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Swamp Witch and the Tea-Drinking Man

Swamp witch rode her dragonfly into town Saturday night, meaning to see old Albert Farmer one more time. Albert ran the local smoke and book, drove a gleaming red sports car from Italy, and smiled a smile to run an iceberg wet. Many suspected he might be the Devil’s kin and swamp witch allowed as that may have been so; yet whether he be Devil or Saint, swamp witch knew Albert Farmer to be the kindest man in the whole of Okehole County. Hadn’t he let her beat him at checkers that time? Didn’t he smile just right? Oh yes, swamp witch figured she’d like to keep old Albert Farmer awhile and see him this night.

That in the end she would succeed at one and fail at the other was a matter of no small upset to swamp witch; for among the burdens they carry, swamp witches are cursed with foresight, and this one could see endings clearer than anything else. Not that it ever did her much good; swamp witch could no more look long at an ending than she’d spare the blazing sun more than a glance.

As for the end of this night, she glanced on it not even an instant. For romance was nothing but scut work if you knew already the beginning, the end and all the points between. The smile on her lips was genuine as she steered past the bullfrogs, through the rushes and high over the swamp road toward the glow of the town.

By the time she was on the town’s outskirts, walking on her own two feet with the tiny reins of her dragonfly pinched between thumb and forefinger, the swamp witch had a harder time keeping her mood high. Her feet were on the ground, her senses chained and she could not ignore the wailing of a woman beset.

It came from the house which sat nearest the swamp — the Farley house — and the wailing was the work of Linda Farley, the eldest daughter who swamp witch knew was having man trouble of her own.

She had mixed feelings about Linda Farley, but for all those feelings, swamp witch could not just walk by and she knew it. There was that thing she had done with her checkers winnings. It had made things right and made things wrong, and in the end made swamp witch responsible.

“One night in a week,” swamp witch grumbled as she stepped around the swing-set and onto the back stoop. “Just Saturday. That’s all I asked for.”

Linda Farley was a girl of twenty-one. Thick-armed and -legged, but still beautiful by the standards of the town, she had been ill-treated by no less than three of its sons: lanky Jack Irving; foul-mouthed Harry Oates; Tommy Balchy, the beautiful Reverend’s son, who wrangled corner snakes for his Papa and bragged to everyone that he’d seen Jesus in a rattler’s spittle. Swamp witch was sure it would be one of those three causing the commotion. But when she came in, touched poor Linda’s shoulder where it slumped on the kitchen table, and followed her pointing finger to the sitting room, she saw it was none of those fellows.

Sitting on her Papa’s easy chair was a man swamp witch had never seen before. Wearing a lemon-coloured suit with a vest black as night rain, he was skinny as sticks and looked just past the middle of his life. He held a teacup and saucer in his hands, and looked up at swamp witch with the sadness of the ages in his eye.

“Stay put,” said swamp witch to her dragonfly, letting go of its reins. The dragonfly flew up and perched on an arm of the Farleys’ flea-market chandelier. “Who is this one?”

The man licked thin lips.

“He came this afternoon,” said Linda, sitting up and sniffling. “Came from outside. He says awful things.” She held her head in her hands. “Oh woe!”

Awful things.” Swamp witch stepped over to the tea-drinking man. “Outside. What’s his name?”

The tea-drinking man raised his cup to his mouth. He shook his head.

“He-he won’t say.”

Swamp witch nodded slowly. “You won’t say,” she said to the tea-drinking man and he shrugged. Swamp witch scowled. People who knew enough to keep their names secret were trouble in swamp witch’s experience.

The tea-drinking man set his beverage down on the arm of the chair and began to speak.

“What if you’d left ’em?” he said. “Left ’em to themselves?”

Swamp witch glared. The tea-drinker paid her no mind, just continued:

“Why, think what they’d have done! Made up with the Russians! The Chinese! Built rockets and climbed with them to the top of the sky, and sat there a moment in spinning wheels with sandwiches floating in front of their noses and their dreams all filled up. Sat there and thought, about what they’d done, what they might do, and looked far away. Then got off their duffs and built bigger rockets, and flew ’em to the moon, and to Mars. Where’d they be?”

The tea-drinking man was breathing hard now. He looked at her like a crazy man, eyes wet. “What if they’d been left on their own?”

And then he went silent and watched.

The swamp witch took a breath, felt it hitch in her chest. Then she let it out again, in a low cough.

“You’re infectious,” she said.

“What?” said Linda from behind him.

“Infectious. The dream sickness,” she said. “You look at the past and start to think maybe that could be better than now. You can’t move, it’s so bad — can’t even think.”

The tea-drinking man shrugged. “I been around, madame.”

Around,” said swamp witch. “Surely not around here. This place is mine. There’s no sickness, no dreaming sadness. These folks are happy as they are. So I’ll say it: you’re quarantined from this town.” She glanced back at Linda, who looked back at her miserably, awash in inconsolable regret.

“That’s how it is.”

Swamp witch glared once more at the tea-drinking man. The tea-drinking man smiled sadly.

“I am — ”

“ — sorry,” finished swamp witch. “I know.”

And then swamp witch raised up her arms, cast a wink up to her dragonfly, and set a hex upon the tea-drinking man. “Begone,” she said.

He stood up. Set his saucer and cup down. Looked a little sadder, if that were possible.

“I was just leaving.”

And with that, he stepped out the door, through the yard, over the road and into the mist of the swampland.

“Stay away from my hutch, mind you,” swamp witch hollered after his diminishing shade. “I mean it!” And she thought she saw him shrug a bit before the wisps of mist engulfed him and took him, poor dream-sick man that he was, away from the town that swamp witch loved so.

Swamp witch left shortly after that, and she didn’t feel bad about it neither. If she’d been a better person, maybe she’d have sat with the girl until she’d calmed down. Maybe cast another little hex to help her through it. But swamp witch couldn’t help thinking that one of the things poor old Linda was regretting was her own complicity in the bunch that’d driven swamp witch from her home those years ago and into the mud of the Okehole Wetlands for good.

Let her stew a bit, an unkind part of swamp witch thought as she left the girl alone in her kitchen.

And even if swamp witch wasn’t feeling mean, she felt she had an excuse: after having spent a moment with the tea-drinking man, swamp witch couldn’t be sure what regret was real and what was just symptomatic. So she called down dragonfly to her shoulder and headed off to town. That’s what Saturday was for, after all. It was very bad, worse than she’d thought. This tea-drinking man hadn’t, as swamp witch first assumed, just started his visit to town setting in Linda’s Poppa’s easy chair. That was probably his last stop on the way through, spreading his dreaming sickness all over the town. Wandering here or there, giving a little sneeze or a cough as he passed by a fellow fixing his garage door or another loading groceries into his truck, or worst of all, a woman by herself, smoking a cigarette and staring at a cloud overhead wondering where the years had gone. He would leave behind him a wake of furrowed brows and teary eyes and fresh fault lines in healed-up hearts.

And those were the ones he’d passed. The others — the ones he spent a moment with, said hello to or spoke of this or that —

— there would only be one word for those:


Swamp witch was set to figuring now that the tea-drinking man wasn’t just a carrier of the bug, like she’d first thought. He was guilty as sin. He was a caster.

And swamp witch was starting to think that he might not be alone. He might not, he might not …

She closed her eyes and took a breath.

When she opened her eyes, swamp witch headed across the downtown with more care. Her dragonfly hid in the curl of her hair and she kept underneath awnings and away from street lamps, and as she did, dragonfly asked her questions with the buzz of its wings.

— What does tomorrow bring? he asked.

Swamp witch opened her mouth to speak it: sorrow.

But she did not. She simply stopped.

— And the day after? wondered dragonfly.

— Who knows? whispered swamp witch. But she did know, and she stopped, in the crook of two sidewalk cracks. All she could see was her boy, whose name would be Horace, lying with the gossamer yellow of new beard on his face and his eyes glazed and silvered in the sheen of death. Her girl Ellen, old and bent, rattling in a hospital bed. These were not tomorrow — nor the day after either. But they were bad days ahead — days she’d rather not have happen.

— Dream sickness gotcha, said dragonfly. Only you regret what comes, not what’s been.

— You are wise, said swamp witch, her voice shaking. She tried to think of a hex to drive it off, but the ones she knew were all for others.

— Think backwards then, dragonfly suggested. Think of the time you were born.

Swamp witch tried but it was like trying to turn a boat in a fast-moving river. Always she was bent back to forward.

“Need help?”

Swamp witch looked up. There, standing in the middle of the road, his hands behind his back, was the yellow-jacketed tea-drinking man. He had a halfway grin on him that salesmen got when they wondered if maybe you were going to buy that car today all on your own, or maybe needed a little help. He unfolded his hands and started strolling up the way to see her.

“You were banished,” said swamp witch. “I said begone!”

“I went,” said the tea-drinking man. “Oh yes. I begoned all right. Right through the swamp. Steered clear of your home there too. Like you demanded.”

“Then why — ?”

“Why’m I here?” He stepped up onto the curb. He shook his head. “Let me ask you a question.”

Swamp witch tried to move — to do something about this. She didn’t want him to ask her a question particularly: didn’t think it would go anywhere good.

“Just hypothetical,” he said.

Shut up, thought swamp witch, but her lips wouldn’t move, plastered shut as they were by contemporaneous regret.

“Oh what,” he said, “if the town were left on its own?”

“You asked me that earlier.”

“Well think about it then. What if you’d just left it. Left it to have a name and a place in the world. Left the folks to see the consequences of their activities. Vulnerable you say and maybe so. But better that than this amber bauble of a home you’ve crafted, hidden away from the world of witches and kept for yourself. Selfish, wicked swamp witch.”

“What — ”

The tea-drinking man leaned close. He breathed a fog of lament her way.

“I didn’t care for it,” he said. “Tossin’ me out like that.”

Swamp witch swallowed hard. “I don’t,” she said, “feel bad about any of that.”

He smiled. “No?”

Swamp witch stood. “No.” She stepped over the crack. Away from the tea-drinking man. “No regrets.”

As she walked away, she heard him snicker, a sound like the shuffling of a dirty old poker deck.

“None,” she said.

Swamp witch lied, though. To hide it, she meandered across the parking lot of the five and dime, tears streaming down from her eyes, feeling like her middle’d been removed with the awful regret of it all but hiding it in the hunch of her shoulders.

It was low cowardice. For what business had it been of hers, to take the town and curl it in the protection of her arms like she was its Goddamned mother and not its shunned daughter?

She took a few more steps, over to the little berm at the parking lot’s edge. Then she walked no more — falling into the sweet grass and sucking its green, fresh smell.

“You lie,” said tea-drinking man.

She looked up. He was standing over her now, his grin wider than ever she’d thought it could be, on one so stoked with regret.

“You are beset with it,” he said.

And then he spread his fingers, which crept wider than swamp witch thought they could — and down they came around her, like a cage of twig and sapling.

“Begone,” she said, but the tea-drinking man shook his head. He didn’t have to say: Only works if you mean it, that hex. And then, it only works the once.

And with that, he had her. Swamp witch fell into a pit inside her — one with holes in the side of it, that looked ahead and back with the same misery. She shut her eyes and did what the sad do best: fell into a deep and honeyed sleep, where past and future mixed.

She awoke a time later, in a bad way for a couple of reasons.

First, she was in church: Reverend Balchy’s church, which was not a good place for her or anyone.

And second, dragonfly was gone.

In the church this was a bad thing. For swamp witch knew that Reverend Balchy had against her advice gone in with the snake dancers’ way, turning many in his Baptist congregation from their religion, and welcoming in their place whole families of the Okehole corner rattlers that the Reverend used. Sitting up on the pew, swamp witch feared for dragonfly, for there was nothing that a corner rattler liked better than the crunch of a dragonfly’s wing.

Swamp witch called out softly, looking up to the water-stained drop-ceiling with its flickery fluorescent tubes, the dried, cut rushes at the blacked-out windows, the twist of serpent-spine that was nailed up on along the One Cross’s middle piece.

She poked her toe at the floor, and snatched it back again as the arrow-tip head of a corner rattler slashed out from the pew’s shadow. Swamp witch wouldn’t give it a second chance. She gathered her feet beneath her and stood on the seat-bench, so she could better see.

Dragonfly!” she hissed.

There was no answer, but for the soft chuk-a-chuk samba of snake tail.

That, and an irregular thump-thump — like a hammer on plywood — coming from the hallway behind the dais.

Swamp witch squinted.

“Annabel?” she called.


From around the top corner of the doorframe, Annabel Balchy’s little face peered at her.

“You come on out,” said swamp witch.

Annabel frowned. “You ain’t going to transform me into nothing Satanic, are you?”

“When have I ever done that?”

“Papa says — ”

“Papas say a lot of things,” said swamp witch. “Now come on out.”

Annabel’s face disappeared for a moment, there were a couple more thump-thumps, and the girl teetered into the worship hall, atop a pair of hazelwood stilts that swamp witch thought she recognized.

“Those your brother’s?”

Annabel thrust her chin out. “I grew into them.”

“You’re growing into more than those stilts,” said swamp witch. Like the rest of the Balchies, Annabel was a blonde-haired specimen of loveliness whose green eyes held a sheen of wisdom. Looking at her, swamp witch thought her brother Tommy would no longer hold title as the family’s number-one heartbreaker. Not in another year or two.

“We got your dragonfly,” said Annabel, teetering over a little slithering pond of shadow. “He brung you here, in case you didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know,” said swamp witch. “I’m not surprised, though. He’s a good dragonfly. Is he all right?”

“Uh huh. We got him at the house. Figured you could take care of yourself, big old swamp witch that you are. But we didn’t think he’d be safe among the Blessed Serpents of Eden.”

“They’re just plain corner rattlers, hon, and I’m no safer than anyone else when one decides to bite. But thank you for protecting dragonfly. Did he say why he brung — brought me here?”

“Figured it’d be the one place where the angel couldn’t come.”

“The angel.”

“In the yellow suit,” said Annabel. “With a vest underneath black as all damnation.”

“Him. Huh. He’s no angel.”

“That’s what you say. He’s huntin’ you, and you’re a swamp witch — ”

“ — so it follows he’s got to be an angel.” Swamp witch sighed. “I see.”

“Papa said you’d probably be wondering why we didn’t give you up to that angel.”

“Your papa’s a bright man,” said swamp witch. “The thought did cross my mind.”

“Papa said to tell you he don’t like the competition,” said Annabel.

Swamp witch laughed out loud at that one. “I believe it,” she said. “Oh, yes.”

Laughing felt good. It may not be the antidote to regret, but it sure helped the symptoms fine. All the same, she took a breath and put it away.

“He sent you to see if I was dead, didn’t he?”

Annabel looked down and shook off a rattler that was spiralling up toward her heel. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, a little ashamedly. “But he said you might not be. If, I mean, you was righteous.”

“So I’m righteous then?”

Annabel crooked her head like she was thinking about it.

“I expect,” she said. “Yeah, good chance you are.”

“All right,” said swamp witch. “But if you don’t mind, I’ll take no more chances. You still got that spare set of bamboo stilts I know Reverend used to use in back?” Annabel said she did, so swamp witch held out her hand. “Think you could toss ’em my way? I’d like to go see my dragonfly and maybe your Papa too.”

A moment later, the church hall was filled with a racket like summer’s rain on a metal shed. Swamp witch was making her escape, and that pleased the corner rattlers not at all.

Swamp witch dropped the two stilts by the Reverend’s porch and went in for her meeting. The porch was screened in and the Reverend was there, sitting on an old ratty recliner covered in plastic. Dragonfly was sitting quiet on the table beside him, in a big pickle jar with a lid someone had jammed nails through, just twice. Reverend looked as smug as he could manage, his face stiffened like it was with all the rattler venom.

Swamp witch understood there were days he’d been different: all stoked with holy-roller fire, straight-backed with a level gaze that could melt swamp witch where she stood. That was before he’d found the serpent spittle, before swamp witch had found her own calling.

Did he have any regrets? she wondered. Maybe taking the snake tooth into his arm, letting it course through him ’til he couldn’t even sit up on his own? Raising his young by nought but telepathy and bad example?

Did he regret any of it? She thought that he didn’t.

“Papa says you look like hell,” said Annabel.

“Thank you, Reverend. You are as ever a font of manly righteousness.”

Reverend lifted his hand an inch off the armrest, and his lips struggled to make an “o.”

“Papa’s cross with you,” said Annabel. “He called you a temptress.”

“Well make up your mind,” said swamp witch, laughing. Then she made serious. “We got problems here, Reverend.”

The Reverend agreed, making a farting noise with his mouth.

“This tea-drinking angel,” said swamp witch. “You reckon you know what he’s here for?”

“You,” said Annabel.

“You answered too fast,” said swamp witch. “What’s your Papa got to say?”

The Reverend’s hand settled back onto the arm of his chair, and he sighed like a balloon deflating. Dragonfly’s wings slapped against the glass of the jar.

“Angel wants Okehole.” Annabel put her head down. “All of it.” She looked up between strands of perfect blonde hair. “Its souls.”

Swamp witch rolled her eyes. Everything was about souls to the Reverend. Flesh to him was an inconvenience — a conveyance at best and lately, a broken down Oldsmobile. The tea-drinking man wasn’t an angel and he didn’t want souls. But she nodded for the Reverend to keep going.

“He’s aiming for you,” said Annabel, “because you got all the souls.”

Which was another thing that Reverend believed. This time swamp witch would not keep quiet. “I do not have all the souls, Reverend. You know what I done here and it’s not soul stealing.”

“Ain’t it?” said Annabel. “Puttin’ us all in a jar here — just like your bug! Comin’ to visit each Saturday and otherwise just keepin’ us here? Ain’t that soul stealin’?”

Swamp witch sighed. “Tell me what you know about your soul-stealin’ angel.”

The Reverend sighed and coughed and his head twitched up to look at her.

“He came by here this afternoon,” said Annabel. “Annabel — that’s me — brought him some iced tea made like he asked. He talked about the Garden — about the day that Eve bit that apple and brung it to Adam. He asked me, ‘What if Adam had said to Eve: I don’t want your awful food; I am faithful to Jehovah, for He has said to me: “Eat not that fruit.” What if Adam had turned his face upward to Jehovah, and said: I am content in this garden with Your love, and want not this woman’s lies of knowledge and truth. She has betrayed you, O Lord, not I. Not I. If that happened, would you sustain on serpent venom? Would she be the keeper of your town’s souls?’” Annabel nodded and looked right at swamp witch. “By ‘she’ I took him to mean you. That’s what Papa says.”

“So what did you say to that, I wonder?” said swamp witch.

The Reverend’s lips twitched, and Annabel hollered:

“Begone!” The Reverend’s eyes lit up then as his little girl spoke his word. “I am not some shallow parishioner, some Sunday-school dropout, some holiday churchgoer — oh no, the venom as you call it is holy, the blood of the prickly one and I am His vessel! Begone! Git now!”

“Your faith saved you,” said swamp witch drily.

“Papa ain’t finished,” scolded Annabel. “He says the tea-drinking man got all huffy then. He was calm up ’til then and suddenly his face got all red. The rims of his eyes got darker red, like they was bleedin’, and the lines of his gums got the same colour as that. And his teeth seemed to go all long and snaggly with broke ends. And he said to my Papa:

“‘You don’t tell me what to do. You don’t tell me nothin’. This town will weep for me, like it wept for her.’”

“Her being me,” said swamp witch.

“Exactly,” said Annabel.

“So how’d you best him?” asked swamp witch.

“Didn’t,” said Annabel. And the Reverend grinned then. “Just agreed to keep you occupied. ’Til the tea-drinkin’ angel were ready to finish you off.”

The Reverend’s hand rose up then, and fell upon the jar. His fingers covered the two air-holes in the lid. Dragonfly fluttered at that, then calmed down — no sense in wasting oxygen.

Swamp witch reached for the jar. But the Reverend found the rattler’s quickness in his elbow and snatched it away so fast dragonfly banged his head on the side and fell unconscious.

“Why, you lyin’ deceitful parson!” hollered swamp witch. With her other hand she reached for her pebbles, intending to enunciate peroxide or some other disinfectant canticle. But the pebbles were gone — of course. Annabel and perhaps her brother Tommy had leaned down from the top of stilts and pulled them from her pocket while she slept in the Reverend’s church. “You’re in league with him!”

Annabel leaned forward now, and when she spoke her Papa’s lips moved with hers: “You ought never have been, swamp witch. You ought never have come here and shut the world from this place. You say you are protecting people but you are keeping them as your human toys, like a she-devil in a corner of Hell. The angel will drive you from here, madame! Drive you clear away.”

“Take your fingers off’n my dragonfly’s air holes,” she said. She was most worried right now about her dragonfly. For blinking and recollecting conclusions, she saw that she would not be spending long now in the Reverend’s company. But her dragonfly wasn’t with her either, and that caused her to suspect that the poor creature would soon suffocate if she didn’t do something.

The Reverend, to her mild surprise, moved his finger up. Or perhaps it slid. No, she thought, looking up, he meant to. His face twitched and his lips opened.

“You should never have come,” he said. In his own voice — which swamp witch had not heard in many years now. And behind her, the breeze died and slivers of moonlight dissolved in the shadow of the tea-drinking man.

The Reverend stood up then, and Annabel cried: “A miracle!” and the Reverend took a step toward the edge of the porch, where the yellow-suited tea-drinking man stood, smile as large as his eyes were sad.

“O Angel,” Reverend said, his eyes a-jittering with upset snake venom, “I have delivered her!”

“You fool,” said swamp witch. And she stepped behind the Reverend, took hold of the jar that held her dragonfly, and said to him: “Carry me to Albert.”

That was when the tea-drinking man bellowed. At first, she thought he was angry that she was getting away — trying to sneak behind the Reverend, climb upon her still-groggy dragonfly and sneak out through a hole in the porch screen. If that were the case — well, she’d be in for it and she braced herself, holding tight on dragonfly’s back-hair.

But as she swirled up to the rafters of the porch, she saw this was not the case. The tea-drinking man was distracted not by her, but by Reverend Balchy’s sharp, venomous incisors, that had planted themselves in his yellow-wrapped forearm.

Reverend Balchy stopped hollering then, on account of his mouth being full, and Annabel took it up.

“Gotchya, you lyin’ sinner. Think you can use me? Think it? When swamp witch come to town she took away most of me — you’ll just take away the rest! Well fuck yuh! Fuck yuh!”

Dragonfly swung down, close past tea-drinking man’s nose, and swamp witch could see the anger and pain of the Reverend’s ugly mix of rattler venom and mouth bacteria slipping into his veins. There’d be twitching and screaming in a minute — at least there would be if tea-drinking man had normal blood.

Tea-drinking man didn’t seem to, though. He opened his own mouth and looked straight at Annabel:

“What,” he said, “if you spoke up for yourself? What if you walked the world your own girl, flipped — ” he grimaced “ — flipped your old Papa the bird, and just made your way on your own-some.”

Annabel looked at him. Then she looked up at swamp witch, who was heading for a rip in the screen where last summer there’d been a fist-sized wasp nest.

“I’d never be on my own-some,” Annabel said. “Not so long as she protects me.”

And then swamp witch was gone from there, escaped into the keening night and thanking her stars for the Reverend’s poison-mad inconstancy. The tea-drinking man bellowed once more, and then he was a distant smear of yellow and the stars spun in swamp witch’s eye.

Was it cowardice that drove swamp witch across the rooftops of her town, then up so high she touched the very limits of her realm? Was she just scared of that tea-drinking man? What kind of protector was she for little Annabel, the Reverend, all the rest of them? Maybe when the Reverend was faking out the tea-drinking man, when he said “you should never have come,” he was right. For when she’d come hadn’t she stolen away the Reverend’s faith and the comfort of self-determination from her people and hadn’t she just kept them like she wanted them? Had she ever thought through what it would be if it come to this?

— Why’d you take me there? she said. Were you in league with the Reverend?

Dragonfly didn’t answer.

— Did you know about the Reverend’s double cross?

They flew low through a cloud of gnats, who all clamoured — yes! yes!

— Can I trust no one? swamp witch despaired.

— Hush, said dragonfly. It swung back through the gnats, and swamp witch could see the mists of her home, the Okehole Wetlands, rising from amid the stumps and rushes. Now let’s go home.

Swamp witch thought about how comfortable that would be. And with that, she realized she wasn’t scared of the tea-drinking man. She was scared of something else entirely.

Swamp witch dug her knees into dragonfly’s thorax and yanked at dragonfly’s hair to make a turn.

— Uh uh, she said. After all that, I’m not lettin’ you make any decisions. You know where we got to go.

Dragonfly hummed resentfully, and together they flew down — down toward the business section at the east end of town. There, the smoke and book waited for her, orange flickery light from its sign illuminating a patch in front like a hearth fire.

She reached to the ground by the road, and picked up two pebbles that seemed right, and stuffed them in her jeans, then in she went.

Albert Farmer sat in the front of the store, which was the nice section, all scrubbed and varnished and smelling of fresh pipe tobacco. The not-so-nice section, with the girly magazines and French ticklers and the cigars from Cuba — that was in the back, and this part was nothing but nice. Just some cigarettes and old-fashioned pipes in a display case, and a magazine rack that held nothing to trouble anyone — Times and Peoples and Archie comic books, Reader’s Digests and a lot of magazines about guns and cars and fixing up houses. Albert sat behind the counter, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and sipping at a glass of dark wine he made for himself.

“Sweetness.” He smiled in his way as swamp witch slipped through the mail slot and sat at the counter. “I thought you mightn’t come.”

“The town is under attack,” said swamp witch balefully.

“I know,” said Albert. He pinched off the end of the cigarette, and stepped around the counter. “Come here.”

He looked guilty as hell. But swamp witch stepped over across the floor anyhow. Dragonfly, traitorous insect that it was, flew in back to sniff cigar-leaf and browse pornography.

Swamp witch said: “You know anything more about that?”

Albert smiled. He had an easy smile — teeth too white to have smoked as much as he seemed to, half a dimple on one cheek only. It broke swamp witch’s heart every time she saw it. So when he just stepped up close to her and held the palm of his right hand forward, so it hovered over her left breast, she just let her broken old heart bask in his heat. Her arms fell upon his shoulders, and then crept down his arms, over the shortened sleeves of his summer shirt. O Lord, she thought as he pressed hard against her middle, wasn’t this what a Saturday night was for? Couldn’t it just be forever?

Swamp witch knew it couldn’t. One day a week was part of the bargain.

She pulled back and looked at Albert levelly.

“Why did you bring tea-drinking man here? Why did you let him in?”

Albert frowned. He started to deny it, but looked into swamp witch’s eye and knew he couldn’t.

“How’d you know it was me?”

“I remember the future,” she said. “I remember the ends of things.”

“There’s no joy in that,” said Albert Farmer.

“I know.” Swamp witch stepped away and shook the lust from her head. “It’s not like the beginnings. Those are the real joys.”

Albert nodded. He leaned back against the counter; appeared to think, but it was hard to say because the lights were low.

“Are they?” he finally said. “Beginnings, I mean. Are they the real joys? You ever think much about ours?” Swamp witch looked at him. “You don’t of course. Or else you’d never say that about beginnings. Maybe you’d have killed me by now.”

It was true that swamp witch didn’t think about beginnings but it wasn’t that she couldn’t.

“I loved you,” she said.

“You still do.”

“I still do. But we’re busting up. I know it.”

Albert’s smile faded and he nodded. “That’s how the night ends,” he said. “Will you have a glass of wine with me?”

Swamp witch shrugged, like a sullen teenager she thought, and mumbled, “Mayuswell,” and leaned her butt against the countertop so she wouldn’t be looking at him. She heard the wine gurgling from bottle to stemware, and Albert came around the front of her and gave her the glass. She looked into it, swirled it a bit.

“You knew it had to come,” he said. “From the day we made this place, you know this had to come.”

Swamp witch sighed. She did know — she did remember. But what pleasure was there, in recalling a game of skill against this — this roadside mephistopheles, during the worst afternoon of her life? That was well hidden away, that memory.

At least it was until this moment — this moment, when she once more recalled the crossroads, just to the south of town near the sycamore grove where she sat, bruised and angry and waiting for a bus or some conveyance to take her away. When she said:

I’d just like to send you to Hell.

And when not a bus but a shiny little two-seater from Naples rolled up, and he stepped out and set down the checker board and said, “Would you now sweet mama?” and she said, “Maybe not exactly,” and he said, “Well, care to play me?” and she said, “What for?” and he said, “What do you want?”

“I wanted my town back,” said swamp witch, bringing the wine glass from her lips, “just my town. And just Saturdays. Just Saturdays. And I won it.”

“Fair and square,” said Albert.

Swamp witch set down the glass. “I cared for it here,” she said. “It was mine and I cared for it.”

“Yes,” said Albert. “It was yours. And you cared for it, all right. But not forever. You knew that.”

“Not forever?” she said.

“Only,” he said, “so long as I could keep winning.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, swamp witch. I was wandering, as I sometimes do, the other day — and I came upon a crossroads as I often do — and there who should I see but a sad old sack of a man. And I said to him as I must: Want to play a game?” Albert took a long pull from his wine glass. “And he said to me as he was wont to: I’d love a game this afternoon. And so we set down and played.”

“Checkers?” said swamp witch unkindly.

“A word game — a remembering game. And oh, he was good, and at the end of it — ”

“You,” said swamp witch, “are a sorry excuse for your kind. You never lose a game you don’t want to. And now … You lost my town, didn’t you?”

“There are those who’ve been hankering for it for some time now.”

“Yes — but you.” She set her glass down. “You ought to know better.”

Oh, he ought to. But swamp witch saw in Albert Farmer’s eyes, the back of them where the embers sometimes smouldered, that he didn’t. Couldn’t help himself truly. He was a kind man and kind men helped others with the things they wanted. Fine if swamp witch were the other. But nothing but hurt or betrayal, if it be someone else.

Now, swamp witch knew with regretful certainty that she would not only lose Albert this night — but possibly the town as well.

“Others fight him, you know,” she said, thinking of the Reverend and his poisonous bite. “Others love me better.”

“Oh, Ma — oh, swamp witch,” said Albert, correcting himself, “you think I don’t love you well enough? That is a stinger, my dear. I’ve as much love for you as is in me. Now come — ” he draped his arm over her shoulder “ — there’s little time.”

“Is there?”

“Look,” he said and pointed between the gossamer window covers to the street. There, sure enough, was the tea-drinking man — his suit was a bit mussed and the skin around his eyes was dark with snake spit, which was also why he was moving so funny, swamp witch supposed. He stood a moment in the middle of the road, tried to smooth his hair with his hand and stomped his foot like it was a hoof. Then he looked over to the smoke and book.

Was there a sense in fighting it?

Swamp witch knew better. She leaned over to Albert, and smothered the little space left between them with a kiss. He tasted of salt and wine and egg gone bad, but swamp witch didn’t mind. She let herself to it and lived in the instant — the instant prior to the end, and when she pulled away, the tea-drinking man was there at the big window, looking in with socketed eyes and a terrible, blood-rimmed grin.

“Why’d you let him win?” she said.

Tea-drinking man’s ankles cracked as he stepped away and pushed open the door, jangling the little bell at the top. The sickness was coming off him like a fever now. Swamp witch held onto Albert harder and slid her hands into her pocket.

“I ain’ feeli’ well,” said the tea-drinking man.

“You ain’t lookin’ well,” said swamp witch. “That venom’ll kill you.”

Tea-drinking man shook his head. “Nuh,” he said. “Nuh me.”

He reached around them, arm seeming to bend in two spots to do it, and lifted swamp witch’s wine glass. Unkindly, he hawked a big purple loogie the size of a river slug, let it ooze into the glass and down the side. It fizzed poisonously.

“This is who you gave me up for,” said swamp witch. Albert’s shoulders slumped.

“’Twas only a matter of time before they saw what happened here,” said Albert.

Swamp witch sighed. She snaked her hand underneath Albert’s arm. They stood there at the end now — seconds before it would occur, she could see it clear as headlights, clear as anything. She brought her lips to his, and said: “Goodbye,” then added, fondly: “Go to Hell.”

And with that, Albert stepped away and smiled his sweet smile, and in a whiff of volcanic flatulence, did as he was told and stepped to the back of the store.

And it was just her and the tea-drinking man.

“Why di’ — did you ever want this place?” asked the tea-drinking man. “I’s a rat hole.”

“A snake pit,” agreed swamp witch. “I agree with your sentiment some days. I wanted it because it was rightfully mine. Why’d you play Albert for it?”

“Symmetry,” said the tea-drinking man.

“That explains not a thing,” said swamp witch.

“All right.” The tea-drinking man took a ragged breath. “You took this place off — ” he looked into the air for the word and found it in the old dangling light fixture over the cash register “ — off the grid. The world ran its course, my dear — ran to dark and to light and good and evil. Why, those of us on the outside took the time we had and made things. There are towers, dear swamp witch — towers that extend to heaven and back. Great wide highways, so far across you can only see the oncoming autos as star-flecks in the mist. We’ve built rockets. Rockets! We’ve gone higher than God. And yet this place? Stayed put. All those years. Why?” He gave a drooling little sneer. “Because it’s rightfully yours?”

“That’s right,” said swamp witch. “And whatever you say, it’s better for it.”

Tea-drinking man shrugged. And although he never seemed too inflated, he seemed to deflate then. He slumped a little, in fact.

“What did you think you would accomplish?”

Swamp witch shrugged now. What did it need to accomplish? She wondered. What was the point of this accomplishment anyhow — of taking your powers and making the world into a place of your dreams? Why look ahead — when all that was there were endings and misery? Why not make a pleasant place now?

“And you fester in your swamp,” said tea-drinking man, “wallowing in the muck with your insects and rodents and frogs. I’d drain that swamp, I was you.”

Swamp witch looked at him, and as she did, she saw another ending: one in which all of Okehole County was nothing but an embodiment of tea-drinking man’s hopes and dreams — victim of his regrets.

It was an end, all right — a point too long before she buried her own children and faced her own end. Swamp witch did not like to look upon ends long, but she couldn’t look away from this one: it filled up the horizon like a great big sunset.

“You have got the sickness,” she said. “The dreaming sick. You won’t now give it to me. And you won’t give it to our town. You won’t give it to this county.”

“I already done that,” he said simply, sadly almost.

— No he hasn’t, said dragonfly, buzzing up from the back of the shop. Hop on.

The tea-drinking man tried to grab her, but he was sore and half-paralyzed now from the Reverend’s bite, and he just knocked over a box of chewing tobacco and mumbled swearwords. Swamp witch felt her middle contract and the smoke and book get big and she flung her leg over the back of dragonfly. Tea-drinking man called after her: “You shouldn’t have!” but swamp witch already had, and she wouldn’t let the itchy virus of regret get at her now.

Swamp witch soared. She climbed again to the very top of her domain — the place where the dome of stars turned solid and fruit-drunk swallows’d stun themselves dead. Dragonfly set up there, buzzing beneath the sallow light of Sirius, and swamp witch leaned over to him and asked him what he’d meant by that.

And dragonfly whispered his answer with his wings, buzzing against the hard shell of the world so they echoed down to earth. Swamp witch peered down there — at her town, her people, who from this place seemed even tinier than she was now. She smiled and squinted: could almost make them out. There was little Linda Farley, her eyes dried up and a big old garden hoe in her hands; Jack Irving, with a red plastic gas can, riding shotgun in Harry Oates’ pickup; Bess Overland with a flensing knife and Tommy Balchy, beautiful young Tommy, with a big old two-by-four that’d had a nail driven through it. He was leading the senior class from the Okehole County High School, and a bunch of straggling ninth-graders, down Brevener Street, toward the front of old Albert Farmer’s smoke and book.

Swamp witch smiled a little, with sudden nostalgia. The last time she’d seen her folk like that had been before she’d met Albert — just before, when she’d been invited to leave her home town — on pain of death pretty well. She saw that so clearly, she knew, because it was so similar to her recollection of what was about to happen.

Tea-drinking man was going to pick up the telephone in Albert Farmer’s shop, dial a long-distance operator who hadn’t heard from Okehole County in Lord knew how long, and tell the others that he’d done it. “Symme’ry,” he’d say, then repeat slowly, “sym-met-tree. Is restored. We got it.”

And at the other end, a voice that ululated like wind chimes would laugh and thank him and tell him that his cheque was in the mail, the board of directors was pleased, there was a new office with a window waiting for him, see you later and stop by the club when you get back. And tea-drinking man would with shaking hand hang up the phone, and step outside to survey his new town.

And then — like before, when swamp witch had come out of the pharmacy, the glamour fresh upon her, two smooth pebbles in her pocket and the knowledge that she could do anything — anything! — then, the town would set upon him.

Swamp witch had been faster than tea-drinking man would be. Swamp witch had also known the town, known it like her own soul practically, and she’d cut down the alleyway between Bill’s and the Household Hardware and muttered “glycol,” and vanished from their sight, leaving them all hopped up and pissed off with nothing they could do.

Slow, sick old tea-drinking man, who’d swapped his dreaming sickness for snake sick, wouldn’t have the same advantage.

They’d do to him what they couldn’t ever do to her.

And that would be the end.

— Think, she asked dragonfly, once they got that out of their system, tearin’ themselves up a witch, actually beatin’ one — think it’d cure them of all the regret that fellow’d stoked ’em with?

Dragonfly pondered the question and finally said:

— You don’t ask a question like that unless you know the answer.

— You are a wise bug, said swamp witch.

— Not wise enough to know where you want to go next.

— Hmm.

Last time this had happened, swamp witch had figured she’d head straight for the wetlands and wait it out. Then, she’d been sidetracked by a game of checkers and the promise of certainty. This time, as she directed dragonfly down toward the mist of the wetland and past that to her tiny hutch, swamp witch vowed that she would not pause on her way there. She would spend the next six days in the swamp, thinking about what she’d do on the seventh. It would take a lot of careful thinking leading up to Saturday, because for the first time in her life, she’d be free that night.

The Inevitability of Earth | Monstrous Affections | The Delilah Party