Koji A. Dae

After midnight, almost every night, Kason sat upright and gave a high-pitched, unending scream. I shushed and soothed, but even when I snuggled him into the supposedly peaceful depths of sleep, he continued to shake. I’d have done anything to stop those nightmares.

“It’s an old superstition,” my husband groaned as I loaded Kason into our car. “It won’t work.”

“The neurologists didn’t work. The psychologists didn’t work. What’s one more thing that doesn’t work?” I buckled my seatbelt and left him on the sidewalk with his skepticism. In my mirror, I watched Kason’s dark eyes and lethargic movement.

Baba Donka’s village was a collection of crumbling buildings. I drove over a stream and parked in front of a dilapidated house, eroding stone on the first floor, rotting wood on the second. I reminded myself she wasn’t a witch⁠—an old woman with spiritual power, not magic⁠—but my heart raced.

“Donka?” I called. She didn’t own a phone and didn’t take appointments. But people said she was always there.

An old woman shuffled from the dark doorway and squinted at me as I let Kason out of his seat. He clung to my leg, peeking out at Donka.

“He’s old,” she said.

“Barely five.”

She shook her head. “Too old. The fear has settled too deeply.”

I grabbed his clammy hand and dragged him to the gate. A wall of sweet-spicy mint stopped me. “Please. Help him.”

Kason stopped tugging against my hand as Donka stared at him. “There’s a chance. Boy? Grab some Bearberry and come inside.”

I thought I’d have to prompt him, but he bit his lip and let go of my hand. With shuffling steps, he wandered the overgrown garden. He sniffed. We lived in an apartment. He had no idea what Bearberry looked like. I would have pointed to it discreetly if I knew what it was. But Donka watched him too closely for secret hints to slip through, anyway. He stopped in front of a plant and plucked a sprig. I followed him and Donka into her home.

“The plants still speak to him. That’s good.”

Kason’s shy mouth split into a grin and he beamed up at me⁠—the first genuine smile he’d given in weeks.

Donka lit the gas stove and placed a pot over the flames. She plunked in a marble of lead. When it melted, she poured it into a bowl of water. The lead hissed and cooled, and she shook her head. “What’s he afraid of?”

Kason glanced up at me as if he, too, was curious.

“I don’t know. He has nightmares.”

She took out the ball of lead and melted it again. Threw it harder into the water. The ball held together. “His fear is strong.”

“Very,” I admitted. The way his tiny body sweated, the tears that leaked from beneath closed eyelids…

“If it’s not just fear? Some spirit?” She melted the lead a third time.

“I don’t believe in spirits.” I didn’t believe in witches or magic, either. I should have taken him to another neurologist instead of her damp room that smelled of sour milk.

The lead cracked into two large pieces when it hit the water the third time. She fished the bits out and folded them in yellowing newspaper. With the sprig of Bearberry, she flicked water over Kason’s face. He giggled and shielded himself. Donka’s withered face lit up, and she gave a more playful flick of the twig.

“Put this under his pillow. Throw it in the river before the sun comes up. Wash his fears away.”

That night Kason didn’t scream, and I slept soundly for the first time in months. When my alarm beeped me awake, I stumbled into his room, hoping against logic that Donka’s spell had worked.

I planned to slip the lead from under his pillow without waking him, but his rumpled bed was empty. I flipped up the sheets and searched, but there was no son and no packet of lead.

When I called his name, he didn’t come out. The fear in my shout woke my husband, and we searched the apartment. The stairwell. The parking lot. We searched the nearby riverbank and park, shouting his name into the pink sunrise. My husband insisted we drive to Baba Donka. Ten minutes by car. Kason couldn’t have walked that far on his own.

Yet, there he was, splashing happily in the stream by her hovel.

She watched over him, her eyes possessive. “He’ll be my apprentice.”

“Like hell he will,” my husband bellowed, glaring at me. “That’s what you get for taking our son to a witch.”

I could no longer deny she was a witch. Her crooked back and nose, her knowing eyes, and her magic. I grabbed Kason’s hand and pulled him towards the car.

He dug his heels in, and his tiny fingers slipped from my grasp. “Momma, I want to stay.”

His eyebrows pulled down with determination. I knelt in front of him. “Kason, no, this isn’t for you.”

He toed at the dirt. “But Momma, the plants talk to me.”

Donka crooned from her porch. “You choose. They can scream at him while he sleeps, or they can whisper to him while he’s awake. Once the plants have taken root, there’s no true exorcism for them.”

My husband stepped forward to pick up Kason, but I held a hand out to stop him. My heart swelled with childhood memories—picking daisies and chaining them, clipping herbs with my grandmother. Things Kason has never had the chance to do in our modern world.

“Yes,” I whispered, then more loudly. “Two days a week, and I’ll come with him.”

My husband grumbled, but Kason grinned.

My heart lifted with the corners of his mouth. Probably she was a witch. Probably he had a demon. But she had chased away Kason’s fears, and he had made peace with what was in him. For that, I’d do anything.

Koji A. Dae is living in Bulgaria with her husband and two kids. She has work published in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Zooscape, and forthcoming from Apex Magazine. You can find out more about her at