by Elizabeth Creith
Hazel held a forked willow stick out in front of her by the ends. Ten-year-old Molly trailed her aunt across the field, their steps swishing in yellowing knee-high grass. The stick quivered, then twisted like a cat, reaching for the ground.
"This is for show, mind," Hazel said. "Folk like to see something happening, something to tell them you've done it. But you don't need the stick, understand?"
Molly nodded, looking up into Aunt Hazel's face. Wisps of fair hair escaped from Hazel's braid and caught the light of the full harvest moon in the darkening sky. If Molly stood in just the right place, she could make the moon into a halo around her aunt's head.
The moonlight was dazzling-bright, bright enough to cast shadows. When Molly shaded her eyes, she could see her aunt smiling, her one crooked front tooth and the sweet, clear blue eyes. Molly's mama had those eyes, too, but Molly's eyes and hair were brown, like her father's.
"What really happens," Hazel said, "happens inside you. You got to feel the earth. She's got warm places and wet places, soft and hard places. You can feel the water in her, feel it in yourself. Your feet feel damp and cool, even in your shoes, and then you know you've got the right place. The wetter your feet feel, the closer the water."
Molly nodded again. Hazel led her away a few paces in the field.
"Close your eyes," she said, and spun the child around. She steadied Molly with a hand on her shoulder. "Take hold. Lightly, now. That's right." She set the ends of the stick in Molly's hands. "Now open your eyes, but don't look too hard at anything. Just walk forward and feel the earth."
But wherever she walked, however hard she tried, nothing happened. If Aunt Hazel took the stick, it bent almost to breaking to reach the ground, but in Molly's hands it was dead as her mama's broom.
"Never mind." Aunt Hazel kissed Molly's cheek and smoothed her sleek brown hair. "We'll try again another day. There's always a water witch in this family."
But they never tried again. Two days later Aunt Hazel cut herself canning. The wound sickened and the poison spread up her arm in red streaks. Nothing helped her. She died at the dark of the moon when life goes out of things and death comes easy. They buried her in the family graveyard, on the rise at the back of the farm, where her grandparents and parents lay, and her brother who died a baby.
Molly took the forked willow, drying though it was, and walked in the field every day, trying to find the spot where Hazel had held the fresh-cut willow while it arched and twisted towards water. She knew it was foolish. A real water-witch didn't need a stick, and no stick would help if you weren't one.
When the full moon rose again, Molly climbed up to the graveyard in the evening. The air was blue and chill with fall. Leaves made a bright rustling carpet for the little graveyard. Molly laid the stick down on Aunt Hazel's grave.
"I couldn't do it," she said, "I tried and tried. I'm sorry, Aunt Hazel! I'm sorry we don't have a water witch in the family now." She cried as hard for her failure as she had for her aunt's death.
When her tears were gone, she turned and started down the hill. The moon floated before her, and she wondered where she would have to stand to make it into a halo for herself.
When she was halfway back to the house, with most of a field to go, the wind came up, a little breeze that brushed over her cheek and crept through her hair to the back of her neck. She shivered and began to hurry back to the warmth of the house.
Then, just for a moment, the breeze was a warm breath.
"Aunt Hazel?" Molly said. Foolishly, she felt as though her aunt was standing behind her, smiling down at her. She paused, longing to turn, afraid it wouldn't be true.
Then she felt the smallest touch of cold on her left foot, through the woollen sock. The cold spread rapidly across her sole, over her toes.
Bending, she quickly undid the laces of her shoe and pulled it off.
Her sock sagged away from her foot, dripping cold, clear water.