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  • Writer's pictureSydney E. Low

From Beyond the Veil

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

My family has a habit of accidentally setting things on fire. It usually happens for the first time when we’re six or seven, but I was a late bloomer.

“A late burner,” Auntie Seraphine always said with a grin.

To which Auntie Alexandra would always add, “But a longer burner.”

After my mother died, my aunties were the ones who gave me things to burn. Small things at first: dry leaves, twigs, string. Then sticks. Branches. Logs. Until I could light a whole bonfire in a heartbeat, walk into the flames and dance on the embers without burning myself.

The first time I set something on fire, my mother was so proud of me. I had just turned nine a few days before and everyone was beginning to worry I’d inherited too much of my mother’s blood.

Mom sent me to bring in wood for the stove. It was the end of November and the settler town was draped in snow. Horses and the carts they pulled left tracks along the dirt roads. Like our home, smoke from the wood-burning stoves puffed out of the other houses’ chimneys.

My teeth were chattering before I reached the pile of logs on the side of our house.

I hurried back inside, shutting the door with my foot. As I stepped into the kitchen, I shivered.

And just like that, the logs in my arms burst into flames.

I cried out and dropped the burning wood onto the kitchen floor. Mom had jumped, whirled around, and stared. Forgetting her cooking, she ran over, kissed my forehead, kissed my burnt hands, picked me up and spun me around, laughing.

~~~

My body burned in my room last night. I wake up with a me-shaped singe on my sheets. A shadow that doesn’t move. Bracing my arms on the edge of the bed, I take a deep breath. The air tastes like ash.

It’s like my magic knows what’s coming tomorrow and it’s getting ready – the embers running through my veins already trying to ignite.

Rain lands on the fallen leaves outside with a faint hiss as each drop hits a leaf, putting out a fire I haven’t started yet, but could. I slip out into the rain and walk away from the grove of old trees, each one enchanted to be a home you can get into from a crack in the side. Homes no one will notice if they happen to wander by.

When I get to a clearing in the forest, I hold my arms out and turn my face to the sky. The water lands on me and hisses, sending small whisps of steam up from my freckled skin, like it’s landing on the charred logs of a dying fire. My hair and clothes are soaked and clinging to me by the time the water stops evaporating off my body.

I open my eyes to the clouds, raindrops running down my face like tears. After tomorrow, maybe it will all feel worth it. I hope you’re watching, Mom.

~~~

My first spring after setting the logs on fire, my mother took me to the grassy hill behind our house that overlooked the town. From the top you could see the whole place – every house, the market, the town square.

“This way, Harriet.”

She led me away from the town until it was out of sight. The wind picked up, blowing her skirt and ginger hair in front of her, and making the tall grass shimmer. Looking to the sky, she smiled. “Take a deep breath. Do you taste it?”

I did as she said, closing my eyes and breathing deeply. In the air, even though there was no fire, I could taste it: the sweet spice of smoke. My eyes opened and I looked to Mom. “I do.”

Her smile widened, cinnamon eyes dancing – a matching set to mine. She ran her hands through the grass and I copied her. Before, the blades and stalks felt bristly, but now they had turned soft and light to my touch.

“Ash.”

Mom nodded and held out two rocks, each about the size of my fist.

She placed them in my hands, but I dropped them almost instantly, laughing. “It tickles!”

Mom laughed, too. “This is flint. That’s what sparks feel like.”

“Why does it do that?”

Mom crouched down and kissed my hands like she had that first day. “It’s that beautiful, beautiful magic in your blood. It knows what it wants. What it can become.” She gave me another kiss on my forehead. “What you can become.” Kneeling now, she held her hands out, palms up. The freckles on them looked like dark stars. Mom closed her eyes, brow furrowed. Her hands curled into fists before she flexed her fingers again. A flame ran over her hands from the wrist out, faint enough it almost didn’t look real.

I gasped, leaning closer to stare at her hands. “That was pretty! Do it again!”

Mom indulged me, over and over. “Here, you try.” She traced her finger from the heel of my hand to the tip of my middle finger. “Just imagine–”

A lick of flame followed her finger so close it almost burned her. I jumped. “I did it!”

Mom picked me up, spinning me around in the wind, my feet brushing the grass feeling ashes that weren’t there. “That’ll be our little trick. Mine and yours.”

After that day, sparks tickled me whenever I picked up a rock that could start a fire, and I could feel the crackling of burning logs in my bones when I gathered firewood. I breathed deep the taste of smoke and ash and charcoal. A secret knowing just between me and my mother.

~~~

The leafless branches weave together above me like a wooden spiderweb, the forest air filled with the smell of the rusted-orange leaves blanketing the ground. It’s damp enough from the rain to keep the scent of smoke out of the air. Murmuring voices drift out from the crack in the tree opposite me; witches who’ve already passed the initiation but come to watch ours.

I rub my hands together, small licks of flames flying off from my fingertips.

The other girl waiting with me rocks back and forth on her heels. “There a reason you’re doing that?”

“Warming up.”

She nods like she believes it’s not just a nervous habit. I can’t help but grin.

We’re the last two of the six who were waiting here after dark. Everyone from our coven who’d completed the nine years of practice in time to be initiated at the fall gathering of the council.

Biting her lip, she looks over at me. “Anyone from your family come to watch?”

“My aunties.”

“Not your parents?”

“I’m the Blueflame sisters’ niece.”

She straightens. “Oh. You’re Harriet. The one who– I didn’t realize…” She takes a step away from me. “Sorry.”

Like I didn’t notice, I say, “Mm.”

There’s a flash from the crack in the bark, followed by gasps. A hooded priestess in dark grey, floor-length robes emerges from the tree, the phases of the moon tattooed on her forehead, and her hands and arms covered in runes. She motions for the other girl to enter.

I look up, watching the moon float across the sky. Wonder if they would’ve even let Mom come watch.

Soon the priestess emerges again and motions to me. Taking a deep breath, I step into the temple.

~~~

My first time inside the forest temple was the night my mother died. After what I’d done, my family needed a place to hide. My aunties tried to distract me from the town we’d left behind by showing me the tree of families carved into the back wall of the temple.

“Here, Little Spark.” Auntie Seraphine pointed to a branch – all the names written in runes. “This is our family. Your grandparents and great-grandparents’ names. Here’s mine and Auntie Alexandra’s.”

“Why don’t the last names match?” I asked.

“Well, Little Spark, when you pass initiation and get your witches marks, you get a name from the council. And you can pick a new name for yourself, too, if you like.”

I wiped flecks of ash off my face. “Where’s Mom’s name?”

Auntie Seraphine pressed her lips together. “Well…”

“It’s not there.” Auntie Alexandra traced her own name. “Only proper witches have their names added. Your mother had weak blood. She didn’t have enough magic to complete the initiation and wasn’t given a name by the council.”

After my aunties were asleep, I snuck back to the wall and stared at our branch. Standing on my tiptoes, I reached up and wrote Mom’s name with my finger next to my aunties’. Lyla Jones. Over and over and over again until my sobbing woke my aunties and they brought me back to bed.

The next morning, when my aunties said it was time to leave, I tucked my knees to my chest and didn’t move. “You could have let her stay with you. But you didn’t because she didn’t have her name in the temple.”

Auntie Alexandra crossed her arms, looking down her nose at me. “It’s a tradition older than any of us that no non-witch may enter a witch village. Wiyvest is no exception.”

“I’m not a witch. My name’s not in the temple yet.”

Auntie Seraphine forced a smile. “Yes, but you are a child, Little Spark. We don’t send witchlings out of the village. They need protection.”

“So did Mom.”

Auntie Alexandra shook her head. “The council would never have allowed it. Not to mention there would have been outrage from the coven.”

“Even if we wanted our sister–” Auntie Seraphine clasped a hand over her mouth.

In the silence that followed, I turned away from them, looking back towards the tree of names. The empty space where Mom’s should be. Because she didn’t have her name in the temple… But if I pass the initiation–

“You’re not upset with us, are you, Little Spark?” Auntie Seraphine asked.

I looked down at my hands. Almost without me telling them to, a thin whisper of flames ran from my wrists to my fingertips. My magic knew what I wanted. I clenched my hands into fists – tasting ash in the air again – and the flames in my blood sparked, ready to burn this place down, too. But I looked back up at the tree again. Swallowing a scream or more crying or the words “Upset? Upset? My Mom’s dead!” burned more than the hottest ember. Forming my mouth into a curve, I looked back to my aunties. “No.”

“Of course not,” Auntie Alexandra said. “Come. Let’s go home to Wiyvest.”

As they led me out of the temple, I looked back over my shoulder to the carving again, nodding to myself. I will pass the initiation for both of us.

~~~

I leave my shoes and jacket at the temple’s entrance. I tied my auburn hair in a knot at the nape of my neck to keep it from getting singed, and wore a short-sleeved dress especially for today, to really show off.

The nine members of the council wear similar robes to the priestess, but theirs are black and cover their arms, and their hoods are down. They sit in a semi-circle on a balcony overlooking the temple floor, which is ringed like a tree. The rings travel up the walls, and balls of flames and lightning illuminate the space. A different balcony that encircles the whole room is filled with coven members. Some in robes with elegant embroidery, others in formal dresses and suits.

I leave singed footprints behind me as I walk into the center of the room, bowing to each of the council members, then straightening. The tree of families is carved into the wall under them.

The eldest member, seated at the midpoint of the semi-circle, nods for me to start.

Part of me wants scream at them all, curse their names, and erupt into a pillar of fire. The other part of me knows that would mean failing initiation before I could put the fire out. It would mean throwing everything I’ve worked so hard for away. One of the first things they teach you is this: there is power in control.

Taking a deep breath and holding it, I rub my hands together a few more times, staring at the names, thinking of the one I want to add. Remember why you’re here.

~~~

I began practicing as soon as we got to Wiyvest. And I was a natural. Everyone forgot I was the daughter of a failed non-witch. I was the esteemed Blueflame sisters’ niece. Among other things.

It was like my mother never existed. The only sign anyone remembered her was the way no one wanted to come near me. How the other witchlings closed ranks to keep me out and their mothers whispered about me when I walked anywhere without my aunties.

“A late burner–”

“But a longer burner,” my aunties told all of the witches in the coven with pride as I studied and practiced every day – for hours, sometimes long into the night.

“Yes, you’ll make a fine witch.” Auntie Alexandra stroked my hair. “I have no doubt about that.”

“But you must remember,” Auntie Seraphine told me, “no matter how hard you practice, it’s still nine years before your initiation.”

Auntie Alexandra scoffed. “Don’t discourage her. If she practices like this,” she turned to me and smiled. “I’m sure it will be an initiation to remember.”

Looking up from my book and my sigils, I gave her a close-lipped smile. “I’m planning on it.”

I’m sure it seemed that, like everyone else, I had forgotten about my mother, too. But I remembered her.

When I called flames to my fingers out of thin air, I felt her. With every tickle of a could-be spark from kicking the right kind of rock, I felt her fingertips. Every branch blowing in the wind crackling like it was already burning was her laughter. The sparks that jumped out of me were the flash of her smile. Bark that turned to charcoal under my touch was her hand holding mine. The fire I wrapped around my body and the heat that came with it was her embrace and when I would dance, I could swear I saw her in the shades of red and orange and yellow, dancing next to me.

So, I practiced and practiced and practiced, and remembered and remembered and remembered.

~~~

Heart pounding, I let out the breath and spin, shooting flames around myself until I’ve made a circle of nine fires. Arms out to the sides, I turn my palms to face the ground and the fires shrink. I raise my arms above my head and the fires grow again until I’m surrounded by flames. Sucking in a sharp breath, I clench my hands into fists, dropping to the ground. The fires all extinguish as one.

I gather leaves from the floor and throw them into the air. While they float down, I make the leaves burn up from the inside out, one by one. Snapping, I change each burning leaf into a small fire-bird and send them flying around the room. Around and around, casting shadows as they fly, until they burst in an explosion of sparks. The coven members jump, but the council members remain unreadable. Unreadable and emotionless and uncaring.

Looking at the council is a mistake. It fans the flames of that roaring inferno inside me – the one I’ve had to tend carefully to make it to this moment – until I’m holding back tears. For a heartbeat, the last image of Mom’s face flashes before my eyes.

I abandon my routine. Sweeping a leg around myself – only having planned on setting the ground under my feet ablaze – the whole temple floor ignites, flames licking the walls. The heat is searing, but I keep it from hurting me even as it burns away the tears I can’t stop. Bending down, I pick up a flame and wrap it around my bare arm like a snake. It slithers around my neck and down my other arm. I grab another flame snake and wrap it around my legs and up my whole body. Posing for a moment, I call the flames from the edges of the temple to me. They run from my feet up my body to my fingertips in a powerful flicker. I throw my head back, sending the flames flying into the air. And for another heartbeat, the image of my mother stares at the council. Falling back into the routine, I break her apart into nine fire-birds in an arch above my head. Breathless, I let my hands fall to my sides and the birds fade away.

The eldest council member stands, the others following. She asks, “You’re the Blueflame sisters’ niece?”

I exhale through my nose. Forever the niece, never the daughter. “I am.”

“The one who burned down that town many years ago.”

A chill runs down my back. “Yes.”

She nods. The council turns to discuss among themselves in murmuring voices. Panting, I wait for their verdict.

~~~

It was the middle of a dry summer. My aunties had come to visit. They talked with Mom while I practiced burning pieces of string on the floor.

Mom toyed with the hem of her skirt. “Could we come live in the witch village?”

“Absolutely,” Auntie Seraphine said. “Harriet can come to Wiyvest.”

“What about me?”

Auntie Alexandra scoffed. “You’re not a witch.”

Mom tensed. “It’s me they’re suspicious of!”

Auntie Alexandra only shrugged.

We didn’t go with my aunties.

Three weeks later, Mom looked out the window and just… froze. Her hands grabbed her skirt and she took a long breath, then started crying.

She crouched down in front of me, holding my face. “Harriet, I need you to listen to me. Go out the back door and run up to the top of the hill behind our house. I’ll come get you when it’s safe.” Before she let me go, she pulled me into a hug and kissed my forehead. “I love you more than anything. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

From the hill above the town, I watched a mob, mostly people in trousers, but some in skirts, march Mom from our house to the town square. The townspeople were saying something, but I was too far away to hear the words. Blades of grass brushed against my arms with the promise of flames. Mom looked to the sky as someone from the crowd produced a rope.

By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. Her body swayed in the breeze, lifeless. I stared, wide-eyed. My mother – who could barely call more than a few sparks to her fingers, who never had enough magic in her blood – hung for practicing witchcraft.

I sat there for a long time.

The wind went still, or maybe I just couldn’t feel it anymore. Why did they do that? She never hurt anyone. It’s not fair. My jaw clenched and my head got hot, like my hair would ignite.

I finally stood, the air tasting like ash, and I ran. I’ll show you a witch. Down the hill towards the town, my footsteps leaving singed footprints, then sparks, then fires that set the hill of dry grass burning. I guided the flames into the town, tendrils climbing up woodpiles onto roofs, leaving fiery handprints in my wake.

There was so much shouting. People grabbed buckets of water, but unlike them, I didn’t need to get my fire from a well.

Smoke soaked the air by the time people realized they couldn’t fight the fire and ran from the burning town, crying the witch was punishing them from beyond the veil.

The town almost deserted, I walked right to the square. On my tiptoes, I burned the rope away. Mom dropped to the ground. Holding my hands out, a faint flicker of a flame ran up them. I was empty. Hollow. Shouldn’t I be crying? When I touched her, I felt a smouldering sensation where there was normally a crackling when I touched wood. I held Mom close until her body turned to grey and white flakes and blew away in the wind and I was alone.

I was covered in ash and soot when my aunties rode into town, called by the plume of smoke. From their horses, they stared at the burning wreckage. At me in the center of it all. Silently, Auntie Alexandra scooped me up and we rode into the forest.

~~~

As one, the nine council members turn to face me. And as one, they nod. I breathe again. Now comes the part I’m worried about…

“We gift to you the name ‘Ashbringer.’ In accordance with tradition, you may choose a new name for yourself if you wish.”

I swallow hard. “I do.”

“Speak it.”

“Harriet-Lyla Jones.”

The temple erupts with murmurs. I can feel Auntie Alexandra’s glare.

After a longer pause than necessary, the council says as one, “From a nameless child of the night, we name you Harriet-Lyla Jones Ashbringer.”

The crowd starts to leave as a priestess guides me to the tree of families. She paints witches’ marks on my face, arms and hands – phases of the moon, constellations, symbols of the five elements – then presents me with a small knife.

I carve my new name into my family’s branch. Delicately, I trace Mom’s name.

My aunties are waiting for me outside.

“Well done, Little Spark.” Auntie Seraphine gives me a hug. “Ashbringer. What a fearsome name.”

Auntie Alexandra crosses her arms. “Do you think you’re clever?”

I flash my teeth. “Very.”

“Putting a non-witch’s name in the temple like that– You all but outright broke tradition!”

I chuckle. “That was the point.” Rubbing my hands together again, I smile to myself. It was the only way to say “I love you, too.”

Auntie Alexandra scoffs. “Well, I hope you’re happy.”

“Me too.” I tilt my head back to stare at the brightening sky. I hope she’s very happy.

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