All winter, my ex-wife has been flying around the countryside, cursing people and farms. She rides a broom made from a pine branch, twigs hot-glued to the end. She only appears after midnight. She cackles down people’s chimney, and by the time they put on their glasses and slippers and robes and stumble out onto their iced-over porches, she’s gone.
It’s awkward for me. Our friends, who all chose me after the split, call up to complain of odd, annoying curses. A left nostril that always needs to sneeze but never does. A prized hen that has started laying hollow eggs that give off a bad stench when cracked. Hair that is constantly staticky, even, somehow, when wet.
We get together for sushi in the next town over, and my friends laugh about how my ex-wife has taken to wearing a black cloak and pointed hat. “So cliché! I saw her in a check-out line at Whole Foods with a basket full of chanterelle mushrooms. I think she’s started to tint her skin green. I heard she does it by bathing with foxglove.” “I hear she’s living on that island in the swamp.” “I think she’s dating a goblin.”
I laugh along with them. I shake my head like I can’t believe it and lay a strip of nigiri on my tongue. I don’t tell my friends that eating sushi kind of makes me miss my witchy wife. She was the one who taught me how to eat raw fish. She knew my favorite part of the meal was the crack of splitting the single-use chopsticks, and would always let me split hers for her.
My single friends tell me I should start dating again. They offer to set me up with their cousins, with their neighbors, with their doctor, with their favorite bartender. They know a girl with purple hair whose hobby is sword fighting. They know a girl who makes her own furniture. They know a girl who owns a parrot with green feathers that sings pop songs on command. “The world is full of girls,” they say, “who won’t hex you when you break up with them.”
When we were married, my ex-wife’s magic was attractive and helpful. She’d bathe crystals in citrine bowls so our tomatoes would grow round and fat. She’d burn runes onto the crests of mink skulls and place them on the windowsill to protect our home from mold. She’d bathe in oils and herbs and come to bed with bits of damp lavender stuck to the back of her neck and creosote pressed under her breasts. Her hair was black and long and would catch on twigs and bushes when we went on walks through the woods. Sometimes at night, she’d levitate under the blankets. I’d awake to a draft and reach up to her, pull her back down to me.
It wasn’t all good, though. She tended to say the wrong things. She insulted people without realizing she was doing it. She looked bored at family holiday parties, refused to hold babies, would cut conversations short by giving only “yes” or “no” answers to questions. She couldn’t give a convincing apology. She melted black wax onto every table top and windowsill in our home and forgot to clean it up. She clogged our shower drain with rosemary. We’d have arguments that would last through the night and end with us lying side by side in bed, cold morning light parting the space between us.
I found myself constantly making excuses for her to my friends, before they even asked for excuses. “She’s just weird in crowds,” I’d say. “She’s an introvert,” I’d say. Once I saw a therapist who told me I was too worried about how my relationship appeared on the outside, and it wasn’t fair that I was projecting my insecurities onto my partner. I stopped going after that. I always felt like I was lying in therapy. Nothing I said about myself ever felt true enough.
After sushi, a friend gives me a lift home. I wave as he backs out of my drive, then sit down heavily on my front stoop. It’s almost midnight, and I’m drunk on sake and beer. I feel the alcohol buzzing in my cheeks, in my palms, in my fingertips. I feel like if I snap my fingers, they might zap with electricity.
My house, which used to be our house, sits on the edge of a hill. From here I can look down on the forest below. My ex-wife and I used to have competitions to see who could spot the first bat flitting above the trees at dusk. “It’s bat o’clock!” we’d say, when we found the first one. The bats migrated south months ago. But I wonder if, tonight, I’ll see my ex-wife skimming above the trees.
The truth is, I haven’t seen her since the day I suggested we divorce. We were sitting right here. She was looking out over the forest, her hair concealing her face from me. After I told her, she got up without a word, went into the house. I gave her a few minutes, then followed. But she was already gone. Vanished. Her herbs and oils and crystals and vials along with her. A glimmer of black smoke in the air.
My friends assume she’s hexed me. Not because of anything I’ve said, but because it’s the sort of thing they expect her to do.
But she hasn’t hexed me.
She curses my friends, strangers, but never me.
My friend said she’d heard a rumor that my ex-wife is living in the swamp north of town. I know the place, beyond the train tracks, where the trees grow taller and quieter. We used to go on fall drives and stop by the side of the road and walk until the earth turned to mud and every step felt like a dare. Eventually one of us would fall through the mud to our shins, and then the game would be over and we could turn back.
My ex-wife loved the swamp with its hidden traps and sweet-smelling reeds. She’d always find treasures in the mud to carry back home with us. A snake’s skin. A crow’s feather.
I wonder if the rumor is true.
I wonder if I could find her there.
Maybe if I were to find her and talk to her, she’d stop cursing my friends. I’m the reason he started plaguing them in the first place. I’ve got to try. It’s the right thing to do.
I’m too drunk to get in the car, but behind my house is my old bike. I have to kick the wheels where they’ve frozen to the ground, and then I am off. The winter air tears at my cheeks. I focus on my pedaling, so I don’t overthink what I’m doing and change my mind. As I bike, the clouds part. The moon is an empty bowl. Somewhere a rooster crows in a barn.
I reach the swamp and drop my bike by the side of the road. I stagger through the tall, quiet trees until the ground turns to mud.
In the swamp, there is no snow. Steam rises from the ground and then refreezes in the tree branches, coating the twigs like sticks of rock candy. I walk until the mud no longer supports my weight, until I start to feel myself sinking up to my ankles, to my shins. That is when I see it. A hut on an island in the mud. I’d never noticed it before, but it looks like it’s always been there, moss draped over the roof, the front stoop blanketed with damp leaves.
I try to walk towards it, but my feet are stuck in the mud. They make an ugly suction-cup sound as I try to unstick myself from the ground.
I notice an orange, flickering glow from one of the hut’s windows.
“Hello!” I say. My voice sounds flat and tinny in the quiet swamp. “Hello,” I say again. “Come out.”
At the beginning of our relationship, I loved that my ex-wife never went out of her way to make people like her. I never had to worry that she was being dishonest about her feelings for me. I never had that squirmy feeling in my stomach, like I had with other women, that she was performing, that there was a truer version of herself she kept hidden. It was only later that this became a quality I resented. “Why can’t you just pretend to be having a good time?” I’d whisper. “Just try.”
Nothing moves inside the cabin. Why doesn’t she come to the window? Why doesn’t she stomp out the front door, enchant a swarm of hornets to chase me away?
“I see you,” I lie. “I need to talk to you.”
I try again to take a step closer to the hut, but my feet stick in the mud and I fall. I land on my hands and knees and stay there for a moment, elbow-deep in mud, catching my breath, feeling the cold numb my skin. I see how pathetic I must look like from the outside. How cliché. A drunk who took his partner for granted, and now wants her back. But I don’t think I’m not drunk. Not anymore.
I struggle to my feet. “Fuck.” I say. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You were supposed to fight me. You were supposed to curse me. You were supposed to send a plague of snakes to my bedside, or make it rain rocks whenever I tried to leave the house, or haunt my dreams. You weren’t supposed to just leave.”
For a moment I think it will work. She’ll appear in the doorway in all her rage and power. Tall and long-limbed, black hair hanging in knots, energy crackling between her fingers, a necklace of bones cackling around her neck. She’ll be everything she was with me and more. My ex-wife, the witch.
A breeze moves over the swamp. The trees bend, like they’re exhaling. I exhale with them. The mud dries and cracks on my forearms. Everything is very quiet.
Dana Diehl is the author of OUR DREAMS MIGHT ALIGN (Splice UK, 2018) and the collaborative short story collection, THE CLASSROOM (Gold Wake Press, 2019). Her chapbook, TV GIRLS, won the 2017-2018 New Delta Review Chapbook Competition judged by Chen Chen. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Passages North, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere.