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The Path

by one Jessica Fountain

The stove clicked off and the gas flame beneath the large stewpot vanished back into the stove’s eye. My mouth watered. Grandma Belinda’s stew always smelled insanely strong, like garlic and onions and simmering meat. “Is it ready?” I asked, licking my lips and sitting up straighter in my chair at the old wooden table.

“How’s the job search, Holly? Found anything yet?” Ash asked, saving me from yet another of Grandma Belinda’s rants about not rushing perfection. Ash was Belinda’s girlfriend. She was a little younger, but I wasn’t sure by how much. Her hair wasn’t grey yet, anyway, but rather it was jet black and naturally very long. Her sharp nose and high cheekbones suggested some kind of Native American heritage, but I’d never asked her about it. She sat across from me at the round dinner table, reading the newspaper. Now, she put the newspaper aside, neatly folded and stood to help Grandma ration out the stew.

They moved around each other like gears in a clock, except more organic and fluid. Ash got down three chipped bowls from the cabinet next to the stove and lined them up lengthways along the countertop. Almost without looking, Grandma systematically ladled out even portions.

Ash plopped spoons into each bowl without missing a beat. James and I had moved that way once.

I dropped my eyes, suddenly very absorbed in a deep nick I’d found in the table. I jammed my thumbnail into it. “Not bad,” I said finally. “Still haven’t heard from anybody, but you know how things are this time of year.”

Ash set a bowl in front of me with a clink. I reached for the spoon automatically, only to receive a sharp rap to the hand. I met Grandma’s eyes. She stood before the table, holding her bowl and my hand buzzed with the familiar tingle of her magic. The faint scent of lavender lingered in my nose.

“Not until we’ve paid our respects,” she admonished, though I’d heard it thousands of times before.

I sighed. “Can we do it after?”

“Sure,” Grandma said, “but when you wake up with piss-ants in your drawers, don’t come cryin’ to me.”

She always said that. I rolled my eyes but stood up anyway and grabbed my bowl. Grandma led the procession out the screen door, across the wooden front porch, down the creaky steps, and onto the lawn. Dusk settled over the yard, but there was still enough pink-and-purple sunlight left that I could see where I was going. The front porch faced South, but directly to the west, I could see the setting sun. The light filtered through a large crystalline sculpture nestled in a small, overgrown brush pile. I couldn’t help wondering what the neighbors would say about the sculpture, if we had any. It was Grandma’s pride and joy, the largest in her collection. A huge, custom-made crystal dong, glowing pink in the sunset.

We didn’t head for the oversized penis, though it was a pretty large target. Instead, we headed across the yard and down a small hill. We stopped at the edge of the woods, where there was a large-ish circle of brown dirt, completely clear of grass. I carefully avoided the mushrooms that lined it. Grandma had never said if they were poisonous, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

“Did anyone grab the cream?” Grandma looked at me, but I shrugged my shoulders.

Ash held up a mug in acknowledgement. “Right here,” she said. She and Grandma exchanged a look and Grandma turned her attention back to the ring before us. We formed a semi-circle, a barrier between the darkening trees and the house.

Grandma stepped into the ring first and dumped out a generous portion of her rabbit stew in the middle of the circle. She stepped out again. Ash did the same and placed the mug of cream next to the offering. I added my stew to the pile and stepped out of the ring. We put our bowls on a stained garden table with chipped green paint. Once we lined up again, we linked hands. Ash’s palm felt cold against my clammy one. I squeezed her hand and received a reassuring pressure in return.

The breeze started up around our feet. It chilled my toes, but I made sure to keep my feet planted firmly. Grandma always said never to break your connection with the Earth while dealing with the supernatural. Giving up your tether meant there was a chance for severance and the thought scared me enough that I’d never asked about what exactly that meant. It made me think of severed heads, and of the story of the headless horseman that had scared me so much as a child. Anything to do with decapitation couldn’t be good.

“Neighbors of the Wood,” Grandma said, her voice thin but strong as it pierced the growing darkness, “we give you this offering as a gesture of friendship and gratitude. We are honored by your presence and coexistence. We hope to continue living peacefully beside you for many years to come.”

Ash’s voice, thicker, joined Grandma’s. Her grip on my hand was tighter now.

“We honor you,” they said together. “We honor the Earth.”

This time, I joined in. “We honor you. We honor the Earth. Please accept our offering.”

We bowed our heads and the last echoes of our prayer died away, swallowed by the woods. For five minutes exactly, we stayed silent, our eyes cast to the earth just outside of the ring. The breeze picked up, blowing a little harder first around our ankles, then moving up our bodies. If I’d had any hair, it would have whipped around my face. Instead, I felt the tingle of magic, much wilder than my grandmother’s, brush my scalp and my cheeks. It was sharper than hers, too, so that my ears burned almost as if it were a wintry northern wind.

The cicadas, which had previously been chattering loudly, quieted, hushed by the force that came from the woods. Birds stopped chirping. All I could hear was my own breathing mingling with the breaths of Grandma and Ash. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the breeze faded away, and the cicadas found their voices. An owl hooted in the distance.

Slowly, Ash released my hand. We all shared a sigh, like we’d been holding in a deep breath. I raised my eyes to the ring. As usual, the soup was gone and the mug was empty. The only sign that anything had been there at all was the mass of broken twigs that littered the center of the ring.

“Well, that’s done,” Grandma said, breaking the silence. She clapped her hands together as if clearing them of dirt. “Let’s eat.” She stepped into the ring and retrieved the empty mug.

We gathered up our bowls and filed back into the kitchen. Despite the warmth outside, I felt cold, so I welcomed the residual heat of the stove. We sat down at the table and began our meal in silence, like we always did. When we did speak, it was only to ask for salt or pepper or more sweet tea.

“Why don’t you ride into town with Ash tomorrow?” Grandma said over her spoon. “I think Doc mentioned he needed some help in the store when I was there last week.” The words hung empty in the air for a moment.

“Sure,” Ash said after half a beat. “I’ve got to run to the post office anyway.” She smiled at me. I smiled back half-heartedly.

I looked at Grandma, but she kept her eyes on her bowl and took another sip of soup. She didn’t say anything else. “I really am trying, y’know. It’s not like I enjoy having an entire apartment’s worth of shit piled into one room.” Technically, it was only half of an apartment’s worth of shit. Less than that, since most of the stuff had belonged to James. And most of it was in boxes.

Grandma might have responded, but just then there was a scuffle at the cat flap. Mr. Bigglesworth, Grandma’s cat, swaggered into the kitchen in all of his fat glory, striped tail held high. He meowed and jumped onto the counter, then promptly began to lick his junk. He watched me with one eye open the whole time, the creep.

“Missed your dinner, didja?” Grandma spooned what was left of her soup into the bowl by the door. “Fat tub of lard. I was worried about you.” She scratched underneath his chin and presently the small room filled with Sir Bigglesworth’s rumbling purrs.

“I’m done,” I announced, pushing my bowl away.

“Sink,” Grandma barked. She pointed at my bowl. Ash met my eyes across the table as if to say, You know how she is. I did. I knew how Grandma was, and I knew that when I went upstairs I would try not to clomp up each and every step just as I would try not to slam the door to my childhood bedroom, which was crammed so full of crap it barely had room for me anymore. I set my bowl down with an insolent thunk in the kitchen sink and stalked off.

My boots clomped heavily on the stairs all the way up. I couldn’t help smiling with each petty, satisfying step.

 

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The door at the end of the hall still had the glow-in-the-dark stars I’d stuck to it when I was six years old, just one year after I’d come to live there. They didn’t glow so much anymore and the once-violet door had since yellowed and faded with age. I worked to open the door, impeded by the rusty hinges as well as the piles and piles of boxes that littered my room. It used to be a maid’s chamber. At least, that’s what my grandmother told me when I was little, from back when people still had maids or indentured servants or live-in nannies or whatever. I guess I should have been a little offended that they gave me a room so small, but I liked it. Back then, it was just my size and in such close quarters, there weren’t many dark corners for monsters to hide in.

My twin-sized bed was shoved against the back left corner, still adorned with the ratty quilt my uncle Martin made me for my ninth birthday. It was covered with fabric strawberries, each seed individually embroidered in black thread. Many of the seeds had vanished over the years. The ones remaining were hidden beneath the spillover of my closet onto my bed. My child-sized bureau was not big enough for my adult-sized wardrobe, so for the past few weeks I’d been sleeping on a mattress of big coats and dry-clean-only dresses.

Most of the original furniture was still in place, although my grandmother had clearly started using this room for storage at some point. Some of her old oil paintings–huge, complex flowers with yawning middles that made me vaguely uncomfortable–rested against the wall across from my bed, covered with a thick cloth. A locked trunk stood at the foot of my bed (also covered with clothes). The walls held time-capsules in the forms of posters for grunge-metal bands I’d loved in high school, movie ticket stubs, and photo strips of my friends in various poses with a gangly, befreckled and buck-toothed girl whose hair changed colors with every photo. I couldn’t wait for my hair to get long again. It was in that awkward fuzzy stage, the tips lighter than the roots from my last botched dye job before I’d finally broken down let Ash help me buzz it. Short hair really didn’t suit me.

I stood there, in that room, like a spirit in limbo. Everything in it seemed anachronistic, even me. After several breaths, I sank into my nest of quilts and coats. I stared at the ceiling for a while, letting my mind wander. It drifted, as it inevitably did, toward thoughts of James. Our last months together, the mistakes that spilled from my mouth whenever he was around. I missed our apartment, even though our kitchen was the size of my current living space and a huge, industrial pipeline ran through the middle of the living room. It served as our Christmas tree on more than one occasion, and on my 25th birthday last year, James had covered it in multi-colored streamers. We’d never bothered to take them down. I wondered who lived there now and if they would remember to turn off both knobs on the oven when they baked things, or if they would discover the wine stain I’d hidden so carefully beneath a bookshelf in the living room. I wondered, in this fractured state of mind, if maybe I wasn’t really here; if another part of me still lingered in that apartment. I could imagine it: James and I, ghosting through our entire stretch of life there, living out our highs and drowning in our lows again and again and again.

 

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I guess I dozed off, because I jerked awake what must have been hours later at the sound of something tapping on my window. At first I thought I must have imagined it; I was, after all, on the second floor. Still, I swung my legs out of bed and stretched, massaging a kink in my neck. I walked the three steps it took to get to the window and peered outside, into the darkness. My room faced the woods, which had led to some strange dreams when I was a kid. There was always a niggle in the back of my mind that suggested there were other dreams, ones that weren’t so benign and my skin pimpled with gooseflesh. I thought of those dreams now as my eyes scanned the dark outside of my window. The trees loomed just at the edge of the property-line and though there wasn’t a breeze, I could have sworn I saw movement amongst the branches; small shadows that moved on my peripheral vision but vanished when my eyes fixed upon them. The fine hair at the nape of my neck tingled. A faint, sulphurous scent permeated my senses.

Having the blinds closed helped me feel much better about the situation, so I snapped them shut and flicked on the overhead light. As my eyes adjusted, I waited for the feeling of wrongness to subside, as it usually did, but instead it only seemed to grow. I realized why a few moments later when I took in my surroundings. I could see my floor, which, when I’d fallen asleep, had been covered with junk. Now, my old portable CD-player sat neatly stacked on a pile of small boxes next to my nightstand. Some of the band posters half-hung off the walls and some lay prostrate on the floor. My clothes seemed more disarrayed than usual, as if someone had picked through them and discarded pieces they didn’t like.

What unsettled me most was the windowsill. I knew the window hadn’t been open, yet there, plain as day on the sill, was a pile of fresh soil. Its subtle earthy smell became more apparent the more I realized that it didn’t belong there. Or on the floor by the window. All around the room, little mounds of dirt settled in places they most certainly didn’t belong, forming a light dusting of a trail that led, to my distaste, directly under my bed. Although it must have been at least 75 degrees in the room,

I felt cold.

In a bold rush of adrenaline, I grabbed the nearest sharp thing I could find (a hair  chopstick I no longer had use for) and approached the bed. I brandished the stick before me, pointy-end first and tried to steel my nerves. Slowly, I lowered myself down onto my knees and leaned on one elbow, still holding tight to my makeshift weapon. I looked under the bed.

A pair of yellow eyes blinked back at me.

I let out a muffled shriek and fell back, scrambling away from the bed as fast as possible. My heart thudded in my chest and I think I flung the chopstick in the general direction of the eyes. I heard a disgruntled mrrow and Mr. Bigglesworth emerged, tail fluffed up. He watched me steadily and weaved under my legs, purring.

Shakily, my breath released and I laughed.

 

“Fuck you, cat.” After scooping him up in my arms, I stood up again and sat down heavily on my bed.

“How did you even get in here, huh?” I asked him, tickling his round belly. “I swear you can teleport.”

Mr. Bigglesworth didn’t object to the tummy-affection, which seemed strange. He usually hated that. He also didn’t look at me or at the floor, but rather at the opposite corner of my bedroom. His eyes focused on something I couldn’t see, following it in a lazy pattern. I watched Mr. Bigglesworth watching this spot on the wall; watched his head move from a place close to the ceiling down to the floor, up the wall a little ways, onto a pile of boxes. His head snapped around and he focused on the foot of my bed. His mouth hung open a little and a clicking sound came from his throat. I’d seen him do this before, when he chased bugs around the living room floor.

My knees felt funny and the hair on my arms stood on end. I scooted towards my headboard, drawing my legs up around Mr. Bigglesworth. I licked my chapped lips and closed my eyes tight, counting backwards from ten. When I opened my eyes, it would be gone. I rocked back and forth a little, trying not to listen. A breeze sprung up from nowhere in the middle of my bedroom. Mr. Bigglesworth growled low in his throat. The air felt charged with energy and the breeze carried with it scents that I’d never smelled before, speaking to something older and wilder than anything I’d ever felt.

 

The blinds began to shake. The posters on the floor stirred in the wind, and the temperature dropped. “Get out,” I said. I dropped Mr. Bigglesworth onto the floor and he bolted under the bed with a hiss. “Get out, get out, get OUT!” My voice rose and cracked on the last word, but it must have worked, because suddenly the air was still and empty, like the eerie calm immediately following a summer thunderstorm. I opened my eyes slowly and willed my body to stop shaking. The air was empty and dead. If it hadn’t been for the bits of earth still scattered about my room, I might have thought I’d dreamed it all.

 

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The next morning went about as well as I expected. Ash knocked on my door at ten, and again at ten-thirty and ten forty-five.

 

“Holly?” she called through the swollen wood. “Are you coming?” I didn’t answer.

She didn’t knock again.

When I finally ventured downstairs in my pajamas around noon, I found the house blissfully empty. I poured myself some cereal and wandered into the living room. The living room was easily my favorite room in the whole place, as it housed the larger part of my grandmother’s glass collection. Huge display cases lined three out of four walls, the frames made of wood with large panels of glass.

 

Each shelf held four or five of my grandmother’s crazy obsessions in various forms: some were realistic with extraordinarily-detailed veins; others hardly resemble any part of the male anatomy, instead opting for organic, amorphous designs in various colors. There were at least twenty in this room alone and these were just the shelf-sized ones. She had a whole other room for the more extravagant selection. I asked her once, what the fascination was when she so clearly wasn’t interested in what her art represented. “Went out and took control of what scared me, didn’t I?” she’d told me then. I was twelve when I asked the question. I didn’t get it then, but at twenty-five, I thought I was starting to understand.

The sunlight streaming in through the windows made the whole room sparkle with refracted light. Once you got used to being surrounded by a glass sausage-fest, it was actually kind-of pretty. I sat on my Grandma’s floral couch and lost myself to a mindless reel of talk shows, brief news segments, and soap operas.

The screen door in the kitchen creaked, followed by the scrape of the wood door on the

welcome mat. “Hey, Grandma,” I called. Hastily, I brushed some Cheez-it crumbs off the sofa

and crushed them into the carpet with my heel. Usually, Grandma would take off her shoes and

come into the living room; she would eye my pajamas doubtfully, launch into a small tirade

about responsibility and eventually she would go outside, mumbling about where she went

wrong in raising me. This time, I didn’t hear anything else. The door slammed again.

“Grandma?”

Silence answered.

Frowning, I turned off the TV and went back into the kitchen. The door stood wide open.

From here, I could see from here that Grandma’s car wasn’t in the yard. The curtains billowed in the breeze, which brought with it a kind of marshy stench. I stood in front of the door to the living room, feet planted firmly, shoulders squared. Despite my strong front, my breath wavered and my clenched fists shook from fear or anger; I couldn’t tell which. The breeze curled around my ankles almost gently, pulling at my clothing as it swirled around my body and filled up the space around me. I bit my lip hard, determined not to lose my composure. I breathed deeply, struggling to

even out my breath.

 

Slowly, I exhaled through my nose. “Okay,” I said. “I get it.

You don’t want me here.” The breeze tickled my cheek, taunting me. “But right now, you need to leave. My grandmother won’t be happy if she finds out you’ve been here.”

The air stirred, almost contemplatively. Slowly, the energy ebbed out of the room. The breeze slipped out into the yard, banging the screen door one last time in its retreat.

I heaved a huge sigh and leaned heavily against the door frame. I still wasn’t sure if I believed in all of that Hocus Pocus shit Grandma always talked about, but there was something going on. Something was trying to get to me, and it didn’t feel nice. That thought dripped down from my head, trickled through my esophagus like liquid lead and settled deep in my stomach. I should have asked Grandma for help, but I couldn’t.

After dinner that night, I immediately holed up in my room. I’d cleared up a space on my bed earlier in the evening and filched some of my grandmother’s old books on faeries and their ilk. She’d prepared me pretty well for life on the farm when I was younger, but I’d gotten rusty in my time as a city girl. It was easy, when the sound of car horns and people milling under windows replaced the eerie sounds of the forest, to think that maybe I’d just been a scared little girl who believed in magic longer than I should have. That night, I believed again. I pored over the hand-written texts, jotting down notes every now and again. By the time I finished, it was past midnight, which meant I didn’t have much time to spare. I read over my notes again and tucked the notebook paper into the back pocket of my jeans before opening my door as quietly as possible. Luckily for me, Ash and Grandma usually went to bed pretty early. The hallway was dark when I snuck out of my room and made my way downstairs, careful to avoid the creaky parts. I almost tripped over Mr. Bigglesworth, who slept at the bottom of the stairs.

Eventually, I exited into the yard with an armful of supplies from the kitchen and some things I’d brought from upstairs. The air outside was warm, sticky like only the summer in the

South can manage, but a gentle breeze cooled my sweating skin. I walked with determination towards the ring of mushrooms just down the hill. Memories bubbled to the surface of my consciousness, unbidden. Prominent among them: my grandmother warning me at six years old not to go into the woods, not to pass the fairy ring.

“There’s things in those woods,” she’d said, “that want to snatch up little girls like you.”

Later, when I was thirteen, she sat me down at the kitchen table and held my hand. She explained the precarious nature of our house’s existence, right on the edge of a fairy path; a dangerous place, indeed. She said we were lucky that her family hadn’t built the house right on top of it. Families who did so were nearly always met with grievous misfortune. Families like us who lived on the edge, however, had a unique chance to prosper, so long as we paid our respects.

I shook off my growing anxiety and stepped forward, past the fairy ring. I’d never been this close to the woods, but I knew immediately why Grandma had never let me get this far before. The air currents shifted and moved independently of the surrounding air. It smelled simultaneously like morning dew, a thunderstorm pregnant with rain, and the hint of autumn’s decaying leaves. It flowed around me, not through me, as though my very presence there created some kind of disturbance. The surrounding forest came alive: birds flew from their nests, shadows shifted in the darkness, and the air again grew cold. A rustling started in the tree canopy high above, too rhythmic to be random. The forest was sighing, or chanting. The sound moved down through the trees, picking up volume as it neared the forest floor.

It felt like the wind was trying to push me out, but I was prepared. I locked my knees and stayed put.

“Neighbors,” I said, my voice ringing out clear and strong. I struggled with the formalities. The words fell awkwardly from my mouth. “I bring you greetings from my family.” I juggled the items in my arms to put down a small cup of cream and a selection of fresh vegetables stolen from Grandma’s fridge. “I mean to make no offense by my presence in your Wood.”

 

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I made my way back to the house to shower. When I went back downstairs, Grandma Belinda was already there, starting breakfast. She cracked an egg into her cast iron skillet.

“Someone’s up early,” she said, eyeing me from the stove. “...Or late.”

“Early,” I fibbed.

Grandma looked at me and I looked back at her for a long moment. I was reminded of my experience the night before. A gentle tingle ran through my stomach. Then, she turned away to flip her egg. I took in for the first time her hunched back and the messy hair that spilled over her ill-fitting nightgown. I noticed the way that one of her feet turned in a little too far at the ankle and the blue veins spiderwebbing up her pale calf. I fingered the edge of my shirt and bit my lip.

 

“Could I catch a ride into town today, Grandma? I think I wanna ask Doc about that job.”

She paused without looking. “Yeah?”

I shrugged. “Yeah.”

Jessica Fountain is a local emerging writer

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