Sisters, by R.C. Capasso
They hid in the woods. They were only safe because they had run faster. Poor Libby had been too slow, struggling with her shoes, snatching a cape as if that would give her protection.
Yet what they wouldn’t have given for a cape now! Judith wouldn’t stop shaking, arms clutched around her body, rocking. Sarah crouched and pulled her sister against her, bracing her back against the trunk of a tree. The damp of the bark sent a chill down her spine.
Was it only a matter of time? Was escape even possible, or would the hands that captured Libby come for them, too? Her screams, the splashing of the upheaving water echoed in Sarah’s mind. They shouldn’t have watched, but they couldn’t help it. Cowering up on the hill above the pool under the cover of thorn bushes, they knelt, hands over their mouths to keep from wailing. Watching was one last bond to their sister, one last connection, watching her death if they didn’t share it.
They couldn’t return home. The cabin would be watched. But where else could they go? The next town lay miles away, and would they even be safe there? News might travel faster than they could, and there would be the same eyes watching, the same verdict.
Judith let her head drop against Sarah’s shoulder. The youngest of the three, she surely couldn’t understand what was happening, but she had run the best, leading Sarah into the woods along indiscernible paths. Libby, the oldest, had hung back, thinking they could reason, declare their innocence. Hope had cost her life.
Sarah had no hope, but she had Judith, and she would die before giving her up. They must find shelter, get food somehow. Dying in the woods would not be much better than drowning.
Judith gave a snuffled breath and lifted her head. “We have to go to the cave.”
Sarah pulled back enough to peer down into the pale face, the large gray eyes. “What cave?”
Judith dropped her eyes. “I know a place.”
A fine cold mist rose from the ground.
“Will we be safe there?”
“No one knows about it.” Judith pressed small hands against the ground and pushed herself up. “Come on.”
With Judith’s weight off her, Sarah struggled to her feet. The forest seemed to tilt, the ground moved below her, and she gulped in the heavy air. Judith was already several steps away, her resilient body poised like a deer’s. Sarah gave a brief nod, and Judith turned, pressing her skirts to her sides to keep them from the briars as she plunged further into the woods.
Those hours playing under the trees while Libby and Sarah worked. They’d always assumed Judith went only a few yards to gather mushrooms or perhaps blueberries by the marsh. A girl wouldn’t have wandered alone so far into the woods without a path, without a companion.
But it was good. If there was a cave, if they could be safe…Drops of rain began to fall between the heavy branches overhead. All that mattered now was escape.
The damp weighed on her long skirts, the brambles caught at her like accusing fingers. What had Libby felt, taken, weighed down? Alone. It was impossible to think, barely possible to move in the dark undergrowth as the light withdrew from the world. Only glimpses of Judith ahead in her pale gown pulled her forward.
The cave was a small hollow on a ridge. Below it a gorge with a stream. Through the pattering of rain on the leaves, Sarah could barely hear the water. Judith stepped into the cave as if visiting the home of a friend, and Sarah stooped to follow her.
Judith gestured, and Sarah lowered herself to the sandy floor of the dark interior. Before her lay a ring of stone, and in a moment Judith had delved into an inky corner and produced fistfuls of dry leaves. One more trip and she returned, arms full of sticks. From the pocket of her apron she produced a flint and made a fire.
Every few moments Judith paused, a sigh lifting her thin breast, but she continued moving. With the light Sarah could see the walls of the cave and scattered piles of rocks into which Judith kept diving. Water from an earthen bottle. Two capes and a third…A third that she put over Sarah’s knees. From a box wrapped in leather she brought out nuts and dried meat. Judith’s hands shook only a little as she held the food out to her sister.
“How…?” Sarah’s mind could not form words.
“Ann helped me.”
Ann. Ann? The old woman drowned a few days before as a witch?
Judith dropped her gaze and came to sit beside Sarah, her feet pointed toward the fire.
They ate and drank in silence. The stone wall pressed against Sarah’s back. What did it matter if the stone hurt? She had an entire hill between her and the village on the far side.
When they had eaten all they could force themselves to swallow, Judith rose again, carefully covering the remaining food and packing it into a three neat sacks.
How could she move? Sarah’s limbs were like lead; her eyes blinking in the firelight. Libby’s cape on her lap.
Judith took care tying the last sack, putting it beside its mates before coming back to kneel before Sarah.
“I am sorry. Please forgive me.”
“I knew we should have run. Sooner. Ann warned me. She showed me this place, gave me the supplies.”
Judith looked away through the mouth of the cave. “She sensed it was coming. But she didn’t want to leave her land, her woods.” Judith’s eyes held steady, like a woman’s. “She said I must be ready to go.”
Sarah could not move a hand to touch her. “Where?”
Judith’s eyes flicked to her sister’s, then back to the night. “Deeper into the woods. Beyond some hills. There are other towns. Safer. I could choose to live safely.”
“Choose?” Of course they chose safety. What other choice?
“But I didn’t want to go. You were happy here, you and Lib…Libby.” Judith took a breath. “I didn’t want to drag you away. I didn’t want to leave you.” The thin shoulders slumped. “I am not saying that you are at fault. I wanted to stay, too. For the woods.”
It made no sense. “You would have gone alone?” Little more than a child?
“I think I thought I could protect us.” The words tumbled out, low and hard. “And I could still…Now, I could still go back and make them pay.”
The girl’s head swiveled back to Sarah slowly, and she gave the shadow of a sad smile. “They caught the wrong sister.”
Sarah could not breathe.
“But,” Judith continued almost calmly, sitting back on her heels. “Ann taught me other things. I could use my…skills, secretly. For good. If we could find a good place, a safe place.”
With the fire behind her, the pale face was in shadow, almost unreadable as the soft childish voice went on. “Do you know that if you embroider certain symbols in the design of a quilt, that the person who lies under it will be free of haunting dreams? Or that tiny cuttings of hair mixed in the soil of a garden will grow healing herbs? Or that we can make peace with crows, so that they won’t steal our crops?” The words grew softer. “There is hidden magic. Ann said I could release it, a little at a time, like a bloodletting that eases the fever in a body. So no one would know.”
Her voice faded, and they sat in silence. The rain had ceased, and below them in the dark gorge the distant water passed over the rocks harmlessly.
“What should I do, Sarah?” The girl’s voice quivered, as if she was a child about to lay down with her doll. “Should I go back? Make them know their mistake? Or do we go on?”
A tightness grew in Sarah’s stomach, and it helped her to sit up, sit forward, take Judith’s hand. “We go on, Judith.”
They could live in secret, just the two of them. A quiet secret life, and with each small release of good, perhaps the fear would fade.
R.C. Capasso loves classic horror (The Turn of the Screw, Maupassant’s Le Horla, The Haunting of Hill House) and believes in many unseen things. So far, despite visits to promising sites, no first-hand encounters, unless you count the times a cat stares fixedly into a corner for no apparent reason. But there is always hope. R. C. enjoys writing any kind of fiction or nonfiction; recent publications appeared in A Long Story Short, Black Heart Magazine, Fabula Argentea, Bewildering Stories and here at INfective INk.
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