Content Warning: Violence, Age Gap, Choking, Sex.
Art by: Ron Alonzo
Autumn smelled of death. Late in the season, particularly, the leaves having given up their jeweled-toned luster and fallen to the earth in a thick blanket of rot. The scent was a warning to the forest's living creatures that they too would join the decay if unprepared for the chill of oncoming winter. The musk was a wet banshee on the breeze.
It was Tamar's favorite season.
She shifted the basket on her arm, the mushrooms inside it jostling their fleshy caps. A slightly off-key hum slipped past her lips, alerting the rabbit a few feet away to her presence. The brown ball of fluff disappeared into the underbrush. One would think the animals of the wood might have learned by now that they had nothing to fear from her. But then again, men frequently trespassed here, despite the stories, so how could she expect better wits from a rabbit. At least the rabbit listened to the instincts that demanded it run.
"Excuse me, Miss?"
Tamar spun to face the tree line on her left, clutching the basket of fungus to her chest like a newborn babe. A girl, if that's what she was, stepped out of the dappled shadows. A mass of curls, thick as a briar bush, crowned her head, bouncing slightly as she lowered her shawl with a bashful expression.
Tamar could feel the wizened expression that stretched her skin into disapproval.
"Get out," Tamar hissed this time.
The girl took a step back, picking at the shawl on her shoulders that tossed oddly in an absent breeze.
"It is you then." She lifted the tasseled ends of the scarf, and immediately they stopped their dancing.
Tamar felt an unfamiliar vulnerability. How long had it been since she had seen a woman in these woods? Long enough ago that the memories held no pictures, only emotions that had turned to painful mist.
"I have been looking for you, weaver."
The girl's voice held a thick chord of passion Tamar had not expected. The witty words she would have customarily conjured escaped her, eyes drawn to the young woman's long delicate fingers, tipped by thick calluses. For a moment, her mind pondered what those fingers would feel like brushing the flesh of her neck. The daydream broke when she met the girl's knowing gaze.
Tamar turned before the young woman could see the flush creeping over her chest and cheeks. Her feet stumbled down the narrow path. Instead of crying out or trying to stop her, the young woman simply followed.
"I want to learn, Weaver, I have…" the girl's voice hitched, and Tamar paused on the path despite herself, "...magic."
The young thing whispered the word, so tenderly Tamar turned to fix her in a curious gaze. Those round, wide eyes, not yet threaded by crow's feet like her own, pleading.
"What kind?" Tamar was surprised by the huskiness of her voice, so unused these days. "What kind of magic?"
Instead of answering right away, the girl raised her hand, wavering her fingers in an odd dance. Not knowing what to expect, Tamar nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt the tree above her teasing her head's greying hair with a moss-draped limb.
She belongs here more than I.
The words obscured all other thoughts for a moment, Tamar's joints locked in fear. The girl slowly approached, releasing her hold on the branch so that it arched upward. She was so close now that Tamar could place her scent; wood smoke, moss, salty skin.
"What do you want, Thresher."
The girl's nose wrinkled in disgust.
"Why is it that the magic closest to the earth has the most violent of names?"
"Neither of us were born of the earth, girl, you know that."
Tamar was once again struck by how close the young witch was standing.
"My name. Aviva."
"What do you want from me?"
"A teacher," Aviva's wide mouth teased over the words, lining them with others unspoken.
The girl stepped somehow closer still. Tamar felt the dampness of her breath against her cheek.
"Couldn't you find another Thresher?"
Aviva shook her head solemnly. So, Tamar's fears had been founded. Witches were disappearing. The girl was searching her expression, looking for a flicker of emotion to urge into a flame. Tamar would not give her the pleasure.
"Come on, then," was all she said, turning back to the path and listening for the girl's soft footfalls behind her.
Night was falling as they reached Tamar's cottage. The trees around them cast long, thin shadows that stretched into one another. Her moss-covered hutch was nearly indistinguishable from its surroundings, dark wood wedged into a copse of trees, sod roof littered with leaves, edged by large swaying ferns.
Tamar slipped a large key into the lock, a mechanism inside gave a satisfying 'thunk,' and then the door swung open. Aviva paused in the doorway as Tamar slunk inside, the young witch's eyes adjusting to the dim interior with a flutter of thick lashes.
With purposeful steps, Tamar moved to the small alcove she used as a hearth. Dying embers snapped and fizzed as she added fresh fodder to the fire. As the light in the room grew, Aviva let out a small gasp.
Floating among soot-stained timbers were hundreds of threads, all twining, spinning, and weaving of their own accord. It was a grand sight for something as simple as needing a new cloak for winter, yet for Tamar, it drew no more emotion than knitting a scarf.
The older witch began to prepare the forage of mushrooms, and Aviva finally stepped over the threshold, shutting the door behind her.
"Can I help?" The girl nodded toward the fungus.
"Get that pot on the spit." Tamar indicated a small pot.
Aviva lifted the crockery and hooked it over the hearth.
"I've got some butter in the larder. Find it."
The young witch disappeared into the small pantry. Tamar could hear her rummaging about for a moment before she withdrew with a little clay bowl, sealed with waxed cloth.
A few barked orders later, and the women were surrounded by the scent of simmering mushrooms and toasting bread. The two witches sat on either side of the hearth, sipping a sharp dandelion and lavender tea Aviva had concocted.
"How did you know where to find me?" Tamar asked, pressing her tongue to the roof of her mouth as she burnt it on the brew.
"The villages at the edge of this wood abound with stories of men disappearing into these trees and of the woman who sells fabric finer than what a king would wear who lives there. It was not difficult to put two and two together.
There was a long silence.
"What do you do with them?"
"Who?" Tamar blew over the surface of her tea.
Tamar looked up, the flames of the hearth reflected in the pools of Aviva's dark eyes. Her heart skipped a beat at the wildness she found there.
"I leave them to the wood."
"How do you do it?"
Tamar's blood rushed loudly through her ears. Without a word or gesture, the shawl about Aviva's neck awoke like a snake, twisting and tightening as the young woman clawed at it, choking. Tamar stood, covering the few steps between them as Aviva stared up at her in open horror for the first time, lips wheezing. Tamar hovered over her, reaching out so that her fingers touched the fabric. Gradually the scarf lost its grip and sloughed back to the girl's shoulders.
Aviva's chest rose and fell with gasps for breath, her breasts pressing against the edge of her bodice. Tamar’s fingers brush their rounded tops as she drew away, feeling the tingle of the young woman's feminine magic spark against the touch. Aviva was gazing up at her with hungry eyes, lips open in a pant.
"A teacher?" Tamar's voice was low.
"In all things," Aviva rasped, her hand reaching for Tamar's. The older witch pulled away sharply. Aviva seemed to have been expecting this and was not disappointed.
The women shared their meal in silence after that, spooning brown, fragrant mushrooms over crisped slices of bread. Aviva ate ravenously as if she had not been fed in a lifetime. There was something feral about her that kept Tamar's hackles raised. Had she been so untamed as a young witch, practically teeming with raw magic? It was too long ago to remember.
"What is it you think I have to teach?" Tamar finally broke the silence.
"Weavers have the deepest control of magic," Aviva sucked the last of the butter from her fingertips, her pink tongue teasing the air. "I'm tired of how unreliable mine is."
"You are bending living things to your will," Tamar pointed out. "They have their own desires. Thread does not."
"Are you saying thresher magic is more potent?"
Tamar hesitated, "In the right hands."
Aviva licked her lips.
"Even so, I've never met a weaver strong enough to do that." The young witch pointed to the cloak assembling itself above their heads. "Much less kill," Aviva added the last thought with a twinkle in her eye. A knot of unease twisted Tamar’s guts. "What's your secret?"
Tamar breathed in through flared nostrils.
"I'll teach you what I know," she answered stiffly.
Aviva smiled; Tamar's lungs constricted as two dimples appeared in her youthful cheeks.
The night grew black around the hutch, and soon the fire was struggling against the cool dark of Tamar's cottage. The two women crawled into bed together, pulling wool blankets and furs over trembling limbs. Moonlight pierced through the shutters, spilling pinpricks of silver light over them.
Tamar's breath would not come naturally, hitching and drawing out in inconsistent patterns. Aviva rolled her body slowly to face her.
Tamar stitched the words in the air with her mind's eyes. "Don't thank me yet."
Aviva reached out a tentative hand, and Tamar swallowed her reflex to flinch. The girl traced a faint wrinkle along the older woman's jaw.
"Do you ever envy them?
Tamar chewed on the inside of her lip before answering.
"Men." Aviva flicked her fingers toward the world outside the cottage. "How they can fuck and cum without a care. Without giving up anything in return. Nothing risked or lost."
Tamar blinked slowly. "Go to sleep."
The next morning arrived with a wet, chilly fog that seeped insidiously through cloth and skin until it rattled the bones of the two witches who wandered through its earthly cloud. All that day, Tamar tested Aviva, her patience, her endurance, the unpredictable nature of her magic. The young witch was powerful and would only grow more so as she aged. Tamar doubted there was anything she could truly teach her—or would. Aviva seemed to sense this, like a wolf smelling a wounded deer on the wind. It excited a deep, long suppressed part of the older woman.
Every morning Tamar would find herself waking with the birds, the sky still dim. Her eyes would wander over the landscape of Aviva's sleeping body where her hands dared not go. Tamar's heart would beat against her ribs, reminding her that despite her best efforts, there was a part of her, wounded though it might be, that was still vulnerable.
A month passed this way. Tamar teaching a weaver’s patience to a thresher. The older witch had thought that Aviva would grow bored tending to temperamental potions, darning stockings, and foraging for ingredients. Instead Aviva was insatiable for knowledge, even the mundane. It reminded Tamar or someone, someone she had done everything to forget. Perhaps it was that realization which lowered her guard.
Tamar returned from a trip to a nearby village, her basket and pack brimming with supplies that would keep their stores full for some time. She had expected Aviva to be outside, meditating with the forest as she so often was in the evening. The door to the cottage was ajar, hinges squawking in the chill breeze. Tamar hurried her steps, an icy hand running down her spine.
"Aviva?" she called out, her boots thumping against the door frame as she nearly tipped through it. Inside, the evening fire had been stoked, and a figure stood hunched before it. Tamar's magic surged, promising to fulfill whatever protection she called upon.
The figure turned.
"Aviva!" Tamar quickly set down the basket and pack as the girl slumped down in front of the fire. "Is something wrong, are you hurt?"
A veil of magic as clinging as a spider's web wove around Tamar as she approached the hearth. Aviva shifted, and the flickering flames revealed a small wooden box in the grasp of her long fingers.
Tamar halted, her heart fluttering madly like a bird trapped in a cage.
"Where did you get that?" her voice croaked; the air in the cottage had grown thick as mud.
"Where you hid it," Aviva murmured back.
The young witch teased the silver latch, and Tamar heard herself bark.
"Just holding it is intoxicating," Aviva slurred, "This is your source...why you are-are so powerful."
Tamar could feel that power, snapping in the air around her, sparking in her veins. Her shawl and cloak began to dance with it, floating as if she were submerged in a pool.
Aviva smiled, closing her eyes. "You say my name like it is honey on your tongue. Say it again."
The girl took a heaving breath, shuddering her shoulders as it escaped, and her fingers finally flipped the latch, revealing the contents of the box.
The room exploded.
Every scrap of fabric, every blanket, rag, thread, it all flew into the air like a sudden flock of colorful birds. The mess danced and circled as Aviva stared wide-eyed and wordless at the secret she had unlocked.
It had been an unknowable number of years since Tamar had last glimpsed the heart.
Still, it was as fresh as the day she had placed it in the box. It pulsed as if still harboring life; the needles and sewing pins that dotted its surface dancing in time. Aviva's hands began to tremble; Tamar rushed forward, snatching the box before she could drop it and snapping the lid shut.
Aviva raised her head slowly as the storm of cloth around them sank back to the earth. Her eyes danced erratically over Tamar's face.
"Who was she?" Aviva's voice was small and reverent.
Tamar pressed her lips into a thin line, placing the box back on the hearth behind a loose stone.
"Do you even remember?"
Tamar spun around, hand twitching with a desire to lay Aviva, impudent child that she was, across the floor with her palm.
"Miriam," Tamar heard herself say. "Her name was Miriam, and she was more beautiful and powerful than either of us will ever be."
Aviva struggled to her feet.
"You made her heart into a token for your magic." Aviva's needling tone began to return. "You cut down one of your own for power." Her eyes glowed like embers. "Why?"
"I loved her," Tamar admitted.
Aviva's brow wrinkled in confusion.
"She wanted a child but...I wasn't ready."
Aviva took a step closer, curious at the hurt throbbing through Tamar, nose tipped upward as if scenting her vulnerability.
The older witch closed her eyes, the scene still as clear in her mind as it had been that day.
"She brought a man into our bed.”
Tamar could still hear the creak of wood and the moan of pleasure from Miriam's lips as he pressed into her again and again. The smell of sage as the plants spilled from Tamar's stunned arms as the man finished, pulling Miriam's thighs against his hips.
"I killed them with their own sweat-stained sheets." Tamar opened her eyes as her mind conjured the image of Miriam's purple face, hands reaching for her.
"The child would not have had magic," Aviva pointed out.
"It wasn't about that for her."
"She could not have been dead when you cut out her heart a token—"
"Needs life, yes," Tamar concluded.
Aviva's eyes flickered with that wild fire. She drew close, pulling Tamar's hands into her own. The young witch guided her cupped fingers around the nape of her own neck, curly strands teasing the back of Tamar's hands. Tamar's fingers burned at the touch, the warmth of Aviva's skin like a brilliant beam of sun against her flesh.
The older woman kept her grip as Aviva withdrew her fingers, moving them to Tamar's cheeks, her shoulders, her waist as if sketching her shape.
"Kiss me," said Aviva's wide lips.
Tamar did, her throat giving up a sigh as her knees weakened. She drew the young witch closer, pressing her hands flat against her back. Tamar could not say how long they stood there, hands wandering, lips parting over one another. Finally, Aviva drew away.
"Will you give to me what you could not give to her?"
Tamar felt suddenly tired, the weight of too many years pressing down her like they never had before.
It was as if she had slipped into a dream. Her body was weightless, limbs thrumming with the swirling dance of her own magic buffeting against Aviva's. The young woman was undressing her, peeling away any weapons of cloth and fiber. Tamar did not care. The touch of her skin sent waves of trembling pleasure over her, headier than opium.
When they were both bare, the women moved together into the chill night outside the cottage. The moon bathed them in its glow, a blessing. Aviva lead Tamar into the wood, finding a wide nook at the base of a tree. Tamar sat, ignoring the aging folds of her own skin to marvel at the wholeness of Aviva's perfection. She pressed her fingers into the soft moss of the earth beneath her as the young witch straddled her naked lap, peppering her neck with kisses.
Tamar cupped Aviva’s tawny, veined breast, thumb brushing against the brown flesh of her taut nipple. A soft sound released from the young woman's throat, and Aviva slowly pressed her pelvis against Tamar's thigh, moaning as she teased herself.
The spell began, Tamar wove the words that would slip her magic and life force into Aviva's womb where a new witch would bud. As the power grew, so did the pleasure. Aviva thrust Tamar against the tree, lowering her head between the older women's legs. Her tongue, wide and soft, set the spell's rhythm; drawn-out beats and staccato notes. Tamar dug her hands into Aviva's curls, legs quivering as her body released all its tension.
She took in a long slow breath, pausing for a moment. The power of the spell had woven about the women. Before she could continue, Tamar felt a tight sensation about her wrist and ankles, chaffing and rough.
She opened her eyes.
Aviva was standing, one hand toying with herself as the other danced in the air. She was turning the spell, using the energy Tamar had conjured for a new purpose. Aviva's voice trembled as she reached her own climax, sweat glinting like stars against her skin. Tamar could not tear herself from the sight of the woman's ecstasy, even as a root wound its way around her throat, pulling her into the earth as it began to crumble beneath her.
Aviva panted as the spell, and she, finished; leaning down, she pressed her lips against Tamar's before the older woman could disappear into the earth. The young witch began a new spell, her body thrumming with contented pleasure and stolen magic. Tamar felt the cold dirt seep around her, entombed, living still, held there by Aviva's thresher power within the roots of the forest. As she moved into the eternal dark Tamar smiled, her magic spreading throughout the soil, every plant and tree now a token.
Tamar had taught. Aviva had listened.
And a heart pricked by pins stopped its beating.