An old woman sat along the banks of the river in the high cane. Her dog, Breaker, lay beside her, his belly caked with the nutrient-green mud. The moon was full and the woman stared at its fat reflection on the water. A gang of wild pigs sauntered to the banks for a nighttime drink. Breaker tensed, and the old woman laid her hand on him gently. He was old, and would never withstand a fight.
Many creatures came and went from the river, but they never saw the old woman unless she wanted them to. She could materialize her desire into stone, dirt and bone through a catastrophic alignment of will and inertia. The old woman was a sorceress, and understood invisibility.
She heard the hum of a motor and the screeching of belts. Headlights rocked up and down in the deep ruts above them and stopped just downstream of the pair. The pigs scampered at the vehicle’s approach, and when the engine shut off, a young woman stepped out.
The witch knew the girl. She often stood on the river banks and stared out at the muscular peaks on the horizon. The girl was sad and intense, with dairy cream skin and grain-colored hair. Her eyes were the calm green wash of a lazy river. But her beautiful face was violently cleft, as if some jealous surgeon had destroyed it under the knife.
There was something constrained and electric about this one. She gave the old witch the feeling that she might explode out of her skin at any moment. The old woman — being wise — understood that the girl felt too much and too deeply, and could not make sense of the weather pattern that tore her apart.
Tonight, she had a young man with her. He was rangy, with a cruel face inflamed by acne. The old woman recognized this one as well. He liked to stand in the mud and clip sparrows with sharp rocks.
The cruel boy pointed up at the moon with his long simian finger.
He said, “That don’t shine its own light, Katie. It ain’t nothing but a reflection,” and spat.
As if this knowledge was seduction enough, he began to undress and the girl huddled close to him to protect against the cold breeze coming off the water.
“Don’t try to kiss me,” he told her.
They lay down in the sand and the girl stared up at the sky as a parcel of birds flew in strict formation above them.
“Shit,” the boy said. “I can’t look at yer face.”
The old woman busied herself setting lines of bait from the trusses of a long stone bridge. Trout for dinner tonight, she thought. Breaker lumbered in the shoal, chomping at water-bugs. It had rained two days earlier and the river was a wide, quiet sheet of brown.
The girl had come back to the river alone. She wore a green shirt with an ironed-on clover and a leprechaun. She always picked giddy clothing, which contrasted with the tired circles beneath her eyes. She stared at the brown horizon and skipped a rock across the bend of the water.
The old woman finished at the bridge and walked up on shore, calling Breaker who followed her. She stopped and watched the girl, who was used to people staring at her face and never liked it.
“What is it?” Katie asked. Her bottom lip trembled with some fine seizure of feeling. She had come here to be alone.
“I see into the blood of things,” the old woman told her, “and you are caught between the fangs of the world.”
The hag smelt of algae and pond scum and Thunderbird, and her eyes were milky with cataracts. She was old and wasted, and the girl felt sorry for her, and embarrassed by her condition.
“Well, I like your dog,” Katie said. She bent down to pet Breaker. The salt in the dog’s dreaded hair glistened like mica. The girl reached into her satchel and made an offering of roasted almonds, and Breaker took them from her palm with a gentle mouth. He licked the girl’s face, his soft tongue threading the cleft in her lip, washing over her sunken nose and her soft eyelids. The girl laughed.
“Good Boy,” she said.
She turned to the woman. “I’ve seen you on the river, trolling for fish. I’ve seen you weaving baskets from river cane, and cooking meat on your fire. Do you live here?”
The old woman nodded.
“Alone?” the girl asked.
The witch nodded again.
“Aren’t you ever scared?”
“No one will hurt me,” she said. “I am too old and poor.”
“And is there shelter?”
The witch pointed. “Near those rocks,” she said. “And it is time to eat. Join us. We have plenty.”
The young woman followed her, and they wove through the high cane and arrived at a stockade. A grey squirrel was impaled near the entrance on a palisade. The girl’s stomach turned at the sight of it.
At the center of the enclosure was a tamarisk tree surrounded by odd, discarded items. A single-speaker radio played a scratchy Streisand tune from somewhere among the heap.
“So much washes up on shore,” the witch said. “I keep what glows.”
Amid the rubble was a child’s caned rocking chair. There was a gyroscope the size of a desk-globe. There was an eyeglass repair kit, a pink pocket mirror shaped like a trapezoid, so many odds and ends. And between the tailings, glazed pottery shards reflected the sun like jewels. Each item was strange and resonant, but, outside of an implied personal context, also alien and harsh. The girl felt as though civilization had collapsed, and these were the plastic ruins.
The witch rooted through her heap, muttering to herself as she searched, and when she came up, she clutched an old stuffed dog in one hand. Weather and time had faded its hide to a dull liver color, but it had green, rhinestone eyes that shone. She handed it to the girl.
“German?” Katie asked. “But how?”
Katie held the toy out in front of her and studied it. Small rips in the fabric had been repaired with joining stitches. The eyes were polished and clean. The toy had been cared for. Now it was hers again, and she hugged German close to her chest.
It was the alchemy the witch needed, and she went to work with heat, carving helixes in the dirt with a sharpened elk bone.
She drew the base pairs — the nucleotides connecting the graceful curves like ladder rungs. The witch pulled a small ink bottle from the embankment and pigmented the helixes — one red, one blue. The girl recognized the pattern that was emerging. It was the simple abstraction of a DNA molecule.
When the witch was done, a deep seismic shudder disrupted the ground beneath them. It was violent, threatening to bring down the stockade, and the young woman thought the earth was opening up to swallow her. She closed her eyes, and her terrified body contracted violently.
When it was calm again, Katie felt a hand grasp hers, and found herself staring into the face of a young child. The child had a cleft lip. Her nose was slightly collapsed, like Katie’s own. And the beautiful child beamed at her — her entire condition was light. The recognition between them was instantaneous.
“Where should we go next?” the child asked.
She trusted Katie implicitly. It was because she could not conceive of a future, of her future, without goodness and joy and grand strokes. The child knew she was made from the stars.
Katie handed the dog to her younger self. They walked along the river bank as the child sieved dirt between her naked toes, singing and stomping with levity. “Do you have a cup?” she asked. “So we can carry the river with us?”
Katie knew that she would always protect and love the child.
They passed by the stone fisherman’s bridge. An old woman was cooking trout over a small fire on the bank. A black dog rested at her feet. The thick scent of menudo steamed up from a blue cook pot, and Katie was suddenly ravenous.
“Eat with us,” the stranger invited. “We have plenty.”
The pair walked over to the fire. Katie felt wonderful. Everything had such dimension.
“Thank you,” she said to the woman. She felt the good hygiene of the fire’s flames.
Katie stared out at the iron mountains on the horizon and pointed to the highest peak. “That’s the one I’m going to climb,” she said.
The child broad-jumped through the sand, then sprinted back to where Katie stood and looked out to where she pointed. “Okay,” she agreed.
MARY RENZI‘s fiction has appeared in Swamp Biscuits and Tea, Pantheon Magazine and Notes Magazine. She enjoys writing stories in which the invisible and alienated are thrown into extreme situations.