Lisa dug up the first skull just before sunset, as the last light streaked the stony earth of the garden. Her hands recognized it before her eyes did, and she jerked away, rocking back onto her heels so violently she almost hit the patio.
From behind her, the sound of an angry string section started up again. Lisa shook her head — she’d gotten used to Mrs. Kostianaya’s single-minded musical tastes, but she didn’t have to like them — and rubbed at her eyes. But the skull remained where she’d dug, staring up at her through a fringe of weeds. One eyesocket was clotted with dirt; the other gaped sightlessly at her. I don’t believe it, she thought, but reached forward nonetheless and brushed the earth away.
A hand touched her shoulder. Lisa yelped and pulled the skull free, curling it against her stomach. Later she would wonder at the strength of her response, how she had first moved to protect it.
“You’re still out here?” her mother asked. “It’s getting late.”
Lisa forced herself to relax. “You’re home just as late.”
“Work ran over.” She crouched beside Lisa, awkward in her business attire. “You’ve done some good work here. I don’t think even Nanna could have done better.”
Lisa abruptly remembered what she was cradling against her body. “Mom —” She lowered the skull till it rested on the ground. “Is — is this sort of thing usual?”
Her mother gave the skull a brief glance. “What, a lump of gravel? I should think so. This garden probably used to be an old driveway. I’m surprised you can get anything to grow.”
“Gravel,” Lisa repeated. She set the skull down. It could look like gravel, in the dimming light . . . but it wasn’t. “Mom, I think . . . I think maybe I’m cracking up.”
Her mother rose to her feet, brushing off her skirt. “It’s only been a week, Lisa. You can’t have cabin fever already; you’ve got two more to go.”
“Can’t I just go out once? Just to the store with you?”
“No.” She helped Lisa up. “I’ll talk to Mrs. Kostianaya, though. Maybe we can see about borrowing her plot, since she doesn’t seem to use it. That’ll give you some more work, keep your mind off things. And maybe I’ll ask her to go easy on the Mussorgsky; she’s playing it so loud I can hear it out here.”
Lisa tried to smile, but she felt the skull’s mute gaze on her back all the way inside.
In the morning, Mrs. Kostianaya’s plot was occupied by a sagging storage shed. “She must have ordered it recently,” Lisa’s mother said. “Oh, well. I’ll talk to her anyway.”
Lisa didn’t answer. Mrs. Kostianaya had been playing her one song over and over, this time till midnight, and she’d started up again at eight o’clock. Before her suspension, Lisa hadn’t noticed how often Mrs. Kostianay played her music, but now with TV, computer, and headphones all off limits, it was close to driving her nuts. She worked on this week’s homework as long as she could stand to be inside, then fled to the garden.
But Mrs. Kostianaya was there first, having left her music still playing. Lisa tried not to scream. “Morning, Mrs. Kostianaya,” she said through her teeth.
“Rotten, stinking hulk! Sulfur-smelling piece of junk! What do you think you’re doing here?” Mrs. Kostianaya hobbled closer to the shed and whacked it with her cane. “Stupid thing,” she panted, “dragging me down, don’t you understand? I can’t afford you! I have to look after myself!” She kicked at the sagging clapboards and lapsed into a spate of feeble Russian.
She’s talking to the shed, Lisa realized. Christ, that’s sad. “Mrs. Kostianaya, are you all right?”
Mrs. Kostianaya cast a glare over her shoulder, then stumbled back as if shocked to see Lisa there. “You can’t take it,” she said. “I’m an old woman. I’m weak. I don’t have any to spare.”
Before Lisa could speak, the old woman burst into tears, gave the shed one last kick, and hobbled away. The shed creaked and slid a little, like a cowering dog. Lisa glanced at it. “Don’t you fall down,” she muttered. “Mom’ll pitch a fit if you crush her seedlings.”
It didn’t answer, and Lisa felt a dull burn of shame. It wasn’t fair to make fun of Mrs. Kostianaya; she was, like she said, old and weak.
One doesn’t necessarily follow the other, she thought angrily. Nanna was old, but she wasn’t weak. Not by a long shot.
But Nanna was dead, years dead. She eyed the skull on its perch at the edge of their plot. It hadn’t changed, save that daylight made it impossible to mistake for gravel. So I’m cracking up, she thought. At least I won’t be the only crazy in the building.
By noon she’d dug up five more skulls, the shock fading with each one. Her mother returned home on her lunch break and came out to see the garden. “Is there a reason,” she asked, “why you’re putting little dirt mounds all around my garden?”
Lisa looked at her, at the jawless skulls, and back. “Rocks,” she lied. “There must have been an old driveway here or something.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it. Still, keep at it. You’ve got my mother’s touch; you can make anything grow.” She let her hand rest on Lisa’s shoulder.
Lisa smiled at the earth. “Thanks. I’d — I miss Nanna, sometimes.”
“So do I, sweetie.” She let go of Lisa’s shoulder, wrapping herself once more in the iron courtesy her job required. “See you later.”
Nanna had made everything grow. Her old house had been surrounded by green things, even in winter. That, plus her sometimes abrasive attitude, had put people off, but Lisa had loved it. “So they think I’m the witch in the woods,” Nanna had laughed with her one Halloween. “Who cares? I like being the witch in the woods. Maybe the men don’t look at me any more, but now they listen to me.”
Lisa held her hands up. Where the shadow of the shed covered them, they looked old. Old as bone.
“I heard from Ronnie Coleman’s mother,” Lisa’s mother said as she passed the potatoes. “She says his hand’s healing, and he should be able to practice with the football team in the fall.”
“That’s too bad,” Lisa said.
Her mother sighed. It was difficult to see her face; the overhead light had lost a bulb again, and the remaining one was inadequate, sinking half of the table in shadows. “You’d prefer it if he never played again, wouldn’t you?”
“When you put it like that, yes.”
Her mother was silent for a moment, and the echoes of earlier conversations spoke for her. How could you break his hand? What on earth were you doing, trying to kill him? But all those had been said, and said again, until they’d sunk into the walls of the apartment like mildew. “I take it,” her mother said, “that you haven’t started your essay on nonviolence yet.”
She dug at the tablecloth with one ragged fingernail. “No.”
“They won’t let you back without it. Even if you finish your suspension.”
“I don’t care. It’s a stupid topic.”
A hint of iron came into her mother’s voice. “And one you could stand to learn more about.”
“I have learned more about it,” Lisa said, spearing a potato on the end of her fork. “You got me all those stupid books.”
Her mother shook her head. “Being stubborn is not going to make it any easier when you go back —”
She shoved her plate back and got up. “I’m not hungry any more.” Her mother covered her face with a shaky hand, but didn’t call her back.
The TV started up not long after, its drone the only thing to counteract Mrs. Kostianaya’s music. >From the sound, it was one of the courtroom dramas that Lisa and her mother both loved, but Lisa stayed in her room. No TV during the suspension, and if she was out there, that meant none for her mom as well.
She lay down, wrapped her pillow over her head, and imagined that it was Ronnie Coleman’s skull in the garden, the stupid surprise on his face when she broke his hand now eternally wiped away. But as her eyes began to close, the image changed, and it was her skull instead, eyesockets burning with a corrosive light.
The twelfth skull was the one that gave her trouble. This one had a jaw attached, though “attached” wasn’t quite the right word for the way it hung askew. When she poked at the skull with her gardening fork, it spun and bit the fork, snapping the tines straight off.
Lisa didn’t think, just reversed the fork and whacked the skull with it. The skull rocked to one side, and when it came to rest looked almost chastened. She set it with the others, jaw dangling over the border, and examined the damage.
The fork was unusable, and the common shed lacked any replacement. She cussed for a while, mostly because it felt good to cuss where her mom couldn’t hear her, then came out and gave Mrs. Kostianaya’s shed a long look. There was no sign of Mrs. Kostianaya herself; the shades were drawn tight, and if Lisa listened hard enough she could hear the Mussorgsky again. What is that piece? she thought. Not the Fantasia one. The one the marching band mangled at their concert last year, along with Swan Lake arranged for drums and horns.
Whatever, so long as it keeps her from looking outside.
The shed’s windows were opaque with grime. Lisa squinted at one of them, trying to make sense of the vague shapes within, then gave the doorknob a tug. To her surprise, it swung loose in her hand, and a musty, swampy smell enveloped her.
Her eyes slowly began to adjust to the darkness, taking in the meager furnishings. A hearth took up the far end of the house, and beside it a contraption of wooden frames woven with cobwebs listed to one side.
This isn’t a shed, she thought as she stepped inside. This is someone’s house.
In the center of the room was a big stone tub, round and as high as Lisa’s waist, with a long lump of the same kind of stone in it, polished smooth. Pestle, she thought, and a mortar, like the kind Mom uses for rosemary. But why so big . . . or maybe I’ve gotten small . . .
A dark stain lay at the bottom of the mortar. Lisa stared at it, then, as a hollow wind swept around her, turned and fled.
Once outside, the sunlight burned away some of her panic away. She bent over and braced her hands on her knees, breathing slowly.
“So this is where you’ve been.”
She jerked upright, one hand snatching up the trowel from the patio table before she could think. A lumpy boy stood on the far side of the fence, hands in the pockets of his letter jacket. His sneer, if nothing else, was familiar. Her memory extended a name: Jason something, junior varsity. Oh, hell, she thought.
Jason’s grin widened. “Coleman’s not happy with you.”
“That’s funny,” Lisa said. “I’m very happy. Only way I could be happier is if I’d broken both his hands.” She stepped to block his view of the skulls, very aware of their gazes at her back.
The grin disappeared, but the sneer remained. “Coleman’s got plans for you,” he said, taking a step closer to the fence. “Teachers can’t help you, principal won’t, and you can’t stay with the other girls forever, no matter how they’re acting. Once you get back, we’re coming for you.”
“See if I care,” she shot back, then paused, replaying his words. “They’re not giving in any more, are they?” she said. “The other girls aren’t putting up with your bullshit any more. Not after they heard what I did.”
Jason’s face twisted in momentary fury and was insufficiently covered by his attempt at scorn. “They will once we’re done with you,” he spat. “The whole team wants a piece of you for what you did to him. It’ll be just like with that little slut, only you’ll be awake for the whole thing.”
Lisa threw the trowel overhand as hard as she could. It grazed his arm — her aim was off — but he yelled as if it’d broken a bone. “You tell them that when I’m done with them, they’ll wish I’d just broken their hands!” she shouted. “You tell them that I’m going to smash open their empty heads and kick their balls so hard they’ll be tasting scrotum for a week! You tell them —”
“Lisa!” Her mother stood framed in the back door. Lisa swallowed her words, choking on them. Her mother glanced at Jason. “Are you all right? Get inside, Lisa.”
Seething, she did so. The apartment was dull and quiet, so quiet that she could hear the placatory tone of her mother’s voice. She kicked the garbage can over, then cursed and spent the next few minutes cleaning up the mess.
Her mother came in just as she got the last of the potato peels. “I convinced him not to tell his father. That’s all you need right now, another mark on your record.”
“Another mark — Mom, did you even hear —”
“I didn’t need to hear it, Lisa!” She dropped her purse on the counter and placed her hands flat against the tabletop. “You can’t afford this, and neither can I! Do you know what I found out today?”
Lisa took a deep breath. “All right,” she said. “What did you find out?”
“Todd Pierce. Two months ago. His father said he lost three teeth.”
Lisa exhaled. “There was this freshman girl,” she said. Her mother’s expression didn’t change. “He kept spiking her punch when she wasn’t looking. It was her first party, so she didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like. Two more and she’d have been out cold, and he’d have dragged her off to the back room.”
Her mother nodded slowly. “Glossing over for the moment the fact that you were at a party with alcohol — without my knowledge, apparently — can I ask why you then found it necessary to attack him?”
“So he wouldn’t do it again.”
“And did she thank you for coming to her rescue?”
Lisa glared at the floor. “No.” But they’re not giving in now. Not after I showed them how to fight.
Coleman’s got plans for you.
Her mother sighed, then dragged a chair from behind the table and sank down into it, rocking as its uneven legs took her weight. “Lisa, you’re turning eighteen this summer. You’re not going to be a juvenile any more, and if you keep doing this sort of thing then you can be arrested for assault.”
“And what Todd did — what he had planned wasn’t assault?”
“Did Ronnie Coleman assault anyone?”
No, Lisa thought. He just slipped something into his girlfriend’s drink and then passed her around to the rest of the football team. But Sherri had begged her not to tell anyone, and so Lisa stayed silent.
“Lisa, I understand you have these . . . chivalrous impulses. But you have to hold yourself back. You have to keep something for yourself. You may already have ruined your chances to get into a good college; please don’t make it any worse.” She took a breath, then paused and held out her hands. “There are nicer ways to go about defending people.”
“Somebody has to be willing to be nice,” her mother insisted. “Otherwise it just becomes a vicious cycle.”
“Did being nice to Dad get you any more child support?”
Fury blazed in her mother’s eyes — and just as quickly burnt out. “No. But it meant that he couldn’t have me declared unfit to raise you.” Her lips were thin and bloodless. “I had to make that choice, Lisa. I don’t regret it one bit.”
“And I don’t regret beating the snot out of Ronnie Coleman. Or Todd Pierce. Or anybody else.” She stomped over to the door. “Fuck nice, Mom.”
“You are not going outside this apartment —”
“I’m just going to the fucking garden!” Her voice broke on the last word, and she slammed the door behind her.
Mrs. Kostianaya was on the stairs. Lisa sniffled furiously. “What do you want?”
“You’ve got the right of it, girl. I know, I hear.” She pointed her cane up the stairs. “Come.”
Lisa glanced over her shoulder, but the door remained shut.
“Nice.” Mrs. Kostianaya snorted as they went upstairs. “You think the rest of those girls, the ones like you, all got out of the woods being nice? Nice isn’t same as blessed. Nice I could stand; I could never stand blessings.” She unlocked the door and waited for Lisa.
Her apartment was as crammed full of things as the hut had been bare. Black and gold lacquered boxes lined every shelf, brilliant with firebirds or dancing women or men stumbling through snow. A tiny, staticky TV garbled at her from the corner, almost lost among the swags of red cloth hung over the wall. Tea sets jostled each other for room on the shelf above it. It didn’t look as though anything had ever been thrown away in this apartment, and few things looked used.
Mrs. Kostianaya stumped past her, then spun and glared at Lisa. “You turn your back. I don’t want you seeing where I keep it.”
Obediently, Lisa turned to face the wall. A stereo system at least as old as she was took up most of a bookshelf, and above it another lacquered tray showed an old woman riding in something like a tiny boat or bathtub, whacking the air with a stone club . . .
“Found it,” grunted Mrs. Kostianaya. Lisa turned to see her sitting in a recliner, a box as long as her arm across her lap. Stuffing from the chair sprayed out to either side of her head, giving her the look of a mad scientist or a broken-haloed angel. “Every time you came to me, you and the other Vassilisas, you asked for fire. Fire for your stepmother, fire for your stepsisters, who’d let their light go out. Always I had some to spare, so you could go home with a skull full of flame, ready to burn away the badness. Always I sent you back to get rid of you and your blessings, sent you with your fire and your learning.”
Lisa was ready to leave, but the word skull kept her. She edged forward, away from the clinging draperies, but stopped when she saw Mrs. Kostianaya flinch back.
“I know you could take it.” Mrs. Kostianaya clutched the box, her long nails scratching at it like maddened mice. “I know you could do it, take the house and the fire and all. But you won’t. Because you Vassilisas, you know youth better now. Once you choose the fire, is no going back. No youth, no mother, no children, no man, only the fire.”
She sighed and stroked the box’s lid. “Your mama has it right. You have to keep something for yourself. I know, I hear. Don’t you look shocked!” She thumped the box and raised a clawlike hand. “Used to be I could hear anything in my woods, anything I wanted to. . . But she has it right. I thought, one day the fire will all be gone, the beautiful, stupid girls will take it all, and I won’t have any . . . I won’t go begging like them. I won’t. I deserve it. They don’t.”
Lisa stirred. “Why?”
Mrs. Kostianaya blinked, then looked down. “They don’t. Because they’re stupid. Did stupid things.”
“Doesn’t mean they don’t deserve — what you’ve got to give.” Lisa paused, not entirely sure what she was arguing for. “Being stupid shouldn’t mean a death sentence.”
“Pfah.” Mrs. Kostianaya worried at her lower lip. “Because I’m old. That’s why I deserve it. Sick of giving. I wanted one for me.” She turned the box toward Lisa and opened it. “So I kept one for me.”
Lisa looked into the box. It was full of gray dust. For a second fragments swirled together to form what might have been the orbit of an eyesocket, but it collapsed in on itself, too tired to move. “That’s . . . very prudent of you.”
“Pfah. Always hated prudent. Always hated nice. Always hated you.” She closed the box with a snap and dumped it on the floor. “Give me the days when I could fly,” she muttered, getting up and shoving past Lisa to the stereo, “when generals came to me for flawless schemes, when warlords stabled my horses. I worked so hard, I deserve this now, I’m old and weak . . .”
The too-familiar cadence of Mussorgsky thumped from the stereo. Lisa glanced at the record sleeve where it lay, the pseudo-Russian drawings. Pictures at an Exhibition, it read, and two-thirds of the way down the name of a movement had been circled.
The little hut on hen’s legs. The house of the old witch.
“Go away, Vassilisa,” Mrs. Kostianaya said. Tears ran down her face, sinking deep into the creases. “Go away and stop reminding me what I was.”
Lisa closed the door behind her, not soon enough to avoid hearing Mrs. Kostianaya’s dry, cracked sobs.
She lay awake till late, staring at the ceiling and trying to think. Her mother hadn’t come out of her room when she returned, but the sound of the TV started up shortly after Lisa closed her bedroom door.
You have to keep something back. For college. For yourself.
Nanna didn’t keep anything back. Nanna said and did what she wanted.
She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them. Something whistled outside her window. She got up to look and saw Jason out in the alley. He grinned. We’ll be waiting, he mouthed. Lisa pulled the blinds over the window without speaking.
Eleven o’clock came and went. Her mother had fallen asleep on the couch again. Lisa went out and pulled a blanket over her mother, but left the TV on.
” I’m sorry, Mom,” she said. Her mother smiled and snuggled deeper into the blankets. It’s not enough, she thought. She’ll never know you were sorry.
I’ll know. She kissed her mother on the forehead, then stood up, hearing a new murmur, this one from outside.
The skulls were waiting for her. Someone had put them on stakes now, in a circle around the hut, or perhaps they had grown that way. No — not a circle, she realized. There was a gate, a gap, leaving the circle incomplete. Some of the skulls had grown jawbones; all could speak. Where is my daughter? cried one. I trusted my husband, where is my daughter?
Years of taking fists to the stomach, the arms, the face, said another, and when I finally slapped him they arrested me instead.
I was careful. I thought if I was careful I’d be safe. I didn’t know he’d follow me to work. I didn’t know he’d wait for me just inside the parking garage.
The other skulls sobbed, shouted, snarled like dogs. Like bitches. Lisa glanced back at the dark apartment building, but there was no response from it.
Once you choose the fire, there’s no going back.
The men don’t look at me, but they listen.
Someone has to be willing to be nice.
“No,” Lisa whispered, and the skulls paused to hear her words. “Someone has to be willing to be angry.”
She stepped into the circle, through to the door of Mrs. Kostianaya’s hut. The dirt around it was furrowed and scratched, as if the hut had been restless in the night. A wooden stake as long as her arm barred the door. Lisa looked at it for a long moment, then put her hands to her jaw.
This is a dream, she thought as her face began to pull away, leaving another, different face behind. This is not a dream.
It hurt, but no more than her knuckles had hurt after Ronnie Coleman or Todd Pierce. No more than sex had, the first time, and like sex, she had the sense of giving up something — not her virginity, but something more. Tears leaked from her eyes, but they evaporated quickly.
She pulled one head away, now a skull with shreds of her hair clinging to it, and gingerly touched the wrinkled face beneath. Her face now.
Yaga, the skulls murmured, yaga.
“Yes,” she whispered in her new voice, hoarse and cracked but no less strong. She took the stake from the hut’s door and jammed her old skull atop it. Fire bloomed in its eyesockets, throwing diabolic shadows across the yard, and the skulls screamed in glee as fire sparked in them as well.
She looked back once, first at the flickering television glow through her mother’s window, then at the curtains of Mrs. Kostianaya’s windows, pulled tight against the world. Sometimes you have to be the witch in the woods. So they’ll remember. So they know someone has fire to give them. The hut’s door opened to her, and she entered.
They’ll remember me, she thought as her hut lurched to its feet and stalked away, fire following it.
Magaret Ronald‘s fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy and Ideomancer. She is an alum of the Viable Paradise workshop and a member of the Boston Area Science Fiction Writer’s Group. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston.