1925, Northwestern Nepal

 

When my half-brothers died, Mother would not let anyone touch their little bodies. She wrapped them in a blanket her own mother made and carried them to the small pyre we’d built above the village. The summer rains had not yet arrived, so even in the gathering dusk the world remained brown and dry. Houses the color of road dust slouched, and without the wide green leaves of young trees and overgrown shrubs our mountain home appeared more monochrome than even in the bleakness of winter.

The lama, who lived at the far edge of the village, had a much shorter walk to the pyre. Our mistress requested his presence on our behalf, so he left his warm home to chant the proper words over their bodies.  

“I like to think,” he said as the kindling hissed and curled, “that those who depart so soon must be more likely than the rest of us to escape the next cycle of rebirth.”  

“Thank you, jowo,” I said, and bowed.  

Mother’s lip curled.  

We stood outside the ring of light and warmth and listened to the lama’s voice as he performed. I wished Mother’s husband Tsering home from the annual trading route, or that we could wait for his return to do this. I wished our mistress had come, and brought her husbands and children, to mourn with us. I wished Mother would put her arm around me.  

The wind sprinted up the mountainside and shrieked its way through the village below us. It pulled at my unadorned braids and tore Mother’s shawl from her shoulders. She hardly seemed to notice when it blew away, but shouted when I ran to retrieve it.  

“You are disrespectful,” she hissed when I returned.  “Loveless, ungrateful child.” The lama paused, and in the absence of his baritone the silence rang.  

“It will grow colder before spring returns again. You need this,” I said, and shook the shawl in her face. She smacked my fist down and slapped me with an open palm.  

The lama broke in, frowning. “This is not seemly,” he said.  “You must control yourselves.” Mother’s head snapped around, and for a moment I thought she would strike him as well.  

Her face smoothed, though. “Of course, jowo,” she said, bending at the waist with loose shoulders. I stared until the lama cleared his throat, then startled as the world snapped back into place. I jerked, Mother’s shawl still in my hand, and brought my palms together. My braid slipped past my ear. 

During the darkest part of the night, long after the lama finished his duty and left us, Mother and I turned our backs on the dying pyre and followed the path back into the village.  

As we passed the mistress’ trongchen, the great house where she and her family slept, the wind picked up again. It stung my cheeks and I squinted against the chill.  

Mother stopped to stare up at the trongchen. “Listen to the thatching, Dorje,” she said, her eyes hard. “Her house-beam may be strong enough to carry a witch down the mountain, but the rest of it is weak.”  

“Do not say such things,” I said without heat, and took her cold hand. Her fingers wrapped around mine. I tugged until she moved again, then led her away from the front of the house.  

In our small hut behind the trongchen, I lit a mostly-burned candle and gathered every blanket we owned, then crawled onto my mother’s pallet as if I was no older than my dead brothers.  

“You shouldn’t,” she said as I settled. “I haven’t been cleansed of the death-taint yet.”  

“Too late,” I said, and curled up against her warmth.  

When the candle guttered and the room grew dark, Mother’s breaths began to hitch. I pressed my face into the meat below her shoulder and wished for something to say.  

Her husband, Tsering, might have brought more comfort, but he and the oldest of our mistress’ three husbands had left weeks before, almost the moment the weather permitted. Yaks carried the knotted carpets, tea, and knitted clothing they would exchange for rice, linens, and metal accoutrements.  

Tsering would have no idea his sons were dead until he returned. Letters rarely reached the men who left the village, as their routes varied from year to year. Tsering and our owner could be as far away as China by now.  

I closed my eyes against Mother’s sorrow and let her sleeve soak up the leaking from my eyes. “I am sorry,” I said, over and over, though I did not know why. A gulf yawned within my chest, between my ribs and spine.  

“Our mistress did this,” she said into my tear-stained hair.  

My forehead mussed the damp fabric at her shoulder as I shook my head. “No, Mother.”  

“I know she did,” Mother said. “Why else would she let them die so easily?”  

I wrapped my arms around her and rocked her as she had me and my brothers. I said, over and over again: Our mistress did not harm my brothers. Our mistress had no witchcraft in her blood.  

“They needed medicine and did not receive it. There is no witchcraft inside her,” I insisted.  

“It is still her fault,” Mother said. Her voice cracked.  

Privately, I agreed. Mother’s chest rose and fell with harsh breaths, but she relented enough to pull me close.  

~

I endeavored to keep my mother and mistress apart for as long as possible. Mother would not quickly forgive me for leaving her to care for our mistress’ children, but it was better than the discord she would sow here. 

My mistress met my eyes through her handheld mirror. She sat on a generous pile of cushions, warming her feet in a slant of morning sunshine while I arranged her hair for the day. “I provided my condolences, did I not?” she said.

“Yes, jozhon, you did.” I dropped my eyes to my fingers intertwined in her thick, black hair. Though we would both work the field today, watering, pulling weeds, and killing pests, the fineness of her hair and clothes would mark her as my owner. “We are both grateful for your kindness.” 

She smiled, but her eyes narrowed. Mother had a similar expression, one she donned when she took pleasure in causing unhappiness. “Grateful,” my mistress said. “Really?”  

“Of course.” I resisted pulling her braid too tightly. 

“You don’t think me cruel?” she said. “If we’d had the money I might have saved them.”  

I could feel her watch me in her mirror. My hands moved faster, though not so quickly I would lose the strands of my work. “Cruel?  No, jozhon.  Of course not.”  

My brothers battled their rashes and fever long enough to grow quiet, pale, and weak. When their fevers spiked, one after the other, our mistress decreed the necessary medicines extravagant. Mother tried to petition the lama for mercy, but our mistress ordered her locked inside our hut. The shackles, though open, still sat piled in a corner.  

My mistress’ voice lost its silky edge, and the shift startled me into sneaking a glance through my lashes. She caught my gaze and held it through her hand mirror. “Samten was not in her right mind,” she said. 

I swallowed and looked down. It would not do to keep Mother from this task only to botch it myself. I could never be anything more than a good daughter and a good slave, so I sought to balance both. It occupied my days, kept the peace, and was certainly more than Mother had managed.  

“We trust that you knew what you were doing,” I said. 

~

Mother began to whisper prayers with her eyes fixed on the trongchen’s central house-beam. She was careful not to be overheard, but I saw her lips move as she served the meals.  

I caught and pulled her away from the second-floor dining area; not downstairs to the barn, but upstairs to a floor full of empty bedrooms.  

“You must not,” I said, low and fierce, with my fingers still on her wrist. “They will think you are casting spells. They will call you a witch.”  

Mother smoothed a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “Don’t worry,” she said. “No one will catch me at it.”      

I could not fully hide my exasperation. “I did. Anyone else could have also seen.”  

Her expression grew placid, and something within me shifted like an anxious bird. “You’re different,” she said. “Observant, and outside of the rest. Like myself.”  

A dark forehead and small pair of eyes appeared at the top of the stairs: Chodak, our mistress’ youngest son. My stomach swooped.  

“You are not going to try to bring them back, are you?” I said, unease making me tactless. I should not have mentioned my brothers. “Because you cannot. They are gone.”  

Mother’s humanity slipped as her lips pulled back into a snarl. Her teeth sharpened and her skin sagged as if aging fifty years in a moment. Her eyebrows thickened, her nose warped as if it had been horribly broken, and when she raised a hand, wicked talons glinted in the poor light.  

Terror closed my throat. I stepped back, unable to breathe.  “Mother–”  

Then she blinked, or I blinked, and she was my mother again.  

“I know the dead are gone,” Mother said.  

Goosebumps crawled down my arms. I nodded, eyes still wide. She turned toward the stairs in time to hear small feet patter downward.  

“What is it?” I said when she paused, straining through stagnant air.  

Her shoulders rose in a deep inhale. “Nothing, Dorje,” she said. “Come, now. Our jowo and jozhon will need us.”  

~

When Mother was young, she sought to rise above her birth, perhaps even to free herself from slavery. Our mistress’ eldest husband had already favored her several times, and she hoped my birth would cement her position. He could have freed her, but in the end he did not, and Mother hates them all for it. 

Our mistress may have had husbands to spare, but they did the sharing, not she. 

I may not acknowledge anyone but Tsering as my father, but he is a good man, and Mother loves him, in her way. He is our laughter in the dark and our warmth through each winter. He grounds and softens my mother, and he is the only kind of man I may hope for: one who loves me despite my mother and all that she is.  

~

I kept a close watch over Chodak. Our mistress could take care of herself, but he was only four years of age–old enough to fear witches, though perhaps not old enough to recognize one.  Everyone else knew what to look for, and to be on the lookout for it.  

Witches dismembered their husbands, tortured children, and chained their daughters to the house-beams they used to fly. They learned their cruelty from their mothers, who had chained them to their own house-beams in order to whet the daughter’s appetite for cruelty. They destroyed entire villages with their darkness.  

While the mistress’ two eldest boys spent their days watching over the cattle, I limited Mother’s interactions with the younger children as much as possible. I sent her to attend our mistress and insisted on caring for the children myself.  

So long as she refrained from harming anyone, I could justify keeping her secret. 

I began to dream of waking in the middle of the night to an empty hut with no center house-beam. The house should have fallen. I should have died.  

Only witchcraft can keep a home upright without its center beam. By removing it a witch proves her power over those closest to her–her husband, her children, her mistress and masters.  

The first few times I dreamed of waking in an empty home I remained too sleep-fuddled to do anything but sit up and look around. Only on the third night a dzomo, one of the yak-cattle hybrids stabled in the trongchen’s ground floor, called loudly enough to her calf that I took notice. 

Though my eyes were already open, it felt like waking. My skin felt as if I had gone walking without it and it now hung loose on all my bones.  

I looked up. The central house-beam remained missing. The hut remained empty. 

I swallowed and threw myself back down, pulling the blanket almost to my ears and squeezing my eyes shut as I willed myself to dreamlessness. 

~

Early the next afternoon the summer rains drove all who could be spared inside. I herded our mistress’ two youngest boys, the ones not yet old enough to watch over the grazing animals, into one of the second-floor storerooms to continue work on some of the half-finished rugs that Tsering and our master would trade next year. “Do you have your blocks?” I said.  

“I’ll get them,” said Palden, who bolted down the hallway.  He was Chodak’s elder by only a year. Chodak hovered by the door and kept his attention on me and his sister, who I carried in a sling on my back.  

I settled myself before the loom with my back to the wall.  Their sister would grow fussy soon enough with the view, but for now she continued to nap.  

Palden returned with an armful of toys. He dropped them with a clatter, and I looked at him sharply. “Do not wake your sister.”  

He kneeled beside his toys and looked at me from the corner of his eye. “I won’t,” he said, then swiveled around on his knees to face me directly. “If you can do magic, why did your brothers die? Did you want them to?”  

Adrenaline surged with a cold jolt. “What?” I said, though I couldn’t help but glance, rabbit-quick, at Chodak. He looked at the floor the moment I turned my head.  

“Do witches need medicine when they get sick?” Palden said.  “Can you ride on a house-beam?”

He thought I was the witch. The molten thought pooled into my gut and I stared at him, unable to move.

“No,” I said, more harshly than I intended. “No, I cannot do magic, but magic would not have saved them. Witchcraft is evil, do you understand? It is depravity and wickedness and every unkind thought the world has ever had.” I found myself on my feet in front of the loom, breathing harshly. The baby strapped to my back woke and began to fuss.  

Palden’s shoulders met his ears. He stared wide-eyed at the floor and shook his head, but I could not stop. “Am I a monster who has simply taken a liking to you?” I said. “Is that what you have decided, that I cursed my brothers to die but would not do the same to you?”  

Chodak cowered. He scooted backward along the floor and bumped into the doorframe. The baby began to wail.  

A wild, wordless sound escaped me, and I used my fingernails to tear at the knots holding her to me. When the sling came loose too quickly, it slipped and she shrieked.  

I grimaced and dropped to my knees. I pulled her around to my front and lay her on the floorboards with shaking hands. “Hush,” I said, my voice thick.  

She hiccuped and continued to scream. Her face turned pink with exertion.  

An ache formed in my chest, no larger than my fist and beating steadily against my sternum. I inhaled what was meant to be a calming breath, but it hitched on the exhale. I leaned over beside the baby, dropped to my elbows and lowered my face to kiss her cheek. “I am sorry,” I said, my voice hardly more than a breath.  

It took a long time for the darkness in my chest to fade.  When the baby finally fell back into an exhausted sleep, I left her alone. I kneeled beside the boys’ block tower and kept my hands loose in my lap. No fists, no rubbing my empty chest.  Both Chodak and Palden averted their eyes.  

“I apologize to you both,” I said. “I should not have yelled.”  

“I’m sorry we asked,” Chodak said. Palden looked up with big, earnest eyes and nodded.  

“It’s all right,” I said. “But let’s not mention this to your mother or fathers, yes?”  

They nodded, still searching to please.  

The unnatural quiet persisted when I returned to the loom.  This was how witchcraft spread, I reflected as it clacked and the rug grew by increments. It had nothing to do with chains or house-beams. Witchcraft bloomed through anger, from mother to daughter. Rage beyond control.    

~

At sunset after Mother and I cleaned the dinner dishes from the table, I caught her by the elbow. She let me tow her to the garden just outside the ground floor entrance, and gave only a small sigh when I released her ungently. “Dorje,” she began, and I made a wordless, frustrated noise as heat flared in my chest.  

“You must stop,” I said. “Whatever it is you have been doing at night, whatever spells you have woven, it must all cease. I woke up last night. I saw you gone. And today with the children–” I cut myself off too late and tried to distract her by continuing on another track. “You are poisoning me.”  

Mother’s gaze sharpened. “What about the children?” she said. “The daughter born since my sons died, or our mistress’ own little boys?”  

I shook my head, though I could not pinpoint what I meant to deny. I should have said nothing. “Do not hurt them.”  

She smiled without warmth and said, “I won’t.”  

I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my fists to my forehead.  “Mother.”  

Her eyebrows rose as if my disbelief disappointed her. “I will not hurt them, Dorje.”  

I dropped my hands. “Swear it,” I said, feeling as though my bones might snap. “Swear that you will let me fetch the lama to exorcise the evil within you.” Perhaps he would consent to exorcise me as well. It was for the good of the village, after all.  

Mother’s expression flattened and her canines lengthened.  Dark brown fur began to sprout all across her face and neck.  “For as long as you stand between us,” she said with a growl, “I swear I will not harm our mistress’ children.”  

I stood my ground, though could not help shuddering.  Mother snarled, the same noise a cornered fox makes. “Does that satisfy you, daughter?”  

“Yes,” I said, breathless.  

She turned away with a huff. When I did not follow, she paused and turned back to look at me. The fur had disappeared; she looked like my mother again. “Are you coming?” she said.  

I nodded. I did not hurry after her, but I went.  

~

When I woke again in the middle of the night, I realized this time I had almost expected it.  

From where she crouched at the foot of my pallet, Mother grinned and gestured for me to sit up. “Dress yourself, quickly.  The night won’t last forever.” Her darkness had already exposed itself. This time she bore tusks that jutted from her mouth and her skin was corpse gray. Her slitted pupils glittered in the light of our lone candle.  

With my eyes on my lap, I pushed myself to sitting. She leaned over me with her arms outstretched like a hawk over her meal. I inhaled and lifted my head, thinking she meant to embrace me.  

Too late, I heard the metal click. The cold iron closed around my neck, and two more bands encircled my wrists. I cried out and lurched to my knees. Mother danced back; an iron chain dangled between us. “What are you doing?” I said.  

The chains formed a rough triangle between my wrists and neck. Another length branched off from the shackle around my neck to Mother’s hand.  

She straightened, smiling. “I’ve already put the village to sleep. We’re going on a trip.”  

She turned away and tugged on my chains as I had on her elbow earlier in the day. I stumbled to my feet, tripped over my blanket, and let myself fall to the floor.  

Mother spared me no more than a moment before she yanked on my leash. My arms jerked forward and I choked. Involuntary tears stung my eyes as I arched my neck to breathe. “Mother–”  

A flat weight whacked against my arm just above my outstretched wrist, though it took several heartbeats before the heat registered through my sleeve. Fabric sizzled, then pain seeped through. I shrieked and jerked away, opened my eyes to see Mother standing over me with an iron spatula, hot enough to glow red.  

“I am going to show you why you need not stand between those children and me,” she said. “You will learn to enjoy this, Dorje. You will see they are no better than their parents.”  

She jerked on my chains again and I scrabbled to my feet.  I hunched over my burned arm, my shoulder braced against the doorframe, and tried to say a prayer. Nothing came.  

The roof of our home shuddered. “No,” Mother said to herself, and the earthquake stopped. She laughed. “Not ours tonight.”  

She led me around our home to the trongchen. The top floor, where the house-beam would be taken from, held nothing but bedrooms for our mistress, her husbands, and their children.  

The trongchen shuddered as our home had, and the central house-beam dropped like a leaf from the nearest window.  Witchcraft kept the home standing in the absence of proper support, just as it would heat my mother’s spatula and give her strength beyond her normal abilities. Mother turned to me, grinning, and the beam followed her movements like a dog.  

“Get on,” she said, and swung one leg over the wooden beam.  

A small sound escaped my chest. She didn’t look so monstrous from the back.  

“Dorje,” she said, a warning in her voice.  

I gritted my teeth and obeyed. The wooden corners cut into my thighs, and splinters threatened when I braced my palms on the space between my mother and myself. My chains rattled horribly.  

“Hold on to me,” Mother said, and I scooted forward until I could wrap my arms around her waist.  

She still smelled like herself, like sweat and garden dirt and very faintly of stolen perfume. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead at the base of her neck. Except for the pulsing burn on my arm, I could almost pretend this was only another night.  That I was dreaming.  

Mother croaked, and the house-beam leaped forward. The rushing wind pulled my sleep-braids back so hard it felt like someone sat behind me, tugging on them.  

We descended from our mountain and traveled for a long time. The wind died but the air remained sharp, and while the air cooled my burned skin, the chill spread until my shoulders vibrated with shivers. My arms grew fatigued and my fingers numb with cold. I hated letting my feet dangle into the nothingness below but had nowhere to brace them.  

When I felt the motion of the house-beam slow, I cracked an eyelid open and peeked over my mother’s shoulders.  

A city spread out below us. When I gasped at the size of it, Mother laughed and patted the iron cuff on my wrist. She said something stolen by the wind.  

My stomach swooped as we descended. Gravel crunched as Mother’s heels skidded against the dirt, and we halted with a jolt. Mother moved to alight and I had to release her, though I did not wish to.  

I dismounted and landed with a jolt to both knees that left me stumbling, legs tingling as blood swept downward. Mother righted me with a snap of the leash and led me through the front door of the nearest trongchen–it may have already been unlocked, or she may have used a spell. I don’t know.  

The street stood in shadow as the stars held their peace behind the impossible buildings. The doorway stood almost wide enough for a cart to pass through–significantly larger than our mistress’ trongchen, though more visibly shabby.  

Inside, Mother drew the spatula from the inside of her coat, and I did my best not to flinch away. It did not glow; she must have cooled it before storing it so close to her own skin.  Or perhaps burns did not hurt her anymore.  

“Do you know where we are?” she said. I shook my head. The mountains ringing the city were unfamiliar, but then, I had never seen any mountains but ours.  

“This is where your half-siblings live,” Mother said. “The ones who do not own you. Your sire comes to visit their mother each year as he drags my husband and the rest of his goods behind him, and he holidays while the rest of us toil in the dirt and dzomo shit.”  

I exhaled slowly, frozen on a single realization: Tsering was near, even if he would not be permitted to sleep too near the family who lived here. Mother had taken me to the one person who might persuade her to see reason. Not only that, but Tsering cared for her. He would keep her secret.  

“Do you see?” she said, and gestured with her spatula at the dark home before us. “Your sire is not above acknowledging his bastards. It is only because you are mine that he will not look at you. It is because our jozhon does not wish him to.”  Her voice edged toward a snarl.  

I groped for something intelligent to say. A response. “I don’t need him,” I said, and hated how stupefied I sounded.  

“Of course you need him,” she cried. Her hands, still clutching the spatula and my leash, rose to press against her temples. “He will give you away when our mistress’ last brat is married off. Their daughter will become your mistress and it will never end. You will marry a slave whose brothers are partitioned to other houses for other women. Your children, if any live, will live in the shadow of that brat’s own children.”  

“If we were jozhon, I would be gone when I married, too,” I said. “We have Tsering. We don’t need anyone else.”  

She bared her teeth. “You’re not listening,” she said, and spun to stalk away upstairs. The leash grew taut and I stumbled after her.  

Her spatula began to glow. “Mother, no,” I said in a loud whisper, and reached out to tug on her sleeve. “Please. Let’s go home.” She snapped at me to be silent.  

“If my daughter will emerge having felt my wrath, do you think I would let anyone else off so lightly?” she said. She raised the red-hot spatula as if to strike me again and I recoiled. The leash brought me up short.  

She lowered her arm and stared at me, her corpse-gray skin silver in the moonlight. I recognized only bits and pieces of her: the shape of her nose, the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, the thickness of her braids.  

She said, “If you join me in this, you’ll never have to see me do witchcraft again. I’ll stop baiting you.”  

I ceased breathing for a long moment. I wanted to agree, to blindly reach out and accept her terms, but something within me hard and immoveable as our mountain, warned that Mother’s proposal would come with a catch.  

“Mother,” I said, but had nothing to follow it with. She only arched an eyebrow and flipped her spatula to offer me the handle. Haltingly, I shook my head.  

Then the sick stench of burning meat sizzled, and I snatched it from her before I knew what I had done. Mother smiled and showed me her palm–unblemished. An illusion.  

“Are you ready?” she said. She still held my leash wrapped around her other hand.  

I tightened my grip on the spatula and blinked against tears. “This isn’t fair,” I said, and brought her weapon out in front of me. The chains dripping from my wrists rattled against each other.  

Mother tipped her head back and laughed, and I bared my blunt teeth at her. “Take me home,” I said, my voice rising past the hushed tone I’d been using. It did not matter if I woke everyone in the house we trespassed in, or if I woke the entire city.

Mother’s smile spoke of hunger and primal satisfaction.  “You are mine,” she said. “You are mine and we’re going to prove it to everyone tonight.”

My jaw ached. “I will not help you torture children,” I said. “I would not even torture our master for you.”  

Mother could not smell half-truths, so she snarled a terrible wild sound. My shoulders tightened. I raised her spatula with both hands, and she raised my leash–triumphant from the start.  

I glared at her. “Wake up,” I yelled, lifting my chin to send my voice down the hallway. “Help, wake up. Tsering!”  

A thump sounded from the far end of the house. A woman’s muffled voice, and a man’s.  

Mother’s face contorted. She howled and rushed forward. I threw myself to the side to get out of her way, but she ignored me except to tighten her grip on the leash and to drag me along behind her. I tripped and stumbled down the stairs after her–the spatula fell somewhere, and I spared half a moment to hope it would not set the house afire–and when I fell outside the trongchen’s entrance, the iron collar dug into my neck so tightly that I gagged and grabbed blindly at the leash.  

Mother swung a leg over the house-beam. “Get on,” she said, her voice guttural and sharp, merciless and so full of fury, and then she kicked her foot against the ground.  

The house-beam rose, and I screamed, a short, high sound as my lungs used all the air within. I lurched from my knees to my feet, arms outstretched, and one hand caught the house-beam.  Splinters pinched as my other palm landed and held fast. I hauled myself up, my leash blessedly loose.  

~

As we neared the outskirts of our village, Mother leaned back until her lips found my ear. Over the sound of the wind she said, “You’ve disappointed me tonight, but we’ll have other chances for you to make this right.” 

I sagged, weary beyond reckoning and too heartsore to think of tears. “Please don’t do this,” I said. “No one saw us. No one has to know what you’ve become.” 

Mother didn’t bother to answer. She leaned forward again and placed both palms upon the wood, one in front of the other, and murmured to the house-beam. Her witchcraft would not wane until the sun rose—soon, but not yet. 

I sat up, careful to keep my balance without looking down.  When the sun rose, the spell that kept our mistress and her husbands, and in fact the entire village, asleep and unaware of Mother’s activities would end. The village would wake and emerge from their homes. When that happened—

Witchcraft was hereditary. If I revealed Mother’s sins, I implicated myself. I had the talent and the personality to follow her in this; if I was not stopped I might yet lose control. If not tomorrow, then perhaps someday. 

Or perhaps not.  

Mother glanced over her shoulder as I took hold of my dangling leash and tucked it away. “Try to tell me it doesn’t call to you, Dorje,” she said. “This is the only power we’ll see in this life.”  

“That may be so,” I said, knowing it was. I placed my hands on her back and shoved her from the house-beam. 

Mother screamed. I made myself watch as she fell. Her clothing fluttered, her hair streamed upward. She twisted her shoulders around and reached out to me, her face an unfamiliar mask of panic, as if I could take it back and rescue her.  

When she hit the ground far below, the front of the house-beam tilted and began to slide downward. My hair streamed behind me as it began to plummet earthward.  

Death may have been the honorable choice, to throw myself from the house-beam after her, but something cold and implacable within my chest refused. If I lived, I might come to regret it, but I could not fail to try.  

As the house-beam gathered speed, I hunched forward to place my palms against the wood. I closed my eyes, pressed my hands down, and willed the carrying beam to fly.