Tempie wrapped the straws around the rock as fast as her fingers could work them.
The mayor didn’t ordinarily visit them. She’d never seen one up close before. Even now, as she wove the straws, it was only his pasty nose when he leaned into the gap. Murmurs from the townsfolk who’d accompanied him out sifted in on a grainy evening umber.
Waving the gnats from her face, Mama glanced down at Tempie with Cale on the floor, stepped outside, and shut the door. Dana, their sister, stopped fixing supper and moved in close to listen. It was twilight out, and the crickets were dinning something fierce.
“Back off me, Cale. Let me finish, then you can see.” Eyeing Dana, Tempie elbowed her brother, and prepared to wrap the next rock.
A toy for Cale; it was supposed to be old Sam, the donkey the Cohens used to haul their smoked venison to town. As water-bearer, she’d toted through town plenty of times and felt she had a proper sense of Sam—head, body, legs, tail—but now she wished she’d spent more time in the fish markets with the weavers. Last winter, when the fire got good and bright, she’d lie back all dreamy, stare at Mama’s marrying baskets, and contemplate weaving. But there wasn’t a fire now, just the flicker of the one sewing candle.
Unable to resist anymore, she set the frayed donkey down and jumped up to listen.
Mama was sobbing.
What on earth made Mama cry? Not even when she’d burned her hand that day did she cry like that. But, no, not so, she did, once, when the babies in her belly died: before Cale, there’d been boys, twins, born tiny and twisted, and Papa’d had to bury them out back by the azaleas, stabbing the black sandy dirt while Tempie’d hid and watched.
With mounting dread, it dawned on her; why the coming of the mayor, the townsfolk, Mama’s crying. Her voice cracked high and distant like lightning in a dry summer’s storm.
“Dana, why’s she cryin’ like that?”
Papa should have been back by now.
“I’m gonna go ask,” Tempie said and sprang at the door.
Dana caught her by the wrist. Though strong for her size, at ten, Tempie couldn’t put up much of a fight against a big sister, sixteen and grown.
Still holding onto her sister’s wrist, Dana slumped, while on the other side of the door, the mayor spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.
“There’s but one thing to do, Dolores. Make the pledge. Quick, ya hear? No point drawin’ it out. She came up yesterday, was askin’ ‘bout your girl, funny enough, but then that’s what you’d expect of the Waysegger. Returnin’ in a few weeks’ time. It’s best for your family, given the situation, and you’d be doing right by our community. We take care of those who make an offering, Dolores. You know that.”
Feet shuffled on the gritty planks.
“I’ll think on it, Mayor…It was kind of you all to come,” Mama said, her voice scarcely a sound. “Couldn’t have been easy on you folks.”
The kitchen was a hot swamp of savory smells. Cale loitered at the table, brushed by Mama’s skirt as she scraped tubers and the rest. Weeks had passed since the mayor’s visit, and they had little left to eat.
“Can’t I help?”
“I done told you what to do. Do nothing. Not this night. Please, child, for the love of the Goodly Ghost, come comfort Caleb. Your sisters and I have it.”
Since the news about Papa, he’d near sucked his donkey to shreds, and his thumb looked like a pale, sickly prune. Tempie slapped it out of his mouth, and his big black eyes needled her with vexation.
“He knows, Mama,” she said, half to herself, woozy with validation.
“Knows what? Girl, I swear, do you have to say everything that pops into your head?”
Cale clutched his donkey.
Not a bad hold, Tempie thought anxiously, as her mind tried to run two tracks at once. But a few straps of Sharah’s fabric might stop the legs from bending the wrong way…
The fact was, since Papa’s death, there’d been this terrible ache in her gut that hurt worse than hunger and often made her too sad to think. Maybe when I get big, she used to say when circumstances overwhelmed, but she wasn’t big, not yet, not within a few weeks’ span. But maybe the old Witch would show her how to do more, still words, make something paltry plentiful or someone weak strong, for that was where they meant to send her, though nobody said, just a baleful look every now and again.
But she already had a notion of how to still the words. Given enough time, maybe she could figure the rest out.
They should have named me Tempest. They say the right name can make a person, and then all you gotta do is scratch any old mark on a scrap of wood so long as it’s always the same mark for the same sound—that’s how the olden-day scribes must have done it…
In Tempie’s fantasy, she could almost write her name: If you can write your name, you’ll live forever, better than any Waysegger Witch! Many times, she’d eyed that dreary lane; it was where the offerings went, people said: a long, lonely trek down a dusty road. But I’ll be brave, she thought rather arbitrarily.
Steam pumped from a pot; next to it, dough to be cooked with their last slab of salt-pork.
“What I want,” Mama began, but then she wiped her cheek with the back of her hand. “I want you to remember me, not as a mother who failed you, but the mother who knew that you, above all others, could survive this.”
Of course, as the youngest girl, it had to be her. It was fate coming, fate coming for her this time, a second seismic shift to her short life. Papa had had such warm, thick-padded hands. Ever since his disappearance, Tempie’s brain had flashed images of what they might have done to those hands…
Bread sizzled. Mama didn’t say more, but her broad back heaved. Papa was gone. Utterly gone. The guns were gone, too, as they belonged to the town. Like one of those old boat docks undermined by a fateful change in current, the family was no more.
Papa’d left to confront Red Raiders on a neighboring isle. Townsfolk paid the Fringemen to fend off Raiders, but Papa and the men like him were expected to look after their own. All anyone knew was that the Raiders had sprung a trap. Papa was lost.
“Sit,” Mama said once supper was laid out, “Sit. I want you all to sit down. You, too, Caleb.”
All except Cale took seats around the table, which seemed lopsided with no whiskered Papa at the head. Tempie clambered into Papa’s chair since nobody else would and folded her legs up under her. Cale meandered to her side.
“I can’t make it,” Mama announced. “You know that I can’t. I prayed to the Goodly Ghost and I prayed…And I can’t pray no more. There’s nothing to be done. I made the pledge.”
“But look at her,” said the eldest. “She’s a pup.”
“Lay off, Edie.” Never one to sit still, Dana stood up again and wiped her hands on her one good dress. “Tell us, then, Mama,” she said from the kitchen, gathering specks of flour. “What did the Waysegger say when you offered up our Tempie?”
Tempie’s scalp pricked.
Tell me, Mama, tell me: “Papa’s dead as a doornail, girl, and I’ve gone and pledged you to the Waysegger!”
Cale—Tempie could scarcely look at him so warm and quiet at her elbow, with his nasty wrinkled thumb and clingy hands that were always tugging at her smock, getting in the way of the work of her feet. She hadn’t thought of him—a smack in the face, really, because she’d hardly thought at all. With her gone, who’d care for him?
“Like I said, I done it.” Mama sighed. “Thanks be to the Goodly Ghost, she’ll take them.”
Like a bat had bit her, Sharah looked up from her lap.
“Sharah?” said Dana, genuinely shocked. “But she’s been promised…You sayin’ you gave the Waysegger me?”
“The Waysegger is to take Temperance…And…she’s gonna take Caleb, too.”
“What?” Edie said, indignant. “We’re not that bad off, are we? He’s the boy.”
Tempie’d seen the Waysegger up close, once, from behind: torn rags for a dress, clanky chicken bones in her hair, a stooped back. The protruding parts of her crumpled face showed whenever the old Witch turned her head. Should Fringefolk find themselves in a pitiful state, when ‘the Ghost’s got no more givin’ to give,’ the Waysegger paid the town a premium in healthy seeds, tools, and goats for a single apprenticing girl. It was hard to grow crops in blighted soil, people said. When denied a pledge, the Witch wouldn’t return for a long spell, even years, and that was a very bad thing.
But Tempie refused to be afraid, not of an old Witch, not Raiders, not nothing.
“You’re mine now, mine alone!” Mama bellowed. “No Fringe woman has ever supported a family on scrap. We’re the Unlucky, the shunned, won’t survive the winter without Thomas. And if we hunt for ourselves, daughters, they’ll hammer us in. We’ll burn. I refuse to see you starve! Won’t! It’s the little ones who suffer the worst. Don’t you know that? Behind closed doors, unimaginable pain, bellies bloated like a carcass ‘bout to blow. So don’t think of putting on a brave face for them. It’s done. Might be the first great sacrifice of your young lives. Out here on the Fringe, won’t be your last!”
Flushed and sweaty, Mama spread her legs and frowned at Tempie across the table.
Tempie grabbed hold of Cale’s head, meaning to comfort him—but she’d pushed his curls into his eyes, and he shoved her off to resume his voracious thumb-sucking.
“Take care of m’boy, Temperance. Don’t be a burden to the Waysegger. Said she knows who you are, seen you with those water jugs, gawking behind. I told her you’d never leave without Caleb, so she said she’ll take him, special. Town’s got no use for a girl like you. A pity, that, I suppose.”
It was the last of the food stores, and nobody ate. Supper congealed while Mama stared sightless at the empty space on the wall where her marrying baskets had hung. Tempie felt it, felt it to her core: what life Mama’d had in her was thoroughly spent. In Papa’s chair, knees tucked under her chin, Tempie gazed upon her three sisters, their fretful faces, each in turn, as if from the outside looking in, like she’d become a man grown, a Papa, and they were the frail ones who needed protecting. But when she found Cale, her stomach lurched.
At the first blue tinge of morning light, Tempie rolled out of her hammock and slipped out the back door. She’d borrowed Sharah’s needle and thread and brought an empty spice jar Mama didn’t see her swipe. Tempie’d often heard the Witch took small offerings, too, frogs and butterflies and weeds, and during her day-long totes as water-bearer, she’d imagined what she might give the old Witch if she ever needed to curry favor. Something dreadful. Something that showed nerve.
Tempie walked up to the plank of knotty wood Papa’d said wouldn’t do for the pen; he’d told Edie not to waste it, hang it high and not leave it on the ground where critters would nest and baby Cale might toy with it. But Edie’d never got round to hanging the plank. It’d always seemed so forlorn, left there to rot. And Papa’d been right: one day, Cale did get a hold of it, a day when Tempie forgot to watch close. Strong for his dimply arms, Cale’d pushed the plank over, and sure enough, underneath lay fifty or so shiny black beads, any one of which could kill a man miserably. Seeing what Cale’d done, Tempie’d poked them to see them swarm, but overcome with the willies, she’d knocked the plank back. Today, when the sun rose high enough, she’d be ready…
Cale refused to leave. Always, always, he’d dogged her heels, but today of all days, he dragged his feet, sandals on but whimpering, until Mama picked him up whole-bodied and placed him like a doll out front at the gate where Tempie stood and waited. Tempie patted the warm jar in her pocket—inside, the necklace of shiny black beads. The legs had already ceased twitching by the time she’d dropped the necklace in: it was a different sort of nervousness she felt now.
Mama and each of her sisters stiffly kissed her goodbye. All hugged Cale tight until he grew fussy, but then Dana got down on her knees and embraced Tempie again.
“But Mama, won’t it take days to get there?” Tempie said, rubbing her eyes. “You don’t have nothing for us to eat?”
“No, child, but you won’t need it. This is the way of things. You’ll see.”
During the night, Tempie’d had doubts; this was why she wanted her jar of black beads, and now that she and Cale had actually left, looking at his unhappiness, she shuddered. This was wrong. He shouldn’t be with her. Cale didn’t eat much, and there’d be more food soon.
But Mama was mama, and she’d made the pledge.
The day’s heat wasn’t fully on them yet, but they would reach town before midday, and for this reason at least, Tempie stuck to the plan.
But she considered another plan.
“Quit dragging them feet, Cale!” she shouted back at the boy, who skulked along, glowering, the grass-and-stone donkey in his hand.
Veering north had more than once crossed her mind. They could head to Wah’bro instead, maybe live up there until Cale grew big and made his own family. It was a world away and foreign, but the villagers there didn’t know she wasn’t a witch. Maybe she could wave her arms a bit like old Waysegger, dress herself in rags, tell people their business, and take offerings—and until that day, people always needed fresh water, didn’t they?
But she didn’t know the plan would work. What if Wah’bro had its own Waysegger? And though she could run far and eat little and survive hidden in barns, Cale couldn’t run worth squat and fussed too much. Mama and her sisters would starve. The town would suffer.
Like a squirrel caught in an osprey’s shadow, her thoughts leapt round and round. On the road from Windlass Point, they passed under moss-draped elms, prickly palms, and sprawling oaks. Dust from the road coated her throat, while Cale trudged along, eerily quiet, falling farther and farther behind.
The day was getting hot.
Crickets murmured in the brush as the sun crept high above the rustling canopy. She didn’t cry, but kicked the short grass between the wheel ruts while Cale jogged to catch up. A deerfly buzzed her ear.
“Come on…Look…you’ve got to pay attention to the world, Cale. It’s your job now. See? I’m giving you a job. Take them trees. You know how when it rains and puddles, and after a while, the puddles are gone? It’s the trees sucking up all that water. It’s like…it’s like they’re trying to give it back, but don’t know how, can’t reach high enough. And when they grow big and tall, they’re just raining upward, except real slow. You gotta pay attention to the world, Cale, and see the truth in things, even when the truth is long and thin.”
Having caught up, Cale pulled his thumb from his mouth, and put his hand in hers. For a long time, they walked together hand in hand.
They were already thirsty when Farmer Rosta approached; back from town, his swayback mare pulled a flatbed full of supplies. Tempie’d hauled water for Rosta during last year’s drought and now eyed the sloshing yellowed jugs in his flatbed. The heavy cart creaked to a stop. Rosta studied both her and Cale sharply, but instead of offering a sip from a jug, he handed them a small glass bottle.
Sheathed in leather with a strap to hang around the neck, the bottle was filled with water clear as crystal and stoppered with cork. Tempie carefully took a sip and helped Cale to a sip, who was already red in the face. The bottle only held a few sips, so she passed it back to old man Rosta, but he mimed for her to drape it around her neck. Then, as if he’d been expecting them, he rummaged in his shoulder-pack and handed each a hard roll. Thus done, he tipped his frayed hat and tugged at the mare’s lead, which set the wheels of the flatbed to turning.
“Stick close when we get to town,” Tempie said, nervous, and they ate their rolls.
The roadside thickets started to clear as they hit the outskirts of town, where they passed three crumbling walls overrun with kudzu; an old ruin called the Mushroom Fac’try, people said it used to have its own special road for steel-wheeled carriages, before folks tore it up. There was an old chipped painting of one inside the alehouse—she’d snuck in once to see it—but nobody she knew had ever seen such a beast in real life. They belonged to the days of old, hundreds of years gone, and people turned awful hush when talk of the olden days cropped up.
“Look, there’s the castle, Cale, waitin’ for the ghost train. Not the Goodly Ghost, lonesome ghosts…Means we’re about there…But I was thinking…“ The road to Wah’bro connected midway down Main Street, and the words just spilled off her tongue: “There’s another way we could take, other than the Witch Road. You probably don’t know about Wah’bro, but it’s just a town. So, which you want?”
The boy reclaimed his thumb and blinked at her.
“It’s me and you, Cale. We didn’t make the pledge. But, Old Waysegger, maybe she ain’t be so bad. Wise, they say. Powerful. Everyone respects a witch, Cale, it’s just most don’t want to live with one. Saw her up close, once. Sure was ugly…Now, don’t be scared, it don’t mean nothing…Got kind of a puffy face.” Tempie pressed her own thin cheeks to show what she meant. “And this dried-up gray hair, and sweats funny, too, if you look close. You have to look real close sometimes, Cale. Don’t forget. And she smells like pickles. How a body gets to smelling like pickles, I do not know.”
Cale took Tempie’s hand again and soon they crossed a ring of tall, pastel-splashed houses as they entered the first shady streets of town.
People stopped and stared as they passed, for unlike her usual, she was without a shoulder pole and escorted by a small boy—but soon several hurried to their carts, rummaging the way Rosta had done. Then they came: from shops and homes, carrying rolls, pastries, and sweets, bursts of flavor that tickled the brain—she’d never tasted anything so fine. Most brought fancy small water bottles on leather straps, corked like Rosta’s—except for two sheathed in silver. And the townsfolk kept on coming, hanging more and more bottles on her neck till they became right burdensome, and they had to start piling a few on Cale. By the time she and Cale had made it across town center, she was turning people down, and their faces went dark with concern.
In the ruckus, the townsfolk had ushered them far past the road to Wah’bro, without the slightest chance of doubling back unseen.
There it was. A large structure had long ago disintegrated, leaving among the scattered blocks of rubble, sour grass, and scrub trees, a single massive arch where the deep, sandy soil of the Witch Road extended pale and narrow between its posts. All that indicated where their solitary journey was to begin was that one isolated arch, a barrier that didn’t have any kind of substance to keep a person in or out—a useless sort of gatekeeping, to Tempie’s mind.
Still, nobody followed them under the arch, and too quickly, they passed out of its shade.
No branches overhung the Witch Road. It baked in utter brilliance under a cloudless sky.
Cale looked tired, but his little feet chugged along. Tempie was tired, too. She wished they’d rested awhile before entering town and all the fuss, maybe under some leafy magnolia, anything with shade, even an airy bush would have done the job. But as hungry and thirsty as they’d been, once in town, it was too late. And it was definitely too late now, for there was no breeze on the Witch Road, nor shade at all, only wide-open exposure under a vivid blue.
The crickets didn’t care, chirruping their low hymns in the scrub brush.
It was late afternoon. Hours had passed of hot sand sifting into their sandals, sizzling their toes, until she noticed Cale had stopped, and found him fiddling with one of the bottles at his neck.
“Hold up, now, Cale. We can’t go drinking it all too fast.”
Dumbly, his red-hot face squinted up at her; he popped the bottle open and drank its contents.
She was getting right sick of her own voice. A deerfly buzzed menacingly. Lord, if it bites him, I’ll hear peals, for sure.
“Shoo, bug! Go!”
Her brother uncorked another bottle and tilted it back for the precious liquid. Sweat beaded his forehead. Her own head ached something fierce, so she drank a couple of the bottles, too.
For hours, they walked. Far in the distance, the nearest trees looked hazy like the dim mural of the train. Mid-afternoon was the hottest part of the day—every child knew that when the sun hit that particular mark, it was time to get inside quick and find a cool floor: a bare back on cold dirt felt heavenly.
A thought kept gnawing at her: Where did all the offerings go? That’s what she wanted to know. Nobody ever accompanied the Waysegger back to town; the witch came alone, always, except after an offering, but it was only her pony who travelled with her, drawing the rickety cart filled with goods.
She hoped the pretty bottles held enough. Cale cracked open another.
“Just that one, Cale. Okay?”
“O-kay,” he said, and drained it.
“Wish someone had thought to give us hats. Two hats.” Her feet slid in the soft sand. “Wait…I’ve got an idea. Let’s tear up some of that tall grass.”
With his dirty feet splayed and his stomach poked out, Cale blinked at his sister.
“Fine. I’ll do it. You rest.”
She snatched up grass from the side of the road and when she had a fistful tried fanning Cale with it to test her plan, which didn’t seem too effective, but then she tried spreading out the fronds so that they might at least work as a hat. Like with the donkey, she looped them for better shape and stiffness.
“Hold it over your head. Like this.”
Cale did as he was told, but his arms were too short and his head too big, and it simply wasn’t going to work. Tempie tried to think what she could do. Cale’s face was too red.
“Drink another of your bottles, Cale. Go on. Forget what I said. No, that’s all right…I’ll wait a bit for mine.”
The boy chugged the water without wasting a drop, squeezing his eyes tight as if his whole existence had distilled into this one act, the most exquisite pleasure he’d ever known. Disgusting to watch.
“Let’s put your shirt over your head, but put it back on when the sun dips.”
They walked on.
They couldn’t hear the ocean but passed low-lying mud where saltwater had pooled close to the road. White trees, dead, wavered in the distance across a field of brown chord grass. The ocean had drowned them, and she was reminded of tales Papa’d told of miles and miles of slender sun-bleached branches thrusting out of the sea to pierce the hulls of unwary fishermen, ghostly white boughs creaking in the water’s green. But on land crabgrass grew just about everywhere, and here it clawed thick along the sand, so it seemed a lucky thing the road wasn’t shrinking away at the sides like the trunks and boughs of all those withered trees…
Night dribbled in, a watery purple haze, and as soon as it was too dark to see, they lay down in warm, milky sand and coiled their arms around their heads to keep critters off. Orphaned noises sounded in the wild. Tempie wrapped herself around her brother as best she could, hoping nothing was padding its way through the gloom to claw at her unwatched back.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered in his ear, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The morning was misty and still as they drank two bottles each to calm their empty stomachs. But once the sun had climbed high enough, the crickets commenced screaming all over again, one batch raising the chorus just as the other fell off. Tempie’s knees ached worse than ever. Her head pounded. Step by aching step, nothing but sand, and grass, and the roar of crickets, which by some miracle stayed invisible under the unrelenting glare of the sun. Cale moved slower at midday, and by afternoon, looked about ready to wail.
They’d travelled far down the Witch Road and now had only three full bottles left. Low in the horizon’s shimmer, there appeared a faint billowy tree. Tempie didn’t feel a breeze, but there ahead was the promise of relief, and this small gift made her happy. A saltmarsh was shaped like a bowl, so maybe a gap in the forest was funneling in fresh air. But she feared this was just another mirage and blinked and blinked until her eyes grew sore—yet still, she saw a billowy tree, ahead to the left, gently swaying.
There wasn’t just the one tree, either, but two, one bunched behind the other, both alone yet somehow together in the mealy wasteland.
Cale began to whimper. They stopped and drank while Tempie eyed the two trees and their greenly mellifluent limbs.
Bottles clinked. Empty bottles clinked louder than full ones.
But this, this was worse than scrap-land—what crops could grow here? What sort of person lived in the middle of a marsh under a blazing-hot sun?
A witch, that’s who.
But a witch was powerful, wasn’t she? Then, what were two small children going to be able to do for a witch that a witch couldn’t do for herself—or for that matter, that any of the other offerings couldn’t do? Offerings were supposed to learn from the Waysegger, to become like her. People said. Where were they?
What did Mama do?
“Hey! See them two trees ahead?” Tempie said abruptly, heart racing.
Cale didn’t answer.
The empty bottles were a burden, but valuable, and Tempie was afraid to leave them behind. Nevertheless, she found herself scanning the gnarly crabgrass for broken bottles like theirs, choked with mud, or a dainty silver sheath, half-crushed. Sun-bleached bone.
Time passed, thick and slow.
“Cale? Do you see them trees?” she said again, after a while.
“Uh huh,” Cale replied, which startled her. He took out his thumb and gestured ahead: “Uh tree.”
“No, two trees. Two.”
Cale looked again, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and glanced up at his sister, waiting. His face sagged funny.
“See how close they are? That’s what you call entwined. Like a…like a mama and her baby. Or, more like a prince and his princess, happy together. Entwined. Like the pieces of your donkey.
“And you see…there was a prince and a princess, once, and this prince and princess, they weren’t royalty like folks in the heartfire-tales Papa tells…uh, told. No, they were poor folk, Fringe-folk, like us. A boy and a girl. And the village’s mayor, he sent them on a great mission to save the village from Raiders, because in their village, little girls and boys always had worth. Both could fight…In fact, they could swap chores if they didn’t like their chores and wanted to swap…
“So, these two went on a mission, and the Witch that guarded the village—What? Ours? No, no, some other witch. Maybe the Waysegger’s great-great-grandmother. This was a long time ago, Cale. Anyway, the Witch, she swooped up through the mosses and out of the starry blackness, to where the prince and princess hid under a bush, because the Raider Chief had taken the whole village now and the Raiders were going to cook ‘em up on huge spits, and eat their juicy hands and juicy feet…“
Cale whimpered, stopped walking. Tempie turned to him.
“And the Witch said, ‘Come with me, and I’ll save you from your peril. Your village is lost. Everyone will die. But I’ll make you into trees down a long and lonesome road. You’ll grow tall and strong and chock-full of majesty…And nobody will chop you up and make you burn, and you’ll be together like this—like that, Cale—for as long as you live, which will be the terribly long life of a tree. You’ll be safe from others in a wide field of grass and thickets. You’ll have delicious rainwater and salty breezes. But the saltwater won’t ever reach you on my road and turn you white, because it’s my road, the Witch Road, and I protect all who travel it.’” Tempie waved her arms grandiosely.
“Thi’ road?” squeaked Cale around his thumb.
“This very road, and there they are. Proof! The prince and princess, locked in wood, where they live on forever as a story told by children. Only children know this story, Cale. Only children know how the Witch protects these trees from harm, to mark the way to her happy huts, where there’s food and fresh water and she-goats for little boys to play with. While their sisters work hard all day. I’ll work hard, all day, for you, Cale. Just for you.”
Her eyes stung, squinting in the bright sun.
“And I’m not making any offerings, either. Except for my black beads here.”
Cale reinserted his thumb.
The road wound to the right as the trees came closer. Wow, they must be really tall, Tempie thought, but lacked anything for scale.
Her thoughts drifted.
“Ever notice how if you take ‘hog’ and ‘dog,’ you only get a different sound at the beginning?” Her knees ached so bad, she thought she might collapse. “It’s…like a leaf boat on the big puddle back home. You say ‘hog’ and it’s like blowing at it, and saying ‘dog’ is sort of like pushing, only with your tongue…And you know what? I could make any old mark on a slab of driftwood, just to say, just to say I mean ‘og’ or…or…Oh, I dunno…Why’d anyone mean ‘og’?”
Farther down the road, they moved, closer and closer to the trees. Her knees ached so bad, she thought she might collapse. And her heart ached; it ached to see those lush branches weaving into one another. It was a story she’d told Cale to make him feel safe, but it had made her feel safe—and that was how things needed to be. Particularly now that the water was gone.
But the angle was off. The nearer they got, the more obvious it was that she’d been wrong about her trees sitting by the road; they were far from it; and after a while, Cale began whimpering again, pointing ahead. Tempie saw it, too. A warbling figure in the late afternoon haze. Though a fair distance from the trees, it seemed to be getting closer. Her spirits lifted, and she grabbed Cale’s hand.
“If that’s someone up there, we’re apt to meet by the trees.” Then to herself, she whispered: “Do the trees ever get lonely?”
It did look like somebody coming, or maybe two somebodies coming down the road, dribbling in the heat mirages: one short and one tall. But her head pounded with a vicious thirst. With each step, the phantom-people lost cohesion, and so did her hopes.
But no! No! The trees! Once closer, her perspective shifted again: the trees, they’d pulled apart. And they didn’t sway at all, but stood stock still; the fresh breeze had been an illusion, and the air was as putrid and sweltering as ever. She let go of Cale’s hand.
A fly buzzed.
When they reached a point in the bend parallel to the trees, Tempie stopped and slumped, mind choked from heat and thirst. It was obvious that an enormous gulf stood between the trees’ closest branches. Not entwined at all, prince and princess, mother and child, nobody embraced anybody; they remained forever yearning across an empty field as fat and dry as her swollen tongue. She’d believed in her story, needed to, and now, with its diminishment came her own: “Liars! You liars!”
Dammed-up grief overflowed, and oblivious to everything, Tempie sobbed as never before, for her family, her home, her life. All phantoms, all gone. A gulf of space and time, as impassable as what lay between those unmoving trees, severed her from everything she’d ever known. Cheeks smeared with bitterness, there were to be no more pleasures of mundane wonderment. Every choice held the direst consequences; every comfort summoned treachery; and here she was, just a girl, and a fool, not the savior of her fantasies, not smart enough to have seen the truth in time…
That she’d been leading them to their deaths.
When the Ghost’s got no more giving to give…give unto the Waysegger!
“No, no, no, you’re not goodly at all! You’re a stingy one, you Ghost! Mama! Mama! She failed us, Cale! She failed us! I swear, if God is, and God is good, then God is good for God. That’s it. Wasn’t ever about us…I just wanted to be good for us.”
Transfixed by the dull listlessness of the trees, dead to her now, Tempie hadn’t noticed Cale thrusting his donkey at something ahead in the road. Brain baked, she didn’t want to know things anymore—she was about to vomit.
But she turned to see what upset him.
There was a girl in the road, clearly now, knobby knees locked, black-haired and back-lit, which seemed strange. There was something bulky on her chest, shiny, and she too shaded her eyes while glaring suspiciously at Tempie and Cale. The girl was thin and didn’t say hello, but the dirty little boy next to her tipped his head. An object flopped in his hand…
Tempie dropped her hands from her eyes.
The girl did the same.
Thoughts were looping fast—she glanced to the left again, at the moveless trees. But not trees, there was only one tree—the sea of dry chord grass that surrounded them had been so similar-looking, created so much sameness, that even now it was impossible to make out the mirror’s breadth, only that it was larger than anything Tempie could ever have imagined.
It emitted a peculiar tinny hum.
Bang. They jumped, and their bottles clinked.
The mirror cracked, and Tempie grabbed Cale’s hand, ready to bolt. It split down the center, dividing the air and their reflections in a perfectly straight line—a rift. The hum shifted pitch, and within the spreading gap, there appeared a recessed set of steps that led up.
Above the top step, more blue sky, but not the same sky as what lay behind them, what they’d followed for days. This was the world beyond the veil!
A person stepped into the aperture: a body filled it but the head was unseen. And then, the person pivoted as if to signal to someone who stood off to the side. Another step down, and the head emerged, crowned with a dark mass of reddish-brown hair. Not a man, but a woman, she wore a long coat over a sleek jumpsuit, both immaculately white, and when she reached the lowest step and her face dropped fully into daylight, it glowed with the healthiest sheen Tempie’d ever laid eyes on.
The woman beckoned them to come.
Even if they’d wanted to run, there was nowhere to go. Cale returned Tempie’s tight grasp.
Decision made, Tempie wiped her splotchy face and marched them straight across the final stretch of hot, gritty sand to the waiting Waysegger—for standing before them was the Witch for sure, only not so old without the puffiness and the grayness and with all the waxy sweat washed away.
You’ve got to pay attention to the world, Tempie thought, heart fluttering with anticipation. You have to see the truth in things.
One step up, and she led her little brother out of that dusty realm into a shiny new one.