“I’m ready,” said my father to the room full of elders and tribespeople gathered around his bedside. They’ve come to see him off, to witness his departure from our tribe; from the world. His long braids lay on either side of him, running silver and black along his body.
He was not ill, but his strength was failing and he was not able to lead in the way he once did. One by one, the families slid out of his presence, starting with the families with young children. Then the youths and the rest of the women.
When only a few of the strongmen remained, my father reached from his bed of stacked pillows and grabbed my forearm. His strength surprised me as his fingers clamped my wrist and pulled me closer to him. He then spoke as if to me, though loud enough for the rest of the men to hear.
“Is the boat ready?” he asked me intensely, as if the world would splinter and divide if it were not. I was accustomed to this intensity in my father, but tonight the subject was more difficult than ever before.
I nodded, “The boat is ready, father. What do you—”
“Tonight I will be with my family,” he cut me off. “You will stay by my side. I have completed the work of my land, and I have led my tribe as well as possible. I can honestly say I have led my people to the best of my ability. Not perfectly, but to the best of my ability.” His voice thundered through the room and I sensed that my eyes were not the only ones brimming with tears.
My father continued, “I will rise in the morning and go down to the water. There at the edge I will say goodbye to you, my son. To my tribe. I will get in the boat, and there, tomorrow morning, I will die.” He must have sensed my arm trembling because he—still holding it—gave it a squeeze that said be still.
I sniffled and stood up straighter.
“I have done what I have needed to do, so tomorrow morning I will die.”
I didn’t want to imagine the waters just a few hundred feet from where we were. Those waters which I had stood beside hundreds of times with my father, as he explained that the waters are chaos. The waters are the womb from which the entire world rose.
One time, when I was a young boy, he led me through a whipping storm down to the water’s edge. The waves roared triple the height of my father, and he pointed to them. “See this, son? This is the fury of the gods.”
And indeed, the fear of that tempest never fully left my bones. I never set out very far into the waters the way the fishermen did, nor did I ever desire to quest beyond the horizon. In all my years, I don’t think I ever went as far as the crest of the horizon which is visible from shore. It always frightened me to see how the earth bent there the way it did no other place. The forestland prevented me from being terrified of the depths because you can only see so far in every direction.
The prairie gave me whispers of terror if I ever stood on the shoulder of the world and beheld it as it yawned out to the sky, an awful span of space wide before me. The land was flat and wide on this edge of our settlement and you could dedicate a lifetime to pacing every cubit of all this visible land and never cover all of it.
The breadth made me dizzy. I was scared of staring across the prairie too long, but it was the water I truly could not bear.
Whenever I went out on a boat with the other men, they displayed no fear or hesitancy to place their feet on the thin boards separating them from the chaos, but I gripped the mast for my life or wrapped ropes around my fists just in case of a capsize.
Beyond boyhood I could not even look over the edge of the vessel into the water because to look down may be to glimpse that which is greater than I: that which can withstand the chaotic deep.
The other boys would invent stories of what dwelt beneath our tiny ships, our pathetic attempts to tame the depths. They would tell me of monsters and of the dead who, much like my father in the morning, make their way down into the darkness of the waters but never fully die. If you fall off of a boat or swim down too deep, you could feel their fingers reaching out for your own. You may feel a palm of their hand graze your back, but at such depths, you can never be sure what you’re really seeing or feeling. The boys sometimes have contests to see who can swim down the deepest, but of course I never participate.
I imagined my father’s hand, which still gripped my arm, graying beneath the water and floating lifelessly, reaching out for any passing fish or swimmer or monster. I pictured his eyes pecked out by the lipless fish as he made his bed on the ocean floor eternally.
“Tomorrow I will die,” he said, but he did not say how. He simply told me to hitch the smallest boat in our fleet on the dock near our settlement and the rest would unfold exactly as it needed to.
I didn’t know if I would see the life of my father end or if he would sail away and die past the horizon. I wondered if I would know when the moment had come, when he had fully surrendered to the deep.
I feared for my father though. I was afraid of him descending into the water. I was petrified to think of a storm rolling in again and the waves casting his decayed body back upon our shore, a blatant sign of what happens to those who give in to the chaos.
My father showed no fear as he lay in his bed presently. He did not weep like the rest of the men surrounding him, nor did his voice waver like mine does when I think about the waters, or when I fought another man.
Last week—my father did not know this—I challenged another man my own age to a fight because he had stared at the woman I admired, and we decided to fight with our hands to find who would earn the right to pursue her. As I approached the place of our battle, my stomach spun and rattled within me like a wind blowing through tent flaps, and I only hoped that my exterior did not betray such insecurity.
I won the fight of course—there was never any question about that. Even as I approached the location, though my stomach fluttered, I knew I would have her. It was her. It has always been her. I never doubted for a moment that she would be my witch.
I know many of the surrounding tribes use that word to mean someone who devours infants and casts spells on her enemies. In our tribe it stands for something different: Woman into the Chaos. WITCh. I forget that not everyone is familiar with the language of my people, but the origin of the word, as it has been passed down, is just that this woman will be with you forever, until you step into the chaos. The two of you spend your lives together until the waters swallow you, at which point you are literally in the chaos together.
And the men are the HITChes. The Husbands into the Chaos.
There was never a question who would be my witch—it would be her, and it could be no other. I knew it since I first laid eyes on her small form, pulling crops from the fields even though her head barely rose above the hedge. Her black hair fell along her back in two neat braids and I couldn’t take my eyes away, even after she looked up and caught me staring at her.
And that was the moment—when I first saw her eyes. They were as black as her hair, laced in almond brown skin which rose and folded around her sharp features. I knew that to look into her eyes for the rest of my life may send the same shivers down my spine as the black waters themselves, but that was a thrill I was willing to embrace.
And there was no one for her but me, so I knew that I would win this fight, or I would be as good as sunk into the waters. It wasn’t an option, it would simply happen that I would win.
He stood a full head taller than me, but I knocked the man out in under a minute. He did not have the same desperation for this woman that I did. I then walked directly to the home of my woman. I wrapped my arms around her neck and kissed the top of her head. I stepped back and held her shoulders in my hands
I asked her to be my witch, and, even though she knew I hated the waters, to be with me until I sank into the chaos. Tears were already running down her face and she nodded. Her father came to the door behind her and smiled. He opened a case of the hardwater and we shared a swig. The burn bolted into my stomach as the fire ran down my throat and blossomed into a warm ember.
I held my woman beneath the stars for many hours that night. We talked and we sat in silence and then we talked and then we sat in silence.
It was always her, there was no question.
My father never found out about the fight, but he did rejoice with me for my woman. He smiled and placed that firm grip on my shoulder, but when I asked him if he could postpone his voyage to the deep, the corners of his mouth dropped and his voice lowered.
“My son, the day is set. I will be surrounded by my people in the evening, and then in the morning I will die. I will set out into the vast waters and be swallowed by her entirely. I will join your mother in the ancient chaos.”
Upon hearing this, I lost control of my body and slunk to the floor like a hollow puppet.
Neither my mother nor my father would be present for the happiest day of my life, when I would become one skin with my woman. They would not get to see her adorned with the rare flowers of the prairie, or me standing tall in the garment of my home (That garment is a special tradition among my people. We compile our garment in just the right way such that it weaves together our childhood bed sheets, our adult bedsheets, certain flaps from the entrance of our home, signifying that we have passed through each necessary stage of life, and then a new patch of fabric which we create from our mother’s loom. This has a new design which we create and it’s presented for the first time at the ceremony). They would not know my children or help raise them.
I knelt on the dirt before my father, pleading with him to witness my union with my woman, but he held my head and told me it was just not possible. The voices of the deep were calling to him and he could not alter the course of his future any more than he could tell the gales to stop their blowing.
We would rise in the morning to find, however, that my father would be late to his appointment with the waters.