THE FIRST TIME Nola and her mother fled a village to avoid being condemned as witches, Nola was five years old. Before that, Nola hadn't even realized she was a witch. She'd assumed everybody's mothers heard voices, and had never suspected there were people who couldn't change appearances – their own and others' – simply by wishing. She thought her mother didn't want her to read shadowforms in front of other people because Nola was so good at it – she already could call forth brighter and clearer images than her mother – and Nola thought her mother didn't want her showing off and making other people who maybe weren't so good at it feel bad.
But it's not showing off if you're just playing with your best friend, Nola reasoned.
So it began.
One afternoon in early spring when it was coo cold and rainy to do anything outdoors, Nola and her best friend, Jane, ran out of everything they could agree on for indoors. They found themselves bored and only one step away from bickering. Nola's mother, along with the majority of Jane's family, was out planting in che fields, despite the damp. Nola and Jane were judged coo young and more likely to get underfoot than co be of help, so they'd been left at the house of Jane's family, under the care of Jane's older sister, Bav. But Bav had left, an eternity ago it seemed, saying she had a short errand to run; and now there was nothing to do, nobody to tease or torment besides each other, and Jane whined – for the fourth or fifth time – "Where is she?"
"Well," Nola said, "why don't we go look in a bucket of water?"
"What would Bav be doing in a bucket of water?" Jane asked. She was laughing, so Nola thought she was joking.
"You get che water," Nola told her. "I'll find a hair on the pillow."
Bav's hair was darker and longer than any of her sisters', so Nola was able to cell which were hers in the bed the girls all shared. Back in the kitchen, Jane had sec a bucket on che floor and was kneeling before it, peering inside.
"What are you doing?" Nola asked.
"Looking for Bav," Jane answered, once again laughing, her voice muffled from inside the bucket.
"Have you said the words and used a hair?"
Jane pulled her head out of the bucket. "What?"
Nola held up the strand of Bav's hair. "Have you said the words?"
Jane hesitated, looking – for some reason – confused. Then she shook her head.
Nola knelt beside her. Despite her silliness, Jane had put some water in the bucket, so now Nola said the words. They were in a language she didn't understand; she only knew they were the words for preparing water for shadowforms, just as there was another set of words for changing her own appearance, and yet another for changing how someone else looked. She would ask later, she thought, whether Jane knew where the words came from and what they meant. But for now, Nola said the words and, once the water was bespelled, dropped the strand of Bav's hair into the bucket.
She heard Jane's gasp of surprise, and assumed it was for the clarity of the shapes that formed and danced in the water. For a moment Jane even started to edge away from the soft glow as though alarmed, but then her curiosity drew her back. Apparently Bav's errand involved the woodwright's apprentice, for the images in the bucket showed the two of them in the barn. But this couldn't have been any errand her parents would have approved of; Nola saw that Bav and the apprentice were hugging and kissing and, judging by the straw in their hair and clothes, had been at it quite a while.
"Oooo," Jane said in delighted awe, "my father will beat the two of them silly." She shifted to get from kneeling to sitting, preparing for a good long watching, and accidentally knocked her knee against the bucket's handle.
Nola lunged forward, but she overreached, so that her hand smacked against the bucket, sending it tipping and skittering across the floor.
The images of Bav and the woodwright's apprentice spread across the floor, oddly elongated and distorted before the dirt floor sucked up all the water and took che kissing lovers with it, leaving only a glistening spot of mud behind.
Jane tighted the bucket, but there was only a wee smear on che bottom, not enough for shadowforms co dance. Still, she picked the strand of hair out of the mud and tossed it back in. As though chat would cause anything to happen.
"It only works once," Nola said. Hadn't Jane's mother caught her anything? "If you want to do it again, we'll have to get another strand of hair and more water."
"All right," Jane said.
But this time Jane went to get the hair while Nola refilled the bucket. When Jane came back, she was holding a strand of white hair that obviously did not belong on Bav's dark head.
"Is this your mother's?" Nola asked as Jane settled down beside her, careful not to spill the newly refilled bucket. "All she's doing is planting – that's not so interesting to watch."
"It's my grandmother's," Jane said. "I found it on the shawl she used to wear."
Jane's grandmother had died during the coldest part of the past winter.
Jane asked, "Will we see her in heaven?"
Nola paused to consider. Shadowforms danced to whatever the owner of the hair was doing at the moment you were looking, so it seemed Jane had to be right: They'd see her grandmother in heaven. The only reason Nola hesitated was that she had never before called up the spell to see someone who had died, and – as far as she knew – her mother never had, either. Not even for Nola's father.
But maybe, Nola told herself, her mother had simply run out of her father's hairs – since each one could be used only once and he had died so long ago. So she said, "I don't know. Let's see. Do you want to say the words this time?"
Jane shook her head, so Nola once more said the spell. Then Jane dropped the white hair into the bucket.
The water quivered.
"It's too dark," Jane complained.
Nola concentrated. There was something, but she couldn't tell what.
"You're doing it wrong." Jane pouted, but she didn't offer to do it herself. After a long while, she began to sniffle. "She's not in heaven," she said, and the words, though barely whispered, released a storm of tears. "This can't be heaven."
She was right, Nola knew. It couldn't be. She threw her arm around her friend, to comfort her, and shifted her eyes away from the vague still form in the water. She looked, instead, ac the dirt floor on which the bucket sat. And there she found the answer.
Dirt. That was what they were looking at. "It's her grave," Nola said. "We're seeing inside her grave."
That realization left no question about the dark shape looming in the corner, which resolved itself into a rotting shroud, with bits of hair showing through. Instead of being comforted, Jane began to cry even louder.
Such a fuss, Nola thought – though she understood she might feel differently if it were her own grandmother. "That doesn't mean she isn't in heaven," she said. "It just means her body is buried. The shadowforms are showing us what her body is doing, and her body is lying in the ground."
But Jane just shoved her away.
And that was when the door opened, and Nolas mother and Jane's mother both walked in.
They had obviously come to complain chat Bav had not yet delivered the midday meal, but as soon as Jane's mother saw her daughter's tears, her expression went from annoyed to alarmed. "What's happened?" She glanced around the room. "Where's Bav? Are you hurt?"
Nola's mother was frightened, too – Nola could tell by her eyes. She grabbed Nola by the arm and dragged her to her feet, at the same time kicking over the bucket, sending strand of hair and water and shadowforms spilling across the kitchen floor. "What are you doing?" she demanded.
But before Nola could get out more than, "I – ," her mother smacked her on the side of the head so hard that her ears rang.
"What foolish game are you playing to frighten your little friend?" her mother demanded, which made no sense at all because her mother was the one who had taught her how to bespell water. Her mother knew it wasn't a foolish game. But her mother shook her head and said – though Jane's mother was kneeling on the floor and rocking Jane and obviously not listening – "The girl will defy me. It comes of having no father." And she grabbed Nola by her still-stinging ear and dragged her out the door and into the dripping afternoon. Behind them, they could hear Jane crying, gulping, occasionally managing to whimper, "Grandmother…"
"What did you do?" Nola's mother asked in a fierce whisper, shaking Nola. "Haven't I told you never, never, never to talk about witchcraft in front of other people? And now you actually perform a spell?"
Witchcraft? Bespelling water was witchcraft? Nola hadn't known. But she remembered seeing an old woman driven out of the village, people hurling stones at her back, for being a witch. And Nola knew she didn't want that to happen to her or her mother. So she told exactly what she had done.
Her mother said, "Start walking," and they didn't even tarry long enough to go to their own house next door for a change of clothes.
That was the first time.
YEARS PASSED. Nola learned chat she could not hold on to friends, hue that she and her mother had to keep moving, wandering from village to village lest anyone start pointing at them for imagined wrongs or a string of bad luck.
Nola also learned that if she was caught referring to something chat she had learned by looking into water, she must admit to the lesser evil: that she was a busybody, listening where she shouldn't have been. Eventually she looked in water to see what other people were doing only if she desperately needed to know whether someone was beginning to suspect her.
But that was the only magic she worked. She never, ever, changed her appearance, because ir was exhausting work to keep a magically created form, and glamours always disappeared when the caster fell asleep. She couldn't risk being found out.
With all Nola learned, life should have gotten easier. But over the years, Nola's mother began co make less and less sense. For Nola's mother heard voices inside her head, and as time passed the voices became louder, and more varied, and more argumentative. "Quiet!" she would yell – among the market stalls, or by the stream where the village women washed their clothes, or in the kitchens where Nola and her mother sometimes found work – it made no difference where. "I can make my own decisions!" she would shout, or, "One at a time! How can I concentrate if all of you chatter at once?"
When Nola had been young, she had assumed the voices were real: ghosts ot spirits that, if unruly, still were there to guide her mother, to let her know the future, or to give her knowledge.
But as Nola got older, she saw that the voices tormented her mother and offered useless or conflicting advice. Some voices seemed to belong to people who had died – Nola's father, Nola's mother's own mother. But there was also someone her mother called King Fenuku the Flatulent – a name Nola was fairly certain had never been given to the ruler of any land – not to mention an unborn baby her mother was convinced lived in her left forefinger.
So it was that the suspicion of witchcraft always fell on the mad mother rather than on the quiet daughter.
Despite all this, their lives, though unsettled, were still patterned and somewhat predictable: the search for work, the search for food and shelter, the passing friendships – quickly made and quickly broken.
But, of course, Nola knew chat could last only so long.
THE MORNING HAD started with promise.
Her mother was having one of her more rational days. "Your father," she told Nola as the two of them worked side by side picking blackberries for a man whose wife considered herself too fine for field work, "was a kind and gentle man."
When her father had died, Nola had been little more than a baby, so that now, at seventeen, she couldn't remember his face. But she'd been old enough to remember that he had been kind and gentle.
"He was," she said with a smile, recalling rides given on strong, broad shoulders, and tickling chat never went on too long.
Nola straightened, trying co work the kink out of her back quickly, before the man who had hired them noticed and came over to complain. He was obviously suspicious of something, because every time Nola glanced in his direction, he was watching her.
"But your father," Nola's mother continued in that same reasonable voice, "doesn't like the way that man is looking at you. Your father suggests I go over there and kick him hard in the kneecap. Oh-oh. Too late. That man's heading over here now."
So much for rational days.
"Mother!" Nola protested. She bent down quickly, hoping to deflect the man by showing evidence of hard work.
"Don't blame me," Nola's mother protested. "It's your father who said it, not me. 'Kick and run,' he said. 'That's no way for someone to be looking at MY daughter.'"
"I don't care who said it," Nola whispered between her teeth. "Don't you dare do it." The sun was beating hot on her head and shoulders, so that sweat ran, tickling her scalp and stinging her eyes. Of course that man's looking at me THAT WAY, she told herself. Doesn't everyone find sweat and dirt and stink appealing? It's amazing he's resisted this long.
But her mother was right about one thing: He was approaching. Nola heard the rustle as he moved through the bushes, and then his shadow fell over her, a moment of coolness on her bare arms. She didn't look up, but continued picking berries and tossing them into the basket beside her. Was he going to complain that she was picking too slowly and not doing enough work? Or that she was picking too quickly and bruising the fruit?
"You look hot," he said, not sounding annoyed after all. "Would you like some fresh water?"
She finally did look up, from his knobby knees co his face, which – if not handsome – ac least was not ugly; and from his face she moved her gaze to his hand, which was holding a glazed pot with lovely droplets of water running glistening down its surface. She looked back to his face and this time found it not only not ugly, but kind.
"Oh, many thanks," she told him. The bucket of water she and her mother were sharing had grown warm in the sun. Even at the beginning che water had tasted of old wood, and as the morning progressed it had picked up the additional tang of dirt and sweat.