An older woman came to town. By town I mean our little dark forest, which is on the disconnected part of the city—the other side of the river where the power’s broken up anymore. She came in the morning when we were out pulling weeds and foraging along the creek banks. She had a lot of useful things. Machined tools and a collapsible no-puncture canoe—a really small kind I’d never seen before. It fit into a pouch as big as a half loaf of bread. We were all curious. She carried herself like a mountain cat, strong, gentle, moving easy and deliberate onto the shore. A few of us exchanged intrigued glances. She acknowledged herself. She knew about us, was happy she’d made it. Said she had come cause she’d heard there were good mushrooms and many medicine plants and deer. Also that we were all homos and witches. That made us laugh because it’s true.
Our forest is a damp kind that ate a city. Or part of a city, one that used to cross the rivers back when they were smaller and the rain was less. We’re the people who stayed and gathered after everyone else left. The water changed the land. If you knew it before the flooding years, you might be able to recognize some of the old roads, the houses, the school buildings and stores. Most things have long since left the hold of human design and order. And my little coven, we live in one of the old stone churches that still has its convent and school buildings. Our neighbors live in a mosque and its buildings likewise. I suppose we live a bit like nuns, all up in this church, but our reverence is for each other and the stars and the land, not for that surveillance state, killer man-God they stole the profound crossways and put him on . . .
We asked the woman where she’d come from and how she’d heard about us. She looked right at me with a smile and said, “Your walker got me curious.” The others all turned my way to see what my face said, and I stared back at her with my mouth in an ohhh. I’d been around a fire with her before.
We invited her to sit with us and snack and make some sense of everything. We grew a bit of corn, beans, squash, potatoes. There are a few fruiting trees we enjoy. We eat mushrooms. Meat sometimes. Eggs. We steal too. She asked if we ate fish. Said she loved eating fish when she could. We said no, the fish is unreliable still. There’s plenty, but they get into something in the water that isn’t good to us. We asked, did she cross the Schuylkill on her blow-up boat? She did. How far had she come. Quite a few days away, maybe sixteen, seventeen? She couldn’t remember and didn’t seem to care. Spent most of her transit on the canoe. Were the waterways dangerous? She said she tried to travel at night, wearing a sight mask, and besides, she was old and tough. She had cut her hair off short to travel. That’s why I didn’t ken her right away: here, she wasn’t lit up with a bonfire glow, laughing with all that bountiful hair on her head. (I wonder if she saved any of it. Wow, what a commitment, cutting it off to come here.)
I keep my hair clipped down so you can’t grab it.
Her name is Veo, but her lips purse together when she says it so it sounds more like “beh-oh.” I remember then: my trip last spring to the healer’s market hosted by the old gay farm in Tanasi land. I went with Kel, who is a good friend of mine, a flop-eared dog and a very good person to travel with. You go to these markets to trade in goods, skills, know-how, and enjoy sex with people if it’s in the cards. (I was there officially to trade for herbs.) Sometimes the markets are called bazaars or meets, and they last some good days so everyone can get to them from where they’re coming. Usually there’s all kinds of other things planned around them, too, like roasts and fights and bonfires. I had seen Veo there, around a bon fire by the side of the creek. Her hair was long, piled up on the top of her head in a braid, lustrous and coiled dense like a snake. She had deep laugh lines in her face, and she opened up with a high, free giggle, mouth full open. I spent a long time watching her from across the fire, drinking and smoking herb for merrymaking with my own while she enjoyed herself among suitors. She’d catch me looking time and again and flash me a smile.
As it often does in gatherings, it came out that I’m a walker. That’s just slang. They call em different things in different places, but walkers travel around usually between however many places they’re welcome and can get to safely and swap info, tell stories, learn what’s going on, for good or worse. They take all they get and weave it together, find patterns, make connections, and then tell their people. Anyway, I got to talking about our funny forgotten dark forest and all that, and Veo caught wind and came over to listen. Started getting to know Kel while I told about the land and how we live. What’s good about it and what’s hard. Then I shifted things, asking how it is everywhere else cause folks was getting a little too wrapped up in what I was saying. I just don’t think it’s right to take over the air with all your words, unless you’re trying to war. You know, you have to fall back a bit sometimes, ask people about themselves, or just shut up. (That’s how you stay safe as a walker, by the way. You read people. You listen to them. It’s nice.)
The next day I got to do something I like best, and that’s tell a story. I’m real good at those. The market was already full of speeches, feats of the body and mind, poets, musical acts. I did one from the old tales of Robin Hood. I change the details to be about our forest instead of Sherwood. It always goes over well. Veo was sitting in the audience listening to me.
I told myself I would ask her later, if she had come all this way because of that story or what?
Kel the dog remembered Veo from the fire too, and so the others welcomed her in with us pretty easy. She gets a lot of our ways. And the story of our encounter at Tanasi’s market helped everyone to make sense of her quicker. She doesn’t have any kind of untended psychic void. She’s not up in here casting glamours on us. She’s open about herself. My intuition says she’s aight. Plus she’s got those tools and knows a lot to do that we want to learn. It’s all mutual. I like the way she spends time with Kel. I like the way she walks. I like the smell of her when she passes me by. And she likes to talk to me.
Veo knows she’ll soon get the feel for the shape of our land and our neighbors’ on this side of the river, but she comes to ask me about them when I’m sitting with Kel. I tell her we’re a good few hundred spread four or six miles around the places and groups we like best. We live a little tough, try not to hurt ourselves, and get a hold of enough rare stuff from across the river and wherever else so we don’t die real stupid. She seems suspicious of how easy I talk about it all. Is there no hardship? I say there’s plenty, I just have to talk about it easy for my own good, and what’s the rush. It’s not even rainy season yet. Then I go on telling her how our different groups schedule congregations to share info and socialize. Me pregunta si puedo hablar español. Responda a ella, sí, si quiere que lo haga. También en otros idiomas que el español. Pues, “Let me get this straight,” she starts . . .
She takes to calling me kid like how she talks to the actual handful of children in our group. Sometimes people call me kid cause I guess I come off young and I don’t like it at all, but she says it really nice to me. I don’t know how old she actually is, but I know it’s a little bit older than me. And I like her for that. For being older and still alive and always wanting to come talk to me. I spend a lot of time in silence, actually. Thinking too hard about what might happen next in the world, and will we live. Worrying will the power ever come back over here and what’ll happen to us all then. I told Veo: actually, yeah, I am a kid. A stuck one that’s been through too many adult things now to go back. She says to me, I known a few like you before, and I look at her like, have you? Then she nods real intently, looking right at me like she does. And I feel real hot and shy like I think she has. And I notice a little bit more what it is we keep coming to each other for. Then she smiles at me like, don’t worry, kid. Says, “I like you,” with her crow’s feet dancing.
One day Veo comes find me crying on the hillside in the middle of the day. I turn around to see who approaches (sometimes it’s a four-legged person when you expect two). She addresses me as La Llorona. Then she smiles and looks at me with her long gaze, and I lurch back into tears, panting, hoping I can get back to the world of words before she asks me what I’m doing. But she stays where she is, higher up on the hill behind me. Considerate.
“What did you come here for?” I manage to say without looking. I don’t want to look. I don’t trust the language of my eyes to protect me now.
“I came to find you, kid.”
“What for?” I sob. The thought that she came looking for me, at this height of my despair, is terrifying. There is something I like too much about being looked for.
“You’re in one of your moods again,” she states plainly. I hear her step closer. The field of magnetism—electricity, energy, whatever—feels like it pressurizes around me. I crank my head over to peer at her from my shoulder. She is looking right at me, wearing a halo of kindness. I feel unworthy.
“What’s my mood now?” I mewl out.
“I noticed you got a cycle.” She pauses, then frowns. “It seems hard on you. You start to drink raspberry leaf tea and disappear when you can. You stare at everything like the gravity’s too high.” I gape at her. “I could be wrong,” she adds.
“No,” I manage. She looks at me with heavy concerned eyes. Waits for me to continue. I don’t say anything more.
“Well.” She plods down the hill in front of me, rough hands on her hips. I zone out on the landscape of her sinewy forearms. “I came to offer you something, kid,” she snaps me back. “If you’re interested.”
“What’s that?” I sound miserable. Tiny. Pathetic. When she calls me kid like this, I feel myself get smaller. I wonder what she thinks of it. I wonder if she does it on purpose. I wonder if she . . .
“I wanted to come ask if you’d come spend some time with me.”
“Right now?” She nods slowly. “What do you mean by ‘spend some time’?” I’m confused by how simple it is. Her face bears a teacher’s patient smile. The worn leather belt holding her pants up creaks as she shifts from one hip to the other.
“Sometimes, I find”—she touches a hand to her chest—“it can be nice helping someone to cry.”
I’m breathing faster. I imagine sitting on her lap and feel flushed with heat.
“How does it sound to you?” she asks gently.
I look away, troubled. Then I open my mouth, stuttering. “It sounds . . . I’d really . . . You want to . . . How—what do you mean, helping me to cry?” I want her to tell me because I’m too scared to tell her what I think it means. I hear her chuckle like aren’t you precious. I look up. She’s saintly. Her serene gaze falling on me like warm sunlight. (God, we spend so much time in those church buildings, it rubs off on you.) Then a slow smirk spreads across her lips. Turns into a smile. She has crooked teeth and one missing in the front, which I always look at. She shrugs.
“I thought I would offer and have you tell me what would help, kid. How does that sound to you?”
“So . . . do you . . .” I’m struggling. I open and close my mouth several times. I’m tearing up again.
“You don’t have to be shy with me.” I suck in a breath, exhale loudly. Then she adds, “I know those are just words.”
“I like the way you use your words,” I say immediately. Then I look up at her face, my own twisted full of woe, clinging to my knees. “I . . . would really like to spend some time with you. Right now.” I finish this agonized utterance and my whole body is flushed and warm, like something’s gonna spill out of it any moment now.
“Why don’t you walk with me then, and we’ll end up at my place.” Her place is a smart little shack with a medicinal garden she put together next to an old, still-standing automotive garage.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. Then she’s close. She reaches forward and strokes my head, pushing it back in the same motion to make my gaze turn up to her. I like the force of it. I think I look scared. She only smiles, and then she raps me against the cheek with her fingertips.
“You’re a good kid.” She pats me on the cheek again, a little harder. “I can tell.”
“Will you put me to work?” I ask, immediately tearful again.
“We can do whatever you like, kid. Whatever you need.” The benevolent saint metaphors keep hitting me. She is luminous. She is warm. I am warmed before her.
I gulp on my swollen tongue and thick saliva. I stand up right in front of her, closer than we’ve ever stood before each other. I look for her eyes, then look down at her chest. Zoning out to another dimension through the patterns of grime on her sweatsheen skin. I hang my head. Then I hear a laugh under her breath.
“Mm’awww . . . Come here.”
I let her scoop me up. So close. My tears break, wetting her collarbone. I hold onto her dense body and feel like the weary bag of bones I am. She wanted to know where the hardship of the land really lay, and perhaps now she will find out. It is in me. It is in the knowing.
Destruction is coming. For us and this special land. It won’t come right away. It could be a flood, or it could be any one of those private armies forming. We may have some many good years to forge memories on, or maybe just another full moon. I don’t know why I worry about it so much when there’s so little we can do, but I deal with so much information . . . A walker is a pattern maker. I don’t know how to unmake.
But in her place, when she has me by the throat, dressed in lavender, telling me to look at her while I take all of what she gives me, I can surrender. I rest.
This story originally appeared in a scam-like 2016 anthology by Tayen Lane’s Procyon Press, which stiffed half the contributors and its editor and appeared to have a near non-existent physical release. It was subsequently reprinted in Lethe Press’s 2017 Transcendent 2 anthology. The timestamp on this post reflects the date of my initial submission for publication.