“Hello,” says a voice, somewhere behind her.
It is the younger one, his face open and upturned.
“Hello,” she says.
“Are you lost?”
She hesitates, torn between yes and no, unsure which is closer to the truth.
“I am a ghost,” she says. The boy’s eyes widen in surprise, delight, and he asks her to prove it. She tells him to close his eyes, and when he does, she slips away.
* * *
In the cemetery, the tree Addie transplanted has taken root.
It looms over Estele’s grave, bathing her bones in a pool of shade.
Addie runs her hand over the bark, marvels at how the sapling has grown into a wide-trunked tree, its roots and branches escaping to every side. A hundred years since it was planted—a span of time once too long to fathom, and now, too hard to measure. So far, she has counted time in seconds, and in seasons, in cold snaps and in thaws, in uprisings and in aftermaths. She has seen buildings fall and rise, cities burn and be remade, the past and present blurred together into a fluid, ephemeral thing.
But this, this is tangible.
The years marked in wood and bark, root and soil.
Addie sits back against the woman’s grave and rests her own aged bones in the dappled shade, and recounts the time since her last visit. She tells Estele stories of England, and Italy, and Spain, of Matteo, and the gallery, of Luc, and her art, and all the ways the world has changed. And even though there is no answer, save the rustle of leaves, she knows what the old woman would say.
Everything changes, foolish girl. It is the nature of the world. Nothing stays the same.
Except for me, she thinks, but Estele answers, dry as kindling.
Not even you.
She has missed the old woman’s counsel, even in her head. The voice has gone brittle, worn away in the intervening years, smudged like all those mortal memories.
But here, at least, it returns to her.
The sun has crossed the sky by the time she rises and walks to the edge of the village, to the edge of the woods, to the place the old woman once called home. But time has claimed this place as well. The garden, once overgrown, has been swallowed up by the encroaching woods, and the wild has won its war against the hut, dragged it down, saplings jutting up among the bones. The wood has rotted, the stones have slipped, the roof is gone, and weed and vine are in the slow process of dismantling the rest.
The next time she comes, there will be no trace, the remains swallowed by the advancing woods. But for now, there is still the skeleton, being slowly buried by the moss.
Addie is halfway to the decaying hut when she realizes it is not entirely deserted.
A shiver of motion in the ruined mound, and she squints, expecting to find a rabbit, or perhaps a young deer. Instead, she finds a boy. He is playing amid the ruins, climbing the remains of the old stone walls, swatting at weeds with a switch pulled from the woods.
She knows him. It is the older son, the boy she first saw chasing a dog through her yard. He is maybe nine, or ten. Old enough for his eyes to narrow in suspicion when he sees her.
He holds out his switch as if it were a sword.
“Who are you?” he demands.
And this time she is not content to be a ghost. “I am a witch.”
She doesn’t know why she says it. Perhaps simply to humor herself. Perhaps because when truth is not an option, fiction takes on a mind of its own. Or perhaps because it is what Estele would say, if she were here.
A shadow crosses the boy’s face. “No such thing as witches,” he says, but his voice is unsteady as he says it, and when she steps forward, shoes cracking over sun-dried branches, he begins to back away.
“Those are my bones you’re playing on,” she warns. “I suggest you get down before you fall.”
The boy stumbles in surprise, nearly slips on a patch of moss.
“Unless you’d rather stay,” she muses. “I’m sure there’s room for yours as well.”
The boy makes it back to the ground, and takes off running. Addie watches him go, Estele’s crow-like laughter cawing in her ears.
She doesn’t feel bad for scaring the child; she does not expect him to remember. And yet, tomorrow, he will come again, and she will stand hidden at the edge of the woods and watch him begin to climb the ruins, only to hesitate, a nervous shadow in his eyes. She will watch him back away, and wonder if he is thinking of witches and half-buried bones. If the idea has grown like a weed in his head.
But today, Addie is alone, and her mind is only on Estele.
She runs her hands along a half-fallen wall, and thinks of staying, of becoming the witch by the woods, the figment of someone else’s dream. She imagines rebuilding the old woman’s house, even kneels to stack a few small stones. But by the fourth, the pile crumbles, the rocks landing in the weedy grass exactly as they were before she lifted them.
The ink unwrites.
The wound uncuts.
The house unbuilds.
Addie sighs as a handful of birds take flight from the nearby woods, croaking laughter. She turns toward the trees. There is still light left, an hour maybe until night, and yet, staring into the forest, she can feel the darkness staring back. She wades between the half-buried stones and steps into the shade beneath the trees.
A shiver slides through her.
It is like stepping through a veil.
She weaves between the trees. Once, she would have been afraid of getting lost. Now, the steps are carved into her memory. She could not lose her way even if she tried.
The air is cooler here, the night closer beneath the canopy. It is easy to see, now, how she lost track of time that day. How the line between dusk and dark became so blurred. And she wonders, would she have called out, had she known the hour?
Would she have prayed, knowing which god would answer?
She does not answer herself.
She does not need to.
She doesn’t know how long he’s been there, at her back, if he followed her some time in quiet. Only knows the moment she hears branches crack behind her.
“What a strange pilgrimage you insist on making.”
Addie smiles to herself. “Is it?”
She turns to see Luc leaning back against a tree.
It is not the first time she’s seen him since the night he reaped Beethoven’s soul. But she still hasn’t forgotten what she saw. Nor has she forgotten that he wanted her to see it, to look at him, and know the truth of his power. But it was a foolish thing to do. Like tipping a hand of cards when the highest bets are on the table.
I see you, she thinks as he straightens from the tree. I have seen your truest form. You cannot scare me now.
He steps into a shallow pool of light.
“What drives you back here?” he asks.
Addie shrugs. “Call it nostalgia.”
He lifts his chin. “I call it weakness. To only walk in circles when you could make new roads.”
Addie frowns. “How am I supposed to make a road when I cannot even raise a pile of stones? Set me free, and see then how well I fare.”
He sighs, and dissolves into the dark.
When he speaks again, he is behind her, his voice a breeze through her hair. “Adeline, Adeline,” he chides, and she knows that if she turns again, he will not be there, and so she holds her ground, keeps her eyes on the forest. Does not flinch when his hands slide over her skin. When his arm snakes around her shoulders.