soli (Italian) /ˈsəʊlɪ/
adjective, adverb (plural of solo) - (of a piece or passage) to be performed by or with soloists
"Dig deep, drink water, hold fast. Dig deep, drink water, hold fast..." Sprinkling the last of the juice of the apples she picked that morning, Isbell nearly completed her counterclockwise circle in the soil of her aunt's garden before Agnes scampered right in front of her, scattering the dirt across her boots.
"Agnes!" Isbell grumbled to herself as the black cat continued to chase the robin she chose as her prey. After briefly debating whether or not to start over, Isbell shook her boots clean and let the last drops of the juice trickle out of the jar. Nothing she had read so far spoke of interrupted circles bringing misfortune. She would have to leave it up to time to discover if her trick would produce a fruitful crop.
Her "tricks" were only just that - tricks and nothing more. Aunt Frances always seemed to think Isbell was wasting her time with her nose in her late father's journal. Other than his handkerchief and an overcoat, the journal was the only other item Isbell felt was worth taking across the sea to the New World. But after two months of life with her aunt, Isbell realized no one in Windsor, Connecticut spent time doing anything other than worrying about their crops, provisions for the coming Winter, and the weekly Sabbath Meeting. Any time Aunt Frances caught even a glimpse of the worn brown leather of the book, she would snap that reading is only done inside the schoolhouse or by the Reverend when reading the Holy Book. Isbell thanked the Good Lord her father made sure she knew how to read by her ninth Winter.
So Isbell poured over the journal by candlelight in her room each night, mesmerized by her father's tales of his travels. It was just that morning she found his passage on the solitary woman he came across in Northern England who had rituals for every facet of life. He spoke of a lush garden that the woman claimed never yielded anything less than the ripest produce. She shared her secret: a counterclockwise circle of the juice of apples, a symbol of strength, growth, and prosperity.
What was the harm in manifesting a fruitful garden? Isbell saw none. The chant was her own idea and creation, hoping a few words of encouragement would do the soil some good.
Isbell looked up from her work in search of the feline, who was nowhere to be found. She had only just recently taken to calling her Agnes. Her first few weeks here, Isbell had only seen Agnes maybe once or twice, the cat's black fur catching her eye as she patrolled the border of the woods near Aunt Frances' home. But lately it seemed she made it a point to visit Isbell almost every day. getting maybe a few pets in before scampering back to wherever it was she came from.
Eyes tracing the trees, Isbell didn't see her and decided to head back in before her aunt would question her method of "watering" the garden. The wooden floor creaked and cracked as Isbell made her way into the kitchen, snatching a cloth to wipe the inside of her jar clean before placing the jar back where it belonged with the others on the shelf. She didn't want to leave any trace of her doing anything out of the ordinary.
As if on cue, Aunt Frances came bursting in through the front door with a huff, struggling a bit with the basket of sewing materials in her arms.
"I thought you were going to be gone until supper time," Isbell said.
Dropping the basket on the kitchen table, Frances wiped at her brow. "I thought so as well, but Margery's youngest interrupted our sewing and was thoroughly inconsolable. Carrying on and crying about something she saw with her friends in the woods. Our group thought it best to call it an early afternoon, and it looks like rain soon regardless."
"Margery?" Isbell had met so many people in such a short amount of time, she had a hard time putting the correct names to the correct faces.
"Margery Falmouth. You remember her. I introduced you to her and her husband Thom a few weeks back. He’s the doctor."
She then recalled having a brief interaction with them following a Sabbath Meeting. Margery was cold with sharp green eyes while Thom was warm and welcoming.
"Oh, right," Isbell mumbled. "And her sister is the school teacher?"
Frances hummed in affirmation. "That's Mabell. Help me bring the clothes in before this rain comes."
Isbell followed her aunt out the back door to where their clothes and linens were hanging to dry. But she nearly ran into Frances' back when she came to a halt only a few steps outside.
"That creature has been through here again," Frances groaned. "I do not understand why it's insistent on traipsing through my garden."
Isbell could clearly see the track of paw prints Agnes had left in the soil when she interrupted Isbell's ritual. "She only ran through. Nothing was disturbed."
"She? Do not tell me you've named it. You will grow too attached." Frances gave Isbell a withered look as she moved to the clothing line.
"I'm not attached. It's not as if I intend to keep her. She clearly prefers to roam the woods." Isbell then remembered what her aunt said moments ago. "Did you say Margery's daughter was playing in the woods?"
Unclipping the items on the clothes line, Frances distractedly answered, "Oh, yes, the children like to scare each other with stories of what resides in there. Usually it stays as nothing but a story, but it seems they are getting brave enough to actually go inside." She laid a few dresses and undergarments over one arm before turning back to Isbell with one eyebrow raised. "There is no threat except that of getting attacked by wild animals, like that cat."
Isbell sighed. "Oh, Agnes is harmless. The only things she is likely to attack are birds and mice."
Frances sighed as well before handing some of the laundry to Isbell and guiding her back inside the house by one arm. "I know you like to make it a point to not listen to me, but please..." The back door clattered shut as Frances placed her items on top of the basket still sitting on the table. She stared at nothing for a moment, putting her hands on her hips. "Anything you do that is even remotely outside of the social norm will just be fuel for them to use against you."
Her aunt's sudden seriousness and the jarring change of subject made Isbell physically jerk back. "I... Aunt, I know how people see me. Being unmarried still at my age is enough to make everyone talk, but... I am trying. You must know that."
Frances half-smiled and crossed the distance between them. "I do know that. I am only hard on you because I want you to do well and find happiness here. It's what your father would want. And your uncle, God rest both their souls." She brushed a strand of curls out of Isbell's face.
Smiling back at her aunt, Isbell did her best to enjoy this quieter moment. Life there was certainly quieter than it had been for her in England, but it seemed those first two months there had been equally filled with the hustle and bustle of trying to learn a way of life focused solely on surviving. Isbell knew Aunt Frances was only trying to help her, but she couldn't quite remember the last time they had simply talked to each other.
The moment quickly passed. Isbell took a deep breath. "Here, let me help you fold these."
The sensation of something brushing over her arms slowly pulled Isbell from her dreams.
Her eyes cracked open, only to see another set of eyes staring back at her.
A scream not quite fully formed died in her throat as she tried to sit up, disturbing the being sitting on her chest.
The cat scrambled a bit at Isbell's sudden movement, hopping onto the floor. Isbell chuckled to herself and looked at her friend. "You scared me." And then she realized something: both her door and window were closed. Swinging her feet over the side of the bed, Isbell wondered aloud, "How did you get in here, hm?"
Agnes sat herself squarely in front of Isbell and meowed, the sound pitching upward at the end like a question.
Yes, Isbell wished she could keep the little one with her inside as the weather in Windsor had begun growing colder with each day. But she knew she couldn't. "I am sorry, I have to let you back out. I do not even want to think about what Aunt Frances would do if she caught you in here." True to her word, Isbell scooped up the cat and cracked open her window just enough to let Agnes hop through. "Off you go."
Light on her feet as ever, Agnes leaped through and onto the ground below only to immediately turn back around to face Isbell. She made the same questioning sound she did moments before.
"Go on. If you come back when the sun rises, I may even have a treat for you," Isbell whispered.
Agnes turned, walked a few steps, and spun right back around to Isbell. She asked her question again.
"Agnes, I cannot follow you out in the dark. Run along now."
The black cat did the routine again.
Wiping a hand over her eyes, Isbell decided something she would likely regret. After sliding her feet into the slippers by her bed and then pushing the window open as wide as it could go, she eased one leg up and over the ledge before pulling her other after it in the same fashion. She hopped down onto the grass below and felt the back of the skirt of her night dress catch and rip on the window sill. She cursed under her breath. She would have to think of a way to explain it to Aunt Frances later.
Agnes began a slow saunter, as if purposefully slowing her pace to ensure Isbell kept up with her. Isbell begrudgingly followed, quickly realizing they were headed in the direction of the woods. She would walk the cat to the tree line and nothing more. But as soon as they did so and Isbell tried to bid the cat goodnight, Agnes resumed her mewling and pawed at Isbell's legs.
"I am not following you in there. I am sorry, but I will not do it." She turned and took all of three steps back toward her home before Agnes chased after her and started running circles around her.
Where was Agnes trying to lead her? Isbell had the sudden dreadful thought of someone being hurt somewhere, and being the rather intelligent animal she was, Agnes was trying to get them help.
“Alright, alright,” Isbell said as forcefully as she could while still keeping her voice at a whisper. She turned back the woods, and Agnes began trotting along again as if nothing about this was strange: a cat leading a human through a darkened forest in the middle of the night.
One step toward the trees, and a chill went down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold Autumn air. Lord, help me, Isbell prayed.
Though the cat did not lead her on any actual path, Isbell thought every twist and turn they took did not seem aimless. In fact, Agnes kept a very purposeful gait. But the more enshrouded the two became in the trees, the tougher it was for Isbell to see in front of her – never mind that Agnes black coat was already difficult to keep track of. The snaps and cracks of twigs beneath the cat’s paws was soon the only sign Isbell had of where they were going.
Only then did she realize why it was so easy to hear their steps. Everything in the woods was silent. No chirping of insects, no calls of owls. Nothing. Would their journey end in a meeting with the wild animals Aunt Frances warned her about?
But just as her heart began to race and her hands began to sweat at the thought of what they would encounter, Isbell saw a light, a dim orange flickering through the trees. A fire? No…
Her mind came to a halt as the woods suddenly opened to a small clearing – an almost perfect circle of nothing but grass…with the smallest of cabins in the middle. The light was glowing in the window, coming from inside. If not for the silence, perhaps it would have been a welcoming sight.
Agnes picked up her pace a bit, almost galloping toward the structure. Stopping right at the door, Agnes sat and turned to look at Isbell, tail swishing behind her. After a moment or two, Isbell realized she was still standing at the edge of the clearing, frozen. Was this what the children had found the day before? What was inside that had scared them?
A click and then a creak made Isbell’s breath catch in her throat. The door opened, and the light from within poured out, making Agnes’ fur look like it was glowing. Isbell didn’t dare move as a figure appeared in the doorway and bent down to pick up the cat. The light behind them made it impossible for Isbell to discern any of their features. They may as well have been a shadow. And yet, as the silhouette straightened with Agnes in their arms, Isbell knew they were looking directly at her. An eternity passed before they turned and went back inside, but they did not close the door behind them.
Though she could feel her knees threatening to buckle, Isbell forced herself to walk toward the cabin, albeit slowly. Everything was still eerily silent, save for her heartbeat pounding in her ears and the rustling of the grass under her feet. She was mere steps away from the door when she realized there was humming coming from within. She froze again.
“Please, no need to be shy.”
The voice was rough but somehow warm with no malice behind it. The humming resumed just as Isbell entered the doorway.
It was a quaint home. The majority of the space was taken up by bare necessities similar to Aunt Frances’ home. But the back wall was covered in numerous shelves holding all sorts of jars and containers. Isbell didn’t have time to discern exactly what they were holding because her eyes were then drawn to the table just below the shelves. Stacks of books and loose papers littered its surface, and the cabin’s inhabitant stood in front of it with her back to Isbell.
“I will not keep you long.” It was a woman with gray hair reaching all the way to the small of her back, wearing a simple gray dress with stains decorating the base of the skirt.
As Isbell opened her mouth to ask who this woman was, she turned to face her visitor. The woman’s face was weathered with age yet soft with kind amber eyes. Despite being a complete stranger, Isbell felt she had known this woman her whole life.
“Who- who are you?” Isbell’s voice shook.
“You may call me Em,” the woman said with a gentle smile.
Isbell’s manners instinctively took over. “My name is-”
“I know who you are, Isbell Creed.”
Isbell blinked. “How do you know me?”
“Never mind that. As I said, I do not intend to keep you long. I brought you here to warn you.”
For a brief moment, Isbell wondered if this was all a dream. A cat guiding her to a lone cabin in the woods where an old woman has a warning? Isbell could not question her reality any further because Em was still speaking.
“Beware the soli.”
“The song of the coven.”
Hearing the word “coven” instantly brought memories of the rampant paranoia of witches back home. Isbell should not have been surprised it had reached the New World.
“I do not understand. What coven?”
“You will see in due time. They will try to lure you, to take part in their ways. Do not let them.”
Isbell jerked awake with a gasp, her heart threatening to pound out of her chest. The sun shone through her window, and birds chirped as they flew by.
So it was a dream.
Wiping a hand over her brow, she laughed. Of course it was only a dream. After all, she had no recollection of making it back through the woods and to her bedroom. Her conversation the day prior with her aunt must have brought forth memories of witch hunts.
Isbell took a deep breath and willed her heartbeat to slow. She had to get moving as she had promised to meet the schoolteacher Mabell that morning. It was already no secret in Windsor that Isbell was far more educated than most women, so word had already reached Mabell that she had someone to potentially help her with the children.
Not wasting any time, Isbell got out of her bed and was just about to ready herself for the day when something by her window caught her eye.
Her slippers were haphazardly strewn on the floor. And were covered in mud.
She then grasped at the back of her night gown. The skirt was ripped.
“Isbell, please come in.” Mabell Morval waved Isbell into the schoolhouse from where she was sitting at the desk at the front of the one-room building. “I have heard so much about you from your aunt. I am glad to finally meet you.”
Isbell shut the door behind her and made her way to Mabell. “You as well. I was hoping to offer any assistance when my aunt told me the number of children here has grown so much that it’s hard to accommodate them all.”
As Isbell sat in a chair in front of the desk, Mabell sighed. “Indeed. It is good to see Windsor and the surrounding colonies progressing well after a harsh start, but it has become a bit overwhelming. I would like to ask you to perhaps meet individually with a few children as a start?”
“I can certainly do that.”
The two women discussed the studies Isbell would be conducting with some of the younger students. After Isbell was left with a loose plan for her teachings, Mabell offered to give Isbell some materials to use for her sessions. Mabell dug into a drawer in her desk and began humming as she did so.
Isbell had to force herself to not audibly gasp. She knew that tune. It was the same as the one Em had been humming. In her “not dream” from the night before.
Mabell found what she was looking for and placed the items on the desk before meeting Isbell’s eyes. She stopped her humming and smiled.
It was this moment Isbell realized Mabell had the same green eyes as her sister Margery. Though she was smiling, there was a glint in Mabell’s gaze that was eerily similar to the coldness of that of her sister’s.
Mabell broke the spell, looked away from Isbell, and resumed explaining the studies.
Isbell did her best to not show her discomfort for the remainder of the conversation, but she still struggled to be as personable as she would have liked. She was silently thanking the Lord their meeting was over as she opened the door to leave when Mabell’s voice stopped her.
“Isbell. I do hope you are feeling welcome here.”
Forcing a smile on her face, Isbell said, “Oh, yes. Everyone has been very kind.”
“I am glad to hear it. I certainly would not want you to feel like an outcast.”
The glint in Mabell’s eyes was back, and Isbell had to force herself not to physically shiver. “No, ma’am.”
Mabell smiled, or rather smirked. “Good.”
Isbell walked home in a daze. Was she reading too much into her interaction with Mabell? Perhaps she was, but she could not move past the tune Mabell hummed. Prior to the night before, Isbell had never heard any songs like it. She could not come up with a logical explanation as to how it had then reached her ears twice.
The song of the coven, Em had said.
As much as she wished to visit the old woman right that moment, Isbell knew she couldn’t go wandering into the woods in broad daylight. Partly because she would no doubt be seen, but also partly because she wasn’t sure she would even be able to find her way again.
Isbell nearly slowed to a complete stop before she even realized what she was doing.
She was hearing it again.
Her eyes darted around the houses on either side of her, unsure of exactly which direction it was coming from, until she saw a woman sitting on a porch and knitting what would likely be a blanket. Isbell thought she seemed familiar and quickly realized it was the Reverend’s wife whose name she could not recall.
And suddenly she was looking right at Isbell, a smile on her face as she continued to hum the tune.
Isbell stared, knowing she should probably smile back or make some other indication of greeting. Reverend Braddock’s wife nodded her head in acknowledgement despite Isbell’s lack of movement and looked away to focus back on her knitting.
As if physically released from a hold, Isbell marched on her way again, a bit desperate to make it home.
Eating dinner with Aunt Frances was a rather quiet affair. Though the women never made a habit of carrying on lengthy conversations over meals, Isbell didn’t exactly put in too much of her own participation into the chit chat. She didn’t dare make mention of the woods or its potential inhabitants and definitely did not say anything of luring songs. She picked at her food until she made an excuse of not feeling well and left the table.
Isbell laid in her bed for hours, tossing and turning. Her mind ran through many things as she stared at the walls and ceiling of her bedroom, one of those things being how she had not seen Agnes at all that day. Even if the cat did not visit her specifically, she would at the very least often catch glimpses of her scampering around town. Isbell hoped that meant she was at home with her true owner.
She had only just forced her eyes shut to try to quiet her thoughts when she heard footsteps crunching through some of the newly fallen leaves outside the window. Was it Agnes? No, the steps seemed too heavy to be that of a small cat.
Slithering out of her bed and making sure to keep low, Isbell crept to her window to peek out into the night. For a moment, she saw nothing. The next, she caught the faintest of glimpses of a cloaked figure disappearing into the woods.
Everything from the day before, meeting with Em included, had been building up a sense of dread and something else she couldn’t quite name inside her. And right then, it boiled over. She was clearly being egged on. And she did not like it.
Never one to not face her fears, Isbell resigned herself to another night of walking the woods. Managing to grab her coat this time before putting on her slippers, she slid open the window and eased herself out. She even kept her night gown from ripping.
Isbell half-jogged to the spot in the tree line where she saw the figure. She didn’t care about any noise she potentially made. If there were already others out and about, it didn’t seem necessary. She took three long strides into the woods and stopped. She didn’t have a guide. She had no idea where she was even going. To Em’s cabin? Wherever the figure went off to?
She didn’t recall taking any harsh turns on her previous journey, so she decided to go for as straight a shot as possible. Any nocturnal insects she was used to hearing each night were silent again. Maybe if she focused on listening for any snaps and cracks around her…
As soon as she formulated the thought, she heard just that: snaps of twigs, and then a hushed voice. It was to a slight right not too far from her. Creeping in that direction, Isbell heard another whisper in a different voice.
“It appears we have an interloper.”
Isbell knew instantly whoever spoke intended for her to hear, because they were talking about her.
“Come here, child.”
The voice was nothing like Em’s. It was cold, as if something sinister was behind it. And yet, Isbell could not keep her curiosity from getting the best of her. Moving closer to the voice, she was finally able to make out the scene in front of her: three cloaked figures standing in a small circle. They all turned to Isbell in unison and removed their hoods. The faces before her should not have surprised Isbell, but she could not help the gasp that came out of her.
Margery Falmouth, Mabell Morval, and the Reverend’s wife, who she then remembered was called Ellinor. Ellinor Braddock.
Margery smiled, and even in the darkness, Isbell felt the chill of her green eyes. “I am glad you decided to join us tonight.”
“W-what is this?” Isbell stuttered.
“You are just in time,” Mabell said, smiling the same as her sister. “We are about to start the soli.”
Isbell struggled to find anything meaningful to say. This was what Em warned her of.
“The soli is our prayer, the song of our coven.” Isbell had never heard Ellinor speak before. Her voice was just as cold and empty as those of the other two. “We offer it up to the gods along with our offering. This is how we keep peace.”
The mention of an offering is what caused Isbell to finally see it – what the coven was circled around.
It was Agnes. On her back. And sliced open.
If she had actually eaten her dinner, Isbell was certain she would have vomited it back up in that moment.
“N-no. No! What are you doing?! Why have you done this?!” Isbell was nearly yelling in her hysterics.
Margery smiled at her still and tilted her head, placing a hand on Isbell’s shoulder. “These are the ways of this land. We must keep to them to ensure our people’s survival for generations.”
Isbell put both hands on her head as she cried. Sacrifices to keep peace? With “the gods”? This could not be real.
“We have seen your own rituals, Isbell Creed. You are meant to join us.” The smiles on the women’s faces made Isbell feel as if she was going insane.
“This is not- this is not what I am meant for! Not this!” Isbell took two steps back, and the air around the group shifted. The women now looked at her threateningly.
“This is how our peace has been won, Isbell. The cost is one life. Any life,” Ellinor tried to reason.
But Isbell knew it all went well beyond a blood sacrifice. Whatever these women were praying to and calling upon was sinister. She could feel it all around her. Perhaps it was happy with their offerings so far. But what would happen when it wanted more?
“I will not do this,” Isbell stated, using everything in her to put command behind her voice. She began stepping backward again.
Margery finally dropped her smile and all pretense of being amicable. “You cannot run from this. You are meant for this. And you will become a part of this coven.” Mabell and Ellinor moved to stand directly next to Margery, all three women staring down Isbell with their cold gazes.
Isbell did not realize she was running until she nearly tripped on a root. She couldn’t tell which direction she was going, whether it was back to her home or further into the woods. Her own racing breath and the crunch of her footsteps was so loud in her ears, she couldn’t tell if she was being followed.
She had to keep going.
Her lungs burned the further she went, and her legs and arms were being thoroughly sliced by branches reaching out at her from all sides.
She had to keep going.
She hoped she was heading in the direction of Em’s cabin. Em knew enough to warn her of this. Maybe she would know enough to protect her from it.
She had to keep going.
And then she was in the familiar clearing. The perfect circle of grass with a lone cabin in the middle. Isbell gasped out a relieved laugh, but it quickly died when she saw it.
There was no light in the window.
Thanks for reading! This one really took on a life of its own and kind of got away from me in terms in length. So thanks for sticking through it! Content warning is for what happened to poor Agnes.
Quick story: I used to have a recurring dream where a black cat would lead me outside to a witch's lair, but I would always wake up before I saw her face. I'm sure you can clearly see how I used that as inspiration.