The Lorelei Signal
At the Threshold
Written by Roxana Arama / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
The witch held the door open for the young woman to enter. “Did you bring it?”
The woman showed her the wrapped handkerchief.
“You’re sure?” the witch said. “Once we begin, we can’t turn back.” Her face was beyond young and old, her hair white and braided.
The woman nodded, though her lips trembled. “We must hurry. He’s teetering on the threshold.”
They sat on the baked-clay floor around the hearth, under the rafters and the smoke hole. It was dark in the corners of the house, though it was a sunny day outside. Dried herbs and roots, animal pelts, ropes, and blades hung from the walls. The room smelled of firewood and something else, bitter, pungent, and sweet at the same time.
“You’re scared, poor soul,” the witch said, “but I’m here for you.” She checked the pot hanging over the fire, stirring it with a long wooden spoon. “It’s almost ready. The spirits have granted us the time needed for the ritual.” She motioned at the things hanging on the walls around them.
“Once I offered them some of my treasures.”
“Thank you,” the woman said.
“But I don’t know which spirit you’ve angered. So let’s start at the beginning. Where was your son born?”
“My son… Can I use his name?”
The witch shook her head. “No names allowed at the threshold. Once the spirits hear his name, he must choose a side: our world or theirs.”
“My son then,” the woman said. “He was born in the forest, four years ago. I’d gone to pick some mushrooms, though my husband had told me to stay home and rest. The babe wasn’t supposed to arrive for another month, but he did that day. He was so small and skinny, I kept him at my breast, always. One day, he looked up at me and smiled.”
“Then you didn’t anger Enoz, the forest spirit,” the witch said.
“Does that mean we can’t save him?” the woman said, her voice cracking.
“Go on,” the witch said, throwing a yellow powder into the pot and stirring the potion with the spoon.
“For two years, no disease touched him.” The woman cleared her throat, trying not to cry. “After I stopped nursing him, he was fine for a whole year. But since last summer, he’s had fevers, stomach aches, ear pains. Each illness made him weaker.”
“He’s burning with fever again, though I can barely feel his chest rising and falling under my hand.”
The witch nodded. “Of all children under five years of age, half cross the threshold.”
“Please don’t let that happen to my son,” the woman said, clasping her hands in prayer.
The witch checked the potion. “Has to be thicker. Tell me more about your son. What does he like?”
The woman hugged her knees. “He loves his she-dog. They go everywhere together. They play together, they sleep together, they eat together.”
“But the dog isn’t sick, is she?”
“No, but she’s heartbroken… She’s been howling and whimpering ever since my son fell ill again. You can hear her right now.”
The distant whining of a dog sounded in the silence that fell between them.
The witch listened for a while, moving her lips, grasping the dog’s language. “I’m sorry,” she said at last. “The dog has brought your son’s illness, but she isn’t ill herself because she’s protected by Bendis, the animal spirit.”
“The dog? Can’t be.” Though a shade of recognition crossed the woman’s face. “All those other illnesses are from the dog?”
“How did she come to you?” the witch said.
“My husband found her. With a broken leg by the windmill last summer. And he brought her home. I took care of her, but I didn’t know—”
“Then you didn’t anger Bendis.” The witch rubbed her forehead. “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to your son?”
“After the last full moon…” The woman pinched her lips together, fighting to seal the story in. “My son and I went to the pond to watch the ducks and feed them corn cakes we’d baked together. I found a bush full of rosehips, and I picked some, put them in my apron’s pocket. All the while, I kept an eye on my son, but somehow he slipped into the pond, and the water swallowed him quietly.”
“You saved him from drowning?” the witch said, as if she’d finally found the answer.
“No. The dog jumped in and pulled him out to the dry shore. It all happened so fast.”
“The dog again…” the witch said. “No creature is only good or only bad, you see. Like Dehnu, the river spirit who’s now upset she was robbed of the child she’d grabbed for herself.”
“But my son wasn’t hers to take,” the woman cried.
“I know.” The witch unwrapped the handkerchief the woman had brought and sprinkled the child’s hair clippings into the potion. They melted as they touched the crimson surface.
She stirred again, calling to the river spirit, “It’s not too late to change your mind and spare this innocent family, Dehnu. I’ve made you your spicy ambrosia, just the way you like it. Drink from this pot and take your quarrel to Bendis, who guided the dog that wronged you.”
There was no sound in the house except for the fire, snapping and hissing over the red coals.
“She won’t listen to me,” the witch said after a while, and the woman let out a soft sob. “Stubborn old crone!”
“All is lost then?” the woman said.
“We’re not done trying.” The witch pushed herself up from the floor, sighing, and brought a clay jar to the fire. “Dehnu is stubborn, but maybe she’ll listen to her brother. The sky lord Napat has always been just, wise, and understanding.”
She threw a white powder in the fire, and the flames turned blue. She talked to Napat in their own tongue, shaking her head and pleading with open palms.
“Please, sky lord,” the woman cried from the side.
The witch glared at her. “Mortals aren’t allowed to speak to the spirits until they cross the threshold.” She returned to her haggle, but soon the fire turned yellow again.
She hung her head. “They’re ganging up on me now. There’s not much more I can do.”
“Then I’m ready,” the woman said, rolling up her linen sleeve.
Her lips moved as she uttered a prayer while a tear rolled from her eye. The witch didn’t rush her. Instead, she set a glazed bowl on the floor between them.
When the woman was ready, the witch nicked the skin inside the elbow, and the blood started dripping, collecting into the bowl. When there was enough, she pressed a piece of linen on the cut, then poured the bowl into the pot, stirring. The woman pulled down her sleeve and stood up to join the witch by the fire.
“You worry the potion won’t work,” the witch said, “I can see it in your eyes. But I tell you it will, because you’re here now and because your mother sat on that very spot years ago, telling me stories about you.”
“My mother?” the woman said, hand to her lips.
“You were almost five years of age.” The witch patted the woman’s shoulder. “You don’t remember her, do you?”
The woman shook her head. “She did this same thing…for me?”
“So you could live and one day have a child of your own.”
Tears reappeared in the woman’s eyes. “My son…he’ll forget me then. Like I forgot my mother.”
“He’ll look to the future as he grows stronger, but you’ll always be a part of him. Your generous, self-sacrificing nature will live on inside him.”
“Will he come here too, one day, for you to bleed for a potion?”
“If he does, it will be his choice. Just like you chose to come here today. You don’t regret doing this for your son, do you?”
The woman shook her head.
“He won’t either,” the witch said, “for his own child—if it ever comes to that.”
The woman wiped her face. “Did my mother have black hair?”
“She did,” the witch said with a smile.
“And a little scar on her left cheekbone?”
“See? You remember her. And your son will remember you when it matters most. Though he’ll forget you until then.”
The witch ladled some of the potion into the bowl and passed it to the woman. “A life for a life, as demanded by Dehnu, the vengeful river spirit.”
“Will you keep an eye on my son growing up? My husband can only do so much.”
“I will. Now drink.”
The woman brought the bowl to her lips. “It’s cold, not hot. And it smells sweet, like my babe’s forehead when he was at my breast.”
She drank up, without stopping for breath. Then she put the bowl down. “It tastes like sorrow.”
A moment later, the witch said, “Do you see the threshold?”
The woman, her face drained of color, nodded her head.
“To cross it, you must say your name.” The witch touched the woman’s back, guiding her on. “Talk to the spirits.”
“Khodela,” the woman said. “My name is Khodela. Mighty spirits, please let me cross in my son’s place.” She tried to say something else, but she fell on her knees and slumped to one side, eyes closed.
The witch stood up from the floor with a heavy sigh. “Here she goes, Dehnu, you cruel river crone. Let the child go and take the mother, you vengeful fiend! Shame on you. You call yourself a good spirit, feeding the crops and giving your waters to my villages—and then you do this?”
The house shivered around her with the sudden sound of a waterfall.
The witch took the pot off the fire. “No, you won’t get even one sip.” She emptied the pot over the hearth, putting out the fire. “Now show me you’ve kept your word—or I’ll never plead with Napat again when you’re dying of thirst, longing for his blessed rain.”
The waterfall sound turned into that of a broken dam.
“What, you thought I wouldn’t threaten you? Because Khodela was just a mortal and I’m supposed to stand aside when you mess with them? Well, you’ve got that all wrong. Because she was under my care, which means you’ve wronged me. And I’m no mere mortal.”
The water sounds dwindled to a trickle.
“Show me you’ve kept your word, Dehnu!”
She waited and waited, a stern frown on her face, until, at long last, the dog’s joyful bark rang in the distance.
Roxana Arama is a Romanian American author with an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. Her debut thriller Extreme Vetting will be published in 2023 by Ooligan Press (Portland State University). She’s a member of SFWA, the Authors Guild, and Codex Writers’ Group, and her work has been published in several literary magazines. She lives in Seattle with her family. More at https://roxanaarama.com/.