The Cartographer’s Daughters, Part IV

by Rachel Creager Ireland

We conclude our story of the quiet sisters. Click to see Part I, Part II, and Part III.

An unusual spring snow provided one more opportunity for winter photography.

An unusual spring snow provided one more opportunity for winter photography.


The next day I was restless. I felt anxious, knowing my sister was going to leave, that she was going to do something forbidden, and that I didn’t know what it was. What if we had left some clue in our father’s study? At any moment he might find it and know that we had been there. What would I tell him? I’d never been a good liar, never been good at making up a story under duress.

Of course I couldn’t stop thinking about my sister. I was fantasizing about where she might be going, about going with her. I didn’t usually allow myself this luxury; I kept my mind present in the moment at hand. There were all kinds of mistakes to be made by not being mindful. There was important information that could be missed, even if I didn’t know what use it would come to.

Imagining her paddling down the river, though, I thought of the hazards of the river. I didn’t know what strange people might do to her, what dangers lay in cities, but I knew that even a person experienced in the ways of water could be injured. Her canoe could capsize, or she could get caught on a low-hanging tree. She could get cut by her knife or a fishhook. I went into the kitchen and made a healing salve.

I started with echinacea, for immune support, and comfrey leaves to speed healing. I added some essential oils for their anti-microbial properties. I went outside (in the daylight!) and found some tender green plantain leaves on the south side of the residence, protected from the coldest wind and deep snow. I cut some leaves from the potted aloes in the conservatory. I infused and filtered and mixed it all into a base of rich cocoa butter.

I knew there was no magic in the world, but I pretended I was a witch, or an alchemist. Wherever this salve touched my sister’s body, it would protect her from harm.

I made a fragrant herbal tea for my father, to cover the aromas rising up from the kitchen. He was at the desk, head bent down, forehead resting in one hand. He did not acknowledge my offering.


My sister smiled when I silently gave her the tin of salve. She opened it and held it to her face to absorb its fragrance, and she knew what it was for.

“Thank you.”

“I’ll miss you,” I said, simply.

“I too,” she replied. “It’s been a long time.”

I didn’t ask if she were coming back, or when.

I heard a distant low rumble. “Car.”

She looked toward the road, though it was out of sight from us. But then we could see the faint flicker of headlights through the trees. We held our breath. It could be anyone, for any reason. But it was unusual for cars to drive on this road, and as often as not, when they did, they were coming to our house, bringing men in dark suits who would go into the study with our father, to speak behind the heavy doors in voices too low for us to hear.

It wasn’t until after we had watched the lights move past, and on around the curve beyond the residence, that we let out our breath.

She finished wrapping her things into a bundle, and placed it in the front of the canoe. “If I had more time, I’d smooth the inside better. But I did have time for this.” She brought me to the front of the craft, to see a primitive rabbit carved into the wood. She had carved another into the freshly cut wood of her paddle. “She’ll be my talisman. I’ll be safe as long as I have her protection.”

I willed myself to believe it, even as I knew that there were no guarantees, no true protection anywhere in the world. But it would help me when she was gone, to think of rabbit magic surrounding my sister.

“Listen,” I said. There was another car. We looked at each other wordlessly. Two cars so close together was rare. Before its vibration had passed, though, the sound rose again. There was another vehicle behind it, followed by another. Something was happening. Not knowing what, my mind raced through possibilities. My father had found out we were in his study, or my behavior had been suspicious. Or maybe my sister had been watched since before she came here, and they were just now coming to get her, to take her away.

The way they had taken our mother.

“You have to go now.”


We pushed the canoe into the water, slogging through mud until it was in water deep enough to float with her weight in it. My clothes would be covered in mud, but it couldn’t be helped. Just before the canoe caught the current of the river, my sister jumped into it, raising the paddle to balance the sideways jiggle. Settling down into the canoe, she looked back at me for a moment, then turned to the water ahead of her. The last I saw of her was her back, cloaked and hooded in black, as she steered herself into the current of the river. I watched her float away, as water swirled around my feet.