The Third Angel Poured’, Julie Reeser

Illustrations © 2020 Katharine A. Viola

 [ Bible © 2020, Katharine A. Viola ] Wilma was raised in the West where women were expected to be witches. People counted on it, actually. As she knelt between Jonetta’s thighs, she took care that the baby never cried. Jonetta’s water had been collected in a jar when the labor began, and it was cloudy like the dead infant’s skin. Wilma resisted the urge to hold the jar up to the light. It would serve; it always did.

Jonetta wept softly into her threadbare pillow. Her other children were distributed like a deck of cards throughout the homes in Wellworn, probably eating their first full meals in over a year while they waited on Wilma to do her work. Wilma had seen these tears before. They weren’t for the infant, but for the mother. There was no use collecting them.

“Marcus’d be better to leave you alone. Why don’t you send him out to Merrie’s place? She’d find someone affordable.”

Jonetta wouldn’t meet her eyes, but instead stared at the small, wrapped bundle tucked close in Wilma’s brown arms.

“Reverend says it ain’t the way.”

Wilma twisted her mouth at this nonsense. “Reverend’s a grifter. He ain’t even from here. You think he knows the right way of doing things?” She gestured with her chin at the jar of fluid. Her apprentice, Sissy, stood from where she crouched in the shadows to pick it up. The girl came to stand beside Wilma, her blue eyes soft and tender at Jonetta’s distress.

“You won’t tell Marcus will you? He don’t hold with the old ways no more. He says Reverend believes the old ways have brought us nothing but dust and dying.” Jonetta hiccupped and swallowed back more tears. Her pale, thin fist clenched around the quilt she’d made for her wedding night ten years past. A child each year, and only now was she desperate enough for Wilma.

“The old ways have kept us alive. You know it, and I know it. Just ’cause Reverend thinks he can earn some gold by turning everything topsy-turvy telling stories of angels and demons don’t make it true.” She stopped herself from spitting her disgust on Jonetta’s swept floor. It wasn’t Jonetta’s fault Marcus was duped. “If’n you don’t keep him off, I’ll be seeing you in a year. Same payment.”

She turned her back on the weeping woman to take the jar from Sissy and tuck it between her wrinkled breasts for safekeeping. In exchange, Sissy took the tiny bundle of dead baby. They both stepped out into the dusty air where three of the neighbor women waited with narrowed eyes and restless hands. Time spent standing in the spears of the sun was time lost hauling water or cooking meals. Jonetta would owe them, as well.

Wilma stopped to pump a sheet of tepid water over her knobby hands before addressing the waiting stares. “She’s going to need a full day on her back. She gave at least one of you the same courtesy in times past, so make sure you return the favor.” No one moved. They were all looking at Sissy.

“Do you think you wouldn’t do the same? It’s a nice story to spin yourselves on cold nights, but we’re standing in daylight. Get on.” They turned to look at one another with a shared distaste before they started toward the door.

Wilma had delivered all their children. Dead or alive, and she didn’t share who had asked for which kind of mercy. Only the mother knew, which meant no one knew, but everyone suspected each time a bundle was taken to the water. She and Sissy untied their horse and shared the ride to the River.

Sissy was not much beyond a bundle herself. Her thin arms poked from her sleeves like willow shoots, and the thickest thing on her was her hair. When she’d been born, it was like holding a baby bird. All air and angles, nothing you’d expect would fly, but Wilma had seen clearly the child would serve the waters. She’d taken no payment, other than the babe herself. That had been twelve years ago, before the Reverend had come with his bricks and his bible to wall up people’s minds. Before the Reverend, women in Wellworn didn’t die in childbirth, but things change. Wilma did spit then, and Sissy craned her neck around to see what was wrong.

“Marcus’ll be at the Reverend, feeding him piss and rye.”

Sissy nodded. Words dried the tongue, and the girl-child rarely found cause to waste.

They both cried out a greeting to the River after tying the horse and stripping naked. The crone and the maiden, carrying the mother’s grief between them. The River understood. She swept along, silent and strong, just like the women of Wellworn had for over a century. She’d only lifted Her skirts once to show Her dark underbelly, flooding the countryside for a mile south and west, drowning cattle and horses and humans with no regret.

Wilma had been the maiden then, her own crone soon to be pebbled like the babes she’d paid to the River. The price needed to bring the River back to modesty had been high, and there were still a few around who remembered what had been given. Not enough, thought Wilma. How quickly they forget.

Sissy waited on the grassy bank for Wilma to decide which of them would make the journey. Her toes sank into the loose mud, and Wilma bent over to dip her free hand into the cool water.

“I’ll go this time. You sit and watch.”

Wilma uncorked the jar and drank half the brine before capping it again. She exchanged it for the dead baby. Sissy held the jar in her fist and waded out to her knees to wait. The current was slow at the edge. Wilma followed, and then kept going until the pull threatened to lift her off her feet. The magic began as her toes lost touch with the slimy rocks.

She became like the womb. A gravid, full being who sank like a stone. Her lips parted in a smile of welcome at the River’s caress, and as her lungs emptied of air, they refilled with the River’s soul. She was the River. She was the beginning and the end, constant motion, endless growth, and only the rocks and pebbles along Her spine marked time.

The River took the baby from her in cold suspended love. The wrapping unfurled like a crow’s wing and danced away. The infant dissolved under the River’s attention until it was nothing more than irregular white pebbles scattered and falling to skip beside the rest. Wilma spread her arms wide in gratitude and joy. From water are we all born. To water will we all return.

She turned to go and felt a tremor in the River. Something was wrong. She could hear Sissy yelling. Wilma tried to hurry, but the pace of the River allowed no disrespect. When her head emerged, the bank where Sissy had stood was empty.

“Sissy!” She cried out for the girl while she dressed. Everything took twice as long because she was slick with River water and fear sweat. The girl’s clothes were still in their small, messy pile. Wherever she’d gone, she’d gone naked. An unlikely choice for the child to make, meaning she’d been taken. There were boot prints, of course. Wilma expected as much, and she had a good idea whose stumbling foot belonged in them. She mounted and rode hard for the church.

The bricks were always dry. That was one way Wilma knew their god lacked quality. Who brought a parched god to the desert? It was nothing but a transfer of funds. Wellworn gold for stories about men saving the world after a woman ruined everything with her hunger. Wilma snorted and spat. Weren’t nothing hungrier in this world than a man’s appetites. Just ask any of the women she helped.

The three steps up to the church were wooden, as was the door. Not enough gold for anything finer, yet. The Reverend’s voice boomed and bounced against her as she entered the dark space. They were gathered around Sissy, a gaggle of men clearing throats and averting eyes—most of them—from the sight of the naked girl.

“The devil is in her, I say! This is but the whelp, the bitch is not far behind.”

A rage clawed up Wilma’s throat. “The bitch brought the whelp her clothes.”

She took six strides and the men fell back to let her pass. Sissy grabbed at the clothes and hurriedly began to cover herself from their stares.

“Witch.” The Reverend wielded the word as if it were a weapon, a secret to expose.

Wilma narrowed her eyes and pointed her finger at the Reverend. “I do my work; you do yours. At least my work leaves a family intact.”

She pointed at Sissy. “You think my girl is nothing but a way to make me hitch up my skirts and ride to your word? She’s got more sense than your horse—or your pack of asses.” She spun her finger to encompass the men standing around the Reverend.

Marcus stepped forward, his face pale around the edges of his sun-soaked skin. “My wife says you took the babe. You killed him. I know it. She’s had ten good’uns, no problem, and now suddenly they’re coming out dead?” His fists were clenched by his sides as if to keep himself from grabbing her. She saw his anger and his grief, and thought she understood.

Wilma shook her head. “Those ten others came by my hand as well, or did you forget in your grief? If’n you’d leave her alone, you might find her more willing to deliver up life instead of death.” She knew as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she’d gone too far.

Marcus lurched forward, those fists opening to grab her, but the Reverend reined him in with a touch. “No. Her time will come soon enough.” His dark eyes sparkled in the dim light, and Wilma shivered. “The child stays here. My wife will tend her, if it isn’t too late to save her young soul.”

“Like hell she will.” Wilma drew herself up to her full, wiry height. “Sissy is my apprentice and my own daughter. Your crowbait wife will take her over my dead body.”

The Reverend’s mouth curled down at the edges, but his eyes smiled. “I don’t think you understand your situation. Men, what say we show her?”

The men scuffled in their boots and leather to pull Wilma and Sissy apart. Wilma fought with claws and kicking and teeth. Sissy curled up into a tight ball to avoid the blows, and Marcus scooped her up like a tiny cat. She mewed in distress at the violence.

In the end, the men overpowered Wilma. She’d known they would, but damned if she’d go down without leaving a mark on every one. They were scratched and bit and bleeding. She hoped the wounds would fester and rot.

The Reverend stepped closer and stared down at her body held on the floor. There was a man kneeling on each of her limbs. She could smell the dust from someone’s boot on her neck.

“You see, men? The woman’s way is not to be strong and hard like iron, but soft and gentle like rain.” Reverend Scott spread his hands out and looked up at the ceiling of his church. The men were panting and sweaty, eyes eager. He stood for a full minute while Wilma continued to jerk and thrash as much as she could until the boot threatened her airway and she held still. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Reverend Scott kept his gaze tilted heavenward but bared his teeth at the sound of her fight ending.

“Dear Lord, we will let Your wisdom decide. We will make a mighty noise in Your name. We will bring the souls of this town to heel on the back of this sinner—this woman. She will birth a new generation of believers.”

Wilma whispered, “You’re mad.” She felt sick and fought not to vomit. He’d take it as a sign of her guilt, and she was afraid now. Sissy hung from Marcus’s arms. She could have been sewn from rags and thread, her eyes wide and her mouth thin.

The Reverend ignored Wilma’s whispers. “Marcus, take the child to Mrs. Scott. Tell her to make the child presentable in the eyes of our Lord, and to bring her to the river. We’ll see God’s will done this day.”

The rope hung heavy around Wilma’s waist. The men had tied it too tightly, and it constricted her rapid breaths. The bitter end was tied to the pommel of her horse. Sissy was with Mrs. Scott and the other wives. The child stood silent in black cotton and linen ironed to a shine, her thick hair brushed to obedience, and her eyes rimmed red and swollen. Her chin was held high above the stiff collar.

Wilma had had her own battle to the River. She’d been kicked and squeezed and spit upon by the Reverend’s believers as she fought every step of the way. She had a bruise growing on her left cheekbone and thought she might have a broken rib. The townsfolk had found it hard to ignore the scuffle and show. They had either joined in or become spectators of this passage from the old way to the new.

The sun cracked into the distant horizon like a fresh egg. There’d been a brief disagreement from some of the men. They’d argued she should be burned.

“The River is part of her witching. It’ll be like trying to drive steer over grazing lands.”

Reverend Scott disagreed. “The good God will reclaim this water for His own purposes. Imagine a day when the old fear is gone, and we can bring our dear children to this very spot to recreate the miracle of Jesus and John. We can baptize our most precious in the waters cleansed of blasphemy and evil by the Lord God, Our Savior. We will witness His justice against the evil in our midst.”

The men stepped back and nodded at his authority and wisdom. The women kept their eyes focused on the rich loam brushing their hems.

Wilma wanted to laugh. The River will baptize those children right into the arms of the Reverend’s good Lord, alright, she thought. She could feel the River listening and waiting. She met Sissy’s eyes, and the girl shook her head in disgust. They both knew what was to come; they just had to get through it.

The Reverend stood with his back to the river as he shouted, “Ready, men?”

The two men holding her moved to lift her by the arms and knees. She was done fighting, and they grunted in surprise at her sudden lightness.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!” With each naming, the men swung Wilma in an arc. At the last, they pitched her body far out into the current. The cold knocked the breath from her lungs. In her clothes and boots, she sank immediately.

 [ River © 2020, Katharine A. Viola ] The River waited while she thrashed and fought her own brain, and then she felt herself welcomed. She had no offering to give, but she’d consumed payment that day. Wilma breathed in the River’s soul and waited for the rope to pull her out. She hoped Sissy had been smart enough to drink the last half from the jar. There was no telling how the Reverend would react when Wilma didn’t drown. She tried to be still, to let her mind float like the debris washing past, but it was mighty hard. Wilma chewed on the memory of Sissy being stolen, ogled, and shined like a found penny.

The River listened to Wilma’s fury, and when the rope pulled taut and she was heaved toward shore, the River came along with her.

The cliffs on the opposite river bank reached to the sky. Crimson light reflected off the water and onto the rocks in ripples and waves. The gathered townsfolk had their heads bowed in prayer, the Reverend was once again looking to the sky in supplication, and the River sloshed over his shiny black shoes to refocus his attention. He took three hasty steps back, and the crowd surged back to accommodate him. Wilma’s horse rocked her head and strained against the rope. Wilma swam out of the shallows to stand dripping on the grass. A woman screamed.

Marcus thought faster than the Reverend. He smacked Wilma’s horse hard on the rump. “Hie!” The horse spooked and jumped forward, knocking Wilma down and dragging her on soggy skirts to the Reverend’s feet. He reached down to grab her by the hair.

“I knew it! Witch.” He laughed. “Where’s your devil to save you, now?”

She let the water gush from her mouth and onto his shoes. With her first breath of air, she answered, “From water are we all born. To water will we all return.”

He let go of her and kicked her under the chin. Sissy screamed. The women, and some of the men, turned their heads from the blow. The River groaned. The water’s pace accelerated and gushed over the banks. The line of people stepped back again, but now the creeping tide was high enough to soak the feet of the back of the crowd, and still flowing. Panic set in as stories told to them as children were remembered.

The River was coming.

She would take their little ones, their livestock, and their crops. Men helped their women up into carriages and the children onto horseback. They’d had enough.

With open arms, the Reverend called out to his congregation. “You would leave in God’s hour of glory? Gird your bodies in righteousness!” He shook a Bible at them as they fled the water, but they continued to trickle away. Only Mrs. Scott hesitated before directing her girls toward their cart.

Reverend Scott had turned away from Wilma’s still body. Sissy broke free in the exodus to kneel at Wilma’s side and lift her head out of the water. Wilma’s eyelids fluttered, and she still breathed, though it pained her. Sissy clicked her tongue at their horse, and the mare splashed her way to them.

Sissy bent down to Wilma’s ear. “I’ll go this time. You watch.” She took a knife from the horse’s pack and set to work.

The Reverend’s face had grown red with anger, and then paled with his realization of the rapidity of the water’s rise. Wilma coughed and worked at the rope around her waist with shaking fingers.

Sissy tapped the Reverend on the shoulder, and he turned. The last light reflected red off Sissy’s smoothed hair. “Papa. We should go.”

He jerked at her words, and then his eyes widened in triumph. Sissy stepped into his open arms as if for a hug, but the knife glinted in her fist as she shoved it hard, up and in. He cried out, but there was only Wilma, Sissy, and the River to hear him. His Bible fluttered into the River, its pages growing heavy and black with water.

Sissy eased him down, and Wilma tied the rope around his waist. They worked in a grim, splashing silence. Sissy nodded once at Wilma and then walked deeper and deeper, sinking below the River’s surface. Reverend Scott’s body followed as his blood emptied like ink into the waters and his skin began to pebble. The flood paused, and then began to recede; the payment accepted.

© 2020 Julie Reeser

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