Grandma’s root cellar looks like a barrow in the gloaming: door facing north, yawning wide beneath the hill. Lintel so low it makes me crouch, threshold so high it makes me stumble. You might have laughed at that if you could see me, brother. I wish you would. I wish I could hear you laugh again. I wish I could hear you scold me for everything I’ve done wrong since we ran away from Father.
I think of Father every day, Jeremy, tracing the scars and memories in my skin.
You were too young to remember how he brought us to that barrow by the lightning-blighted oak. I was already six and worldly wise, I thought. Mother was long since gone, I don’t know to where, though I often think of Father weeping near the frozen mere that winter when he said she left.
Our tallow candles burning low, he led us beneath the barrow’s rock-hewn arch, beneath the hunched shoulders of stone and dirt.
“Hold still,” he said when he laid us down on that flat stone table, and we did, though we’d seen the knife, flint and quartz.
He cut us, Jeremy, he carved his runes into our skin and fed our blood to the bones and shadows beneath the ground. I remember how you cried, how you did not stop wailing until you’d been given a cloth to suck, rough-spun linen dipped in sugared brandy. Afterwards, when we walked home beneath the cloud-wrapped moon, Father told me we’d be strong as rocks and roots now that the earth had tasted us, that nought below the sky could hurt us, not even the craft Grandma wove into the darkness below the spruce and pine.
I thought he lied, Jeremy, as he sometimes did when he’d been drinking. I thought all he wanted for us was the pain, but I was wrong. I understand it now. Even then, he was looking out for us.
The door to Grandma’s root cellar creaks open, complaining to itself on rusted hinges, warped wood murmuring the secret sigils bound to it long ago. There’s a space inside, between the outer door and inner, lined with wooden shelves on either side where Grandma stores her empty buckets and rinsed-out pickle jars. Almost I can see her there, peering through the darkness, round glasses slipping down her nose.
I close the outer door behind me, bracing the heavy axe I brought against the wood, long handle planted firmly in the ground. That handle fits so well into my hand, like it was made to measure: easy to grip and swing, even with just one hand. Slice and cut, chop chop chop.
I stop and listen for the scratch and skitter of eager bones outside; listening for the pitter patter of rat-claws, too.
No. Nothing. Not yet.
I’ve come for you, Jeremy; you, and my arm. The rats brought back to me everything I lost, except that. I’ve already searched Grandma’s house: the cellar and the attic, the dank room beneath the stairs, the cupboards and the chests, the hidden spaces between the walls and floors–finding nothing there but rat droppings and silenced sparrow bones. But I’ll find you, brother; you, and that wayward limb of mine. Then we’ll go, the two of us, and make our way out of here, together. Could be, we might find Father, too, if he can still be found.
The inner door swings open as I step inside, beneath and under, into the chill breath of earth and damp. Jeremy, where are you? Beneath the ground? Will I have to dig? Might be I should have brought a shovel rather than an axe.
The lantern-flame flickers over the barrels and the baskets, the wooden crates filled with winter-stored potatoes, apples, carrots – last year’s harvest brought beneath the ground to keep. Braided onions and garlic dangling low from the root-twined ceiling; rows of jars with jellies and preserves, pickled beets and beans, each labeled in Grandma’s strong, sure hand. I grope and rustle among the tubers: searching, seeking, never finding.
Brother, are you here? Can you hear me whispering?
Such a sap I was, Jeremy. Thinking I was saving us that night we ran away, slipping through the pathless wood like the shadows of two birds while the house burned down behind us.
I didn’t mean to do it, I swear it. I didn’t mean to drop the kindling from the hearth, didn’t mean for the flames to catch. And Father on his way home already, striding between the boles, carrying his saw and hatchet, having spent the day splitting logs and hauling timber, expecting his dinner set out upon the table.
It was best for us to flee, I thought, before he returned to see what I had done.
I remember the bitter taste of tears and smoke, how you tugged at my singed skirt as we ran, how you cried for us to turn back ‘round. And me, prideful and foolish as I’ve always been, not listening. By the time I saw the truth of it, we were already lost, caught in Grandma’s cunning weft. Father always said her power reached from tree to tree, far as anyone could walk: a weave too fine for eyes to see or hands to feel yet impossible even for breath or dreams to slip through.
But I’ve torn her weave, Jeremy. I’ve slashed it.
I chopped her head off. Knocked her over in the privy, pinned her down beneath my knee. Axe and block, chop chop chop. Last thing she told me was that I’d never find you. She laughed, and then I swung. I told the rats to help me hide her, and they did.
It was the rats that saved me in the end, Jeremy, the ones we fed the scraps and leavings from Grandma’s larder. They followed me everywhere after you disappeared, snickering behind me as I searched, tangling in my hair when I fell asleep. But in the end, they pitied me, dragging my limbs and guts through grandma’s house, gathering me up bit by bit underneath the eaves. Last of all they got my head back: hair shorn off, mouth and nose askew from when it fell and rolled across the floor. You might’ve laughed at that, too, if you’d seen it.
I should have done better than to lead you here, Jeremy, but I will make it up to you, I swear it by my bones and marrow.
If only I could find my arm! This one’s already dangling loose, I was in such a hurry when I stitched it on. But I’ve searched all the crates and barrels, and there is not a whiff or whimper of it, nor your skin and bones.
Grandma came for me two nights after you’d gone missing, brother, her voice all soft and cooing as she woke me in that narrow bed you and I had shared. The rats squeaked my name, their shrill voices muffled by the mattress-straw, but I did not listen. Grandma said she’d found you, said she’d show me where. And I went, even though the faces in the mirrors shook their heads. They knew. But they’re the kind that cannot speak unless spoken to.
“Look behind the woodpile, Amadine.” And I bent down. Stupid girl.
I fought her, Jeremy, tearing at her hair and apron. That’s when she took my arm, hand still clenched into a fist. Right before her blade sliced off my head.
“Every life has power, girl, and children most of all,” she told me as she took me apart like a clock upon her table, laying aside my teeth for necklaces and charms, hanging my skull from the rafters to dangle with the hams and herbs.
Father always said there’s worse things than being eaten, but I’d not believed it until then.
Oh, Jeremy, there’s nothing here, nothing but the smell of dirt and roots, the chill of winter and trampled earth. No arm, no you. Just me, unraveling.
I know she’s coming, Jeremy. The iron bands weighing her down at the bottom of the well won’t hold her long. Neither will the spells I wove. I listened to her, brother, while I dangled from the wooden beams; learning the craft that binds and loosens, the runes she speaks and carves.
Can you hear that? That’s her hands crawling up the well. She’ll be here soon, trying to rend my flesh asunder one more time. Oh, Jeremy, I don’t know if I can do it, not again, knitting flesh to bone, nerves to veins. I’m no great seamstress and I made such a mess of it the first time: legs all crooked, spine askew, neck and nose turned and twisted. Wouldn’t that have made Father smile? Like he smiled at me right before he cut us in that barrow long ago.
“One day you’ll thank me, Amadine,” he murmured as I whimpered beneath the knife, “though I might not be there to hear it.”
My knees snap and sway as I sit down on the floor, the seams I stitched through joints and gristle showing flaxen-pale on dirty skin, all that thread unraveled from Grandma’s linen curtains. I’ve brought enough thread for you, Jeremy. A needle, too: sharp and good and strong. I’ll put you back together, if only I can find my arm.
That’s her again, that creaking. She’s hauling up her limbs from the well, rope and crank and bucket. But I’m sitting quiet, like you would do if you were me, humming words of finding sweet and low as I shut my eyes, pawing through the spilled parsnips and rutabagas on the floor.
There. Down in the dirt, I feel it: elbow, wrist, and fingers. I still can’t see it when my eyes are open–then it just looks to be an errant root half-buried in the floor, but my fingers cannot be fooled. It’s my arm, twitching there to greet me, fist unclenching in the dust, letting go what’s been held inside all this time, bent and twisted: golden wire, glass.
Little brother, you should have seen how Grandma searched for those spectacles of hers even thinking that the magpie might have carried them aloft. She never noticed, never felt my hand grabbing in her apron pocket, right before she twisted my arm out of its socket.
I slip them on, feeling the pinch around my nose, looking through the lenses streaked and cracked. The lantern-glow shifts and trembles, crates and barrels wobble and reshape, the glitter of the pickle jars twisting inside out.
Oh, Jeremy. I see you now, you, and all the others: your hair and fingers turned to braided garlic strings; your eyes peering at me between the pickled beets; your heart beating slow in the jar of jellied apples; your bones and sinews in the barrels, packed down nice and neat in salt and brine.
This place was never built for potatoes and preserves. It is just another barrow, made to keep those things that should be underground: grave and cellar, both, dug beneath the hill.
Don’t worry, Jeremy, I have my needle and my thread, I have Grandma’s spectacles to see with, and as soon as my arm is back on I’ll make you whole. My needlecraft might leave something to be desired, but I’m quick, and the thread is strong.
Never mind Grandma’s knuckles rapping on the door, brother. I won’t let her in, not until we’re both good and ready. Not until the hungry rats have gathered kith and kin, come to take another meal from the scraps we might leave behind once we’ve said our last farewell to Grandma.