Based on Laura Marling’s song of the same name, and an anecdote of a friend’s. For S; it’s her fault, after all.
She swears that someday, the nightmares will destroy him. He wakes drenched in sweat and gasping for breath, tears in his eyes and terror in his voice. She holds him and blinks up at the ceiling, fighting back tears herself, and waits for his raged breaths to ease into those of sleep.
Night after night, she accepts: accepts the dark circles under his eyes; her own disturbed sleep; the knowledge that nothing she does – and they have tried everything – will help.
Until he tells her the story.
There were three of them – him, and his two brothers. When the boredom overwhelmed them, the delicious smell of homemade pie in the oven no longer enough to pacify them and make them stay in the house, their mother would shoo them away. Tell them to go and play; that they were making nuisances of themselves.
So they would obey, and always found their loud, meandering, rough-housing way down to the river. The trees provided shade from the unusually bright, unusually hot summer they were in, and if the trees weren’t enough, cold river water would help to cool them down. The river was tame and easy to swim in, the grass long and good for sitting on underneath the leafy boughs, where it hadn’t been parched and dried by the heat. By all accounts, it was the perfect place to spend a lazy, innocent summer.
It only happened once, in the end, but once was enough. They arrived at the riverbank and saw the witch emerging from the water like a half-remembered nightmare – her black clothes plastered to her; her hair trailing weeds; her face impossibly young, impossibly beautiful and pale as the moon even in high summer; her eyes dark as the river, with even stranger things swirling in their depths. Those eyes met his, and he knew, suddenly, in the core of his naive, eight-year-old being that he was observing something terrible – something not supposed to be possible.
None of them found out why the witch was there: they ran as fast as their legs could carry them, never again returning to that place, as idyllic as it might have seemed – it was no longer theirs; it had never been.
His mother didn’t believe him; she shouldn’t either. She is sane and his story is impossible. She is also exhausted and desperate, so she puts a hand to his chest and tells him that it’s all right, that she understands.
When he has finally found some temporary sleep, she climbs out of bed and, feeling her way – following her instincts – edges downstairs, to the kitchen. Something compels her to open the right cupboard, to grab a lighter from the counter, and before she is entirely aware of it she has lit a single, solitary candle. It flickers in its glass holder as it sits on the countertop, and it feels like safety.
She senses the exact moment when the air changes around her, the flame sputtering and nearly dying completely. “You rang?” says a soft voice behind her.
She turns too fast, nearly falling, but catches herself. She refuses to show this witch – this woman – weaknesses to exploit. The candle casts odd, inconsistent shadows over the witch’s face, but she is illuminated enough to show her deep, frightening beauty. It’s difficult not to feel cowed, more than a little resentful, when confronted with such a thing. She says to the creature, “You’re the witch from the river?”
The visitor – ageless, alien – nods, then glances up at the ceiling, to where the bedroom is. “I take it this is about the boy?” Her voice is the hiss of running water, crashing waves; water pours from her mouth (and seems sourceless, infinite) when she opens it to speak, hitting the floor. Despite appearances, this nightmare isn’t human, and certainly isn’t a woman. It regards her levelly, waiting for her answer.
“Yes.” The plink, plink of water dripping from the apparition’s chin will drive her mad with distraction if she lets it. On a wooden floor, in a room like this, the drops should make small understated thuds as they land; instead their arrival is announced by deep, cavernous sounds: the dripping of sewers, water on stone in a vast, empty space that doesn’t exist here. She doesn’t let it sidetrack her, instead shutting out and focusing on the witch. “What you did to him – can it be undone?”
There is a pause. (Plink, plink. Think, think.) “For a price,” it says eventually. Dark hair, lank and full of weeds, clings to its white face, moving to accommodate its manic grin. Nothing – teeth, tongue, throat – can be seen inside the abyss of its mouth, its smile a strange, hollowed-out thing. “Do you love him?”
“Yes,” she answers – easily, matter-of-factly, because why else would she stay through the sleepless nights and the weary days? Even if she hasn’t told him yet, it’s true.
“I need only your name,” the witch tells her, keeping that same, unsettling grin.
She has heard things – bad things – about deals such as these. Names are control, names are power, and they shouldn’t be given up easily. She loves him, however, and so she asks, “Nothing else? I won’t get the nightmares from seeing you?”
It shakes its head. “Nothing else, and no.” More water hits the floor.
She hesitates – perhaps this is a mistake, perhaps it it will kill her – and then lets out with a sigh, “Emily.” The sound is simple, final. She waits for the witch’s response.
After a moment, its smile relaxes, the tautness gone. “Thank you,” it tells her. “I will remember you, Emily.”
Then it’s gone, and the candle finally gives up the fight against the darkness. It leaves her alone, blinking in surprise as her eyes adjust.
She ascends the stairs slowly, thoughtfully. When she reaches the bed, she pushes aside the covers and slides gingerly in; he shifts in his sleep at that, but doesn’t wake.
e sleeps soundly through the night, for the first time she’s ever known. (He will not know. He will never know, and he will never thank her.) Meanwhile, she stares at the ceiling, sleep eluding her, terrified of why the witch would want her name.
When dawn comes and she’s still awake, him sleeping obliviously beside her, she’s unsure whether to laugh or cry.