Kara held a forked willow stick out in front of her by the ends. Ten-year-old Sam trailed her aunt across the field, their steps swishing in yellowing knee-high grass. The stick quivered, then twisted like a cat, reaching for the ground.
“This is for show, mind,” Kara said. “Folk like to see something happening, something to tell them you’ve done it. But you don’t need the stick, understand?”
Sam nodded, looking up into Aunt Kara’s face. Wisps of fair hair escaped from Kara’s braid and caught the light of the full harvest moon in the darkening sky. If Sam stood in just the right place, she could make the moon into a halo around her aunt’s head.
The moonlight was dazzling-bright, bright enough to cast shadows. When Sam shaded her eyes, she could see her aunt smiling, her one crooked front tooth and the sweet, clear blue eyes. Sam’s mama had those eyes, too, but Sam’s eyes and hair were brown, like her father’s.
“What really happens,” Kara said, “happens inside you. You got to feel the earth. She’s got warm places and wet places, soft and hard places. You can feel the water in her, feel it in yourself. Your feet feel damp and cool, even in your shoes, and then you know you’ve got the right place. The wetter your feet feel, the closer the water.”
Sam nodded again. Kara led her away a few paces in the field.
“Close your eyes,” she said, and spun the child around. She steadied Sam with a hand on her shoulder. “Take hold. Lightly, now. That’s right.” She set the ends of the stick in Sam’s hands. “Now open your eyes, but don’t look too hard at anything. Just walk forward and feel the earth.”
But wherever she walked, however hard she tried, nothing happened. If Aunt Kara took the stick, it bent almost to breaking to reach the ground, but in Sam’s hands it was dead as her mama’s broom.
“Never mind.” Aunt Kara kissed Sam’s cheek and smoothed her sleek brown hair. “We’ll try again another day. There’s always a water witch in this family.”
But they never tried again. Two days later Aunt Kara cut herself canning. The wound sickened and the poison spread up her arm in red streaks. Nothing helped her. She died at the dark of the moon when life goes out of things and death comes easy. They buried her in the family graveyard, on the rise at the back of the farm, where her grandparents and parents lay, and her brother who died a baby.
Sam took the forked willow, drying though it was, and walked in the field every day, trying to find the spot where Kara had held the fresh-cut willow while it arched and twisted towards water. She knew it was foolish. A real water-witch didn’t need a stick, and no stick would help if you weren’t one.
When the full moon rose again, Sam climbed up to the graveyard in the evening. The air was blue and chill with fall. Leaves made a bright rustling carpet for the little graveyard. Sam laid the stick down on Aunt Kara’s grave.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said, “I tried and tried. I’m sorry, Aunt Kara! I’m sorry we don’t have a water witch in the family now.” She cried as hard for her failure as she had for her aunt’s death.
When her tears were gone, she turned and started down the hill. The moon floated before her, and she wondered where she would have to stand to make it into a halo for herself.
When she was halfway back to the house, with most of a field to go, the wind came up, a little breeze that brushed over her cheek and crept through her hair to the back of her neck. She shivered and began to hurry back to the warmth of the house.
Then, just for a moment, the breeze was a warm breath.
“Aunt Kara?” Sam said. Foolishly, she felt as though her aunt was standing behind her, smiling down at her. She paused, longing to turn, afraid it wouldn’t be true.
Then she felt the smallest touch of cold on her left foot, through the woollen sock. The cold spread rapidly across her sole, over her toes.
Bending, she quickly undid the laces of her shoe and pulled it off.
Her sock sagged away from her foot, dripping cold, clear water.