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Prologue from Water Witch
by Deborah LeBlanc

After soaking his father with three gallons of gasoline, Olm lit a match and tossed it onto the old man’s body. With a loud WHOOSH, blinding orange heat towered towards the night sky. Olm took a few steps back, watching in fascination as clothes and hair disintegrated instantly. Soon the pop and sizzle of burning flesh out sang the chorus of nocturnal swamp life that had deafened him for the last two hours—clicks, whines, buzzes from insects too vast in species and number to count, the croaks and whomp from frogs and alligators, snakes with bodies wider than the circumference of a man's arm. All of them raising their voices to Brother Moon, to one another.

Skin and thin layers of fat slipped away from bone, the flames licking across the scaffolding that held his father's body, and Olm hoped the wooden beams would hold until the ritual was completed. So much work had gone into making this happen. He'd cut thick cypress branches to just the right length, soaked them in water, hoisted the weighted logs by himself into a wobbly skiff, then transported them through the dead of too many nights. Through sloughs and flats clotted with water lilies that eventually led to a u-shaped, ten-acre knoll in the farthest corner of the Atchafalaya swamp, far away from prying eyes. Although it had been difficult to lift, hammer, and construct the burial shelf without any help, Olm's greatest challenge had been to steal his father's body from Sasaint's Funeral Home before it was embalmed, and to do it without getting caught. The struggle and hard work had been worth it, though, for now that everything was in place, Olm's life could truly begin.

Although this wasn't the traditional Pawnee burial his father had requested before he died, it was the fastest way for Olm to be rid of the body, which he needed to do if he was to follow through with a crucial, albeit extinct, Pawnee custom. One his father never embraced.

As legend had it, in order for a son to acquire the knowledge of all the leaders in his ancestral line, he had to offer his father's body to the elements at the time of his passing. When only bleached bones remained, the father's spirit would then be released, and all a son had to do was call upon what was rightfully his. To Olm, acquiring that knowledge meant ultimate power. For surely in the roll call of his ancestors, there had to have been medicine men, chiefs, warriors, and mighty hunters, those whose dance offerings and sacrifices, human and animal, changed weather patterns, and produced bountiful harvests. Olm had no intention of planting anything. He figured the same wisdom that created abundance in fields and swamps throughout past generations would adapt and supply the needs of a leader in the twenty-first century. Waiting for his father's bones to bleach might take weeks, though, even in the ruthless Louisiana heat.

He'd already spent thirty-seven years waiting for this moment, and Olm didn't want to wait a second longer than was necessary. Since his father was only one-third Pawnee, and from the Skidi tribe, Olm didn't think the alterations he'd made in the burial custom would make a difference. As far as he was concerned, he'd followed more than half the custom by bringing his father's body to the swamp and building the burial shelf. How the bones were exposed shouldn't matter.

As the fire roared, and flesh and muscle slipped away, Olm walked towards the ritual circle that lay two hundred feet away. Even from ground level, it looked like a monstrous, unblinking black eye staring up towards heaven. He'd made it after building the burial shelf, using only a hoe, a shovel, and a few ragged memories. The hoe had worked well for marking out the three-hundred foot circumference and for clearing the swamp grass, vines, and bramble from its surface. Once the black earth lay naked, save for a few earthworms, he'd used the shovel to dig the inside of the circle to a three-inch depth. The memories were the only tools that gave him problems.

When he was a boy, Olm's grandfather had told him stories about how the Pawnee, especially the Skidi, used annual sacrifices to assure bountiful harvests on land and water. He told how they'd danced the Ghost Dance, pleading with Tirawa, the god of the spirit world, for the return of their dead ancestors so the tribe would be strengthened by their collective wisdom and, of course, how a son offered up the bones of his dead father. So many stories, but all of them told so long ago, the details of the rituals were hazy and overlapped. Once again, Olm took the route of improvisation, trusting that he'd be granted dispensation since his father hadn't bothered to teach him much more than how to chug twelve-ounce bottles of Budweiser without belching.

At the northern perimeter of the circle sat a small wire-mesh cage Olm had brought along with his father's body. Inside the cage lay a fat nutria, which he'd captured a week ago and had been caring for since. The rodent appeared mesmerized, small black eyes locked onto the fire. It didn't even twitch as Olm approached. Once beside the cage, Olm pulled a buck knife out of the back pocket of his jeans, opened it, and flicked his thumb over the six-inch blade. Confident it was sharp enough; he leaned over, stuck the blade into the ground, then righted himself and began to undress. He couldn't remember a time when he felt more excited. Just thinking about the new life that lay ahead made him giddy, almost lightheaded. No more being laughed at or the brunt of anyone's joke. After tonight, he’d harvest money, women, knowledge, and strength in abundance. He'd finally be the one to have the last laugh.

Wearing nothing but gooseflesh and a smile, Olm squatted, opened the back of the cage, and quickly pulled the nutria out by its tail. He held the squealing, writhing rodent at arms length, pulled the knife out of the ground with his free hand, then stood and stepped into the circle. After he reached the center of the sphere, he glanced over at the burial shelf. The fire was receding—his father's bones were exposed.

It was time.

Olm faced west, lifted his arms high above his head, and shouted, "Tirawa!" The nutria clawed and bit at his forearm, but he ignored the pain, concentrating instead on the few Pawnee words he'd learned from his grandfather. The ones that called upon Father Sun, Brother Moon, Mother Earth, Sister Water. He'd practiced for weeks, stringing the words together into a chant, reciting them over and over until they rolled off his tongue with little effort. The words might not have been the same as the ones used by his forefathers during their rituals, but surely these held enough power to gain an ear from the netherworld.

With the nutria's teeth buried in his arm, its body twisting and slapping against him, Olm closed his eyes, pictured himself at the head of a tribe of thousands, and began to chant.

"Kiitsu—Sakuru—Poh—Piita. Kiitsu—Sakuru—Poh—Piita." Olm repeated the words again and again, louder each time, until his mind held nothing but the rhythm of the chant. His feet followed that rhythm, stomping the ground, first with his right foot, then with his left. A breeze kept time with him, as did the trees, their leaves rustling a soft percussion.

Right--stomp. Left--stomp. "Kiitsu—Sakuru—Poh . . ."

Right, left. "Piita—kiitsu . . ."

Right-left, right-left, right-left—circling, circling. "Sakuru—Poh—Piita!" The vibration of the words ran through Olm's body, and his vision as leader grew sharper, clearer.

It was then Olm opened his eyes, stilled his feet, lowered his arms, and rammed the knife into the belly of the nutria, ripping it open from groin to neck. As the animal screeched and writhed in its death throes, Olm held fast to its tail and covered his body with its blood, letting it splash over his shoulders, down his chest, his back, his groin, his legs. When the nutria finally fell limp, Olm tossed it aside, dropped the buck knife, lifted his arms above his head once again.

"Great Warrier Spirit, I call upon you to give to me what is rightfully mine. You have promised through the voice and heritage of our people, that a son only has to ask and you will provide. I not only ask you for the fullness of all that made the leaders before me powerful—I command it! Morning Star and Evening Star will testify to my worthiness, as will Brother Moon, Mother Earth, and Sister Water. Listen to their cry. Hear their testimony of all the years I have suffered, waiting patiently for this moment, enduring hardship after hardship. Do not turn your face from me, oh, Great One. I call upon you and all your minions, those from the North, South, East and West and command that the promise be fulfilled quickly. You must obey . . . Kiitsu, now! Sakuru, now! Poe, now! Piiti—"

Before he finished the command, a gust of wind slammed into Olm's back, nearly knocking him off his feet. With it, came the maddening chitter of insects, the croaks and whomp from frogs and alligators, only their calls sounded louder than before. Shivering, he glanced about. The fire had died from the burial shelf, making the night darker; the stars above him appeared brighter, bigger. He heard the loud lapping of water against the shore of the knoll. The fecund scent that had surrounded him earlier seemed more concentrated now. Everything appeared the same, only magnified, amplified. The air was charged with something different.

He peered from left to right, turning in small, slow circles, looking, searching for what he felt, but couldn't see. Then, just off to his right, through an eastbound slough, he spotted something odd. At first, it looked like a million fireflies headed towards him from a great distance. Olm watched, curious, fearful, feeling very naked.

As the pinpoints of light drew closer, the air grew thicker, charged with an electric current that filled him with dread. The specks of yellow light no longer looked like fireflies, but like eyes. Thousands—no, a million eyes coming towards him—for him.

And in that moment, Olm instinctively knew that he had somehow managed to summon a hell of a lot more than he'd bargained for.