Short Stories

The Water Witch

My great-grandfather was, in fact, a water witch (the description of which can be found in the below story/excerpt.) This is an excerpt of a longer piece that I have been working on and letting boil away on a back burner while I try to fix plot holes and flat character and bad dialogue and grammatical errors and all that fun stuff. This is my first re-draft of any part of it, now that I have an idea of where I want the longer story to go.

Magic and madness run side by side in my family, the way red hair and freckles do in others. Now, not magic of the fantastical sort, not of unicorns and centaurs and beasts, but of the more primordial and mundane sort.

Papa was a water witch. I don’t know how he found out he was a witch or if he just knew, but he had a forked hazel stick he used to find where the water ran underground. The phone used to ring for Papa to come and find where a neighbor should dig a well. That was normal then. Nobody thought much of it. If you needed a well dug, you called Ronnie to find it.

I used to go with him a lot, after Mama ran off and Daddy was working too much to look after me and my sister. We stayed with Gramma and Papa. My sister, she was suspicious of magic. She didn’t much believe. Papa had this stick, a piece of hazel. I have it now in my closet. I stole it from Gramma during the funeral. I thought she’d burn it or break it or forget about it. She didn’t hold much stock in the magic, either, but after Papa died she found her share of the madness.

There was some mystery surrounding Papa’s death. Not the way he died. He was old. He was luckier than many of his peers- he survived the war to toil through a lumber mill job then toil through the farm and raising a family of girls. He remained surprisingly hale, healthy and sound of mind. He liked to wander through the fields and woods with binoculars, watch the birds and animals. He could sit for hours on a split rail fence that he had built himself in a clearing he had cut from the woods. The birds lit upon him, curiously chirping,pulling at his sleeved with their beaks in concern and scolding him angrily for worrying them when he did move.
He was out one one of his customary wanders when, as far as old doctor Marsden could see, he dropped like a stone of a heart attack. He died on the ground where the bluebells and violets grew in the early spring. Right where the wood met the hay field, where the sun fell shaded and cool and bright. That seemed straight forward enough but what was strange was that the tiger lilies and violets had started to grow right through his ribcage, twining around his arms with their faded teal wartime tattoos. Gramma tried to pull him up, that felt the resistance of the roots holding him fast to the ground, straining and finally pulling free. She swept away the clumps of soil falling from the roots as the men carried him into the parlor.

I thought we should have left him there, where the earth was beginning the job of burying him, but Gramma said that seemed too witchy and being witchy was starting to be frowned upon and that’s the only time I ever even heard her acknowledge it. So he got buried under the earth in a big cherry wood casket with shiny brass trim and handles. I was fourteen and old enough to know better but it still made me sad that he’d be so cold down there.

Here’s how he’d find the water- he’d walk casual like over the land in question, the ‘v’ part of the stick held firmly but gently in his hands, the straight stem held out in front. He didn’t seem real worried about it; Papa was just out for a stroll in the woods with some old friends. People liked to watch, I think to see if they could figure out the secret. He held his cigarette without using hands, smoking it out of one corner of his mouth and talking to the neighbors through the other. When the witching stick found water it would bob insistently toward the ground.

He never seemed surprised to find water. He knew he would. The first time he found a skeleton, however, he was surprised. It wasn’t immediately obvious. The stick dipped and dragged his hands down, stronger than usual. I was walking with Jimmy Craemer and his wife, who had called Papa to find the water. Jimmy was our new pastor and he didn’t much like to call in a witch but the land spoke for itself- there were six starts to wells on the fifteen acre plot. That we SAW- there could have been more! Pastor Craemer wasn’t from the country. He came from a bigger town south of us and had a lot of contempt for the country folk who made up his congregation.
Well Papa marked the spot with a stick and some bright flagger tape and shook Pastor Jimmy’s hand and we went home and pretty much forgot about the whole thing until they started digging the well. Four feet down they pulled up a few bones- maybe animal, the boys thought, so they kept on going until they found a skull. The phone rang, one, two, three times before Gramma got to it, wiping the flour off her hands. Her mouth rounded out into a little ‘o’ and she held the receiver away from her tiny, seashell ear. From the other side of the room, I could hear Pastor Jimmy screaming.

“I’m sure there’s been some misunderstanding, Pastor.”

More screaming.

Gently and slowly she settled the receiver back into the cradle. She turned around, composed.

“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” she said, her sweet face wicked.

I barely had my tennis shoes on as I ran out the door to find Papa, wherever he was in the fields and the bush.

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