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THE RIVER WITCH Chapters One and Two

“Though I do not believe a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

~Henry David Thoreau



These were the first things I heard, the sounds of women and water on a cool November morning just south of the Cumberland River. My grandmother and two ladies from the Glenmary Baptist church sat in the living room and sang Wayfaring Stranger, Number 459 from the Sacred Harp as my mama labored. Later, the midwife, who was also a Keller cousin, told the story of how there’d been a storm that flooded the hollow, and the rising water threatened to come in the door all night. Stranded in that little house for three days, they swaddled me in a flour sack quilt, decided what to name me, and predicted all the days of my life. Granny Byrne always said they’d never ate as well, fellowshipped as sweetly, or sang with hearts that full of the Spirit.

I was a grown woman, lost and stranded by my choices, before I realized I’d forgotten that story. And then I heard my Granny Byrne. Day and night, she began to sing to me again, an old song, a lesson of water and time.



Chapter One


The realtor Mama recommended was a friend from her days on the Appalachian craft fair circuit. Verna had a hairless Chihuahua named Mistake and a distended tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil running across her belly. I knew this second-hand, thank God. The point is, in my hour of need, this is who Mama turned to for sound advice.

I showed up to sign the lease with my hospital grade cane and my dark hair dirty and falling out of a ponytail.  No make-up could hide the dark circles under my gypsy eyes, the pallor of my olive complexion. Two Percodan an hour before kept me from rolling-on-the-floor cart-the-woman-off out-of-my-mind.  I surprised myself, really, how I managed the whole thing sitting upright in a wingback chair like I was booking a Caribbean cruise.  Someone might have suggested I needed a day at the salon or a fresh t-shirt.  Nobody in the world would have looked at me and said my stars, that woman just lost her child and look at her, what a tower of strength.   

I imagined that was why Verna kept her nose to the listing when she said, “Honey, considering what you’ve been through, I don’t know if I’d be doing as well.”

People had ideas about me, and they didn’t know the half of it.

“Every day’s a little better,” I said. I’d practiced the words until they sounded about as genuine as a toothpaste commercial.

“Never did see you dance myself, but it’s about all my granddaughter can talk about, and her little ballet class. Shelly’s just turned six, and it’s so sweet at that age. Wish we could all just stay that innocent.”

Apparently, I was due for a dose of reality. Sugar Plum fairies were reserved for the young.

“When your Mama called, I told her I’d do whatever I could for you.”

“I appreciate that, Verna.”

“Of course, Shelly’d love to have you sign her ballet bag.  Got it right here under my desk.  But we’ll do that after.”

“That’d be fine.”  No telling what Shelly’s Mama would do with that bag.  Burn it, bleach it, pawn it for twenty bucks and book a day at the beauty shop.  Shelly sure wouldn’t be carrying my name around.  I was no example for any little girl.

Verna finally looked up at me with a little more interest.  “Now this is Manny’s Island we’ve got here.”

“Right off the coast, I know.”

“Well, this property’s been owned for the last decade by a family name of Trezevant.  Seems they inherited.  A brother and sister. Now, I know the girl and she’s a sweet thing. Says they just can’t part with the old home place. My guess is these folks can’t afford to live on it for the outrageous property taxes.  That’s a pretty common problem down there.  They’ll get ungodly offers every other day from developers, but they hold out.  They won’t break up the twelve acres or sell it off.”

“I don’t want to buy anything,” I reminded her.  I pushed my hands between my thighs to keep them from shaking.  “I just want it for the summer.  This is remote, right?”

“Hell, my guess is this here’s the place they’ve got Elvis Presley hid out.  As islands go, it’s about as undeveloped and remote a spot as you’re going to find.  There’s a resort, but it’s pretty exclusive.  Not like you’d be mixing with the snowbirds unless you wanted to play a few holes.”

“I don’t want commercial.  I don’t want to run into anybody for miles.  For days.”

I wanted to be separated from the world by oceans.  By decades.  Planets.  I wanted an alternate reality.

“Nobody’s going to get within a hundred yards of that place.” Verna watched me carefully. “People claim some old conjure woman used to live there.”

I couldn’t have cared less. Verna had no idea who she was dealing with.

“Do you believe in that sort of thing? People can be superstitious, that’s all. But there’s not a thing wrong with the house. Sits on an estuary of the Little Damascus River. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a steal.”

“I grew up on a river,” I said.

All Verna saw was a crying shame. She didn’t make a peep if she noticed the dirt under my fingernails as I signed. She didn’t mention what she’d heard happened to me and my child. Verna Oldham was as close to an angel of mercy as girls like me were likely to come by.


Not even a year ago, at thirty, I was leading a charmed life. Charmed. That’s what people called it, the gift or blessing or obligation that brought a little Appalachian urchin to the sophisticated stages of Atlanta, Georgia. Then I’d screwed up my life with a ridiculous affair with an older man, gotten knocked up, been in a car accident that ruined a promising dance career, and landed myself on my Mama’s couch to recuperate, twenty-two weeks pregnant and barely showing. These days, I was running short on charm.

“I don’t know why people want to bring children into this world in the first place,” I said the afternoon in late June before everything changed. I was trying hard to come up with a way to undo the inevitable. “What kind of person in their right mind thinks it’s a good idea to have babies?”

“Mamas.” Mama sang, her alto voice still strong and steady while she set me up with soft yellow yarn and a crochet needle. I’d dumped all the music from my iPod, the favorite scores from years in the ballet, and replaced them with my Granny Byrne’s music, a sound I hadn’t heard in years. I guess it had Mama remembering, too.

Granny Byrne’s people—not just family, but the community within the cove—sang from the Sacred Harp songbook by shape notes, sitting in a square, facing one another for the call and respond of a fugue.  I hadn’t heard the sound since we’d left, years before when I was just a little girl.  Back then I’d been terrified of it, and loved it just the same, the power of a sonorous layering of voices, the steady climb and crescendo of a miraculous human instrument.  Now, somehow everything that had happened made me remember and obsess. I downloaded hours of the haunting Sacred Harp hymns, and got carried away on the glory train.

“Motherhood is not a choice,” Mama said, when the song ended. “It’s a condition.  Here, let me show you.”  She pulled the needle in and out, looping the yarn so that it formed an even stitch, over and again, crocheting the corner of what would be a square.

Her fingers were methodical, hypnotic as they pulled together a line of neat knots. Surely, we were both thinking of Granny Byrne. She’d died last spring, when I was dancing Swan Queen, and my stepdad, Jackie, had gone in the hospital with a collapsed lung, a complication of the emphysema. By the time Mama got the call, a Keller had already set up the services and there was no time for either of us to make it back for the funeral. We knew they’d rushed the whole thing just to keep us away, and we’d had such excuses for staying away that we thought we could live with ourselves. But we knew better than to talk about it now. When we did say her name, we always talked about her as though Granny was fixed permanently in time, just as we’d left her, years ago.

“I won’t be any good at this,” I said, feeling Granny’s ghost over my shoulder. “I shouldn’t even be allowed.”

I meant motherhood, and Mama knew it, but she simply demonstrated the stitch once more and pushed the needle into my hands.

“This baby’s going to blame me for every damn thing one day.”

“That’s just natural,” she said, waving away my dramatic declarations.  “Don’t buy into all that look-at-what-this-world’s-coming-to business.  The world is what it’s always been.”

“They preach that fence-riding at the Unitarian church?”

I wanted to pick at her new interest in formal religion, which she’d formerly clawed her way out of in Glenmary, TN, and basically taught me was next to brainwashing. But she didn’t even look at me.

“A baby’s going to change everything,” I said. My cycles had never been regular because of the stress of dancing, and so I was already two months gone by the time I realized what had happened. I still wasn’t used to the idea. Even now, if I faced front-on in the mirror, I could almost pretend it wasn’t even a part of me.

Mama only laughed.  “Oh, don’t fool yourself, kid.  It already has.”

Those words echoed in my ears, later.

When my water broke, I was alone. Mama and Jackie were gone to town. I didn’t want to believe it. But I know part of me knew what was happening and made a choice.

I did not call for help. The flood forced me off the sofa and into the tile floor of the bathroom, but I just dragged the sewing bag with me. I finished the square I’d been working on, sat it aside and started a new one. I worked madly. I did not stop until the pressure in my womb made it impossible to continue. The crochet needle dug into my palm, and I could feel the yarn tangled in the fingers of my other hand, stretched across my belly like a web, but it was so easy to lie back. You wouldn’t believe what little effort it took.

It was amazing really, how quickly life could change into something worse than you ever imagined.  I cried over her, I’ll tell you that. She was perfect, a little wax figure, a baby doll. I don’t know how long before I realized I wasn’t going to be able to just lie there forever, but everything had grown cold. Knowing I couldn’t go back, seeing clearly there was no way to move forward, I guess it was right about this point when I went a little sideways.

In my mind, I found my way back to Glenmary in another time. I was walking a steep path up a sweet old rise to sacred ground.

Three blocks from the house, I made my way slowly toward the far west corner of Lenoir Baptist church’s cemetery, past the concrete statue of Jesus.  He’d been holding his arms out to the world all my life and longer, long enough to have lost every finger he had.  Watching over the Baptists had obviously cost him a lot already. I wasn’t afraid. I’d had firsthand experience with the grave as a child, and I was remembering Granny Byrne and a dark hillside long ago when we’d buried her regrets.

It was getting late in the afternoon and the light wasn’t so sharp. I wondered hazily where the day had gone. Underneath a sheltering stand of pine where I hoped the ground was softer, I brought out Mama’s potting shovel from my bag. I wished I could remember one of Granny Byrne’s hymns, but I only had bits and pieces come to me. While I was trying to call up a tune, I realized I’d forgotten the yellow blanket at the house. I’d meant to tuck those crochet squares around my child and I regretted bitterly that I’d forgotten them.

The ground was harder than I’d expected, and my arms were shaking before I’d barely managed to turn up a few little chunks of dirt. It didn’t seem like I’d ever get a hole big enough. I could not even do this one thing for my daughter.

When Mama’s hand touched my head, I looked up to meet her eyes, and for minute, I thought she was Granny Byrne, come down from Paradise. But Mama wasn’t a saint, and she wasn’t singing any sacred song. She was only crying my tears for me. That’s when I saw what she saw. Once before, she’d taken me up and we’d run. But here we were, back on our knees.

“I just wanted to put her to bed,” I said.

Mama knocked the dirt off the shovel and stuck it in the back pocket of her jeans, then tucked the little shoebox holding her grandbaby in the crook of her arm.

We didn’t say one word about what had happened to me. There was no going back to change it, so what was the point in telling the story? Mama handled all the questions from the coroner and set up a time for the interment at the end of the week. She said we needed to pick out a stone. The baby deserved a name, at least.

“I can’t. Not yet. I don’t know who she was.”

I didn’t know who I was.

We went over to the gravesite to stand over the small hole in the earth that had been so impossible for me to dig up on my own. When I tried to sing, Mama shushed me. I’d never known her so silent. And she did what she’d always done when my life was a mess. She started making decisions to clear a path.

She was scared, I think, that I’d run straight back to Glenmary and the poverty, the crazy Kellers, the desperate relatives she’d always resented. She heard me humming the old songs deep in my throat. But Mama knew if I went back there, it wouldn’t be what I remembered, and I couldn’t stand one more disappointment. She couldn’t have me going north, and so she sent me south. She knew something I hadn’t learned yet. If I wanted to sing the Sacred Harp, I had to learn to listen first.


So, maybe I was crazy the day I parked in a lot at a dock and waited for a ferry boat, swatting at mosquitoes and sighing over the expanse of the Little Damascus River. Nearly two months had passed since Granny Byrne had died, leaving so much unresolved, like the fractured bones that burned like fire inside me and the frightening red scars that had only begun to knit back together on the outside. It was three weeks since I’d lost the baby. The first week of August was bearing down on the Georgia coast and my life and body seemed completely unrecognizable.

“Home sweet home,” I murmured, staring across the wide water. It looked nothing like the Cumberland River of my childhood.

Manny’s Island can’t be found on most maps.  If it’s there at all, if a person isn’t careful to inspect, it’s likely to be mistaken for a coffee stain or the remains of an unfortunate insect.  Truly a peninsula, but separated from the mainland by an estuary and thick marshlands, the island lies just off the eastern coast of St. Simon’s, and most people never happen upon the curved spit of land, unless they’ve taken a seriously wrong turn.

But one river was as good as any other when you were a drowning woman.


Chapter Two


Three months earlier, when the summer nights were so heavy with humidity everybody was making deals with God for one stiff breeze, Damascus’s eyeballs were all dried out from trying not to blink, getting ready to make her mad dash. She watched her babysitter’s head nod, a woman who usually worked the reception desk at the resort, her jaw growing slack and her fingers wrapped loosely around an empty V-8 can that threatened to hit the floor any minute. Damascus’s blood rushed in her ears, filled with the game show music as they cut to a commercial.

Go to sleep, old woman.

Damascus couldn’t risk being found out.  Her daddy would put a quick stop to her plans.  If he noticed. Of course, that wasn’t very likely.  Most of the time, Daddy hardly even noticed her, except maybe to have her hand him the paper, or bring him a glass of ice water when he worked in the yard.  He was a disappointment to Damascus so far as fatherhood was concerned.  But she’d only known him ten years, so she guessed it wasn’t fair to pass judgment on a man’s whole life when you hadn’t been around for most of it.  She’d heard people say Urey Trezevant was a charmer, a man’s man, a hard worker, a sly dog.  But not once had she ever heard one person say how much he’d loved her Mama. But love could eat you whole. Just ask the alligators. That was only one of the secret things Damascus knew.

People told their secrets, one way or another, and not just with their words. Damascus knew how to lay low and still. Daddy called it testing the waters. He was a man with currents and tides and that made people nervous, but Damascus was named after a river. And that’s how she knew her mama’d understood about Daddy, too. She’d bestowed the name Damascus on purpose.

Images of a dark-haired woman with soft arms and perfectly rounded fingernails were the fragments Damascus kept tucked in a precious corner of her heart. She had learned a hard truth.  People die in pieces, slipping away, wearing off at the edges until they are thin as the reeds in the marsh, clicking and empty.  Each time she allowed herself to think of something besides her mother, she came back to the memory to find it faded further, the smell of her mother lost, the exact color of her eyes indistinguishable now from those of the lady at the check-out line at the grocery.

But to remember Mama fully, she had to remember the day she’d lain in that sweaty bed, crying and sick from the poison that was supposed to kill the cancer, shouting at her father until it seemed her mother had sucked all the noise out of the world and blown it from her lungs.  Until there was no air at all.  Mama had been taking it out on Daddy, fighting to live, but she knew she would not.  And then, weeks later when it came to an end so quietly, it felt like she’d bequeathed Damascus and Urey nothing to breathe but grief.  The cancer had left only the poison.

Damascus could not remember a father who swung her up on his shoulders and strolled through the autumn sunlight, or one who laughed from a place that vibrated like a drum, or clapped his hands to see her dance.  Hers was a shadow father, a dark thing that slid past her, just out of her vision. Damascus lay in bed with her eyes shut, drifting, and tried to imagine what that other Daddy might have been like, but she didn’t remember a time when he wasn’t tired out from work, grisly around the edges, and saving his best smiles for the women he took out some Saturday nights. He did not want to be with her. He saved his free moments for a barn owl he’d trained to hunt the small things that came out at night.

She alone knew what her mother’s death had done to Urey Trezevant, how he had stopped bathing and had grown a beard, Damascus believed, just so he could pull it out in tufts with his own two hands.  Their love must have been fine. She imagined he held her Mama for five hours after she’d gone to God, cold, the color of a stormy sky, and so small.  Damascus held those images close.  So close, they had blocked out most all other memories that came before.

The babysitter squinted in her direction, made a there’s-no-sense-to-it face and shook her head a little before turning her concentration back to the TV.  Damascus chewed a nail.

Within thirty minutes, the old woman’s thin chest rose and fell with a deep breath.  Two minutes after the sitter started snoring, Damascus scrambled to retrieve the tray of peat pots she’d kept hidden for weeks on top of the refrigerator.  Clutching the trays, Damascus was quiet as the creatures that hid from her father’s owl. She went out the back of the cottage, a two bedroom house provided by the resort where her father worked as grounds manager, padding softly across the short grass of the twelfth green. She dashed through the wood that separated the old Trezevant farm from the damn High Dunes Resort.  Damn High Dunes, that’s what her daddy called it, and so Damascus did as well.  She liked saying it just that way, knowing she was cursing the place just a little.

“Damn High Dunes,” Damascus whispered aloud.

The cool evening breeze made her neck cold where the jagged little wisps of her self-fashioned hair-do did little to keep her head warm.  But she liked it.  No fuss.  And it was shocking.  Her daddy rolled his eyes when he first saw it—a boy cut that made her look like some dirty blonde clipper-job gone wrong.

She pulled the bill of her ball cap down low over her eyes the way she’d seen her father adjust his hat all her life. He’d fought to save Mama, but he couldn’t. He’d fought to keep this farm and the island the way he remembered, but he couldn’t. And now, just this morning, Damascus had overheard him arguing with Aunt Ivy. It was about Damascus, how Daddy was neglecting her. That’s the word Aunt Ivy used. Everything her Daddy loved got taken away. Now, they wanted to take her, too. That’s why she’d opened the seeds. He’d had to fight by himself ‘til now, but her mother had left a secret for them, and Damascus believed she was finally old enough to understand it was her fight, too.

About a hundred years ago or something like it, the Trezevants had farmed the wild riverbanks all along the Little Damascus River.  They’d been tenement farmers making a living off the place.  But by the time Daddy came along, the farms were disappearing and people were building big beach houses and then a golf course, instead of planting tomato fields, and Daddy became a grounds manager instead of a farmer.  Urey Trezevant had never raised a single crop, except his daughter, and he wasn’t doing a bang up job of that.

Damascus knew the whole story from cousin Shayna, who liked to tell anybody who’d listen. When the old woman who had raised her father and aunt died, she left the house and twelve acres to Aunt Ivy, and Damascus’ daddy was furious. Anybody would have been burned up by that after all the work her daddy’d done for Aunt Delia. That’s when he left the island, just took up and went on the ferry one day, nobody knowing where he’d gone. They still didn’t know, really, since he wouldn’t talk much about it. He was gone without one word for seven years, until Aunt Ivy and Uncle Will nearly lost the farm.

Daddy showed back up just like he’d left, without a word to anybody. He brought the owl with him and it scared Aunt Ivy, who said it was a bad omen. And he brought Damascus’ mother, a girl named Fawn, without any family of her own. He had money enough to buy the farm from Aunt Ivy and Uncle Will and pay off some bills they couldn’t pay. Uncle Will’d yelled at her daddy in the yard, even though he was helping them, and a truck had come and moved all their things out so daddy could move in.

He’d married Fawn after that, and had Damascus a few months later, but they’d only spent three years there before she got sick, and pretty soon there wasn’t an extra penny from his paycheck for savings or taxes or bills.  They used up everything they had, everything he made at Damn High Dunes, and the money he got for the extra fishing charters he took on the weekends only kept them fed.  And Damascus hadn’t felt full since.

When Fawn died, they left the farm and moved into the cottage at High Dunes. Ever since, old Otis Green had lived as tenant on the farm, and Urey had become the landlord, just like the men he’d hated his whole life. When old Mr. Green went in the nursing home last fall, the house sat empty until her daddy decided to rent the place again, at least for the summer.  “Then we’ll see,” he’d said to Damascus.

But Damascus knew things weren’t going to change. They never would. Not unless she changed them.

Scuttling down the bank to the water, she held a tray of pots close, careful not to trip and fall, following the path by memory in the dark.

Inside a seed, there is a miracle. 

Those were her mother’s words.  She’d scribbled instructions on the back of a brown legal envelope.  Inside, she’d left seven pumpkin seeds.

You must search for the perfect spot to plant your seed and then you can’t forget about it.  Care for it every day, without fail.

On the envelope, Fawn Trezevant’s handwriting looked like flowers and ribbons.  For years Damascus had traced the loops and slants, loving them for their sweet shapes alone.  Before she could read, their meaning was a mystery that kept her tied to Fawn, an inky umbilical cord reaching from this world to the next.  But two years ago, third grade changed everything.  She didn’t go to public school. Daddy was afraid of how the kids there would treat her, what they’d say about the Trezevants and how people talked about what happened to Mama. So Aunt Ivy homeschooled Damascus and it was so easy. Damascus about did her work in her sleep and since Aunt Ivy worked so much, she didn’t have time to come up with extra stuff. But third grade meant penmanship and Damascus was excited about that. She actually spent extra time practicing on notebook paper when she ran out of room in the workbooks. Out with block letters and in with cursive writing. Time to grow up.

She hadn’t expected it when the words came clear with purpose and meaning. Damascus had simply pulled the envelope from her underwear drawer as she had hundreds of times before.  But this time the words came at her in a rush.  Without warning, she’d read her mother’s message.

It felt like a kick in the stomach, like falling without catching yourself and having all the wind knocked out of you.  She hadn’t realized until that instant that she didn’t want to know what the letter said.  It was better to be able to imagine anything she liked, just what she needed, any time she needed to talk to her mama. Sure better than stupid instructions for growing seeds, like she couldn’t figure out how to do that by herself. But once you know something, you can’t un-know it.  Even now, she felt terrible about how carelessly she had wasted her mother’s words, their last conversation gone in a blink. And she didn’t know what to do with it, so she’d done nothing. That was the worst part. Except she’d decided for sure that she didn’t want to learn anything more than she had to. She did the work Aunt Ivy gave her, but that was all. And even when the required tests for the state showed good scores, she refused to even talk about public school when Aunt Ivy brought it up.

You can’t be hasty. You can’t be careless. Once you plant your seed, it will have to make the best of your choices. 

Still, she’d made it a ritual, reading the words of mama’s letter.  She’d memorized them, but she read them anyway, forcing her eyes to slow down and follow the letters even as her mind tried to race ahead.

Seeds need warmth, light and water to survive.  They grow best in soil that has something to give, but not so rich that the seed doesn’t have to work at making something of itself.

And then, weeks ago, she’d overheard Aunt Ivy in the yard at High Dunes. She was rattling a paper at Daddy, telling him he might could let his own life go straight to hell, but she’d be damned if he would take Damascus with him. Damascus waited to hear her daddy chase Aunt Ivy off. She listened hard, but he didn’t say one word. That silence about scared her worse than anything before, and worse, she felt sick because part of her wanted to go with Aunt Ivy. That’s when she knew she couldn’t wait anymore. If seeds were miracles, her daddy needed one.

She’d put the seeds on a paper plate and dampened them, giving them a head start to sprout. They had started to smell funny.  They were peeling in translucent layers, and she’d been worried it had already been too long since the day her mother put them in the envelope and sealed up their secrets.  But Damascus hid them on top of the refrigerator to keep warm, sending them all good thoughts.  The first green shoots were enough to make her feel like she’d done the impossible.

When the first little sprout appears, it will demand your protection.  It will scare you to death, how easy it can be squashed.  But when everything seems to work against you, when the world tries to kill your vine and the hungry things come, remember a good fight makes the strongest fruit. 

She remembered the day her mother dug them out of the biggest pumpkin Damascus had ever seen.  They had glistened, moist and buttery pale, smelling sweet and new. Her mother had sat these seven aside on an open newspaper.  She had chosen these seven seeds from all the others for reasons Damascus could only imagine.

Watch over what you’ve planted. Treasure it and it will grow.  And most important of all, don’t be afraid to cut deep and cut loose when things ripen. Don’t be a girl who lets her gifts rot on a tough old vine.

Damascus had already let so many growing seasons pass while the seeds waited for her to be old enough to understand what she had to do.  But this spring she’d looked to the moon, a pale sly wink starting to climb into the evening sky.  The almanac said it was a new moon, the time to start the seeds.  She had searched out a book at the library that said to let them sprout inside peat pots and grow strong before she’d put them in the ground to work things out for themselves on the banks of the Little Damascus.  There were so many doubts, things she did not know that might ruin everything.

One she did know, the worst she could never have imagined. Her daddy had rented the farmhouse to a woman, a dancer who’d gone and wrecked her car and herself, and people were talking about what kind of trouble sends a woman like that running down here. So Damascus was listening, and what she heard just about did her in. Nonnie talking witchy ways, looking nervous so her eyes rolled up white in her head while she whispered to Aunt Ivy how she’d seen that woman coming in her dreams. “She gone set up a nest in your house, gone call up those gators from deep, deep with her broken heart. They gone rise up and put the dead to rest.”

Damascus had to see for herself if this Roslyn Byrne could be a new conjure woman, if she could call the alligators. The Seminoles believed alligators could speak for the dead. The thought gave Damascus a chill. Because if it was true she knew how to speak to an alligator, then Roslyn Byrne had a power in her, one that could change everything. But besides that, Damascus needed to know where that woman stood on pumpkins. That was all.

Anxiously, she scuttled across the resort grounds and followed the river until she was standing at the edge of the yard where the security light pooled.  She stopped just there, in that spotlight. In the dark, the living mystery of the ancient tributary that was her namesake swirled before her.  No telling where that water had been.  No way a girl like her would ever know the secret depths in the belly of the sea where this river sprang to life.  But when she closed her eyes, Damascus could hear the water running, a promise, a sense of her own beginning.

It made her blood run to her head just thinking about all the things crawling around out here that made the grownups in her life stomp their feet and point their fingers in crazed worry over her.  But as far as Damascus was concerned, if she got eaten up sometime by one of the alligators that had become a menace on these islands, the river could have her then.  She wouldn’t care.  She’d grown up listening to Nonnie talk about the old folk crossing the water when they passed, and Damascus wanted more than anything to know what was on the other side, where her mama’d gone. Was it beautiful? Was it lonely? Was her mama happy there, or worried, watching them on the island? She needed to know. When you got there, did you forgive the people that went right on living without you?

She imagined the other side of the water like a mirror reflecting the island and the life her mama’d lived, only on her side, everything was perfect. Maybe if she followed the river, Damascus thought, it would carry her soul past the curve that bordered the resort, the current rocking her, guiding her toward the open waters, toward that greatest mystery of all, a middle place where she could touch both sides.

On her knees in the cool, sandy soil, she counted the precious plants, although she knew the number of her hopes.  Seven reasons to believe.  She’d laid them out with purpose, as God Himself must have lined up the first days of this world.  Here was the promise of life that would depend solely on her care; seven ways her mother had trusted her to be able.

She’d built her sacred mounds, same as the Indians, and dug into their soft centers. She’d told herself that she was that kind of girl, someone who deserved to hold the future in her hands.  She’d imagined pumpkins sprouting overnight, enormous and juicy, undeniable, big enough to hold a little girl.  Those seeds held more than the promise of pumpkins. They were keepers of memories and wisdom as old as the earth. They were the return of the Trezevants to this farm, a sign to her father that when summer was up it would be safe to come home.

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