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The Bitterwine Oath
Author: Hannah West

 


Lillian Pickard


I did not regret befriending Malachi Rivers until the night we invoked her magic to seek revenge.

Four of us sat in a circle on the floor of an abandoned cabin in the Piney Woods, twine looped around our girlish wrists, binding us together. A grimoire lay open upon tender sprigs of herbs and bones of woodland creatures. Segments of text had been violently crossed out and revisions crammed into the margins.

Malachi Rivers was indeed that powerful; her edits and improvisations increased the potency of every charm, hex, curse, and conjuration.

Until that fateful night in the summer of 1921, our foursome, led by Malachi, had performed harmless magic for entertainment and empowerment. Dorothy Hawkins, Johanna Mead, and I revered Malachi’s magic and wanted to participate. While we were bound together, we could channel it. The powerless could become powerful.

We called ourselves “Pagans of the Pines” in a spirit of cheeky rebellion. The magic had been a girlhood game to me, the grimoire nothing more than a mass-produced, curious collectible pilfered from the parlor of my cosmopolitan aunt.

But everything changed that night. Childish rebellion turned to sinister retribution.

Dorothy, Johanna, and Malachi had endured trials I could not fathom. Malachi’s father was controlling and oppressive. Johanna Mead’s abusive father and uncle had beaten the boy she loved nearly to death out of a twisted sense of protectiveness. A lynch mob had murdered Dorothy Hawkins’s older brother over a false accusation that he had attempted to murder a white man. Her sharecropper father had lost his land, and the family relied on charity from their church to scrape by.

Now that Malachi had nearly mastered her magic of earth, bone, and blood, the three of them wanted to claim vengeance commensurate to their suffering.

We did not mean to kill. Malachi concocted a curse that would reveal the deep evil within the hearts of the men who had wronged them, so that society would no longer accept, respect, or enable their dark deeds. Malachi had spoken the curse over the Communion wine in the sanctuary of her father’s church. We watched her, witnessed her slender body rocking with power, her wrists and hands trembling. She dusted the wine with herbs, dipped her fingers into the chalice, and painted her mark on the white cloth of the Communion table—the mark we had created to represent the three elements from which she drew her power.

“The Devil’s supper,” I recall her whispering in the candlelight.

We returned to our consecrated ground—the cabin nestled in a forgotten forest glade—to finish our work. We would use magic to lure the men to Communion at the witching hour. They would drink the cursed wine, and their darkness would be known to all.

But as soon as we split the flesh of our fingertips and dripped blood over our preparations, I felt Malachi’s magic spinning out of control, like a toy top whirling fast enough to lift off the ground and bounce about unpredictably. The other girls’ anger fueled it, giving it a will of its own.

I was afraid. I wanted to stop it. But our hands were already bound, and to break the bond before our work was complete would be far more dangerous than even the darkest conjuration.

I have undoubtedly lost many a reader already with my earnest talk of magic. But I have no other pen with which to write this biography.

Any tale about Malachi that excludes magic is not about Malachi

at all.


Excerpt from Pagans of the Pines: The Untold Story of Malachi Rivers, published 1968

 

 

ONE

 

 

Natalie Colter


— PRESENT DAY —


ONE MONTH AND TEN DAYS UNTIL THE CLAIMING


The first day of my last summer in San Solano was clammier than a fever. The sun baked the mud from last night’s storm like clay in a kiln as my best friend and I ran the trail we’d forged between our two houses.

“You’re falling behind, regional champ!” Lindsey Valenzuela taunted over her shoulder.

Ambition gnawed at my tired muscles and I pushed myself harder. In a few short months, I’d be a college freshman distance runner with everything to prove. I couldn’t afford a lethargic summer.

My toe caught on a divot in the rough terrain and I fell, earning stinging scrapes along my palms and elbows.

Lindsey doubled back to offer me a hand, her shadow stretching over me. “You okay?”

I accepted the help and unstuck my sweaty tank top from my skin. “No offense, but when did you get faster than me?”

“It’s my green juice.” She slapped her bicep, way too perky for having just covered three miles in the heat. “You should try it.”

“No way. It smells like toxic waste.”

“Your call.” Lindsey swiped caramel-highlighted dark hairs from her dewy face and grinned. “I’ll just keep handing you your ass.”

As I brushed dirt off my legs, a lazy wind carried perfume from clusters of pale honeysuckles, and with it, a stench of rot. I wrinkled my nose and palmed sweat from my eyes, searching the overgrown grasses. Behind a barbed-wire fence marking private pastureland, I found a bovine ribcage the size of a barrel. Scavengers had ripped away most of the meat, but flaps of decaying flesh remained.

“Gross,” Lindsey said, following my look of disgust.

Like every other East Texas town, San Solano was hotter than the Devil’s crack by the end of May, and the carcass reeked. But I ventured a step into chigger-ridden grasses to get a closer look.

“Nat, don’t get too close!” Lindsey said.

“There’s no head.” I was almost relieved by the lack of a bulging tongue and hollow eye sockets. “Isn’t that weird?”

“It’s probably mounted in a steakhouse.”

“That’s an Angus farm,” I said, pointing. “Why would anyone mount a cow with no horns?”

I expected to see my curiosity mirrored in her molasses-brown eyes. But she shrugged and flicked a mosquito from her patterned neon running shorts. “You’re the one whose dad’s a vet. I don’t know anything about cows.” She caught up to my insinuation and flashed me a sideways look of suspicion. “You’d better not be getting superstitious on me.”

Retying my dirty-blond hair in a ponytail, I crossed back through the patches of Indian paintbrush. “I’m not saying I think the Malachians are still around or anything.”

“Good.”

“But don’t you think it’s a little unsettling?”

“It’s just a dead cow!” Lindsey cried. “This town is on the verge of hysteria.”

An overstatement, but San Solano was undeniably on edge. The sheriff’s department had sent deputies to our classes the week before finals to hook their thumbs in their belts and lecture us against getting too rowdy this summer. “Stay away from Calvary Baptist unless you’re attending a service,” they’d warned, “and don’t stir up trouble at the cabin in the woods. No trespassing means no trespassing.”

They asked us to inform them of anything “unusual.” We knew what they meant: books of curses, assortments of herbs and animal bones, or the symbol that had become shorthand for cult activity in San Solano.

But they warned us not to panic if we saw something suspicious. The most likely culprits would be local teens like us pulling pranks, or tourists who were overly fascinated with the town’s violent past. Plenty of their kind would descend on San Solano in the coming days.

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