by Cat Rambo
Diana Lattimer hadn’t paid much attention to the old woman living further up Canyon Creek Road. Since she and her daughter Katie had moved in, they’d seen occasional cars rattling down the road, stirring red dust that hung like the ghost of travel in the hot air, until it sank, slowly as a long breath, back to the ruts and round white quartz pebbles like discarded molars lying beside the road. Lattimer hadn’t thought much of it as they clanked and gritted past. Old cars, rural cars, nothing less than a decade old, with spider webbed cracks in at least one window and red pits freckling the bumpers, where fading blue and white stickers cheered a high school forced to close six years ago — go arroyo rats!
“The piss witch,” Katie said.
Her nose wrinkled as she stated the obvious. “I believe it’s because she uses….” She hesitated, knowing her mother’s distaste for the organic. “Urine.”
“Urine.” Her voice was as flat as the white tile counter her hands splayed on. She leaned on them, anger clenching her throat. Everywhere, this sort of vile human behavior. People lived by modern day versions of Nostradamus, lice-ridden with superstition like medieval peasants. “For magic.”
Katie was making a peanut butter sandwich. Diana could have made it for her, but the teen had a way of eyeing the triangles, as precise as if made by a ruler. It was Diana’s nature. She couldn’t help it. Katie didn’t even cut the sandwich in half before jamming it in a plastic bag but she didn’t say anything about that.
“The guy at the coffee shop said yeah, she was a witch. He didn’t call her an elder or a wisewoman, went straight to witch.”
“Is she Native American?” She’d only seen the old woman from a distance, hunched over rocks, climbing up a slope. While out walking, watching the ground for snakes and scorpions, the rattle of a rolling rock had grabbed her attention. She looked up in time to see the hunched figure scuttling over a rise. She realized then she’d come too far. Diana had trespassed and instead of greeting her or even asking her to leave, the other woman had fled. She thought it should have made her feel ashamed. Instead an obscure anger smoldered. She’d been evaluated and judged capable of harm on looks alone.
Katie filled a second bag with marshmallows and potato chips. The idiosyncratic feeding habits of the American teenager. “No, she’s some old white hippie.”
That explained a lot. Perhaps some disgruntled feminist extremist. A Wiccan feminist, strung with crystals and scavenged feathers, talking to the spirits of the rocks and stream.
But with a disturbing emphasis on bodily waste.
“How does she use it in magic?”
Katie rolled the top of her lunch bag closed. She planned to go spend the day sketching, and Diana had agreed with the understanding Katie would make up her daily lessons after dinner. She was home-schooled and frighteningly precocious in some areas, a long-limbed mixture of arrogance and shyness that saved her from the fools of the world, as it had her mother all her life.
“As an ingredient in rituals, I guess, Based on my in-depth knowledge of magic, gathered from fantasy novels and Syfy TV. Not that I can access the latter here in the boonies.”
“It will be a good summer,” Diana said. “Let me finish the book. Then we can go home.” She wanted Katie’s last year before college to be a good one, even with the shadow of the divorce hanging over it.
Katie shrugged, one of those unsettling, boneless teen gestures. She kissed her mother’s cheek, a rare gesture that made Diana smile and forget to remind her about sunscreen, before she slipped out the screen door, whistling. Katie always whistled when walking. Diana teased her that she’d never be able to sneak up on anyone.
The sensation of the kiss lingered on her skin as she drank the rest of her coffee, mentally gathering herself before going back in to face the book that was absolutely, unequivocally, advance-back-if-you-don’t, due at summer’s end. The definitive history of science in the 20th century.
Humanity had come so far, but meanwhile two miles up the road, a woman was casting spells using urine. And, based on what Katie had said, making a living at it. A skimpy cabin in the hills existence, but she had to buy food and generator fuel, at least.
A piss witch. Revolting.
The words on the screen danced and flickered, jittering ants, a swarm of spindly, deformed insects. Diana went to the window and stretched. Wind hissed in the sagebrush. She liked this landscape. She’d grown up in the Pacific Northwest, full of water, dampness, life. Mold. She’d come to think of her life as molded over in the way the tree trunks accumulated lichen there. Looking solid from the outside but falling apart into decay if you poked a finger in it. And at its heart, an absence, a hollow, shaped like Brad, who had been infuriating while present, but proved something else entirely when gone, saying that at 45, he wanted to do something more than be part of the team Diana had always assumed they formed.
Diana supposed she must be as much at blame for it all as he, but she was damned if she could see how.
Tires rolled by outside, didn’t stop, kept going. Another supplicant to the piss witch.
She shouldn’t judge the woman till she’d spoken to her. There might be some science at the root of it all. Many medicines came from herbal remedies: aspirin from willow bark, for one, or penicillin itself from a bit of moldy bread. No one lived in this day and age without knowing that science was more powerful than prayer or ritual. You couldn’t say that outright, lest you be accused of trampling on someone’s religious freedom but still — everyone knew it.
Diana would go and talk to her before she made up her mind. And even if she was some sort of mental primitive or Luddite, she could take that in stride.
It wasn’t as though anything they did could affect each other.
• • •
Bottles, sunk into the thick adobe walls, mostly green and clear and brown, with a few blue scattered among them. The necks stuck out, unstoppered, to catch the wind. Odd little wooden contrivances — was that what people meant by Aeolian harps? — sang in the wind.
The house crouched in a dell between three hills, shaded and cool despite the dryness. A stone-ringed well beside the tiny structure, rounded like an igloo, so much a part of the landscape that it seemed grown rather than built. A front porch like a secret cavern, adobe walls cupped hands around it. Piled high with what seemed trash and debris at first but revealed itself on closer inspection as bundles of dried herbs tied with blue and red string, a looped pile of old agave-fiber rope, a stack of old plates, their edges a writhing vine, as though mold had overtaken the china and blossomed in fractal patterns along the cracks. Dust sifted across abandoned spider webs, their former inhabitants consumed by the snake flicker that eased away from her foot on the step.
On the door where a knocker might have been in a more formal establishment, a little doll made of rabbit fur and purple plastic, a Swarovski glitter at its throat. She started to reach out, hesitant. Who knew what germs it might carry?
The door creaked open.
The piss witch certainly had the theater of it all down.
She stood there in silhouette; there was a blaze of light behind her, the sunlight funneled through the bottles on the unshaded western wall.
Diana didn’t know what to call her, she realized.
“Dr. Lattimer, I presume.”
She’d expected an old woman’s rasp or shrill. This voice was smooth, self-assured. Was the witch younger than she’d been led to think? But when the figure stepped forward, she saw that wasn’t the case. Eighty or ninety years of wrinkles — there was a point where you just couldn’t tell anymore. Dressed more neatly than she’d supposed: a denim shirt embroidered with red roses, blue jeans, sandals that exposed gnarled but neatly kept toes.
“I’m Hannah Otto. But perhaps you know that already.”
“I came to introduce myself,” Diana said. “Get acquainted.” The old woman showed none of the shyness that she’d exhibited before and Diana felt her own caution drop away. A touch of plumpness to Hannah’s face made her revise her idea of the so-called witch’s age again, but surely it didn’t matter. This charming woman was clearly innocent of the bizarre things the boy in the coffee shop had told Katie.
Hannah stood aside from the door. “Come in.”
She ducked her head as she passed through the doorway, even though the lintel was well above her scalp. The room was open, large. Shelves lined the walls, holding row after row of stone eggs, each placed in a small stand that held it upright, narrow point uppermost. They were made of granite, lapis-lazuli, sandstone, agate — a bewildering array of colors and sheens repeated in shape after shape, ranging from the size of a quail’s egg up to larger monsters that could only have been laid by rocs or dragons.
It reminded her more of an art gallery than museum. She could see nothing but the shelves at first, then she began to take in other details: a table strewn with handwritten notes; a low couch with blanket and pillow half-buried among the cushions; an archway leading to a second room. There was only one broad-silled window, but it was barely visible, covered with strands of wire and yarn to create something caught halfway between dreamcatcher and ojo de dios.
The air in the room was almost stifling. The presence of the eggs seemed oppressive, an invisible force weighing her down into immobility.
Hannah said, “You’ve come for a purpose other than gawking, I presume.”
Diana realized she’d gone slack jawed, examining the conglomeration. Beads were knotted into it, and barred gold and blue feathers, and other tiny dolls. She shut her mouth so quickly her teeth snapped together.
“An interesting collection,” she said.
“The stone eggs? Do you know the legend? They’re what madness hatches out of. As long as they are uncracked, the world is sane.”
She struggled with the incomprehensible, unanswerable words. “I thought since we were neighbors…”
“That you’d come by and borrow a cup of sugar or my hedge clippers?” she said. “Alas, I’m fresh out of both commodities. The first is poison to the body, the second a misguided attempt to change the landscape.”
“Just to introduce myself,” she said with a touch of defiance stirred by the mockery in the old woman’s tone. Diana wasn’t sure whether she believed what she was saying, or whether she was making fun of her preconceived notions. Embarrassed heat crawled along the back of her neck. She could deal with unpleasant men, but other women were unsettling, as though there was always some unguessable subtext to their words. She continued into the silence. “I’m working on a book this summer.”
“A history of science.”
Her unexpected knowledge alarmed Diana. Had she been spying, talking to people in town?
“Your daughter told me.”
“Katie?” The stupidity of that inadvertent exclamation stunned Diana. How many daughters did she have, after all?
“I’ve been teaching her.”
“Teaching her what?” The thought of Katie in this room, the filthy surroundings outside, roused her to anger more than the realization she’d kept this from her mother.
“Teaching her woman things,” Hannah said. “She’s lonely.”
That shamed and angered Diana at the same time. It was true, but how dare this woman speak as though telling her some secret of her own child’s? Katie didn’t keep things from him. They shared secret jokes, commentary on the world. It had irritated Brad sometimes, that secret bond. He claimed they ganged up on him though it wasn’t true. Sometimes they poked a little fun at his foibles, that was all.
She said, “Katie has plenty to keep her busy. She’s studying for the GREs this summer. She needs to focus on that.”
Her eyes flicked over the eggs. Their silent presence was disturbing, as though they were somehow watching her.
Hannah shrugged but said nothing.
She said, “Well. It was pleasant to meet you.” She’d go home and talk to Katie. She’d have to be firm and yet not make this seem alluring in its forbidden nature. Teenagers wanted boundaries to break. Instead she’d discourage her somehow. Or give her more to do, take more interest in her daily studies. She’d benefit from being pushed a little harder. Everyone did.
But the words that emerged next from her mouth startled her.
“Do you pretend to cast spells for her?”
“I pretend nothing,” Hannah said. “Ask your daughter.”
She looked at the table.
“I was a scientist too,” Hannah said. “But there are more things in heaven and hell, Horatio, than your cold science imagines.”
Diana rolled her eyes at the melodrama and exited.
• • •
“You’d like them. Stories about science. How penicillin was discovered by accident. She says the best science comes from accidents.”
“That’s not science,” Diana said. “Science is built on assumptions and theorems being tested. It builds on a solid foundation, doesn’t flit around discovering things by accident.”
“But isn’t that how penicillin was discovered?”
“Yes. Sometimes there are accidents, sure. But it takes a scientist to observe the unexpected data and find a way to explain it.”
Katie took on a sly look. “I learn new words from her sometimes. She’s like reading a dictionary. Chthonic, and effulgent, and soricide. She talks about mythology sometimes too.”
She’d always believed in broadening Katie’s horizons, by showing her museums and exhibition, by insisting that for every crap novel she digested, its cover full of elves with swords and blazing phoenixes, there had to be a nonfiction book to balance it out, although the girl often cheated (Diana felt) by opting for biographies, which were practically the same thing as fiction.
She pushed a text at her daughter “Haven’t seen you crack this math yet. Trigonometry, chapter three. Be ready to talk about it after dinner.”
For a long tense moment she thought Katie might actually refuse. Her beautiful, brilliant daughter — she’d shaped her with educational toys, with books, with afterschool lessons — stood perched on one long leg like a stork, arms crossed, and a frown on her face.
Then she sighed and unfolded herself to lean forward and take the book. She left the room without a word.
Diana hadn’t lost her. She wasn’t like the parents who gave up, who let their children slide away into the unfathomable world of this century, lost to texting or sexting or video games or other incomprehensible trivialities.
Brad wasn’t helpful on the phone. She’d caught him in the middle of preparing for a dinner party, she gathered. But she kept him on the line. Surely he could spare a half hour for talking about their daughter, for Christ’s sake.
She didn’t give Brad a precise picture of Hannah. She suspected that her ex-husband’s allegiance might fall more into alignment with the crazy woman’s than she’d like. He’d gone so far as to suggest they might all go to church at one point, though he’d been smart enough to pose it as something to do for Katie’s social, rather than spiritual, development. Instead Diana focused on the counter culture aspect, hinting darkly about drugs.
There too, she found his response disappointed her.
“If you think Katie hasn’t smoked a joint or two by now,” Brad said, “you don’t remember being a teenager very well.”
“I was never like that,” she said.
There was silence for at the other end of the line. “Perhaps it all boils down to that,” Brad finally said, his tone meditative. “But maybe you don’t remember how it is for girls. I know how it was for my sisters. They take away your options and give you a princess tiara instead. And then around this age, Katie’s age, you realize how shoddy it is — maybe, if you’re one of the unlucky ones who see through it all. And so you want something to compensate. That’s the pull of so-called women’s wisdom. The promise that there’s something there to compensate for the shittiness of it all.”
Brad had always been good at the sensitive man act. “You’re babbling,” she said. “Why would Katie want a tiara?”
“Diana, just let her be. She’s a kid. Let her do kid things this summer. If those include befriending old hippie women, well, there’s worse things she could do.”
• • •
Which was why, when flipping through the sketchbook she’d left on a side table, the picture struck her like a blow, almost nauseated her.
Hannah, certainly. But worse, a nude Hannah, reclining on the couch with a blanket drawn about her. Drawn with Katie’s precise eye, which caught every wrinkle, every fold. Not drawn with a lover’s eye, she thought anxiously. Nothing like that. But still…
She tore it roughly out of the book and searched for others like it, but there were none. Though there were others of Hannah, quick studies: writing at a table; stirring a pan at the stove; weaving something with string and feathers, a smaller version of the mass that had filled her window.
A storm of fury carried her into Katie's room. The girl lay across her bed, reading something with yet another lurid cover.
Diana brandished the paper at her.
“What is this?”
She glimpsed the image as it waved back and forth. Her eyes widened in alarm. “That’s private!” she exclaimed. “Why were you going through my sketch book?”
“This proves I was right to do so! I could have her arrested for this.”
“I need to practice and Hannah offered,” Katie said. “I don't have anyone else to draw.” Her face reddened, as she understood the conclusion that had been drawn. “It’s just a picture. Oh my God, you are so unbelievably gross!”
Her anger paled at the tone. Katie hadn’t done anything like Diana imagined, hadn’t debauched by the older woman. But she should have known better. What sort of adult offered to disrobe in front of a teenager?
“You’re never to see her again.”
“Or else what?” Katie snapped. “You’ll ground me? This whole place is like being grounded. Nothing to do but study or draw.”
“You’ve got a roof over your head, clothes to wear, and a brand-new iPod to listen to your favorite tripe on,” she retorted. “Do you know how many kids don’t have as much?”
Katie’s shoulders set stubbornly.
“Promise me,” Diana said.
“Promise you what?”
“That you won’t go over bothering her any more.”
“Whatever,” she said.
• • •
“Absolutely not,” Brad said when she broached the notion. “I’m traveling most of July and all of August. She’d be here by herself.”
“Maybe we could hire someone…”
He snorted. “Hire a companion for our teenager? Look, Diana, how much trouble can she get into, as isolated as that place is? If your worst fear is that an old woman might offer her a toke or persuade her not to shave her legs, that’s really a first world problem, and my sympathy is nil.”
It reminded her of what she’d told Katie. “She should be grateful,” she muttered sullenly.
“Grateful to be taken away from her friends the summer of her junior year? I don’t think so. But I agree, she could be more graceful about it all.”
The conversation fell away into inanities. Diana couldn’t ask the question she really wanted to: What can Hannah give her that I’m not?
Lying in bed that night, she was tormented by thoughts and questions. Katie had her whole life ahead of her. Did she really begrudge her mother a summer for writing what could change their lives, if it were as popular as she hoped? Bringing in enough money that she wouldn’t have to worry about the financial impact of splitting the household or impending college tuition. Diana wanted her child to have every advantage, every opportunity. An isolated summer — and wasn’t isolation required for creative effort, after all? — was hardly an unreasonable price to pay.
She rose and pulled her robe on before padding down the hallway to Katie’s door.
A sliver of light showed beneath it — she was still up. Diana didn’t knock, just pushed the door open. Katie, still reading on the bed, only a few pages from the end. She blinked, looking up, like an owl emerging from another world.
Two quick steps took Diana forward, within reach. She plucked the book from her daughter’s grasp and said, “Go to bed.”
“You can’t do that! I was on the last chapter!” As animated as she’d ever seen Katie. In defense of this trash? Her sympathy was gone. Maybe she would have relented, if Katie hadn’t reacted so unexpectedly that afternoon. She turned, ignoring the outraged wail, taking the book with her.
She thought she might use it to lull herself to sleep, but it was incomprehensible and there seemed to be altogether too much focus on talking magic swords. She snorted and put it in the bedside table.
In the morning, Katie made it clear she wasn’t speaking to her mother. The latest salvo in their distressing war, but an ineffectual one, an attempt to disturb Diana that she’d ignore. Deprived of Katie’s chatter? Well, that might actually help her focus. She acted as though she didn’t notice, simply giving directions about the texts to work on that day, and ignoring the lack of reply.
At her desk, she lost herself in the writing, pulling together threads, weaving them into her narrative. It disturbed her a little that so much science did appear the result of accident, some serendipitous collision. Saccharin, the result of unwashed hands after an experiment. Vulcanized rubber, due to a spill. Plastic, a failed exercise in creating shellac. Even radioactivity, when a uranium rock was left in a drawer next to unexposed film. She had to describe them, certainly, but she downplayed them when she could, or pointed to the scientific training and experience that had led to that moment of discovery.
At noon she went down for lunch, Katie wasn’t there. Her first emotion was anger. Resignation followed on its heels. What did it matter where she spent her day? But she couldn’t relax into that thought the way she wanted to, couldn’t relinquish control in the way it required.
She went back up, still jittery with irritation, but the work soothed her as she fell back into its familiar rhythm, fingers clicking over the keyboard, a sound like rain as she collected thoughts, quotes, observations, and tucked them into the web of words.
When she went back down for dinner, Katie was still gone.
For the first time a glimmer of worry flickered within her anger. From the first moment she’d first held her daughter, she’d worried. If she could have wrapped her in bubble wrap to preserve her from all the world’s possible accidents, she would have.
Katie had to be at Hannah Otto’s. That was preferable to being lost in the arroyos, to have fallen and hurt herself or been bitten by a snake or attacked by wild dogs. Or a human predator, taking advantage of the isolation Diana had once thought so safe.
By the time she made her way to the cottage, dusk had fallen, a sage-scented twilight that made her step warily along the dusty road. The window shone, the light barely able to pass through the fibers choking it. The air was alive with the moans of the wind passing over the bottles.
She knocked. No one answered. No movement from inside. She tested the doorknob, but it resisted her.
There had to be a back door. She circled the small house, stepping carefully to avoid detection. As she passed the window, she tried to peer in, but could see only strings and knots obscuring the interior.
As she neared the back of the house, she heard voices. Rounding the corner, moving stealthily, she caught sight of Katie and the old woman, sitting outside the open door on the stoop.
They were speaking too low for her to hear. After a moment, Katie took the basket beside her and rose, saying something to Hannah as she moved off between two hills.
What was going on? She waited till the sound of Katie’s footsteps had faded before moving out into the moonlight where Hannah could see her.
The old woman seemed unsurprised. Diana wondered what Katie had told her about her mother’s objections.
“Where has she gone?” she said.
“Over to the arroyo. To gather stones.”
“For a spell?” Her sneer filled her voice, but Hannah only nodded.
Her gaze flicked in through the open door to the room inside. A shelf, filled with bottles of liquid, caught the light and refracted it in yellow and amber glints.
Her stomach roiled. She said. “Teaching her superstition is one thing. She can evaluate the validity of all that. I can walk her through the proofs. The equations. But using human filth, is that necessary?”
Hannah tilted her head, examining her visitor’s face as though deciphering a page of notes.
“Equations,” she said. “Old equations. Cold equations, made of metal and chalk. Surely you’ve realized there’s more to it all than that. Forces of serendipity and ill luck as well as intentionality. Your science is very sterile and clean, Ms. Lattimer. There’s no room for a teenager in it. But it was built by living things, and there are other equations for them, equations of blood and mold and things born of decay.”
She stepped forward, towering over Hannah for a second before she rose to meet the advance. They were the same height. Their stares meshed, converged.
Her hands went out to grab Hannah’s shoulders, not sure whether she meant to shake her into sense or simply make her be still and listen.
The old woman recoiled as Diana grabbed. She made a choked noise and her hand fluttered at her throat as though she were unable to catch her breath. Diana started to step forward, hesitated. Hannah’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed as she slid to the ground, gasping.
Impossible, that she could be so fragile. An old woman of the desert, self-reliant, strong and sinewy. Unkillable.
The moonlight shone on her ribs as they heaved for breath once, twice, and a third, last time.
Diana stood there, watching the other woman grow still.
Finally, the lilt of a whistle told her Katie was coming back through the darkness, returning to her mother.
In the empty main room of the cabin, the stone eggs began to hatch.
© 2014 Cat Rambo, all rights reserved