- Learn of Her
Your father’s mother tells you the story of the being who lives in the bottom of the river. “It’s a river witch,” Grandmother says, “one who guards and protects the place she calls her own. The witch will give you a gift if you are good to her, and her land. She gave me a child when I could not conceive. She will gift you one too. Our roots run deep; do not let them end with you.”
There is nobody else to continue your line – you are a family of two.
You are alone.
- Find Her
Weigh the pros and cons of wearing formal attire instead of clothes suited for hiking. You want to look good, make an impression. Settle on a ridiculous mixture of both – a crisp suit with the pantlegs stuffed into durable boots, a wide brimmed sun hat and a full face of makeup. It’s silly, and you know it, but you can’t shake the voice of your grandmother in your head, telling you to dress your best.
Drive into the mountains. The trek into the canyon, where the river and her witch live, takes almost three hours. The sun is high in the sky. Dust kicks up and gets all over your black slacks. Question why you wore makeup as you feel it sweating off.
Finally, blessedly, reach the bottom.
It’s cool in the canyon. The wind whistles through the mountains rising on either side of you. Abandon the last shred of your dignity as you scramble over boulders slick with river spray and moss. Half walk, half climb the path of rocks large and small for another mile until you find the base of the waterfall.
- Ask for Her Help
Stand on the rock nearest the falls. Clear your throat and wish yourself luck. Call out to the river witch.
“What do you want?” The river witch floats in the water, her head barely level with your feet. Her cattail hair floats atop the murky water, her large muddy green eyes the only visible part of her.
“I want to help you, and your land.”
She laughs, and the sound is raindrops hitting the dry earth. “Nobody wants to help me or my land. They want what I can give them.”
“You are right, river witch. I apologize. But I must continue my line; I need a child. I will do what I can to help in return. “
The river witch stares. She doesn’t blink.
“Come here every day for the next year. You will clean my river and its banks. You will bring me fruits from the cacti and catch fish for me. Help me, and help my land, and I will repay you.”
Hold out your hand to shake on it. Scream when she tugs on your arm and pulls you in. Try to hold down your frustration when you come up for air and see her giggling.
- Do What She Asks
Get in your car and drive drive drive. Go down down down the mountain. Fill bags with trash left behind by other people. Hot Cheetos, tubes of chapstick, a seemingly infinite amount of plastic water bottles. Do the banks first, combing the rocks and patches of sand meticulously. Jump in the river when it gets too hot and dive for shiny silver wrappers and stray flip flops. Finish with gathering fruit from the barrel cacti and storing the harvest in woven baskets.
The river witch watches. She doesn’t talk the first day, or the second, but on the third day she asks for your name. You tell her, and she nods, considering.
She asks why you want a child.
You tell her what you told her before. “I must continue my line. I need a child. I promised my grandmother.”
The river witch shakes her head and sinks beneath the surface.
Keep coming to the canyon. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Clean it and clean it and clean it. Fall in love with the muddy water of the river, the ocotillo and creosote that grow beside it, the tiny fish and the birds that hunt them. Learn their names from the river witch.
She is a patient teacher. Be a good student.
Become angry when you find new evidence of destruction. Scowl at trash on river banks that you have cleaned ten, a hundred, a thousand times. Hate initials more than you thought possible. Couples use paint, markers, rocks to gouge their finite existence into nature, as if carving their names into the river witch’s home will keep them together, make them special. Find a heart containing a pair of initials carved into the trunk of an ancient saguaro and swear aloud.
“Don’t worry,” the river witch says. “I cursed them. They won’t be doing any more of that.”
She floats beside you, serene. Smile at her. Ask her what exactly she did to them.
The river witch winks and says nothing.
It’s been a long time since you’ve had a friend.
Tell the river witch about your grandmother, and the impossible rules she set for you. Talk to her about the death of your parents, and your mother’s parents, years ago. She tells you in return about the death of her ancestors, which are far more dramatic than yours. Death by drought, lightning, fire.
The desert is not an easy place to survive.
The river witch has been alone for a long time.
The winds pick up and the temperature drops, though not by much. Layer a flannel over your tank top and continue as usual. There are new plants and animals to learn of as the seasons change. Study harder than you did before. Impress the river witch with your new knowledge; feel warmth spread through your chest when she smiles at you.
The river witch is curious about the world beyond her river. Tell her what you can, which isn’t much. There is desert and there is desert and there is desert, and there is no other land that you know. She seems satisfied with this.
Help her use small boulders and mud and plant fibre to reinforce her dwelling under the waterfall. The rains come quickly, and a flash flood washes away some of her supplies. Spend the next few weeks collecting herbs and flowers, replacing the ingredients for her workings. Learn how to dry and powder the plants, watch her cast charms of protection over her land.
Be awed by her power, and her love for this place.
When the weather finally gets truly cold, wear a jacket or three and bring homemade chicken noodle soup in a huge thermos. Share it with the river witch. Tell her how the recipe has been passed down in your family for three generations, how you perfected the dish under the watchful eye of your grandmother. Watch the steam curl in the air over the not quite frozen water.
“It’s delicious.” The river witch slurps up the last of the soup and turns to look at you. She grins, revealing rows of wickedly sharp teeth. “Maybe you can teach me to make it, some day.”
The sun sets, casting the canyon in pinks and purples and oranges. The river witch gleams gold in the sun stained water. It’s time for you to go home.
You’re not sure you want to.
- Reap Your Reward
Drive into the mountains. Hike into the canyon. Spring comes again, and the wildflowers bloom. Spend the day picking up trash and foraging for the river witch. This day, she does not join you. Ignore how lonely you feel without her at your side.
When the sun begins to dip below the horizon, set out a spread of prickly pear and mead and fish on the rock in front of the waterfall. Change into the white dress you brought. You want to look good, to make an impression. Call out to the river witch.
The river witch appears in the water beside you. She stares at you, her face stone. “You have done what I asked of you. It is time for you to take what you were promised and go. Tell me what it is you want, and you shall have it.”
Open your mouth to ask for a child.
Feel your resolve crumble.
Tell the river witch the truth.
“I want to be here, with you, in your land. I want to teach you how to make soup. I want to make a home with you.”
Watch her eyes widen in surprise. See a smile spread over her face. Take her hand when she holds it out to you.
This time, when she pulls you in, don’t scream.
M. J. Copic is a writer of fantasy and horror who lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband and their cat. This is her first publication.