She moved through the streets with swift determination. Down Faulkner Street, then a right on Martin until The Crooked Crone came into view. The morning air, full of sea mist, stung her cheeks as its saltiness bit the tender patches of newly scaled skin.
She hadn’t seen or spoken to the woman, known now as the Crone, since high school. Decades had passed, and they were no longer teenagers, but she was confident she’d be remembered. She counted on it because she needed this woman’s help. She tucked her chin to brace against the wind’s harshness and hugged her overcoat tight to her chest.
Each day, unexpected changes transformed her in the strangest ways. This morning’s novel modification brought the proverbial final straw. Narrow slits had fashioned themselves below every rib and made breathing arduous, especially through her thick woolen coat.
One city block remained between her and her former life. She never thought to check the business hours, so she prayed her old friend would be there and be willing to assist her. She quickened her pace and wondered what she would do if Katrina Hale weren’t there, or worse, refused to help.
As she neared, the shop seemed too dark inside. She peered through the window but detected no movement. Before she tried the door, she contemplated the shop’s logo: a crescent moon. It was the symbol of the Goddess herself but open on the right instead of the left. It was waning and foretold of surrender to the secret wisdom contained within.
She collapsed against the door as her body reshaped itself again. Tiny bony structures pressed the skin near her shoulder blades from the inside and threatened to rupture out. She gasped with each unbearable puncture.
“Goddess of all good and light, inspire my friend to make this right.” She grabbed the door handle and pushed.
“We’re not open yet,” the Crone replied, as she approached the ailing female from the side.
“Oh, thank goodness,” she said and reached for her old friend. Her back brushed the windowpane, and she flinched.
“You look like you need a doctor, not a psychic.”
“Don’t you recognize me, Katrina?”
The Crone glared at her. “I’m afraid I do not. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She waved her hand, a motion for the injured woman to step aside and allow her to open her shop.
“I’m Miranda Scott.” She waited for a sign of recognition. None came. “From Ipswich High?” Still, nothing. “I was the mascot. The Ipswich Imp, remember?”
“I’m sorry, you’ve confused me with someone else.” The Crone turned the key and entered.
“I’m the one who saw you, Katrina Hale. I saw you and your sisters disappear into thin air the day of our graduation field trip. I waited for hours until the three of you stepped back through.”
The Crone glowered at the deranged woman and slammed the door in her face.
Anger welled within Miranda, and before she realized what she had done, a gust of wet wind blew the door open and crashed it against the display counter.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. Psychokinesis? Really, Miranda, you could have just opened the door with your hand.”
“You do remember me.”
“Of course, how could I forget the girl who extorted witchcraft lessons to keep her mouth shut?”
“I wouldn’t have come here unless I needed you.” Shame, or something similar, washed over her.
“Have you seen a doctor?” Katrina asked, pointing at the patch of scales across Miranda’s cheek. “I can mix you up something for eczema or psoriasis, perhaps.”
“Oh, this is far more serious than a skin disorder.” Miranda opened her coat and winced as the collar trailed over the bony protrusions on her back. She lifted her shirt to uncover her ribs and inhaled deeply. Her gills rippled with her breath.
Katrina moved closer. “Fascinating.”
“There’s more.” Miranda turned around, carefully pulled her t-shirt over her head, and exposed her back.
Two saw-like bony appendages poked through Miranda’s skin. Both covered with a thin, translucent webbed epidermis. Mesmerized, she posed her finger at the base of the one closest to her. “I’m going to touch you,” she warned.
Miranda groaned as Katrina’s cold fingertip traced the shape.
“What the hell is it?”
“Pectoral fins,” Katrina said. She dashed to the shop’s entry door and flipped the lock. “Let me see the rest of you. Back here, out of sight from the street.” She guided Miranda to the room behind the amethyst-beaded curtain, where she performed her mystical readings.
Miranda unbuttoned her jeans and let them fall to the floor. Like on her face, blueish luminescent scales dotted her hip, thigh, and the front of her ankle. All materialized on Miranda’s left side.
“What recently changed in your life?” Katrina asked.
“Nothing. Everything was normal, then the next day— this.”
“Nothing’s ever normal when you’re a witch.” Miranda wasn’t a strong one, Katrina knew because she never taught her the real secrets to witchery and magic.
“I meant normal for us,” Miranda said, aware they were nothing alike. “Normal for me.”
“Something triggered this DNA expression.”
Miranda thought for a moment. “No, nothing that I can think of,” she said as she shook her head.
“Come on, think harder. When did this start?”
“A week ago, I guess.”
“And before that?”
“Well, Jimmy and I…”
“My boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. We broke up.” She glanced down, teary-eyed. “He was leaving on an excursion and said he couldn’t worry about me while he was out at sea.”
“You were dating a sailor?”
“A fisherman, actually. He owns a fish market in the Waterfront District.”
“Good gawd, Miranda. You fell in love with a seaman, and he broke your heart.”
“So, you’re a water witch. Where do you think Sirens come from?”
“Sirens are a myth. Anyway, I thought they were mermaids who turned evil from being betrayed.”
“Mythical creatures are no more imaginary than you or I.” Katrina closed her eyes and sought internal guidance. “Okay, so you’re not a Siren. But you are becoming a…”
“Yes.” Katrina grabbed her Book of Shadows from the shelf and placed it on the table. She held her hands above the book. The cover flopped open, and the pages wildly flipped. Katrina’s mind raced at the same furious pace, until its abrupt stop. “You’re a merwitch.”
Katrina continued the book’s description aloud: “A sea witch turns into a mermaid if she yearns for a sailor she loves and for the water upon which he sails.”
“I don’t care about Jimmy or the sea. Make it stop! I can’t turn into a mermaid!”
“To become the merwitch,” Katrina continued, “you must embrace and assimilate the mermaid within. Once this transpires, your insight deepens, and you develop greater control over the element of water.” Katrina glanced at Miranda. “Your water witch abilities get an upgrade, apparently.”
“How the hell do I do that?”
“I can’t tell you how. Only you can heal yourself. And, until you do, your inner mermaid is quite literally being projected out physically.” It was clear to Katrina, Miranda didn’t believe she could cure herself.
Katrina read the rest of the merwitch page in silence. On land, one must complete the assimilation to remain the merwitch. If the physical transformation happens before this occurs, she loses the ability to shift from female to mermaid at will.
She glanced at Miranda, who wiggled and flopped on the seat at her table. If, as a mermaid, she is betrayed before contact with seawater, she will become consumed with bitterness and rage. Once submerged, a final and permanent transformation into siren occurs.
Miranda pitched forward. She cried out as scales visibly wrapped around and covered her right side as well. “You have to stop this.”
“I don’t have that kind of power.” As a solitary witch, Katrina knew the only magic she controlled was sympathetic, which exploited an individual’s true beliefs. A trick of the mind, convincing oneself they never had any power in the first place. But to intervene in another’s fate required a whole different kind of thing.
“You do,” Miranda pleaded, “with your sisters at your side. You three are special.”
Katrina’s lips drew thin, and her eyes narrowed. “I haven’t spoken to Penny in years.”
“What about Samantha? Where is she?”
“The better question is when is she, but that’s another story.” Katrina closed the book with a thud and slid it back in its place on the shelf. “It is impossible.” She would never bring Samantha back and unleash hell on this realm.
Miranda’s back straightened. “Your sisters made the same pact with me as you did,” she threatened. “I can call on them, too. But I picked you. I chose you.”
The girl’s tantrum disgusted Katrina, but now she understood what must be done. “Fine, I’ll think of something,” she said, and improvised, “perhaps I can write a spell.”
She dashed to the front of her shop and searched the various bottles of herbs and dried flowers. The incantation she sought centered around creation, divinity, and must invoke the moon’s mystical hidden side. For this, she would need Asclepias incarnata. She added Dieffenbachia amonea to silence the voice and a single needle of tsuga canadensis: Hemlock spruce.
She tied the ingredients in a scarf and charged back to the room for Miranda. “Come, we must go to the water’s edge, where the rocks open to the sea, and the milkweed thrives.”
“To the flats? Why can’t we cast the spell here?”
“I need fresh milkweed.”
Miranda raised her calves. The little toes on both feet slanted out in sharp points as her tail fin emerged.
“Can you make it to my car?”
“I think so.” Miranda stood. She nearly fell over when she took her first step. Her legs had begun to fuse at the top of her thighs.
“Here.” Katrina snatched the tablecloth and wrapped the fabric around Miranda’s waist. The poor girl’s jeans were never going back on.
“This will all be over soon,” Katrina said with authority. She placed Miranda’s coat over her shoulders to hide the now copious pectoral fins and helped her out to the car.
Shells, mixed in sand, crunched under the tires’ weight as Katrina parked adjacent to the private shore. Although Miranda’s mutation had not advanced any further, walking in the sand was beyond her capability.
Katrina popped the trunk. She snagged the blanket she kept in the event of an emergency, and clearly, this qualified. She laid the quilt out on the ground, collected the fish-girl, and carried her to the prepared spot.
“Why do I have to be near the water?” Miranda cried as her body hit the hard, wet beach. “The tide is coming in.”
“I told you, I need the fresh milkweed for the spell, and the saltwater represents your tears.” Katrina centered Miranda’s body, gathered the top two corners of the fabric in her fists, and lugged the bundle toward the sea.
Miranda plowed the beach, towed by a woman with pure determination. “I’m scared.”
“I know.” Katrina stopped and lifted the girl. She hoisted Miranda’s frail frame on one of the flat-topped rocks that lined the North Shore and bordered Milkweed Flats. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’m coming back. I promise.” This was true, but deception colored her words.
Out of sight, Katrina plucked three stems of the desired plant. One for each of her sisters and one for herself. In an ancient tongue, she chanted her spell while the tender stalks bled their milk into a black glass vial. She tumbled the container with a few quick motions of her hand. The mixture combined.
She moved toward Miranda, who lay sprawled across the rock. Katrina slid her palm under the back of Miranda’s neck and slowly raised her head. “Drink this.”
“Wh-what is it?”
“A potion to fix this mess.” Katrina held the bottle to Miranda’s lips and poured the whitish liquid in her mouth.
Miranda gagged on the horrid tincture. She clutched her own throat, unable to speak.
“You’re fine. Just a bit of dumb cane to silence you for a moment or two.”
Miranda’s body convulsed so violently, she fell from the rock and dropped to the ground. Her legs melded into one giant tail. Scales exploded on her skin’s surface, and her feet became fully-formed tail fins. The alteration to mermaid complete.
Katrina seized the tail near Miranda’s former ankles and pulled. “I’ve hastened the change for you.” She trudged backward as she heaved the mermaid through the sand and toward the incoming tide.
Miranda’s eyes bulged with fear.
“I’m sorry, Miranda. I truly am, but I can’t have you popping in and out of mermaid form for mortals to see.”
Both feet moved into the water until her ankles became submerged, along with the mermaid’s tail. Waves hit the back of her knees and covered Miranda’s chest.
“And, I certainly won’t allow you to seek out my sisters. Not ever.” Katrina circled the mermaid, and with her shoe, gave her a push out to sea. “It won’t be so bad. You’ll see.”
Katrina strolled away, only looking back with a burst of the siren’s scream. She cupped her mouth and called out, “I’m the Crooked Crone, remember? Why would you ever trust me?”
Learn how Katrina Hale and her sisters discover they are witches in
THE IPSWICH CHRONICLES: SEARCH FOR SOURCE
coming in 2021