Was a fine night. Sitting out on the porch. Moon was up full. Could smell the night lilies. Moon was coming over the trees down at the bottom of the paddock. It was like the branches were fingers or hands trying to drag the moon down. But them hands weren’t strong enough, not to catch the moon. Dogs were in kennels. I was thinking of going to bed or of getting another beer from fridge. Bed or beer that’s like the only two choices at my age. What would you think of that Mavis? Me an old drunk bum. If you was here, we’d stay up a bit and smell the night lilies before a soft old kiss and off to bed. Don’t sleep much anyway these days. That’s why there’s more beer and less bed. That’s why I’m thinking of getting to the fridge.
I’m ready to shift me up when the boys come running up. They got torches and loud voices, but I can’t hear what they were saying. Got the earpieces out. Supposed to be in bed. Besides need to get new batteries in town. Maybe tomorrow, maybe sometime. When I get to it.
“Hey, old man.” I got my ears in now. So I hear them. “Hey old man, there’s a Waterwitch. Down at the creek. Took Wayne in the water.”
Darn fools, what were they doing down at the creek?
“Full moon’s best time for crawdads,” they tell me as if that makes it ok. I told them boys, I told everyone, don’t go down the creek at full moon.
“Ah, you just say that ‘cos you want the fishing for yourself.”
“Sure,” I tell them. “That’s why you’re all running to me now some Waterwitch has plucked one of you boys in.”
They don’t say nothing about that. They just looks down and shuffles. I lift my sorry carcass and go raise up the dogs. Them dogs’s barking like crazy.
“Hush, boys,” I say and put them on the leash. Even so, Cadmus tries to pull free. Guess they can smell the witch from here. Guess I can smell it like the smell of waterweed over the sweetness of the night lilies.
“We got a net,” says one of them boys.
“Good, now come on. We might get Wayne back before it’s too late.”
We go down and through the trees. There’s the creek. Moon shining on the flat surface. I can just about hear the witch singing. The rest of the boys is hanging back.
“No fear now, boys. She gone taken her pick with that dumbass Wayne, so all you is off the hook for now.”
I slip the dogs, and they’re in the water straight off. I start to prod under the bank with my stick. We’ll find them. Waterwitch is tricky, but they plays the same trick all the time. Hides under the bank or in thick weed. The dogs will flush her out.
“Be ready, boys,” I call. “Get that net ready.”
Two boys take each end of the net.
“Best get in there. Once them dogs chase her out, she’ll be moving fast.”
My stick hits on something hard. I reach down and pull. A body bobs to the surface. “Here, boys. It’s Wayne. I’m too old to haul him up. You boys get here.”
They drop the net and come running.
“No, don’t drop the net. She’ll be in the open soon.”
Two boys run back to the net, and the other two come and haul Wayne out of the creek. His checked shirt is unbuttoned, and his pants is down.
“Least he died happy,” says one of the boys, and I hit him with my stick.
“None of that. He ain’t dead yet. Put him over and get the water out. And pull his pants up.”
They turn Wayne onto his side. Black water comes from his mouth, and he starts coughing.
“None of you boys got a flask?” And, of course, they did; they hand it to Wayne.
“Not for him, you dummies, for me. He can’t drink that now.” I grab the bottle and take a swig. Like I say, beer and moonshine, that’s me now. “Now go back to the net.”
The dogs are going crazy again. Cadmus is sniffing at a big patch of reeds.
“You boys be ready or else,” I tell them and slip into the water. I hold my stick in front of me and poke the bottom. I can feel the soft mud in between my toes. I step forward.
“Come on then, witch,” I whisper. “Come on then. Where are you?” When I get to the patch or weeds, I can smell her for sure, like frog spawn. There’s a trail of slime. We got her.
“Over there, boys. Get ready.”
I stab my staff in as deep as I dare, and I can hear that witch hiss, and then out she come. Swimming in the moonlight. I grab for her, but she’s too quick for an old man like me. Cadmas jumps in from the bank and swims towards her, but the Witch turns and swipes a clawed hand at the dog catching him across the muzzle. She would have killed the stupid mutt, but then the boys send the net over her. They toss it through the air. It swirls like a black swarm across the sky. Then settles over her. She screams. Even without my earpiece, I can hear her caterwauling.
“Haul her in,” I shout and start for the bank.
I pull myself up, grabbing two handfuls of devil grass and dragging myself up. I lay for a moment catching my breath, and then stagger up. Thank goodness for that old stick,
“We got her!” the boys call over. They’re dragging her onto the bank. They got the Waterwitch wrapped up like a Christmas present. They got both ends and she’s hanging in the middle.
“Keep her in the net,” I shout.
Moonlight shines on damp grey-green skin, and her hair is stuck to her scalp. Green eyes look up, blinking.
“Pretty, ain’t she,” I say. And she is. “A young one, I’d say.”
Now they have her; the boys got nothing to say. They just stand looking at her. Guess they were expecting something witchy, not this. Soft skin, soft curves. Wet and limpid. She gazes up, and one of the fools reaches to touch her.
“None of that,” I say and knock the boy’s hand away with my stick. “Here, boys,” I call to the hounds and put them back on the leash. I hand the dogs over to one of the men. “Take them to the kennels,” I tell him to give them some feed. They earned it.”
Doug, the boy with the dogs, hesitates. “Go on,” I tell him. “The witch isn’t going anywhere. You can come and gawk at her later.”
Doug reluctantly heads off.
“What are we doing with her?” They ask.
“I got contacts. Take her up to the house for now. Put her in the pool, then put the alligator cage over the top. That’ll keep her in.”
Wayne is back on his feet. The stupid shmuck. The boys head over to the house. Wayne is following after.
“Thanks,” he says as he walks past. “I owe you.”
“Yes, you do, boy,” I tell him.
No sleep tonight, and the last beer from the fridge is gone. Doug took back his flask. I could do with a swig of moonshine now. I can still hear the witch crying and singing. Calling to me. I take my earpiece out. I don’t need to hear that. But then I got calls to make. What time is it out on the coast anyway?
I should wait till morning. It can wait. But I can see the song drawing them boys back. Wayne hasn’t left. He’s still standing by the pool, still thinking about his dick wetting. I get off the porch and walk over.
“Got a home to go to?” I say.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Then best get.”
“Sure. I will.” But he doesn’t move, not an inch. He just stands there looking at the Witch. In the water with the pool light behind her, the Witch’s hair is spread out like waterweed, like a cloud, like a halo. Her skin shines green and her eyes, them dammed eyes.
“It isn’t decent,” he says, letting his eyes stare at her naked flesh. “It’s not right.”
“What you thinking? That she needs clothes? Well, I got none. And if I did, she would just rip ‘em off.”
The Waterwitch sails through the water almost up to the surface. Her breasts just break through into the air and then down again. I get it, boy; there was a time I could watch that all night when I was younger, before me and Mavis. Even I was young once. Young and stupid.
“I guess not,” says Wayne. “Don’t rightly know what I’m thinking.”
Sure you do. You’re thinking you want to pull open the gator cage and dive in there with her. You’re still thinking about those lips.
“She would have ate you. In the end, she would have ate you. That’s what they do.”
“And it wouldn’t have been worth it.”
The Waterwitch’s lips move, and she starts singing again. I can’t hear it, but Wayne gets all edgy again.
“You got a girl?” I ask.
He nods his head.
“She be wondering where you are?”
“Nah, she with her Mama tonight.”
“Why don’t you go see her? And you should go to the nurse tomorrow, get some stuff to put on downstairs. You never know what you might have caught.”
Again he just nods.
“Go on now, git. Don’t make me have to hobble back to the porch and get that old rifle. I see you here tomorrow them dogs are going for you. And old Cadmus like nothing better fool’s ass. You sitting here all night like a mooncalf. I say she want to eat you, boy. Down to the bone.”
I prod him with my stick, and he stirs.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you again for saving my life.”
“Your life is not saved till you’re off my property.”
“I got you,” and he heads out. I watch until he’s out the gate and on down the road and disappears into the trees. Then I wait some just to make sure he don’t come back.
The Waterwitch sings some more, but no one is listening. The boy is too far away. Then she turns and sinks down to the bottom of the pool and curls up like an eel.
“You’re not fooling anyone,” I tell her, and walk back to the porch.
In the morning, I make a call.
“Hey,” I holler down the phone.
“Who is this?”
“I got a Waterwitch. A young one.”
There is silence for a moment.
“What the dang you phoning at this hour for? You know what time it is out here?”
“You interested, or do I call someone else?”
“I need to see it. I need to see it for myself.”
“Sure, you’re the first person I called. Come on out.”
“I can believe that. No one else would pick up the phone at this hour. Yeah, I’ll catch a flight, then a rental. I can be there in…”
“Be here today,” I tell him. “Otherwise, I call around.”
“Call all you like; you know why you called me first.”
“I got a few others I can call. You know that.”
He sniffs audibly. “Waste your time with them fools all you like. No skin off my back. Hell, phone all you like. You know what they’re like.”
“I know what you’re like. You’re not any easier to do business with. You still owe for that last time.”
“Hell no. That wasn’t worth half what I gave you, and you know it. That was what was agreed.”
I let it slide. No point opening old wounds. But he cheated me big time, and he knew it. They’re all cheats.
“Be here today. I don’t want her in my pool any longer.”
“Alright. I said I’d be there.”
The Witch is still curled up at the bottom of the pool. The sun is still low. Let her sleep. Her night must have been as rough as mine. You can see red marks on her skin where the ropes of the net had dug in. The shadow of the pool cage marks dark lines across the tiles. But once the sun comes up, the Waterwitch will need some cover, or she’d burn up. Even if she is dead, she is still worth something, but alive is better. Much much better. I go into the pool house and drag out a float. Unlocking the cage, I throw it into the pool. The Witch skitters along the bottom when it goes in. She swims round and round, looking for somewhere to hide. Then she settles down again, sheltering under the float.
About midday, a compact draws up. Barney is here. The old dog looks, even more, wore out than last time I seen him. Still wearing them snakeskin boots and hat. Looks more a fool than ever.
“Look at you,” he says. “Looking great.”
“Wish I could say the same.”
“Ah, don’t be sour. How’s Mavis?”
“Passed maybe five years gone.”
“Sorry to hear it. So that means no peach pie, I’m guessing.”
“I got beer. No, sorry, drank the last one last night.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
I pump up some water and get some ice. Two glasses; one for him, one for me.
“I can do eggs and bacon if you want,” I call.
“No, got me some coffee and doughnuts at the airport.”
“What you come in that fool car for?” I ask, “You can’t haul her back in that.”
“Oh well, let’s see if I’m buying first. Besides, I’m too old for that. I’ll get one of the boys to come pick her up.”
Yeah, he is buying alright.
“Ok, come on then.” I lead the way to the pool and unlock the cage. I poke in with my stick, sending the Waterwitch swimming round again.
“Looks like you boys were rough with her,” says Barney.
“Yeah, well, not too rough. The rope burns will heal.”
“She’s a beauty, alright. I’ll give you that.”
“Good singer too. That’ll draw them in like a magnet.”
“Can you make her sing?”
“Nah, come on, you know she’s not going to sing for two dried up old sticks like you and me.”
“How’d you find her?”
“Never, dumbass boys were fishing at the creek for crawdads on a full moon.”
Barney whistles and then starts laughing. I laugh too.
“I told them I don’t know how many times, but would they listen. One of them near lost his pecker.”
“She get him in the water.”
“Yip. Told him to go get ointment from the nurse. I’m guessing that’s going to be raw for a while. It war’ all red rash, like catfish stings.”
“Ouch. Well, boys do like to learn the hard way. I recall a tale or two myself.”
“Dammed fool’s lucky to be alive.”
The Witch had turned on her back and was staring up at us.
“So what’s the deal then?”
Barney does that thing he always done. Takes his hat off and, scratches his head, makes a face. “Well, hard to say. Not that much call for it these days. Health and safety and all that. I could go to two hundred.”
“Sure, you come running all this way for two hundred.” I should feel insulted, but I knew better. That’s just Barney.
“So what are you looking at then?”
I shrug. There was something in what Barney said. Folks don’t believe in it now. They think that it’s some kind of trick. Make-up or a woman’s head stuck onto a sea otter or something. But then there’s the singing. And then there’s a different clientele. Not showing her just to the rubes. Money was good there, but they never lasted long.
“You just thinking of selling her on then.”
“I’m too old to take her around the country.”
Now I scratch my head. “Seems a shame to do that to her.”
“Course it is. It’s a dammed shame. A dammed disgrace. Men ought to know better. Never mind what you’re catching. They should have homes and wives to look after instead of hanging about in places like that. And then what’s wrong with just the girls that they need to go for something like this.”
“She draws them in,” I tell him. “She’ll be worth the money just for that, and when she starts singing, even them not going in the tank will be getting the horn. It’s good business.” Even if it is shameful. Toothless and clawless. Just a toy for city boys.
“I know all that. I know all that, but it still makes me sick. The number I picked up dead and dried up, no good for anything except sticking in a jar. I tell you, what a waste. No wonder they’re near all gone. Dammed shame it is. World’s changed, old man. And not for the better.”
“You buying or not.” I know Barney is right with what he said. It is a shame, but business is business. I can’t think about that. I just want my money, and the world can go to pot.
“Course I’m buying. Gods, but look at her. If I was younger, I’d take her on tour myself. Not just here, but Europe too; London, Paris, Berlin. Excepting that getting a license is darn near impossible.”
“Eight hundred,” I say. “Hear me out. I got to give them boys a cut. Them that helped me out last night.”
“Way you told it, you helped them out. One of them was in the water. You saved his life like as not. They should be paying you.”
“True enough, but you know how it is. Memories is short. As soon as they know I sold it they’ll be sniffing around for cash.”
“So what,” says Barney indignantly, “You got the dogs don’t you. You got your rifle. You going soft in your old age.”
“I got to live here, Barney. I don’t want no shooting match. Eight hundred. Two for them, six for me.”
“Six hundred,” says Barney. “Not a penny more, not one cent more.” And I knew that was as much as he would pay, even if he was cheating me blind. Hell, at eight hundred, he was cheating me blind, and we both knew it.
“Six it is, then.” I hold out my hand, and Barney shakes on it.
“No peach pie?” he asks.
Hello no. No peach pie. I look at the Witch and think of what they’ll do. Not sure I could keep pie down. Even for six hundred.
That fool Wayne turns up two days later. I get my gun and go meet him.
“No need for that, sir,” he says. “I just want to talk.”
“You get your pecker seen to?”
“Yeah, I get ointment, and they sent away a sample. The rash has died down.”
“You tell your girl about this?”
“Yeah, she ain’t my girl now. She dropped me like a hot brick.”
“Good on her,” I say.
“So what can I do you for?”
“I just need to talk.”
“All right, but the pool cage is locked, and the Witch is off-limits.”
“Alright, I need to talk.”
“Come on then.”
We sit out on the porch. I can just about hear the Waterwitch song.
“What you thinking about?” I asked
“About her. What’s going to happen to her?”
“And then what?”
“None of your business or mine.”
“But nothing good.”
I shrug. That was the truth of it. I think about the poor Witch caged, toothless, clawless, and used and made to sing. That was barely the worst of it. Shit, it warn’t right.
“It’s not right,” he says. How can I disagree?
“Nothing we can do about it.”
“I just keep thinking. What if we had never gone to the creek that night?”
“You mean, what if you boys had just listened to me.” Yeah, what if you fools had left alone?
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m saying.” I think about that for a while. He thinks about it too. We may be both think about it; maybe both think the same thing. Shit, I don’t need the money. Not at my age.
“What then, sir.”
“She’d be in the creek where she belong.”
“That’s what I keep thinking.”
“So what else you thinking?”
He looks at me, young and stupid. I know what he is thinking.
“Six hundred dollars I sold her for. You got six hundred dollars?” Wayne shook his head. “No, didn’t think so. Six hundred dollars.” Like I need the money. What would I spend it on? Beer.
“This better not be any sort of trick.”
“No, sir.” No, sir. The boy is too dumb to come up with a trick like this.
“Let’s go and have a look.” I get up and grab my stick and my rifle. “We can have a look.”
When we get to the pool, the Witch must have heard us coming. Maybe she could smell Wayne. She would sing for someone young and healthy like him. She starts swimming round and round and calling to him in a strange voice.
“Want to go in with her?” I ask.
“No sir, well, yes. But no, that’s no good. I can see what she is, what she’d do to me. I don’t have no death wish.”
“Good answer,” I mutter.
“How many Waterwitches are there?” Wayne asks.
“Used to be a lot,” I tell him. “A hell of a lot. This whole place, you could hardly go near the creek without one calling you in. Used to be a hell of a lot.” I stand for a moment remembering.
“Don’t know. Maybe she’s the last one.”
“Maybe she is. I never seen one before.” And I think, when the last time I saw one was? When was it? How many years? Were you still alive, Mavis?
“Barney will be mad,” I mutter to myself. But Barney is always mad. And anyway, he wouldn’t be that mad. He understood. He’d get it. He’d still be mad, but he’d get it.
“You could tell him I did it,” says the boy. “You could tell him I snuck in and took her.”
That made me laugh, “Like he’d believe a fool like you would get one over on me. Alright, go fetch the keys they’re on the porch and bring the net and a barrel. I’m too old to carry her down to the creek.”
He’s back quick enough. The Witch cries when we put her in the net and tries to bite Wayne. She sang to him, but it was no good. We tie her and put her in the barrel. The danged Witch keeps twisting and trying to throw herself out.
“Stay put, you dammed Witch,” I say. But she never listens to me. I don’t even know if a Waterwitch can hear us.
We dump her in and pull the net off her. She turns and screams, and then with a flick of her limbs, the Witch goes flying off into the reeds.
“That’s her gone,” I say. “Even so, I would not come done here at night. Not alone. She’s got the taste off you, boy.”
“Sure thing, sir. I’m not no fool.”
“You’re not, huh?”
We walk back to the house, and I phone Barney. Sure enough, he is mad.
“You’ve gone behind my back,” he says, “Who’ve you sold her to? Who gave you a better offer?” He refused to accept what I did. “I know you,” he said. “Business is business. You can’t fool me. Who did you sell her to?”
“I guess I just got soft in my old age,” I tell him.
“Huh, won’t do no good. And don’t ever call me again.” But I can tell he is pleased. And I wasn’t going to call him again anyways, not for nothing.
When I got off the phone, Wayne was still there.
“You got a home to go to?” I ask.
“No sir,” he says. “No. My girl gone. Find someone else, witchfucker, she tell me.”
Darn it, I am going soft. “Go make yourself useful,” I tell him.
I sat listening to the song of the Waterwitch.