THEIR MOTHER USED to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” when they took a dinghy out along the cloudy Connecticut shore on those rare days when she felt well enough. That was where the heron lived, out beyond the flat water. Lucy Heller was too weak to use the oars; that was up to the girls. Lucy had been in treatment for cancer from the time Maddy and Allie were ten and eleven until they were in high school, the period when their father was gone. Lucy grew stronger as time went on, a survivor who never had another relapse, but back then the most she could manage was to carry her knitting bag. Lucy’s mother’s life had been claimed by cancer and although Lucy tried to keep her fears to herself, her children sensed them anyway. They came to believe she was doomed.
The girls hatched a plan should one of those boating outings ever turn dire. If the dinghy rocked over, if a sudden storm arose, they would save each other first. Even if they were warring and had had a terrible fight that very day, if Maddy had swiped a book or a bracelet, or if Allie had cleaned their room and tossed out Maddy’s collection of seashells, they would still rescue each other. They would hold hands and help each other stay afloat. They always made sure to wear life jackets, so they would be ready. They checked the newspaper for weather reports.
A curse had been placed upon their mother. That was why she was so distant and sad. That was why her husband had left her during her treatment. No one rational would have done that. No one whose wife hadn’t been under a spell. The girls decided that they were the only ones who could break the curse. There was only one way to combat an evil spell: blood for blood, skin for skin, ashes for ashes. They would call to the heron who was bound to watch over them. They’d make a sacrifice to his spirit. The sisters crept out to the backyard after bedtime. It was very dark, and Maddy tripped over a stone. Allie had to grab on to her to keep her from falling. They were in their nightgowns. Noone had done the wash for two weeks and the hems of their nightgowns were dirty. Their feet were bare. Things in the house were falling apart. There was no food in the refrigerator and they had run out of clean clothes. No one took out the garbage and moths flitted around the boxes of pasta and rice in the cabinets. That was the way illness appeared in a house, in the corners, in between floorboards, on the hooks in the closet, along with the sweaters and coats.
Maddy hung back as they approached the end of the lawn.
Curses, after all, were powerful things. It was impossible to see beyond the hedge. There seemed to be no one else alive in the world. If they went forward, would the earth still be there? If the heron came when they called to him, what would they do next? Maddy didn’t even like birds. A blue heron was almost as big as she was; she knew that from reading the Audubon guide. They were territorial and would fight any interlopers.
“Come on,” Allie said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Allie had gotten the shovel from the garage. When she started digging, the earth puddled with water. Maddy stood close to her sister. Allie smelled like soap and sweat and mud. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing.
“You’re getting in the way,” Allie said. “I can do this myself.”
When the shoveling was done, Maddy handed Allie the razor they’d stolen from the bathroom.
“It won’t hurt a bit,” Allie promised. “He’ll come to us then.
He’ll protect us.”
She was always saying things wouldn’t hurt in order to get Maddy to do what she didn’t want to do. Sometimes it was true and sometimes it wasn’t.
“The best thing to do when something hurts is to say one word over and over in your head,” Allie whispered. “Something comforting.” Their father was gone. Their mother might soon be in the hospital or locked into a high tower by mysterious forces or dead. The word Maddy chose to say was rice pudding. Technically that was two words, but it was her favorite dessert, and it always brought her comfort. Allie was quick when she dragged the razor across Maddy’s hand. She’d been right about the pain. It didn’t so much hurt as it burned.
“Okay,” Allie said. “Good job.” Once she was done with Maddy, she cut herself. One deep gash across her palm. She didn’t even wince. “Now we hold our hands over the dirt.”
They let their blood trickle onto the earth, then Allie shoveled the dirt back over the place where their blood had fallen. Their nightgowns were filthy by now, not that they cared. Their hair was tangled down their backs. They climbed up into the sycamore, the biggest tree for miles around.
“Something should happen,” Allie said. But nothing did. They waited and waited, but not a thing changed. Allie was hugely disappointed. She was the protector, the one who made all the decisions, the dependable one. She never cried, but now it seemed she might. “He’s never coming back,” she said. “He can’t save her.”
For Maddy, the thought of Allie crying was the most terrifying part of the night. “Just because we can’t see him doesn’t mean he’s not there.”
Allie looked at her sister, surprised. Frankly, Maddy had surprised herself.
“It’s dark out there,” Maddy went on to explain. “And the human eye is limited.” Her science class had been studying the human body, and they had just learned about the eye. The sisters looked out over the marsh. They couldn’t tell where the land stopped and where the water began. The silvery reeds looked black as coal. Maddy whispered, and for once she sounded sure of herself. “I’ll bet he’s there right now, only he can’t reveal himself. We have to just trust that he’s there.”
The girls’ mother seemed to feel better the next day. She sat in a lawn chair in the pale sunshine with her knitting beside ‘her. At noon she went into the kitchen and fixed Allie and Maddy their lunch. They heard her laugh later in the day. The sisters had made something happen through blood and faith. They never spoke of that night again. It seemed like a dark secret. Families such as theirs didn’t believe in such nonsense. They didn’t sneak out in the middle of the night and cut them-selves with razor blades. Still, Maddy couldn’t help but wonder if the curse hadn’t somehow been shifted onto her when she lied to her sister. She continued to cut herself. She chose places no one would notice: the back of her knees, the soles of her feet, her inner arm. Her sister was right. After a while, it no longer hurt.