From the author: A distraught mother of a runaway teen visits her great-aunts’ at their decaying summer cottage. The great-aunts reveal magical talents and disturbing family secrets, tempting Ellie with glimpses of what her life might have been — and could be.
An audio version is available for this story. Listen online →
"Sarah—he's using you!" My voice rose into the whine my daughter loathed, but I couldn't stop. I pressed the phone to my ear. "You're 16. I absolutely forbid—"
My runaway daughter informed me that she hated me.
"Have fun with the old witches," she said, and hung up.
I climbed out of the car, slammed the battered door, and slumped against the sun-baked metal. Gradually my heartbeat slowed, but still felt frighteningly uneven. Fail-ure, fail-ure, FAIL-ure, it thumped.
A crow cawed and a soft breeze rustled the pine trees surrounding my great-aunts' summer cottage. I thought about phoning Sarah's father for help, but my ex had long since given up on our daughter.
I reached through the open car window, pulled out my shabby purse and rummaged savagely for my cigarettes until I remembered I’d quit smoking two months ago. The sounds of kids playing drifted up from the lake.
"All-y all-y in come free," sang a little girl. Squeals of excitement. Someone shrieked, “Mom-my!”
Sarah? Of course not. My Sarah hadn’t played here in years. A hot tear splashed on my blouse, soaking through to my breast. I wiped my cheeks and glanced over at the old cottage. Two metal chairs stood empty on the sagging front porch.
My great-aunts Helen and Nessie were inside, playing Rummy and waiting for me. I'd gone into town to get us food for dinner: A rotisserie chicken and a package of rolls. Nessie would overcook some vegetables "to go with."
I pulled the bag of groceries from the back seat and crossed the pine needle lawn, pasting a smile on my face that claimed everything's fine. I mentally rehearsed telling them that Sarah was working an internship at an art gallery in the city, that she'd wished she could come visit. If only. Their hearts would have broken to hear her call them old witches.
The screen door slammed behind me and Helen and Nessie looked up from the Rummy melds they had spread on the kitchen table.
"Finish, finish," I said. By the time I'd put the groceries away, Helen was picking up the cards. Nessie made a pot of tea. She poured me a cup, slopping a bit onto the saucer.
"Ellie! What's wrong?" She drew a finger along her cheek, mirroring the tear track she'd noticed on mine.
I shrugged. "Oh, it's Sarah. You know. Teenagers." I couldn't bear to tell them the truth.
"I picked up your mail," I said, eager to change the subject. Reaching into my purse I pulled out a batch of envelopes and put them on the table. "Did you go down to the beach while I was in town?"
"The beach?" Helen's laugh ended in a sigh. "The beach? Oh, Ellie, we're a little old for that."
"I don't think we've gone to the beach since Reba died," Nessie said. "We sit out on the porch in the mornings."
Reba, the youngest of the great aunts, had died two years ago and since then her sisters had aged rapidly. Their lakeside house, for so many years the gathering place for the Steins and Kettermens, had grown shabby and quiet. Everyone seemed to be too busy to visit them.
"That bastard!" Nessie, her lips pursed, thrust a letter at Helen. "Look at this. The momzer."
Helen took the page, adjusted her glasses, and read quickly. Then she tossed the letter onto the table. "So, Ellie, your cousin Harold's making us sell the house," she said. "Living up here at the lake is 'too much' for us, he says. He thinks we'd like a nursing home better."
Nessie growled, "Reba must be spinning in her grave!"
"Oh." I felt guilty. I already knew about Harold's plan. He'd called me and tried to enlist me in his scheme to get at their property. I wondered if the great-aunts knew how valuable their land had become, with million-dollar weekend retreats going up all around them. If they let Harold handle the deal, they'd never find out. I'd never liked Harold much, but I wasn't about to get in the middle of this family drama.
"It's hard to imagine you moving out of this house," I said.
The great-aunts exchanged looks.
"That's what we want to talk to you about," said Nessie.
"Moving?" I was confused. "I wish the house could stay in the family, but I couldn't possibly buy it. After my divorce..."
Nessie flapped a large, be-ringed hand at me.
"No, no," she said. "No, it's...Helen, we need to show her."
"After dinner," Helen said.
The cold roast chicken was accompanied by Nellie's thoroughly boiled green beans and followed by coffee ice cream, our family favorite. I cleared the table and, over their protests, washed the plates and put them in the counter-top dish strainer, just as I'd done hundreds of times before. Then I made a fresh pot of tea. But when I brought it to the table, Nessie stood up and gestured to me. I followed the two old girls as they shuffled down the hallway toward the living room.
I was trying to imagine what they had to show me. A quilt, maybe? A lamp? Some old family heirloom that had miraculously survived all the summers with the cousins up here?
But Nessie surprised me by stopping halfway down the hall. She fished a key from her apron pocket. Fumbling, she unlocked a door in the hallway. A closet I'd never noticed before? She opened the door to reveal a narrow staircase of worn painted wood. She leaned out over the stairs to pull a string and a bare light bulb, the fixture high on the wall, came on.
"I'm going to let her look," Nessie said to Helen.
Look at what? I wondered.
"Go on." Nessie stood back and I went down the dim stairs, grasping the thin metal railing attached to the wall on the left side. To my right was open space and darkness. Apparently this cellar had no windows. That would explain why the cousins and I had never seen it from outside the house.
I peered into the depths, my eyes gradually adjusting to the dimness. The staircase went down not to a floor but into a sea of what appeared to be tangled foliage. I hesitated, went down two more steps, and bent down to touch the odd material. It seemed to be string, or rope, or some sort of dark yarn. There were bushels of it. No telling how deep it went; the staircase vanished into it like a spoon in a pot of soup. A smell of old, slightly damp wool drifted up from the tangles. I sniffed cautiously and wrinkled my nose.
I turned and looked back up at Nessie. She was silhouetted by the red evening light at the top of the stairs.
"What on earth is this stuff?" I asked.
"Come back up and we'll explain," said Nessie. She sounded tired.
I hurried up, relieved when Nessie locked that door behind us. We returned to the kitchen table. Nessie seemed reluctant to start. She gestured toward the teapot and I poured for her and for me, Helen having shaken her head and taken up her knitting.
"Ellie, do you remember Cousin Esther?" Nessie asked as I drank from my cup.
"Shweig!" Helen interrupted. She stood up and lumbered in her black orthopedic sandals to the back door and closed it. "Someone might hear!"
When Helen returned to the table, Nessie began again. "Cousin Esther was a woman disappointed with her life."
I brushed some crumbs away from my elbows and leaned forward, puzzled. I had a vague memory of Esther, elegant and sour. But what could she have to do with the vast sea of yarn in the cellar?
"It started out so well for Esther," Nessie said. "A good marriage to a lovely man, a Yiddisher kopf with a good business. Esther had three children, but her favorite was her daughter, Shulamit."
Nessie stared at me. "Don't you remember, Ellie? Don’t you remember about Shulamit?”
Suddenly it all came back to me. I was a kid when it happened, but I remembered my mother going pale when she read the paper at the breakfast table. It was just a few months after Shulamit had married the senator's son. They were flying in his private plane to Martha's Vineyard. The plane went down in Long Island Sound. There were no survivors.
"The plane crashed," I said softly as Nessie and Helen nodded. "Shulamit died. Cousin Esther, she went crazy with grief."
"That's not exactly what happened to Esther."
Across the table, Helen stopped knitting and cast a worried look at the door.
Nessie leaned close. "Esther went to the Treyad," she said, "and asked for another life."
"The Treyad? The witches? Poor woman," I said. "She'd really gone nuts."
"Not so much," said Nessie. "Ellie, in those days those witches were powerful. People came to them for new lives, and -- poof!" Nessie rocked her squat body back in her chair. "They vanished."
I'd had about enough of this witches nonsense. The great-aunts had been born in the old country; they still believed in the Treyad. As kids we'd been frightened of the stories—about three women with the power to unravel your life and make you start over again.
Oh, if only!
"You know, I don't remember Cousin Esther vanishing," I told Nessie.
"Of course not," Nessie agreed. But there was nothing agreeable about her tone.
She took a sip of tea, then went on. "When Esther asked for a new life the witches told her that she was living it. That she had already asked for a new life, and been given it. This life, the one where Shulamit dies, was it."
Well, wasn't that a clever trick. The skeptical expression on my face gave me away.
"Not a trick," Nessie said, as if she'd read my mind. She shook her head, and fixed me with cold eyes. "Because the witches took out a photo album and showed Esther—“ she tapped her forefinger on the table, as if on a page, "They showed her the pictures of Esther's first life. She'd been Nat's wife, and a mother, but with just one child—a shy boy named Jonathan. He lived the life of a scholar. Never married.
"The witches showed Esther a letter she'd sent Jonathan on her 75th birthday. The poor man had asked her if there were anything she would have done differently if she could have lived her life over. She wrote back: 'I'd have had more children because you are such a disappointment.'
"Esther had gone to the Treyad at 75 and asked for a new life, with more children. And she had been given it."
I shivered. A cool breeze was sweeping up from the lake. I stood up and closed the kitchen window.
“Ellie, how do you suppose we know this?” came Nessie's voice from behind me.
Reluctantly, I turned. In the dark kitchen, Nessie's face was no longer old, but timeless. Beside her, Helen sat, uncharacteristically silent, eyes cast down at the knitting in her lap. Nessie watched me as I walked back to the table and sat down in my chair.
"You want me to believe that you two are witches?" I asked. Thinking if Harold finds out about this craziness, he's going to petition for guardianship and put them in the nursing home. "I mean, aren't there supposed to be three of them?"
Nessie and Helen just looked at me. Reba, I thought. Oh God.
"All that yarn in the cellar?" Nessie made a sound that might have been a laugh. "Those are lives we've unraveled. You'd be surprised how many people still come to the Treyad for help. Not just the old people, either. Young people, just like you."
I shook my head, appalled at the direction this was taking. "So, what, you think I need your help with Sarah?"
"Maybe." Helen's deep voice broke in. "But that's beside the point."
She paused, turning to her sister. "Nessie, we should have told Ellie earlier."
"I know. I know."
"Told me what?" I put down my tea, now over-brewed and bitter.
"Told you," said Nessie. "Told you...Ellie, it's time for you to take Reba's place in the Treyad. You're a witch, an unraveler. You can change people's lives. You were born with that power, and we're going to show you how it works."
I sat stunned for a moment, then shrugged, hoping to shake off their words. The great-aunts were worse off than I'd thought.
"I don't want to be a witch." I tried to chuckle, but it came out as a nervous giggle. "Other people's lives? I've made a mess of my own life. I've made a mess of Sarah's. I don't want the responsibility."
"We'll teach you the skills," Nessie pushed on. "How to listen. How to advise. And the spells of transformation. How to set the time and date at which your client's life will spin off into another lifeline."
Her matter-of-fact tone made the patent craziness seem almost real.
"No," I said. "No, I'm sorry. I don't want any part of this."
Nessie's face turned dark. She slapped the table. "Maybe it doesn't matter what you want, Ellie. I tell you, you were born to this. And with Reba gone, we need you."
I argued with them late into the night.
"I need to go back to the city," I told them.
"Fine. Go." Nessie stood up, turned her back on me, and headed down the hall toward her bedroom, leaving Helen and me alone at the table.
Helen took a deep breath and clasped her hands, pausing as if for prayer. She mumbled a few words to herself before she spoke to me. "Ellie, I remember the day my own great-aunts told the three of us that we would become a Treyad. So many years, in Kovno."
"How did you feel?"
"It was different then. It was..." Helen shook her head and smiled sadly. "I don't think you can imagine."
But she was wrong. With Nessie out of the room, I found it possible to imagine this old woman had magical powers.
"Can a witch change her own life?" I'd been wondering. "I mean, could go I back to the days when Sarah was young, and I was offered that job in California, and I could have left and made a new life for us. Could I send myself back?"
Helen shook her head and laughed. "No. You can't send yourself back."
I nodded. Well, no surprise.
She leaned close and whispered, "But I can."
She closed the wrinkled lids over her cloudy brown eyes for a moment. When she reopened them, her pupils were brighter and clear. "We'll have to hurry," she said softly. "Nessie is set on you completing the Treyad. But..."
"I don't want to."
"I know." Helen got up and went to the old sideboard and quietly slid open a drawer. She came back, clutching a pair of yellowed ivory needles.
"Clasp your hands," she whispered. Then she reached over, smelling faintly of sandalwood, and put my clasped hands on my lap. "Blaybn nokh. Stay still."
She held her needles above my hands, and began knitting. There was no yarn, but Helen's needles clicked, faster and faster. The room went dark and I then I felt them, felt threads flowing out of my fingertips. There was the occasional flash of pain, a tug, as if the yarn had become knotted. Had I'd told Helen how far back I wanted to go? I tried to speak, but couldn't. Helen's needles clicked and my past flowed out from my fingers, spilling onto the floor.
The next morning at breakfast I kissed the old girls goodbye, ducking their invitation to have coffee and whole grain rolls with them. I figured I'd stop for a latte and a croissant in the village.
I paused on the broad front porch to enjoy the dramatic view down to the lakeshore. I ran my hand along the smooth finish of the new railing. With handicapped access, better lighting, and other updates I'd paid for, Nessie and Helen would be able to stay here for a few more years. After that, I'd have it as a vacation home. It was sound investment.
The new Lexus had been a good choice, too. The car's leather seats were pleasantly warm in the morning sunlight.
Before starting the car, I pulled my mobile phone from my bag and texted Doug to let him know I'd be just a few minutes late for lunch at our favorite Thai place in Westchester.
Driving down the hill toward the lake, I lowered the car windows and savored the soft breeze. I slowed as I drove past the beach where kids in bright-colored bathing suits scampered along at the edge of the sun-dappled water, squealing with delight. The shady roadway ahead went blurry as my eyes filled with tears.
There were times when I wished I'd had children.
- END -
This story originally appeared in Triangulation: Beneath the Surface.