Once, when trees could talk and birds could rhyme, a witch lived alone, back behind the cypress trees where Spanish moss dipped its tendrils into dark, tannic water.Her house was built on planks and stilts and semisolid earth.
Visitors came by boat, looking for love potions, cures and curses. All easy enough, as they would dock on the front porch and call out in shaky voices, “Mother. I seek your help. I can pay…” And they would.
In the mornings, she would check her traps for crawdads and lines for catfish. She would start the pot boiling and the fire burning. The day was mostly about living, after all.
She was not surprised one daybreak to find a man waiting on her porch. He was large in every way and quiet and patient with dark, stolid eyes. He spoke, “Mother. Please help me.”
“Perhaps I can, Son. What is it that you seek?”
“A curse then, or poison?”
He paused, “No ma’am, I want a life brought back from death.”
She laughed and disturbed nearby dragonflies into flight.“Son, you don’t want that. You can’t afford this price. Go home and mourn and remember the good.”
At this he stood and nearly blocked the light that had managed to filter through the trees. “I can pay.”
The witch considered. “Fine. We can start…you may change your mind. You have a lock of hair?” The man nodded and pulled a soft tuft from his pocket.
“Three tasks then. The first is this: Find her voice.”
The man looked confused with a flash of anger for an impossible task. “Listen,” said the witch. The man stilled and closed his eyes. He heard waves lapping against wood, the chirp of a cicada, and the voice of a morning owl. He stepped into his boat, dipped an oar into thick water and was soon gone.
He returned a day later, knocking politely on her weathered door. The witch opened it and waved him to a chair in front of a fire. There were two pots boiling. One smelled of root vegetables and brine, while the other smelled of….morning dew and bread. Her.
The witch said softly, “We can sit and remember here. We do not need to do more.” For a time they considered the steam rising on the second pot. Then the man pushed the bundle he carried into her hands.
With a sigh, the witch opened the cloth and shook its contents into the pot: a wooden flute, two smooth stones, and a limp marsh wren.“Your payment now.” The man stood uncertainly while the witch revealed a serrated knife.
“Your ear to give her sound.” He hesitated briefly and then leaned over the pot. He sawed quickly, letting the extra blood mix with the water below. She gave him clean cloths and, later, ointment.
The next morning, she found him in front of the fire again. She checked on his wound and served him breakfast from the other pot. As he ate, he thought he heard a song he knew. “What is the second task?”
“Find her beauty,” she replied.
Again he left in the boat.Two days later he returned just as the sun was leaving red streaks. She was on the front porch then, stringing some beans for later. She looked sad to see him.
“Good evening, Son.”
He nodded politely, “Mother.”
“Come in, if you like.”
The man carried a drawstring bag into the house.He smelled and listened and then thrust the bag at the witch: a delicate white spider lily, pink marsh flowers, and a blue butterfly wing. “My payment?”
“An eye to see her shine.”
She handed him a sharp spoon and once again, he leaned over the pot. She helped him to her cot when he was done, bleeding and sweating. She fed him soup when he could eat.As soon as he was able, he sat in the chair by the fire. With one eye he could see a shadowy smile.
“Mostly people want love potions and curses.They bring their sins and desires, I just give the recipe.”
“I need the third task.”
“You can still leave here and go home.”
“She is my home. Please.”
She paused before speaking, soft as morning fog, “Find her memory.”
After he left, the witch bowed her head and wept.
After three days, he docked and heavily crossed her front porch, through the door, and to the fire. He carried a red leather-bound book filled with neat, looped writing. She pulled over the butcher block and laid the axe on top. Hoarsely, she said. “Your hand to give her body.”
He nodded once, lifted the blade and then brought it down.After he fell, she tied the tourniquet. She left him where he lay and tried to control his fever and cauterize the wound. He raved in his sleep.
Some days later he could sit up and look into the pot. A shadow danced there that filled his heart.
He helped her pour the pot into the swamp after the moon rose then rested on bent knees. The light shimmered in water that never was completely still. A shadow gathered on the opposite shore and took shape. It danced across the bank and came to rest next to him, smelling of sugar and ink.
The witch gently sat at the other end of the porch with a shadow of her own. They watched the stars come out together. The man murmured, “This is enough.”
“You will see her like this sometimes. Other times in the flowers you picked and the stones you found. She is not here, cannot be here. But your memory is flesh and can keep you company.”
“Mother. Can you teach me?”
“If you wish to learn.”
“What is the payment now?”
“You have paid, my Son.”
They watched the world around them dance and bubble, while the air fell in heavy ribbons on waiting skin.