MERCY + GRACE
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
I WAS RAISED ON THE BIBLE by a fire and brimstone sort of man. The skin on my back forever paying the price of my original sin.
My seven older brothers are perfect in Father’s eyes, even named after the holy angels: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel, Saraqael, Raguel, and Remiel.
Father gave me the name Mercy, claiming he needed all of God’s patience and compassion to raise me.
The New World, as Father calls it, is the only world I have ever known. Mother died in childbirth shortly after my family arrived. Something Father will never let me forget.
Lashes with a belt for undercooked potatoes. For mud stains on my hem. For a broken dish. For a dirty window. For a poor harvest, even.
My brothers try to help, truly they do. They correct my mistakes. They bandage my wounds. They speak up for me. No matter. Father still finds reasons to punish me.
Everything is my fault. No amount of prayers can deliver me from evil. I am a sinner down to the core—and I know it.
Deep brown eyes, porcelain skin, and rose-red lips keep me up at night to remind me so.
Grace is my only friend in this world. Our family farms are near one another. With a walk down the dirt road, or by taking a shortcut through the forest, we often meet to trade goods and talk.
I now wait. Our secret spot sits near a stream that flows with cool, mountain water. Frost covers the carpet of yellow, burgundy, and orange circling the empty trees. Autumn is slipping away into winter’s icy grip. My boots squish into the muddy earth next to a birch. What will Grace have for me today?
In my basket of squashes, soaps, and eggs to trade, I have hidden inside a large raven feather the exact shade of Grace’s hair.
A twig snaps, and I spin. Breathe in. Breathe out. Steady now. Her wavy hair peeks from her bonnet as her lips curl into a smile.
Remember what you want to ask. Breathe. My fingers are stiff from clutching the wicker basket. I return a grin because she and I match in our cornflower-blue dresses.
“Good day, Mercy,” her voice melts me like butter.
“Good day, Grace.” I clear my throat. “Are you well? Have you the fabrics and meat?”
“I am well.” Grace steps close and thumbs through the folded fabrics next to the paper-wrapped cuts of beef. “I dyed these red for your quilt.”
Perfect. Just ask. “Actually, it is giving me trouble. Would you like to help me?”
“I would love to.” Her eyes meet mine as she raises a black feather from her basket. “For you.”
I giggle and pluck it from her fingers.
She tilts her head. “What is so funny?”
I lift the raven feather from my own basket, earning a laugh from Grace.
Dropping our baskets, we dig our fingers into the muddy earth by the birch until we reveal two tin boxes. Inside are our treasures—years of gifting trinkets, stones, feathers, embroidered handkerchiefs, and dried flowers.
Nestling the twin feathers inside, we inter our secret collections once more.
After clapping away the dirt on her hands, Grace loops her arm through mine. We walk toward my house side-by-side and wave to my seven brothers working in the field.
A deep pain swells in my chest. Gabriel will most likely marry Grace as he is in need of a wife. Similarly, I have been promised to her older brother, Ezra—a stern and religious man like Father.
When we reach the house, Grace closes her eyes and breathes in deeply through her nose. “Mmm. Is that a fresh pie I smell?”
“Maybe.” I grin and hold the door open.
Grace removes her bonnet and lets her dark waves of hair fall. My cheeks flush as she watches me do the same to my long, white-blonde locks.
“I will not be able to focus on the quilt,” she pauses to run her fingers through my hair, “with the scent of cherry pie filling the air.”
“I knew it was your favorite.”
“Did you know I would agree to come over, too?”
“No. It was only a secret desire.”
In the kitchen where I left the pie to cool, I serve us each a slice.
Grace closes her eyes as she chews. “Mmm. Perfection.” She laughs, resting her hand on mine.
“What is so funny?”
“You are a bad influence, Mercy. Pie for breakfast?”
We giggle between bites until our bellies are full.
“I suppose it is time to quilt.” I take Grace’s hand and lead her toward the hearth.
Opening a large trunk, I retrieve my red-and-white quilt, needles, scissors, thread, and batting. Grace unfolds the freshly dyed fabric and helps me with my work. After nearly an hour of quilting—interrupted by many stolen glances and hand grazes—Grace raises our patchwork of progress.
“It is beautiful, Mercy.” She sets it down and touches my cheek. “Like you.”
I gasp and caress her cheek as well. It is soft.
“You and I will likely be married off in the spring. You to my brother. And me to yours.” Grace traces her thumb across my lips as tears well in her eyes. “Shall we enjoy the winter?”
Heat tingles inside as I comb my fingers through Grace’s hair. Her hand snakes around my waist, and her lips brush against mine. Warm and cherry-sweet.
“What are you two doing?” Michael shouts.
Grace and I snap our heads and shudder.
My eldest brother stands before us with wide eyes. “Gabriel, get in here!”
How long was Michael watching? My heart thumps in my throat, and I can’t breathe.
Grace and I release each other as Gabriel enters the house. Michael whispers in Gabriel’s ear. His brows fall over darkened eyes, and his upper lip rises.
“Kissing? We are telling Father,” he says.
“No, please! We were only practicing for you,” Grace says with a smile. “Gabriel, there is no need—”
“Leave,” he groans and glares at her. “Before I decide to tell your father as well.”
Grace grabs the quilt with shaky hands. “I will finish this.”
I stare silently into her eyes.
She squeezes my shoulder. “It will be alright, Mercy. See you tomorrow, like always?” She snatches her bonnet and basket before rushing out the door.
I tremble in my seat under my brother’s intense gaze.
“I am sorry, Gabriel,” I whisper and hang my head. “Please, do not tell Fa—”
“This is not just a broken egg, Mercy. This is my future wife. Father will find out!” Gabriel drags Michael outside with him.
I can barely think all afternoon, never mind complete chores. I peer out the window for a sign of Father. The door creaks, startling me. It is just Michael’s wife, Mary, arriving to help with supper. They live in a small house Michael built on the property.
“Did you see Grace today?” she asks.
My blood flows like melted snow. Does she know?
I busy myself with folding linens to avoid eye contact. “Yes. She gave us beef.”
“Wonderful. We shall have beef and barley stew.” Mary ties on an apron. “Will you chop the vegetables?”
I swallow to moisten my bone-dry throat and do as my sister-in-law says. My wrist shakes with every motion of the blade, and I nearly slice off my finger.
The door opens again, and I hold my breath. It is Chastity, Raphael’s pregnant wife, here to help as well. Like Michael, Raphael has moved into a tiny house with his wife, but we still share meals as a family.
“Hello, Chastity. Will you bake the bread?” Mary asks.
My sister-in-law greets us and begins helping. Maybe neither of them knows. Did Michael and Gabriel tell Father what they saw yet? What will he think? What will he do? I received two lashes for breaking a glass last month.
What will loving another girl get me?
We complete the meal and set the table. My heart completely stops when Father and my seven brothers return from their workday. Father’s eyes, which match the gray streak in his dark hair, fall upon me.
“Mercy, would you please say grace?” He asks as everyone sits at the dinner table.
“Yes, Father.” I clear my throat and take a deep breath. “Dear Heavenly Father, be present at our table Lord; be here and everywhere. Bless these thy gifts and grant that we may feast in fellowship with thee. Amen.”
During the meal, Father barely touches his stew and sets his gaze upon me. Though I have no appetite, I force spoonful’s down my throat. My eyes flit to Michael and Gabriel, but they avoid me.
When everyone’s spoons clink against empty bowls, Father sits straight in his chair. “Mercy. You and I will walk to the barn now.”
The blood drains from my head, and everyone around the table grows silent.
“What for, Jebediah? Surely no punishment is necessary,” Mary says, raising her hands to her cheeks. “What did she do?”
“Mercy knows what she did.” He stands, placing a hand on his belt. “I will not have sinners under my roof.”
“Father, we do not know what we saw,” Michael chimes in. “It was nothing. We were mistaken.”
“Quiet, son.” Father circles the table and rests his hand on my chair. “Come.”
I obey. Father’s silver streak of hair flashes like a knife in the moonlight. The entire family trails behind, protesting. The more they shout, the louder Father’s breathing becomes. My heart beats wildly against my sternum.
When we reach the barn, Father uncoils a length of jute rope, darkened with old blood. He binds my wrists to a post and unbuckles his belt.
Mary and Chastity wail into each other’s arms. My brothers continue to beg and plead until Father turns toward them with a reddened face. They all hush.
“This is what happens to sinners,” Father says through clenched teeth. He has always relished in these demonstrations, forcing my brothers to watch. “Seek forgiveness from the Lord now, and your punishment shall be lighter. Mercy, is there anything you wish to confess?”
I close my eyes and suck the crisp night air through my nose. “I, um, I love Grace.”
“What?” a few of my brothers ask in unison.
“Yes, my sons. Your sister loves another girl.” He points to Michael and Gabriel, who now kneel and weep. “Today they witnessed an embrace and kiss between your sister and Gabriel’s intended.”
“No, Father!” Gabriel shouts. “It was nothing. I was sinful with jealousy of their friendship!”
“Quiet! Or you will be next.”
Releasing a low grunt, Father rips the back of my dress. He lashes me with his belt, sending a searing pain into my skin. I shriek and crumble to my knees, only held up by the post to which I am bound.
Father readies his belt and whips me again. The sting sends a bright red streak into my vision, followed by tiny black spots. I wail and lose my entire dinner into the straw. The horses snort, and the goats bleat.
Michael and Gabriel move forward to yell at Father, though I cannot hear their words. Father shoves them away and shouts back. Everyone leaves except Father, who steps close and kneels by my side.
Hoping for mercy, I look at him with pleading eyes. He grabs my shoulders and props me against the post. He gives me another lash. And another. And another.
I lose all sense of time and place. Pain is all I know. Pain is life. Pain is me.
Until I imagine her face. Grace’s warm smile greets me. Her tender hand caresses my cheek as I drift away into darkness.
The moonlight drags me from the depths of sleep and illuminates the barn. I am sprawled in the straw, my wrists burned red from the jute, cut away sometime while I was unconscious.
As I roll to all fours, every motion sends excruciating pain through my back. My labored breaths patter against my throat. I drool through ragged whimpers, crawling toward the barn door.
It is the middle of the night. All three houses on the property are dark. No one is around. Father left me to deal with the pain of my punishment. My brothers obeyed him as always and have not returned to help me.
Using the handle on the door, I pull myself up and lean against the wood. The full moon swirls in my tears as it stares at me. I dare not enter the house and wake Father.
A frigid gust of wind stings my torn flesh. With trembling fingers, I reach my back. My knees buckle in pain as I remove straw dried into my blood. Gritting my teeth, I pick myself back up.
I do not wish for another infection, so I will wash in the creek and rest somewhere until morning.
As I trudge through the fields and into the forest, the memory of Grace’s lips keeps me going. The creek is near—just beyond the next hill. I use trees and vines to drag myself upward as my body grows weak.
Whispers chant from the direction of the creek. An orange glow fills the night air, and shadows flicker against the trees. When I reach the peak, my eyes fall upon a group of women dancing around a bonfire.
Leaning against a tree, I crane my neck to get a closer look. Should I turn back? My foot slips on a mossy rock, and I tumble down the hill. Dead leaves, sticks, and rocks tear into my back. I close my eyes and scream until my body stops face down in the dirt.
The heat of the fire warms my left side as feet shuffle all around.
“Oh, dear. What have we here?” A whispery voice says.
Hands grab my arms and lift me into a standing position. I catch my breath as the women study me. I try to count them, but blooms of black pierce my sight from the agony. Eleven? No, two are holding me. Thirteen women? Some young. Some old. Some black. Some white. Some tall. Some short.
A beautiful woman with green eyes and flowing white hair approaches me. I can barely maintain eye contact as my head rolls to the side.
She lifts my chin. “Poor child, whatever has happened to you?”
I clear my throat. “Punishment.”
“Certainly, a dainty girl like you could deserve no such thing. My coven and I enjoy helping unfortunate souls. Allow us to heal you,” she says. “What is your name?”
She folds her hands around mine and closes her eyes. “Yes, Mercy. You shall be healed and those truly responsible, properly punished.”
In a chalice, she swirls herbs into a dark liquid while another woman traces a pentacle around me with a stick.
The white-haired woman offers me the cup. “As you drink, imagine those responsible for your wounds.”
My shaking hands nearly spill the contents as I sip the dry and bitter liquid. I think of Michael and Gabriel who tattled. I think of my other brothers who failed to protect me. But mostly, I think of Father. His piercing gray eyes and matching streak of hair. His awful words. His hatred. His anger. His belt.
My legs grow weak, and I collapse. The women begin a low chant and dance around me, fast and wild. My vision and hearing fade. The women transform into ravens before my eyes. Everything goes black.
Icy air kisses my cheek, waking me. My eyes are greeted with an overcast sky piercing through empty and twisted branches. At my feet is a dead fire pit. The bubbling water of the creek reminds me of where I am.
I walked to the creek to wash. Then...the women. Were they real? Sitting on the forest floor, I stretch my fingers to my back. Healed. Painless. How? There’s no sign of the strange women. I must return home and begin my chores. Will I be allowed to see Grace today?
Over the hill and through the forest, I rush home before Father wakes. I tiptoe past his room and the room my brothers share. After changing clothes, I head to the kitchen and begin my work. The creaking door makes me jump.
Mary and Chastity enter the house with faces as pale as the moon.
“How is your back?” Chastity asks.
“Fine.” I crack eggs into a bowl. “Where are my brothers?”
“We were hoping you knew.” Mary steps close, studying my back.
“What do you mean? Were Michael and Raphael not in bed?”
Chastity shakes her head and retrieves a black feather from her pocket. “Only this.”
“And this.” Mary produces a similar raven feather. “On Michael’s pillow.”
Father steps into the kitchen, eyeing us and the feathers. “Where are your husbands?”
“We have not seen them, Jebediah,” Mary says. “These feathers were on their pillows.”
Father turns down the hall, opening the door to the room my brothers share. Mary, Chastity, and I continue cooking until Father returns with five dark feathers in hand.
“Mercy, you look well after last night’s punishment,” he says in a cool tone, running his fingers through the silver streak of hair.
I only pay attention to the feathers. The women last night turned into ravens before my eyes, and now this? What could it mean?
Father slams the feathers onto the table and rips the back of my clean dress. “No wounds! How have you healed so quickly?”
“I do not know, Father. There were these women in the forest last ni—”
“No! I did not know they were witches.”
“Liar! I have warned you to stay away from those devil worshippers. Daughter, do you set out each day to disappoint the Lord Almighty?” Father grabs my wrist and drags me down the hallway to my room.
“You will stay here until I say so.” Father shoves me inside and slams the door.
I crumble to my knees and hang my head.
My brothers are missing? No, no, no. I was certainly distraught last night. Yes, I wish my brothers could have stopped Father, but would never want them to disappear.
Saraqael, Remiel, and Raguel would sneak food anytime Father punished me with fasting. Uriel would repair the items I broke. Gabriel would often clean and dress my wounds. Michael and Raphael have both claimed my mistakes as their own, saving me from many punishments over the years.
I curl to the floor and weep. A loud tapping sound comes from my door. Like a hammer and—
“No!” I rush to the door and push, but it doesn’t budge.
“I cannot trust you anymore, Mercy. You must repent to the Lord Almighty.” Father continues nailing my door shut. “Only He can deliver you from sin.”
The entire morning passes with me locked in my room. Out the window, Father leads Chastity and Mary to tend to the animals before he disappears from view. He returns with Pastor William and some neighbors, including Grace’s father and brothers, who set off on a search.
I consider escaping through the window, but there is someone always outside. I urinate in my chamber pot midday, but by afternoon, I am completely dehydrated. My stomach grumbles with pain. I vomited last night and have eaten nothing since.
As the sun sets, Father, Chastity, and Mary return to the house.
This is my chance. I tiptoe to the window, placing my hands on the wooden sill. Father jumps before it with a hammer and nails.
“Please, Father! No!” I beg and pound on the glass, but he doesn’t listen and nails my window closed.
My sleep is restless. Nightmares of screams and black feathers floating in the air fill my mind.
In the morning, a new tapping sound pricks at my ears. I awake to seven black-as-night ravens staring at me with their beady eyes through the window. The one pecking the window stops as a tear falls from its eye. The creatures study me a moment longer before flapping away toward the mountain.
In the mid-afternoon, various creaking and clinking sounds come from my door. Father must be removing the nails. I shuffle to the corner of my bed when Mary enters. She offers me a mug of warm broth while Father changes the lock on my door to face the hallway.
“Please, let me go! I can help search for my brothers!”
Father offers no response.
“I am so sorry,” Mary whispers with tears in her eyes. “So sorry, dear.”
After Father finishes with the lock, he grabs Mary by the arm and slams the door.
Every morning for weeks, the seven black ravens visit my window. They are my only friends. I name them after my seven brothers: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel, Saraqael, Raguel, and Remiel.
Mary and Chastity bring broth, water, and—if I am lucky—bread. Father keeps a close watch on the food inventory, but Chastity blames the baby for craving an extra roll now and again. It keeps me alive, but barely.
Mary and Chastity are now staying in the main house, so as not to be alone. They say there is still no sign of my brothers, and a hunt for the witches is underfoot. Women are even being hanged in other parts.
Every few days, I use a bit of my water ration to cleanse my skin. When I remove my clothes, bones protrude in every which way. I was thin before, now barely more than a skeleton. I would plot my death if not for Grace’s smiling face filling my dreams.
One morning, I am awakened not by the ravens, but by a faint knocking. I drop from my bed and crawl across the cold, wooden floor. Pressing my ear against the door, I wait to find out who it could be so early.
“You cannot be here,” Chastity whispers to the visitor.
“I have not seen Mercy in quite some time,” Grace’s trembling voice says. “Where is she?”
“In her room, but you know I cannot let you in. Jebediah is dangerous.”
“I understand. Please give her this.”
The door shuts, and Chastity’s footsteps creak toward my room. She unlocks the door and hands me the completed quilt.
“Grace was here. I will bring you broth later,” she whispers and shuts the door.
Grace’s handiwork is beautiful. The red and white patches are stitched flawlessly together. I love it. I bring the soft quilt to my cheek and squeeze it tight—wishing I was hugging Grace instead.
Rubbing my fingers over the fabric, I come across a piece not sewn down along the edge. The little flap is the only imperfection on the entire quilt.
I thumb it open and release a joyous sob. Inside, the hand-embroidered thread reads the words: “A secret desire.”
I cannot stay here like this much longer.
The ravens arrive like clockwork at my windowsill. One pecks its beak at the glass until it cracks like a spider’s web in the morning sun. The ravens flap away, leaving me alone once more.
The day begins as usual. Broth and water. Father sets out to work the land alone while Mary and Chastity tend to the animals. But at midday, dark clouds crawl across the sky. Lightning strikes in the distance, echoing with roars of thunder.
This will be the last day I spend trapped in my room.
At nightfall, the thunderstorm still holds strong. Gusts of wind rattle the windows. Lightning illuminates the heavy rain. Thunder cracks overhead.
Pressing my ear to the door, I listen for Father, Chastity, and Mary to retreat to their rooms for the night. When they do, I wrap a washcloth around my bony hand and wait for lightning.
A bolt flashes nearby, and I ready my fist. When the thunder booms, I break the glass. After punching out the remaining jagged pieces, I roll up the quilt and a bedsheet, pull on my cloak, and slip out into the storm. I sneak some eggs from the coop before heading into the woods.
I want to find those witches and make them return my brothers to me. They are not in the place I met them before. But who would be out on a night like this? In two days’ time, there will be a full moon, just as there was that night.
Near the creek, I find a thicket of trees and make a tent with my sheet. I rest on the soft quilt and dream lovely dreams of Grace.
By morning, the rain has stopped, leaving a wake of cool, crisp air behind.
“Mercy!” Father’s voice rings out from the forest. “Where the hell did you go?”
I jump and pack my things at once. Sprinting through the woods, I stay near the creek. After a while, I do not hear Father’s voice anymore. I am close to the Payne Farm now. Grace’s home.
As I sneak onto their property, it seems everyone is inside the main house for breakfast. I tiptoe to the barn to borrow some dry logs and matches. I will be sure to repay them when I can.
Eager to eat, I rush back to the woods and build my fire. Two eggs bubble and simmer against a hot stone. I devour them at once and am still starving, but I must save the rest for tomorrow.
In the afternoon, I decide to visit the clearing where the witches danced, in the event they arrive a night early. Walnuts and a few berries ease the pain in my stomach, and I feel stronger than I have in weeks. Night falls, but there are no witches, so I return to my warm fire and even warmer quilt. I read and reread Grace’s hidden message many times before resting my head.
The next morning after eating the remaining eggs, I take a dip in the creek to wash. The water is chilly from the fresh rain but smells heavenly. Shrinking into the coolness, goosebumps climb my spine and fan across my limbs. I splash my body until a branch snaps.
I spin to find Grace at the top of a small hill.
“Mercy?” She flings her armful of firewood and stumbles down the slope. “Mercy, it is you!”
I stand frozen in the water, with only my lips moving into a grin.
“Are you alright?” she asks, approaching me and my camp.
I step out of the water, becoming very aware of my nakedness. With rosy cheeks, Grace wraps the sheet around my body as she embraces me.
“I am so glad I found you,” she cries into my shoulder. “No one will tell me anything.”
“My brothers went missing, and Father thinks it is my fault. I suppose it is.”
“No, Mercy, do not think like that.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and pull away. Returning the sheet as my makeshift tent, I grab my dress. Before I can slip it on, Grace’s hand is on my back.
I shudder at the thought of her seeing my scars. Years of punishments have left my back a deformity of crisscrossing red lines. Her eyes well with tears as her finger traces my skin.
“Oh, Mercy. Did your father do this to you?”
Grace touches my cheek and kisses my lips. Her kiss is as soft as before, but even sweeter this time. We both grin when it is over.
“You must be freezing.” Grace snatches the dress from my arms and slips it over my head. “Go, warm up by the fire. I will be right back with more wood.”
I find my cloak and do as she says. Grace retrieves the dropped firewood and returns.
“Thank you,” I say, watching her add wood to the flames.
She takes my hand as the roaring fire crackles. “Will you tell me what has happened? Why are you out here all alone?”
I recount to her the story of the witches, the feathers, and the ravens. My hair is dry by the time I finish talking. “If the witches were indeed real, they will be there tonight under the full moon. I will ask them how to find my brothers.”
“I am going with you.”
“No, no, no. You should return to your warm house and stay safe.”
“I should. But I will not.” She swallows and tucks her dark hair behind her ear. “Did you happen to see the message I stitched for you in the quilt?”
I tilt my head. “Whatever do you mean?”
Her cheeks flush, but Grace stands and points into my tent. “The quilt. Come and see.”
We kneel inside the tent. When Grace lifts the quilt to reveal her message, I giggle.
“What is so funny?” she asks with drooping eyes.
“I saw it.” I grin and peck her lips. “I just wanted to get you in my tent.”
Grace stares into my eyes for a long moment before she lowers me to the quilt, giving me a deep and passionate kiss. My heart somersaults in my chest, and my stomach tingles with happiness.
After kissing and talking for hours, Grace and I set out together to find the witches. We hold hands during our hike—it feels wonderful to be our true selves, even if for a brief time.
We climb the hill to watch the sunset behind the mountains. Darkness blankets the sky and forest, but we have each other.
Soon enough, women approach the clearing from all directions. They create a huge bonfire, and the white-haired witch arrives.
“There she is.” I point her out to Grace. “Let’s go.”
We tread down the hill and enter the light of the bonfire. The women take notice and whisper. The leader approaches us with a warm smile.
“Mercy, you have returned...with a guest.”
“Yes, this is Grace. My brothers have been missing ever since you healed me. Do you know what has happened?”
“Hmm,” she hangs her head. “Our spell works to punish those who have hurt the individual.”
“But it was my father—not my brothers! I meant them no harm.”
“Your father is certainly being punished without his sons home, believe me.” Her green eyes flash like a cat in the night. “If you are worthy, you can save your brothers. Then, if your father has not changed his ways, he will face the ultimate punishment.”
“How? How can I save them?”
She grins and points to the mountain. “You shall climb until your feet reach snow. In the morning sun, search for the place where the snow shines like glass. You will find a door and unlock the spell of your brothers’ feathered fate.”
“Are my brothers the ravens?” I ask as Grace squeezes my hand.
“Yes. And beware. You will have the brief morning light to open the door, after which it will disappear forever.” She turns to a tall and dark woman. “My sweet, would you pack these young women some nourishment for their journey?”
“Yes, my Priestess.”
The lady packs a basket of food and hands it to Grace.
The Priestess draws a knife from her cloak and places it inside. She lifts a chicken drumstick. “After you eat the meat, keep this. Only a bone can act as a key to open the glass mountain. I wish the two of you luck.”
“Thank you,” I say. “But wait! Should you be out here? I have heard of witch hunts and hangings.”
“Worry not for us, dear.” She winks. “A true witch will never get caught.”
The Priestess turns to her coven with hands raised. The women begin their wild dancing. Grace and I glance at one another.
“Are you sure you want to come?” I touch her cheek, hot from the fire. “It could be dangerous.”
“I want to help you, Mercy. I want to be with you.”
“And I with you.” I take her hand, and we begin our ascent of the mountain.
The altitude brings cooler air, and our breaths escape in wispy, white plumes. Grace and I help each other climb steep spots, talk, laugh, and stop to steal kisses along the way.
Snow flurries begin to float through the air like stardust. Our boots crunch into fresh snow, and we decide to make camp. Once our tent and fire are ready, Grace and I huddle and eat from the basket of food. We share the special drumstick and place the bone in the basket for safekeeping.
“I am quite full,” she says. “We should save the rest for tomorrow. Time for bed?”
My heart races as I follow Grace into the tent. She removes my cloak and kisses my neck, forcing my spine to arch. My hands slide over Grace’s dress and coil into her thick hair.
“Are you warm enough now?” Grace asks, breathless.
I eagerly nod, hoping I understand what she means.
“Then,” she pauses to trace the bare skin of my collar bone, “we do not need these clothes, do we?”
“We do not.”
Grace peels away my dress. My feet are the last to slip out, and her eyes travel every inch of my skin.
“You are so beautiful, Mercy.”
I remove Grace’s clothes, as well. My excitement nearly bubbles over the surface as she guides me to touch her breast. Her pale skin flushes at my touch. We kiss, naked on our quilt.
“I want to touch you more, Mercy,” she whispers and nuzzles my ear, walking her fingers down my abdomen. “Can we make love?”
With that, our eager fingers coax pleasure. Our lips kiss new and delicious places. Our legs tangle together. Our bodies writhe in unison. Our harmonizing moans echo against the mountain.
“Grace.” I stroke her hair as a few tears of joy escape my eyes. “I have desired you for so long.”
“And I, you,” she says, tilting her chin for a kiss. Her eyes are filled to the brim with tears as well. “Do you think there is a way we can stay together?”
“I hope so.”
“Me too. Goodnight, Mercy.”
Grace falls asleep, secure in my arms, while my mind races. How could this be sinful? For years, I pushed down my feelings as such. Father’s nightly sermons would constantly put fear in my heart. But when Grace caressed my cheek and pressed her lips against mine, it felt right. I love her so much. I kiss Grace’s cheek and close my eyes, breathing in her sweet scent.
A shuffling noise in the early morning wakes us from slumber. Grace peeks from the tent and turns back with a quiet gasp.
“A bear,” she whispers, her eyes wide as pies.
I take a look. A huge black bear digs through our basket of food.
“Let’s stay silent,” I mouth barely audible words and bring a finger to my lips.
We slip on our dresses, cloaks, and boots in the event we have to run. The bear continues to snoop about our camp as we hold our breaths and pray he leaves.
The sun is rising, and we need to be searching for the glass door now. Finally finished with his meal, the bear strolls away down the slope.
“The bone!” I rush from the tent and rummage through the bear’s trash. “No!”
Grace helps me search, but we have no luck finding the bone—or any remaining food from the broken basket. I grab the knife and tuck it into my cloak as a tear escapes my eye.
“It will be alright.” Grace wipes my cheek. “We can find something else to use for a key—or even break the glass, you know.”
“Alright.” I embrace her in my arms. “We will figure something out. I am just nervous about my brothers.”
We search through the snowy woods for the glass door. The more kisses we steal along the way, the more concerned I grow.
“Grace, last night was beautiful. It was the most love and happiness I have felt in my life,” I say, entwining my fingers with hers. “I need to rescue my brothers, but that may mean things return to how they were.”
“I know.” Tears pool in her eyes. “It is why I wanted to help. To enjoy this brief chance to be with you.”
We hug until a bright glare flashes in our eyes. The sun illuminates a tall glass door in the distance. As we approach, the sight of us causes the seven ravens to fly around inside the mountain.
Grace places her hand on my shoulder as I tug on the large glass handle.
“Locked, of course.”
A gleaming keyhole awaits the bone we do not have.
“Let us try a stick.” Grace breaks a twig from a tree and places it in the keyhole.
She gives it a turn, but the twig snaps in two. We try again and again, but all the sticks break. I even try the knife, but it won’t fit. We have no luck searching for stones or animal bones.
“We could go get a chicken bone from my house,” I say.
“There is no time!” Grace digs into the snow until her fingers are red.
“You are right.” I grab her hands and blow warm air into them as we shiver. “Let us build a fire before we freeze and think of something.”
The ravens watch us cuddle under our quilt by the blazing fire. I keep a keen eye on the sun rising higher into the sky while we think.
“I want your brothers to find me worthy of you,” Grace says. “What can we do?”
“The witch said I could save them if I was worthy.” I stare at the ravens through the glass. “I know what I must do—well, what you must do.”
I draw the witch’s knife from my cloak and watch the flames dance on its shiny surface. “You must cut off my finger.”
“What? No! There must be another way.” She stands and grabs a large rock. “We should have done this to begin with.”
She chucks the rock at the glass, but it bounces without leaving a scratch. She tries again and again, but the glass refuses to break. The gleaming surface near the top turns to stone as the sun moves higher in the sky. Grace turns and shakes her head.
“Yes.” I extend the knife to her. “Please, Grace. I must save them.”
She kneels next to me and takes the knife. I place my right hand on a flat boulder.
“No, not that hand!” She takes my left one. “Ready?”
I close my eyes. “Yes.”
“I am so sorry. One, two, three,” Grace says as the blade slices through skin and bone.
The pain causes yelps and wails to escape my lungs.
Grace wraps the quilt around the wound. “Now what? Now what?”
“Fire,” I screech and curl to the ground in pain.
Grace tosses my finger into the fire and grabs the knife. She holds the blade in the flames.
I sit up, holding my bloody hand. “What are you doing?”
“Move the quilt,” she says with a steady voice. “I saw my father do this once.”
I grit my teeth and do as she says. Grace presses the blade against my wound. I shriek again as my flesh burns from the searing-hot metal. When she pulls the knife away, the bleeding has stopped. I fall back to the ground, crying. She uses the knife to fling my bare finger bone from the embers of the fire.
Grace slices strips of my sheet to bandage my hand. “How’s that?”
“Hurts,” I say, still catching my breath. I point to the door as the stone climbs toward the lock. “Let’s try it.”
I grab the bone and place it in the glass keyhole. It fits perfectly. I give it a turn. The gleaming door opens at once, freeing the birds.
The ravens circle me, flying faster and faster and faster. Their feathers rain down all around, floating through the air and blanketing the snow. From the thick cloud of feathers emerge my brothers, who throw their arms around me in a massive huddle.
“Thank you, Mercy!” Uriel shouts.
“We are so sorry,” Michael says. “We love you.”
“In there, we relived everything Father has done to you. We will not let him hurt you again!” Gabriel cries into my shoulder and turns to gesture at Grace. “And we want the two of you to be happy.”
“And what about Father?” I ask, holding my injured hand close to my chest.
“We will talk to him.”
My shoulders drop, and I head down the mountain. Grace follows after and takes my arm.
“Mercy, wait!” Gabriel says as he and my brothers hurry.
I turn to them. “You know Father will never change his mind. Even returning with all of you safe and sound, he will punish me or send me away this time.”
“We can tell Pastor William or even the governor what he has done,” Remiel says. “We promise to stop him. We have been terrible brothers.”
I give my brothers a reluctant smile, and we continue our descent.
As Grace and I hold hands, I catch her staring multiple times. We grin and rub our shoulders together. She often checks my hand along the way. I deeply want to kiss her as it might be our last chance, but fear what my brothers would think. So, I keep my eyes on the earth and rocks before me.
“How long have you, you know, been in love?” Saraqael nudges me and grins.
My cheeks flush, and my tongue grows thick in my mouth. Grace and I have not actually said the words—but I have certainly loved her for years. I swallow as I think of what to say.
“Well,” Grace answers first. “I have been in love with Mercy for as long as I can remember.”
My courage swells, and I beam a smile at her. “I feel the same. We have always been such dear friends, but in my dreams, I dared to believe more.”
Michael steps to my side. “Mercy, I was thinking. If Father will not listen, then you are going to live with Mary and me.”
As we reach the bottom of the mountain midday and approach the house, everything is quiet. Too quiet. Father is not working in the fields, nor is he in the barn.
“Let us check inside,” Michael says, placing his hand on my shoulder. “No need to be nervous. We love you, Mercy.”
On the lawn, a white cat pounces on a raven and snaps its neck. We all jump back. The cat flashes her green eyes at me and strolls away into the woods. The mangled, dead bird is nearly all black, aside from a silver streak on its head.
We search the property, but there is no sign of Father. We pass my broken window and head toward the back door of the kitchen. When we enter the house, Mary and Chastity are overjoyed to see my brothers and me. They rush to kiss their missing husbands before squeezing me in a hug.
“How are you?” Mary lifts my arm. “Your hand!”
“I will be fine. Where is Father?”
“We have yet to see him today. His bedroom door is still shut.” Chastity wraps her arms around Raphael and lowers her voice to a whisper. “Thank heavens you have all returned to stop him! Last night, Jebediah said he was going to accuse Mercy of being a witch. He wants her to hang!”
So, Father has not changed his ways.
“He is not in his bedroom,” I say, taking Grace’s hand and turning down the hall.
Everyone trails behind.
When I open the door, a draft from the open window rustles my hair. The bedroom is empty, aside from a single, black feather on Father’s pillow.