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Read an Excerpt From P. Djèlí Clark’s Story in The Book of Witches


Read an Excerpt From P. Djèlí Clark’s Story in The Book of Witches

Home / Read an Excerpt From P. Djèlí Clark’s Story in The Book of Witches
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Read an Excerpt From P. Djèlí Clark’s Story in The Book of Witches

Whether you know them from Shakespeare or from Wicked, there is no staple more beloved in folklore, fairy tale, or fantasy than witched.


Published on July 17, 2023


Whether you know them from Shakespeare or from Wicked, there is no staple more beloved in folklore, fairy tale, or fantasy than witches.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Book of Witches, a brand new anthology of original stories edited by Jonathan Strahan—publishing with Harper Voyager on August 1. Please enjoy this excerpt from P. Djèlí Clark’s “What I Learned from Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata.”

Witches! Whether you know them from Shakespeare or from Wicked, there is no staple more beloved in folklore, fairy tale, or fantasy than these magical beings. Witches are everywhere, and at the heart of stories that resonate with many people around the world. This dazzling, otherworldly collection gathers new stories of witches from all walks of life, ensuring a Halloween readers will never forget. Whether they be maiden, mother, crone, or other; funny, fierce, light and airy, or dark and disturbing; witches are a vital part of some of the greatest stories we have, and new ones start here!

Bringing together twenty-nine stories and poems from some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers working today, including three tales from a BIPOC-only open submission period, The Book of Witches features Linda Addison, C.L. Clark, P Djeli Clark, Indrapramit Das, Amal El Mohtar, Andrea Hairston, Millie Ho, Saad Hossain, Kathleen Jennings, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Fonda Lee, Darcie Little Badger, Ken Liu, Usman T. Malik, Maureen F. McHugh, Premee Mohamed, Garth Nix, Tobi Ogundiran, Tochi Onyebuchi, Miyuki Jane Pinckard, Kelly Robson, Angela Slatter, Andrea Stewart, Emily Teng, Sheree Renée Thomas, Tade Thompson, and E. Lily Yu—and contains illustrations from three-time Hugo award-nominated artist Alyssa Winans throughout.




P. Djèlí Clark

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata arrived on an idle wind that blew into Mara’s Bay from the sea, her bright-orange air balloon awakening the sleepy village like a small rising sun. It was midmorning when the woven brackerwood basket that carried her descended into the middle of our market square, nearly hitting a pen of suckling kelp pigs brought in by the Brath twins.

We all—fishmongers and net trawlers alike—stopped our work to look up and marvel. Even Merl Janish, who started at sunrise each morning with a quart of strong cider, working his way through the harder stuff until he passed out at sunset, managed to rouse from his stupor. I was just a girl of two and ten then, at the market helping my ma sell red mussels and spotted whisker trout. But I ran forward and jostled through the gathering crowd to get a good look.

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The Book of Witches
The Book of Witches

The Book of Witches

I had only seen Traveling Folk come to Mara’s Bay on two other occasions, both times in years that added to odd numbers on their peculiar calendars. Their colorful air balloons had filled the skies, jangling with bells and chimes, accompanied by herds of long-horned velvet-blue sky bison that moaned and sang in piercing melodies. They’d set up their mushroom-shaped tents just outside town, and we had journeyed down to haggle for goods and hear news of far-off lands we scarcely believed in. At night their musicians played on drums and plucked curved stringed banjos, accompanied by jugglers, dancers, and fire spinners who frolicked with Mara’s Bay folk well into the dawn.

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata, however, did not arrive with a flock of balloons, or bells, or chimes, or singing sky bison. She came alone, a young woman of no more than three and twenty. A curious gray woolen coat with pockets along its front hugged her shoulders, swallowing her inside. Beneath it, her dress was more typical of the garish hues of the Traveling Folk—a long green skirt of elaborate gold prints, colorful scarves, and a swirl of jangling necklaces that sparkled with crimson fire beads and carved metal charms. She stepped barefoot from her basket, wriggling ring-adorned toes as if testing this new soil, sniffing at the salt-filled sea air with a small flat nose, and casting her gaze about with the scrutiny of a surveyor. When she was satisfied, she swept forward with an imperious swaying gait no one in Mara’s Bay could possibly match, bid us a good day, and gave us her fantastic and incredible name that I mouthed and played with silently on my tongue like a cherished sweet.

“Well, Mistress Devshrata,” our mayor Erl Mas said after a few pleasant exchanges. “Not expecting your folk this time of year, and alone at that. You, umm, lost?”

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata absently brushed back the thick coils of midnight hair that shadowed her face like vines, making me touch my own limp brown tresses with envy. She flashed a dimpled smile that lit up her earth-dark skin and made her pearl-black eyes glitter. “I precisely where I expected to be,” she drawled, in a singsong accent. “And I come to help allyuh with yuh trouble.”

At this, there were a few quietly exchanged glances—Mara’s Bay folk thought it impolite to murmur. Trouble was not a word we were accustomed to hearing. This wasn’t a sprawling port city like Banar, with its infamous daily knife duels. Or the Twelve Isles with its scheming princelings and their hired mercenaries. This was Mara’s Bay, quiet and unremarked, as far from trouble as we could imagine.

“So, it’s trouble is it?” Ro Culin said, biting down on his reedwood pipe the way he did when thinking hard. He tucked two gnarled fisherman’s thumbs into his suspenders and leaned his angular body back like a bent post. “What kind of trouble? Bluefish going scarce? Been noticing that lately, but figure too many sea cats this season chasing them off…” He continued on and was interrupted twice by those offering other theories for the scarcity of bluefish. Nearly all talk in our town, like the dross that littered the shores at night, made its way to the sea eventually.

“More trouble than that,” the Traveling Folk woman pronounced with a sharp smack of her lips that made a curious scheupse sound I longed to catch, ending our talk. “The kind ah trouble allyuh can’t handle on yuh own.”

Ro Culin raised a bushy eyebrow on his long face at this. More than a few people shared quiet glances, along with some frowns.

“Don’t suppose your help comes free, do it?” one of the Brath twins called, the endless freckles that covered her skin seeming as red as her hair.

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata smiled again, this time reminding me of a water fox. “Trade best fairer than free,” she replied, reciting the common saying of her people.

“Always up for trade, Mistress Devshrata,” our mayor said delicately. “But not certain what it is we’d be trading for. If you could tell us more—”

She cut him off with a flourish of her long fingers. Reaching into one of her coat pockets she withdrew a drawn pouch, untying it and upending its contents into her palm, revealing a set of painted bluestones etched with strange letterings. Pursing her lips to blow heavy upon them, she cast them upon the ground. They fell in a clatter on our worn gray cobblestones, tumbling before coming to a stop. Muttering in a tongue we dared not decipher, Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata lowered to a squat and began examining each stone with care.

We all watched in hushed silence, even the mayor, as she murmured to herself. A few people etched unseen blessing circles on their foreheads and whispered mantras to ward off spells. Everyone knew the Traveling Folk practiced odd magic and could curse babes to be born with scaly feet or cause your fish stores to grow salt worms. They also had the gift of foretelling and were known to predict nights when the moon filled red as blood or days when the sun vanished in darkness. What else could it be, we knew, but magic? But no one was prepared for what she had to tell us.

“A storm?” someone asked once the Traveling Folk woman had finished speaking, repeating her words. It was old Cora Gilish. She blinked through her long red hair, casting a dubious glance to the sky with an arched eyebrow. “I know my seasons and no storms coming to Mara’s Bay no time soon, gal.” A few nods of assent came from the crowd. Cora Gilish was our local Cunning woman and could smell a storm coming days off. Every fisherman, clam digger, and kelp pig herder swore by her advice.

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata looked up at us, eyes hard and black as the smooth stones divers bring up from the seafloor, that you imagine have seen much in their buried depths. “Not the kind ah storm allyuh studying ’bout,” she said. “This storm what coming called the Vassa. And yuh won’t know they here, until it too late.”

Confusion filled the crowd now. I frowned as well. We’d never heard of a Vassa. The mayor said as much and the Traveling Folk woman scooped up her bluestones, depositing them back into her pouch as she stood. Catching us in her glare like night squid with glow glass, she began to speak.

“Hear me now. The Vassa people dem from beyond these lands, plunderers who roam the six seas. The first yuh will know of them is their great horn that sounds through the night—always dem come at night. Their black ships with black sails will be masked on the waters. But the flames yuh gon see, spit from the mouths of their vessels as fire arrows rain down on yuh village, burning all beneath dem. And as yuh run to put out the blaze, the Vassa will come, riding their war dogs, wearing the skulls and furs ah horned bears that roam their hard country. All will be put to the torch, save for what they can plunder. The men and women of allyuh village they will kill. But yuh children dem will be taken for thralls, to be sold far across the seas. It will be as if allyuh’s Mara’s Bay never was.”

The stillness that came in the wake of her words was numbing. All I could hear was my heart pounding, and the squealing of the Brath twins’ kelp piglets. Cora Gilish’s eyes grew so round it seemed as if they might jump from her head. Ro Culin’s long pipe dangled from his thin lips, ash and tabac falling and flittering on the wind. Even Merl Janish looked as if he had been struck suddenly sober. Then, rather quickly, everyone began speaking at once.

Words tumbled from frightened lips, a mass of gibberish that made little sense. Were the Vassa monsters? Did they eat people? Where did they come from? Could they be driven off? There was wailing and some tears. A shouting match that turned to shoving erupted as the Brath twins began arguing which of them could best a Vassa in a fight. Our mayor, a short man who was more belly than brawn, called in vain for order.

Through the pandemonium my eyes remained on Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata, who stood watching it all with an odd calm—the way you did when a fierce red pike latched on to your hook, and you knew you had her. Let her wear herself out then slowly reel her in.

Our gazes met for a brief moment and the smallest hint of a smile touched her lips, as if the two of us shared some secret. I wondered if I stepped forward if she would warmly whisper it in my ear?

Turning back to the crowd, she reached into one of those jacket pockets and removed another pouch, this time pouring out what looked like fine black powder into her palms. Rubbing it between her fingers, she raised her arms overhead and made a sharp clap with her hands—producing a sound like thunder and a slight shower of red sparks that fell and danced about her midnight tresses. That got everyone quiet again, and we all stared, as if she were some otherworldly being dropped down from the Third Heaven.

“Mistress Devshrata,” the mayor breathed, wiping perspiration that dotted the balding spot on his scalp. He looked as pale as his wisps of white hair. “You said you could help us against these… Vassa?” The last word sent a shudder through the crowd.

The Traveling Folk woman was quiet for a while, letting a silence hang in the air before answering. “I willing to help allyuh,” she spoke at last, eyes glinting, “for a proper trade.”

The mayor nodded eagerly. “I’m certain something can be worked out. We don’t have much here, but we’re willing—”

“I want a place to stay,” she cut in abruptly. “A home to call my own, here in this village. Grant me what I wish, and I will stop the Vassa from ravaging yuh homes in turn. And my own.”

That caught us by surprise. The Traveling Folk were, well, travelers. They didn’t stay anywhere long. Mara’s Bay considered itself friendly and welcoming to folk, but we rarely saw strangers put down roots. Everyone in the village had been living here long as could be remembered: generations of Culins and Braths and Gilishes. A newcomer, one of the mysterious Traveling Folk no less, was going to be… different. But given the circumstances, it seemed that everyone found it an easy enough bargain.

Ro Culin was the first to nod in agreement, biting his long pipe particularly hard. Cora Gilish scowled deeply but was second, and soon followed by more. In short order the whole crowd was agreeing to the bargain. The mayor turned back with visible relief on his round face.

“It seems we have come to an understanding, Mistress Devshrata,” he said.

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata stepped forward boldly, grabbing his arm and placing his hand flat to her chest, while putting her own on his. “Once confirmed by the heart,” she stated, “the agreement cannot be broken.” The mayor nodded awkwardly and stumbled through the familiar ritual of the Traveling Folk, ending by spitting into his hands and smearing the saliva on her open palm.

When the two finished, a roar of cheers went up. Many offered the mayor excited congratulations on his fine decision. Ro Culin and Cora Gilish bullishly agreed the bargain was easily worth it. The Brath twins began arguing over which of them had been the first to voice assent. I watched it all, perplexed, as the most important question of all seemed to me to have been lost.

“How are you going to stop them?” I blurted aloud.

The voices died as all eyes turned to stare down at me, and I almost shrank back. But Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata was staring, too, and that dark gaze felt as if it were pulling the words from my lips. “The Vassa, I mean,” my words coming in a stammer, “how are you going to stop them?”

The Traveling Folk woman did smile now, her black eyes weighing me and seeming impressed. “And what yuh name is, lickle one?” she asked.

I swallowed before answering. Lickle? “Evon Cal. My ma is Adie Cal.”

“Well, Evon Cal, daughter of Adie Cal,” she drawled, “I glad somebody bother to ask.”

She offered me a sly wink I would treasure forever, turning to walk to her basket where she rifled inside before pulling out a long and rolled parchment. She brought it directly to me and unfurled its length onto the ground. All about us, people crowded to look. On the pale brown sheet there was a drawing of what looked like a man, only his body was too straight, too angular. And where bone and muscles should have been, were wheels that reminded me of the inside of the clock that sat in the mayor’s home—the kind of fancy gadgets outlander peddlers bought to sell when passing through.

“Begging your pardon, Mistress Devshrata?” the mayor asked, his face perplexed. “But what is that?”

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata looked up with a sea cat’s grin and sly eyes. “That,” she pronounced, “is going to be yuh champion.” A tinge of excitement tremored her voice. “And I going to make him!”

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata’s house took over three months to build. It was a grand thing, larger than any in Mara’s Bay. Only the mayor’s home came close. And that was because he owned our only inn and store. This new house was almost twice as big, constructed of cobalt speckled taupe stone and a roof of flat ginger terracotta slates. It stood on the outskirts of the village, atop a lonely bluff that overlooked the sea. We sat in our humble wooden houses beneath thatched straw, staring up at it in wonder.

Our champion took longer.

My ma said it was probably the grandest feat Mara’s Bay had ever attempted, grander even than the old stone lighthouse that now lay crumbled and abandoned. Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata had insisted our champion be made of blackwood, which when treated and dried became as hard as iron and would not rot or burn. Every part was cut and sanded under her watchful supervision, which accepted no imperfection. The heart of our champion she crafted from brass and steel and would let no one near as she worked on its delicate construction. For armor, sheets of bronze were hammered and bent into shape, applied in layers that covered his every limb and frame.

None of it came easy. Treated blackwood had to be imported from one of the Twelve Isles. Brass, steel, and bronze were shipped from Banari ports, who in turn shipped it from far-off lands. The expense was more than our small village could easily sustain, and everyone had to contribute. Fishermen gave up a fifth of their catch, and farmers a tenth of their harvest. The rest of us were saddled with a tax that we met as we were able. Ma and I worked more, selling whenever and whatever to do our part. When donations were called for, she even gave up a golden hairpin, part of a set my father had bought for her when he was still alive. The burden of protecting our village and our homes was one Mara’s Bay folk accepted without complaint, and we gladly did all we could.

It was the end of summer, as the days turned shorter and the sea cooler, so that flocks of broad-winged silver fish could be seen heading for warmer waters, that our champion was completed. The mayor declared a holiday to mark the occasion and all of Mara’s Bay turned out. Ma and I came to sell food—boiled spiced crabs, fried shark with bake, and roasted oysters slathered on honeyed bread.

Because it was a holiday, I wore a dress the color of green sea rice, with yellow frills like bright coral at its edges. Everyone had donned their best: the mayor in his black Banari coat with its fire-red ermine seal collar; Ro Culin with a new pair of sea-cat-hide suspenders that glimmered with rainbow scales; and Cora Gilish in the broad white bonnet of a Cunning woman tied under her chin by a ribbon. Even Merl Janish had combed back his black hair with sap butter till it lay slick against his head.

None of us, of course, could match Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata. She arrived with her usual flair, turning heads and widening eyes. She had donned a burgundy coat with gold buttons and wide cuffs trimmed in blue that verged on purple. It sat over a lavender shirt that my ma later remarked was cut scandalously low. Rows of thin blue beads wrapped around her waist above snug tan breeches that were tucked into brown leather boots with broad gold buckles. It was not clothing anyone in Mara’s Bay wore, where women preferred dresses that fell in straight lines and men sported loose fisherman’s trousers. Many stared openly as she sauntered through the market, and as I found myself mesmerized by the rhythmic way her hips swayed, I wondered if this too was some special sorcery.

She stopped momentarily at our stall, as she always did when we came to market, asking for the bake and shark. I prepared it myself, making sure to add extra meat, and dousing it with the mix of peppery spices I’d come to know she liked. Catching sight of me she raised an eyebrow. I’d begged my ma to arrange my hair into little braids, to resemble Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata’s thick-knotted tresses. And I adorned my hair with bright colorful ribbons to match her endless scarves. I blushed when she appraised me with a smile and the slightest nod of approval.

“Well, isn’t she a sight,” Cora Gilish remarked once the Traveling Folk woman had moved off.

“That she is,” Ro Culin murmured over his redwood pipe. His eyes trailed that rhythmic gait, the way an angler followed a bonefish on his line. Cora Gilish scowled, elbowing him in the ribs. He coughed, catching his pipe between his fingers and scowling back.

“What’s that ’bout, eh?” he groused. “You agreed to let her stay like the rest of us.”

Cora Gilish huffed. “That may be. But I didn’t agree to let her bring her strange ways among us. Already have some impressionable ones mimicking her.” She gave my hair a disapproving glare and my back stiffened. “Caught two Kien sisters barefoot with rings on their toes, till I put a broom to their backsides! Just you watch, tomorrow they’ll be trying on breeches and knife dueling in the streets over second husbands like those Banari strumpets! And by the eight day’s tides, look at what the woman’s done to those idiot Brath twins!”

I looked to the two figures who trailed Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata and had to stifle a giggle. Brother and sister were dressed in tight bright-green jackets and tight red breeches that matched their hair. A forelock on each of their heads had been plaited into a braid, where a copper bell hung. It jingled as they followed the Traveling Folk woman about like servants. Ro Culin chuckled and commented as much.

“More like well-heeled boar hounds!” Cora Gilish huffed. “And I can only imagine what untoward things happen in that house among those three.”

“So can I,” Ro Culin murmured. He shared an appreciative look with Merl Janish, who was sober enough to grin a set of yellowed teeth.

I didn’t understand it then myself. People whispered about the lavish parties Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata held in her great big house. She and the Brath twins carried on loudly, singing, drinking, and carousing late into the night. I often imagined that I would be invited to her house one day, where I would sit with the Traveling Folk woman and eat rich truffle pies and powdered sun cakes imported from who knew where. Certainly, I was as interesting as those dull-witted Brath twins.

“It’s unseemly,” the Cunning woman muttered. “Immoral. Scandalous. Per—”

She was cut off as a crier announced the start of the day’s ceremony. I was happy to get away from that troubling talk and followed my Ma as the crowd walked out to the harbor.

There our champion stood.

He was a towering giant in the semblance of a man, taller even than the old lighthouse. His body of gearwheels and cogs constructed of steel-hard blackwood glistened the color of midnight, while a covering of bronze armor shined bright beneath the autumn sun, so that I thought I could see it shimmering atop the waves. His face had no features. It was utterly blank, free of a mouth or nose, save for two round inlays of pearl white glass that served for eyes.

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata and the mayor stood at the clockwork giant’s feet, near a tall ladder. After he gave a few speeches during which the crowd seemed to get restless, the Traveling Folk woman finally stepped forward.

“People of Mara’s Bay!” she called out. “I have made yuh this champion as promised! He will protect yuh village on its darkest day! He yours so long as yuh will have him! So, it only right one of allyuh give him life!” Her eyes looked over the crowd, searching. Many cast their glances away. It was one thing to cheer on the champion, and another to sully their hands with Traveling Folk sorcery. But I would not bend, staring straight out and whispering a prayer beneath my breath that those beauteous eyes would find me.

“Evon Cal! Daughter of Adie Cal! Come!” she called.

I stood rooted, too stunned to move—until Ma pushed me forward. Soon other hands were pulling and pushing me through the crowd, and I found myself standing right there before the Traveling Folk woman. She beamed down at me, that small smirk on her face once more seeming to hold back some secret. Bending down she leaned in close, and I drew a deep breath, taking in her scent—like rough deep waters and sweet pungent spices that spoke of far-flung places. I wondered if I held it in my nostrils if I would be able to breathe it out again into a bottle and stopper it to hold and keep forever. This close she was dizzying, and my head swam so that my mouth seemed to speak of its own accord.

“I love you,” the words came, as if drawn from my tongue. In shock I tried to catch them, to pull them back, but they fluttered away beyond my grasp.

Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata stared back at me for long moment, then putting a hand to my hair, adjusted my ribbons as she spoke low.

“Love, is it? Oh, lickle one, what yuh know ’bout love, nah? Still have much time for that. One day, when you ah grown woman, yuh heart gon give to one who deserve it. Maybe more than once. And yuh gon know the joy and pain and loneliness ah love. But yuh must never so easily give it to one such as me—a wind that blow in with the new season but like each passing breeze gon have its time. Yuh see, I have cast the stones to know what tomorrows lie in wait for me. And it—” Her eyes glanced up, quickly running over the assemblage of Mara’s Bay folk, and a slight sneer lifted the corner of her lip before settling, so that I wasn’t certain it had ever been there at all.

“But that my concern,” she finished. “Now then, Evon Cal, we must see to yuh champion. He a thing ah machine and magic. And I need yuh to help start his heart with magic of yuh own.”

“But I don’t know any magic!” I stammered.

She smiled slyly. “Then I gon give yuh some ah mine.” Taking my hands in hers, she blew gently on my fingers, and I felt a slight tingle run through me. “Now, go. Give yuh champion life.”

I nodded, suddenly confident, almost light-headed. Grabbing on to the ladder I began to climb, making my way up each rung with a slight giddiness. I looked down once when I’d reached the clockwork giant’s waist to see everyone far below, then continued climbing.

Our champion’s heart stood about half as big as me. It was the only part exposed in the bronze armor—Oresha Moon Dragon Devshrata’s own construction. I gaped at it in wonder, trying to imagine how such a thing could be made. Then, as the small bit of magic yet worked through me, I knew what I had to do. Placing my palms against the metal heart I closed my eyes and whispered one word. “Live.”


Adapted from The Book of Witches by Jonathan Strahan, published by Harper Voyager. Copyright © 2023 by Jonathan Strahan. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

About the Author

P. Djèlí Clark


P. Djèlí Clark is a writer of speculative fiction. Born in Queens, New York, he has lived alternatively in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Texas and the Caribbean. His stories have appeared in online publications such as Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has also contributed short stories to anthologies such as the Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology and Griots: Sisters of the Spear, co-edited by Milton Davis and the pioneering Charles Saunders. Professionally, Clark is a doctoral candidate in history who focuses on issues of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World. He currently resides in Washington D.C., and ruminates on issues of diversity in speculative fiction at his blog The Disgruntled Haradrim at
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