You could have heard it on the dark side of the moon.
Anyone who knew how to listen could have.
Willow Fossor knew.
She freed herself from the school bus and in a rush of relief twirled through a chalky-white cloud of dust. As she did so, she could hear the unmistakable clang, clang, clang of Joe Boy's signal off in the distance. Ball-peen hammer against a plowshare hanging by a chain. She could hear it even with her headphones on. She could hear it over the wounded rage of Nirvana's CD, Nevermind, and her favorite cut, "Something in the Way." Real music. No Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys or intelligence-assaulting rap for Willow. No brokenhearted down-on-my-luck country-western twang: no Dixie Chicks or Faith Hill or George sleepy-eyed, cowboy-hat-wearing Strait. The only music that touched Willow's soul was either the velvet ferociousness of Nirvana or the spine-clawing, bump-in-the-night sound of Danzig's Black Aria.
Joe Boy's clang meant that someone was crossing on the rope-pull ferry to the spit on the backwater edge of Night Horse Creek, which, in turn, flowed into Night Horse Swamp. She could imagine Joe Boy?thirteen, same age as she?his round, homely face sweat-glistened, his hair slicked down with possum grease, his mouth open like a carp bottom-feeding, his eyes small and dark like a muskrat's. Not beefcake or gridiron material. But what a swimmer he was?Willow was certain he could swim across the ocean and that his knowledge of the great swamp was encyclopedic. She believed he could even teach the resident critters things they did not know.
When the ferry signal ceased, she took off her headphones and set her jaw against the chant of her peers: ?Willow, Willow witch! Ain't she a bitch!?
She hated them. Hated their sweat. Hated their intolerance. But loved their fear. More dust billowed as the black and orange bus?colors that made Willow think of Halloween, her favorite holiday?hissed and squealed and groaned away. Fleshy pink faces hovered at the back window, tongues sticking out, obscene gestures flashing like daggers. When one especially brave boy mooned her, Willow giggled at the sight of his fish-belly-white rear flattened against the glass. And then the ugly world of sound and fury swept from her until it became small enough to swallow.
Willow smiled smugly at the sway she held over her bus mates, none courageous enough to sit by her. She enjoyed a certain power over nearly everyone, in fact, at Homewinds Junior High School, Homewinds, Alabama, where her otherworldliness had spawned insecurity and ignorance among both students and faculty. Twice during the current school year she had been temporarily suspended. Once for allegedly putting a hex on Miss Truckett, the mannish physical education teacher who hated Willow with a passion and who had openly vowed to make her life a nightmare. Instead, Willow had playfully cast the evil eye upon Truckett one day in the lunch room as she hovered hungrily over a plate of lasagna. Five minutes later that same lasagna was spewing steamily into the laps of colleagues unfortunate enough to be sharing her table. Truckett, it seems, had picked up a stomach bug upon the instant. Though nothing supernatural could be proven, Willow was sentenced to a two-day exile from school. And then there was the episode involving Tiffany Wilburn, head cheerleader, a flawless blonde who had whispered some catty hallway remark that Willow overheard. By morning Tiffany's pretty bottom had beaded up in the nastiest rash one could imagine?Old Testament intensity. Accusations were leveled, and, again despite a lack of material evidence against her, Willow enjoyed another two-day respite from the citadel of learning. Permanent suspension was hinted at should she step out of line again. Or should it appear that she had stepped out of line again. Willow's mother interceded with threats to enlist the legal aid of the A.C.L.U. to protect her daughter's rights. Things quieted down. For the most part, fear-generated looks that could kill replaced words.
Willow thrilled to the sound of those unspoken, unsayable fears.
And the fear on that bus was as palpable as the dust and the warmth of the late afternoon. It was May. Willow was glad to be alive. She started walking home along the crushed-shell road that bordered Night Horse Swamp, the ancient sanctuary tinderbox dry from several months of drought. Locals blamed the Fossor witches for the dire conditions. Wise swamp watchers knew that a cleansing fire would arrive before summer's end. Willow could imagine the beauty and power of such a conflagration. She could imagine the roar of it and how glorious it would feel to be in the maw of it.
Then last night's dream returned. The yearning essence of dreams fascinated Willow. Her grandmother Fossor had taught her to revere dreams? ?They speak the language of the soul," she had often claimed. For Willow, dreams possessed a stubborn thereness. And this one in particular contained a scene that stirred her with confusing feelings?a vague ache of desire as well as a stab of guilt. In the dream a man (was it really a man or an animal?) was lowering himself/itself upon her, his/its face hidden by a clutch of shadows and this shadow man/animal (a glint of antlers?) was panting hot breath and beyond him/it a voice, one she didn't recognize, was speaking a single word.
A word that made Willow think of the panther. For her, the beast was a wild thing of beauty. The nameless, guardian deity of the swamp. Alone, free, and fierce. Things that Willow longed for. But the dream word and the panther and the shadow man/animal were pieces of a puzzle that would not fit together. Thoughts of the dream quickened her steps. She wanted to get home and tell her Aunt Mushka about the dream, wanted someone to listen, wanted to know why a shadowy man/animal might show up in the nightly projections of a girl-not-quite-a-woman.
Willow suddenly stopped walking, closed her eyes, and cupped one breast.
Her nipple hardened. That vaguely delicious ache again. She rocked gently to and fro locked in some forbidden lullaby. But quickly she blinked back to reality and dropped her hand from her breast. She thought of her mother who had recently bought her a new outfit from the Gap?short black skirt and mauve-colored, close-fitting top with spaghetti straps?to help her blend in at school. Willow, however, liked her long dresses?today's was crimson, the color she liked best?and she liked not wearing makeup, though getting ready for school often meant dodging her mother's ironic request (how many mothers actually want their daughters to wear makeup?) to touch up her lips and cheeks with some color or take a swipe at her with a mascara brush. And Willow positively loved not wearing underwear or pantyhose?no panties or bra. Wearing nothing beneath her bulky dress made her feel bold and dangerous and unbridled.... She liked that word. Besides, her breasts were still small and perky?what was the point of a bra? Her mother insisted she wear one, but her Aunt Gretta sided with her: ?A healthy girl like yourself doesn't need one. Let yourself be natural."
Natural. Another good word.
And Willow liked wearing sandals, even in winter, and she liked jewelry?handmade by her Aunt Arietta: her bracelet of astrological signs, her bloodstone ring, and, most of all, the amulet she wore on a chain around her neck. Aunt Mushka had given it to her the week she got her period??This is to celebrate life and the coming of womanhood. Your flower has bloomed," she was told. On a metal disk the rayed sun enclosed an eye lined in flames. On the reverse of the amulet, these words:
And Willow didn't mind perfume as long as it was from Aunt Mushka's arsenal of herbal scents mixed with honeysuckle and extract of kudzu?the latter smelled unmistakably like grape Kool-Aid. And Willow liked her long black hair, today still plaited in a herringbone design created to mark Walpurgisnacht on April 30 and then Beltane on May 1, a wiccan sabbat to celebrate the setting free of one's spirit from the hold of winter. Willow loved the annual observance when she and her mother and aunts would gather under Night Horse Oak and circle the massive tree and garland themselves and create an altar to the Goddess and light candles and censer and recite words of praise and joy and eat oatmeal cakes and vanilla ice cream and drink cups (Willow was allowed just one) of Mushka's lusty brew of ginger ale, fruit juices, lots of honey, and a cup of alcohol. And there was much laughter and then the soul-arresting reverie of a bonfire.
She hurried on, buoyed by the memory, a memory dampened by the fact that her Grandmother Fossor had passed a few months ago and could only join them in spirit. Willow missed her grandmother. Missed her great wisdom and vast strength.
But there was that word again?a word she hesitated to say aloud.
Was it a word to call out into the Otherworld?
Who or what might respond to that word?
Her grandmother had hinted at the danger of such words.
"But, Grandmother, a witch must be free to speak," Willow had contended.
To which the wise blood had replied, "Do not call yourself a witch. A true witch does not. If someone asks, say simply that you follow the Old Ways." And it was true that the Fossor women were not witches in the popular sense: they did not worship Satan or sacrifice animals or have some coven that performed bizarre sexual rites?and they did not go door to door soliciting new members. They did not ride brooms or shepherd a flock of goats, though Aunt Mushka had a weird blue-gray cat named Rosebud that some might label a witch's ?familiar."
The Fossors were simply a family that revered Nature and their secret selves.
And they followed one rule: And if it harmed no one, do what you will.
But Willow knew that if she were truly to follow that rule, she wouldn't be attending public school. Why couldn't she be home-schooled as her mother and her aunts were by Grandmother Fossor? She knew, of course. She knew that her mother didn't want her always to be a societal outcast. "You must keep one foot in the real world!?
Mother, I don't belong!
A car was approaching as Willow embraced a fantasy of leaving school behind completely: snotty girls, mean boys, suspicious teachers, intolerant administrators. And she had no friends, though a few misguided souls had tried to be?probably because they thought it would be cool to be friends with a witch. Like being in a television sitcom or an MTV video. Willow believed she didn't need them. She had Joe Boy and her aunts, and she had her father despite the fact that he and her mother had divorced several years ago and Willow had chosen to go by her mother's maiden name, Fossor, rather than Scarpia.
It was a pickup truck and not a car. It was roostertailing dust and it sounded like some huge beast clearing its throat. Willow had a pretty good idea who it was, and wisdom dictated that she dodge off into the thick cover at the edge of the swamp. But she smiled to herself. And chose not to. The pickup was black and shiny and filled to overflowing, cab and haul space, with teenage boys clad in baseball caps and unbuttoned shirts. And they would be carrying at least one gun and two cases of beer. When the pickup swung around a bend and sped toward Willow, she held her breath. And as the vehicle rushed past, the rough gaze of the boys raked across her; whoops and predatory cries trailed away from her before another sound: that of a slewing skid like glass shattering. And a screeching turnaround. Willow giggled and stepped off the road into some tall sedge grass before positioning herself a hundred feet or so from the shoulder and yet remaining in plain sight.
Thinking of the word made her feel strong. Untouchable. Like the panther.
The pickup pulled directly into view, idling like the grumble of a bull gator. Shouts and whistles resolved into a few distinguishable lines: ?Suck my dick, witchy girl!" and ?Drink my jizz!" and ?Hey, can you turn Ben's pecker into a nightcrawler?" One boy chucked a huge wad of chewing tobacco at her, but it fell harmlessly into the thicket. Redneck drawls spun off tongues as naturally and crudely as could be; words like ?fuck? and ?pussy? filled the air.
A pack of animals lacking beauty.
That was Willow's thought. These boys were just that: boys. They had no real wilderness in them?no manly wilderness, such as Willow craved, such as she had felt in the shadowy entity from her dream. She knew what these boys wanted. She could smell the stench of their dammed-up sexual desires. She could read their minds?their masturbatory fantasies as bright as fresh blood or the sunrise. She smiled and waved. And they growled eagerly in response. She felt powerful. Then something playful seized her, and in the next instant she seductively lifted her long skirt up past her waist and waggled her bottom from side to side. The bird's nest?as she liked to think of it?between her legs was there for the mongrels to see. A tiny pink bird was hiding in it?something these boys would never see or touch or know.
A delighted shock slammed into the boys. The hoots of surprise were deafening. Rebel yells rang out as if they were charging up a hill to run the Yankees once and for all out of Dixie. Doors slammed and bodies poured from the pickup. A revolver was fired off as harmlessly as a premature ejaculation. Willow laughed. Then she ran. Laughing triumphantly. Loving who she was. Feeling like a creature no human could ever catch. Feeling like the panther of Night Horse Swamp.
She sank into the landscape far beyond the reach of the boys.
Into a realm where one fell into mystery and walked in fable.
A place of constant change.
A thunderstorm was edging closer pushing a dead silence ahead of it. Willow could hear that silence, feel it, just as she could feel the drop in barometric pressure and taste on her tongue the promise of lightning. Then she found her bearings and smiled once more as the barks of the boys faded, a sure sign that they had given up the witch-hunt in favor of cold beers and profanity-laced bravado. She stood at the edge of a coffee-colored pool where tall cypresses were mirrored at her feet. She took off her backpack and slipped her satchel from her shoulder. She kicked off her sandals.
She belonged here. And being here was magic.
Yet, she yearned for transcendence.
Her heart floated on the primeval landscape of purple bladderwort and climbing heath and swamp haw and mistletoe festooned high in the cypresses, her soul rode upon the constant flux of water and vegetation and unseen creatures. Here was a world never the same from one day to the next. With sacred attentiveness, she watched a pair of anhingas cavorting nearby, their feathers shimmering black, their bills as sharp as spears. She watched them so intensely that she imagined at any moment she would levitate or leave her body completely and ghost through the air.
And look down and see the panther.
That creature, the last of the Florida panthers introduced years ago to the Night Horse Swamp by Darryl Crowfoot, a game warden and member of the Bushyeye tribe, as part of a program to help increase numbers of the endangered species. But the program had failed: poachers, disease, and the habitat all legislated against success. In despair, Crowfoot started drinking heavily, built a houseboat, lived on it in the swamp, then disappeared, joining other legendary figures such as J.R. Mercy and Sabbath Choker and his sisters as Night Horse denizens never accounted for.
Willow blinked and the magnificent birds vanished.
Not took flight. Vanished.
Quite suddenly, nothing about the swamp seemed familiar. She felt lost. She wanted her mother and the warm circle of her aunts. Coda. The word skittered through her mind like a large rat. Her father had taught her enough Italian that she knew the word meant ?tail," but she also knew that it essentially meant anything serving as a concluding part? a ?coda? to what, though? It was a mystery. And it was a word she was dying to speak aloud.
Glancing down at the reflection of herself in the backwater pool, her breath caught.
Who was this girl returning her gaze?
Continuing to be arrested by the reflection, she forced a thin smile and spoke softly and cautiously.
"Coda," she said and grasped the amulet around her neck.
At first, she did not notice the response of the swamp, for she felt the need to empty herself, to rid herself of everything that could not belong to her: the backpack (with history, biology, and English texts and handouts and noteBooks), her satchel (with lip gloss, a cutesy dragonfly barrette, and a lavender case for tampons), her sandals, and, finally, her long dress, which she tugged over her head. She tossed everything except her amulet and ring into the pool and watched until every item sank. Free and powerful was what she felt?a naked body could generate more magic than a clothed body. Every witch knew that.
A wind from nowhere played with her hair and caressed her body.
Just as she was ready to wade into the pool, she eyed a dead branch, slightly longer than a yardstick, and decided to use it as a ?stang? to steady herself. She guessed that it was either sweet gum or dogwood. She picked it up. And that's when she began to hear frogs croaking and birds chirping excitedly and to notice water moccasins slithering toward her. A gator bellowed; she sensed its approach. Gas bubbles from decaying swamp peat rippled the surface of the pool.
And one thing more: the panther.
She, too, was responding to the call.
Shivering delightedly, Willow began to wade out into the tepid water. This was the hour for magic, and yet she did not want to wait a single second for whatever was about to transpire. In the back of her mind, in a hot cell of memory, she could hear her Grandmother Fossor guiding her: ?Patience. Magic requires patience," she would say. "Try it gently. Wait for what wants to come."
Willow closed her eyes and nodded.
She held on to the stang tightly.
She imagined herself and the panther as one, sharing a hungry heart. Then she was ready.
"Coda!" she shouted. "Coda!?
She opened her eyes and knew that every living creature in the swamp was aware of her, and in that moment she began to experience what every follower of the Old Ways longs for: waking up.
Opening like a flower.
And as the storm drew closer she imagined sugary flashes of green lightning. Real storm and surreal storm and strange creatures near enough to reach out and touch.
Then the magic took hold.
The stang squirmed to life as a reptile, dropped into the pool, and slithered away. Fear pumped through Willow's veins. Her blood sang. Something was rushing toward her out of the everywhere. She knew she was going to be attacked, but her cry was not in fear.
She began to breathe the air of a different planet.
An urge to fight seized her. Then an urge to run. And yet even more powerfully, an urge to embrace whatever was out there, its hot, panting, animal breath licking at her skin even from a distance. Antler points drawing blood. It was all a terrifying, gorgeous dream she could not wake from.
It was like dreaming past dark.
Dreaming on as the beast attacked.
Surrendering in the blood.
Before silence fell upon the scene like a lid closing on a coffin.
And the thunder rolled.