My father, whom I trust as surely as yesterday happened and tomorrow might not, was the first to call me a witch. He meant it in a loving way, but he meant it. In later years, he’d sometimes say it with a defiant touch of pride. —My daughter, the witch.
I brought this on myself by warning my brother, Christopher, with all the raw certainty of a seven-year-old who believed she could see things hidden from others, not to go to the movies one August evening with his best friend, Ben. He laughed, like any older brother twice his sister’s age would, and said I could take a metaphysical flying leap. I can still picture him, lanky, loose-jointed, tall as a tree to my eyes, wearing his favorite faded baseball jersey untucked over a pair of worn jeans and scuffed brown boots. —Hey, Nutcracker, see you in the afterlife. Turning, he clomped down the porch stairs two steps at a time to the waiting car. I remember lying in long orchard grass in the field beyond our house, listening to the restless crickets scraping their bony legs together, and waiting for the meteors to tell me when the worst had come to pass.
At first the sky was calm. Just an infinity of cold stars and a few winking planets out in the void, carving their paths through the darkness. Maybe I got it wrong, I hoped. But then so many shooting stars started chasing across the night I couldn’t begin to know which of them had carried my beloved laughing brother away. The crickets stopped their chorus as the whole field sank into silence. I sat up and gasped. How I wished what I saw above me was a great black slate instead of a brilliant light show. Defeated by my vindication, I walked back to the house and sneaked in the side door.
—That you, Cass? my mother called out. My mother, who could hear a mouse yawn the next county over.
—No, I whispered, not wanting to be me anymore.
Christopher never came back. Neither did Ben or Ben’s father, Rich Gilchrist, who was the town supervisor. The funeral was attended by half a thousand people. That happens when you are a well-liked local politician and chief of the volunteer fire department. Not to mention a decorated war veteran. Many men in dress uniforms attended from all over Corinth County in rural upstate New York and across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. Phalanxes of fire trucks bright as polished mirrors lined the road beside the churchyard cemetery. People wept in the wake of all the eulogies, and afterward the bells tolled. It was the second big funeral in as many years—Emily Schaefer, Chris’s classmate, was killed the year before in what some believed was not the accidental death the authorities declared it—and our town still hadn’t recovered. Whereas before we followed one hearse to the cemetery, this year three coffins were carried out together after a joint service, one draped with an American flag and two smaller unadorned ones behind. To this day I can hear the bagpipes playing their dirge.
Family friends and Christopher’s inseparable band of buddies—Bibb, Jimmy, Lare, Charley Granger, my favorite, even the brooding Roy Skoler, who slipped out back to smoke—came over to our rambling farmhouse afterward, and everyone ate from a smorgasbord and drank mulled cider and spoke in low shocked voices. As for myself, I hid upstairs. I felt guilty, bereft. Also angry. If he hadn’t so simply ignored me, things might have turned out different. I barricaded my door that night and spent hours memorizing my brother’s narrow freckled face, his edgy voice, his gawky mannerisms, his lame jokes, the Christopherness of him, so I could hold him as long as possible in the decaying cradle of memory.
Instead of sleeping in my bed that night, I lay fitful on the floor, twisting around in my funeral clothes, hugging my doll Millicent, who was my first confidante and imaginary little sister. Why, I thought, should a grieving sibling sleep comfortably when her brother was stuck inside a dark box all alone? I felt hopeless, deeply discouraged. I didn’t want my brother to be dead. I didn’t want to be a witch. I had no interest in knowing ever again what might happen in this world before it did. My foresight was one thing. But to shift the flow of my brother’s will so it might not collide with his fate was as impossible as reaching out to grab one of those falling stars, hold it in my palm, and blow it out. Still would be beyond me, had he survived when a woman fell asleep at the wheel and crossed lanes, flying head-on into the Gilchrists’ car under a new moon. Which is to say no moon at all.
My mother, for all her Christian religion, sank into a numb depression and stayed there for a long time. When I called her Mom she only sometimes answered; more often she just looked blankly right through me. Since she paid more attention to me when I addressed her by her first name, Rosalie, it became a habit that stuck. She took a year off from her job as a science teacher and spent days doing volunteer work for the church. None of her good deeds, from serving meals at a homeless shelter to clerking in the United Methodist thrift shop, buoyed her spirits. Though I didn’t want to believe it, some days I sensed she blamed Christopher’s death on me. This she would have denied, if asked—I didn’t—but it was there in a random gesture, a quiet phrase, a clouded glance. I do know she prayed for me. She told me as much. But I’m glad she prayed in silence.
Looking back, I see that I was trying my best to breathe.
If it hadn’t been for Christopher’s death, I probably would not have been raised by my father like I was. In Rosalie’s grieving absence, my dad and I reinvented our kinship. He was far too wise to bury his own sorrow by attempting to transform me into some factitious son, tomboy though I admittedly and perhaps inevitably was. High-spirited and gregarious, a magnet to a constant stream of friends, my brother had been nothing like his introverted sister, Cassandra, who more often than not kept her own company. Nep did his level best not to Christopherize me. Nor did I feel compelled to try to make my father into an older brother figure.
Instead, we began hanging out together, a fond parent and his punk kid. He drove me to school and picked me up. Together we made three-bean chili and shepherd’s pie for dinners on the nights when Rosalie arrived home late. We listened avidly to his old jazz records, shunning the seventies pop music that filled the airwaves. Weekends I sat on a tall stool next to him in his repair shop, really just a converted barn near the house, filled with widgets, wires, gadgets and tools, boxes of tubes both glass and rubber, a thousand broken household things he, poor man’s Prospero, hoarded for spare parts and used to fix whatever people brought to him that wasn’t working. Radios, tractors, toasters, clocks, locks. He even mended a clarinet for some boy in a local marching band. Nep could, I marveled, take almost anything that had fallen into disrepair and make it new again. Young as I was, I recall thinking, He’s the last of a breed, Cass. Don’t take this for granted.
I was crushed by my brother’s predicted death, stunned by my mother’s disappearance from our lives, and inspired, warmed, and moved by my father, who, however much I’d loved him before, was a revelation to me. The man was possessed, in his quirky way, of genius. I thought so then and still do now, even in the wake of all these intervening years.
What needs to be said here is this. If I hadn’t been fathered so much by him, I might not have become, like him, a diviner. For however skilled he was at transforming the ruined into the running, and however steadfast a husband and father, Nep—shortened from the whimsical if preposterous Gabriel Neptune Brooks—was born with a gift that went far toward making those other masteries possible. There had been many diviners in the paternal branch of the family. All had been men. Over the next decade, I became the first female in a lineage that extended unbroken back to the early nineteenth century, as far as our family tree has been traced. This has been my blessing, my bane, and, aside from my own children, my legacy for better or worse.
It was as a diviner I made the discovery on the Henderson land.
Before Henderson’s, I never had a fear of being alone. Walking in the forest or crossing some unfamiliar field in the predawn morning or darkening night never bothered me. As my father’s daughter, I knew the flora and fauna here as well as I knew the names of my sons. I never worried about getting lost because I never got physically lost. Not in the field, not while divining. Besides, worrying never got anybody found.
Not that I wasn’t used to coming upon things that were unexpected. Calm quiet and then the quick stab of discovery, those are, for me, the two poles of divination. Mine is by definition a loner’s trade, a kind of work that involves spending a lot of time both in your head and on your feet, conversing with the invisible and sometimes the inexplicable. How often had I been dowsing a field in search of well water, or a mineral deposit, or something lost somebody wanted found, and thought, Nobody’s walked here for decades. Possibly centuries. So what is this half-buried clawfoot bathtub doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Where is the plow that went with this lonely wheel?
You get pretty far out into the wild sometimes when you’ve hired on with a person who wants to settle fresh terrain. After the twin towers went down, I found myself exploring bonier, harsher, uninhabited land for people from the city looking to relocate, to Thoreau for themselves a haven upstate. But even before that, with so many people building their way into the wilderness, developing the backlands, I had been asked by locals to suss out the prospects of one tract or another. Analyze what the aquifer was about, the prospects of creating more Waldens in the mountains. And so it wasn’t unusual to find myself way off the beaten track.
It was the third week of May. Rained overnight. The reeking skunk plants were well up and the delicate jack-in-the-pulpits wagged their cowled heads in the scrub shade. Overhead, mammoth clouds fringed in silver and charcoal flew hard and fast toward the Atlantic coast a hundred or so miles due east. Noisy warblers flitted in the high branches. Redstarts and yellowthroats. Thrushes conversed, invisible in the near distances. The surveyors had finished up a week before I came out. Their Day-Glo orange flags dangled brazenly from branches—property lines for projected building sites.
Here was a four-hundred-plus-acre parcel that needed consideration. Maybe a hunter had hammered two boards together on this place once, or some early settler chinked up a winter cabin that had long since fallen down. Now it was a habitat for coyote families, black bears, whitetail deer, even the occasional shy fisher cat. Heavy swaths of sugar maple and tall ash gave way to sheltered fields ringed by wild blueberry and serviceberry. A beautiful land, neither worked nor spoiled by man, going back almost forever. A deciduous Eden.
Though I had never traversed this valley before, it wasn’t entirely unknown to me. Christopher and I used to have a cave hideout in the rugged cliffs high above, along its eastern edge, and indeed my parents’ house was but a few miles’ hike beyond that rocky ridge. My developer client was looking to dig a pond large enough to call a lake, around which he planned to build an enclave of upscale homes. I almost felt—no, I did feel blameworthy doing my own survey of his lands so the tall rig could be brought in to drill. And before that Jimmy Brenner with his dozers and Earl Klat with his chainsaw singing and his skidder to make a pretty mess.
I had cut a dowsing rod and was walking, daydreaming a little. Whenever I sensed a sweet spot, even if the stick wasn’t reacting, I stopped and looked around. A dowser who knows what she’s doing can half the time anticipate where the land will give up its water beneath. A big patch of wild leeks reveals nearly as much as a witching stick does about a proximate trove of water near the surface. I drifted along through a thicket of shadblow and wood rhodies all waist- and shoulder-high. It smelled like strong spring, that sex and excrement odor of the world reawakening. There was a narrow curtain of lime-green and red buds at the end of this scrub corridor where the woods picked up and the land began to rise a touch. A redwing blackbird cried out over my left shoulder not far away. Again, a telltale sign there would be at least a shallow vein of water here, as redwings prefer to nest in cattail wetlands.
I was feeling okay. My twins were in school. They wanted to go to camp this year, where they could play baseball and swim and be free of me, and I was going to let them. For all three of us this was a big deal. Because they were going to the same place, I knew Jonah and Morgan would be fine. Would have family right there to look out for them. Meant an empty house for me, but part of Mama Cass—one of my least favorite nicknames, and I had more than a few, from Andy to Assandra, given most people avoided the mouthful Cassandra when addressing me—looked forward to the prospect.
Not that I had a single iota of a plan for what to do with my fancy free, beyond the couple of add-on summer school courses the district administration had agreed to, at my request.
I needed the extra work to pay for the boys’ summer away, which wasn’t in my budget. Remedial reading for some younger students and a continuing education course in my favorite subject, Greek myth. I could do worse than wander behind Odysseus for a few months with my aging pupils, or discuss with them the twelve tasks of Hercules, the story of Pandora’s box. I even proposed to screen that old camp classic, Jason and the Argonauts, with its stop-motion animated sword-wielding skeletons, ravenous Cyclops, and serpent-haired monster Medusa.
Then, without warning or any clear reason my mood should change, a black sensation just poured in, over, and through me. It felt as if a spontaneous, malevolent thunderhead had come flying fast over the ridge to instantly eclipse my world. I was, essentially and all of a sudden, deeply depressed. In retrospect, I wonder if I didn’t weep. Must have blinked through my tears because I did move forward out of the flat scrub and into the edge of the forest there.
A girl. Maybe in her middle teens. She wore a white sleeveless blouse, bedazzled with large dark violet flowers, fanciful orchids or gardenias, which was knotted just above her navel. A denim skirt came down not quite to her knees. Barefoot. Her feet pointed outward in a kind of loose relevé, like some ballet dancer frozen in the classic first position. Her wavy hair was brushed neatly, elegantly, over her shoulders, as if she were going to a party. She was hanged with a rope about her neck, not swaying in any breeze, but as dead still as a plumb stone. Her face bore an unaccountably serene, unforgiving half-smile. Her pale, quite colorless eyes stared straight ahead. She seemed somehow familiar, but that couldn’t be right.
For one last moment of hope I thought, No, this was a doll. A horrific and perfectly wrought wax figurine. Lifelike to a fault. Its martyrdom here was ceremonial. Some sort of devil worship or maybe a terrible practical joke. Prankster drugged-up teens from a nearby town with nothing better to do than hold a sick ritual, a hazing in the middle of nowhere. Then I looked once more at the ashen face. This was no mannequin, no lifelike dummy. She was none other than a girl who was alive probably last week, maybe yesterday, and wasn’t alive now.