The River Witch
They had told me about my mother. They had made me repent on her behalf on the callous grey stone of the Church floor. They called me the witch’s daughter in low whispers around the town. They eyed me with suspicion. But I remembered her as softness and long hair that she weaved into a dark braid that hung over her shoulder. I remember her smelling like the trees outside. She was gentle with me and ferocious with anyone she perceived as a threat.
After they had drowned her I tried to make myself as small as my hands when they were clasped in prayer. I would pretend so hard that the words from their book meant everything to me. I would refuse to speak unless in prayer. They called me mute. But inside I was singing my history, it poured from my soul like the water from the river. No matter how much they tried to break me down into dust, I fought it. I became statuesque, holding my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother inside me for safety.
Before my sixteenth birthday I began to dream of my mother. She arrived only in colours at first. The deep green of moss and the startling blue of the sky above. Then she began to send memories into my head. She reminded me of when she taught me by the river bank. She showed me plants and herbs I could use for food or medicine. She told me about her mother who had taught her and her grandmother who had taught her mother.
Our stories seemed to fold into each other endlessly like the currents of water that had swallowed my mother whole. She used to speak to fish quietly as she caught them. Always thanking the water and blessing their wee lives before we ate them over a fire. “Ne’er take mair than ye kin put back.” She’d say.
It wasn’t until I was all grown that I realised she was teaching me about the balance of things. Every night she called me to the river bank and I would wake up with the sun already in the sky.
I would walk along the bank and look for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. I remembered when I was little; I had noticed the stares of townsfolk even then. The tut of tongues a chorus disapproving of my existence.
My mother never tucked her head or looked at her feet in apology. That’s why they hated her. We belonged to no one. We would stride through the town, our hands clasped powerfully. I felt safe despite the whispers that followed us like rats.
When they took her I held onto her so hard that one of the men had to break my fingers so I would release my grip. I was told they had found me by the river bank days later, dirty and speechless.
The town decided that the minister and his wife should take me in, to correct me, to undo what my mother had taught me. I hid my tears like forbidden stories.
One night I lay awake and I heard my mother’s voice even though I had not reached sleep. The moon was held in the sky, well fed and bright. I was drawn to leave the minister’s house, quiet on my feet like a cat. I felt brave as the cold night winds swept me towards the forest. My feet knew where to take me. I became a part of the night. Roots from trees moved from my feet so as not to trip me up. The dark things that exist only there left me alone.
As I emerged from the woods, the moon had lit up the river. I sank to my knees in the thick reeds beside the water. And there I saw her. My mother.
I touched my hand to hers afraid the water may break her image and she would be gone. I felt all of the words that she had spoken to me before she had gone, swim in my head. like gentle whales. I lay down on the river bank, beside her. We were together again. I talked to her about all of the things I was afraid of.
Of losing the parts of her and my grandmother and my great grandmother that ran around inside of me. Afraid that the grey cold of the church would remove them by force. I told her about my dreams. Then when the moon began to disappear, I touched my hand to hers once more.
She turned into a luminous shoal of fish that glittered beneath the water before disappearing as the first of the sun appeared.
I was left there alone.
The water holding my reflection like a gift. ■
Illustration: Elise Boath