These Hollow Hearts is a bit of a tricky book filled with complicated characters including three sisters whose magic is cursed. Before presenting the book to the world in its newly edited form, we wanted to share with you the story of the Murphey family curse. The place where it all began.

Warning: This story does contain threatened sexual violence.

Sisters Cursed and Broken

Em Shotwell

There were no sounds to be heard in the garden—no hoot nor howl nor even the rustle of leaves under feet.  Animals always kept their distance during spells, as if they could sense the power unfolding from the two women, and knew better than to interfere.

Overhead, the moon burned bright red and pressed so closely that Imogene felt that if she stood on tiptoe, she could rake her fingers across its surface and collect its dust beneath her nails.

Instead, though, she crouched on the damp soil opposite her sister Iris, who swayed from side to side as her pale face reflected the moonlight. Iris tossed a handful of herbs into the fire between them. It flamed outward before dying down, and its purple smoke twisted upward, a vehicle for their prayers. For their magic.

“Bless the Mother be,” Iris sang.

Imogene repeated the phrase, raising her hands to the sky. The tingle of her sister’s magic danced across her skin, as familiar as a sisterly embrace. Iris was good with the strong magic. Iris had been able to work spells when she was ten years old that Imogene had yet to master at twenty.

Imogene tilted her chin to the sky, and breathed in Iris’s magic. She relished its buzz in her teeth, her lungs, the way it seemed to radiate through her body and out her fingertips. She was lucky to have Iris. Imogene’s pride for her sister’s power made her own puny ability feel irrelevant. Iris was strong, and Imogene had Iris, so that made her strong, too.

Imogene’s eyelids grew heavy as she watched Iris sway. On the ship to America, she’d heard tales of men in another part of the world who charmed dangerous serpents with only their music and the twist of their bodies. That was how Imogene felt—like an entranced snake. In many ways, the relationship between serpent and charmer fit the sisters own relationship.

Iris made the decisions. She had the control. Imogene followed her lead, and it served the younger sister well.

Iris was the reason Imogene was able to escape from Ireland with her life. Iris was the reason they’d found passage aboard a ship, despite their lack of money. She was the reason they’d found position in a good house, even though most respectable American homes loathed Irish maids.

Thieves, every one of you! They’d been told this at more than one house before Iris had procured their current employment.

“What would you do without me?” Iris often asked.  Imogene only smiled in response, but she knew that without Iris, if by some miracle she’d made it to America, she’d have been lost to a brothel. Or worse. But that didn’t matter because she would always have her older sister. They were a pair—never to be separated.

Iris stood and untied her apron and began unbuttoning her dress. She let the frock drop to her bare feet, but Imogene hesitated before joining her older sister in closing the spell.

“What is it Imogene? We’ve sealed a hundred fertility spells. You know we must dance.” Impatience laced Iris’s words. “The baker’s wife paid us a pretty penny and she deserves magic that works. So go ahead, sister.”

“Yes sister. I know.” Imogene stood and began to unknot her own apron strings. She peered through the darkness toward the windows of the Master’s house. “It is only…The magic always feels different here than back home. Do you not worry of being caught? I’ve heard talk that they still hang witches in America.”

“And they’d hang a murderess in Ireland, but that didn’t stop you, did it?” Iris smiled but her words were tight and her eyes couldn’t hide the pain that lived in her heart. Imogene knew it had been hard for her sister to leave their home country. In Ireland, Iris had friends and lovers and prospects. And though much of their country was falling apart, sending droves of Irish immigrants to search for a better life, the sisters had been lucky enough to have a family farm and were among those who managed to keep food in their bellies. Here in America, they were seen as nothing more than dirty Irish thieves.

Iris had only left her beloved country to help Imogene escape the noose. It was the thought that nagged Imogene constantly—she owed Iris everything.

Imogene leaned toward the fire so her sister could see her face—hopefully see the truth in her eyes. “I told you sister, that the death was an accident. It was a badly cast spell—I didn’t mean to—“

“Besides,” Iris cut Imogene short, “who will hang us, dear sister? Half of this town owes us their children, or beauty, or happiness.”

“Yes, but the Master—“

“The Master can choke on his own piety if he is not careful. Anyway, how could he catch us? He is long asleep. And Jonathan would never allow him to cause us harm.”

“You sound so sure, Iris.” Imogene fumbled with the last button and let her dress fell away. She thought of the Master of the house, with his cruel stare. Her older sister never seemed to notice how leering those tiny eyes were, and how they followed Imogene as she did her work. The way the Master licked his lips when she was nearby made Imogene’s skin crawl. “I know Jonathan loves you—that you carry his child in your belly—but his father is a mean soul. Surely Jonathan knows this or he wouldn’t insist on you keeping the pregnancy a secret.”

“True, the Master can be mean, but he is only a cantankerous old man. Once the baby is born, Jonathan is going to marry me and things will be different. Me and Jonathan have a plan, sister dear, so trust me. With me on Jonathan’s arm, we won’t have a worry in the world. There will be feasts and balls and pretty gowns. You will see, Imogene. Just keep your head down and do your work. Don’t cause a scene. We just have to get through a few more months.” Iris’s tight smile softened, and she reached her hands over the dying fire toward her younger sister. “Don’t look so fearful. The Master didn’t have to hire us, Imogene. He didn’t have to give us good rooms and a fair wage. There must be some good in him, deep down.”

Imogene’s chest tightened. She never felt safe near the Master of the house, but she trusted Iris more than she trusted her own heart. Iris had always known what to do, and if she said they were safe, then Imogene would believe her. But as she twisted and turned, skyclad under the Mother’s moon, dread wove through her like a vine climbing a trellis.


The house was quiet when Imogene returned from running errands the following morning. Upstairs her sister was busy lighting the fireplaces and opening the curtains. The cook was nowhere to be found, but despite no one being nearby, Imogene didn’t feel alone. As much as she disliked the Master, there was something about the old home that called to her, and if she pretended the house were hers, she could even feel the faint prickle of happiness in her heart. She didn’t bother trying to explain it to her sister, because she didn’t understand it herself. She’d never been the type of person to grow attached to places or things. Though she knew it was silly, she felt the house cared for her in return.

Imogene delivered the salt and milk she’d purchased in town, to the kitchen and hurried to begin her duties.

“Come here, maid.” The Master’s voice came from the hallway. Imogene straightened her shoulders and wiped her hands down the front of her apron, doing her best to hide her unease. Iris is right, she thought, I am always afraid, even though I have nothing to fear.

She followed the Master’s voice into his study, off of the main hallway, and stepped into the doorway. “Yes?”

The Master’s black coat hung open, showing a pristine white shirt tucked into the thick waist of his dark breeches. A black top hat rested on the desk. He was always dressed in the finest clothes. Bought the finest food. Traveled in the finest carriage. And it was true he paid his servants fairly. He was upper class and well-regarded—surely not the kind of man she should be afraid of. But try as she might to push it away, the feeling of dread lingered.

The Master’s gaze closed around Imogene’s body like a fist, making it hard for her to breathe.

“Come in and shut the door. We must have a discussion.”

Imogene stepped lightly and eased the door closed behind her. Her chest continued to tighten as she wondered what the Master had witnessed. The sisters were always careful with their spells, with their dancing. They waited until late at night, when everyone was asleep, and they moved quietly. But Imogene remembered the feeling of being watched from the darkness. Of how she’d been uneasy the night before, and how Iris had tried to reassure her that she was overreacting.

“I saw you last night.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “In my garden.”

The Master crossed the room and stood near Imogene and she wished fervently that her sister was nearby. She’d know what to say to fix this. Imogene opened her mouth, but her words refused to work.

“Y-Yes.” She said finally, never lifting her gaze from the floor.

The Master waltzed closer, and Imogene backed away, as if they were dance partners. He took another step, and another, and Imogene followed suit, until her back was against the closed door.

“I’m—I’m sorry. I know this is a good, decent home. Please don’t throw us out.”  Her heart thumped in her ears. Iris would be furious if Imogene lost them their job.

The Master said nothing, but slid his palm over her face, cupping her cheek in his hand. He closed his eyes for a moment, then leaned closer.

The full weight of his frame pressed against Imogene’s body, and the door knob bit through her dress and into the tender skin of her lower back. The sweet scent of tobacco and sweat mingled as the man kissed Imogene’s neck, while his hand fumbled over the top of her dress and apron. Imogene froze.

“Let me begin again.” He spoke directly into her ear. “When I saw you in the garden, dancing, I knew I would have you.”

Imogene’s breathing seized. Again, her mind traveled to the feeling of being watched. Of how Iris told her to stop worrying.

The Master pressed his body violently, against hers, and she could feel what he meant to do. The whole moment happened so quickly—a second ago she was walking into the room, and now she had to force air into her lungs. She’d always enjoyed the scent of tobacco. That was now ruined forever.

“Please” she rasped. “Someone will see us.  I…I have work to do.”

“Do not speak to me of your duties. You work for me, do you not? I am the Master of this house and the Master of you in turn. You will do as I say.”

“I will not.” Imogene’s voice felt like glass in her mouth and her words came out cracked. “I am a good woman. A decent woman. I will—“

“A good woman doesn’t dance naked outdoors. And don’t think yourself so clever. You are worthless here—we hang women for less.”

Imogene’s face contorted with the realization that the evil man’s words held so much truth. She opened her mouth to respond, but no sound escaped, even as inside, her mind begged her to speak. To find the right words to end this.

“Shh, now.” The Master’s lips brushed against her ear. “There is no need for all of this. You will enjoy it, you’ll see.”

How could Iris think this man not evil? Imogene thought. I will find her and we will leave tonight. I cannot stay here. I won’t. I’d rather starve.

The Master’s lips moved over Imogene’s neck. Her cheek. Her ear. His hands moved rough and unwelcome over her dress. Tears leaked from Imogene’s eyes and fell across the sharp ridge of her cheekbones, a few landing, then soaking into the wooden floors of the house. And though she wasn’t as powerful as her sister, Imogene’s tears, like every part of her, held the magic possessed by the women of her family. A magic that wove itself through generations like gold thread in a grand tapestry. A magic that had been a part of her family’s history since before there was written language. A magic that had always been and would always be.

As her tears soaked into the floor, they called out to the spirit of the house, who’d once lived within the trees which were cut and milled for lumber. It had laid dormant for years, since being ripped from its forest, silently observing from a trance-like slumber the cruelty happening around it.

Her tears beckoned, and the spirit awakened, and answered so softly, so thin, that Imogene didn’t notice. Witnessing the distress of the young witch, and wanting to help, the spirit caused the floor boards to creak loudly outside the room. The Master froze.

He pulled away from Imogene, and adjusted his trousers and straightened his shoulders. “We will finish this later, sweet girl. I promise.” He caressed her cheek with the pad of his thumb, wiping away a lingering tear, before pressing his lips to her forehead. Fear of what still might happen gripped Imogene, but she did not pull away. She couldn’t.

“Now go. Until next time, my sweet. I will be watching you and waiting for the right moment. You will earn your keep.”

Imogene’s fear released her and adrenaline surged her system. Her heart thumped wildly as she threw open the door and hurried from the room, almost colliding with Iris.

“Imogene?”  Iris’s auburn brows raised.

Imogene clasped her sister’s arms and yanked her toward the kitchen, whispering, “Oh sister. We must leave this place.”

Iris folded her arms over her round abdomen. “What is it? What happened?”

“The Master…he was going to…” Imogene’s face crumpled. “We have to go. We must leave tonight.”

Iris words came out calm and quiet. “I told you that is not a possibility. I have a baby in my belly and a plan in my head, Imogene.  Jonathan and I—we are going to be together and then everything will be fine. I need to have a comfortable place to give birth to my daughter, and Jonathan wants more time to secure his inheritance before telling his father. But for all this to work—we have to stay here. You must calm down. You must remain focused.”

“How can you order me to remain calm when that man was going to hurt me? How can I stay here? How, sister?”

“You will stay here because if we leave we will starve. Who would hire us if we were to leave this house? It doesn’t matter who we’ve helped, or who owes us. No one will hire us if they think we were thrown from here—the Master of this home knows everyone. He is respected within the community.” Iris paused and listened for a moment, and when she was sure there was no one in the hallway, she continued. “Listen to me sister, I feel anger for what was done—for how the Master treated you. But I cannot leave—not yet. I think you should stay—that you should just keep your distance and stay out of his way, until the baby comes. But if you must leave, then you will have to do it alone. I gave up everything to save you from the noose, to get you to America, but I will not starve here. My child, she has a chance at a real life and I will not forfeit that. Not even for you, Imogene.”

Imogene’s heart broke at her sister’s words, and she bounded from the kitchen before tears could again fall. As she rushed toward her room in the servant’s quarters, she couldn’t have known that the rustle of the curtains and shifting of the floorboards was much more than an old house settling its bones. Even a witch, such as Imogene, would never have imagined that an ancient spirit could feel pity. That the settling of the old home was its vow to protect her.


That night, sleep would not come to Imogene. She couldn’t go and leave her sister. But how could she stay? The Master said he was watching. He promised that she’d be his—rather she wanted to or not. And she did not.

Imogene set up in bed and put her feet to the floor. In the bed next to hers, Iris snored softly. The Mother’s moonlight filtered through the window pane and washed everything in its glow, and Imogene couldn’t help but smile at the memory of stories her Grandma would tell of the women in their family. Of the power they’d always possessed, blessed by the Mother and bathed in her light.

We are not weak—Murhpey women are not to be tangled with. The old woman had often told Imogene when she was a girl, but at that moment, Imogene could never remember feeling anything except weak. Especially after her Grandmother’s death. When she’d been forced to abandon Ireland for a new life, it had only been because of her mother’s wit and her sister’s strength that she escaped. Imogene knew if she’d been left to her own devices, she likely wouldn’t have made it.

Why am I the weak one? She whispered the words aloud to herself. There has to be another way. I will not suffer under this cruel man, but I won’t abandon my sister either.

And sitting there in the moonlight, staring at her sleeping sister, Imogene knew what she must do. She stood and put on her frock and quietly dug her family’s spell book from where it was hidden underneath Iris’s bed.  She tip-toed to the garden to pick the needed herbs,  praying that this time, the Master truly would be asleep. Then, following the spell, written in the hand of a long dead ancestor, she begged the Mother to bless her works with magic. Once she was finished, she quietly snuck back into her room, replaced the book, hid the mixture of herbs and magic under her own bed, and fell asleep.


The next morning, Imogene prepared the Master’s tea. When she was sure no one was going to catch her, she pulled the satchel of bespelled herbs from her apron pocket. She chanted the Mother’s words under her breath as she sprinkled them in the Master’s cup.

Imogene was not going to kill the Master—she was not a murderess no matter what anyone back home thought. When choosing a spell the night before, she’d been rushed, working quickly while the household slept. However, she’d been careful to pick a spell that would make things work out better for all involved. Iris would be able to marry Jonathan and have his baby without worry. Jonathan would be able to collect his inheritance. And Imogene would be able to live her life, simply and quietly, and without worry. All she had to do was deliver the tea to the Master, and make sure he drank every drop.

Imogene sprinkled the last of the dregs into the cup, and shoved the small bag back into her pocket. She poured the tea over the mixture, and carefully carried the cup and saucer to the Master’s study.

She’d already knocked on the door before she heard the lilting sound Jonathan’s voice.  She paused with her hand on the knob. Should she leave? Try the spell another time? Before she could make the decision, the Master called for her to enter. Imogene paused before pushing open the door. She shuffled into the room.

“Stop dawdling, maid. What is it?” The corners of the Master’s lips turned down, and the lines that cut across his forehead were impossibly deep. Imogene stood, dumbfounded.

“I said what is it?”

“Um. It’s nothing.” Imogene hated her voice for coming out so frail. Because she wasn’t frail—the tea proved it! She straightened her shoulders and turned to leave without further explanation.

“Wait a second, Imogene,” Jonathan spoke. He sounded as he always did—as if he were holding back laughter. “I don’t think it’s nothing. That looks like tea to me. And I could use a cup.”

Imogene blanched. “No. This? No, it’s…it’s not.”

“Turn and look at us when we are speaking to you, maid,” the Master demanded. His voice was as harsh as his son’s was kind.

Slowly Imogene turned and faced the men.

“Well, if it isn’t tea, what is it?” Jonathan asked. Imogene smiled at his playful smirk despite the knot in her belly.

“It’s. Well, I mean, it is tea. But it is only one cup and there are two of you. I will fetch another and be right back so you can take your tea properly.”

She stepped toward the door, but Jonathan was quick, and blocked her path. “Oh Imogene, you doll. Always worried about taking care of us. What would we do without you?” Before she could stop him, Jonathan grabbed the cup from the saucer in Imogene’s hands and with a wink, he held it to his lips and turned it up.

Paralyzed by fear, Imogen watched as the man her sister loved drank the spell that was meant for his father.

When the cup was drained, he sat it back onto to the saucer clasped in Imogen’s trembling hands. For a moment, nothing happened.

And for that moment, Imogene was relieved that she’d never been as good at magic as her sister. Maybe she’d mixed the concoction wrong. Maybe what Jonathan drank was nothing more than tea, and the herbs she’d added meant nothing.

Maybe she’d failed at magic as she’d always seemed to do.

Imogene’s relief was short-lived. Jonathan grabbed his neck, his knees buckling beneath him. He fell to the floor with a wet, choking sound, and as he collapsed he reached toward Imogene with shaking arms.

“Help me.” His lips made the words, but only a rasp escaped.

Imogene dropped to her knees next to him. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so very sorry. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

The Master sat in his chair, his eyes narrowed on the scene before him.

Jonathan mouth opened and closed without speaking, as his body twitched, before turning slack.  Imogene put a hand to his forehead, forgetting the Master was only yards away.

“What have I done?” she whispered. Tears welled in her eyes.

“Yes. What have you done?” The Master’s voice was steel and flint striking against each other, working toward catching fire. “What have you done, you murdering whore!” He jumped to his feet and stared down where Imogene still huddled next to Jonathan.

“He’s not dead. He’s not!” she wailed. The Master took a step toward her and she shot to her feet. He lunged, and chased her from the room.

“You will hang! You murdered my son and you will hang!”

Imogene ran to the stairs, bounding upward with tears blurring her eyes. The Master was on her heels. He grabbed her. Imogene twisted and shoved, but his grip was strong. “You are going to hang. You evil, evil whore!”

“He isn’t dead. I promise he isn’t. This wasn’t supposed to happen.” In her grief, her words tumbled clumsily from her lips. The Master pulled her toward him, and Imogene gave in.

Oh child, this will not do… The spirit of the house, who’d been watching the events of the morning, spoke. The walls creaked and the lamps flickered, but for the first time, Imogene could hear. The words were a buzz in her ear, a tickle in the back of her mind, and before she could question what was happening, the spirit tipped the stair where the Master stood, and threw him backwards.

The Master released Imogene to catch himself, but it was of no use. He tumbled head over feet and landed at the bottom with a sickening thump. His eyes stared vacantly from his limp body.

Imogene clasped her palms over her mouth to stifle a scream.

Not again! How did this keep happening? She wasn’t a murderess. Her knees grew weak, but before she could follow the Master’s tumble down the stairs, the spirit tipped her backwards and she landed on her bottom. Imogene buried her face in her hands and cried.

This is where she was when Iris found her. Her older sister appeared at the top of the stairs, and stepped down carefully to where Imogene sat. “What was all that noise? I thought I heard yelling.”

Imogene sniffled and looked down to where the Master lay in a dead heap.

Iris gasped, and Imogene immediately began to babble apologies.

“I don’t understand, sister? Why are you sorry? The Master is dead! He fell—surely that isn’t your fault. Now you will be free of his advances and Jonathan will get his inheritance. We can get married without his father’s scrutiny! Oh, Imogene, it must have been horrible to witness, but don’t you see it’s for the best? Jonathan will be upset, but once he moves past it, he’ll—”

Imogene reached for Iris’s hand. “No sister. I am so sorry. I have wronged you more than you know. But you must believe it was an accident.” Her voice again broke into tears.

“What are you saying, Imogene?” Iris’s words were barely a whisper. One hand lightly caressed her belly. “What is it you are telling me?”

“Jonathan…He… He isn’t dead, Iris. I promise you that but—”

“He isn’t dead?” Iris’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “He isn’t dead but what, Imogene?” Iris grabbed Imogene’s wrists and yanked her to her feet as hard as she could. “He isn’t dead but what?”
“After yesterday, I was scared so I performed a spell and I was taking it to the Master and Jonathan drank it instead and now he is…I am so sorry Iris, he is harmed.” Imogene pulled her arm free and pointed downstairs to the study.

“No,” Iris gasped. “No!” she screamed. She ran down the stairs with Imogene on her heels. When she reached the study, she threw open the door, and cried out.  Jonathan still lay as Imogene had left him, his eyes open, but his body unmoving.

“Jonathan. Sweet, sweet man.” Iris rushed inside fell to her knees and cradled his head in her lap. “Imogene what have you done? How could you?”

“But Iris, surely you can fix this? Your power is stronger than mine! Fix him, sister.” Imogene’s voice cracked with panic, but the look in her sister’s eyes was pure fury.

Iris kissed Jonathan’s forehead then sat it gently on the floor. She stood to her feet. “I cannot. If you’d ever cared to learn, ever cared to listen to mother or grandmother and know the magic of your birthright, you’d know it is impossible to undo a spell cast by your own blood.  What you have done cannot be undone—at least not by me. And I don’t know any other witches in the area powerful enough. Mark my word, I will spend the rest of my life looking for one.” She looked down at the man she loved. “I promise you Jonathan, I will never stop searching for a way to undo this.”

“I will help. I promise I will.” Imogene cried.

“No. You have done enough. I cannot even look at you.”

“But Iris, it was an accident…”

The fury in Iris’s eyes hardened to disdain. “It is always an accident isn’t it, Imogene?  I have loved you your entire life, but today…today I hate you for what you’ve done! I hate you, Imogene. You have not only stolen love from me, but you have taken the father from your niece. And I cannot forgive you for that! Part of me wishes you dead—but a bigger part of me cannot stand the thought of it. I…I hate and love you sister. But since you have stolen my happiness, neither should you have yours! And you pretend to be so weak and helpless? Maybe your children should be.”

Imogene felt the curse before she realized what it was. Iris’s magic buzzed in the air and swelled around Imogene like a river overflowing its banks.

Power licked through Iris’s eyes as she spoke. “Your line will grow weak, Imogene, until it takes three to do the magic of one. No one of your blood will ever be able to close a spell on their own. You are so reliant on me to fix your mistakes? Magic of your line will be completed by three or none at all. And when they do cast, it will cost them dearly—an hour of life every single time.”

The spirit of the house wrapped itself around Imogene, cocooning her in its own magic of protection, but to no avail. The bond between sisters was strong and the curse slid from Iris’s veins and wrapped around Imogene’s heart. The current of magic that had always been a good thing, now burned with wickedness, and as it flowed strong and forceful, and there was nothing the spirit could do. It was magic of blood-kin and there was nothing stronger.

“And since you’ve taken away that which was mine, I will take from you. No one you love will ever stay—they’ll give you their bed but not their heart. You’ll take their seed but not their name. They’ll leave, either by death or wandering eye. This will be the curse of your line. May you think of how you’ve wronged me every time you fall in love.”  Iris voice remained hard, and with every word spoken, her magic grew stronger.

Imogene said nothing to protect herself from Iris’s words and they soaked into her soul.

A curse from the heart of a sister, once set, cannot be undone. Both women knew this.

“Now leave, Imogene. Go before I change my mind and decide you should hang.”

Without a word, Imogene turned and left to gather her things. As she packed her few belongings in to sheet, she remembered her family’s spell book under Iris’s bed. Without a thought as to why she was taking it, she pulled it from its hiding place and wrapped it in an apron, then placed it in the center of her packed sheet. She walked down the stairs and past the study, and without another word nor look to her sister, she walked out of the door.

The spirit, now greatly taken with Imogene, whispered in her ear of a place where she would be safe. A place where voodoo ran through the city like rivers and priestesses were revered in the most respected homes. It was a place where men read the bones of fowl, and no one would look twice at a slight woman who turned cards and sold talismans. Together, Imogene and the spirit made their way to New Orleans.

The sisters never saw each other again, but the spirit remained with Imogene Murphey, doing its best to protect her from any more pain. Though Iris’s curse remained strong, Imogene managed to create a happy life. And when she died, the spirit remained with her daughter, and each generation thereafter, until no one could remember a time without it, nor remember where it came from. And when one of Imogene’s ancestor’s built a house, the spirit moved into the home and there it remains.


The story continues in These Hollow Hearts, available March 12th.

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