymnal, but tonight she has no prayers to tuck between its yellowed pages. Instead, she reaches down, finding the warmth of fur and breath that has always been more dependable than faith and supplication.
The dog yawns as it stretches, gazing up at her with brown and faithful eyes, jaunty tail already wagging. It’s eager to go with her, watching as she gathers up Papa’s musket, tucks the tinderbox into her pocket, slings the supple leather pouch that holds the powder and the bullet across her chest.
“Come,” she whispers so as not to wake Mama or Papa, and heads downstairs, slipping into the dark with the dog trotting keen on white-toed paws, following.
Far back as Susanna can remember, she always wanted a dog of her own, but Mama and Papa would not allow it. No matter how she begged or pleaded, they did not relent. Mama even struck her at the end of one long day when she got tired of her cheek. Old Karo was enough, they thought, keeping the yard and barn safe with his growl and bark; but much as she loved that jowly hound, she knew he was not wholly hers, knew he loved her Papa and her waddling, weak-chinned brother more than her. She craved a creature that would be bound to her, to love and roam with as she saw fit.
For months she prayed for a puppy, hands clasped around Nana’s hymnal every Sunday as she sat in church beneath that soaring vault crowded with angels and apostles. Peering up at the Mother and the Son, at the vines and doves; staring at the polished silver cross studded with sardonyx and amber above the altar.
But God did not relent either, and one chill October morning she wandered off into the forest to find a pup herself. She was seven years old, hemmed in on all sides by chores and rules and commandments, her brother scampering in her wake. As always, she was supposed to watch him, the louse, same as every day since he’d been born.
“Stay here,” she ordered, telling him of the ravenous wolves stalking the glades and paths, of their howls threading through mist and moonlight; of the witch weaving blood and bone into magic spells, changing children into pigs and sheep before she took their skins; of the trolls lurking ‘neath the bridges and the rocks; of the vittra roaming the dells and hollows, snaring the unwary.
But he would not leave her alone no matter what she said or did, toddling along behind her undaunted.
At first she followed the trails she knew, to the places she’d gone to gather firewood and berries, to harvest birch bark for baskets, to forage for sticky-capped mushrooms in early fall and bright-green spruce-shoots in spring. Then she wandered farther, across the bridge, across the river, to where she’d sometimes let the goats graze, meadows hazy with tall timothy grass and yarrow in summer, yet no dog could she find in that frosty wilted pasture, nor anywhere else her feet would take her.
“There is a pup,” she told her brother, when he wept and said that he was hungry. There were countless places in the woods where a pup might hide, waiting to be found, waiting to be saved. “We just have to find him. Just a little farther.”
She kept saying it, clinging to the words as if speaking them out loud would make it so.
Her brother cried most of the way. Because his ankle twisted. Because he was four years old. Because the wolves howled. Because he was cold and she’d forgotten to bring his mittens. Because he was too far away from Mama, no matter how hard and unforgiving her calloused hands were most days.
When darkness fell, they trudged on, her brother sucking his fingers and holding on to her coat. He followed her wherever, because that was the way it had always been, since the first day Mama placed him in her care.
Ten years ago, when she walked home through the woods with that new pup whimpering in her arms, when she snuggled it close and felt the warmth of its soft, pink belly, she did not regret the choice she’d made. She did not regret it even when Mama and Papa shrieked and cried, asking where she’d been, asking about her brother. She told them he’d run off; that she’d followed but could not find him, no matter how she looked.
Even at the age of seven, the lies felt smooth and true upon her tongue.
And Mama wailing, like she’d ever cared for him, and Papa’s face gone hard as rocks and iron, as if he’d even once held him close.
“You were supposed to watch him,” Mama said, her voice so rough with anger it raked Susanna’s skin.
“I did. I tried.”
Papa saw the pup then, cowering between her legs.
“I found it in the woods when I was searching,” she said and picked it up, felt their two hearts pounding, close like breath and blood. “It’s mine to keep.”
Papa raised his hand. Mama raised her voice. But what could they do? They placed a stone with the boy’s name in the boneyard once they’d combed the woods in vain. After that, Papa went back to the fields and forest and Mama went back to washing laundry for the burghers.
Susanna had spent three days and nights wandering the woods with her brother, scrounging for frost-bitten berries off the rowans, chewing bark and pine-sap to fend off the hunger. In the dark, she whispered lullabies to hush her brother up, trying not to shout or strike him, even when he would not stop wailing.
By the time the old woman found them, they were chilled through bone and marrow; her brother sniveling snot and tears. Susanna was crying too, at least when no one saw. The old woman looked them over long and thoughtful, her gnarled hand resting on the curved blade tucked into her belt, though Susanna did not think she’d need that steel to end them. Once they’d been weighed and measured beneath that gaze, the woman took them to a sod-roofed cottage, evergreen ivy and withered bougainvillea snaking up the timbered logs and eaves, skulls and bones dangling in the trees outside, fresh hides stretched tight in wooden frames for tanning in the yard.
The woman fed them mutton soup and fresh-baked bread. She combed the pine needles and mud out of their hair. She put a fatwood pine-root on the fire to warm them. She wrapped the boy in a sheepskin and laid him down on a cot by the hearth.
Susanna sat at the table, sipping soup and watching. She saw the way the old woman used her mortar and her pestle, the way she hung the bunches of gathered herbs from the rafters, the way she mixed the potions and the salves on the counter below the deep-set window, the way she opened that heavy black book of hers, inked letters twined about with gold and scarlet. She listened to her sing, chanting words over her brother to mend his broken foot.
She knew what that woman was, and the woman knew she knew it, but neither of them spoke the word.
“All I wanted was a dog,” Susanna said, though no one had asked for any explanation. “I’d give anything for a pup of my own.”
The woman shook her head, her small bird-bone earrings clicking beneath her waist-long, grey-streaked hair. “Silly girl. Pups come along all the time. Wait till spring. They’ll be rolling out of every barn and cottage.”
“I’ve waited years already. I want a dog to care for now, before winter comes.”
The woman laughed at that, at Susanna. Yet she looked at her with something akin to understanding.
“No patience in you, is there? Don’t go looking for things to love, girl. Life’s easier if you’re not shackled to another.” She nodded at the sleeping boy, gave a knife’s edge of a grin. “One such chain of care has been slipped on you already, and as you grow there will be others, and they will be tighter still.”
Susanna looked at her little brother. He was quiet then, but well did she remember his whining and his weeping, how he slowed her down and clung to her at every step.
“You’re a clever girl, I can tell. Once I, too, was a clever girl who wanted things that would not be given to me. There are ways to get the things you want, but the getting’s rarely free or easy.” She gazed at Susanna, then turned away. “No. I do not think you want the dog that I could give you. Go home. Obey your parents. Become what they want you to be.”
Susanna looked at her, thinking of the black book the woman had closed when she saw Susanna peeking, of the words she’d sung to change and heal the boy’s bones and flesh; she thought of whispered winter-tales of children gone astray and of the raging hellfire awaiting those who used charms and curses to get what God and prayer would not supply.
“I’d give anything for a puppy.”
The old woman turned from the cauldron, a gleam of embers in her sharp blue eyes as she peered through the murk of smoke and steam, seeing true and through. “Not many are willing to give anything. What would you give to get what you want?”
Susanna swallowed another mouthful of that soup, listening to her brother snuffling beneath the sheepskin; looking at that gnarled-root of a hand stirring the cauldron, and she thought she knew what the question and the answer meant.
Ten years on, Susanna is walking through the woods with the dog scampering in her wake. Might be his gait is stiffer now, might be his maw is grizzled, but he still follows her wherever; his soul and shadow still mingled with her own.
“There’s a price for everything,” the old woman told her that night beside the fire, “but you are only seven, and clever as you are, I’ll still give you ten years until payment’s due for what I’ll give you. By then, the shackles of your life will be chafing both your skin and soul. Then you must bring yourself to me, to learn and listen, to stay beneath my roof as long as I see fit. And you must bring back what I gave you, for me to keep.”
Ten years ago, as Susanna gazed at the fatwood smouldering low, as she listened to her own fiery heart burning hot and greedy beneath her ribs, the deal she struck seemed a well-considered bargain. She never thought ten years would pass by so quick—and if she thought of the deal at all those first few years after the old woman showed her the way home, she mostly thought of the snug bed in that small cottage, of the smell of herbs and mutton, of days without chores or errands, of the inked and illuminated pages of that heavy book, of the liberty to roam beneath the trees rather than feel the burn of lye as she helped Mama launder sheets by the creek.
But lately, as the years have run down through the glass, she’s turned and twisted all the words the old woman spoke; she’s run her fingers over them, the smooth and the rough, pondering their full meaning as she’s laid awake at night with the dog warm and heavy by her side.
Bring back what I gave you, for me to keep.
She’s thought of the scraped-clean skulls hanging from the branches, of bones boiled white, of hides stretched and drying beneath the trees. She’s thought of the wicked knife in the old woman’s belt, of the claws and teeth dangling from the charms. She’s felt the dog’s soft ears between her fingers, felt the curve and sleekness of his skull and jaw beneath the silken fur. And the fear that only tickled ‘neath her skin ten years ago has turned into a constant itch and ache.
She’s tried to find a way out. She prayed for salvation in church, with the wine and bread burning on her tongue, hands clasped around Nana’s hymnal, even though she knows neither the Mother nor the Son nor the angels and apostles will help a girl like her.
It’s easy to shoot a dog. As a kindness, as a mercy, to spare it the pains and suffering otherwise to come (beneath that wicked knife and chanted words). Susanna has held the musket more than once; felt the weight of it, heavy like her own heart in her hands.
Ten years. It is a decent length of life for any dog; yet even so, the old woman’s words no longer seem like a fair trade or trusty promise. They seem a threat and portent, a shadow creeping ever closer through the pines and spruce. Susanna knows the payment’s overdue. She knows the old woman will claim it, one way or another, whether Susanna goes to her or whether she waits for Susanna to come knocking on the door.
She knows the price; knows what she would lose and gain if she were to pay it.
So she’s learned the things that might confound an old woman such as that: sardonyx and amber, salt and silver, mistletoe and iron, scattered pebbles on the path, a hag stone on the fencepost by the road, hazel planted near the house.
Even so, her fear runs deep. How many times has she stayed awake listening for the old woman’s steps coming up the pebble-strewn path, crossing the line of salt she laid at the threshold, climbing up the creaking stairs? How many nights has she waited for her barred door to shiver, for the latch and hook to bend and warp and snap, for the hinges to break, the wood to crack beneath the old woman’s power?
It’s easy to shoot a dog.
It’s harder to shoot a witch.
The bright frost shatters beneath Susanna’s boots as she heads deeper in between the boles, searching out the way she came and went ten years ago.
She’s never cried, not in ten years; not once. Not so as anyone could see or hear it, anyway. And even if she tasted those tears, even then, she knows she’d make the same bargain again.
Anything, is what she said. But whatever promise she made when she was seven, she knows now that she cannot give up this dog, cannot let him suffer beneath the knife, cannot let his skin be taken, cannot aim the muzzle at his head even to spare him the pain otherwise to come.
Susanna walks with one hand on the musket, treading through dawn and day and dusk, into the shiver-dark of another night with the dog beside her. She walks until she finds the sod-roofed cottage, one candle lit in its northern window. In the rippled moonlight slipping through the chasing clouds, she sees the pale skulls hanging from the trees, hears their hollow song of wind and bone, and she sees an empty frame set up to tan a new hide behind the house, wooden pegs and sinew-thread ready for the stretching.
The old woman knows they’re coming, her heavy feet already treading the warped wooden boards within the timbered walls. When the door glints open, there’s a breath of utter silence when Susanna thinks she might turn back or falter. But no. There the old woman is, in the doorway, grey hair tangled ‘round her brow, blue eyes peering through the shadows. Just a thin line of darkness between them now.
“Come inside,” the old woman coos. “I thought you might not come. Thought you’d changed your mind. Thought they’d find a way to hinder you, perhaps. I should not have worried. At seventeen, you are still a clever girl.”
The wood and metal of Papa’s musket is smooth and heavy in Susanna’s hands. She can smell the powder, smell the slow-burning match-cord—woven hemp cooked with saltpetre. In the darkness, she puts one hand on Brother’s head—to calm him, to calm herself. And yet they both tremble.
“I told you I would teach you, and I will,” the old woman whispers, soft words snaking ‘round Susanna’s pounding heart. “I’ll teach you all the things you’ll never learn at home, not from the preacher, not from that good book of yours, nor from any husband they might choose for you. I’ll teach you all the craft a clever girl might want to know.”
Susanna knows it is the truth. She knows she could reach for all that power, pay the price, watch Brother’s hide scraped and stretched in that yard and be done with it. She knows the old woman could teach her how to grasp the forces of earth and sky and fire, of wind and water, and bend them to her will. She knows the old woman would open that heavy book and let her read its pages, learn the chants and verses written there; stranger songs than any printed in Nana’s hymnal.
It would be easy to keep the bargain, to pay the debt she owes, leave everything behind. Easier than trying to take it all with naught but a loaded musket in her hand and Brother by her side.
Behind her, Brother stirs, his growl no more than ragged breath.
“You’ve brought him, as agreed. Good. A fair trade for both of us. Let me take him off your hands before you step inside, because I allow no shackles of love nor duty here. It’s best to put away such childish things, and you’ll soon learn that freedom’s ever so much sweeter than the fetters you have known.”
In the wan light, Brother’s eyes are fixed on Susanna’s, brown and faithful even now. Even now he hearkens to her. Even now he trusts her.
It is right that he should trust her. After all, what would he have been without the deal she made? Nothing but another useless crofter’s runt, working his fingers to the bone, staggering beneath some richer man’s yoke, bending his knees and back beneath the priest’s commandments.
She does not want Papa’s musket or the witch’s knife to end Brother’s life. She does not want her own life to come undone, either, and to see her sin turn into human flesh again. She wants it all, just as she always did—the dog by her side, the magic between the illuminated pages hers to wield, this cottage their new home.
Standing on the threshold, Susanna knows there is a price for everything: for love, for knowledge, for life. For betrayal, too.
The musket’s loaded, just like she’s learned from watching Papa, even though he never would teach her. Here’s the match-cord lit and smoldering, threaded through the prongs atop the lock. A bit of priming powder in the pan. The right measure of powder down the barrel, too, and a bullet, as smooth and warm and heavy as her guilty heart, as her tarnished soul.
She’s already dropped that bullet down the muzzle, tamping down ball and powder with the scouring stick. And now she stands here, the lit end of the match-cord glowing hot and red like a demon’s eye in the murk.
She thinks of all the things she’d give right now, rather than Brother’s skull and hide. Even Mama’s and Papa’s lives she’d trade without regret. But not him. Not this dog. Not Brother.
The old woman sees the musket, sees Susanna raising it, aiming it at her head, but she’s not worried. She thinks it’s loaded with naught but a ball of lead, easily averted. She does not know how patiently Brother waited at the church door while Susanna snatched that hallowed cross off the altar—the Mother gazing down upon her sacrilege. She does not know about the silver Susanna snipped off that cross with Papa’s tongs to melt and put into the bullet mould. She does not know about the sardonyx and amber Susanna pried off it and dropped into the ladle as the molten lead and silver swirled there, glossy-hot and grey. She does not know about the three long grey hairs Susanna plucked off the old woman’s cloak ten years ago while she lay sleeping, while the fatwood burned low, while a seven-year-old girl pondered the deal she’d made. She does not know how safe Susanna has kept those grey strands, tucked between the pages of Nana’s hymnal.
There is no going back. Not to who she was ten years ago, before her hot and greedy heart burned away all chances of salvation. Not to Mama and Papa, telling her each day to marry and be gone. Not to church, with the priest leaning close in the confessional, asking about those dog-tracks in the snow beside the church gate, about the errant boot-prints by the altar.
But if the bullet finds its mark, if the witch’s craft should come undone, if her skein unravels here, what then for her, what then for Brother, what then for both of them? For him, the slow death of a stunted life. For herself, the stocks, the pyre, a shallow grave in unhallowed ground.
Susanna grips the musket firmly, Brother quivering at her side. He won’t leave her, no matter how this ends, no matter what she does or where she goes, because that’s how it is, how it’s always been between them: no matter where the path leads, or what words the witch spoke ten years ago to change him, or what Susanna did to get what she wanted. Through it all, Brother’s eyes stayed steadfast and true and always will. This dog will follow her to the ends of this world and into the next.
She knows the truth of it now, standing here at the end and the beginning. It isn’t easy to shoot a dog, not even as a mercy and a kindness, not even to spare him the pain and suffering otherwise to come. Not when your souls and shadows have mingled since the day he was wrenched from Mama’s womb. Because the real bargain she made, before any other, though the words were never spoken and Susanna did not understand the weight and depth of it before tonight, was to take care of him, of this dog, her Brother, till the end of his days, till the end of hers.
It’s hard to shoot a witch.
Harder still when Brother starts barking at the old woman’s feet, snapping at her hem and sleeves, but still she must take aim.
Hands shaking, she touches the match-cord to the powder.
The crack and smoke of Papa’s musket fills the night.
As the tangled bodies of witch and dog collapse in the doorway, Susanna stumbles forward, breathing one word into the silence—a plea and question, both. Kneeling, she blinks away the sudden sting of tears and reaches through the bitter smoke, praying for the warmth of fur and breath, praying for the power of sardonyx and amber, praying that the spell won’t break.