The witch hunter caught up with me along the banks of the Guadalupe River. He was barely old enough to grow a moustache, and I figured my husband had paid him half of what he would’ve paid someone with more experience. Ellard was always tight with money, even when it came to important things like killing the mother of his dead son.
I was fixing candles to the prow of my keelboat with horseshoe nails and lighting them one by one with a kitchen match when I heard him approach. I had unhitched the horse from the wagon I’d used to haul the boat here and left her to chew at the autumn weeds. The sound of boots slipping down the steep banks sent her trotting away. I watched the man approach, the setting sun burning at his back.
“Used to be.”
“I don’t take your meaning.”
“I mean I don’t answer to that name anymore.”
He was familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Someone from back in New Braunfels, to be sure. Maybe someone from Ellard’s church or a worker in his mill. Not someone old enough to have ridden with Ellard back in his Indian-killing days, which was the type of person I would have expected. This was just a boy, hungry or desperate enough to follow a supposedly dangerous witch into the wilderness. He wore a long coat against the cool evening, and one hand rested on the pistol at his hip, as if he had any intention of using it.
“Your husband sent me.”
“Well, if you plan to kill me, then get on with it. I have a schedule to keep.”
I stood knee-deep in the shallows, the hem of my dress unfurling over the surface of the water. The river ran quick and cold against my legs. Hackberry leaves traced unhurried paths from overhanging limbs, down to the water where they drifted away. I held one hand on the boat to keep it from following just yet. A brass bell hung from the stern, and I tested it one last time to make sure it could ring freely.
The boy watched me with growing discomfort. His boots reached the edge of the water, but he’d yet to draw his pistol or make any move to capture me.
“What did you think was going to happen here?” I asked. “You’d take Ellard’s money, show up, and put a bullet through me? Easy as that? You don’t look like your blood’s that cold.”
Satisfied that the boat was ready, I climbed inside. The few belongings I’d brought with me when I left New Braunfels were bundled in a grain sack. I checked one last time to make sure my grandmother’s book was safe, then used the long setting pole to shove the boat from the river’s edge and out into the flow.
The boy splashed into the water and grabbed the side of the boat just as the river took hold and began to pull. It had rained hard the day before, and the river was too strong for him. He struggled to keep the boat in hand, but soon enough he’d have to let go or be drawn along behind.
“I’m sorry, you can’t go.”
If I was the monster so many of them believed me to be, I’d have mumbled some words and the boy would have bled out through his eyes. Maybe I would’ve snapped every bone in his body with my laughter.
I would surely have killed my husband long ago.
I was never that person, no matter how hard Ellard and so many others tried to turn me into her.
But this boy had come to kill me.
He seemed to consider his diminishing grip on the wooden gunwale and the pole I still held in my hands. It would be an easy matter to swat him down with it and let the river pull me away.
With a grunt, he hefted himself into the boat.
We pitched precariously; then he was aboard, crouched down near the stern, and the river grabbed hold again.
“It would have been easier to shoot me,” I said. “What are you going to do now?”
His wide-brimmed hat was pushed far back on his head, framing the worry in his young face. Whatever plan he’d devised during his pursuit was unravelling like poor quality cotton, and he hadn’t yet figured out how to stitch it all back together again. Autumn wind raced along the water, and he was already shivering in his wet clothes. He pulled that long coat tighter around him and glared at me in my thin linen dress.
The cold didn’t cut me.
“We’re just going to follow the river until it takes us into New Braunfels,” he said. “I can hand you over to Mr. Anderson there.”
“We aren’t going that far,” I said. “Besides, wouldn’t my husband be mad if you brought me home still breathing?”
“He said dead or alive, ma’am.”
“Well, it for sure won’t be alive.”
We were many miles upriver from New Braunfels, along the stretch of the Guadalupe that wound like a snake through the Texas countryside. If we continued on long enough, the river would run right into the heart of the place I’d fled several nights earlier. If Ellard got his hands on me, I wouldn’t escape again.
Long before I married Ellard, people came to me for medicine to cure their aches. For simple spells to ensure good luck in raising crops and children. Harmless, helpful magics. Ellard might not have understood, but if nothing else, he indulged my talents as a frivolous affectation. Something that would vanish when I devoted myself to the important matters of raising a family.
He never understood my magic wasn’t a hobby.
It was my blood and my soul.
I hadn’t realized what sort of man Ellard was until we’d been married for a time. Until he’d tried all manner of cajoling to get me to abandon my magic and finally decided to try beating it out of me. By then I was pregnant, and options for escaping Ellard’s reach disappeared in a hurry.
I’d tried leaving more than once since my son’s death, but Ellard always found me. The last time he said he’d kill me if I ran off again, and I was inclined to believe him.
That was fine with me.
I had no plans to go on living, with or without him.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Not George Emerson?”
“I didn’t even recognize you. It’s been a long time. You were friends with my son, weren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am. Me and Frank used to run around together when we was kids. Before. Your Frank was the only one could beat me up a tree. He could climb like a squirrel. I’m real sorry about what happened to him.”
“Not so sorry, I don’t think. You’re happy enough hunting down his mother.”
“Well, it ain’t like that.”
“What’s it like then?”
He didn’t have any answer for that. I put the book in my lap and flipped through the pages, reading by the light of the candles as the last rays of October sunshine vanished. I had come here for a reason. And though George wasn’t part of my plans, my mind wandered across the pages and I began to wonder if maybe he could be.
George had taken the setting pole and was working to keep the boat centered in the river as the current gained speed. Huge cypress trees hugged the shorelines, their exposed roots like fingers working to catch the boat. Rocks jutted up in the darkness, and candlelight scattered across the surface of the water like runaway lantern oil.
“You’re good with that pole,” I said. “Lucky for me you came along when you did.”
“You act almost like you expected me.”
“The world whispers to you if you listen. Problem is, no one does. You can find out a whole lot of things if you shut your mouth long enough.”
“So, what they say is true? You’re really a witch.”
“I am a witch. Not sure what they say is true, though.”
“You ran away from home, and now you’re heading back the same direction you come from. It don’t make no sense.”
The way he said ran away from home made it sound like I was a child who’d snuck out after dark, gotten lost in the woods, and cried until her parents found her. But my leaving had purpose. Laboring under our son’s memory for so many years had bent me beyond repair. And I knew one way or another, Ellard would kill me eventually. He had killed so many Indians in his youth that he’d developed a taste for the violence. I could read the hunger in his eyes every time he looked at me. I should at least make my death worth something.
I’d spent too long already trying to sort out at what point everything had gone so wrong.
Now it was time to make things right again.
“It doesn’t have to make sense to you.” I found the page I was searching for in my book and placed a hackberry leaf between the pages to save my place. “Besides, I told you I’m not going that far.”
“Then how far are you planning to go?”
“Only as far as I need. You just settle in and we’ll be there before long.”
“Ma’am, I hope you know I can’t let you run off. Wherever we stop, I’ll have to take you into custody.”
I laughed. “You a sheriff now, George?”
“You know I ain’t”
“Then what you mean is, you’ll take me to Ellard so he can kill me.”
“I don’t believe he really plans to kill you. Anyway, I wouldn’t let him hurt you none.”
“Well, that’s kind of you.”
“He’s just mad is all. He doesn’t seem like a killer to me.”
“You might want to study him a little closer.”
I put my hand in the water and let the cold take a bite.
I imagined Frank, forever ten years old, so eager to please the father who’d never wanted much to do with him. Waving back at me as they rode away together, bound for the river. Frank promised me he’d have fresh trout when they came home, but Ellard rode back alone and Frank remained at the bottom of the river, held under with ropes and rocks.
I didn’t even need to listen to the world to learn the truth of what happened. Ellard had told me, bold as day. But he wasn’t ready to give up on me. I was like a wild stallion that he was determined to tame. Killing me would be a failure. But he’d decided that he wouldn’t be responsible for another generation of witches. And besides, Ellard had never been fond of his son. I believe he saw too much of me in Frank’s manner.
The hard truth was, Frank had no magic inside him. But he died for it anyway.
“Are you married, George?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Just this summer.”
“No children yet, then. I expect you’ll have some soon enough.”
“You’ll die for your child if you have to. You might not understand that now, but you will.”
“I reckon I would if I had to.”
“Can you feel the night growing thin, George?”
The air around us had quieted, like the darkness was holding its breath. The river had advanced to the point where limestone cliffs stretched along the western riverbank. Candlelight capered along the surface of the stone, creating the unsettling sensation that the river had entered a subterranean cave.
“All I feel is cold.”
“Are you tired of steering yet?”
“No, I’m doing fine.”
“Have you figured out why your pole has gone silent?”
George plunged the pole into the water for another push, and the wood broke the surface without a sound. He punched at the water again with the same result. He drew the pole into the boat, as if afraid the third time might bring about some calamity.
“You really are a witch, then.”
“I already told you I was. Listen here, George, that’s nothing but a sign that conditions are in place for what I mean to do here tonight.”
“And what’s that?”
“What would you say if I told you my husband killed Frank?”
“Well, I wouldn’t believe you.”
George looked like an overgrown child, huddled at the rear of the boat. He sunk deeper into his coat and pulled the pole up against his chest like a shield. He was the one with the gun. He was the one who’d forced his way onto my boat and into the middle of something more dangerous than the job he’d been hired to do.
“Whether you believe me or not doesn’t figure into any of this. Ellard killed him. I’m going to bring him back.”
“And you’re a lumbering, foolish boy who should have stayed home with his wife.”
I opened my grandmother’s book and began to read passages aloud. Every word drew the night in close as a corset, and the boat creaked as the spell tightened around us. Tension gathered in the air. George began breathing like a locomotive, as though he felt a change had taken place but wasn’t able to understand it. I kept reading.
What I was doing was anything but evil.
Being a witch was no curse. It was a life planted in the earth by a mother and tended by her daughter. It was a chorus of ancient voices, singing the secrets of our souls. It was a responsibility that could not be cast aside. Those voices wouldn’t grow quiet just to please my husband.
I wanted to tell all of this to George, but I knew he wouldn’t listen any more than Ellard had.
Men must be shown things.
The air grew so still that only the cliffs and the riverbank passing by gave any indication that we were still moving. Silence wrapped around us like a shroud.
Then the bell started ringing.
“I want out of this boat.” George sat forward on his knees, rocking us from side to side.
“You could swim, I guess. Though I wouldn’t recommend jumping in the water just yet.”
Hands sprouted from the surface of the river like flowers from fertile soil. First one, then a dozen, then a thousand of them, in all directions. Fingers flexing, palms reaching from another life back into this one. These were the last hours of October, when the already thin line between worlds could be breached. With the right words and the right intentions, wrongs could be undone.
One of those hands belonged to my Frank.
Tears welled in my eyes. I read the rest of the words, snapped the book shut. The bell kept ringing.
George drove the pole into the water, trying desperately to steer us to shore, but the boat was caught up in something stronger now.
“Ma’am, what’s happening?”
“We’re going to figure out which one of these hands belongs to my boy, and we’re going to pull him up into the boat. Just be careful not to grab the wrong one. No telling who you’ll be bringing back, and you have to pay the price whether you get it right or wrong.”
“I’m not grabbing any of them!”
“Hush now, George. I need to concentrate.”
Hands slapped against the side of the boat as we cut through that current of souls all eager to return. Life stories flickered around me like summer fireflies—faded images of bluebonnets fanning out around a churchyard wedding; children laughing, their faces lit by the sun. Saddle leather creaking as hands worked at it with hammer and awl; a weathered man astride a plodding mule and the sound of hooves on granite. An old woman on her knees, howling, pulling at her gray hair in grief. Faces bent with jealousy. Eyes bright with hope. All of these experiences and more appeared before me, rising and falling and fading away. I watched every one. I listened for the sounds of who they’d been in life, absorbing the grief and disorientation and cold memories in silence. Searching for the one soul I would recognize in an instant, no matter how many years had passed.
George’s face reddened with fear, and his body grew wispy around the edges. Now I knew his stories too. Whispered intimacies between husband and wife. Playful arguments over what they’d name their children, when they had them, and real arguments about why George would accept Ellard’s money to hunt down his wayward wife. But Ellard issued demands, not requests. And the money, while not a huge bounty, was enough to give them options. Now George was terrified and wishing he’d never left New Braunfels. He’d never really believed he was chasing a witch. He’d been more afraid of Ellard than of a runaway woman old enough to be his mother. Now he’d learned otherwise.
Faint music slipped through from the other life, gray and somber.
Then it was Frank’s story on the breeze, his voice as familiar to me as my own. His upraised hand still flexing while all the others grew still.
“I’m right here!”
Frank’s fingers were spread wide, his hand only a dozen feet ahead and off the bow. When the boat drew close, I grabbed his wrist with one hand, his arm with another, and pulled. He was waterlogged, nothing but dead weight, and the current pulled against me, nearly prying him loose from my grip. His cold skin was slipping from my fingers, and I heaved harder, but it was like trying to uproot a tree. I would never let him let go, I couldn’t make any progress. And then George was with me, nearly capsizing the small boat as he lunged to take hold of Frank’s arm. Something below the water pulled back, the other life eager to keep its dead, but we were stronger. Together we held firm and pried my son loose from the current.
Frank’s head broke the surface, hair overgrown and tangled as it had always been, wet strands covering his eyes. His mouth hung open, and his skin was the color of mesquite ash. I thought for one terrible moment that we’d managed to bring him back from the dead but not truly bring him back to life. Then he gasped, drawing the night air into his lungs, and I knew my son had really returned me.
Together, we hauled him into the boat.
Frank was the same boy he’d been. No older than the last day I’d seen him, bone-thin and delicate. He hadn’t opened his eyes, but his breathing steadied, and I realized he was peacefully asleep. I could feel the slow steady beat of his heart and the hammer of my own. Color began to leak back into his face, and he whispered quiet words I couldn’t understand. His body felt warm, as if the life running back inside him had kindled a fire in his chest. I drew him tight against me to feel that warmth, and to smell the musty, little-boy scent of his hair that had remained the same as ever, no matter where he had been. No matter what he’d endured.
Frank’s eyes darted about behind his closed eyelids. He was dreaming. I wondered if his dreams were of the place he’d been, or places he might go with a second chance. I knew it would take a few hours for him to shake the other life entirely, and by then he might be alone, so I whispered in his ear all the things I wished I’d told him before he left those many years ago.
Who can say if he heard me?
“Is he alive?” George sat close, breathing heavy with panic. “Is that Frank? He hasn’t aged a day.”
“He’s alive. And he’s still a little boy. You’re seeing what you’re seeing. He’ll wake up in a little bit, and he can tell you himself how he died. You might believe more of what I’m saying then.”
“I believe you now, I think.”
“Well that’s a relief to me.” I offered him the thinnest smile, and he accepted it with great enthusiasm.
“Ma’am, I hope you know I never would have killed you. Your husband runs my livelihood, you understand?”
“I understand, George. Why don’t you take that wife of yours and leave New Braunfels? Find a better situation for yourself.”
“Well, I’ve never lived anyplace else.”
“Might be time you did,” I said. “Ellard won’t appreciate you coming home without me.”
“I don’t know where else I’d go.”
“Someplace better, George. Just pack up and leave.”
The hands in the water began to thrash. Those near the boat slapped at the wooden hull and grasped at the gunwales.
George plunged the pole into the water again, but we weren’t going anywhere yet. “They’re liable to sink us!”
“We pulled Frank back,” I said. “Now somebody has to take his place.”
When George had climbed into my boat, it had occurred to me I might be able to have my child back and also keep my life.
I stared at the man who’d come to capture me.
I stared at the man who wanted nothing more than to raise a family with his new wife, preferably somewhere where Ellard’s shadow didn’t reach.
“Have you ever been to Galveston?” I asked.
“Big city. Plenty of work for a young man. It would be a good place for you to raise your family.”
“We need to get out of this boat!”
“Frank always used to talk about how he wanted to see the ocean.”
“Ma’am, they’re going to sink us.”
I held my son close, stroked his wet hair away from his face and kissed his forehead.
“Here’s what you’re going to do, George. You’re going to take my book and give it to Ellard. Tell him you killed me, if that’s what he wants to hear. He knows I’d never part with that book, so he’ll believe you. Take his money. Then you and your wife go somewhere else. San Antonio, or Galveston, or New York City. It doesn’t matter. And you take Frank with you. You were friends once, and he’s going to need someone to look after him.”
The boat lurched, then tilted astern. The gunwale plunged beneath the water, and the boat started to flood as those hands began pulling it under.
I gave Frank another quick kiss, then handed him to George. He held my son close in one long arm while he balanced himself against the rising prow with the other, trying to keep both of them from falling into the water.
“I don’t understand what you’re doing!” he said.
“You won’t give my boy to Ellard?”
“Thank you, George.”
I leaned toward the water, let myself fall overboard and into the river.
The boat righted in an instant. I bobbed in the still water, close enough I could have climbed back aboard. Then every hand released its hold on the boat, and the river came alive again in a rush, like it had just remembered its own nature. The hands fled beneath the water as the boat glided away, caught up again in the sudden current.
Something held me in place, floating.
I could feel the border between the living and the dead grow taut as a bowstring.
I watched them float away, the young man in the flickering candlelight with my son in his arms, calling out to me, until darkness obscured him from my sight. Fragments of their life stories—days they’d already lived, and those still to come—rose up from the waters, burned bright, pushed back the darkness.
Gave me one last reason to smile, before the dead claimed their payment and pulled me under.