“He out yet?” Lottie’s husband William breathed behind her, invisible in the dark.
Lottie’s heart sped, a thumping beneath her breastbone that stirred the child in her belly.
“Don’t know,” Lottie said. “Hush.”
She stared from her hiding place behind the arrowwood shrubs, heavy belly low to the soil. They had slipped past the soldiers at Fort Dahlonega, and now they were twenty yards west of the mine’s gate, which stood open wide as miners escaped the cavern’s mouth for the night. Shadowy figures ambled toward them, unaware.
Would she know her Uncle Jim in the dark? Lottie had not seen her father’s brother in five years. Until then, he’d come to see mama two or three times a year after Lottie’s father died. But now he was a freeman—the only free Negro she knew. Free Jim, everyone called him.
Mama said God shined light into his massa’s heart one day and he wrote up Uncle Jim’s freedom papers after church. But most said Uncle Jim bought a mojo and poured a powder with calamus, bergamot, and High John the Conqueror root in his massa’s morning tea.
As tiny feet kicked at her, Lottie vowed she would name William’s baby Freedom. If only she could find Uncle Jim and survive the night, they could all change their names.
A few white miners remained huddled at the gate while she waited and hoped to see Uncle Jim’s beard or his shock of white-splashed hair. One by one, the miners untied their horses. About a dozen colored men emerged last, but they did not have horses. Instead, they shuffled down the road as fast as they seemed able, lanterns swinging. Uncle Jim, born a slave, had slaves working for him? What makes you think he’ll help you? The forlorn call of a bullfrog hidden somewhere nearby reminded Lottie of swinging from a rope on a rotting oak branch, slowly to and fro.
They would not make it without Uncle Jim. Would not make it to the state line, or to the farmhouse in North Carolina where the Quakers would come fetch them. The last few days’ horrid rain had stopped at last, but they would be cold tonight. Lottie couldn’t remember when her clothes last had been dry.
“Go to ’em, William,” Lottie said to William. “Say you lookin’ for a few days’ wages. Say you wanna talk to Free Jim.” Panic made her voice sound twelve instead of seventeen.
“They’ll know that’s gum,” William said.
Without the wagon, they had been forced to go to Uncle Jim in Dahlonega, where William had been reared. Cherokees weren’t welcome since the Army started marching families off. William said he’d rather die running with her than let the white man choose his home.
“Whatever you gonna say, hurry and say it, Waya,” she told him.
William’s mother had given him a Cherokee name, Waya, though he used William outside of his boyhood home to set white men at ease. William pressed his palm to the side of her belly, head bowed. Then he stood and crept past the brush and up the road toward Lot 998—Free Jim Boisclair’s mine.
The chatter at the mine entrance went quiet when William walked up. Lottie tried to hear, lying so still that she didn’t brush away the insects that tickled her ankles and calves. But she couldn’t hear a word over the bullfrog’s warble, vexing her like a haint.
A sign, it was. A bad sign.
Then she heard the low, snapping bark that followed her into her dreams. Dogs were on their trail again! “Damn, damn, damn,” she whispered to the dark.
Next, the men came. On the road, two white riders trotted north, their clop-clopping steady and loud. If not for the brush, she would be in plain view. The angry barking drew closer, crisper. And William was surer with his knife!
Lottie’s frightened heartbeat shook the earth.
They would be found! Her eyesight dimmed. She would beg mercy from the slave-catchers. She was carrying a child, plain as day. One of them might have brains enough to realize that cow-hiding her might kill the child—and then what would they tell Marse Campbell about his lost property? She would never see William again; he would be sent away with his people. But he would not be alone. She’d wanted freedom, but at least she and her baby would live.
The plan was hard, but anything was better than dogs.
The riders stopped in the road, barely six strides from where she hid.
Two shadows walked from the mine’s gate to meet the men, one carrying a lamp. Lottie saw the paunch of a man’s middle beneath a brightly colored vest, pocket watch swinging. She had seen that pocket watch before. Please, Jesus, was he the one?
“Evenin’.” Uncle Jim’s voice! His pocket watch winked in the lamplight. “Evenin’.” The lead rider spoke in a manner reserved for other white men.
“Need you at the ice house. Injun’ll stand watch here.”
The riders circled Uncle Jim and William on their horses. Uncertain, it seemed.
“All right, then,” the lead rider said after a long while. He made a kissing sound for his horse, and the second man followed him up the road. Lottie had never seen white men do what a nigger told them. Uncle Jim had a mojo for sure! Had to.
Uncle Jim thrust the lamp into the brush, his wide nose nearly pressed to hers. “You’re damn fools. ’Specially you, Lottie.”
Uncle Jim’s first words to her in five years.
Five years ago, he’d told Mama he would keep his promise to his dead brother. He’d gone to the back door of Marse’s house and tried to talk to him, even offered him a bank note, but Marse Campbell had turned him away. Lottie and mama both had cried themselves hoarse. Lottie had not, could not, forget Uncle Jim’s last words to her.
Don’t you fret, Lottie. I’ll come back for you.
Uncle Jim cursed a fury as he led her and William around a bluff on the brick-lined path to a wooden door. A preacher should know better than to blaspheme, and wasn’t he a preacher? Wasn’t he the one who’d taught her to read Scripture? Wasn’t he the one who had left her in Augusta when he’d promised to buy her freedom?
Once the door was closed behind him, they walked a narrow corridor on a wood plank floor until Uncle Jim stopped at a door made half of glass. JAMES BOISCLAIR, the glass read in script so fancy she could barely make out the lettering.
Inside, he lit lamps and brought daylight to the small room. The desk buried in papers, bookshelves stuffed with books. Lottie hadn’t realized she was shivering until Uncle Jim laid a warm blanket across her shoulders, and her trembling stopped.
“Look at you,” Uncle Jim said. He’d fussed away his anger; now he only sounded sad. “You thought you’d get to the state line?”
“Got this far,” Lottie said.
Uncle Jim’s eyes lashed fire at William. “What are you going to do for her and a baby? You? She has kin in Augusta.”
“Ain’t his fault,” Lottie said. “I wanted to come. Had to. I couldn’t wait no more.”
Marse Campbell had refused to let her take William as her husband. When her belly showed, he told her he would drown her half-breed baby if she gave him trouble. Drown her baby! William had been telling her she should run all along. He knew the roads and the woods. The first day she’d seen William, he’d sat perched in his driver’s berth with the promise of faraway places.
“I saw a runaway notice in town!” Uncle Jim said, fingers twisting his beard. “Someone will piece it together. Those men you saw were not stupid men.”
“We saw those crackers do what you told ’em,” Lottie said. “Jumped right quick.”
“Those,” Uncle Jim said, “are white men who would turn in a stray Cherokee and his nigger runaway for a whole lot less than Campbell’s reward. For shillings!”
Outside, the rain started its cruel pounding.
Uncle Jim went silent when William took a step to him. She hoped Uncle Jim would not lay hands on him. Her husband would show his knife.
“Jim Boisclair’s a big man,” William said. “The mercantile. Eating house. Ice house. And this gold mine. Jim Boisclair’s got his name, Lottie. No time to fool with you. My uncle was a big man too—had a dozen slaves. Now where is he?”
“I know you,” Uncle Jim said. “Injun Willie the driver. You’ve hauled for me. My men were wondering why you’re not on your way to Ross’s Landing with the rest. Or Tennessee. Where you gonna hide in Dahlonega?”
“It’s talon-e-ga, not Dahlonega,” William said. “You steal the word and destroy it.”
“I ain’t stole a damn thing,” Uncle Jim said.
“Stealing from our grandfathers’ mountain is nothing? Stealing land is nothing?”
Their words sounded like blows. It was all going terribly wrong. “William, please,” Lottie said.
“You’re big enough to move the mountain,” William said. “To take the gold. We ask a small thing from a big man.”
When William glanced her way, Lottie begged him with her eyes: Stop vexing him.
“We jus’ need a roof for the night,” Lottie said. “We move on at daylight. William had a wagon, but we had to leave it cuz of the paddyrollers and all the soldiers on the road. We’ll walk if we gotta, but if ’n a body could ride us up closer to North Carolina . . . ”
“Then why don’t I snap my fingers and make pigs fly?” Uncle Jim said. “Didn’t you hear me? I can’t be seen with—”
“We could sleep in the mine.”
Lottie wondered who’d said it, but it was her own tiny voice. From Uncle Jim’s face, she might have said they should light themselves afire.
Uncle Jim shook his head. “It ain’t fit, Lottie.”
“Fit?” Lottie said. “What I care ‘bout that? You think I’d rather be drug through the woods by dogs? Me an’ my baby?” When she said baby, Uncle Jim cast his eyes to the floor.
William brushed his fingertip across the colorful book spines on Uncle Jim’s shelf. “You afraid we’re gonna steal your gold, big man?”
“Git away from there and mind your business,” Uncle Jim said.
William reached up to a higher shelf, which was empty except for a small sack of burlap bound with twine. William took the sack and weighed it in his hand.
“Don’t touch that,” Uncle Jim said. He tripped over his rug rushing to William, knocking books to the floor as he snatched the sack away. He hid it beneath his shirt, his whole body shaking. “That’s not for anyone but me to touch!”
Lottie had never laid eyes on a bag of luck before, but she was sure William had found Uncle Jim’s. He kept his mojo in plain sight. He might have feathers or bones in the sack, or powders, or strands of his old massa’s hair. She knew people who’d bartered food or shoes to heal maladies and turn a beau’s head their way, or to wish ill luck on their masters, but she had never imagined such a mighty mojo. With so much power, could the creature who’d sold it to Uncle Jim be called human?
“What that cost you, Uncle Jim?” Lottie whispered.
Uncle Jim looked at her with tears, bottom lip quavering. “I can’t help you, Lottie,” he said. “It’s not I don’t want to, girl—I can’t. Every time I do . . . when I try . . . it goes wrong. You hear me? I’m free. Just me. I can’t share it with nobody else—even you. Especially you, girl. Don’t you see?”
“You turnin’ us away?” Lottie said. “To the dogs and patrollers?”
“Might be better,” Uncle Jim said. “You hear? Might be better’n staying with me.”
Lottie had seen survivors of dogs with rent limbs, missing eyes and ruined faces. She didn’t want to believe dogs could be better than anything, even death, but the mine’s stink seeped beneath the closed door; sour water full of rot.
“Told you he wouldn’t help us,” William said. He’d been wiping his hands on the seat of his pants since Uncle Jim took the bag of luck, as if his palms were sticky from its touch.
Lottie raised herself to her feet so fast that she felt dizzied. “We gotta leave this place,” Lottie said.
Uncle Jim’s heartbroken eyes said, Yes, thank the Lord you understand, child. But his lips twitched, as if against his will, and his mouth said, “Into the cold night? The rain? How can I?”
That was how the plan was settled.
Before the first miners arrived at dawn, Uncle Jim would hire a wagon master he knew, an Irishman named Willoughby who had no fondness for slavery or the Cherokee relocation. Willoughby would drive them to the train—“I’ll be up the whole night to devise the papers and think of a pretense!”—and try to ride with them as far as Charlotte. Uncle Jim would pay Willoughby handsomely for his silence and peril, greater than the advertised reward.
But arrangements would take until morning. A long night lay ahead. “Tonight,” Uncle Jim said, “you must sleep in the mine.”
Under the ground, Lottie met the purest lack of light she had ever known. Every step, it seemed, was blacker than the last.
Lottie steadied herself against the pocked wall, which felt as damp and slimy as a water snake. William stayed close to her, offering his hand, but instinct made her hold his arm instead. William wiped his unclean palms still, as if they itched from the bag of luck.
Uncle Jim’s lamp was a poor defense. A flickering, sickly light.
“With the storms, the whole mine was flooded,” Uncle Jim said. “Where we’re going, water’s still as high as your ankles. Higher, in some places. Lottie, mind where you walk. Don’t get that dress wet.”
Lottie’s dress had been wet for two days. She would have laughed if she hadn’t been so desperate to run back up the narrow steps as quickly as she could. She almost stepped on the dead, bloated rat at her feet, halfway under the water, a flash of light fur against the void.
“At least the flood killed the rats,” Uncle Jim said. “But they’re raising a stench.”
“Water is good,” William said. “It fools the dogs’ noses.”
Nothing was good about this water. No rainwater or creek bed carried the stench of the water in the mine. Lottie thought she might bathe for days and never be clean of it. She hoped the smell couldn’t reach William’s baby inside her, but it seemed all too certain her unborn could smell it too.
“Well . . . ” Uncle Jim said. “You needn’t worry about dogs down here.” He huffed a breath when he said dogs.
“What, then?” Lottie said.
Uncle Jim looked back at her, his face and eyes invisible.
“Breaking your necks,” he said. “Blowing yourselves to bits. Touch nothing, hear?”
The narrow cavern opened to release them to a wider space where a mining car smaller than a wagon sat on the tracks, empty and still. If only the Underground Railroad were truly underground, she thought. If only they could ride to freedom unseen by any human eyes.
“Where’s the gold at?” Lottie said. The walls did not look golden. “Deep in the rocks. T’ain’t plain to the eye.”
Black water pooled just beyond the mining car, shimmering tar in the light. Dripping echoed around them endlessly. Again, Lottie fought the urge to run.
“We ain’t gonna drown down here, is we?” Lottie said.
“Not so long as you do as you’re told and don’t wander,” Uncle Jim said. “Come on.”
As he led them past the mining car, water seeped into her worn shoes, cold enough to tingle her toes. Water dripped just beyond her nose, and Lottie looked up: sharp rock formations like swords above them stood poised to fall and slice them in two. The next water droplet caught her eye, and she panicked as the cold stung and blinded her. With a gasp, she wiped her eyes clear. Her lungs locked tight until she could see Uncle Jim’s lamp again.
William pointed to a narrow enclave, a shelter to their right. “Here?”
“No,” Uncle Jim said. “Not far enough in. That’s where the men crouch during the blasts. We’ll find you another like it.”
The corridor forked, and Lottie tried to map their location the way she did in the woods, but by the next fork she was confused. No landmarks guided her here.
The sloshing grew deafening as the floodwater rose to their shins. Lottie gathered her dress at her waist to try to avoid soaking it in stink. Mama had warned her not to stay wet, that she could get sick and die. But even though both she and Mama knew death might await her, Mama had said, Yes ,let William take you and that baby away. There ain’t nothing for you here. Go see Jim at his gold mine. At least it’s a chance.
But the longer Lottie walked, the less it seemed like any kind of chance. Death above or death below, it didn’t matter—dying was dying. And Lottie felt death down here.
William gave a start, staring into the water near his feet. “Ya’ll see that?”
“What?” Lottie said.
William probed the water with his foot. “I saw . . . something.”
“Quit your daydreaming,” Uncle Jim said, but he sounded frightened. He still had the bag of luck snugly beneath his shirt. Holding it tight.
The water was higher now, at her knees. The damp fabric she carried was a heavy load. Her shins hurt from walking downhill, and the baby’s bulk nearly toppled her with each step.
“What that bag do, Uncle Jim?” Lottie said. She raised her voice to be heard over their steady wading. “How you get it? Can I get one too?”
Uncle Jim faced her. The lamplight aged his face, made his eyes appear to burrow into his skin. His transformation startled her. “Stop that talk.”
“You say when you try to help, it always go wrong,” Lottie said. “How it go wrong?”
“You got to sell your heart for freedom, Lottie,” Uncle Jim said. “Just like me.”
“We’re not like you,” William said.
“Sure you are, red man. I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run—well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are cold as ice.”
Lottie blinked away tears. She tried not to think of Mama getting lashed because Marse Campbell would never believe she didn’t know where her daughter had run to. Tried not to think about how Mama would never see her first grandchild. And that was just the best of what might come. Lottie’s shaking started again, her knees knocking like clapping hands. In a few steep footsteps, the water reached above her thighs; dark slime in her most unwanted places.
“How it gonna go wrong for us, Uncle Jim?” Lottie said.
When Uncle Jim was silent for a time, she gave up on having an answer.
And when he spoke, she wished he hadn’t.
“It always goes wrong, girl,” Uncle Jim said. “Don’t get it in your heads you’ll both make it up to North Carolina—and then what? Philadelphia? You’re fools if you think this ends well. You never should’ve come. Think of the last words you want to say to each other, and be sure to say ’em quick. You won’t both survive the night.”
They had to stoop to enter the boxy blast enclave.
In the far back corner, the water didn’t creep as high. A narrow, uneven ledge was raised enough for them to sit out of the stinking muck. Lottie hoped the water would drop by morning. Uncle Jim had said it might—if the rain let up. She couldn’t tell if it was raining outside, but it was surely raining inside. The only sounds were the chorus of dripping water and Uncle Jim’s sing-song prayer as he walked back up to the world above.
“ . . . Lord, take pity on your poor servants on this long night . . . ” she heard his voice echo through the passageway. The words collided and faded, but she could make them out well enough to feel the prayer move her spirit. “Do not punish this poor shepherd, Lord, for we all have suffered enough. Do not punish the innocent, Lord, for all they desire is the freedom to serve you better . . . ”
Every few words, his voice hitched in a sob. He was the very sound of despair.
Then it was a faraway whisper. Then he was no voice at all.
All around her, the dark.
Uncle Jim had given them two lamps, but the two-hundred miles since Augusta had taught them to save kerosene for dire necessity. They had checked their matchsticks before blowing out the lamps, and while Lottie’s had gotten wet in her pouch somehow, William had kept his dry. Lottie had fewer possessions now than ever. Before this night, she had never wanted for moonlight or air to breathe.
But Lottie was glad for the dark, since she didn’t want William to see her tears. He was helpless to soothe her, so why should they punish each other? She huddled against the best man she knew, hearing Uncle Jim’s prayer in her mind, rubbing her belly.
Uncle Jim had said that in the morning he would give them a treasure chest in the Irishman’s wagon: dry clothes, a packed traveling bag, food, boxes of matches, a new compass. And money—how much she could only guess, if Uncle Jim’s hired man didn’t steal it first.
Neither of them had a timepiece, but she thought it had to be ten o’clock.
In seven hours, Uncle Jim would come back for them. Seven hours. Seven years, it might as well be. But he would come. He would come, this time.
Seven hours, Lord. Let them last seven hours.
Don’t let her mother’s lashes be for nothing. Don’t let William’s grandmother’s cries in her sickbed when the soldiers came be for nothing. Let it all matter for something.
Unless he means to drown you both here. For your own good.
And didn’t he? Hadn’t she heard his soul’s guilt in his weepy prayer?
Lottie couldn’t swallow away her sob, and William slid his palm against her hot cheek, all tenderness. Did he know it too? Did he know Uncle Jim had sent them into the mine to die?
Loud splashing flew toward them. Gone as soon as they heard it.
They sat closer, their bodies hard as stone. The splashing had come from directly outside the mouth of their enclave. Had Uncle Jim come back so soon? No more than half an hour could have passed.
“Uncle?” she whispered.
William covered her mouth with the palm. His heartbeat pulsed through his skin.
The next splash sounded like two limbs colliding. Then an undulating motion, one spot to the next. And sudden, impossible silence. They could be back out in the forest, jumping at bears and bobcats.
“That ain’t a man,” William said. “Didn’t I say I saw somethin’? He saw it too.”
“What it look like?” Lottie said. “A snake?”
“Too big for a snake,” William said. “Too wide. Can’t say what it looked like, but it wasn’t no fish or snake. It looked ’bout as long as me.”
“It’s a man, then,” Lottie said. “Somebody chasin’ us.”
“No,” William said. “Not a man.”
William calmly struck a match and lit his lamp. In the brightness, colored circles danced across Lottie’s eyes.
Her vision snapped to focus when she heard the splash again. The creature was beyond the poor reach of their lamp, but she could hear its size—the front end slapping the water first, then the back. Like William said, as long as a man. But maybe wider. Beyond reason, she expected a bloodhound to come flying from the water, teeth gnashing.
William sucked in a long breath. “You see it?” Lottie said.
William shook his head, waving his lamp slowly back and forth across the water.
Lottie’s heart tried to pound free of her. “Maybe it’s a gator!”
“No,” William breathed. He stayed patient with his lamp’s spotlight, which showed only brown flecks floating in the murk.
“What, then?” Lottie said.
“As a boy,” he said quietly, “I heard stories about Walasi. A giant frog. My mother told me, her mother told her, her mother’s mother, through time. To the beginning.”
Ain’t no damned frog that big, Lottie’s mind tried to tell her, but she remembered the bullfrog’s call she’d heard outside. An omen after all.
William pointed left. “Look there,” he said, calm beyond reason.
Ripples fluttered in the lamplight. Then a frothy splashing showered them. Lottie screamed, but did not close her eyes. She wanted to see the thing. A silhouette sharpened in the water, like giant fingers stretching, or a black claw. Her hands flew to cover her eyes, but she forced her fingers open to peek through.
The creature churned the water, tossing its massive body. A shiny, bulging black eye as large as her open palm broke the water’s plane, nestled by brown-green skin. Lottie screamed.
The creature flipped, its eye gone. Was this its belly? Pale beneath the water, smooth as glass. Too big to be anything she could name. The mine’s thin air seared her lungs.
“Did you see it?” William’s grin made him look fevered. His eyes seemed as wild and wide as the water creature’s. “The frog?”
It can’t be, she tried to say, arguing with her eyes. But her mouth would not move.
Lottie was whimpering, a childish sound she hadn’t made since the day Marse Campbell turned Uncle Jim away. She sat as far back as she could from the water, her arms locked around her knees. Her bones trembled as she rocked.
William whipped off his tattered shirt. His readied knife gleamed. “Leave it be!” she said.
“Any child knows about Walasi, but no one has seen him. And now . . . here he is!” William’s excitement unsettled Lottie. “Walasi tries to kill everyone in the village. But a warrior slays him.”
Lottie felt a fear deeper than the mine’s darkness. Maybe Uncle Jim’s mojo had confused his mind. Had that come of touching it?
“Waya . . . ” She called him by his mother’s name, hoping he would hear her.
William clasped her upper arm and squeezed. His face wore an eerie grin. “When the warrior kills Walasi, it turns to little frogs. Harmless. They scatter. The village is saved.”
“All your people is gone far away,” Lottie said. “You ain’t got no village. Ain’t nothin’ you can do!”
“What else should I do, dear Lottie?” he said. “Should I run and hide like a boy?
He laid his head across her belly, and she breathed him up and down. Lottie tried to summon words to bring sense to him, but she had no strength to speak.
Then he slipped from her, holding tight to his knife. He dove into the black water.
Lottie screamed. “Waya!”
Endless silence, except for the dripping water.
Every evil Lottie could dream felt certain: The creature was pulling strips of her husband’s flesh with its teeth, far worse than any dog. And it would come to take her next. It would tear the baby from her and scatter its limbs. Uncle Jim had bargained his freedom with a curse. He had sacrificed them. The world spun, the mine’s darkness fighting to take her thoughts too.
She felt dizzy enough to faint, but she could not. Could not. Lottie kept her mind awake by counting off in her head as she waited for William to pop up from the water. . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . fourteen . . .
William could hold his breath a long time. He swam like a fish in the pond near the road where he drove past Marse Campbell’s farm once a month. Showing off for her.
Thirty-five . . . thirty-six . . . thirty-seven . . . thirty-eight . . .
Lottie stood as close to the water’s lapping edge as she dared, using William’s lamp to try to see. She tried calling both of his names. After a time, fingers shaking, she lit the second lamp too. His absence only grew brighter. The water lay still and silent.
Ninety-one . . . ninety-two . . . ninety-three . . .
“No . . . ” Lottie whispered. “No . . . ” At five hundred, she stopped counting.
She felt too breathless to sob. Even tears shunned her misery.
How could she have let William go? Why hadn’t she let him drag her down with him How dare he go to freedom without her!
Time passed uncounted. Lottie only realized she had slept when the water woke her with a start.
Just beyond her haven, something was moving—a steady gliding from one side to the next, back and forth. But even bleary-eyed, confused and sick with sorrow, Lottie knew the sound was not from William. No man could glide so quickly or make such a sound.
Her lanterns made no impression on the water’s void, showing her nothing.
“Git on away from me!” she shrieked at the dark, as if monsters heeded commands.
The water’s splashing told her that the creature still lurked. Watching her? Preparing to make her and her baby its next meal?
“You give me my husband back!”
She tried to shout again, but her throat’s tatters produced only a whisper, more frightened than angry.
How had she forgotten her knife? She prized the ivory-handled penknife William had given her as a wedding gift, of sorts, when they decided they would run. Their time in the woods had dulled the blade from too much hacking and cutting, but she still had it. The knife was all that remained of William now.
Lottie grasped her knife and held it out like a sword toward the churning water. Like her, the blade was weak and small, but she wielded it as if they both had greater power.
“You hear me?” she said, and this time her voice was stronger too.
The thing in the water did hear. It swam closer to her, splashing water over the ledge in its huge wake. Lottie had not believed she could feel greater terror, but the advancing creature awakened such a childlike fear in her that she wanted to cover her eyes.
But she did not. Arm outstretched with her knife, she watched. And waited.
The bulbous eye appeared again before the water swallowed the sight of it, much closer than it had been before. Gone before she could lunge at it. Then came a wet slapping on the stone as the creature hoisted itself nearer to her with shiny green-brown skin. It was not a claw, nor a human hand, but a large and sinister blending of the two that fanned across the ledge as if to reach for her.
Lottie had no time to scream. She stabbed at the closest—digit?—and hacked at it, feeling euphoria when a piece of the creature fell separate from the rest. The creature howled, muffled under the water, and the limb retreated to escape her, snatched away. Lottie kicked the cursed tendril away from her, back into the black pool.
Her laughter was not true laughter—just a desperate, gasping cackle—but the sound of it filled the cave. Then Lottie collapsed into sobs that joined the chorus of falling water droplets from above.
A plan came to Lottie. With a plan, she stole shallow breaths. Her sobbing eased.
She would stay away from the water.
She would teach their child his father’s Cherokee name. Drip-drip.
She would teach their child that Waya’s family had lived in peace along the Etowah River before soldiers took them away. Drip-drip.
She would feed their child the corn and hickory nuts Waya loved so much, alongside Mama’s corn cakes. Drip-drip.
Minutes passed, then hours, while Lottie made her plans for freedom that she would win at such an unfathomable cost.
“Lottie? You still here?”
When a voice came, Lottie shrieked. Hope swelled in her. But, no. Not William. Not Waya.
Had she slept again? Her body was stiff against the stone.
Hours must have passed. Lamplight swayed in the passageway. The water had receded to a thin sheet. She smelled pipe tobacco. Her uncle’s shadow floated on the wall.
“We got to hurry, girl.”
Uncle Jim did not ask about William. He was not surprised her husband was gone.
“Waya,” she whispered to the ravaged cave. “Come on, Lottie—my man’s outside waiting.”
As Free Jim reached for her, his two gold rings flared like droplets from the sun.
His pinkie finger, a bloodied crust, was freshly sliced away.
Originally published in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and reprinted in Ghost Summer: Stories.