All around them, the trees loom. The farther Aisha and Jolene travel, the more tightly the trees cluster. It snags their clothes and their hair, rakes across their skin, demands a thousand tiny sacrifices with each step. Aisha pushes them forward anyway and only stops when the forest becomes too still.
Nothing moves, but she hears it — a susurrus. An old, familiar invitation.
A thought rises unbidden, an echo in her mind: welcome home.
In her periphery, she catches sight of Jolene and barely reaches her, grabbing the back of Jolene's shirt before she wanders into the shadow of a tree. She pins Jolene to the trunk of another tree, this one more brightly lit, and hopes they don't spill into its center.
They both remain firm, above ground, and Aisha shakes her head. She told Jolene, It will feel like a dream. Remember that it's not.
So the, "Don't," that she whispers is a reminder and a spell to ward them. No matter how gently that sound pulls, there's always blood in it. Aisha recognizes the taste.
Not for the first time, Jolene shuts her eyes and shudders. It takes five deep breaths before she goes limp and nods.
She says, "I'm all right," as she's said each day for the week that it's taken to get them this far.
It's always a lie. Aisha's familiar with the taste of those, too.
Unlike before, the branches above them sway. The trees are laughing. Aisha can hear it in the breeze as she and Jolene look up, staring into nothing but a canopy of green leaves.
Just before Jolene crossed the threshold, Roque said, "Don't trust her."
The oldest song Aisha knows.
Now, as she stares at Jolene, sleeping, curled around herself, shivering next to the fire, her whimper another warning, Aisha whispers, "You should have listened."
Aisha's nightmares are like this—
"Call me Mother."
The woman drags out the word in the same sickly sweet way she draws Aisha into her house. The chairs here are normal. So is the wood table and the large cauldron set over a fire that has consumed the wall itself. The logs crack like felled trees, sending up fine bursts of ash that stain the ceiling.
Sometimes, her father stands in the corner with a blade that glints with a promise Aisha can never reach in time. He tells her, "The devil is in the details."
Every time she sees him, she thinks: it's too late. She's already lost in the forest without him.
She is both child and adult when the cloying scent that drew her here in the first place fills the room. There are no sweet cakes or candies. There are none of the lures that decorate the outside of the house, gardens made of licorice and lemon drops. Instead, there's fresh bread on the table and a steaming bowl of what smells like stew.
Aisha's mouth waters for it. She can never remember how long she was lost or where her knife has gone or how an old, frail white woman kept her locked up long enough for a prison to become a home.
"You poor darling," the woman says, cupping Aisha's cheeks, her hands so cold that Aisha shivers.
There is always a boy, too. He's never there when Aisha enters the house or the dream. He comes later, always different but always with wide, wet eyes that are fixed on Aisha.
The woman turns and pinches his cheeks. "You poor dear," she coos to him. "However did you get lost in these woods?"
The woman must be asking the boy, even though Aisha is the one who just came from the forest. But maybe the boy did, too. Unlike Aisha, he's well fed, his rosy cheeks as plump as the rest of him, so soft and round that his body spills over the edges of the chair. He clutches the arms of it so tightly that his knuckles are white, as pale as the woman's fingers as she stirs the stew in the cauldron.
The woman says, "Don't worry, my dears," and hums, but it never hides the sound of the boy whimpering.
Even knowing what she knows outside of the dream, inside the dream, Aisha thinks the boy should be grateful. Her hands ball into fists at her sides as she watches him tremble. When the woman's back is turned, Aisha gathers the fat on the boy's arm between forefinger and thumb. She twists until his skin peels. His lips fall open as if to scream, but there is never any sound. There is only his hitched, rasping breath as she peers into his pink mouth. He doesn't have a tongue. Or teeth. His mouth is a cavern, and the only thing that draws her away from falling into it is the woman's tsk, tsk, tsk behind her.
"Hush, darling, hush," the woman croons.
He always cries then. It starts as a trickle down his cheeks. It's not long before it becomes a stream that melts into the snot leaking from his nostrils and the drool falling from the corners of his mouth.
"You're not ready yet," the woman says.
It's true of both the boy and Aisha.
The woman turns to her then, her smile broad, teeth gleaming. "And you, my dear. So thin." Aisha doesn't even have enough skin to pinch. "We'll get you fed up full. Then you can rest."
—shapeless memories, mouth filled with the lingering taste of sugar.
Like the boy, Jolene has no words. She gasps with wide eyes, but Aisha can see a tongue and teeth. She can see Jolene's extended hand, her fingers about to curl around Aisha's arm.
Aisha sits up, grip tight around her knife as she looks around. Behind her, the fire pops.
"I think you were having a bad dream," Jolene says, voice hushed. Her palm, when it slides over Aisha's forearm, is warm.
Aisha jerks free of it. "I'm fine."
At the corners of her eyes, she can see Jolene's hand hovering between them, but eventually, Jolene nods and draws it back. She stokes the fire, and Aisha remains awake through the rest of the night.
Aisha's dreams are a season—
"You're burning it," the woman snaps, grabbing Aisha by the back of her shirt and shoving her away.
She still insists Aisha call her mother, but that lure never worked. As young as Aisha is—was—she was never so young that her mother was replaceable.
She watches the woman stir, tsk, tsk, tsking, the exhalation of that sound the same hiss of a deflating lung. The scraps have stained the table red. And the chair. The woman's favorite chair.
The spoon is hot when it hits Aisha's cheek, the liquid and chunks of meat scalding as they slide down Aisha's throat. She flicks it away but doesn't flinch from the next blow or the one after, because she's survived so much more.
She still has her tongue, so she can taste the sweet, sweet meat, braised to tender, as easy to swallow as blood when she closes her teeth around a boy's small fingers.
"A waste!" the woman screeches, hitting her again and again. "A waste!"
—a curse Aisha hides in her ribs, so she never gets full, never burns in the fire with the scraps.
Smoke floats from the chimney, the vibrant green shade of the trees offering respite. It's all an invitation, but this time, Jolene sinks to the forest floor, covering her face.
"I can hear him," she whispers.
"It's the forest," Aisha says. Always taking lost things and offering what they desire most.
She examines the dirt beneath her nails and looks at the dried flakes of blood coating her hands. I don't want this, she thinks, a hollow promise as she sucks at the fresh wound on her finger.
It's Jolene, again, who offers the comfort of, "Are you okay?" A lure all its own.
"It's going to be harder the closer we get," Aisha says.
Jolene trembles but nods, shaking as she rises to her feet. It's impulse that has Aisha closing the distance between them, setting her hand on Jolene's shoulder, resting her left hand on Jolene's cheek. Their eyes meet. Jolene sways closer.
It shouldn't be hard to say, "You should stay here," but it is. The words scrape, barely alive when Aisha voices them.
"No." Jolene covers Aisha's hand on her cheek. "No, I—" She licks her lips, trembles, eyes shimmering with unshed tears. Yet her jaw is set. "I can't let you do this alone."
Aisha tells herself it's the magic as the trees sway above them. She lets Jolene go.
The door creaks open when they draw closer. The inside of the house is dim, but there's enough sunlight to illuminate the average trappings of an average home that's been abandoned. There are webs in the corner, insects skittering through the holes in the walls.
"Jamal," Jolene whispers. There's nothing here, nothing visible, but she darts forward anyway.
Aisha grabs her wrist and jerks her back. "Move slowly."
"One step at a time," Aisha says.
When Jolene nods, Aisha sets the pace, one steady foot forward until they're inside the house. The door slams shut, as she knew it would. As it's designed to.
"You poor dear," an old, frail woman says, her voice a creak, her gnarled, spotted hand stretching from the farthest corner of the room. She's missing a finger.
She's a pale wraith, the cornerstone of the story, her face a rictus of death. Aisha recognizes so many more portents now.
"Where's my son?" Jolene demands.
"Son? What son?" The woman tuts, shaking her head as she grows taller, her shadow stretching until it's indistinguishable from the ash that's stained the ceiling. She turns to Aisha, and her thin lips stretch wide, revealing the dull row of her teeth. "My dear. My darling. I knew you'd come back."
Jolene steps in front of Aisha. "Where's my son!"
The woman nods, her laughter brittle. "Where indeed!" she laughs. "I'm so hungry."
The fire flares in the fireplace, and Jolene jerks back, bumping Aisha, who closes her arms around her. She tightens her grip and watches as a cauldron appears from smoke, full-formed and hot, the woman's pale, bony hand stirring nothing.
"You ran. Of course you ran, but I knew you'd come back," the woman mutters. "I knew. I knew!"
Aisha closes her eyes. Jolene is too solid to be a dream, but all of this still feels like one—from Jolene's soft curls pressed against Aisha's cheek, the way Jolene gasps and Aisha's breath shudders. The way the house shifts from dead to alive, like it was only waiting to receive guests again.
Like her dream, Aisha says nothing. She squeezes Jolene's arm and then shoves her.
The sequence sounds wrong. Aisha hears the cauldron clanging against the wall first when Jolene pitches forward, hands raised like it might halt her momentum. Aisha steps forward, prepared to propel Jolene again, but Jolene collides with the woman. The woman spins as she stumbles, lips a snarl until the flames stretch around her arms. Her eyes are wide then.
Unlike before. When Aisha first pushed her, the woman had laughed. Now, she can't pull herself free. The flames curl around her like brightly-lit hands. Jolene flails and falls backward, slapping at the sparks licking at her clothes, unaware that she won't burn. She's fine, Aisha knows, so instead, she watches the woman claw and thrash and scream and scream and scream.
What draws Aisha back from the cavern of that open mouth is Jolene, whose cheeks are streaked with tears. This house is a pool of them. It's only fitting that Aisha can't breathe as she drowns in her memories.
"Where's Jamal? Aisha. Aisha!"
Aisha breaks Jolene's hold on her and stands. She can't remember when she collapsed to her knees, but they ache when she pulls herself to her feet.
"Home," she says, the windows flying open, sunlight streaming in through the windows, banishing the cobwebs and dust. "He never left."
"What—" Jolene's gaze skitters over Aisha's face, frantic, eyes wide and wild. "What's going on?" Voice barely above a whisper. "What did you…?"
Aisha unfurls her fingers and stares at her palms, at the dirt and blood stuck in the lines of them, outlining the stark paths that she had to take to finally get here. "There are rules."
Mother to mother for the fire to burn.
Aisha looks up to see Jolene shake with an impotent rage with which she is only all too familiar.
She thinks to tell Jolene the obvious: she is not a mother. She tried this once before. One finger sliced clean, swallowed as whole as the rest of the woman's quarry. The nature of magic is to lure.
Instead, she sets her palm on the table. The knife is still there. It's still as sharp as it was when Aisha first used it.
She asks, "Do you want the rest of it?" And aligns the blade to the first knuckle of her index finger, prepared to return what she'd stolen years ago.
The table rattles when Jolene stumbles into it, hard enough that the knife scrapes across Aisha's skin. Jolene clings to the table's edges, her hair whipping across her face as she shakes her head, unaware of what she's refusing.
"Don't," Jolene says, the word high and strangled as she holds up a hand.
Aisha sets down the knife and straightens, lets her blood drip to the floor, a steady fall like Jolene's steps when she finally shoves past Aisha and runs. But this, too, is familiar—being left behind in the shadows of her own mistakes.
A breeze carries through the house, strong enough to make the fire flicker. Aisha curls her fingers against her palms, holding tightly to her own blood. Perhaps it's enough.
She walks to the cauldron, and with her bare hands, grabs a log, dragging it through the frail outline of the woman's ashen body. Aisha clenches her jaw against a gasp. It shudders through her, but she only tightens her grip around the hot log, careful not to breathe too deeply as she spreads the flames until she can stand in its roar.
Each careful step is its own spell breaking until at last she is outside with blistered hands and clear eyes, watching the house and all its magic burn.