by Tim Roberts
Most folks from the city understand that, this far south of the river, the facts count for nothing. You can stand in the queue at the old post office and the whispers will have you believe my daddy was murdered by witches. And, if you stick around town long enough, you’ll probably catch a different rumor trading around: that my grieving mama walked barefoot to the water’s edge, lay her clothes neatly on the hood of Ray Bailey’s rusting truck, and let herself be taken to down to the riverbed by the sprites. Pay no heed to them loose-mouthed women. You see, I know for sure that no witch killed my daddy, because, the day after he died, I walked right into the woods and asked them for myself.
I came across the three of them licking at the fungus growing between the roots of a dying oak tree. I was wise enough to bring my daddy’s shotgun from his work shed, and I aimed the heavy barrel at them as square as my skinny little arms would allow. You can never be too careful with the hags. My grandma once warned me that, just before winter, they are always at their hungriest. I have no doubt they knew my fear, because a yellow mist filled their eyes and they dragged themselves as close to me as they dare. They reached out to grab at me with those fingers of theirs all covered in tumors and open blisters.
When they spoke, they did so together; their voices rasping inside my head. All the while, their lips remained sealed, bound by the dirty wire that is used to lock their mouths at birth. They told me that they weren’t surprised to see me, nor did they deny any knowledge of my poor daddy’s fate. They said it wasn’t right for a child of my age to see her own daddy drop to his knees at the bottom of the garden, clutching at his chest like he was about to declare his undying love to someone. They also told me that there is nothing strange in an innocent child thinking her daddy was playing the fool, or that she should run to him, expecting him to jump up at any moment and chase her around the garden.
The witches had seen my daddy pass through the woods on the day he died; he’d been hunting rabbits for a stew, but there are so few to be had these days. His last breath had drifted from where his body lay, at the bottom of our garden, and made its way back into the woods. That very same breath had snaked its way through the trees and, as it passed them, had stung their blistered tongues with its betrayal. I sat with them for as long as I dared and then, before that last pitted spears of light had vanished from the woods, I returned home. As I walked between the trees, I heard their poisonous voices singing the truths they had tasted on the stale air.
The coroner said it was as though an invisible hand had grabbed my daddy’s heart and squeezed it until it popped in his chest. The village priest said that no one was to go into the woods hunting anymore. My mama cried for three days and nights and only stopped when a tall man in the smartest suit I’ve ever seen came to visit her from the city.
But the witches knew the facts. There’s not a truth that they don’t see behind those diseased eyelids. They told me about the poison and the money, both of which I found under Mama’s bed. And, being honorable, as witches are, they offered me justice. In return, all I had to do was to feed with them.
That weekend, I told my mama I was hungry; that we should go hunting rabbits. She grabbed Daddy’s old shotgun and I took her hand and led her through the ancient trees. I told her what Daddy had taught me: that you should never regret things that can’t be changed; what’s done is done. So, I did what I had to do: I left my regrets out in the woods and came back home, alone, and carrying a fat rabbit, skinned and ready for the stew.