From the author of A Secret History of Witches comes new stand-alone novel set in the same world: a gripping tale of love, sacrifice, family ties and magic set in 1950s America.
June 30, 1947
It was a long summer evening, the sun reluctant to sink beyond the Olympics, the shy stars holding back until the last possible moment. I lingered in my garden, sidling between my careful rows, tying up pea vines and pinching back tomato leaves. I ran my hands through the blueberry bushes that grew against the back fence, searching for a few more ripe berries to add to the baskets waiting in the pantry. I had a dozen ready to sell at the market. I expected to get ten cents apiece for them. I had eggs to sell, too, and several fat heads of butter lettuce.
It was a good harvest for early summer. I would be able to pay my electricity bill, my share of the party line, and have enough left over to buy scratch for the hens and flour and sugar and coffee for myself.
I scooped the berries into the front pocket of my overalls and straightened to gaze up into the twilight. These were lonely moments on my isolated farm, but I found beauty in them. Tatters of cloud shone silver against the violet sky, shimmering in the night wind. The breeze rippled the leaves of the apple trees clustered between my place and the shore of Hood Canal, and it tinged the air with the scent of salt water.
I felt the pull of the canal as a physical sensation. Its tides seemed to resonate with the tides of my own flowing blood, its life calling to the life in my veins. Sometimes the pull was so strong I had to drop what I was doing and go to the shore, driven by a need to touch the water, to feel its cool, salty texture on my fingers or washing over my bare feet. I felt the tug that night, the water beckoning to me, but the sky was beginning to darken, and the field between my house and the canal was pocked with holes and tangles of tall grass. I told myself I would go in the morning, as I often did, perhaps fish for flounder from the half-submerged dock or just ramble along the beach in search of sea glass.
I liked holding the glass fragments in my hand, bits of brown or blue or clear glass worn smooth by the water. I tried to imagine what they had once been part of—a milk bottle, a medicine vial, a jelly jar, perhaps even a glass dish that had at one time rested in some housewife’s kitchen cupboard. I told myself stories about how the glass had ended up in the water. The milk bottle might have been thrown overboard from a ship. The glass dish might have slipped out of the housewife’s hand and shattered on the floor. The jelly jar might have belonged to a child, who meant to catch polliwogs in it but had dropped it into the creek with small, water-slick fingers. I kept what I collected in a mason jar on the kitchen windowsill, where the sun could shine through, splashing the counter and the floor with prisms of light.
When a coyote yipped, somewhere to the north, I started from my reverie. I hurried through the garden to the house to call Willow in from the darkness. One coyote wouldn’t be a problem for a dog of her size, but a pack of them could. We had lots of coyotes on the peninsula.
I had hung an iron bell on my back porch, an artifact salvaged from some derelict ship. I pulled the leather cord to strike the clapper, sending its hollow clang rolling out into the dusk. From beyond the orchard, Willow barked in answer, and I went to the side gate to hold it open for her.
She was hard to see in the dimness, but I could make out her pale silhouette as she loped through the apple orchard and trotted across the empty field toward the garden. She rubbed her shoulder against my leg as she came through the gate, and I scratched behind her ears. We walked side by side toward the house, my hand on her head, her rangy body warm and muscular against my thigh.
My aunt Charlotte said nobody calls a dog with a bell. I didn’t know if that was true. I didn’t know much about dogs except for Willow, and she always came when I rang the ship’s bell. She did it from the very beginning, even when she was so small I could hold her in my two hands.
I had never intended to have a dog. The previous June, Charlotte had paid me a surprise visit, rolling up my dirt lane in her big Studebaker, churning billows of dust as she swung the auto into the space by my yard. She hadn’t bothered waiting for the dust to settle; she had climbed out onto the running board, one gloved hand waving, the other clutching something small and beige and fluffy. I had come out onto the front porch to greet her, and I had squinted through the haze, trying to see what she was carrying.
“Barrie Anne!” she cried. “Brought you a present!”
No one uses my full name anymore, not since my parents died. Will never did use it. Charlotte likes it, but I really think she uses it to remind me that she’s family. That she knows me better than anyone.
She climbed off the running board, leaving the Studebaker’s door open, and came toward me wearing a wide, scarlet-lipsticked grin. I started down the steps to the yard to meet her, but when I saw what she was carrying, I froze.
I wasn’t afraid of dogs, or of any animal. I catch my own fish in Hood Canal. I chase away the deer who stretch their necks through my fence to nibble cherry tomatoes and snap peas, and I shout and clap at coyotes who threaten my henhouse. I even shot at one, although I hated doing it so much I never did it a second time.
But a puppy of my own, one I might fall in love with, worry about, and one day, inevitably, lose—that frightened me.
No. I kept my hands at my sides. “Aunt Charlotte. I can’t.”
“Yes, you can, kiddo,” she said. With the puppy in her arms, she swept past me in a swirl of scarves. “You need her. Trust me.”
I knew better, of course, than to argue with Charlotte. She knew things. It was always wise to heed what she said.
I crossed the yard to close the automobile’s door against the dust before, resigned, I went back up the steps to follow my aunt into the house.
She was waiting in the living room, standing with her back to me. The puppy’s wide eyes and comical ears were just visible above her shoulder. One ear stood up, its tip pointed at the sky. The other, darker than its mate, fell to one side like a wet brown leaf. The puppy’s smooth little head begged to be stroked. Its liquid eyes gazed at me with innocent curiosity.
Charlotte heard my steps behind her and turned, holding out the puppy. Reflexively, my hands reached for it, and at the same moment, the hard pain of remembered sorrow pierced the center of my chest. Instinctively, I cuddled the puppy over the ache. It nestled there, warm and soft and vibrant with life.
“Where did you find it?” I asked, already knowing I could never let the little creature go.
“Not it. Her. And by the lagoon,” she said. “Actually, I didn’t so much find her as she found me.”
“Oh, my gosh, Aunt Charlotte. Were there other puppies? Did someone dump a litter?”
“Not that I could find. I looked, but this was the only one I saw, and she was a mess. Muddy, wet, shivering. She was hiding under a willow tree, and the moment I came down the path, she ran straight toward me.” She reached out a hand and stroked the little dog’s head with her forefinger. “It’s no accident, of course. This puppy was meant for you.”
“Why do you say that?”
She winked at me and reached into her pocket for her cigarettes. “It’s the family thing. I just know.”
I held up the puppy so I could look into her dark eyes, fringed with ridiculously long black lashes. Sweet puppy breath wafted across my face, and her little heart thudded under my fingers so that I felt as if I had a hummingbird cupped in my two hands. I was in love with her even before I returned her to my chest and cradled her there. The warmth of her tiny body seeped through the bones of my rib cage to caress my sore heart, bringing sudden tears to my eyes. “Oh, Aunt Charlotte,” I choked. “She’s—She’sjust—”
“Perfect. Of course she is.” Charlotte lit her cigarette and held it in her teeth as she smiled at me. “She needs a name.”
I didn’t even stop to think. I didn’t have to. “It’s Willow.”
Charlotte laughed. “That was quick! Suits her. She’ll grow into that name.”
I pressed my cheek to the soft little head and whispered into her crooked ear, “Willow. That’s you, little one. Do you want to be a farm dog?”
The puppy twisted her neck to lick my face and then relaxed in my arms with a long sigh. Charlotte said, “I think that’s her answer.”
Charlotte proved to be right, as she invariably was. I needed the puppy. More to the point, I needed that puppy. Willow kept me connected to the world when I was tempted to give up on it. She seemed to know what I was thinking or was about to think. She followed me everywhere, her tail eager to wag, her pink tongue quick to loll with doggy laughter. If I went out without her, she knew the moment I turned for home, and waited by the door for me to appear. She filled the empty spaces of my life with her bright spirit and lively presence. I came to feel that she reflected me, in an uncanny way, as if she were the canine version of myself.
By the time Willow and I reached my postage stamp of a back porch, full darkness enveloped the peninsula. Even my hens had settled into their coop with a little chorus of drowsy chirps. I took a last glance back over my sleeping garden, then past the ragged line of trees along the canal, and on up into the reaches of the spangled sky.
The day was over. It was time to go inside, into the lighted kitchen, to pour a glass of lemonade for me and fill a bowl of water for Willow. It was later than usual for our dinner, and I planned to go to bed early to be ready for another long day in the garden.
I was about to tell Willow all of that when a glow flared beyond the tree line, directly in my field of vision.
I thought the light might have come from a falling star. I loved seeing them. They invited me to consider the immensity of the universe and the insignificance of one twenty-five-year-old human being. I imagined this one making its brave journey through the infinite darkness, coming from Mars, or the rings of Saturn, or some even more distant place, only to plunge into the cold waters of Hood Canal, setting the dark waves sparkling ever so briefly.
If my invented life story of the meteorite was right, the light should have died swiftly. It didn’t.
I moved to the edge of the porch, leaning forward to see past the rosebush at the corner of the house. A waxing moon, nearly full, had risen above the Cascades to the east, fading the stars around it and lighting the empty field and the apple orchard, but it didn’t lessen the glow coming from the canal.
I couldn’t resist the urge to know, to see. At my knee, Willow whined as she gazed out toward the canal, and her expressive tail trembled.
“Come on,” I whispered to her. “We have to go find out what that is.”
It wasn’t a prudent decision to go out into the night with only a dog for company. I should have at least dug the .30‑30 out of the closet, but I was afraid if I took time for that, the glow might fade, whatever it was. I didn’t want to miss it. I set out at a trot, pausing only to close the garden gate to keep the critters away from my hens. With Willow beside me, I hurried across the field. The moonlight showed me the molehills and stones that lay in wait, and we moved quickly.
In minutes we reached the orchard. I had to be more cautious there, feeling my way between the trees and over the roots that arched above the ground. The light, fainter now, drew me on, and in a few more moments I emerged onto the shore. I stopped at the crest of the bank, steadying myself on the low branch of an apple tree as I gazed, rapt, into the water.
An unlikely and unfamiliar light bloomed there, as if someone had turned on a lamp. It shimmered and shivered beneath the waves, reminding me of the way a full moon might look behind shreds of windblown cloud. I couldn’t make out a source for the light, but the surface of the water glistened with it as if the peaks of the waves had been painted silver. I arrived just in time to watch it fade. Its glow thinned and spread and dissipated into the darkness.
I had no idea what I had seen. It was gone in moments, leaving only an ordinary night on the peninsula, a bright moon and a sprinkle of white stars in an unremarkable black sky.
I clung to my tree, searching for some trace of the phenomenon, but it had vanished as if it had never been, leaving only the glimmer of stars on the shifting waves. With my heart pounding, I let go of the tree, and shuffled forward to the edge of the bank. I felt a powerful urge to climb down the cut to the beach and plunge my hands into the water. It seemed to my awestruck mind that perhaps I could catch some of that mysterious light, gather it up in my fingers like a shred of seaweed borne in on the tide. Willow nudged me, encouraging me to do it, to go to the water.
At that moment, I heard the coyote bark again. Another sounded, not far away, and was answered with a chorus of yips. A pack, hunting. Willow stiffened and growled, and I knew I had to get her back inside the safety of our high fence. The temptation to engage with the coyotes might overcome even Willow’s usual good sense. I took hold of her neck to keep her with me.
I backed away from the bank and into the orchard. I kept a firm hold on Willow’s ruff as I blundered my way through the darkness of the trees. I had to keep my hand on her as we crossed the open field. It wasn’t like her, but that night she kept turning back, resisting my direction, which made me anxious.
With the aid of the moonlight and the lights from the house as a guide, I led her home as swiftly as I could. My heartbeat didn’t settle into its normal rhythm until we were through the garden gate, with it locked behind us, and inside the house, the door firmly closed. The dog whined and scratched at the door once I had locked it, another thing she never did. It made my belly crawl with nerves.
As I hastily fried bacon and scrambled eggs for our belated meal, I pondered the phenomenon. I knew about algae bloom and the bioluminescence that could result, but I had never observed it. I had a feeling the color was different, but I would have to go to the library to research that. There could have been an oil slick from one of the big fishing boats, but how could that have been so bright, bright enough for me to see the corona from my back porch? And surely the light had come from beneath the water, not floating on the top as a spill of oil would.
Willow resisted me again when it was time to go to bed. I had to tug at her to get her to come upstairs, and once there, I closed the bedroom door to keep her in. She finally surrendered, sprawling in her customary position across the foot of the bed. I lay down, pondering the mystery. If the coyotes had not stopped me, I might have had an answer. As it was, I had only questions.
A huge, cracking yawn overtook me. I knew there was nothing more I could do that night. I hoped there would be other witnesses to the event, explanations from people who knew more than I. I turned on my side, consigning the questions to the morning, and fell into the solid sleep of someone who had worked outdoors for all of a summer’s day.
* * *
Willow woke me at five, pawing at my shoulder beneath the blankets. I thought she must need to go out. Blearily, though I could have slept longer, I got up. In my housecoat and bare feet, I opened the back door for her, then switched on the RCA Victor on the kitchen counter. I listened to the combination of news and music as I filled the percolator and took a loaf from the bread box. I listened for some report of the strange light the night before, but the announcer didn’t mention it, which was strange. The war was over, but we were all still wary, alert to any activities out of the ordinary.
The war had changed the peninsula. Japanese farmers, friends and neighbors born and raised on the Olympic Peninsula just as I had been, had been interned in Idaho, and their farms seized. One of the dairymen, a Norwegian immigrant, had lost both his sons, one in Italy and one in the South Pacific, and in despair, he sold his land to a company that bought it for the timber. Dr. Masters, up in Port Townsend, lost his only boy, Herbert. He went on practicing, but I never saw him laugh again.
Some of the changes were for the better. The coast guard improved the roads to the coast guard stations, hung telephone wires, and built radio towers. I didn’t care much about roads, since my pickup was as rough to drive on pavement as it was on dirt. I didn’t use my telephone much, either. The other people on the party line always picked up when they heard a ring, as if they didn’t know the three-ring pattern was mine. I did like listening to the radio, though. There were days when KXA, which broadcast from Seattle, was my only link to the world beyond my little farm.
I trotted up the stairs to pull on a shirt and my overalls, leaving my feet bare. In the kitchen, I scrambled eggs again and scraped half of them onto a plate and the other half into Willow’s bowl. Charlotte teased me about that, but Willow had always eaten what I did, from those very first days, and eggs were one thing I had in abundance. I set her bowl on the mat beside the range, stuck a slice of bread in the Toastmaster, and went to the back porch to ring the bell. I stood there for a moment, tasting the summer air.
Living alone had made me sensitive. When Will was still at the farm, I didn’t differentiate the scent of wild fennel from that of slowly ripening blackberries or notice how cloud patterns changed from season to season. I didn’t scan the sky to anticipate the weather or feel the air with my fingertips to decide whether to hang washing on the line. Sometimes I thought I might be acquiring some of Willow’s talents. When she put up her muzzle into the breeze, her nostrils fluttered as if she were riffling the pages of a book, learning secrets carried on the wind. It seemed to me I sensed almost as much as she did.
The morning sky, so bright with stars the night before, had turned grumpy and gray. Patches of fog puddled in low spots in the field and in the curves of the lane. Such weather would slow the ripening of my tomatoes but make for a good morning at the market. With luck, I could sell my things early and get home in time to repair the shed roof, which had started leaking in the May rains.
I rang the bell and propped open the screen door for the dog while I went back to my breakfast. I was buttering toast when I realized Willow hadn’t come in. Her bowl was untouched. Recalling my unease of the night before, I dropped the toast and the butter knife and dashed to the back porch.
There was no sign of a plumy beige tail or a sleek head, not in the garden, not near the henhouse. I scanned the field and squinted toward the apple orchard. Nothing.
The old pain was never far away, and now it seized me anew, making me press my fist to my breastbone. Thinking of the coyotes, I banged the ship’s bell, yanking hard on the leather strip. The clapper produced a furious sound that made my ears ring. While the echoes died away, I ran back into the house for my father’s old Winchester .30‑30, stored behind the winter coats in the closet under the stairs.
Carrying the Winchester at the ready, I trotted along the path through the garden, the stubs of weeds biting at my bare soles. I was unlatching the gate when I spotted Willow weaving through the orchard. The pain in my chest released all at once, like a bubble bursting, leaving a giddy spot of relief in its place. I lowered the gun and called, “Willow! Come!”
She was coming, but there was something wrong. Usually she loped easily through the sparse yellow grass. Now she walked slowly, as if she had been hurt. I closed the gate to keep the chickens in and started out to meet her, wincing at the scratches on my feet, wishing I had put on my boots.
Within a few steps, I could see Willow wasn’t injured. She was carrying something.
Willow had always lugged things home. Most came from the shore, a child’s bucket; the ruins of a straw hat; several pieces of driftwood, sculpted by the sea, now serving as garden art. Other treasures were less savory—a rotted crab, a beer bottle crawling with bugs, a filthy pair of men’s undershorts.
This was something completely new.
Willow paced past me, balancing every step. Her burden was an awkward-looking shape. It swung from side to side in the grip of her jaws, a dark, mottled color in the gray light. She climbed the steps to the porch gingerly, taking one tread at a time, and settled the thing gently to the floor. It seemed to be a blanket, wool or cotton or felt, folded over on itself, the ends tucked in the way you might tuck in a pillowcase.
Willow put her nose inside the folds, and a sound emerged from it, a sound that rocked me with memory.
My infant son had lived only a few hours. Scottie had been barely strong enough to breathe, let alone cry, but he had made that sound, a mewing such as a kitten might make, or a raccoon kit, even a coyote pup. Some sort of animal. Something that didn’t belong on my porch.
“Willow?” I whispered.
She drew her nose out of the bundle and cocked her head at me, then sat down with an air of having completed her job and expecting me now to do mine.
I spun to face the empty field, lifting the .30‑30 as I moved, slipping my finger inside the trigger guard. I fully expected some fierce maternal creature to come racing toward the house in search of her offspring. I felt as if danger lay in front of me and behind me at the same time.
My heart hammered in my ears, blurring the whisper of the wind. I scanned the field, the orchard that stood between my farm and the canal, the scraggly stand of pine trees on the west side of my property. I clutched the gun and tried to remember if there was a shell in the chamber.
I didn’t see anything. The sound came again.
With shaking hands, I laid the .30‑30 on the bench beside the door. I took one more look over my shoulder before I approached Willow’s offering. I bent over it, but my thighs tensed, ready to spring away in an instant.
I heard it a third time, a faint, questing whimper.
Warily, I extended a bare foot toward the bundle and tried to open it with my toes.
The material was wet, as if it had been lying on the beach. I could see now it was flannel, gray, with a pattern of red threads running through it. The fabric was soft, and it moved easily under my foot. I put out my hand, but tentatively. My fingers tingled with anticipation, ready to pull out of the way if something in there had teeth, claws, a fighting instinct.
At my touch, the folds fell apart, opening to show the thing within. I stopped breathing as I stared, struggling to believe my own eyes.
There was a small pale face, paper-white strands of hair plastered to a little skull, and closed, delicate eyelids. I saw hands curled into fragile fists like tiny nautilus shells, and toes like pearls peeping out beneath some sort of garment. I saw all those things, but my mind refused to translate them, to sort them, to organize the disparate parts.
My need for air roused me, and I sucked in a noisy breath. Willow jumped to her feet, her tail waving, her eyes fixed on my face. With the rush of oxygen, my brain assembled the bits into a whole, and I moaned with the shock of it.
It was an infant. A baby. And it was sopping wet.
With trembling hands, I reached for it. As my fingers slid beneath its ribs, its eyes opened to reveal a shade of green as vivid as a shard of sea glass. My breath stopped again at their unexpected beauty.
When I lifted the baby to my shoulder, I expected the smell of wet diaper. Instead, I recognized the scent of the sea. The little thing was drenched in salt water. I wrapped my arms around it, fearing it must be chilled. It didn’t shiver, though the gown it wore—more unfamiliar fabric—was soaked. The infant settled itself against my chest, its wet head tucked under my chin, not unlike Willow had done when I first held her, and it repeated its tiny whimper.
My experience of mothering had been so brief that I had learned almost nothing in practice. Now I had only my instincts to draw on. I held the baby close with one hand and opened the door with the other. I snatched a towel from the rack beside the sink and spread it on the kitchen table.
With difficulty, I wriggled the sodden gown off the little body and laid the naked baby on the towel. A girl. The delicate tracing of veins in her head and throat shone blue against her translucent skin. She had fat little legs and arms and perfect miniature fingernails. I used my fingers to brush the seawater from the silky strands of her hair. Her eyes followed my movements as I dried her and wrapped her in a fresh towel from a kitchen drawer. Her cheeks were plump and smooth and as rosy as the inside of an abalone shell.
My own newborn’s face had looked crumpled, as if he had been born at the end of his life instead of at the beginning, an exquisite, wrinkled little man. I had kissed his forehead over and over as he struggled for breath, and I hugged him close to me long after he gave up trying. Even when he grew cold, when I understood that I couldn’t will life back into his frail body, I had held him against my chest. Those terrible hours came back to me as I cradled the foundling. I felt the thump of my panicked heart against her own.
During the war, someone had abandoned a baby boy in a back pew of the Presbyterian church up in Quilcene. It was a newborn, wrapped in an army blanket and tucked into a wicker shopping basket. I never heard what became of the poor little thing, but at least his mother had left her infant where he would be found and taken care of.
But this baby! This baby had been left in the dark, exposed to the cold and the waves. The coyotes could have found her, or any other predator. The tide could have swept her into Hood Canal to drown.
“You saved her, Willow,” I murmured. The baby stirred at the sound of my voice. Willow nosed my thigh, and without thinking, I lowered the infant so the dog could see her. Willow licked the baby’s scalp with her long, gentle tongue. The little girl’s eyes widened, and she gave a tiny gurgle.
I paced the kitchen with the baby in my arms, wondering what I should do. The slender telephone directory lay on the kitchen counter, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. My neighbors were kind people, but despite my having lived among them for nearly two years, they still regarded me as a curiosity. They had liked Will better than they liked me, and now that he was gone, my last hope of respectability had vanished. I knew I should have tried harder to be sociable, but I seemed to have lost the knack for small talk.
Mr. Robbins, the dairyman, had lectured me at the market, saying it wasn’t proper for a young woman to live on her own, three miles from the nearest neighbor. He said I should move into Brinnon, a proper town, where people could watch out for me.
What he really meant, and which I understood, was that I needed a man. A man to tell me what to do, and how to do it, and when, too. Probably a lot of the folks in the town and at the market agreed with him. And now, if I were to pick up the telephone, that line everyone listens in on—
No. Who could I call? How would I explain the discovery of an abandoned baby? Mr. Robbins would call the police. Mrs. Urquhardt, who had seven children of her own, would call Social Services. The Millers were religious and very sweet. They’d probably send out their pastor or something.
They’d all have a thousand questions about where the baby came from. Who would believe my dog carried her home? They might even think I had stolen an infant to replace my lost one.
For that matter, I had a thousand questions. Was there a woman in trouble, down at the shore? Had there been a boating accident? Should I call the police myself so they could search?
I couldn’t leave the baby. I couldn’t care for her, either. I had nothing for her to eat. No idea what to do next.
I needed Charlotte.