Alina’s family had a history with witches. Her father had nearly married one under the sway of a poisoned kiss before her mother broke the spell. Her aunt took her baby to one to heal his clubfoot, and he returned walking but with blue-jay wings on his back. Her grandmother had been cursed by a witch long ago and now could only speak in metaphors. Dinner’s a whistling kettle, she’d say, to mean Ready. The weather’s for fishes, to mean It’s raining. Alina would’ve liked to hear that story, but her grandmother couldn’t tell it true, and nobody else was old enough to remember.
Alina’s witch lived in a third-floor walkup downtown, and she preferred sunglasses to pointy hats. She had another name of course, but everyone knew what she was, and so in whispers and rumors, she was only The Witch.
They met on a Tuesday. The moon was a fingernail clipping in the sky. Mercury hung beside it. It was a good time for bad decisions. Alina went to the café to get away from home, where her parents were arguing, and her grandmother had burned bread, filling the house with smoke. She had three months before she went back to college; it was just a matter of waiting.
The witch sidled up on the next stool. Up close she smelled like spearmint and lavender, the base ingredients of a sleeping potion. She held out her hand and without knowing why Alina laid hers in it.
“Would you look at that,” the witch said. Her nails brushed Alina’s palm. “You’ll live a long life.”
When Alina flinched, she laughed. “You know what I am. Come on, let me see your destiny.”
Alina stayed. The witch peered at her hand, and the smile slipped from her face. It seemed natural for her to press a kiss to the lifeline that split Alina’s hand in two.
Kissing a witch always ended poorly. Alina knew that—look at her father, whose long-ago almost-marriage still bubbled up in her parents’ arguments. And yet. She went home with the witch that night and many after.
In the cool hours of the morning, the witch told Alina of magic—the recipe to bind a bitter enemy, the difference between stirring a potion clockwise and widdershins, how spells tasted like molasses when done right and rusted pennies when done wrong.
Alina told the witch of chemistry—the hum of autoclaves, the orderliness of stoichiometry, always in balance; the near-sorcery of mercury II thiocyanate.
When it rained, Alina let the witch draw a sigil for Keep Dry on her stomach instead of taking an umbrella. It was a dangerous thing, letting magic into your body. She walked through a downpour and came home dry. Her mother watched from the kitchen window.
She realized she was changing on a Wednesday when the sun was high and hot. A good day for revelations. She and her grandmother were alone in the house, and her grandmother had baked sugar cookies. They were Alina’s favorite. But when she put one in her mouth she felt nothing at all. It wasn’t the cookies. She’d lost the taste for them. It turned to meal on her tongue, joyless.
“What’s happened?” she said, the rest uneaten on her plate.
Her grandmother sighed. “Love is a chrysalis, my dear, everything inside it transforms.”
Alina startled, but of course, everyone knew. The witch could go nowhere unnoticed. “Love doesn’t make a person lose their sweet tooth.”
Her grandmother paused and pressed her fist to her mouth, searching for a close enough metaphor. “Magic is a crossroads bargain—trade is required.”
“I didn’t ask to trade,” Alina said. The very idea. “No one should trade with a witch.”
Her grandmother chuckled like she was in on a secret. “A good trade is right as rain.”
Alina thought of her grandfather, who everyone said had been cruel, who had vanished one day with the dawn. She wondered again about the story of her grandmother’s witch, what she had gotten in trade for her speech.
* * *
The witch was waiting for her, sitting legs akimbo on the floor.
“I never agreed to trade you anything.”
“Do you think that I haven’t traded too?” The witch smiled sadly. She got up from the floor and took up her little cauldron. She flung in salt, a mouse’s jaw, onyx, muttered the words for a heartbreak curse. She stirred twice and then tipped the cauldron forward for Alina to see. Nothing but plain salt.
Silently, she crossed the distance between them and took Alina’s hands, showing her how her pinky was the same length as Alina’s love line, how the V between Alina’s middle and ring fingers matched perfectly the hollow of her own throat, how her thumbs fit alongside the cut of Alina’s hipbones like key and tumblers. Portentous geometries, these bodies.
“We were meant to mark each other,” she said and stepped back. “Witches don’t choose our paths. We can see the future, after all.”
Alina shook her head, a fury building in her chest. She scratched at her hand, where days ago she’d noticed a red stain like a birthmark blooming where the witch first kissed her.
“You’d be changed if you loved someone else, too,” the witch said. “You just wouldn’t know it.”
With her other hand, Alina scooped a fistful of salt from the cauldron and whispered a warding to it, the same one her mother used to mark the doors and windows against the uncanny. She licked the salt from her hand, and the witch watched silently, a safe enough distance away.
It was the last time they spoke. Summer ended; she went back to school. When she came home again, the witch had vanished as witches do. It wasn’t until one night many years after that another lover looked at the mark on her hand and recognized it as a thumbprint, splitting her lifeline into the before and the after.