A storm came on the night Jacob Walker’s father tried to kill him.
Lightning did not chase away the oppressive darkness. Thunder did not drown the barks and shrieks inside the farmhouse. The rain did not revitalize the wilting fields, nor did it loose the old man’s grip on his axe.
By the grace of God, Jacob managed to wriggle free of his father’s shadow, of the smell of whiskey and sweat. He dashed across the land, vaulted the boundary fence, and disappeared into a lush wood. His father, a drowsy husk of the broad-shouldered farmer he once was, barely gave chase, well enough aware his body was on the verge of giving out.
Jacob’s pajamas grew heavy in the horizontal rain. His fingers and toes lost feeling, but nothing was going to stop him from running. He weaved barefoot between the trees under the full moon, hopping stones and swiping away branches. How far would he need to go before he felt safe? Just a bit farther….
Jacob rolled his ankle over a dip in the earth and fell flat. He felt a bright-white explosion of pain just above his brow, and as he lay face-down, the world faded to black.
He awoke with a headache and a tickling sensation on his outstretched hand. The storm had subsided, but the clouds above maintained an angry gray tone well into the morning. His eyelids cracked open to the vision of a dark blue butterfly perched on his knuckles. Keeping his hand as still as possible, he stood. Beneath him was a bed of pine needles, and within that, a stone bloodied by the gash in his forehead.
The butterfly flapped its wings thrice, then fluttered away. Still just a boy, and full of wonder despite his father’s tyranny, Jacob followed. As he walked, stretched, and watched the creature fly, he all but forgot his headache. It led him over a river, up a nettlesome hill, and through a thicket of vines into a vast clearing.
Miraculously, the sky above the meadow was cloudless blue, as if the storm never happened. At first he thought the grass was blue as well. Thousands of dark blue butterflies, just like the first, made a quivering ocean around a great oak.
Under that tree, a woman in a pale shift sat on a horseless wagon. Jacob stepped toward her uneasily and offered a sheepish wave.
“Hello, Jacob,” she said. “You look a mess. Here, have some warm water.”
Jacob was so thoroughly struck by the scenery, and yes, the woman’s beauty, that it did not register to him that she somehow already knew his name. “Thank you, madam.” He grabbed the little iron mug in the woman’s hands and took a sip. It was indeed warm despite the lack of any fire pit nearby. The liquid was clear, but tasted like mother’s hot cocoa. Better, even. At any rate, it served to bring his freezing extremities back to life.
“My name is Orinya,” the woman said. She had dark eyes, dark hair, and a smile that seemed to put all of nature at ease. “What happened to you?”
“My father tried to kill me with an axe,” Jacob blurted. He did not mean to say this out loud—he was young, but he knew not to share such things with strangers. “But the wounds are mostly my fault.”
“The way I see it, if he chased you with an axe, anything that happened afterward is his fault. Does he try to hurt you often?”
Don’t answer that, Jacob thought, but he couldn’t help saying, “Yes, often. Especially when the harvests are poor. He usually succeeds.” Jacob covered his mouth, utterly confused by his senses. His body was numb, and it felt like he had no control over his mouth. “What did you give me?”
Orinya nodded, a smirk curling at the corners of her lips. “Just something to put you at ease. So—”
“MY FATHER IS MY MOTHER’S UNCLE! I’M NOT HIS PRIDE AND JOY! I’M HIS GREATEST SHAME!”
“Oh, my. You’re a little treasure chest, aren’t you?”
Jacob fell to his knees, sending up a flurry of butterflies. Even as he did, he did not feel the impact. His body fell limp. With a wave of Orinya’s hand, Jacob was lifted into the air on a cloud of butterflies. They carried him into Orinya’s wagon and sat him down at the back, then fluttered back out into their ocean.
Jacob was a passenger in his own body, and Orinya was no ordinary woman. She was a witch, and not the goodly kind. She seemed thrilled to put on a show for her captive audience.
She retrieved a small black bottle from one of her crowded shelves. “This is ordinary ink,” she said, “crafted from the galls of the oak we’re sitting under.” She plucked a grand quill from her little writing desk. “This is a quill. It’s either crow or raven, I can never remember. Have you been taught to write?”
The edges of Jacob’s vision darkened, and that which remained blurred. “Nnn,” he mumbled, as the muscles in his tongue and jaw failed him. Inside, he raged against the constraints placed on him by the witch’s potion.
“Do forgive me this one intrusion,” Orinya said. She leaned in close, popped open the buttons on Jacob’s pajama top, and spread the cloth to expose his bare chest. Then, dipping the quill in the ink, she started etching something in Jacob’s skin. The pain was unbearable, but Jacob couldn’t protest. He couldn’t even flinch. Within, he directed all of his will to the task of remaining conscious.
When the witch had finished making her mark in his flesh, Jacob glared at her with furious, teary eyes and managed to spit, “What… have… you… done?”
“That sorrow in you,” Orinya said, leaning away to put her materials to their proper places. “I sense you will feel it in droves for the rest of your life. I tell you, it is wasted on a mortal such as yourself. Someday, you may be grateful for what I have done; your pain now means something.”
“What… does… it… mean?”
“For you?” she said. “Very little. For me? Nourishment. Sustenance. Life.” She placed her palm gently on Jacob’s forehead and closed her eyes. “I want you to think of this as a partnership, Jacob. Now that we have bonded in this way, you may choose not to see me again until your very last day. If you should have need of me, however, I will never be far.”
Jacob felt a calming energy stream into his body through Orinya’s palm, and within a few seconds, he fell asleep.
He awoke under a gray sky beside the bloody stone in the woods. Relieved, he thought, Thank God, it was only a dream! Father will have slept it off by now…. But before he could skip back home, he noticed a brown leather satchel on the ground beside him. It contained a stack of paper, a few bottles of ink, and some fresh quills. Such things were a luxury for a boy of his station, but in this situation, the sight of them nearly stopped his heart. They were proof of the witch and—he looked into his shirt—the mark was surely an omen of hardship to come.
Nevertheless he returned to the farm, and when he did, his mother was in tears. Somehow what felt like a day had been weeks, and in that time, his father passed to a sickness of the liver. This is what the coroner said, but Jacob knew the truth: his father’s death had been slow, toxic suicide.
Jacob hadn’t known the liquid in the mug Orinya gave him was poison. What was his father’s excuse?
At seventeen, after several years marked by days full of work and nights plagued with nightmares, Jacob decided he needed to get as far away from his father’s land as possible. The American colonies appealed to him most; if ever there was a place to get a fresh start, it would be there, an ocean away. But he needed a way to make money, and good money at that. After everything his mother had been through, she deserved a good life. Not an immigrant’s squalor.
He searched his mind for what he could do. At last he remembered the witch’s promise: If you should have need of me… I will never be far. She had not bothered him since their first meeting, though the mark would not wash away. Perhaps, he thought, she could do him this one favor, and he could be rid of her forever. An ocean away. So he went back to the woods, over the same river, up the same hill and through the same thicket, where he found a sunny meadow full of dark blue butterflies.
“How long has it been?” Orinya asked, stretching in the shade of her tree. “You’ve gone and turned handsome, young man.”
Jacob took a deep breath. “I’ve come to ask you to teach me how to make ink and paper, so that I may support—.”
“Yes, yes, I know. You wish to go to America.”
“What? How could you know that?”
The witch’s face became grim. “To answer that question, I would have to tell you a whole lot more about that mark on your chest. Things I assure you, you don’t want to know. Not yet. I will show you how to make ink and paper—certainly, you will be able to make a life for yourself this way. I only have one condition. I require life unlived. A sacrifice.”
Jacob nodded solemnly, tension building in his shoulders.
Orinya’s sapphire eyes lit up, and for the first time, her warm smile seemed vicious. “You are to bring me the ears off that hound of yours.”
He did as he was told.
In Boston, Jacob made the life he had dreamed of. With his mother’s help, he built a small stationery shop at the corner of a market square. The witch’s instruction made him a foremost expert in the making of ink and paper, and before he knew it, a base of wealthy clients made him wealthy in his own right. He married an American woman, sired a son, and lived the rest of his days in a lavish townhouse near the shop.
Despite all these blessings, he remained a slave to his past. It seemed that wherever he went in the city on foot, dogs barked at him like he was the devil, like they knew what he had done. If given the opportunity, they bit. All this led to an illness of the nerves which could only be palliated with drink. He became his father in that small way, though it was a metamorphosis he thoroughly opposed and stifled.
From time to time, under liquor’s influence, Jacob would become fascinated with his hands. They were strange, now. Wrinkled, and starting to spot. He would study them from the wrist to the knuckle, and then he would have to look away. Even after so many years, he swore he could still see the hound’s blood crusted up in his nail beds.
Then one night, he grew tired of his fingernails. He decided to rip them all out.
In the wake of this incident, his wife asked him a simple question: “Do you want to be here?”
He wanted to live. He just didn’t want to live the way he had been. “Yes.”
“Act like it,” she said.
From then on, he stared down the barking dogs, the stained fingers, the tempting bottles, and each day he would say to them defiantly, “I want to be here!” Constant were the reminders of the horrors in his past, but even so, he tried to live a good life. An obnoxiously good life, full of prideful work and restful luncheons and love and music. He developed a certain radical acceptance of his lot, and an unshakable optimism about his future.
As a symbol of this newfound hope, he changed his family name to Evermore.
Then one day, his chest began to burn. Not because of acid reflux, not because of trouble with his heart. It was searing, surface-level pain, pulling him toward Orinya by the mark. She was not back at home, near a farm in the south of England. Just like she promised, she was very nearby, in a forest outside Boston. And yet, her meadow appeared exactly the same as it had when Jacob was a boy.
“I once told you,” she said, “you wouldn’t have to see me until your very last day. Today is that day. The bond has weakened, and you do not have enough pain to satiate my appetite. I must move on to another. To break our tie, you must die.”
Jacob—a grandfather now—did not protest. He accepted the inevitability of his death just as he accepted all of his pains in life. He didn’t have much ground to negotiate with a powerful witch, but that didn’t stop him from trying: “I agree to die, on one condition. I wish for a way to outlive my body, in some form or another, if only to visit from time to time upon the effect of my life and death.”
Orinya accepted the terms all too quickly, with a dubious smile.
"I will need a little more time," Jacob added, "to write a letter for my son."
At Jacob’s request, an acorn was planted over his grave.
It was excruciating, final pain, like whaling hooks piercing Jacob’s chest and ripping him in every direction from then until annihilation. His body, his very soul felt like they were about to split—but then, he knew that they had been doing so for a long time.
Nightmares bled into the daylight, draping a shadowy veil over his mind until he hardly remembered waking. So it was, as he wandered through quiet Boston streets, it felt like a dream: a blanket of fog softened the sharp edges around him, narrowing his focus, coaxing him along. To move forward was to fall, for upon being summoned, his destination was always the same.
The fog was around him, but it also was him: the form Orinya had given him. The heavens pulled him away from the earth, but Orinya’s curse anchored his soul, tethering him to the mortal realm. It was an unbearable psychic pain, though the line between psychic and physical had become increasingly blurred over the centuries.
He crossed the market square and came upon the shop he built from brick and mortar with his own hands. It had been known by other names, but for now the sign read Evermore Books & Stationery. Seeing the façade, worn but well cared for, and the poem in the window, pain subsided for just a moment.
He looked in through the glass on a pair of men, one old, one young. They were his family, but he did not know their names. The old man’s eyes searched the ceiling as he tried to remember the story he was telling. The young man, quill in hand, struggled to keep up. It is an odd thing for one to watch somebody else recount their life, death, and legacy, and an odder thing to see these set in ink. Jacob made his way around back of the shop where, under the shade of a wilting oak, he found a half-filled grave.
A black sheet of cloth and two gold buttons at the bottom of a hole. Undoubtedly the father of the old man inside. Why was it that his family only summoned him when they were in mourning? Why not a wedding? It was his own fault, he supposed. He learned long ago that he was only summoned when somebody spoke his true name, Jacob Walker, and nobody seemed to need his story in good times. Then he had a thought: Having that name down in ink… does the story stop there? Will they think of me more, or less?
Looking down at the corpse, he tried not to imagine what was left of his own body after two centuries’ decay. Absently, he began filling in the man’s grave, and from a distance it might have looked like the soil was being moved by the wind. He left a little divot in the dirt, just in case the family was still in the habit of burying themselves under trees.
Just then the young man in the shop came out, evidently vexed. Looking at the divot, he cocked his head. Then he snapped to, searched the ground for an acorn, and knelt by the grave.
Do it, Jacob tried to say, but he had no voice.
The young man buried the acorn, then carefully scooped the excess dirt back in place. Jacob imagined patting him on the back, though he had no hand to do it with. There were dark storm clouds above, and cool rain was beginning to fall.
The young man froze for a moment, then whipped his head around frantically. “Jacob?”
After a silent moment, the young man got up, rubbed his eyes, and stumbled into the shop. Jacob drifted back to the front, where a woman was exiting. He recognized her.
Jacob peered helplessly through the shop window, reading between the lines of the storefront poem.
The old man slumped over the counter. His son shook him by the shoulders, but it was no use. Blood leaked from the gash in his head, over the counter and down to the carpet. A mark just like Jacob’s peeked over his collar. History was repeating itself, and Jacob could not bear to watch the young man in agony.
He returned to the shade of the tree that consumed his body and sank back into the earth, his soul to rise nevermore.