Free Fiction of the Month



To Witch a Woman

by Cameron Kennedy


 Originally published in E-scape


The woman's whisper sliced through the suffocating noise of the airport like a machete through papaya. We were approaching the exit tax window, which remained mysteriously uncrowded in this crunch of tourists, and I paused to catch my breath.

Quentin strode to the window, glanced at the sign that read "we don't take traveler's checks" and thumbed through a wad of colones. Carefully, he selected his grubbier bills to unload for the tax. Only when he was certain of his count did he glance back at me. "Feel okay, honey?"

"Mmmm," I murmured, leaning against the cool cement of the wall, resting a hand on my belly's five-month swell. I scanned the flocks of tourists, who clutched their papers and elbowed from one mob to another. Where was she? The woman with the penetrating whisper?

Quentin organized his change by denomination, clipped it all together and tucked it into his fanny pack. "Okay, we're out of here." He shouldered his carry-on and headed for the throng at migración.
"Señora!" It came again, this time more urgent, carried on a whiff of garlic. I pulled away from the wall and searched to my left, opposite of the direction Quentin was heading.

I saw the nurse's cap first. It was one of those pointed things perched firm by some miracle on the crown of her head. White, trimmed in pink, its style came straight out of the early nineteen fifties. Grandmother had worn one like that. I'd seen her picture taken at the San José orphanage where she'd worked after the rebellion of 1948 left behind too many orphans in her care.

Odd, I thought. Here we were in San José, some sixty years later, combining pleasure with a hunt for my heritage that not even Quentin's money had been able to find. And this woman of the voice would have come from Grandmother's time, judging from the amount of gray hair springing out from under the cap and the wrinkles that withered her away next to nothing. However, the white apron over the pink frock was fresh, as if it had been store-bought yesterday, slapped through a wringer washer and crisply ironed by a hand who still knew her art, leaving no wrinkles. A pity she couldn't do the same for her skin.

My own hand shot up to the sunburn that ringed my neck. Yes, the skin was still firm, but what would happen to it as my baby grew, my own Sara, pushing onward through time? How much was the price of carelessness like that blissful nap yesterday at the pool?

"Come on, honey," Quentin said over his shoulder.

His voice stirred me to movement, but as I prepared to lean that way, I couldn't push against the weight of the air. It was too hot and sultry, even here on the meseta central. I glanced back at the nurse. Even though her eyelids sagged under a burden of life, the faded brown look that she fixed on me, stuck on me, tangled me up. The spider's web, I thought.

In fact, there was a web. I could see it now as the morning light glinted off a single silvery strand looping gently between the nurse and me. Strange, what with all the traffic through here. Strange that it could persist, but then I remembered one of the guides telling Quentin and me about the futile attempts of the U.S. military to duplicate whatever tough essence that a certain forest spider could spin. Now I wished I'd paid more attention as I watched the rhythmic reverberations of that single strand, looking deceptively fragile and tenuous, sagging like the nurse's eyes.

A stream of garlic-laced words gushed from her lips, a thin slash which barely moved, barely disturbed the life furrows of her leathery, lizard-like skin. But all I heard was "Señora, for the love of the children..." A wave of nausea passed over me, and I had to steady myself against the wall.

"Honey, are you coming?" Quentin's voice boomed over tourists' heads, his meaning clear that he would not relinquish the spot he'd won in the throng. He held up his wrist and tapped the face of his watch.

But I was fixed there to that spot on the wall. Pregnancy had leeched my strength, made me limp in these tropical climes. The nurse edged closer, so that her garlic breath mingled with my Certs. I tried at least to turn my head away, but my neck muscles were not cooperating (was it the burn?), and so I faced her as she advanced head-on, her faded brown eyes coming to life with a curious sparkle, the fissured skin hinting at stories of a laborer's unprotected life under the sun's damaging rays. Yet, the uniform indicated an indoor life. My head started to spin. 

Caught in a stream of garlic, I watched as the slit of her mouth opened wider, and I glimpsed not pink but pearly gray. Were there two tips to her tongue? I blinked, and it was gone. I had to steady myself against the wall.
She reached out her hand, and I shrank back against my shelter. "The children need you," she whispered, lightly stroking my abdomen. A flash of ice shot through me at her lizard's touch. "The children are the forest. Do not run away from them, señora, as your mothers did before you."

Coolness. I could breathe again. My balance returned to its center; strength flowed through me.
Her hands dropped from my belly, and she picked up my hands in hers, turned them over to examine both sides, stroked the design of my life's story etched across my palms, then stared deeply into my eyes. "You have the healer's touch within you."

Who was this woman?

"I am your compañera. I am here to guide you to the Refugio."


"The Refugio," she said, smiling at the questions that must be written clearly across my face. "It is a place of protection and healing for plants, animals, children."

"But I can't go anywhere with you." I had a plane to catch, a life awaiting me. We were going home - well, not home, but to our Vail condo for the next month, and then home to Houston. For the baby, who had to be born in Houston, according to Quentin. It was a girl, which was enough of a disappointment for him. Well, the ultrasound wasn't one hundred percent certain, but -

She cocked her head. Gave me a pained look. "Señora, you do not belong to that world. You belong to the forest. It needs your healing touch."

"But I don't know anything."

"Children of the forest can never run away from it. Come back to it. The forest will teach you all that you need to know. Come back with me and use your gift."

Gift? I'd always had a "green thumb," according to Mother, who liked to grasp for slang, probably because it made her feel more northamerican to speak that way. Was that what the nurse meant? In fact, I had just started my studies in botany when I met Quentin and got married instead.

I wouldn't need botany as the wife of a resort developer.

But I kind of missed it.

I had seen plants in the forests here in Costa Rica that filled me with wonder. Plants with giant leaves that insulated like refrigerators, small plants with leaves that coagulated blood, poisonous plants that even killed the iguanas who mistakenly scurried into their shelter. What other miracles did the forests hide, that I could uncover? Maybe even save from Quentin's bulldozers?

Suddenly a young man with curly black hair falling over a frowning forehead pushed his way between us. Shoving a bill into the nurse's hand, he spoke to her in a language too low and too rapid for me to understand with only a schoolbook training. Mother had refused to speak Spanish at home, and so I'd had to rely on the schools to teach me my heritage. I knew only enough to get around; how had I understood all that business about the children of the forest? Maybe I hadn't. But then I started to wonder what language the nurse had actually spoken to me, that I had understood without stopping to think whether or not I was understanding.

I watched them now. There was the man, pushing the bill at her, murmuring a stream of incoherence, and the nurse, who released her gaze from me to him. The slit of her mouth curved ever so slightly into a smile of pity for him. A smile that was both sad and haughty. The bill fluttered to the floor.

Strength continued to flow through me, at first from her cool touch, but now because I was free of her faded brown gaze. And then I noticed that the single, silvery strand of web was gone. One of the anxious tourists sweeping by must have hit it just right, blasting it from its ceiling anchors to the floor, where the bill lay. Squaring my shoulders, I bent down to retrieve the forgotten colón.

"Come, señora," the man said firmly, shaking his head, grasping me by the elbow. "Your husband wants you to come now."

"No...wait." I wanted to hear more of the nurse's story, and I glanced back at her. Gone was her lizard's skin, the garlic whispers, and in their place was a wizened old woman who was giving her life to nourish the future. She could have been the grandmother I'd only known from pictures. I gasped.

The man yanked me up from my crouch, and I tried to twist free of him. He wasn't a burly man, but his grip was like steel pincers. "Con permiso," he said, pushing through the crowd, towing me along in his wake. Away from the nurse.

I opened my mouth to cry out a protest, or perhaps an apology for the people we shoved, I didn't know which, but it made no difference, because no sound came out. With one last backwards glance, I saw that the silver web had reformed, as if it had anchored itself to my head, and at the other end of it was the nurse.
She was Grandmother; I was sure of it now.

Her eyes sagged with supplication, holding me with that delicate strand, strengthening now into a tether, a tether that was growing ever more taut with our straining distance. A trembling, a burning rippled through me, as if I were being ripped apart. "Come with me," her eyes said. If eyes could speak, if eyes could quiver, then hers did.
The man elbowed his way through the mob amidst indignant shouts and jerked me into the funnel at the door to migración. The tether that linked me to the nurse twitched, trying to pull me back, as it stretched through the crowd, passing transparently through people's heads. It wasn't strong enough, however, to resist the force of the man who dragged me along, and then the fibers began to unravel one by one, showering the restless crowd with silvery sparkles. I held my breath in anticipation of their cries of alarm, but their cries were only of outrage for my clumsiness and the man's pushiness. Didn't they see it? With another furtive glance, I saw the nurse wipe the back of her hand across her cheek. Over the distance and above the noise of a thousand tourists I could hear her gentle whisper "Señora, for the love of the children..."

The last fiber snapped with one more jerk from the man, the last shower of silver sprayed across oblivious heads, and the nurse vanished, melted away into the crowd, as if she'd never existed beyond the confines of my mind. The sense of loss that had overwhelmed me last year when cancer took Mother, filled me again with empty tremors.

"Here you are, señor," the strongman said to Quentin, who had jostled himself into a position, by now, within an arm's reach of the desk at migración. The man shoved me toward the desk and released his grip on my arm, which was numb.

Quentin nodded and passed a five-thousand with a twist of his fingers into the open palm of the man who had delivered me there.

"Gracias, señor." Their eyes locked, and they both shrugged with some male understanding. No tether. No severed fibers. No showers of silver.

My elbow tingled; it was already starting to bruise. I could feel the residue of impotence shudder through my entire body.

"Honey, you don't want to miss our plane, do you?" Quentin said, smiling just enough to expose the dimple that always turned me to putty.

The official at the desk coughed menacingly. Once she'd captured my attention, she glanced from my U.S. passport to my face and frowned. She held her stamp poised high in the air, as if she were deciding whether or not to stamp it, whether or not I was who I claimed to be - Engracia McCammon of Houston, Texas, two generations removed from that San José slum where Grandmother had fled from her forest home.

Apparently deciding, she lowered her arm, and the stamp smacked the open page of my passport. She handed my identity back to Quentin and waved us through with an impatient gesture, as if we were to blame for the commotion at her desk. Quentin led us down another corridor and through another line. Despite the stream of tourists following us, it felt empty here.

There was no web.