They arrive when the ice melts enough. There is a cave in the mountains that changes with the thaw, when the lakes are at peak capacity.
“We don’t go up the pass except to tend to our herds during the witching week,” Da says. It can’t be helped--it was always a warm season that brought the danger hidden in the cave, but hard to tell when to stop bringing them up that far until we can see it for ourselves.
I am eight the first time I’m asked to follow and help my da tend the flock, the first time we flee the mountain, running back into the village. My da leans across the threshold of the dark cave and tucks his head back, sputtering with fright.
We run through bushes and down the steeper slopes as if death itself stands for less than what would soon to crawl through that cave. When we reached the square, my da tugged on a bell that resounded throughout the village. My brother rushes out of our home and grabs my shoulder to drag me back inside while my father begins to butcher a sheep to smear its blood on the ground outside each house.
They would tell me later that I had survived similar nights, but I never remembered it. Probably my mother was starting to become sick, and my brother and father felt harried in watching over us all.
The dark expands as the sun passes behind the peaks surrounding us. The houses in our village are silent except for the bleating of goats. When we look out through the wooden slats of our doors and can barely see the road, we snuff out our candles as well and silence our whispering.
Outside, someone is shuffling down the road through our village. Several things speaking in human-like voices that I can’t understand and are walking past our door and dragging fingers through the blood on our doorsteps. Some sound like women, but it’s hard to discern.
As quickly as they’ve come, they’ve gone. They leave no trace of their presence in town except that all of our goats seem to have returned to our farm.
Regardless, Da has a grim facial expression. We sell the goats as soon as we can to the city and buy more, as my da believes that they have been cursed.
When I am ten, I am taking care of the goats alone so that my family can work closer to town. I know how to run home now, but I forget to leave the goats where they are and just take care of myself when I see what my father saw at the back of the cave.
It’s a natural light where there was none in the previous months. Curiosity grabs at me, but panic grabs harder. I begin to run but get no further than five seconds away before I remember to grab the goats.
“Stop! Wait!” I yell pointlessly after a goat as it strolls into the cave. I wait for a moment, but the goat doesn’t return.
I charge in after him, hoping to catch him before he crosses too far into the cave, but he’s long gone. I’m surprised to note how similar this place is to mine when I cross into the light--it’s a snow covered mountain breaking into patches of grass that slope down towards a village.
“That must be where they come from,” I mutter aloud.
“Yes, we live there!” a boy behind me and a little older shouts.
I scream until I see that he’s holding my goat.
“My name’s Tam!” he says cheerfully, adding, “don’t worry, I’ve got your goat. You’re not the first person who stumbled this way.”
It’s cold and the way back is apparently sealed now behind me, so I follow him into town and meet her: the magic girl.
When I’m in my own world, I can barely remember her. Something clots my understanding and memory, but I rationalize that it’s my age, the way we always forget the background from which we grow. I’m twelve, and I’m staring up into the mountains while I’m supposed to be tilling the fields, feeling that something is waiting up there for me, and though I can remember walking into that cave to get the goat that wandered off, all I can remember is the dark and a warmth unlike anything else on that mountain.
I’m thirteen and lying in bed, tossing a stone at the ceiling just to see if it fails to come back down. The snow on the mountain is too dense to look into the cave even though I’m getting strong enough that I could cross through it with the right clothes. I walk up the mountain, as close as I can get to it, and it’s still frozen shut.
When I’m fourteen, a fire bursts out of our house and claims my parents, my da while he is trying to spare my mother. I don’t know where to lay the flowers I pick so I just stand outside the charred half of my home and the spot where Da gasped his last breath and gaze at the mountain. The melt is strong that year, so I go up to the cave and dig a hole to get in, only to find that the cave terminates where my memory assured me it continued.
I start to wonder whether I made up the story about locking all of our doors and waiting out the witching week until my brother discusses how, as the new head of our farm, he’ll be responsible to ring the bell should anything go wrong. He’s changed in the absence of our parents, and I can feel him becoming colder and more businesslike with each day.
Still, he allows me to tend to the goats, which I do with relish because that lets me keep an eye on the mountain. Even as years pass, I can’t quite lose the sensation that there is something more.
And then, one evening during a hotter than normal summer, a light shines through the back of the cave.
Her name is Willow. Her name is Willow. Her name is Willow!
Before I can even cross to the other side of the mountain, I remember it as if it’s my own. Willow and Will grown at the same time but hardly the same.
She’s waiting for me in the cave and something new is sown inside me just to look at her. I can’t discern what it is.
“Will!” she says, “Do you remember me?”
And I do. All at once I can recall that she taught me magic. I pick a stone off of the floor and toss it into the air, intoning words I had forgotten.
The stone hangs in the air.
“Of course,” I say. “You’re the one that taught me magic.”
I stay for seven days, but it feels like no time at all. I learn everything about her home, her familiar, her smile. I even relearn the generosity of these people on the other side. As scared of them as I was when they first came down from the mountain when I was 8, they were only there to bring back the goats that we'd left stranded on the mountain.
She even teaches me more magic. I watch everything she does with more study than I’ve ever given a thing in my life.
I know know that I'll have to return home to help my brother, make amends for being gone so long, craft excuses that don't make these people look like monsters anymore, but the fear is undeniable--I know that when I cross back over, I'll begin forgetting it all.
So I touch her face and kiss her mouth and feel a spark not unlike static shock ripple through my veins.
"That's the magic -- telling us we're meant to -- it's meant to be. No matter what, remember that," she says.
And I don't forget anything about her anymore.
“I’ll return to you, Wil. I promise,” I say as I step back through again.
I do forget my own village, or at least their paranoia. The first time I try to broach the topic of the seven days I spent away from the farm, I am ignored.
My brother drags me into the house and curses at me for speaking nonsense about my experience. I try to reason with him, but he begins to become physical, grabbing my arm too tightly. He’s strong, and I can’t make him see that the village on the other side of the mountain is worth getting to know by fighting with him.
For three years I needle at my brother’s sense that I’ve been cursed by my stay with Wil on the other side of the mountain. All I find is proof that he and the other people I was raised alongside want me to have nothing to do with the cave. They watch me climb and a few follow me up the mountain when the melt is strong the next year. The way is not open, so I stand and just apologize for not being able to make it back.
Two men are shouting at me on the way down. I can’t convince them that this is safe. In Willow, a home was planted. It’s starting to blossom, a flower unlike any I’ve known in my life. This is love.
A year later and the entrance to the cave has been boarded up. I smash the barricade to pieces with nearby stones until I can get in, but the way is shut again. Again I apologize to her, hoping that she can hear how desperately I want to see her.
Twenty is the right year. An uncommonly warm breeze rustles through the valley.
They’re waiting for me at the mouth of the cave.
“What do you think you’re trying to do?”
“Are you seriously trying to get in touch with those creatures?” my brother asks.
I try to push through, but they’re strong. I don’t fight back and take my hits before they lock me into a room in my own house.
All I can think of is her face and the magic she taught me to control, and then I see it all. I see her waiting for me in the open cave, standing with her arms crossed, waiting out the whole week. I struggle against the door. I plead.
When my brother finally lets me out, I knock him down on the way to the cave, but it’s too late. The back wall is solid rock once more.
The village is waiting for me when I return.
“We have no choice but to banish you if all you’re going to do is bring ruin to us.”
“Banish me if you like, but you’re not keeping me from going through that cave the next time it thaws. If you want me to cross over to the other side and never come back, that’s fine. I’ve never tried to harm you and only want to see the woman that I love,” I reply.
“I cannot believe that you’ve fallen for something over there, Will,” my brother taunts.
“You’ve not loved anyone since our parents died, so I’m hardly surprised,” I reply.
He tries to fight me, but this time they hold him back. “What if he’s cursed?” a man asks.
“My only curse is that I was born here. Leave me be, and I will go with no problem.”
They don’t let me stay in town, and I have to forage for food and work for neighboring villages that are less given to superstitions, but none of them stop me when I visit the cave in the following two years.
I can feel her start to lose hope. When her father passes, I feel it reverberate in my own body. I’m twenty-two and lying awake at night, throwing and then watching stones float over my head as a reminder of my promise.
That summer, when I return again, I pass through the cave with no intent to ever return.
I see her face rearranging with the realization that I’ve come back. I see her mother knowingly smirking when I kiss Wil in front of her.
I see Wil nod when I get up the guts to finally propose to her, even though I know we’re bound together between worlds.
I see my ring wrap around her finger, and the home she planted inside of me is in full bloom now and fruit bearing. I’ve found my place, at last, by her side.