My mother, who comes from a small village in Poland, used to tell me how the gypsies waiting by the river would refuse to read her fortune. They would thumb through their tarot cards, fluffy at the edges from use, and shake their heads.
"Witch," they called her, as they waved their hands in the air, as if to shoo away her evil spirits. When she protested, they just repeated themselves and turned away.
"Why were there gypsies in Siemiatycze?" I asked.
"You're missing the point," she said.
"I get the point," I replied. "I just don't understand why they were there in the first place."
"Why do you ask such stupid questions, Mira?" She turned and stirred the pot, the blue flame underneath it lowered to a simmer. "There have always been gypsies by the river. You just don't notice them." A sweet, sickly smell emanated from it; I watched the steam curling towards the ceiling, less than a metre above our heads.
"I am asking my mother about the gypsies who used to pass through this town," I translated to my then boyfriend, Daniel, who was cleaning his glasses with his t-shirt and smiling faintly, the way he had when I'd approached him in a pub in Kings Cross. I leaned on my elbows across the sticky bar, twisting my head towards him until I knew he had no choice but to notice me. Watching him, I decided bringing him back to Poland, to my mother, had not been a good idea. He pretended not to glance around the kitchen; at the cracks where the steam drifted towards the ceiling, at the chipped, colourful china bowls, at the dream catcher my mother hung above the back garden door.
"Is that right?" he said. "I thought you only got gypsies in Spain and what have you."
I was glad that my mother could not understand English, even though it forced her to smile and act in a manner she claimed made her "a simpering fool." I was thirty-four when I brought Daniel to Siemiatycze, and so she had high hopes it would bring her her first and only grandchildren, clambering over the worn patches in the sofa and screaming and fighting in two languages. That was why she was making Borscht. I did not tell her I had no plans to speak to my children in Polish. I did not tell her I doubted I wanted children at all.
"Ask Daniel if he wants extra red onions," she said. She pronounced his name with the stress on the second syllable. I corrected her. Daniel perked up at the sound of his mispronounced name.
"What was that?" he asked.
"My mother wishes to know if you want plenty of onions."
Daniel looked helplessly at me. The legs of the wooden chair, spindly at the best of times, creaked under his weight. "I'm good with whatever you're having," he said.
"Tell him not to tip the chair like that," my mother said.
"Can I do anything to help?" he asked.
I shook my head as I rose from the table and at the stove, lifted the lid of the pot. "No onions," I said, peering into the bubbling liquid. She tutted under her breath and I said, "I'm the one who has to kiss him, aren't I?"
That brought on a sharp cackle. I smiled, pleased with myself. I stirred the pot and said, "Were they right? The gypsies? Is that why you didn't dye your hair black when Micha was ill?"
"Mira," she sighed. "If I had, he wouldn't be alive." She burst into sudden laughter as I returned to the table and after a moment, I joined in. Daniel grinned hopefully, wanting to be in on the joke. I patted his hand sympathetically but did not translate. When her laughter subsided, cheeks flushed from the steam, she wiped her hands on a tea towel and said, "You shouldn't dye your hair black either."
"I know," I said.
She turned off the gas. The flame flared blue momentarily and sputtered out. "Food is ready," she announced in English. To me, she said, "You can do it most of the time. Just not when someone is ill." She paused, thinking. "Although…perhaps it is better not to risk it."
"I know," I repeated.
My mother came towards us with three deep china bowls, red patterns swirled across the bottom. Daniel jumped up and gathered them from her outstretched hands.
"Good," she said, watching him place them on the woven tablemats. "Good."
Years later, when Daniel was long gone, along with a string of other temporary boyfriends, I stepped past a café advertising Borscht. A photo of chunks of beetroot, similar to my new hair colour, gleamed in the glass of the window. I was reminded of our conversation, reminded that I hadn't been back to Siemiatycze since the previous winter. Last time I'd visited, the river had frozen over. It had dried to a thin stream and the rest was ice.
That conversation with my mother wasn't unusual – we often talked about how a dead animal in the road meant death of a loved one – how I knew that my friend, Sasha and I would never see Leonard Cohen perform in concert after I saw the mangled body of a cat in the road. She was about to buy tickets and I called her, eyeing the twisted corpse, as I stood, motionless in the street. "It's a waste of money," I told her. Streaks of red smeared the road. When he died days before his concert, I felt an uneasy satisfaction at being right.
There were other things too – so commonplace that I accepted them without questioning their truth. It was only in conversation with my mother, conversations that took place less and less as we aged, that we discovered we shared the same intuition. We kept white feathers before exams or doctors' appointments. Black feathers, of course, were warnings. You absolutely should not fly the same day if you found one. There was no need to lock your front door if you hung scissors on the handle. We knew these to be facts, as empirical as science.
That morning, I stood staring at the photo of steaming Borscht and thinking of my mother, my own reflection half-formed, ghostly, in the dull, morning light. I was late for work but I didn't move until I saw the waiter inside watching me. He raised a hand, as if to wave me in, but I turned and clopped away in my high-heeled boots, sidestepping the brown sludge that clung to the pavements. Though I was taller than most women, I made a point of wearing high heels whenever I could. St. Johns Wood near enough demanded it. I liked also, the way they sounded on the tiled floors of the beauty salon, announcing my presence. Here I was, in London; a Londoner. I flipped my burnt red hair over my shoulder and towered over the other girls.
There were already several clients in the salon by the time I arrived and the girls glared over their shoulders at the cold air that rushed in. Loops of tinsel rustled above the doorway, shiny fragments fluttering to the ground.
"Morning!" I called, as I stamped my boots on the entrance mat.
Some of them murmured replies. Anna glanced up from the reception desk, her eyes flitting to my own, then away again. "We need you for Botox," she said. When I moved closer, she murmured, "She's back again. She says she wants only you." She inclined her head towards the leather sofas at the entrance. "She's been waiting fifteen minutes. The other girls are just standing around."
"Got it," I said, though I really wanted a coffee and to flip through the new magazines that arrived on Mondays. My cheeks stung in the sudden heat of the salon, sweat forming underneath the arms of my long-sleeved t-shirt. Instead, I turned towards the sofas, where I smiled widely at Angela. Her collagen enhanced lips smiled back.
"I have been desperate to see you," she said. She stood, came towards me, gazed up into my face. "Literally, Mira, counting the days."
"I wish for my boyfriend to tell me that," I responded, as I always did, or with some variation of the theme. I had no boyfriend but it made her laugh, though her skin didn't crease and my only proof was a throaty gurgle. Outside, through the glass windows, a crow settled on a lamppost. It flapped its wings once, twice, its feathers ruffling and engorging its neck.
"I need you to work your magic on me," she said, touching my arm. "I don't know how Howard can stand to look at me, I really don't."
"That is nonsense," I told her. "But we can make you even more beautiful." I pressed a gentle palm on her back, steering her towards the back treatment rooms. Outside the windows, another crow joined the first. I couldn't tell if their black feathers had dropped to the pavement.
Aside from the regulars, who booked their appointments with militant regularity, we were always quieter after the Christmas break. The morning passed in gossip, in laundering the small, white hand towels, in heating the wax pots, of tearing off long rolls of fabric to place on the reclining couches. Clients entered and we smoothed their skin and erased their wrinkles; they left shiny and fragrant and oiled, happier versions of themselves. Miracle workers, they called us, as they slipped pound coins into our uniform pockets. Those who booked appointments with me were generous; it was well known amongst the other girls that I got the best tips.
At just after two o' clock, in the post lunch-break lull, the door beeped and I was blasted with fresh, cold air. I was at the back by the sinks, replacing the wax in the containers – I was recovering from a cold and refused to cut hair. It meant backaches and muscle pains for the client, if I was very sick – paralysis. Though Anna thought it eccentric, that I had a touch of OCD perhaps, I happily let her believe it if she let it slide. The other girls glowered at me as they swept hair from the floor. It mingled with fallen needles from the Christmas tree, gathering into piles, into multi-coloured heaps.
Now, at the back of the salon, I still felt the cold; it travelled through the room, lingering, until I shivered and looked up. Outside, the sky had darkened to the colour of melted snow; it had begun to rain again and light drops glanced off the windows. I sensed a dark movement from the corner of my eye and when I checked the lamppost, it was bare – the crows had flown off. My grip slackened around the wax pots and I felt lightheaded with relief. In response, it seemed, the lamppost light burst into sudden brightness. It faded, flickering against the muddy clouds. It buzzed on, off, on, off.
"Could you close the door?" Anna said. Her back was to me and she obscured the person in the doorway. I waited until the door dropped back into its frame then returned to filling the wax pots.
"I'm looking for something," a woman's voice said. "Or someone. I'm not sure."
"Do you have an appointment?" Anna asked.
"No, no, nothing like that." The lady was well spoken, unusually so, in fact, pronouncing each syllable with a precision that even I could distinguish. I stepped from behind the sinks to get a better look. "I just needed to come in here, that's all."
"Ok," Anna said, after a pause. "Well, now you're here, which treatment would you like?"
The woman didn't respond. I stood at the back of the salon watching her. She wore a tailored wool coat and her hair was twisted and plaited cleanly at the side, the hairstyle of a schoolgirl, though she appeared to be in her forties. She had fastened the end with some kind of silver clasp and as she moved, slowly rotating on the spot, it glimmered in the light, making prisms on the tiles. Her head jerked to the left and right and up to the ceiling, roving over the faces of the girls, some of who were holding back laughter as they stood watching her. Anna warned them with a curt motion of her head.
"Perhaps a mani-pedi?" Chantelle offered. "Or we do a great blow-dry. Maybe you want your hair done?"
There were stifled giggles but the woman appeared not to notice. She continued searching the salon, her eyes rolling over the walls.
"Chantelle," Anna murmured.
Again, the woman didn't react. There was something dazed about her expression – she kept blinking as she looked around her – and I considered the possibility she was sleepwalking and had wandered in unaware of her whereabouts. Either that, or she was quite mad. I felt remorse, hot and sudden, for watching her in the way I was, the way I might stare at a car crash. Her expression reminded me of my mother when she told me her childhood stories. The words were well rehearsed but her jaw went slack, she blinked rapidly, she stared at things I couldn't see. Turning away, I clopped back to the sinks. The sound filled the silence. The woman's eyes fixed on mine, gained strong, sudden focus.
"Her!" she said, pointing at me with a force that caused me to take a step back.
"Mira?" Anna asked. Chantelle rolled her eyes but I barely noticed – the woman was already stepping lightly across the salon towards me. I felt something cold and oily slide in my stomach. Anna followed, hurrying to catch up. "Mira is a skilled beautician," she said. "She can do nails, facials, Botox, waxing – whatever you like."
I tried to smile at the woman, who was now standing in front of me, looking up. "It doesn't matter," she said. She didn't smile back. Through the windows, the lamplight buzzed off, then sputtered back into life. Her eyes, the colour of slate, of the sky outside, signalled impatience. "Whatever you suggest."
"How about a Bespoke Luxury Facial?" Anna suggested, hedging her bets. "It's £225 but it includes LED light therapy and a rejuvenating skin peel. Its effects have been shown to -"
"Yes, yes, that's fine," the woman said.
"Mira is our best."
"I'm sure," the woman said, though the information did not appear to interest her. She raised her hand to tuck an invisible strand of hair behind her ear and silver rings on her fingers flashed in the light. "Can we do it now?" she asked.
I tried to catch Anna's eye but she was already moving to the reception desk and consulting the schedule. "It will be a bit tight," she called back to us. "You have another facial at 4. Perhaps one of the other girls can -"
"That's fine," the woman said. "That's plenty of time."
"It's not enough time for the full treatment," I said.
The woman looked to Anna, then back at me. "That's perfectly alright," she said. The drizzle outside became hail, drumming against the roof above our heads. Through the windows, I watched the stones slamming onto umbrellas, bursting with violence onto the pavement. "We'll be finished by then," the woman said. The hairs on my arms stood on end. To me, she said, "Shall we begin?"
Conscious of the girls' eyes on our backs, I led the woman into one of the treatment rooms and switched on the lights. The hail clattered on the roof, filling the silence. I busied myself in tearing new couch roll to put on the bed and switched on the radio in the corner. The music that blared out was scratchy, full of static. I turned it off.
"Must be the weather," I said. With nowhere else to look, I held my hands out for the woman's coat. "So you're comfortable," I told her. The woman hesitated then fumbled with the buttons. The wool of her coat was damp from the rain. I hung it on the stand at the front. When I turned back, she was watching me, although when I caught her looking, she averted her eyes, as if being alone had made her suddenly shy. I waited for her to climb onto the reclining couch but she made no move to do so. Perhaps she had never had a treatment before. "Please – lie down…"
"Katherine. I am Mira." I smiled, waiting for her to react. She seemed about to say something, then to change her mind. She climbed onto the bed. "Close your eyes," I told her.
I swung the magnifying glass around to look at Katherine's face. Her grey eyes watched my own for a moment and then fluttered shut. I studied her skin for its imperfections. There were several pocked marks – scars from old acne – and some redness in her cheeks, a slight paleness to her complexion. Nothing unusual. She lay perfectly still.
"I'm sorry my hands are cold," I said, as I unscrewed the lid of moisturiser.
"That's quite alright," she replied.
I began applying the cream to her skin, moving in slow circles on her cheeks. "Just relax," I said. As I worked, I studied her. Her eyes moved beneath her eyelids but her breathing was slow and even, her shoulders relaxed. I moved my fingers to underneath her chin, massaging the soft skin upwards. I noted the thick silver studs in her ears, the tasteful rings on her fingers, and I thought of Jack – my mother's second cousin – who used to walk in the winter with his feet bare and dirty and who claimed there were pixies in the river. He swore he never drank but there were always stains on his shirt – some were mud, others looked like blood, dried to the colour of rust. Katherine dressed thoughtfully. She was put together. It was true she had acted a little oddly, but she showed none of Jack's erratic madness. I felt my nervousness ease with each slow movement of my hands. Perhaps she'd heard of my reputation. Or had wanted to get out of the rain. She seemed to be enjoying her facial, at least. There was no need to be afraid.
"Mira," she said. A cold hand reached out and grabbed my arm, just above the wrist. The pot I was holding dropped, clattered to the floor. Pink cream smeared across the tiles.
"You know what you are?"
"Yes," I said. I felt a surreal sense of calm, of clarity. Her hand stayed on my arm, its grip tight. "I know," I said.
Katherine's eyes opened. "I'm like you," she said. She fixed me with those slate-grey eyes. They gripped me like her fingers on my wrist. "A witch."
My heart thudded in my ears, in time, it seemed, with the hail outside. I reached out my free hand to steady myself on the reclining couch. Katherine looked up at me. At last, she released her hand from my wrist and the red imprints from her fingers faded to white.
"Don't be afraid," she said, sitting up. Her face was covered with pink cream. Her eyes were the only definitive feature I could see. They watched me as I slumped back against the wall. "It's not a bad thing," she said.
Katherine jumped up. She returned with tissues and a plastic cupful of water, which she handed to me. I sipped at it as she wiped the cream from her face. I opened my mouth and closed it several times, unable to express what I wanted to in English and eventually choosing to stay silent. She wiped away the cream in slow, deliberate movements and we sat unspeaking whilst the hail outside pounded down around us. I became aware that my hands were clammy around my plastic cup and I placed it down on the table. When I turned back, her eyes were locked on mine. "Don't you have questions?" Katherine asked.
"I thought…I thought we were only in Poland," I said.
She shook her head. "There are many more of us. Men, women, children."
"Men?" I said. I felt a flicker of disdain. "How can it work with men?"
"It does," she said, decisively. She leaned forward to fish in her bag and pulled out a notebook and pen. She scribbled something down. "This is the address," she said, tearing a sheet out of her notebook. "Come with all your questions. We'll answer them all, as best as we can."
I studied the paper. I didn't recognise the address. I folded it and slipped it in my uniform pocket. "I'll think about it," I said.
"We meet once a month, on the full moon."
"The full moon? To do what?"
She must have seen my expression because she said, "Keep an open mind." I folded my arms and she added, "You'll see if you come". She reached for her coat and shrugged it on. "That's in four nights time. Come any time after ten." She came towards me and I resisted shrinking back against the wall. "It's not a bad thing," she said again. She squeezed my hand, almost with affection. And then she was gone and I was left alone, the sound of the hail drumming against the roof and my breathing hard and fast, rising above it all.
I intended to crumple the note and throw it away, but instead, I found my thoughts returning to it again and again, replaying that strange conversation that had taken place in the salon. Walking home from the tube that night, I jumped at every sound, expecting to find Katherine peering at me in the dark street. I remembered her hand on my arm, how her grip had left red welts on my skin and several times jerked up my coat sleeve, imagining my arm was tingling, only to find it bare and smooth and white. I had never been afraid of the dark before – never been scared the way other women were, the way they hurried, heads down against the wind. I knew men, knew that though they stared, their beer bottles hanging from limp fingers, they wouldn't harm me. But this was new. Now, I winced at the sound of my high heels on the ground. For the first time that I could remember, I hated being alone.
When I got home to my flat in Neasden, I double locked the door and called my mother. The connection crackled and it took a while for her to answer. We hadn't spoken for more than six months but when she picked up the phone, she didn't sound surprised.
"Mira," she said, "I was just thinking of you. There is an interesting programme on Polish cooking, showing on Kuchenne. You would like it."
"I don't really cook anymore," I said. I unzipped my boots and placed them in the hall. Next to them, bottles of red wine lined the skirting, remnants from our party on New Years' Eve. As I thudded up the stairs, I said, "I have a shared kitchen. No real stove."
"What kind of kitchen is that?" she said. "Is this a new flat?"
"The same one," I said. I saw Ronny's bedroom door was ajar; she hadn't yet returned from work. I nudged open my own door and flopped onto the bed. In the bright lights of my bedroom, my reflection grimaced in the window. I turned away. "I'm happy with pasta," I said.
I could hear clattering in the background and I imagined my mother in the kitchen, her hands dry and red from cold, pulling pans from the cupboard. "I'm making Kreplach," she told me. "If you were here, you could taste it."
"Well, I'm not," I said. Before she could respond, I described the incident from the afternoon in the salon. I lingered on the details of the crows gathering on the lamppost and Katherine's dazed expression, the feeling of her hand shooting out, her words as she seized my wrist.
"There are no witches in England," my mother said. I could hear her scorn. I knew her lips were twisting, the thin skin pulling tight. "This lady is a lunatic, most likely."
"She didn't seem it," I said. I pulled open my laptop and Googled the address Katherine had given me. It was twenty miles or so north of London, in Hertfordshire, and when I zoomed in further, I saw the exact point was not, in fact, a street address, but appeared to be in the middle of a large field. "It's not that far away," I said.
"She has been watching too many American movies," my mother said. "What is this business about the full moon? I have never heard of such a thing." She laughed, a loud, unpleasant hoot. "Perhaps you will wear cloaks and dance around a cauldron."
I felt a flicker of irritation. "Maybe that's how they do things here," I said. "Maybe I could learn something."
"I don't know," I said. "Why not try it? Something new, I mean."
My mother cursed and I heard the sharp, snapping sound of her trying to light the stove. She would be using the dull, copper pot, the bottom scratched and white. There was the sound of water rushing from the tap. "As you wish," she said.
The wooden frame of my headboard dug into my back. "She said it wasn't a bad thing."
"You know," I said. "Us." I glanced at the windows streaked with long flecks of rain, at my face reflected in the glass. "What we are."
"Mira," my mother said, and now, her voice was weary. "It's just who we are. Like being a Jew, or a Russian. What difference does it make? There's nothing we can do about it." She added, "You are embarrassed of it as if you were a teenager." I heard the drawer by the stove jerking open, catching as it always did, so the cutlery rattled. "How can you try something new? You can't exchange this like a new dress." Before I could respond her tone changed and she said, "This Kreplach will be delicious. When are you coming home to taste it?"
"I'm not sure," I said.
"Perhaps too much salt," she mused. "But you always liked it salty. You always liked salt." She said, "The river is frozen now. You can walk upon it."
I gripped the phone against my ear. "I haven't done that for years, Mum."
She sighed. "It looks very beautiful, very quiet." Her voice was far away, distant. "It's frozen now," she repeated.
Perhaps it was because I was trying to prove my mother wrong, that or my curiosity was too overwhelming to ignore – that I found myself in Ronny's Nissan Micra on the night of the full moon, pushing the seat all the way back so I could drive without bending double. Remembering Katherine, how carefully she dressed, I had badgered Chantelle into a fresh manicure at the salon, though she had grumbled throughout and complained that she had given me new gels only last week. Now my nails, dark red, gleamed on the steering wheel. They matched my hair, my lipstick. I grimaced at the rearview mirror, checking the colour hadn't smudged onto my teeth.
As I pulled out of my street, it began to rain and though I fiddled with the demister, condensation still crept up the windscreen and I had to keep wiping uneven circles with my hand so I could see where I was going. It was towards midnight on the Edgware road and against the brightness of the shop windows, the full moon seemed grey and dull above my head. Men staggered out of pubs and into kebab shops; there was the sound of laughter and glass smashing and as a man crossed the road, blond hair smeared to his forehead, he turned and leered through the windshield. He stood, squinting against my headlights, swaying a little in the rain. I wasn't sure where the car's automatic locks were but I stared back at him and after several moments, he turned and moved across the street, pointing at shwarma on a spit, turning over and over inside the fluorescent light of the shop.
It wasn't until I reached the M1 that I began to have second thoughts. The rain showed no sign of stopping and the constant roar of the demister made me clench the steering wheel in irritation. I was usually in bed by eleven and the need to concentrate on the black roads, lit mostly by reflectors, was making my eyes hot and dry. As the road rushed past me, the moon now bright and white in the darkness, I began to question whether my mother had been right. What was I doing driving 30 miles to meet a stranger – no, a group of strangers – in an unknown field alone at night? Perhaps it was even a scam – some kind of elaborate hoax intended to lure women into vulnerable situations. To distract myself, I sang along to Ronan Keating on Magic FM as my headlights picked out unfamiliar signs; Harrow, Edgware, Watford, places I had heard of but never ventured near.
In the lit parts of the motorway, the trees swayed in the wind and I was reminded of a time, when I was young, when my mother had driven us to her sister, who lived several hours away. We pulled over on the side of the road and she disappeared into the trees to pee, their spindly branches concealing her almost immediately. There was snow on the ground and the heating in the car barely functioned and when she didn't come back, I panicked. I scrambled out to find her but got lost in all those trees, their stripped, white branches all the same. I remember the leaves cracking with frost as I ran over them, of wailing I'd been orphaned before my mother found me. She eyed me and tugged me by my jacket sleeve back to the car, tears half freezing on my cheeks.
"I told you to wait in the car," she said.
After another half an hour of driving, my GPS instructed me to exit the M1 and I switched off the radio as I navigated a series of empty roundabouts. When I pulled over, the roads were wide and silent. The lamplights shone evenly over still, wet pavements.
The entrance to Oxhey Fields lay ahead of me and though I sat for several minutes, sheets of rain trapped in the beams from my car, I was unable to see further than the rusted gate at the end of the slip road. On the doors of the houses lining the streets, holly wreaths hung from the doorknobs, wet and glistening, light shining from behind the curtains. I switched the engine off and sat back against the headrest. Was I really about to go trundling off on a midnight stroll in search of magic? What was I trying to prove? I sat there for so long that the windscreen half clouded in condensation and I was on the verge of heading back home when a woman, whose shoes made short, sharp clicks as she stepped along the road, walked past me towards the gate. She was tying her blond hair up in a bun with one hand and with the other, fishing in her large handbag, one of the straps falling from her shoulder as she did so. She pulled out a torch and a large, transparent umbrella, which sprang open around her head. Rain pattered on its top as she passed through the gate and disappeared out of sight. A thin beam of light moved jerkily to the left, then to the right.
Quickly, before I could change my mind, I jumped out of my car and hurried after the woman. I had changed into trainers before leaving and they squelched into the mud as I followed her through the gate into the field. I was pathetically unprepared; I had neither an umbrella nor torch, and though I pulled up the hood of my coat, rain streaked onto my face and down my neck. The cold crept into any exposed skin; at the gap between my gloves and the wrists of my top, at the opening of my coat, inside my ears. My nose streamed and rain drenched the bottoms of my jeans until after several minutes, I was tempted again to turn back. But moments later, I heard the rushing sound of water and the jerky beam of the woman's torch pick out a circle of figures, their shoulders hunched against the wind.
The woman I'd been following rushed through the rain to join the circle, nodding her head in greeting to the other members of the group. Though I was now close enough to speak and introduce myself, some instinct, some reluctance to interrupt whatever they were doing, made me hang back, silent. Instead, I watched the figures, a mixture of men and women, who stood tilting their heads towards the moon, its wan light filtering onto their upturned faces. I felt a dull uneasiness at the sight of their hair blowing above their heads, the droplets of rain sliding down their faces, their stillness, so eager and sombre to begin.
In the silence, one of the figures pulled a white sheet of paper out of her pocket into the air and tore it between her fingers. There was a river, I realised, which they were standing around – now I identified the sound of it rushing between them. Lowering her head against the rain, she stepped towards the stream and dropped the scattered pieces of paper into the water. A moment passed and the others moved forward with their own sheets of paper and threw them, snagging on the wind, into the tide. One of the figures cupped a lit candle between her palms and it sent little leaps of light flickering over the others' clothes and faces.
As the figures scattered their paper into the air, some of the ragged pieces caught the wind and were ripped away but the rest was clogged and dragged into the water. I watched the men, how their shoulders hulked over the women, their hair closer cropped, how one of them passed a decorated silver cup around their circle and the rest of them drank from it in turn, in measured sips. From where I stood, I saw the easy way their hands reached out to each other, palms clasped around ungloved fingers. How they shuffled forward, tightening their circle, until, in the darkness with the women's hair blowing into their faces and their bodies touching, I could no longer tell them apart. I imagined what my mother would say if she could see me now – of their silver cup and thick, wax candles, tilting their heads towards the moon, the muscles in their necks straining from the effort. Men, thinking themselves capable of witchcraft! I wondered if they knew how ridiculous they looked, with their props and their instruments on this black, wet night, umbrellas discarded by their sides. I gave a derisive laugh but the sound was lost in the pattering rain and it came out as more of a stifled cough.
I meant to turn and walk away but I waited until they were finished, studying their locked hands, the way each of them knew their place – of what to do and when to do it. I watched them the way I might scrutinise a client's skin before a facial, tilting their chin this way and that, pinching the skin between my fingers. Without realising it, I found myself taking a step closer and then another until I was hovering outside their circle, shivering from the rain and cold and thrusting my hands into my coat pockets.
"Mira," a voice said.
There was a low murmuring and one of the figures rolled their head towards me. Through the circle of clasped hands, over the spitting river, I could make out Katherine at its head, nose red from cold, eyes fixed on mine.
"Mira," she said. "You came."
The others twisted to look at me, the women's hair fluttering behind their faces. Some of them smiled, others bent their heads together and whispered. I opened my mouth to speak and closed it again.
"Don't be shy," Katherine said. "You belong here."
I turned and stumbled away. Tears spilled from my eyes as I squelched through the mud, my hood slipping from my head so rain forced its way into my collar, down my neck. I barely felt it. At first, I hurried unevenly through the mud but soon, I found myself running as a child does, arms flailing, as the mud flicked onto my jeans and coat. My nose and eyes streamed but I didn't stop to wipe them; I just kept going, the ragged sound of my cries disappearing into nothing, for no one to hear. When I reached the car, wheezing, soaked, I fumbled for my keys in my pockets, wrenching open the door and ducking inside. The sounds of my breathing rose above the pattering rain and in my lap, my red nails gleamed in the dark.
I twisted the key into the ignition and light flooded the road. The radio sputtered into life though caught between stations, jumped between song and static. My jeans were soggy, clinging to my skin and now I felt water in my trainers, seeping through to my socks. I fumbled for tissues, roughly wiping at my face, afterwards scrunching them in my fists as my breathing subsided into silence. When I raised my eyes to the rearview mirror, black makeup had smudged underneath my eyes, my lipstick smeared onto my chin. I dropped back in my seat again, feeling suddenly unable to drive.
There was a rap at the window and I jerked upright. Katherine stood next to my car, holding an umbrella above her head. She motioned for me to wind the window down.
"I was worried about you," she said, after I did so. Her voice was quiet, measured. There were flecks of rain on her coat and face, sliding down to the hollow in her neck. Her cheeks were a little flushed – perhaps she had been walking quickly – but her hair was plaited neatly to the side, held in place with the same silver clasp she had worn at the salon.
"There's no need," I said. "I'm fine."
Her eyes travelled over me, over my smeared makeup, the tissues in my fists. She said, "I told you to keep an open mind."
"I was just – I have a shock, that's all."
"That's just part of it," she said. "It may look a bit strange, but you have to give it a chance. You missed the beginning – the explanations." When I didn't respond, she lowered her head to the window so she was eye level with me. "Mira," she said, "you have to believe it's a good thing."
She stayed close to my face and rain dripped from her umbrella onto the ground and I had a sudden memory of a story my mother had told me, about her second cousin Jack. She'd seen the sky – low and whitish-grey – and warned him not to take his children to the river. Instead, when it was frozen, Jack had let them sled across it on old bits of wood and later, the little girl had spun off into the trees, her ankle breaking with a crack.
I turned my head and looked at the road. "I'm tired," I said. "It is late."
"Are you sure you don't want to come back with me?"
I shook my head. "I cannot," I said. "It is late."
I felt her eyes on me and for a long moment she said nothing. In the car's side mirror, I watched as she moved the chain of a delicate silver necklace up and down her neck. Eventually, she drew back from the window. "Ok, Mira," she said. "Suit yourself."
She turned and walked back to the fields. I wound up the window. I watched her go and listened to the rain, thought how in Poland the rain was always icy, made you breathe smoke into the air. Here, it was steady, constant; unsurprising. I sat there a while longer until I realised the time and I clicked on my seatbelt and started to drive back home. When I reached the motorway though, I felt a small fission of panic, mine the sole car on the road, the only light coming from the moon and the full beams of my car. You couldn't even make out the trees at the sides. I focussed instead on the Cats' Eyes as I drove, ignoring the rising panic, pushing it down. I couldn't see anything behind me but I kept on going, staring at those small, dim reflectors. I let them guide the way.