The first girl she finds in a well. It’s early on a Sunday, not the best time of the week but almost: the light is still too soft to allow for thoughts of school. Elise runs past her mother’s garden with its dead rose bones that snarl and thatch together, past the sloping yard heavy with clover, all the way down to the woods that limn their property.
At the edge of the forest she picks up a bent stick, crooked Y shape appealing for its potential as a slingshot, and swings it back and forth across her path for spiderwebs. Now is poofy coat weather, and she’s telling herself a story of Ice Age explorers, and she goes where her feet take her.
When the stick comes up against a curved stone wall, tap-tap, she secures it through a belt loop like a sword. Elise pushes off the rotting wooden well cover, which is cold and wet and smells like the underside of the porch. She peers inside.
Somehow the stick stays in her belt loop for the frantic sprint back up to her house.
Elise has circled rocks atop her dresser, a protective ring in which the Y-shaped stick can rest. Touching the wood makes her queasy. Sometimes she dreams the corpse from the well into the humid darkness under her bed and imagines how her leathery cheeks would rot.
On the morning Elise turns fourteen she wakes up sad. She runs her fingers over the stick, looking for the twist of horror, but today there’s nothing. Only wood. Annoyed with herself, Elise slips it into her backpack and heads to catch the bus. She’ll walk to the hardware store this afternoon and buy a strip of rubber, erase the last of its power over her. After school, though, the whole thing becomes embarrassing—the thought of herself that morning, her private shrine, this urge to transform the stick at all. Elise retrieves it from her bag, rears back her arm, and that is when the wood begins to move.
Elise knows things she didn’t know when she was eleven. How to keep her focus on what she can see. How to stop her mind from sliding off into imaginary worlds so she’s not at risk of walking into anything unexpected. Which means she knows, for certain, that she isn’t moving the stick. But she follows.
The tug grows stronger as she passes the football green and begins to flank the cornfield now gone fallow. Elise is vaguely aware of a political conflict around this field, has heard her parents discussing the wasted land, but she doesn’t know how long it’s been contested or whether or not someone has worked it during that time. All she knows is that the stick is pulling her leftwards, more, more, until she must step off the sidewalk and into waist-high stalks where husks crunch beneath her feet like permafrost.
She stops at a spot some fifty yards from the road. In every direction corn rolls out in a spiky yellow carpet. There is no marker, no overturned earth, but Elise knows what she’s standing on.
That night Elise doesn’t tell her parents about the cornfield. The stick burns in her mind as they celebrate her birthday with red velvet cake and new hiking boots.
Years later, when the property dispute is settled and a developer finally razes the land, they will find a cloth-wrapped skeleton buried on her side, legs folded up to her chest, as if she’d simply gone to sleep.
Of course she brings the dowsing rod to college. She’s begun to carry it everywhere these last few years, tucked away inside messenger bags and backpacks, jostling against her protein bars and the fancy vacuum flasks her parents buy her when they’re trying to connect.
Elise doesn’t use the stick as often as she thinks she should. This is because she has begun to see dead girls in her room at night, the ones she told about and the ones she didn’t. There doesn’t seem to be a difference. They stand in corners, sit on the end of her bed, drape themselves across the top of her tiny dorm desk and lie where her roommate is sleeping, a confusing overlay of girls. Some resemble Elise herself, with skin that must have gone blotchy red in the cold, but more are darker, tawny fingers curled into fists as they watch her see them and not see them all at once.
None of them will speak to her no matter how many times she apologizes, or begs them to go, or throws her heavy textbooks through their bellies. They can’t speak. Their mouths are covered in bark that grows right out of their skin.
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Image by danikarlaa from Pixabay