Opals and Willows

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Today marks the publication of the first of our top five stories in the 10th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, Ella Effinger’s “Opals and Willows.” The theme of this year’s contest was “But, There’s a Catch,” and Ella’s story is a morality tale that features a magical object. Our judge, Laurin Jefferson, commented on the strength of the pacing in this story, and the balance between exposition and action. We hope you enjoy it!

Tessa couldn’t help but remember as she walked, though her memory was now fragmented and faded. Her boots crunched on the leaves of the forest in which her family had lived for generations. It took her back to when she was just 16 years old, deeper in the forest than she had ever gone. As Tessa stumbled through the roots and branches, her hand had felt the smooth rock and moss wall that guided her as she searched for the entrance to the cavern. She suddenly came to a stop as she felt an engraving on the rock beneath her hand. Holding her lamp up to her hand and squinting, Tessa brushed the moss away and saw the symbol which she had been looking for, the same one she saw in her book. 

Crunching on the leaves behind her, Tessa’s twin brother Oliver, was stumbling and being much louder than she was. If someone looked at Tessa and Oliver, they’d never be able to tell that they’re twins, or even related at all. Oliver was much taller and stockier than her, and had blonde waves for hair, with  warmer skin and darker eyes. Tessa on the other hand, was much thinner, and had their mother’s almost silvery eyes and black, straight hair. Personality wise, Oliver had always been more confident and chatty than Tessa, especially when they made trips into the village. Oliver always stuck up for her when the village kids would harass her, and would tell adults to “give her space” when talking to her, with as much attitude a 6 year old could have.

“Did you find something Tess? I swear I can’t see a thing.” Oliver made his way closer to Tessa, bringing his own lanturn up to see the symbol Tessa was looking at. “Good job!” Oliver exclaimed, giving Tessa a big grin. “It looks just like the one in the book! It means we’re close.” Tessa smiled softly at her brother. “Try to stay close to me,” she said, more seriously. “We have no idea what’s in this part of the woods, and I don’t want to risk getting separated. You only have that dagger on you.” Oliver’s smile faded a bit, and he gave no response. They pressed on, keeping close to the rocky, outer wall. 

The entrance to the cave had the same symbol from the book above it, and leaves and vines hung down and curled all around it, almost like some strange force was trying to keep them out. Oliver immediately cut down the vines with his dagger and moved forward into the cave. Tessa lunged and grabbed his hand, stopping him. Oliver looked back at her, seeing the expression of paranoia across her face. He smiled at her and squeezed her hand, urging her forward. Hand and hand, the twins marched through the damp cave, when they came across a large spacious cavern. The room had a hole in the ceiling, which moonlight spilled through, giving the whole space light showing off the greenery that enveloped the cavern, and the small trickling waterfall that was on the far back part of the cave wall. An uneven stone path lead to the center of the cavern, where a stone pedestal lay. “We found it,” Oliver said, breathlessly. “We actually found it Tess!” He began to rush towards the pedestal, but again Tessa pulled him back sharply. “Let me go first Oli, we don’t know what that thing could do to you. I should be the one handling it anyways.” Oliver’s smile fell as he looked back at his sister. “Tess, it’s a rock, I think I can handle it. Anyone could handle a rock.” Tessa gave her brother a pained expression of worry. “Have you forgotten why we’re here? What we’ve been looking for?” Tessa, pushing past her brother, remarked, “I’m just going to make sure it’s safe first, then you can carry it in your bag on the way home. Fair?” The pair made their way up the stone steps to the pedestal, where a round opal sat. The stone was undoubtedly beautiful, with its various blue shimmers within the rock, speckled with bouts of reddish pink. Tessa picked up the stone gently with her free hand, and felt the warmth radiating from the opal, which was notably odd for a rock that had been sitting in a damp cave for who knows long. A sudden sense of dread washed over Tessa, a feeling which she had no explanation for. Wanting to be rid of this feeling, she passed the stone over to her brother, so he could put the rock into his bag. Tessa hoped they could leave quickly.

A witch’s house must always be hidden and secluded from the public eye, just like the witch herself, or rather their identity. It’s one of many rules Tessa’s mother had told her, or rather, used to tell her. This rule was especially true with Oliver and Tessa’s cabin in the woods, which was far away from even the nearest village. When the twins returned to their home dawn had already broken, spilling out through the trees. They entered the house to find their mother, Odette, where she usually was, sitting at the widow, staring out into the forest. Oliver set his things down on their dining room table and gave their mother a kiss on her forehead. 

Things had been hard for Oliver and Tessa when their mother’s memory began to fade, and the light and life that once filled their cabin seemed to fade with it. Despite Odette being a loving and caring mother towards both her children, she always had to give Tessa special attention due to her developing abilities. Naturally, Odette was thrilled when Tessa showed signs of being a witch, just like her ancestors before her. The moon shaped birthmark on Tessa’s back had marked her as a witch, and soon her magic began to flourish. However, Oliver was left magicless. At first, when they were younger, Oliver was very obviously jealous of Tessa and her attention from their mother, craving the attention, and by extension, magic Tessa possessed. But as the twins matured, he seemed to grow out of it. Tess always wondered if Oliver still harbored any bitterness towards her or their mother, but he always claimed he didn’t whenever she asked. She remained doubtful.

Oliver guided Odette to her bed which the twins had moved into the living space near their dining room, and Tessa went into their mother’s small study to grab the book they needed. Tessa remembered digging in Odette’s study for weeks before she found the book. Age and various insects had made the book practically unreadable, but luckily for Tessa, the only page she needed was intact enough for her to just barely read. The twins used the page to track down the opal they wanted, hoping it would cure their mother’s illness, so they could return to the way things were. 

Returning to the living room, Tessa knelt down to the bed with Oliver. Taking the book from her Oliver remarked, “Okay, according to the book we just need to move the opal above her, and move it along her body. We also have to do this daily.” Tessa reached for the opal in Oliver’s hand, “Here, give it to me.” Oliver retracted his hand away from Tessa’s. “I can do it Tess, just let me try.” Tessa frowned. “Oliver, you’re not a witch. It’s too risky and it may not even work. It may require internal magic.” Oliver looked at the opal in his hand, clenching his fist over it harder. “I can do it Tess, plus the book doesn’t say anything about the user needing to be a witch. It will work. I can feel it.” Tessa glanced back at the stone in her brother’s hand. “Oli…” “Please Tess, let me try.” Oliver turned his attention back to Tessa, his eyes pleading. With one final glance at the opal, Tessa sighed, “Alright, you can try.” With this, Oliver began moving the stone like the book instructed, causing the opal to glow above Odette.

This continued for several weeks, with Oliver doing the spell each time. In fact, Oliver always had the stone on him, whether the spell had been completed that day or not. Odette did in fact start to return to her normal self. She began to do busy work around the house again and had a smile on her face. Oliver was of course overjoyed at the return to normalcy, but Tessa was troubled. Yes Odette was happier and could remember things again, but to Tessa, something was off. So was Oliver. Oliver had stopped taking care of himself like he used to. His hair became strangely and a mess. He was thinner than usual, and his eyes seemed darker. Even the whites of Oliver’s eyes appeared off. His personality also shifted, with him snapping at Tessa at any given moment, especially if she questioned his or their mother’s well being, or even if she offered to take the stone.

Eventually, Tessa lost her patience. One night after dinner, Tessa went alone into her mother’s study. She sat at the desk Odette once often occupied, and studied the page of the book as closely as possible for answers, but to no avail. In desperation, Tess began to dig through her mother’s book collection, tossing away books that didn’t have a recovery spell in them. Finally, an ivory colored book contained the spell Tessa was looking for. Closing her eyes, and taking a deep breath, Tess vocalized the words to the spell, and watched as the destroyed page became new again. In a rush, Tessa began searching for an answer to her brother’s condition. Scanning the page, she finally found an excerpt that contained the answers she was looking for.

The opal has the ability to restore memory and sanity to the inflicted person, however to do this, the opal drains the sanity from the user. It should be noted that the user of the stone could become violent, temperamental, and overall aggressive after using the opal for an extended period of time. If the user of the opal is a natural born witch, there is the possibility that said user could heal themselves with a simple break period away from the stone. However, the opal has binding properties, and one may become addicted to the stone’s presence, making it difficult for the user to part with the stone. It is important to note that if the user is human, there is no cure for their indictment due to the opal. If the human user begins to show traits of being affected by the opal, it is in the best interest of those around them to end their life, as the user may become a danger to themselves and others. 

Tessa’s heart sank to her stomach. Before she had time to react or think, she heard the floorboards creak behind her. “Tessa.” Tessa spun around to face her brother. But it wasn’t really her brother anymore. The whites of Oliver’s eyes had gone completely black, and his skin was a pasty white. The smile on his face was not truly his. Tessa’s breath shook as she looked at her brother. “Oliver,” she whispered. “Don’t come any closer.” Without warning, Oliver lunged at his sister. Tessa noticed too late that Oliver had a knife in his hand. He buried the knife into Tessa’s arm, and she screamed. Taking the knife out of her arm, Oliver prepared to stab her again, but Tessa was quicker, using her magic to push him across the room. Oliver slammed into the wall and crumpled to his knees, as Tessa ran out of the study, and into the twin’s shared bedroom. Tessa pushed her dresser up against the door and locked it in an attempt to stall for time. Eyes darting across the room Tessa spotted Oliver’s dagger that he had on their trip to the cave. Tessa grabbed the dagger, staring into the blade while she tried to think of a solution. There had to be some way to fix this, she couldn’t let her brother die. The thought of having to kill Oliver caused tears to spring from Tessa’s eyes. Wiping them away, an idea crossed Tessa’s mind. “If I can lead him into the forest, I can use a containment spell to trap him until I can figure out what to do to help him. The book has to be wrong. There has to be a way out of this.” Hiding the knife within her skirt pockets, Tessa slowly moved the dresser away from the door. 

Creeping out into the hallway, Tessa looked for her brother, but he was nowhere in sight. Sliding herself out of her room she immediately broke into a sprint in an attempt to reach the door. Almost instantly, she could hear Oliver behind her, and she ran faster. Once she reached the door, she flung it open and immediately dashed into the forest. Her boot crunched on the autumn leaves, and her breath quickened as she listened to her brother’s shouts while she ran. Tessa soon spotted the big willow tree she and Oliver used to play by, and she ducked behind it. She held her hand up to her mouth and listened for Oliver. A voice broke out among the trees.  “Tessssaaaa. I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.” Tessa suddenly heard a rustle in the branches above, and realized that he was right above her. She tried running, but Oliver jumped on top of her, pinning her to the ground. Despite the loss of weight Oliver had endured due to the opal, he was still stronger than Tessa, no matter how much she tried to free herself from his grasp. Taking his own knife out of his belt, Oliver slashed Tessa’s back, over her birthmark. Tessa screamed again in pain, and Oliver turned her over on her back, as she bled out onto the forest floor. Oliver’s grin widened as he spoke. “You’re going to look at me as you die!” He raised his knife up, but before he could stab Tessa again, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. Tessa had taken her own dagger out of her pocket, and stabbed her brother in the heart. Oliver looked down at the dagger buried in his chest, as Tessa screamed once more, and then stabbed him again, this time in the stomach. As Oliver began to crumple, Tessa pushed him off of her, and scrambled back away from him. Her tears began to flow again as she looked down in horror at her hands, trying to wrap her head around what she had just done. Her hands, clothes and face had blood splattered all over them, but she couldn’t tell whose. Her back and arm were still in pain from the attack, and her face had tiny cuts on it from the twigs and branches on the forest floor. 

Looking back up, Tessa saw her brother laying on the ground, hardly moving. She rushed back over to him with a cry. She lifted his torso up into her arms and turned his face towards hers. His eyes had returned to normal, but he was still pale, and his breathing had turned heavy. “Tess…” he whispered. Still cradling her twin, Tessa sobbed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She kept repeating those words until Oliver took his final breath.

Tessa buried him under the willow tree, and returned the opal to its cave, which had turned a more reddish color. She sealed it off with permanent magic, to keep anyone looking for it away. Her mother’s condition returned to the way it was, and she died not long after Oliver. She too was buried under the willow tree.

That was 50 years ago, and Tessa remained by herself in the woods, her once black hair now a pale gray.. Her memory became spotty, especially when she tried to remember the incident. She often wondered if she would have the same fate as her mother. Tessa rarely used magic anymore. She had no need to. Plus, the large scar over her birthmark reminded her that magic always had its cost.

About Ella Effinger 452 Articles

Ella Effinger is a junior at Clayton A. Bouton High School.