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The Witch Elm
Author:Tana French

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.



I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person. I don’t mean I’m one of those people who pick multi-million-euro lotto numbers on a whim, or show up seconds too late for flights that go on to crash with no survivors. I just mean that I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about. I wasn’t abused as a kid, or bullied in school; my parents didn’t split up or die or have addiction problems or even get into any but the most trivial arguments; none of my girlfriends ever cheated on me, at least as far as I know, or dumped me in traumatic ways; I never got hit by a car or caught anything worse than chicken pox or even had to wear braces. Not that I spent much time thinking about this, but when it occurred to me, it was with a satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should.

And of course there was the Ivy House. I don’t think anyone could convince me, even now, that I was anything other than lucky to have the Ivy House. I know it wasn’t that simple, I know all the reasons in intimate, serrated detail; I can lay them out in a neat line, stark and runic as black twigs on snow, and stare at them till I almost convince myself; but all it takes is one whiff of the right smell—jasmine, lapsang souchong, a specific old-fashioned soap that I’ve never been able to identify—or one sideways shaft of afternoon light at a particular angle, and I’m lost, in thrall all over again.

Not long ago I actually rang my cousins about it—it was almost Christmas, I was a little drunk on mulled wine from some godawful work party, or I would never have rung them, or at any rate not to ask their opinions, or their advice, or whatever it is I thought I was looking for. Susanna clearly felt it was a silly question—“Well, yeah, obviously we were lucky. It was an amazing place.” And into my silence: “If you’re getting hung up on all the other stuff, then personally”—long deft slice of scissors through paper, choirboys sweet and buoyant in the background, she was wrapping presents—“I wouldn’t. I know that’s easier said, but seriously, Toby, picking at it after how many years, what’s the point? But you do you.” Leon, who at first had sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me, tightened up instantly: “How am I supposed to know? Oh, listen, while I have you, I meant to email you, I’m thinking of coming home for a bit at Easter, are you going to be—” I got mildly belligerent and demanded an answer, which I knew perfectly well has always been the wrong way to deal with Leon, and he pretended his reception had gone and hung up on me.

And yet; and yet. It matters; matters, as far as I can see—for whatever that’s worth, at this point—more than anything. It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal.

* * *

That night. I know there are an infinite number of places to begin any story, and I’m well aware that everyone else involved in this one would take issue with my choice—I can just see the wry lift at the corner of Susanna’s mouth, hear Leon’s snort of pure derision. But I can’t help it: for me it all goes back to that night, the dark corroded hinge between before and after, the slipped-in sheet of trick glass that tints everything on one side in its own murky colors and leaves everything on the other luminous, achingly close, untouched and untouchable. Even though it’s demonstrably nonsense—the skull had already been tucked away in its cranny for years by that point, after all, and I think it’s pretty clear that it would have resurfaced that summer regardless—I can’t help believing, at some level deeper than logic, that none of this would ever have happened without that night.

It started out feeling like a good night; a great night, actually. It was a Friday in April, the first day that had really felt like spring, and I was out with my two best mates from school. Hogan’s was buzzing, all the girls’ hair softened to flightiness by the day’s warmth and the guys’ sleeves rolled up, layers of talk and laughter packing the air till the music was just a subliminal cheery reggae boom boom boom coming up from the floor into your feet. I was high as a kite—not on coke or anything; there had been a bit of hassle at work earlier that week, but that day I had sorted it all out and the triumph was making me a little giddy, I kept catching myself talking too fast or knocking back a swallow of my pint with a flourish. An extremely pretty brunette at the next table was checking me out, giving me just a second too much smile when my eye happened to land on her; I wasn’t going to do anything about it—I had a really great girlfriend and no intention of cheating on her—but it was fun to know I hadn’t lost my touch.

“She fancies you,” Declan said, nodding sideways at the brunette, who was throwing her head back extravagantly as she laughed at her friend’s joke.

“She’s got good taste.”

“How’s Melissa?” Sean asked, which I thought was unnecessary. Even if it hadn’t been for Melissa, the brunette wasn’t my type; she had dramatic curves barely contained by a tight retro red dress, and she looked like she would have been happier in some Gauloise-ridden bistro watching several guys have a knife fight over her.

“Great,” I said, which was true. “As always.” Melissa was the opposite of the brunette: small, sweet-faced, with ruffled blond hair and a sprinkle of freckles, drawn by nature towards things that made her and everyone around her happy—bright flowered dresses in soft cotton, baking her own bread, dancing to whatever came on the radio, picnics with cloth napkins and ridiculous cheeses. It had been days since I’d seen her and the thought of her made me crave everything about her, her laugh, her nose burrowing into my neck, the honeysuckle smell of her hair.

“She is great,” Sean told me, a little too meaningfully.

“She is, yeah. I’m the one who just said she’s great. I’m the one going out with her; I know she’s great. She’s great.”

“Are you speeding?” Dec wanted to know.

“I’m high on your company. You, dude, you’re the human equivalent of the purest, whitest Colombian—”

“You are speeding. Share. You stingy bastard.”

“I’m clean as a baby’s arse. You scrounging git.”

“Then what are you doing eyeing up your woman?”

“She’s beautiful. A man can appreciate a thing of beauty without—”

“Too much coffee,” Sean said. “Get more of that down you; that’ll sort you out.”

He was pointing at my pint. “Anything for you,” I said, and sank most of what was left. “Ahhh.”

“She is only gorgeous,” Dec said, eyeing the brunette wistfully. “What a waste.”

“Go for it,” I said. He wouldn’t; he never did.


“Go on. While she’s looking over.”

“She’s not looking at me. She’s looking at you. As usual.” Dec was stocky and tightly wound, with glasses and a mop of unruly copper hair; he was actually OK-looking, but somewhere along the way he had convinced himself that he wasn’t, with predictable consequences.

“Hey,” Sean said, mock-wounded. “Birds look at me.”

“They do, yeah. They’re wondering if you’re blind, or if you’re wearing that shirt on a dare.”

“Jealousy,” Sean said sadly, shaking his head. Sean was a big guy, six foot two, with a broad open face and his rugby muscle only starting to soften; he did in fact get plenty of female attention, although that was wasted too, since he had been happily with the same girl since school. “It’s an ugly thing.”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured Dec. “It’s all about to change for you. With the . . .” I nodded subtly in the direction of his head.

“The what?”

“You know. Those.” I darted a quick point at my hairline.