Chantress [a. OF. chanteresse, fem. of chantere, -eor, singer: see CHANTER and -ESS.] 1. female magician, sorceress, enchantress. 2. A female chanter or singer; a singing woman; a songstress.
Oxford English Dictionary
A dangerous disease requires a desperate remedy.
attributed to Guy Fawkes (1570-1606)
I was digging in the garden when I heard it: a strange, wild singing on the wind.
I sat back on my heels, a carrot dropping from my mud-splattered hands.
No one sang here. Not on this island.
Perhaps I’d misheard
No, there it was again: a lilting line, distant but clear. It lasted hardly longer than a heartbeat, but it left me certain of one thing: It was more than a gull’s cry I’d heard. It was a song.
But who was singing it?
I glanced over my shoulder at Norrie, hunched over a cabbage bed, a gray frizzle poking out from under her linen cap. As far as I knew, she was the only other inhabitant of this lonely Atlantic island, but it couldn’t have been Norrie I had heard. For if there was one rule that my guardian set above all others, it was this one: There must be no singing. Ever.
Sing and the darkness will find you.
We were still dripping from the shipwreck when Norrie first told me this. She had repeated it often since then, but there was no need. The terror in her eyes that first time had silenced me immediately that and my own grief, so deep I was drowning in it. The sea had taken my mother and had almost taken me. That was enough darkness to last me a lifetime; I had no desire to court more.
Not that I could recall very much about the shipwreck itself. Even the ship that had carried us off from England seven years ago had left no impression on me. Was it stout or shaky, that vessel? Had it foundered on rocks? Had storms broken its masts? I did not know. We had boarded that ship in 1660, when I had been eight years of age. Surely eight was old enough to remember? Yet my only recollections of that night came in broken fragments, slivers that were more sensation than sense. The sopping scratchiness of wet wool against my cheeks. The bitter sea wind snarling my hair into salty whips. The chill of the dark water as I slipped through it.
“Hush, child,” Norrie would say whenever I dared mention any of this. “It was a long time ago, and a terrible night, and you were very young. The least said about it, the better.”
“But my mother ”
“She’s lost to us, lamb, lost to the wind and the waves.” Norrie’s face would always pucker in sadness as she said this, before her voice grew brisk. “It’s just the two of us now, and we must make the best of it.”
When Norrie took that tone, there was no refusing her. So make the best of it we did, and if life on our island was not easy, it was far from desolate.
But we never sang. We never even whistled or hummed. We had no music of any kind. And if anyone had asked me, I would have said I did not miss it at all ...
It was as if the singing had pierced a hole in me, a hole only it could fill. I sat silent, listening hard. Withered stalks rustled in the warm October sunlight. Gulls shrilled as they swooped toward the bluffs. And then, on the wind, I heard it again, the barest edge of a tune, almost as if the sea itself were singing
From two rows away, Norrie waved her wooden trowel in her gnarled hand. “What’s wrong with you, child? I’ve harvested a whole basket of cabbages in the time it’s taken you to root out three carrots.”
It didn’t matter that I stood half a head taller than Norrie did, or that I thought of myself as nearly grown she still called me child. But I was too used to it to bristle. Instead, I looked down at my meager takings. If Norrie had heard the music, surely she would have mentioned it. Since she hadn’t, I wasn’t going to. I didn’t care to have her scolding me, yet again, for having too much imagination and not enough sense. Was the singing real? I was almost willing to swear it was ... but not quite. Not to Norrie.
“Well, Lucy, what is it?” Norrie knocked the dirt from her trowel. “Are you ill?”
“No.” If anyone looked ill, it was Norrie. Every year the harvest was more of a struggle for her. It scared me to see her cheeks so mottled, her stout shoulders drooping. I knew she wouldn’t appreciate my saying so, though.
“You’ve been working since sunrise,” I said instead. “Don’t you think you’ve earned a rest?”
“Rest?” Beneath her rumpled cap, Norrie looked scandalized. “On Allhallows’ Eve? Whatever can you be thinking?”
“I only meant ”
“Back to work now, and no more dawdling, please,” Norrie said, her face anxious. “We need those carrots, every single one, if we’re not to go hungry this winter.”
“I’ll get them all,” I promised, hoping to calm her.
Norrie’s brow relaxed a little, but her back was still tense as she bent over her cabbages again.
I wrapped my hands around a frill of carrot and sighed. Allhallows’ Eve, the thirty-first of October every year I dreaded this day. For if Norrie was strict as a general rule, on Allhallows’ Eve she was at her absolute worst. From dawn to dusk, she worked us half to death, dragging in the last of the harvest and safeguarding the house against the coming night.
“After sunset,” she would say. “That’s when the true danger comes. The spirits walk, and mischief is in the air. We have to protect ourselves.”
Maybe so. But to me the preparations seemed an endless burden, especially as I had never seen any sign of the mischief Norrie talked about.
Unless the singing ... ?
But no. If singing was what Norrie had meant by mischief, I reasoned, surely she would’ve said so. And anyway, the sun was still golden bright. Rather low in the sky, but a good way from night.
Yet I worked a little harder, if only because I owed it to Norrie. For seven years, she had raised me singlehandedly not without a fair amount of scolding and sighing, to be sure, but always with real affection. Now that she was growing older and her strength was ebbing, I knew it was up to me to return the favor, and look after her. If she wanted the harvest brought in before nightfall, then we would bring it in.
So I piled the carrots high, and when Norrie next turned to see me, she smiled in satisfaction. But while I worked, my thoughts were my own. With part of my mind, I listened out for the singing. The rest of me wished desperately for a life bigger than carrots and harvests and Norrie’s superstitions.
I knew, none better, that the island had pleasures to offer the silky white sand of its beaches; hidden coves speckled with shells; sun-drenched mornings at the water’s edge. But they could not compensate for the isolation we endured, or for the relentless drudgery of our daily existence.
Our life in England had not been like this. I remembered a cottage by the sea, bright with my mother’s wools and weaving, where guests told stories by the fire. Before that, I had only a scattered patchwork of memories, but they were colorful and varied: a game of hide-and-seek in a castle’s great hall, a tiny garret room perched by the River Thames, the green smell of bracken by a forest lodge.
“We moved often in those early years,” was Norrie’s only comment about that time. “Not that I’m blaming your mother, mind you. She had to look out for herself, what with your father dying before you were even born, leaving her all alone. But the Good Lord didn’t mean for a body always to be traveling hither and yon. Best to set yourself down in one place and stick to it, that’s what I say.”
She was as good as her word. She had rooted herself so deeply on the island that I half feared she would refuse rescue if it were offered.
Me, I would swim out to meet the ship. I longed for new sights and adventures, for a life not bounded by the island’s shore. Above all, I longed for freedom especially as Norrie grew ever more dogmatic about everything from what we had for Sunday breakfast to how many peat bricks we should burn in the fireplace.
With a sigh, I gathered up my carrots. Norrie had countless rules about those, too not only about how to harvest and sort them but how to store and when to eat them.
A ship, I found myself praying. Oh, please send a ship.
But what was the use of praying? I had been waiting and watching and hoping for seven long years, and no ship had ever come.
Seven years, and no rescue in sight. Seven long years on this island. And how many more to follow?
Wincing, I rose and tossed my carrots into the waiting baskets. They thumped as they hit the pile and that’s when I heard the singing again.
The notes cascaded around me, stronger this time and more urgent. For a reckless moment, I wanted nothing so much as to give voice to the music myself, and sing it back to the wind. But then, like a muzzle, came Norrie’s warning, the endless refrain I’d heard since childhood:
Sing and the darkness will find you.
I closed my eyes.
I blinked, and the music vanished.
Norrie was standing before me. “Lucy, did I hear you humming?”
“No. Of course not.” I hadn’t been humming, had I? I would have known if I had.
“It wasn’t me you heard,” I said. “It’s something else. A sort of singing sound in the wind. I don’t know what it is.”
Norrie’s eyes opened wide.
“Listen! There it is again.” This time I took care not to drink the music in too deeply. It wouldn’t do for Norrie to guess how it made me feel. “I can’t think where it comes from, can you? Could it be a bird a new one blown in by the winds?” Another possibility struck me, and I glanced toward the bluff in excitement. “Or maybe ... a ship? I haven’t been able to keep a proper lookout today, not with the harvest.” This had been a bone of contention between us at breakfast; I had wanted to make my usual observations, but Norrie said we couldn’t afford the time. “Maybe someone is coming to rescue us, someone who doesn’t know you shouldn’t sing here ”
Norrie’s leathery cheeks turned pale. “Child, where is your stone?”
I blinked. “My stone?” I touched my hand to the heavy, clay-red pendant that hung on a silver chain under my dress. It was a gift from my mother, all I had left of her. I never took it off, not even when bathing. “Here, of course. Why?”
Instead of answering, Norrie said, “It’s time we went inside.”
I looked at her in surprise. “Now?”
“But the cabbages ”
“Leave them be.”
I stared at her. That didn’t sound like Norrie Norrie who every year insisted on gathering every scrap from the garden on Allhallows’ Eve. “I don’t understand.”
“What’s to understand? We’ve worked long enough today. You said so yourself. Come inside.”
Norrie spoke stoutly enough, but in the late afternoon light, I saw a sheen on her face like the start of the sweating sickness. All thoughts of singing and music flew out of my head. If Norrie was feverish, I must get her to bed.
Tucking her hand in my arm, I steered her toward the cottage.
† † †
Even though it was a good hour or more until sunset, the cottage was half-dark already. Its windows were too few to let in much light. But I would have known Norrie’s kitchen anywhere by its smell alone a rich, earthy mix of peat and tarragon and rue. Usually there was soup simmering too, but on Allhallows’ Eve Norrie always insisted that the iron cauldron hang empty while the remains of the old year’s fire burned out beneath it.
“You sit down,” I told Norrie. “I’ll bring you a blanket to keep off the chill.”
“No need, child. No need.” Now that we were inside, Norrie looked and sounded more like her usual self. But I brought the blanket anyway, and when I came back through the kitchen doorway, I saw her put a hand to her heart.
“You really are ill, then,” I said, alarmed.
Again Norrie waved me away. “No, child. No.”
“But you’re so pale ”
“It’s only that it quite takes me aback sometimes, how much you look like your mother. Same gray eyes, same little cat’s chin.” She looked me over, then added reprovingly, “Of course, your hair is wilder.”
I scraped back my tangled curls without protest, not wanting to interrupt. Norrie rarely spoke of my mother, even when pressed a great disappointment to me, for my own memories of her were few.
But it seemed that Norrie was done with the past. “Goodness!” She pushed away my blanket. “Look at how low the sun is. I must get the seaweed before dark.”
It was an Allhallows’ Eve tradition that Norrie insisted upon: We always boiled freshly gathered seaweed in a cauldron over the new fire, then drank the broth to protect ourselves from harm. Norrie was exacting about the kind of seaweed it had to be, which made the whole chore more tedious, and another time I might have let her go off by herself to find it. But not now, not when I was so worried about her.
“You rest here. I’ll go down to the cove.” I reached for a netted sack by the door, handy for carrying the slimy seaweed.
Norrie snatched the bag out of my reach. “No!”
I stared at her. Norrie could be stern, but she rarely shouted and she never snatched.
“You will not go out that door.” Norrie blocked the way forward. “Not tonight. Not while there’s breath in my body to stop you.”
I took a step back and stared at Norrie, sure at first that it must be fever that had made her shout. But when I looked in her eyes, it wasn’t illness I saw. It was suspicion and fear.
“Norrie, what is it? What’s wrong?”
Her shaking fingers tangled themselves in the netted bag, but she didn’t answer.
Why was she behaving so strangely? I cast my mind over the afternoon. “It’s the singing, isn’t it?” I could see from her face I was right. “You think it was me. And now you don’t trust me.”
“You were humming, Lucy. I heard it with my own ears.”
“But I told you: That was the singing. It was like birdsong, or the wind in a seashell, only clearer somehow ”
“I heard no singing,” Norrie said flatly. “Only you humming.”
She said this with such conviction that it stopped me short. Was Norrie right? Had I been humming without knowing it? “You didn’t hear the singing?”
“No. And if singing is what you heard, that’s a very bad sign. Someone or something is trying to beguile you, that’s what I think. So it’s best you keep indoors today, out of their reach.”
“Someone or something?” I repeated uncertainly.
“An early piece of Allhallows’ Eve mischief, most likely.”
“But why would I hear the singing, and not you?”
Norrie looked flustered. “You ask too many questions, child. But none of them will change my mind one whit. Tomorrow you can go out again. But not today, not on Allhallows’ Eve.”
I touched my hand to my stone. Was I being kept inside because of superstition or something more?
“Don’t look at me that way.” Norrie’s voice sharpened. “Your mother ” She broke off.
“My mother what?” I felt a tingle of fear. “Norrie, you must tell me.”
A mistake to use “must” with Norrie. Her broad chin jutted forward. “There’s some things best not meddled with, Lucy. You’ll learn that in time. All you need to know is this: You won’t be going out again today. I may have more to say on the subject someday, child. But not now.”
Child. The word suddenly seared like a burn. “I’m not a child,” I snapped. “I’m fifteen. Sixteen this winter. That’s old enough to hear the truth.”
“If you’re not a child, then stop fussing like one,” Norrie said, unimpressed. “We’ve no time to waste. It’s only an hour before sunset, and I need to gather the seaweed. While I’m gone, I expect you to look after the house.” Her face sharpened with worry. “And don’t you dare go outside. If you do, you could land both of us in terrible trouble.”
These obscure warnings were driving me mad. “What kind of terrible trouble?” When she didn’t answer, I said, more insistently, “You know I would never hurt you ”
“Not on your own, no.” Norrie shook her head. “But you didn’t even know you were humming, child. What else might you do if the singing got hold of you? Have you thought of that?”
I hadn’t, not until then. But as she spoke I remembered how those wild notes had pierced me to the core, and how desperately I’d longed to sing them back.
What else might I do? The truth was I didn’t quite know, not for certain, not anymore. It was as if everything I knew about myself were no longer rock, but shifting sand. I looked at the battered door behind Norrie, suddenly glad that it stood between me and the wind.
“Very well,” I said. “You go. I’ll stay.”
“Good girl.” Norrie wrapped herself in her cloak. “Mind you prepare the hearth exactly as I’ve told you. And whatever you do, keep your stone close and don’t open the door. There’s great danger at hand.”
“What kind of danger?” I asked again in frustration. “Why won’t you tell me?”
But Norrie offered no explanations before she clumped out the door.
† † †
After Norrie left, I stared at the black hearth. With the afternoon almost over and the fire in cinders, the room was cold as death, and nearly as dark. I shivered in spite of myself. Why had I heard the singing, and not Norrie? And what was I to do about the fact that some contrary part of me was still longing to hear it again, even if it might lead to disaster?
Well, the answer to the last question was clear enough. For seven years now, Norrie had been instructing me in the rituals of Allhallows’ Eve. To keep myself safe, I needed only to follow her instructions to the letter.
Moving sure and fast, I took up the poker and scattered the last embers of the fire. After that, I covered the hearth with lavender and rue and rosemary, herbs of protection that Norrie had picked that morning from our garden. By Norrie’s own edict the new fire could not be lit until the sun set, so there was nothing more to be done there.
I moved on to the sweeping, making quick work of the task. Now and again, however, I stopped to gaze through the kitchen’s hatched windowpane, taking care not to disturb Norrie’s potted bay tree on the sill. The tiny tree was Norrie’s most cherished plant, the only one she never allowed me to touch. A single one of its shiny leaves was enough to shield a person from every kind of wickedness, or so she always said.
Craning my head around the glossy leaves, I saw no sign of Norrie. Of course, it took a while to get down to the cove and back, and Norrie was not exactly fleet-footed. But the wind was rising, and the way it shook the windows made me uneasy. Was Norrie as invulnerable as she believed herself to be?
To quiet my mind and combat the shadows, I lit a bayberry candle.
Rattle went the window, and rattle again. I put the broom back in the corner and set the candlestick on the table that hulked in the middle of the room.
Rattle, rattle... SMASH!
I whirled around. The wind had battered the window open, and the shattered pane hung crookedly from its hinges. Beneath it lay Norrie’s bay tree, a mass of shards and broken leaves.
I stooped down in dismay. Was it chance that it had fallen? Or was it an omen for Norrie, for me, for us both?
There was no time to contemplate the question, for the window was hanging open and the wind was rushing through. Heart racing, I stuffed it shut with the thick woolen blanket I’d brought out for Norrie. It sealed the wind out, but at a cost: The room became still darker.
I turned back in distress to the scattered debris of the bay tree itself. I scooped up some fragments of clay pot, then stopped as something odd caught my eye. Matted in the tangle of roots was a small, flat box.
I teased it away and took it over to the candle. Slender and no larger than my hand, it shone like silver in spots. Most of it, however, was a rusty black, and the corners were eaten away. I tugged at the lid till it popped and gave way.
Inside the box was a letter. Folded into a packet, badly spotted and water stained, it bore a single line above its seal:
For my daughter Lucy, in case I do not return...
For a moment I was so bewildered I could neither move nor breathe. A letter for me? From my mother? After all this time?
Norrie had always told me that nothing remained of my mother that her possessions had been lost in the shipwreck. And yet here, tangled in Norrie’s plant, was this letter.
Norrie must have known about it. Indeed, she must have hidden it herself. Which meant Norrie had lied to me.
A flame of anger shot through me, and my hands tightened on the letter. How could Norrie have kept it from me?
I scanned the line of handwriting again: ...in case I do not return...
But that made no sense. It wasn’t as if my mother had planned to leave me. My mother had drowned.
Or had Norrie lied about that, too?
Fingers trembling, I broke the seal and flattened out the letter. Entire pages were blotted out by water damage, and the remaining handwriting was so small and faded that it would have been difficult for me to read even in daylight. By candlelight I could decipher only a few complete sentences at the very start of the letter:
My dearest daughter, I sang you here for your safety.
I stopped and read the phrase again: Sang you here? What did she mean?
I will do everything in my power to return for you within a few days, at most a few weeks, but nothing is certain, and I know that if you are reading this, it is because I have failed. The very idea of this pains me almost beyond bearing. My only comfort is that Norrie will look after you, and that when you reach your fifteenth birthday she will give you this letter...
But she did not, I thought. She did not. She hid it from me instead. And now the letter is almost unreadable. All I could make out on the rest of that page were a few words near the bottom: singing... careful...stone... Chantress... Allhallows...magic...
On the next page, only a single phrase was legible, but it took my breath away: ...when you sing, it will bring you home.
Home. I thought with longing of England, of the small cottage by the sea where we had lived, and of the castle keep and the River Thames and the other places I remembered mostly in dreams. And then I wondered: Sing what?
Frustrated, I leaned closer to the candle, trying to shape stains into words, until the edges of the parchment nearly caught fire. I pulled back sharply, but not before I saw a word after stone that looked like off.
Take the stone off?
I reached for the pendant swinging against my skin. Was this the stone my mother had meant?
The winds outside the cottage were gathering strength, but I hardly heard them. I folded my mother’s letter, tucked it in my sleeve, and peered down at my stone. It looked just as it always did: a dense, brick-red disc about the size of a walnut. Heavy as granite, it was as bumpy and plain as could be. There was nothing magical about it whatsoever. But perhaps it only revealed its powers once it was off its chain.
Never take that stone off, Norrie had told me. It’s meant to protect you.
But then Norrie had lied about my mother. Who was to say she hadn’t lied about this?
There was only one way to find out. Yet my hand slowed as I reached for the pendant. Almost as long as I could remember, I had been following Norrie’s rules. The thought of breaking them deliberately, perhaps irrevocably made my heart pound.
The wind howled at the cracks in the window, making the candle dance. My mother’s letter fluttered in my hand, and I thought I caught the whisper of a tune.
This is it. This is your chance to go home. Be bold, and take it.
I grasped the chain and pulled it over my head.
The moment the stone was off, the songs came for me hundreds of them, humming like bees, flickering like firelight, crossing like shadows. And the strongest one was the wild tune I’d heard in the garden. This time, however, it went on and on. It spoke of the sea and of home and of times long past. It tugged at my heart and my throat and my lips. Sing me, it said.
And I did.
I had no idea what the words were, or what phrase came next. But I did not care. A dizzying sense of freedom flooded over me. All I wanted to do was give voice to the notes that came to me, one after another, in an endless stream of sound. We climbed together, strong and sure, rising ever higher. I felt as if I were flying.
Sing and the darkness will find you.
Norrie’s warning rang out in my mind. But it seemed to come from somewhere very far away, somewhere much farther than the music itself.
I hardly even noticed when Norrie herself banged the door open. With a horrified cry, she bounded forward and clutched my wrist, the net of seaweed dripping in her hand.
But already the wind was rising. It swirled through the room, midnight black, and caught us both in its grasp. As the candle went out, the song rose to a shriek, and everything around us vanished.