Looking Back


fiction by Rachael Jennings


There were cliffs
and straggling woods. Bridges over voids,
and that great grey blind lake,
that hung above its distant floor
like a rain-filled sky above a landscape.
And between meadows, soft and full of patience,
one path, a pale strip, appeared,
passing by like a long bleached thing.
And down this path they came.
all things were there once more: forest and valley,
and road and village, field and stream and creature:
and that around this grief-world, just as
around the other earth, a sun
and a silent star-filled heaven turned,
a grief-heaven with distorted stars –
she was so-loved.
— Rilke, Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes

I. In the deep, still woods

When we were young, we flooded to the creek to stand ankle-deep, to have picnics with homemade bread, and to sit with fishing rods and our fathers, never catching anything but jumping when the current bubbled. We lived off stories and pickup baseball at the park and repetition: jump rope songs and dinner times and dinner manners, the carved out names of our parents under sliding boards and in tree bark where we played, reminding us always that they once taught themselves to skip flat stones across Crumb Creek—that one day we would teach our children dinnertime manners and sit in living rooms with the keepsakes that we might inherit: a red kerosene lamp, two wooden mallard statues, a collection of matchstick boxes.

Our mothers decorated the playrooms the way they had been when they were young, when all of the Castle Rock girls played dress up with their mothers’ mink coats and bridesmaid dresses. I inherited a train set that could only be set up in its entirety near Christmas, circling the tree and foil-glinting presents. They stenciled the walls of my playroom with ships and waves and whales and Elizabeth’s with ivy: It will be timeless, they said. She’ll never grow tired of it.

Their homes were mismatched mirrors: the same books on the same wooden shelves, maps on the walls of a region or place name, Blue Willow chinaware dusted and poised in the china cabinets that differed in degrees of dust and fingerprints and little more.

Our mothers were so different, though they were so close: my mother wore beaded ponchos and spoke like music. She had a flame of red hair and almond eyes, and she whispered and shrieked and cackled and danced—spontaneously, through the airy living room, across the yard while retrieving the mail. She tousled my hair and made me wear a beret cap when I walked to the school bus, but I crumpled it away and stood with the other boys—glowing red—at the orange gate. She made me jam sandwiches even though my father said they were too sugary, and she called me her muse when she was painting. We played the piano together. We laughed. I felt guilty about the beret.

Elizabeth’s mother always wore white: black and gray and dark red lipstick that stuck to her children’s cheeks through time. She had a deep voice and was always calling for someone to get her a cigarette. She went by Mare, though she—and all of the girls—were named after saints, and she wore fur and always seemed to be fumbling for gin or an olive jar. She did the laundry, did the dishes, listened to the radio, and sang in a surprising soprano as her kids curled their hair and knocked down blocks.

When she caught Elizabeth and me talking about the witches who lurked under the bridge that framed a broader, deeper part of Crumb Creek somewhere far away, Elizabeth’s mother used to sigh and then use one of the expressions that she and my mother shared.

Some of them lived there, and they did spells and lit fires and wore dark clothing and dark eyes, Elizabeth and I would say.

They are not witches, Elizabeth’s mother would say. They are just bad seeds.

Just like my mother, Elizabeth’s possessed a thousand sayings like that. Sayings about seeds and clouds and horses and streams. She was a gardener, and while she was pregnant with Elizabeth she grew ivy along a twisting path. It snaked down a slope of rock and mica, twisting around the corners of their house and into a pit. She told Elizabeth’s father that she had dreamed it: her daughter would be an explorer, and she would want a vine fortress as soon as she could walk. He used to tell everyone in the summer when the neighbors were all together, swatting mosquitoes.

It’s a sin—she said that, too, and she said sin like a prayer. But she never said it for things that their priest spoke of. She said it instead when Mrs. Gibbons died and Mr. Gibbons continued to change the flag that hung on their porch with each season, always new colors or a dog or butterfly or Christmas tree; or when the older kids were playing football near the creek and Dennis Sullivan’s teeth went into his brother’s forehead—his yellow, browning teeth—or when one of the witches was on the news and graffiti that said her name started flaring up under the bridge.

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

Heavens to Betsy!

Never change horses midstream.

Don’t have a cow.

From our fathers, sometimes: Well, I don’t know whether to shit or wind my wristwatch.

Our mothers, as always: It’s a sin. It really is.

We made up our own language, Elizabeth and I, but we only used it when we were in the playroom or walking back from the creek or sitting in the ivy pit. When we used it once at the bus stop, and one of the older boys said that I was Elizabeth’s boyfriend, and Elizabeth whispered, “Guess we should keep our secret language a secret,” as she hopped up the step.

Elizabeth and I used to sit in the big bay window, palms against the glass, staring across at the Gribbon’s flag. Once we founded a spy club there. Another time we formed a band and wrote a song about caves and robbers.

When we remembered, we always used to forget whose idea it was. We had always only ever stood on the same lip of Crumb Creek: fishing, picnicking, splashing. But one afternoon, palms glass-pressed, we decided to explore the creek, to head in the direction of the bridge, the witches, and everything we could imagine—everything else we never would.

The woods glittered with green on the edge of the playground, and the walk to the creek felt closer than it was. We were always guided by the rush of half-blue, half-mudbrown water. The path to our familiar bank was bent with sidestepping twigs, cleared by fathers and dogs, and it squirmed through the forest until the clearing broke into undappled sunlight. Our bank had mica-glinting sand and dirt that we scoured for arrowheads and quartz, and in the center, a small island of weeds—and often, wildflowers—rose. We called it Pebble Island because it served as a landmark in our rock-skipping contests. Whoever could skip a rock all the way onto it was usually treated like a king all day.

“How will we know which path to take on our way back?” I asked Elizabeth as we stood by our bank in the shifting sunlight.

“Don’t be silly, Ollie,” she said. “Pebble Island. We’ll know because of Pebble Island.”

She swung her picnic basket, the light making her eyes as green as the leaves.

“Shouldn’t we eat first? Before we start towards the bridge?” I asked.

She reached out and took my hand. “Don’t be nervous, Oll. We’ll be just fine. We’ll come back before dark. And I put a flashlight in with the sandwiches. Just in case.”

“Oh, no that doesn’t matter,” I shuddered. “We can stay however late as it takes.”

She let go of my hand, pulling the coils of her golden hair into a bun.

“Okay, then let’s get walking! Hop to it!”

We laughed—because that was something our moms always said—and started down the bank, following the water towards the mottled shadows and unskipped stones of unexplored territory.

When I remember that first day, I always think of wanting to say thank you to her—to the girl who packed a flashlight for me and held my hand, who stood next to me at the bus stop when the older boys took my cap and squeezed my arm so tightly as I whispered to myself don’t cry don’t cry, who passed me notes in our secret language at lunch when she was sitting with the girls and I was sitting with the boys. One time I laughed so hard at what she had written that I spit out my milk. She watched me with glowing eyes as Sister Sarah Thornton gripped my shoulder. I walked with such pride as I passed Elizabeth’s table on my way to the sinks, knowing that she was smiling as I went by.

 Led the trees, / led the wild beasts of the wilderness

Every time I remember the castle we found, I see it differently—and every time I believe it more and more. I’ve wanted to go back to find it, but my heart quickens and my breath gives itself away to the memory of Elizabeth. It’s been decades since I have stood there with her, and without her.

Sometimes I imagine myself walking back there in a dream, and I search for miles—until I am past the bridge with the ghost names of witches—and when I reach that bridge, I say aloud, God, I must have missed it. I could’ve sworn… And I retrace my steps and the roots turn into snakes and I want to sing but my voice comes out silent and I feel eyes watching me in the flickering branches and I’m afraid, and then I start to feel like a little boy, walking to the sink to wash milk from my chin, from my hands.

We made two promises and a wish for extra measure when we found it: one, that we would never tell anyone, and two, that we would never look back when we were leaving—for fear that it would all disappear. When we found it, we wanted to keep it.

The castle was crumbled, stones and mortar and tall grass. The windows almost held curtains, and when we looked again we saw them fluttering. It was on the other side of the bank, and Elizabeth said, This shouldn’t be here. My sisters said there’s nothing down here. No houses. No…castles. I believed everything she believed, and when we leaned closer, ankles in the water, she reached over and touched my wrist, found my hand.

“Oliver. It’s a castle. It really is. And —”

“And ducks! They don’t look like mallards, Beth,” I said.

Dark, slick ducks were floating towards us, against the current. Their breasts were red like robins, which my mother always said was good luck. But ducks were not red.

“Red!” Elizabeth laughed. She squeezed my hand.

The water was sparkling, glistening in a path that seemed to flicker right up to the derelict castle. Some sparks were jumping, leaping into the sky, and the ducks flapped their wings. It sounded like clapping. They were clapping.

“Clap too!” Elizabeth shouted, breaking away from my hand.

We clapped and clapped and I splashed her with the water, and then we saw the sparkles turn to fairies. They looked like the fairies in one of the paintings my mother had hung above our piano, where I practiced do re mi, do re mi. They were quick, floating, jumping into reeds.      There hadn’t been reeds anywhere else along the banks of the creek, only wild grasses: boring, expected, untamed. The reeds stretched stomach-tiltingly.

The wildflowers were different, too.

Flecked with fire-orange mouths, and spine-like.

“They’re Venus fly traps!” Elizabeth laughed.

“They can kill bugs! They can kill people!” I shouted.

She leapt forward.

“No! Elizabeth!” I grabbed her arm.

“Ollie. I’m not going to get that close,” she smiled. “If we do, it will disappear! We can’t cross the bank.”

“We can’t ever tell.”

“We found it. Our own secret world.”

“Our own castle!”

“And man-eating flowers! And red ducks!”

“We found it!” I splashed her again, and the sparkles turned to fairies, turned to fire that danced in the sky.

When we left, I wished that I would marry Elizabeth.

She asked me to tell her what I had wished for, but I said what my mother always told me: If you tell, it won’t come true. Elizabeth had picked a blueberry from an overhanging branch and thrown it at me lightly. We both laughed. The ducks clapped.

We packed tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches and walked to our castle as often as we could.  We kept our promises and wishes, and before we left each time, we would say, “I promise I won’t look back! I promise I’ll always come back!” after spinning three times with our eyes closed, and after the spell was said we marched forward over cracking twigs, keeping our words and our eyes ahead.

We sang as we marched along the bank, most days. We asked each other so many questions. The days streamed together:

Want to build a fort?

Want to try to make a mural with the ducks?

Do you think capturing it would ruin it?

Do you think our moms ever saw this when they were little?

How far do you think the creek goes?

What if we became witches?

We would be a witch and wizard, though, wouldn’t we?

Would you ever talk to them, under the bridge?

One day, while we were picking berries, she said: Do you think, when we grow up, we won’t talk anymore?

I had always thought that we would live right there, in our parents’ houses.

Elizabeth lowered her dress skirt, which she had been using as a basket for collecting berries. Some of the blue crushed into the white of the skirt, leaving bleeding constellations of polka dots.

“Do you think we’ll still be in Castle Rock?”

“Yeah. Yeah, where else would we go?”

“I want to live in Egypt,” shrugged Elizabeth.

She had been checking out library books on mummies lately, and one day she had taken long threads of grass from the side of the creek and woven them into a ribbon-like design, like a keyhole. She had told me that it was an ankh, a symbol of eternal life in Egypt.

I remember asking her once, do you really believe that? That’s from Pharaohs and mummies. Not saints. Not God.

She had said, Just because our parents don’t say it doesn’t mean I can’t believe it exists. Don’t you believe in things they don’t? Don’t you believe me?

Of course I do, I had said. When I thought of it, I added, I believe in the castle and the fairies and the ducks. All of it.

“Egypt will be just like this creek, with crumbling palaces. And magic,” she sighed.

“That’s really far away,” I mumbled.

“Well, you could come with me. If you wanted.”

“Yeah. If we got married or something. But then who would live in our houses?”

“One of my sisters could live in mine.”

I stared at her toes. She always walked barefoot. Her toenails were painted orange.

“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather marry, Oll,” she said.

“Aren’t there, like, snakes and scorpions in Egypt?” I asked. I stuffed a handful of berries into my mouth. They were warm and sour.

“You’d be fine. We could make up a spell to keep them away,” she said, reaching into her skirt and popping a few berries into her mouth.

I think she said something about the ankh or one of the spells we had made up earlier. There was a thin strand of blue dripping from her mouth. She reached up while she was talking and wiped my chin with her thumb. Then she was talking about blueberries.

When she kissed me I thought about how light her eyelashes were and how many tiny freckles dotted her nose, and then I thought that I should close my eyes, too. Her mouth was warm and tasted like blueberries, and we stayed standing like that for what felt like a long time, very quiet.

She stepped back, and I stood still.

“I’m afraid that if we got married, we wouldn’t talk. We would stand around and just be quiet, like parents do,” she said.

“We’d never do that. We’d always have lots to say.”

“Good,” she smiled. “Okay, good.”

She started to walk back along the creek, and I followed.


Without turning, she said, “No, I won’t tell anyone. Don’t worry!”

I had wanted to tell her that I loved her.

We asked other questions too, questions that repeated themselves.

What do you think it would look like, if we looked back? Would it all melt away?

Do you think our parents ever saw it? Do you think they looked?

Do you think they still go back?

It was quiet, and the birds’ songs sounded slower, trying to answer.

As the summer moved in waves, steeping, sweltering, simmering, shivering with what we knew would be the end of things, my questions grew more and more frequent, and Elizabeth grew quieter and quieter, listening to the birds.

What would it look like, then, if we looked back?

Do you think they ever find it again, Elizabeth?

Do you? I would ask.

We picked berries into July and gathered the dark ones to make into a cake for the Fourth. In our secret language, I said, “Elizabeth, our mothers will think they’re on cloud nine with the cake!” as I popped one into my mouth.

Secretly I hoped some would drip and she might kiss me again.

She blinked up at me, drawing in the dirt—not in symbols or words, just vague swirls.

“Huh?” she gaped.

“I used their language and ours! Combined them! Do you want me to say it again?” I asked, in plain English.

She blinked again, looked a little bit like my mother when she painted.

“Did you forget the word for mother?” I tried.

“Yeah, I think I did. What is it, Oll?”

“Res,” I smiled. “That’s an easy one. Want me to quiz you?”

She shook her head.

“Okay. Come on. How about school?”




She shrugged again. “I think I might just draw.”

I plopped a skipping rock in my pile. “Oh,” I said, sinking to the dirt next to her.

A dragonfly flitted past us, landed gently on the skipping-rock pile.

Its wings looked like ornaments for the tree but flat, shards.

“Animo,” I whispered, which was the word for beautiful.

“Animo,” she echoed, and tossed a pebble, which bounced off my ankle.

“Come on, Oll. Let’s skip for a while.”

I reached for a rock, and the dragonfly zipped away, the birds chirped, and the sun squeezed through my shirt, prickling my shoulders and flicking freckles across her nose.

“Which word is your favorite, Beth?” I asked as her rock counted one, two, three, four. “In our language, I mean. Which one?”

 Taken from the loom / too quick

It was August, when we made our last expedition.

We didn’t bring sandwiches. Elizabeth said that she wasn’t hungry.

When we reached the castle, I said, “We should go find that potion we were working on. The one with the roots. Is it near the fairy houses?”

Elizabeth scuffed her shoe in the sand.

“Hey. You’re wearing sandals,” I said.

“Yeah.” Her eyes were big. She was beautiful.

“Well. Come on!” I said, pulling her arm. “Let’s get to it!”

“Hop to it!” Elizabeth laughed.

I smiled and scooped a handful of tall grass from the silt. “This’ll be good.”

Elizabeth just stood there, staring at the water.

“Elizabeth. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Tears welled in her eyes.

I stepped closer to her, and she stepped farther into the water.

My corduroys sagged with water as I waded after her.

She slid forward like she was part of the water herself, and I followed.

“Elizabeth! Don’t get too close! Remember, we can’t get too close to the castle!”

Her hair was golden in the light, glittering like the sparks around her.

She didn’t face me as she said it. “I can’t see it.”

Her voice was lead.

“What?” I stuttered.

“I can’t see it!” she shouted, turning to me. Her eyes were puffy now.

“What do you mean, you can’t see it?”

I stepped back towards the bank.

She opened her mouth. Closed it.

“What do you mean? What do you mean?”

“I can’t see it. The house, the ducks. I can’t see any of it. I just see you. And the bank. And the water.”

“Did you look or something? When we left last time, did you look?”

I knew I was shouting, and I felt like my father.

“How could you even think that?” she said, tears sparkling in her eyes.

She waded towards me, passed me, kicked at the pebbles.

I lurched towards her, suddenly and half without knowing what I was doing.

Elizabeth stumbled backwards and stopped clumsily on the bank when she understood that I was trying to hug her. She snaked her hand up to wipe her nose, tears leaking into my t-shirt. Her older sister’s mascara traced a map on the crinkled collar of my shirt, and she dabbed it with her thumb, probably hoping I wouldn’t see. I pretended not to.

“I’m sorry, Oliver.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. My face burned. I had yelled. And she was the one who had lost. She was the one who couldn’t see it.

“I’m sorry I can’t see it,” she whispered.

“Maybe we just have to figure out how to make you see it again.”

She shook her head, a twig snapping beneath her heel.

“We could do a spell? Yeah, Beth, a spell might work!” I stepped back, but her eyes refused to meet mine.

I listed a thousand ideas: a spell, an enchantment, a potion, spinning in reverse circles, spelling out our leaving spell backwards, and she tried a few of them with me. As we were trying to chant the leaving spell backwards, the muted sunlight was thinning, and the air was growing cool—cool like the approach of September.

Kcab emoc syawla lli esimorp …

We had written it in the sand with a stick so we would not forget.

Elizabeth started to cry then, hard.

I reached for her hand, and she tore away. “It won’t work! I can’t see it! I just can’t!”

“Maybe we could try to just sleep. Just sleep and before we fall asleep we can say a prayer. We could even use your ankh. Right, what does it mean?”

“Eternal life,” she whispered, wiping her nose.

“So it could cast a spell of eternal life on the castle! And it will all come back.”

She nodded, and when I look back now, I’m not sure if she agreed because she believed me or because she was humoring me or because she knew all along that while I was sleeping she could escape. I wonder if she knew. I wonder if I knew and just erased it.

“Okay! I will say the first part, you say the second,” I proclaimed as we curled up under the blanket that we had braided with reeds. It was almost entirely dark, but I watched the flickering sparks skimming across the water. I wanted her to see them so badly.

“Ankh of eternal life, we pray to you and all of Egypt. Let us sleep.”

“And when we wake, we pray that this whole word we’ll keep.”

When I woke up, I woke from a nightmare. Instead of Elizabeth, there was a giant snake curled beside me in the darkness. It was wearing her dress. I screamed, and the snake screamed, and I threw the reed blanket away and started to run. I started to run and I chanted, “I promise I won’t look back! I promise I’ll always come back!” and I realized that I was crying as I ran.

Years later, I always try to remember the nightmare that made me run from her, that made me leave her there alone, so close to the witches.

I never can.

 Climbing up and up

The creek rushed like thunder, churning on and on into darkness that hissed.

I leapt over roots that moved like snakes, and the ducks that had quacked before suddenly took flight, and their flapping wings filled my head. The ducks—the darkness—the eyeless trees stared at my heels, and fire that must have belonged to the witches made the air bitter and thick.

My lungs were screaming as I raced on, yelling her name until it was a whisper, running hard, running on, following the rush of the creek until somehow, along the path and in a place I would never be able to find, I was running against the current—and the fire was leaving the air, and I was alone.

I was passing Pebble Island.

I was breaking through the tree line.

I was standing under the playground slide that was etched with my mother’s name. I was never there, in the darkness, I was never there.

There were sirens and my mother was crying, and her mother was screaming, Oliver! Oliver! Tell us where she is! Oh God, please, tell us where she is!

Looking back, there are many ways that it was:

Sometimes I see it from my body: waking up and seeing shadows melt to shapes, the way that suits did in my parents’ closet after I had wet the bed and they shhhed me to silence. The way my father’s jackets turned to penguins that stood too tall, and my mother’s dresses shifted with spiders and flamingos with dark, glinting eyes. That way I see myself reaching for Elizabeth’s hand and deciding to touch her shoulder instead, saying, We fell asleep, Can we just go back? Let’s just try tomorrow.

Or I see myself jolt awake, stand too quickly, feeling wetness drip down my pants as I mutter, You big baby, and backing up until my shoulders scrape a tree that leaned too close, the hot scent of urine flushing my cheeks red, turning my toes, wet shoes, and running.

Or I see myself wake up to Elizabeth standing by the frothing water—too dark, too loud, and asking what she was doing.

She says: I want to go to the bridge, Ollie. That might put everything back right, don’t you think? Like a spell—with the witches? A reversing spell? And I try to find an excuse because my ankles are itching in the grass and the spits of hair behind my neck are beaded with sweat, and I had another nightmare.

I cannot think of anything, so she says, Well, I could go by myself. I know how to get there, and I stand mutely: I feel like an owl, with eyes too big and a voice too soft, and I do not stop her. There is not even an attempt.

Or I even urge her on, Yeah, I dare you. I double dare you.

And she smirks and shoves me lightly in the shoulder, and I step back and then try to step forward, closer to her, straining to see her freckles, but her nose looks powdered in the moonlight, and my chest rises and collapses like I am letting go of something. I wave as she starts to walk into the shadows, her footsteps turning to silence that is eaten by the rush of water and the cawing of birds, circling somewhere else.

Sometimes I see it from the trees, as if I were still there, where I never was—a snow white owl kept in branches that frightens a little girl, with almost-silent wings that make her run. She wakes up, eyes straining, and chokes my name as if she knows: “Ollie,” turns to louder, “Oliver,” progresses back to a whisper as she gets to her knees. She stays for a moment, praying, and gets to her feet. She touches a tree and peers past it, hoping I am hiding behind the trunk.

She starts to walk down the path—water surging, spilling—and her steps quicken. Painted toenails glint in the muted moonlight until they hesitate, turn, and begin again in the other direction. She starts to whisper: “I promise I won’t—” and her voice hinges there.

She starts again, faster: twigs cracking, skin ensanguined in moving shadows, shaking.

This time her steps quicken until she is panting, and she stumbles towards the bridge, almost smiling at the bewitching figures hovered around a fire: crackling, crackled voices, cracked laughter.

She bravely says hello, but a girl with white-blonde hair grins, “Well look what we have here.” The shadows turn into smiles and beckon Elizabeth closer, puffing menthol smoke towards her and away, billowing and fading.

Coughing, she steps forward, and one with hollow cheeks and a milk-teeth smirk leans closer over a tattooed body that writhes on the cement belly of the bridge: sputtering, muttering, stretching with long limbs, backwards-bending arms, sweating too much.

“Hey, kid. What’re you doing out so late?” The voice is syrupy.

Elizabeth leans against the curved cement wall—her hip not jutting far enough to look as casual and confident as she hopes—and starts to decide what to say.

A bottle clanks.

Cheap-vodka mouths move closer with questions, and they remind Elizabeth of nail polish remover. One girl touches her arm: “We aren’t gonna hurt you,” followed with, “You want a cigarette or something?”

Laughter, gasps from the writhing girl. The witches turn towards her instead, and Elizabeth starts to decide to back up when a voice slashes into an echo from behind her. The tremor of the syllables makes Elizabeth realize how far she has wandered into the tunnel, and she takes a step back.

“What is she doing in here?” the voice commands the witches: they turn, gaze slowly.

“You shouldn’t be out this late. Not here you shouldn’t —”

Elizabeth turns, sees the woman: a purple scarf lashed about her waist, faded jeans that crop around her ankles, jelly sandals, loose tank top, hair that springs with silver kinks between waves of red.

“Honey, come here, let me get you some lemonade or…some hot chocolate. You shouldn’t be out here.” Then, to the witches with a half-frown, “You should be ashamed of yourselves, offering this young lady a cigarette. It’s a sin. It’s a sin,” she mutters.

Elizabeth steps backwards again, dodging the crinkles of glass on the ground. She begins to turn and starts towards the woman whose voice sounds smooth, whose chest rises and falls like her mother’s when she is exasperated or giving in or when she is remembering—looking back on a lesson or a story that always ends in a repeated line or a trailing thought, a sigh that seems inviting.

Sometimes, I wake her up, and I ask her to walk back with me because I am afraid—and I tell her, looking her in the eye, and she smiles and she makes up a story that comforts me as the twigs crack. She tells me riddles and spins a tale that takes me away from wings and snakes and roots, and before either of us know it, we are home.


When the police reports came out and the nuns had to take me out of class and Elizabeth still didn’t come to the lunchroom, everyone talked about moving. Parents clutched their children, and my mother put away her paintings and asked me to come sit. She said, I’m sorry, Ollie. I’m sorry, but she’s safe now. She’s safe. The headlines said things like HOBO ARRESTED FOR KIDNAPPING YOUNG GIRL and YOUNG GIRL FOUND! COMMUNITY REJOICES! Our mothers said a lot, shaking their heads:

They’re wiccans. I heard that that woman used to belong to our church.

Voodoo? That’s what the police said must be it because why else would Elizabeth go with her willingly?

They lingered on that word: will-ing-ly.

She’s had relations with women.

She’s a pedophile.

Elizabeth’s mother was shaking.

It’s a sin.

That she touched her. I can’t even imagine.

I don’t want to. I can’t.

There, there. Let’s try to talk about something else.

I’m just glad that she’s away now.

Away for good. That woman’s only seeing bars for the next few decades.

Elizabeth keeps crying. She won’t talk to me.

That woman. I just can’t believe it. Right in our town. Her trailer, right in our town. Behind the bridge.

It’s a sin. It really is.

Elizabeth said a lot, too. She said even more but only to me, only while we stood out on the back patio under mosquito-dotted lights. Only, softly. Birds chirped, too late.

Later, when birds chirped and I stood in the park alone, I always thought that they sounded like they were singing the songs we had, the songs while picking berries.

“She didn’t hurt me.”

“She saved me! I was cold and hungry. And I found those girls under the bridge. They were smoking cigarettes. And she appeared and told me to get out of there. That she would get me some food.”

“She appeared like an angel, Ollie.”

“She was kind. And I think a little sad.”

“I told her about the ducks and the lights.”

“Don’t worry, Ollie. I didn’t tell her about the castle.”

“She made grilled cheeses, and she had all of these wind chimes.”

“She read me stories.”

“They weren’t witch stories.”

“She believed in magic, but like you and me, really. Ollie, really.”

“She didn’t do anything.

“She used to have a daughter. She missed her daughter.”

“She had pictures from Egypt, Ollie. She rode a camel.”

Elizabeth’s head was shaking.

“Don’t you believe me, Oliver? Don’t you?”

She slowed down. “Oll. Ollie.”

“She was taking you, Elizabeth!” I yelled. “She was going to hurt you or kill you or make you one of them! She was going to make you a witch!”

I remember feeling like my father, standing like him, hunched, hands out, begging.

Tears glistened in her eyes.

“Did you still see the castle, Oll? When you were there?”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Did you?” She reached out and took my hand.

I nodded. “Why?”

She squeezed my hand, and her eyes closed. I thought for a long time that she was trying to squeeze the magic out of me, that she wanted to see it again and hear the ducks and remember the songs.

I wanted to say something then, but I didn’t have anything to say.

I don’t think she did either because when she let go of my hand, she backed up slowly and walked away and walked away until she was running. She ran without looking back at me. It was one of those moments that paralyzed me, even when I was young—and later. I would think that it had gone differently: that I had asked her to walk to our bank of the creek, that we had skipped all the way to Pebble Island and that both of our stones had made it, that I had kissed her, that I had said, I believe you, I believe you, I believe you.