Welcome to the eleventh installment of Poor Valley Witch! If you are just tuning in, go here for the first story post.
I have to sacrifice myself. It’s what his mother had said. Landon sat on the front stoop of his grandmother’s house, staring out at the tops of the tall pines that marked the highway, way out beyond Cherry Street. And, beyond the highway: Poor Valley. Fireflies were starting to come out, blinking their codes for all to see, if only they could understand it.
Landon felt like he was stuck in that firefly language. He was here, with his family, but he didn’t recognize anything about his life. Everything he’d thought he understood about his family, his history, was upside down. It was sideways. Hell, it wasn’t anything that resembled sense.
He’d thought all the bustle, all the business with the vultures in the attic, and his grandmother’s hoarding the nubbins for the ring, his mother flying up so suddenly from Florida … he’d thought all that had been to save his life, because the witch had put her eye on him. But no, he was supposed to fall on the sword. You’re going to have to sacrifice yourself. It’s what his mother had said. And where the hell was his father? Landon had no idea, hadn’t heard back from the man after texting him earlier.
His mom was asleep in the house, now. Mamaw had made fried bologna sandwiches for them all and tucked his mother into bed in the small guest room, before going to bed herself. Landon had camped out on the couch, but he couldn’t seem to settle his mind, so he came out into the humid night. The summer air humming with cicadas always seemed to soothe him. It made him think of nights, so long ago the memories seemed made-up, he and his family had gone camping.
Landon was afraid. He didn’t know what the witch wanted with him, and his mother hadn’t given him any clarity at all. Did she want a slave? Did she want to marry him as a proxy to his father, who’d left her behind? Did she want to kill him? The tall, black pines swayed against the starry sky. Landon shivered in the warmth.
“It’s time to go,” Mom said. Mamaw stood at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes. Once, when Landon was a kid, the family had gotten together for a great-uncle’s funeral. They had stayed together at Mamaw’s house, had breakfast together. They’d gotten dressed up in their Sunday best and it had felt almost like a vacation, like a reunion, except that between jokes and conversation came waves of tears from Mamaw and even Landon’s dad. He felt like that today, like the warmth and comfort of being with family in the familiar kitchen was a blanket that only hid the sadness that came through like a sharp knife, ripping holes in the illusion.
Landon and his mother stood and walked out of the kitchen. He looked back at Mamaw, once, wondering if she’d come with them. She stood resolutely at the sink, gazing out the window, tears coursing down her cheeks. Silent. Landon turned away and went out, walking to the car, opening the driver’s door. He looked around for his mother and saw that she had already made it to the end of the small gravel drive on foot. He closed the door again and hurried after her. CDs twinkled on their strings in the morning light, tied to the patio chairs and low branches. No vultures were in sight, though. Not this morning.
“We’re going on foot?” Landon caught up to Mom. She nodded and reached out her hand to take his. They set off on Cherry Street, headed toward the highway. To cross it. To get to Poor Valley.
“When you were born,” said Mom, startling Landon into missing a beat and almost stumbling, “We thought it would be alright, your father and I. Cecilia seemed to forgive us, seemed to wish us well. She even gave you a present!” She shook the mint tin gently in her free hand.
“The ring,” said Landon. He wore it today, on his right pinkie finger.
“The ring.” Mom nodded. “But you got sick the day she gave it to you. You almost died.” She sighed, like telling the story made her tired. “And we knew she’d done something. She’d cast a spell on the ring. So, I took it to a professor. I was still in college when you were born, you know.” He nodded. They walked quietly for a few steps. They were almost to the highway, now. Almost ready to cross over.
“My professor, she thought I was doing research for old Appalachian lore and customs,” his mother continued. “And she found me some books to research, full of stories like what people used to do with placentas, or how the old herb doctors would treat pain. Stuff like that.” She barked a short laugh. “Made me glad I’d had you in the hospital, where they dispose of placentas like they are a biohazard. Probably put it in the incinerator, for all I know.” Landon had no idea what she meant by that, but he decided to let it lie. She seemed to need to talk, so he let her.
“Anyway, I found the information I needed, and I put our blood in a new ring. I remade it in the shop at the community college. I had to carve a mold out of wax, and put it in this clutch of clay, and fire it so the wax dripped out.” They stopped at the edge of the highway, now. A semi truck went by, blowing hot air and tiny bits of road debris into their faces. They turned away, squinting to keep grit out of their eyes. When the coast was clear, mother and son crossed the highway and started up the gentle swell of road on the other side. They passed the little cemetery on the right hand side.
They were going to Poor Valley.
“After the wax dripped out, and the clay cooled, I used the centrifuge to spin the metal, and our blood, into the mold,” his mother continued. She sounded a little strained. He looked at her face, now below his. It gave him a pang to realize that; he was taller than his mother. He’d been taller than her for years, now, but she’d been so distant that he tried not to remember when she had been the one towering over him, bending down to hand him a cookie with a kiss in the soft light of their kitchen. Now, she seemed to be walking against a stiff wind, though Landon could not feel it. She saw him noticing and shook her head, warding off questions. They walked on. Under the boughs of a huge oak tree, now, its roots so old and powerful they pushed up the side of the asphalt road.
“I gave you the ring and kept the nubbins,” she rattled the tin again, “Until Cecilia realized she couldn’t just outright kill us all, anymore. The ring is a powerful charm. But she could hurt us, and she did.”
“She made you leave,” said Landon, his heart pounding. He swallowed down a sob. Walking, and sweating, and dredging up sad memories almost undid him. Mom put an arm out in front of him, like she’d done when she’d taken him places in the car as a kid. She’d called it the Mom-belt. She put her hand holding the mint tin, nubbins inside, out in front like a talisman, then walked forward, pulling him along. They passed through something invisible, and Landon felt a weight he’d only barely been aware of lift away. He could breathe better, and as they kept going, he saw that his mother no longer fought an invisible gale.
“She’s putting up barriers,” said his mother, when he looked at her questioningly. They held hands again. The old trailer house was next, the one where he’d run over the dead dog.
The witch was putting up barriers, and Landon wished with all his heart they weren’t pushing through them. He wanted to turn around with his mother and fly back to Florida with her. He wanted to leave this podunk town and never return.
Landon did not want to see the witch.