Water Witches

Kathryn McMahon

My wife is the village drowner. Her job is to throw girls in the lake and see if they sink or swim. It’s only a P.E. test, but long ago many girls they called witches were drowned, and though this didn’t prove they were witches it didn’t stop the drownings. These days my wife rows into the middle of the lake and laughing girls jump out one by one. Should any fail the test my wife will toss in a life preserver. And yet my wife is the witch, said to be the last of her kind. She knows her magic. She could make anyone fall in love with her, if she wanted. Maybe she does? Maybe she has? And yet she chose me. People know her name, even two towns over. I’ve watched interviews with her, news clips. Villagers thank her for being something she can’t change, but isn’t that the same as suffocating the past and hoping no one notices? My own village is deep in the forest away from lakes and nestled in shadows, an ancient wood where kings hunted and maidens disappeared. A place where we’re not raised to ask questions.

My wife is at work. Splashing and laughing echo all the way to our house. I rinse vegetables from our garden and watch an old documentary on YouTube about the drownings. On the phone screen, my wife is a little girl pretending to be another little girl kicking through algae. Each time I watch it I want to dive through that green pulp and save her.

More splashing echoes, more, and then a sound that is definitely not laughing.

I watch the video again and cover my ears. In the basin, a radish floats. A carrot sinks. I rescue the carrot.

The screen darkens with a call. It’s my wife asking me to meet her.

No one else is at the lake, not even tourists. The evening is warm. Her rowboat bobs at its mooring, and on it, the life preserver hangs beaded in sunset. We walk around the lake, and she tells me about the girl she saved today. Without dead to feed the algae, the water runs clear. My wife’s hair drips with that water.

I ask if it’s too much staying after a long day.

She shakes her head. A drop of water lands on my cheek. “It’s better when you’re here.”

I don’t wipe the water away. Like a kiss, it is a part of her.

We hold hands under the willow’s catfish-teasing hair, and her grip is especially tight. Did drowning girls ever reach for the willow fronds? Do they now?

I think of the documentary, of her alone in the water. Of girls who can but don’t want to pull themselves up. “Do you think you would have had to save me?”

Again, she shakes her head. “Every girl goes in the water, my love, but you would’ve swum, even if the catfish called your name. You and I, we are the in-between: tempted by the kisses of ghosts but hungry enough to claw our way out.”


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