Myrtle had been strange since she’d gone to live in the bog lands, all the villagers said so. They themselves had long learned to avoid those waters, whose miles wore death and weirdness like a shining coat on their backs. It was thought an Old God resided there, or else it was the bog itself that was alive, hungry, and tricksome in the way of all ancient things.
Whatever the case, the villagers had all seen odd folk stepping in and out of the marsh, and most had felt something in the air that frightened them, little though they could describe it, even to themselves. The Shinny, they called it, the Silver, the Silt: it was where all those queer things came from, and what had turned Myrtle a witch, and mad, besides, or so it seemed from the little they glimpsed of her when she returned to the village, to trade.
Myrtle lived in a wooden hut with her son, Slyinn, whose father no one could recall. The woman was only thirty, had all her teeth, and was fair-faced, still; talk was that one of the village men had sired the boy on some moonlit fancy. That, or the lad was begotten by some wandering barbarian, whose like had scourged their neighbours’ homes to earth by blade and flame.
Ignorance, the lot of it, no more than the chattering of fools.
In truth Myrtle had been settled in the bog for three years before Slyinn came. She had wandered there one day on a whim, finding there an empty shack that had long been abandoned, so she judged from the dust on its floors. With her parents dead and no husband to hold her, Myrtle took on the hut as her own; a strange chance, her coming upon it, she reasoned, nothing more.
Yet soon aross the shifting peat and pools she felt a will, and alone but for the quiet house and her unquiet thoughts she began to listen, to see, then to obey.
The Shinny would ask things of her, mite, at first, such as taking in an injured water bird, or in the utterance of some spell to defend the mire from those that might sully its depths. As these tasks had wefted slowly into ritual Myrtle grew fearful of their purpose, and shied away from them.
But it was then the Shinny gave her son to her, a boy Myrtle had never known she wanted until her eyes fell upon him, a prize proffered by the reeds. He’d appeared as other people had, before him, tottering through a low mist as though through a knife slit in the air, staring with a drunk’s smeared gaze in his bewilderment.
It was clear, at once, that he had come from some far plane, his boots of a thick, scalet gum, his jacket a yellow slick like the innards of an egg, his hair shorn harshly close to the scalp. The child was only three years old, yet his face, as he beheld Myrtle, was aged with the stark, harrowed knowing that he had left that old place behind.
He hadn’t wept as Myrtle took his hand and led him to the hut to live with her, nor when she told him that she was to be his mother, now. The grim, solemn night-song of his black eyes had already accepted her, as she had him.
“Your name is Slyinn, now,” said Myrtle, and the boy only looked at her with this old man’s apathy, enduring this as he had all things since he had blundered through the Silt.
Myrtle set about teaching the boy her craft even as early as this— simple things, then, such as the making of charms and poppets from nails, and water grass, or the bottling of spells to peddle to the village folk in return for food and fabric. She waited only two more years to expose him to her more grisly work, and another to have him aid her in it as a servant to Shinny o’ the bog.
At ten, Slyinn was a witch in his own right, more through lack of choice than any real want of the trade. Never had he admitted this to Myrtle, whom he loved with sombre devotion as his priestess and teacher in all things.
She never knew that he kept his old name close, as well as other things from his past. At night he dreamed of the comforting groan of cars passing along tarmaced roads, the diamond glare of televisions, and plastic toys, the cherry chemical scent of his first mother, and the coarse denim of his father’s jacket against his cheek; their names, unlike his own, had weathered like stone circles in the wind, and at last fell through his fingers as ash.
Sometimes Slyinn still heard the wails and calls of his parents across the bog, passed through the Silver like grain through a sieve. The moment they’d lost him on a country walk seemed forever caught in the atmosphere, or else the bog itself taunted him with such sounds for sport. He was neither saddened nor enraged either way; Slyinn observed the God of the marsh with the same bland duty with which he did all tasks, well knowing the futility of his objection.
His life with Myrtle was one of sweat and toil, with little joy or play to be found in it. Sometimes, when he accompanied his mother to the village, Slyinn hung around the coarse gangs of children that lingered there, more through dull curiosity than any yearning for companionship. The youths hovered near him, vicious as street curs, though they dared not touch him, nor throw stones, lest he set some fell curse upon them.
“You are the witch boy,” a girl said, one day, her small mouth a black-toothed sneer. “The one that lives in the wet and the mud.”
Slyinn had looked at her as he might a worm halved by a crow.
“Yes,” he said. “What do you care?”
The girl jutted her sharp chin.
“None of us want anything to do with you. We know what you do out there in the marsh, you and your mad old mum.”
The children all muttered and stared with eyes like grit in the snow, repeating the half-truths their parents had told them.
“Me and my Ma keep you lot safe,” said Slyinn, coolly. “Perhaps we should stop and let you all die, and what then?”
Then he held up his fingers in a gesture that—unbeknownst to them— was a warding sign against evil, and the children scattered, shrieking in the terror of having some spell at their heels.
Slyinn took no pleasure in their foolishness; their fear, in fact, disturbed him.
That night, eating a plain meal across from his mother in the wind rattled hut, he uttered his doubt into their habitual silence.
“The ritual,” said Slyinn. “Do we have to do it?”
Myrtle set down her fork and knife with a slowness that was itself a violence.
“Do we have to do it?” she repeated.
Quietly she spoke, though for the threat of her soft tones she may well have screamed.
Slyinn asked, with a dogged bravery, “Can we not send the Offerings back where they came from?”
Myrtle’s face was as still as well water, but something moved behind the hollowed planes of it, fear that wore the skin of anger.
“They are a gift to the bog,” she snapped. “Its payment for keeping the health of our people, and the land. It takes only one per season— to return any Offering would be an insult. Besides, do you think the Shinny would let them go?”
At this Slyinn paused, and well considered his answer. He had seen folk stagger out from the vapour of the Silver many times, when Myrtle’s back was turned, or when she was a-bed, and some of those unhappy wanderers had slipped back through that same veil shortly after.
Still, he did not speak of this, for he saw from the fervour of his mother’s rage that the Shinny had not allowed her to witness this, as he had.
He did not remain silent, however.
“‘Then why is it only us that carries out the ritual?” Slyinn persisted. “Why not not the villagers?”
Myrtle’s fist came down on the tabletop, setting the cutlery a-jingle.
“Because they were not chosen for it as we are!”
A desperation had sunk into her voice, and for the first time Slyinn saw her not as his mother but a woman, a person, a creature the Shinny had bent to serve its wants till she had broken.
“You have no yet heard its words,” she said, abruptly. “One day it will speak to you as it does to me. Then you will know what it wants. That it must be sated. That it is not our place to deny.”
She sat up straighter in her chair, and the coldness of before fell upon her, sudden and sharp.
“Do not ask such questions again,” she said. “The villagers are fools. Listen not to them, but to your mother. Eat.”
Slyinn obeyed, but all the while he watched the woman from beneath his lashes, finding her again as she once was: a stranger, and yet more known to him than she had ever been.
It was as the weather turned that an Offering came to them again. Myrtle sighted the young woman first, pointing without word at the wan figure trudging dully through the shallows of the bog.
Her hair was brown and straight, worn loose as a maiden’s over a dark coat of woollen stuff, and she held tight a leather bag under one arm, as though it might regain its life and squirm away from her at any moment. An object hung about her neck, all glass and gleaming metal, with a circular eye closed up against the elements behind a lid of black.
Slyinn recognised the thing for what it was, although its name escaped him. His father had owned one, he recalled, a possession brandished eagerly on special occasions, capturing the day in its gawking lens. The sight of it dangling about the throat of the lost girl like a cowbell stirred something in the boy he could not immediately place, having never wittingly experienced it before.
It was only when Myrtle approached the young woman in the usual false show of aid that it occured to Slyinn that feeling itself that was the change, the ambivalence with which he had long overseen the ritual dispensed with, a remnant of some pallourless grief.
“I don’t understand what’s happened,” said the dark-haired woman, to no one in particular. “I was walking, and then… and then I… well. Something’s not right.”
She glanced at Myrtle, her pale eyes absent of all and any comprehension.
“You have wandered too far, is all,” said Myrtle, simply. “Come with me. I might find you something to drink, and eat, and then we shall see if you are not right again.”
The young woman turned to Slyinn, then, her painted fingernails still latched tight to the leather bag. She took in the boy’s clothes, which consisted of a coarse tunic, trousers, and tattered cloak, and her brow creased, as though she was attempting some impossible feat of cognition.
“He is my son,” said Myrtle, resting a calloused hand on Slyinn’s shoulder. “My good boy.”
The young woman forced a tight smile down at him.
“Hey, there. My name’s Leah. What’s yours?”
Slyinn held his silence, as Myrtle had instructed he must do.
“We do not give our names to the fish we catch, nor the bread we break,” she had told him. “Why would we, then, to the Offerings? Hold your tongue, and spare your heart an unnecessary ache.”
Now Myrtle gestured to the woman called Leah, and beckoned her on through the marsh.
“Along with me, now,” she said. “My home is not far. You must rest.”
Leah looked all about her—at the retreating coils of the Silver’s mist through which she had passed—and sagged in resignation.
“Alright,” she said. “At least until I figure out how to get back.”
She said it without conviction, as well she should, for surely the girl could not know what ‘back’ meant for her and the others that had walked this same way. Still, Leah followed the older woman through the bog, glancing back at Slyinn from time to time, still on the cusp of some improbable thought.
As they approached the hut Myrtle paused, gesturing for Leah to walk ahead.
“You go on through the front door,” she said. “I think my goat has gotten loose. I will have to tie it up again, the mischief.”
“You have a goat?” asked Leah, in some surprise, then shrugged, with an awkward half-laugh. “Well, good luck with that. See you in a sec.”
She wandered forward, her thin boots unsure on the soft earth. As she did so Myrtle stepped up behind her, silent as a wisp, her face impassive in its focus. From under her ragged apron she drew a sickle, sharp and silver as the bend of some cruel stream, and with a lash of her right arm she brought it across the younger woman’s throat, gripping her by the scruff with her left hand as Leah kicked and thrashed and bled.
Slyinn looked down, watching two pairs of boots shuffle a twitching dance amidst the red and umber mud.
It was when the second pair stilled that Myrtle said, “Aid me with her, then, son.”
The boy helped her, as he had always done, as was all he could do.
The process was much as it always was. Between them they stripped the dead woman of her clothes, shoes, and accessories, washed the body in oil, and braided her hair, then dressed her again in an embroidered shift that was a size too loose for her slender frame.
Leah’s possessions were set aside to be burned, and Myrtle inspected the corpse for any imperfections that she had missed in the anointing. After a pause she flensed a tattoo of a butterfly from the young woman’s hip, and unrooted a tooth that had a sort of white solder in it, leaving the corpse anonymous and plain.
Slyinn stood aside, scratching the dried blood from under his fingernails until their beds were bleeding, too.
When the sun set he and his mother carried the body out across the mire, their ankles swept by the eager fog of the Silt. It watched them without eyes, or many; Slyinn felt its stare upon his skin like pondscum as they lowered the dead woman into the water.
“Please take this Offering,” said Myrtle, her voice trembling with the magnitude of her worship. “Accept it, and bless us as you will.”
She stood back from the corpse, allowing it to sink slow into the depths of the bog. Slyinn remained on his haunches, watching the pale face fold beneath the black like the sun at the end of the world. He had done this on a hundred occasions, yet as he wiped his hands upon his tunic he saw that they were shaking.
All across the marsh the Silver churned and danced the air, taking shapes at times like figures, or else some sinuous beast.
“It is satisfied,” whispered Myrtle, hoarse with relief. “We have done well.”
She attempted to put her hand on Slyinn’s shoulder, but he rolled it shortly from her touch and got to his feet, making his way back to the hut. Myrtle went after him, calling his name, but he neither spoke to his mother nor looked back at her till they were home again.
“I will go and burn her things,” said Slyinn, curtly. “I can start the fire. I know how.”
Myrtle looked at him with troubled eyes.
“Very well,” she said. “I shall bring her leavings out to you, then.”
Still, she stood about as Slyinn struck a flame, clearly wanting to take the task from him. At last she went away, and one by one Slyinn put Leah’s clothes into the fire, prodding them with a stick until they took alight.
The handbag he went through next, looking at her things with a flat sort of interest. There was a little mirror that closed with a hinge, a pink lump of cosmetic in a tube, a purse full of unfamiliar money, and cards of an odd, flimsy material with numbers engraved on the back of them.
But it was the camera Leah had worn around her neck that Slyinn paid attention to. Upon fiddling with it and its many catches he realised that there was a screen upon which he could see the photographs the woman had taken before she had passed through the Silt.
Some were of the bog, as it appeared from when Leah had come: there were houses in the distance where they did not yet exist, white structures with metal heads like weird flowers stirring the clouds. Then there were pictures of laughing women in short dresses and high arched shoes, an older couple with their arms around one another, a dog carrying a yellow ball across a stretch of very short grass—
Slyinn closed the screen and held the camera in his lap, unable to consign the endnotes of the dead woman’s life into the flame. In a sudden agitation he leapt up and stamped out the blaze, kicking water across the cinders until they went out in a hissing spasm. He stood there, for a moment, rigid with a grieving resentment that seemed to wring him in agonised hands.
Then, tucking the camera under his tunic Slyinn returned to the hut and buried it under his mattress. It remained there for a season or two; sometimes, when he was alone, Slyinn would take it out and look through the photographs until it felt as though he knew the people and places within them as well as his own life, and certainly better than his past.
Then, at last, whatever power had illuminated the tiny screen went out, and only then did Slyinn throw the camera away, letting it sink into the Silt as he had the other dead.
It was a year after this that he tried to run from the bog. Season after season he had been worn down by the guilt of leaving his mother and his post, stopped many times at the front door by this alone. But he could not bear the reek of blood and other people’s belongings upon him, the sight of so many hollow faces gnawed at by the green teeth of the water.
He put some belongings together in a bindle and set out early one morning across the marsh, thinking he well knew the journey to the village from the many times his mother had taken him there.
Yet though Slyinn walked long and hard across sodden terrain the village did not appear on the horizon, which itself he could not see, so thickly opaline did the mists of the bog lie that day.
He turned several times to try another direction, and still the village eluded him. Landmarks he should by rights have left hours at his back sprang up ahead, and the fog engulfed him in such density that even without hearing the Shinny’s voice for himself Slyinn knew that it was laughing at him, having twisted him about in a maze of its own making.
In a temper he returned to the hut and put away his things, ignoring his mother and her knowing silence as she watched him from her chair by the hearth.
Two further years passed, and Slyinn had begun the journey that was to be a man. Strong he was from carrying the dead on his back, and already he was handsome, losing the softness in his face that was a child’s. Still he had not heard the Shinny speak to him, but in the slow becoming of adulthood Slyinn took it into his head that he might reason with the God, even so.
By night he crept out into the bog with a lantern to guide him, and a charm at his belt to protect him from the Silver’s mischief. He waited until its smoke was all about him, its touch condensing on his skin.
“I have served you long enough,” said Slyinn, boldly. “Send me back to the other Time. I know you can, for I have seen it.”
The fog did not stir or change its sifting patterns as it did when the odd wanderer wound their way home again. It merely lay and watched him, humour singing in its boiling silence.
This, itself, was an answer, and one Slyinn could not stand.
“Why?” he cried out. “Tell me why you will not do it. Has it been too long? Do those others slip from you by accident?”
His fists were padlocked, his jaw a grinding piston through which his words spat like oil in their rankled hatred. Yet as he stood upright, poised to bellow into the dark again a sudden terror took hold, without reason, as though in that moment he had lain his foot in an unseen hole beneath him.
It was a fool’s act to rally against the land that surrounded him on all sides in a prisonous trap, that was alive in earth, and mist, and water with a spirit whose strengths had he did not fully know.
Slyinn lowered his arms, humbled by his fear, and ignorance.
“I will stay, then,” he muttered, softly. “But there will come a day I will not kneel.”
Again, there was the sense that the Silt was laughing; it pushed at him as he trudged home through the dark, wreathing him in air of ice.
A decade turned, and Slyinn was as strong and dark and beautiful as amber, his hair like thunder made water down his back. The girls of the village that had feared him once were abruptly in love, and some of the boys, besides, their pitted faces drawn ever more thin with longing.
Slyinn had taken on the greater weight of the ritual for himself, by then, as well as cooking, and other household chores; his mother had turned forgetful and bemused, in turns, until it seemed sometimes she lived still long in the past, in her girlhood and was too weak to tend the bog as she always had.
Spells and healing Slyinn and his mother had attempted, as well as further tributes to the Silt, but it seemed it could not heal her, often soften the upset of it enough in Myrtle that she slept more than she fretted. As the summer came Slyinn understood that the presence of the God itself within her mind had caused her illness, eating of her mind until the Silt was all that was left of her, her payment for so long in its spell.
The more time Slyinn sat at her bedside, holding her clawed hand in his, the further depths in which his long tended hatred sutured its roots. He had loved and suffered with his mother, and now he comprehended with a near psychic exactness how she had become what she now was.
He was beginning to hear the Shinny speak to him, now, like echoes of his own voice that he was never entirely sure were not his own thoughts. Other days it was even less coherent than that, merely fragments of speech uttered by an animal that thought itself human. How Myrtle had not been more mad within such influence impressed upon Slyinn the utter strength of her will and character, and for all her wrongs he loved her all the more.
Two Offerings he had killed alone since his mother’s sickness, both women, both scarcely twenty and five in years. There had been other walkers through the Silt before them, but Slyinn had discerned the God had no interest in them in that it lay low and langrous about the bog, and would not answer when he called to it.
Then a girl with hair up in curls and a jaunty rag had come along by the hut, and she the Shinny had wanted. She was beautiful, and young, of course, lips painted red as her throat would be as she kicked and coughed in Slyinn’s grip, clad in the sturdy fashions of a time of war.
She had turned as he brought the sickle towards her, and had fought him; she was slight, and Slyinn overpowered her with an ease that sickened him.
The second Offering did not see him at all. She wore spectacles that fogged in the moisture of the air, and by then Slyinn had learned the trick of silence that had protected his mother throughout her worship of the bog. When he slit the girl’s neck she dropped as though cut from the gallows, dead with a suddenness which he had rarely seen.
As he rolled her onto his back Slyinn saw he had cut so deep that her head hung loose from it.
He had not known his own strength. He could not kill like this again.
When another Offering was sent to Slyinn he turned it away, standing with his mother’s sickle at his side until the young man that had fallen from the Silver turned back in terror along the spectral corridor from which he had come. The Shinny did not at once react to this denial; it was quiet for some days, keeping to the perimeters of the bog.
Then, softly, in a whisper of wind stroke it spoke to Slyinn again from dawn till day’s end, until he could stand the sound of it no longer.
Myrtle, by then, was comatose, a rasping husk unfeeling of a hand at her brow, or a spoon at her lips. She was neither the woman she had been, nor the mother she had become, and so it was without shame that Slyinn washed, and oiled, and dressed her, braiding her brown hair as he had all those that were Offerings.
Myrtle neither moved not spoke a word throughout the ritual. It was a death without such a taking that had her, where all that lived now was the flesh, and nothing more.
Again Slyinn packed his bag, this time with the precision and care of an adult that had long planned this very flight, as indeed he had. To the village he would go, to bed a woman, to buy a horse, and provisions enough that he might travel from city to city, country to country in search of some God that might return him to the time he’d lost, or thereabouts.
And it there was no such God then his talents would serve him well through his life, and never again would he take a death that was not earned, if it ever was.
Slyinn sharpened his mother’s sickle, thinking grimly of the many throats and abdomens its mirrored tail had opened. Then he went to Myrtle where she lay glaze-eyed on her bedroll, and touched her shoulder lightly.
“Ma,” he said. “We must go, now.”
She was like a crow scarer over his arm, so limply loose with a moth-eathen stare. So little sustenance had Myrtle taken of late that she was but a leaf’s weight against him, as though there was nothing beneath her skin but cloud silk and dreaming. Slyinn was glad of that as he carried her into the bog, for the surreality of it her lightness made soft, and strange, and abstract the walk into the depths of the Silt.
It stood around him, that elusive God, an audience of many, and one. Starving and curious it pulled at him with questions, fractured and guttural its voice, no longer his.
Sajan, it said, and Slyinn snapped at it without patience or liking.
“Do not use that name again,” he said. “You took it from me as you did my parents, and the life I might have had, and now this poor woman who loved you and I as best she could.”
The Silver rippled, and seemed in some form to sulk and skulk about him, tasting the end of life it was to savour.
Slyinn touched Myrtle’s cheek, which now was scarcely warm, and held her by the waist as he might the slender girl she had once been.
“Shinny o’ the bog,” he said, to the Silt. “I would have been priest after this woman. But she is the last Offering I will give before you let me away from here. That is all I ask: release me. Agree to this, and we will part without ills between us.”
The Silver rose in a shimmering antagonism, red and white in the blistering sun-down.
No, it said, without speaking; the word just was.
No, it said, and Slyinn imagined himself its servant to the end of days, a greying man sopped in the blood and begging cries of the wandering youth.
“You will grant me this,” he said, with all the grim patience of resolve, “or I will salt and sink spells into your waters, then cast myself upon a pyre of herbs so that my very death might poison you with smoke and ash.”
Again the foul mist writhed.
Lies told, it said, but Slyinn shook his head, a snarl upon his lips as of a dog. Any man would be afraid of him, yet not the Silt, that had known him nearly all his life, and had thought it could puppet his will.
“Test me, then,” he said. “The villagers will not serve you. My mother did, for she was already unsound of the mind when she came to you from some grief. There will be no one else. I have lain spells that would forbid you from taking another familiar if I cannot freely go. She taught me how.”
Lies, said the Shinny again, but with less conviction that before.
Slyinn noted this, and spoke gently, then, as though coaxing some wild beast to calm.
“You have given me much, as I have given to you. Now you must send me away. Do what you will; take another to serve your wants. That is not my business, for I am not a God. But you and I are done with, now, and my mother is to be your pay. Older than the others she may be, but she was your friend, and so is worth far more.”
Slyinn nudged the sickle to Myrtle’s bare throat, and waited for the bog to consider.
Birds called, and the wind rattled trees and grass upon the water. The sunset was a garrotor’s welt on the horizon, and the fog a rabid whiteness that pulsed—once, thrice—then settled, silent as a stillbirth on the marsh.
Yes, said the Shinny, at last, and Slyinn breathed a most delicate sigh.
Then he dashed the sickle across Myrtle’s neck in a garnet awning, and he held her until her pale body unspooled through his grip and tumbled away like a penny into a well.
The blood from his mother’s throat sank into the black of Slyinn’s cloak, where it would not stain; it was the splayed hands and hapless mask of Myrtle’s death in the dark water that he would remember, little though was left of her to die under that red sun.
The Silver retreated across the marsh, drawing back into the night’s entry. Slyinn stared at it with eyes of ammonites, daring it to oppose him as he turned away from it towards the distant light of the village, which was still so awake, and so alive.
In the end the God let him go, though it followed at his heels like a half-feral animal to the houses, and perhaps then after, the whisper of a spirit in his shadow.