This story tells how Babet’s mother settled in River city, met Hennie, and became a witch:
My parents journeyed to River City in 1730, drawn by the lure of cheap, rich farmland and the absence of brutal winters. My dad, his hair as sleek and black as a crow’s wing, his eyes as blue as a lagoon, and his feet itchy every five or six years, followed the path his French cousin had taken down the Mississippi. The city, back then, was a wild brew of settlers, a few French fur traders, and riffraff, so we meant to keep mostly to ourselves. Because Dad’s cousin warned us about the voodoo priest who sacrificed random newcomers at the boat landing, we steered to shore early. Bernard met us there.
I stared at the tufts of grasses flourishing between patches of dirt, the trees, unknown to me, draped with Spanish moss. Even the air smelled different. The soles of my feet tingled when I stepped on the soil. My heart beat faster. The wildness of the land pulsed in my veins.
Dad’s cousin watched me as I studied our strange surroundings. “Took me a while, but I got used to it here. You will, too.” Then he motioned for us to follow him, turned on his heel, and we began our long trek. With each step I took, River City became more a part of me. I’d never felt so strange, so alienated from myself. By the time we reached his wooden shanty, deep in bayou country, odd impulses rose and fell inside me.
The heat hugged us in its damp closeness. I felt like I could wring myself out. My scalp prickled with sweat. My dress clung to me. A two-room shack, built of vertical boards with a tin roof, sat close to a swamp that lapped at its front yard.
Mom, with the same light brown hair and sky-blue eyes, willowy figure, and sprinkle of freckles that she’d bequeathed to me, turned in a slow circle to survey the stew of swamp, the abundance of green, and Bernard’s small garden and shed. Then she threw out her arms and declared, “We’ll be happy here. I can feel it.”
Really? All I saw was murky water and unkempt wilderness. If I had a vote, we’d be heading back north.
Bernard’s gaze rested on me. “This place will suit you. People are freer here, accept more. No one lives on the land beside mine.” He turned to Mom. “I’ll take Boyce into town to lay claim to it, if that’s all right by you.”
At Mom’s nod, the men left. She gave us a smile and wandered into the shack to take stock of supplies. When Dad and Bernard returned, she’d have a meal waiting for them.
In a huff, I sank to the ground. At sixteen, I found little to like about our new home. Its raw strangeness overwhelmed me. My senses sorted through too much stimuli. Nothing about River City felt familiar. My two little brothers sagged on each side of me.
Thomas, nine, huffed out a breath. “Of all the places Dad’s taken us, this is the worst.”
George, twelve, nodded agreement. “Mom had to give us both American names, then Dad brings us to a swamp settled by every nationality respectable cities rejected.”
I had to smile. The boys were right.
“What do you think, Rowan?” George asked, nudging my arm.
“I hate it here.” The earth tugged at me, demanding my attention. The air hovered by my ear. Something splashed in the water, and it was too big to be a fish. We’d seen a few alligators, sunning themselves on the river banks, on our trip here. The swamp must be teeming with them. I rubbed my arms. All this water, and we couldn’t step into it, let alone swim. When I glared at it, waves rippled and reached for me. I looked away.
Thomas sighed. “We might as well make the best of it. We’ll be here for at least five years.”
George agreed. “Knowing Dad, this is the place he’ll fall in love with and want to stay.”
I frowned, and Thomas said, “It’s not our fault. You know we’re right.”
“I know.” Not that I liked it. “Let’s go.”
We pushed ourselves to our feet and went to see what Mom was up to. As usual, she was humming while she worked. She was cutting a leg of venison into chunks to toss in a soup pot, hanging over the fire. I found a knife and chopped whatever vegetables I could find, and the boys went to the creek we’d crossed to fetch water. With the soup started, we set about tidying up our cousin’s shack. By the time the men returned after sunset, things were in some sort of order.
Bernard helped Dad build a quick, temporary shelter on our property and taught my brothers where and how to hunt. Game was abundant. Lots of rabbit and deer. A string and hook dangled in the water always caught fish. And crawdads hid under rocks in the creek—lots of crawdads. He showed Mom and me which plants were edible and which helped with healing.
“But you already know that, don’t you?” He looked at me, and I frowned.
He patted my head. “The plants will talk to you in time. No worries.”
Talk to me? Bernard had his quirks.
He ate with us every night before he returned home. “It’s nice to have neighbors,” he said, “even nicer to have family near.”
In less than a month, we had a shack of our own. Dad had built a small shed and bought chickens and a cow from the German farmers north of us. We’d share milk and cheese with Bernard. The boys were digging a patch of land for a garden when the neighbor behind us came to visit.
The minute he stepped onto our clearing, a shiver sped down my spine. I was busy raking dirt when I felt his gaze on me. When I looked up, his hungry eyes scorched every inch of me. His dark hair hung past his shoulders. He looked skinny, but there was sinewy strength in his movements. Mom motioned for us to come welcome him, and he licked his lips at my approach.
His smile reminded me of a gator’s. “Howdy, Miss. I live just over yonder, came to say my hellos to you and yours.” His gaze went to my bodice, plastered to my skin.
I forced a smile, but my lips felt stiff. The air closed in around us, and Mom nodded for us to return to our work. I gladly left him. If he was typical of the men in these parts, I’d rather remain a spinster. Dad came to join Mom, and the three adults talked a while. Relief flooded me when they didn’t invite him to supper, and he left.
The heat and humidity built every day as summer oppressed River City.
“Don’t forget your hat,” Mom called each time I left the house.
I sighed in vexation. “My complexion doesn’t have a chance anyway. What’s the point?”
Mom smiled. “Your fair skin will burn to beet red down here. Take care of yourself.”
I kicked at the dirt on my way to the small shed to collect eggs and milk the cow. What difference did it make if I turned as bronze as some of the Indians I’d seen? Once a month, we went to a social with Bernard, and not one man who asked me to dance held any appeal. Another two years down here and it wouldn’t matter. The sun would dry me out, and I’d look like beef jerky.
Chores done, I picked up my steps. Dad had finally agreed to let me go farther from the house in search of native herbs and plants. Bernard had been right. Certain plants spoke to me. Some worked well in soups, and others brought strange words that I’d never heard before to my lips. I pulled on my wide-brimmed, straw hat, grabbed my basket, and set off for an adventure.
The earth sang to me as I tread on it. Breezes cooled my cheeks. Herbs stretched to catch my attention. I chanted a melody in a rhythmic language, not my own.
I’d filled the basket two-thirds full when I heard footsteps approaching. Was Bernard coming to visit? When I glanced up, though, my breath caught in my throat. Our neighbor was running flat-out toward me. Fear gripped my insides. The look on his face made me jump to my feet and race for the house.
He tackled me before I reached the trees. His weight pinned me down, and his hands ripped at my buttons.
“Stop! Leave me alone!” When I struggled beneath him, he laughed. His hands never quit groping. “My father will kill you.”
He shook his head. “No, missy, your dad will tell me to make an honest woman of you, and then you’ll be mine.”
Horror slithered through every pore of my body. His hand cupped my breast and squeezed. Damn him! I would not spend my life with this bastard. Determination filled me, and then power seeped from the earth. I could feel it enter my skin, slide through my veins, and pool in my palms. It scared and excited me. I pressed my palms against his chest, and he flew off me.
He rose onto his elbows and shook his head to focus. Eyes narrowed, he glared at me. “You ain’t been here long enough to know voodoo. I ain’t afraid of your magic.” And he came at me again.
I scrambled to my feet and raised my palms toward him. “Not another step, I’m warning you.” Where my feet pressed against the earth, the power rushed into me again. Sparks prickled across my fingertips. I raised an eyebrow at him. “Just turn around and leave.”
“Like hell, I will!” He ran at me.
Two, white balls of heat blasted from my palms. They hit him at close range and knocked him backward. This time, his head hit the dirt hard enough, he didn’t get up. His chest rose and fell. Better than he deserved. I left him there, unconscious, grabbed my basket, and raced home.
My dad saw me coming. He stopped me at the shed. His gaze slid to my ripped off buttons, and his expression went dark. “What happened?”
I told him everything. I couldn’t stop talking. Was I a monster now? What had River City done to me?
When I finished, Dad smiled. Not what I’d expected. “You got your witch genes from my mama. Men mostly don’t inherit them, but pass them along. Our neighbor’s lucky he’s still alive. I’d say you made your grandma proud.”
I stared. “A witch?” He knew? And never told me? “Does Mom know?”
“‘Course she does. Lord, sweety, that’s half the reason we came here. Bernard sent word the minute he got here. Magic’s part of this place. No one blinks an eye at it.”
I felt dizzy. I couldn’t believe it. My parents had known, all along. When were they going to tell me? My world turned upside down.
“Why do you think we moved so often?” Dad asked. “Folks up north burn witches. Things happened around you. If people started to talk, we picked up and left.”
My parents had done all in their power to protect me. All these years, and I’d never guessed.
“We were beginning to think maybe your magic wouldn’t amount to much. Most girls get their gifts when they reach womanhood. From the looks of you, it was that time.”
I threw myself at him to hug him. No girl ever had parents as wonderful as mine.
He chuckled. “Let’s hope this means you can sweet talk the dirt into good crops from now on.”
And truth be told, I could. Our farm grew prosperous. So did Bernard’s. We spent several years, enjoying our share of bounty.
Our fourth spring in River City brought torrential rains. The river flooded, and with it, the fever spread. I chanted healing spells and made pot after pot of broths, but the fever still took Mom and Dad and both of my brothers. I buried them behind the barn. River City lost so many people, the cemeteries couldn’t hold anymore. Our neighbor died, and no one mourned him. When the sun finally dried the earth, Bernard packed his bags to leave.
“You don’t need me anymore, and I don’t want to risk another rainy season here. Your magic will keep you safe, but I’m older, not as strong as I used to be. You’ve made me rich, girl. I can settle anywhere and live in luxury.” He kissed my cheek. “This is the right place for you. Make it yours.”
I watched him mount his horse to ride toward Natchez. Who knew where he’d eventually call home? My heart sank as he turned at the bend that followed the bayou and disappeared. Now, I had no one. The farm was mine, but it brought me little pleasure. I went through the motions, tried to keep busy, but solitude weighed heavy on my soul.
Weeks later, I was sitting on my front stoop, head down, feeling sorry for myself, when grass rushed toward me, filling the empty spaces in the clearing. A woman walked toward the house. Plump, with a creamy complexion and a sense of calm, she radiated warmth. With each step, a carpet of green swept out in a rush. When I looked at her, I felt an immediate bond. I can’t explain it, but I knew. We’d be friends for life.
“My husband worked the river. We came down from Indiana,” she said. “He caught the fever and died before we reached River City. I rowed to shore and buried him. I’m Hennie, and I need a place to stay. Magrat said you might take me in for a while.”
“Magrat?” I shook my head. “I’ve never heard of her.”
“She said as much, but she knows you.”
“You came here alone?” I thought of our journey. Not safe for a woman. “You’re lucky you didn’t reach the dock. The voodoo priest would have killed you.”
“The water swept me to shore. It wouldn’t let him harm me.”
I paid closer attention. There were lots of magicks in these parts. “You’re a witch?”
“I’m good with potions. Magrat thought we’d work well together. She’s starting a coven and invited us to join.”
I didn’t know what to make of that, but company would be nice. I nodded. “Welcome. Make yourself at home.”
She tilted her head to study me. “River City hired Magrat to protect it. I’d like to join her coven. I’d like to learn more about what I have. I don’t really understand it.”
“Neither do I.” I thought for a minute. What could it hurt to study my magic? “We’ll join together.”
And that started it all—the witches of River City and Hennie’s and my friendship. The city’s changed a lot since then. It’s modern now. Tourists flock to it from around the world.
Magrat died, fighting the demon Jaleel, and I became our coven’s high priestess. Hennie and I are still friends. Magic still permeates the city’s earth, air, and water. Many supernaturals of all varieties dwell here. That ain’t a bad thing.