“This place is gorgeous,” Lily breathes, and I give her a fond look.
“There ain’t a place in this world more beautiful than the North Carolina mountains, and that’s a fact,” I declare proudly, sweeping my hands out at the forest so green it’ll hurt your eyes and the crystal-blue, bottomless waters of Adams’s Spring rushing below. “I reckoned you and Andy might like it.”
Lily slants her eyes up at me, pursing her pretty little mouth. “And I suppose you’re not biased at all, Mr. ‘My Family Has Lived Here Forever’.”
“Not my fault you come from a soulless city like Austin,” I say, lips twitching upward.
“Hey,” Lily warns, balling her delicate hands up in mock anger. “Don’t you mess with Texas.”
I laugh, and she playfully cuffs my shoulder. Then we settle into silence, sweet and crisp like an apple. She watches the spring, and I watch the way the wind buffs at the tendrils of chestnut hair which frame her heart-shaped face.
“You know,” I say finally, “there’s an old legend about this place. Don’t reckon you’d like to hear it now, though, what with the baby and all. It’s a mite morbid.”
Lily glares and settles a hand over the swell of her stomach. “Henry Lewis, you know as well I do that I love a good horror story. And Andy’s a fearless baby - look at how he kicks already!”
“Can’t argue with that,” I say, placing my hand atop hers. “All right, you asked for it.”
I lower my voice into a hush like the winter wind. “It concerns an ancestor of mine, way back at the dawn of the nineteenth century. John Lewis, his name was - the son of a rich man. When he was young he fell in love with a girl his neighbors had taken in: fair little Omie Wise, who had hair like rays of sunshine and eyes warm and rich as spice cake. Weren’t long before they had a baby on the way. But his parents, they didn’t fancy the idea of their only son marrying an orphan with not a penny to her name - so they vowed that they’d wed in secret, right here by Adams’s Spring. And afterwards, they would ride all the way to Raleigh, where she’d have a fine big house and all else that her heart could desire.”
“Mm,” Lily says, leaning into me. “How romantic. Maybe we should elope too.”
“Best you wait til you hear what comes next,” I say. “The morning they had set for their secret wedding dawned cool and clear, just like today. Omie put on her best Sunday dress and skipped to Adams’s Spring, shivering with anticipation at the thought of finally being lawfully wedded to the one she loved. She had no money for fine jewelry or silks - but John had promised to bring her everything she’d need for life in the big city.”
“Early morning turned to bright, hot afternoon. Omie sat herself on that rock right there and waited. Her fine Sunday dress grew damp from sweat, and little bits of hair escaped from her bonnet, just like this-” - a gentle tug at Lily’s curls, and a laughing cry of protest from her. “She’d just ‘bout given up on John coming to meet her when she heard the clop of hooves, and a moment later he rode into view. ‘John!’ she cried, leaping up and rushing to meet him.”
“John turned to her, and she faltered at the sight of his eyes. Those gray eyes, which just yesterday night had danced like a hearth fire, were now cold as ice and hard as rock. ‘John,’ she whispered in fright, ‘whatever has possessed you?’”
“Well,” I continue, “no one quite knows what did possess him. Maybe it was a vengeful spirit; perhaps his parents’ warnings finally got to him, and he felt embarrassed about his relationship with the poor little orphan girl. Or maybe it was the work of old Lucifer himself. But whatever the case, it is unquestionable what happened next.”
I pause and Lily subconsciously sucks in a breath, her hand pressed a little tighter on her belly. “What happened?” she whispers quietly.
“John Lewis walked right up to little Omie Wise. He embraced her; he gave her a kiss… and then, without a second thought, picked her up and tossed her into the river!”
Lily gasps, paling. I continue: “Omie screamed and flailed, for he had thrown her into the deepest part of the spring - right here - and she couldn’t swim. He climbed up back on his horse and rode away, all the while ignoring the cries of the girl he had professed his undying love for, the girl who carried his child. Eventually the last curl of sunshine hair had sunk below the frothing water, and the forest was once again still and calm.”
“Two boys found her again, while they were out fishing. The moment the hook caught they knew they hadn’t gotten no fish: and when they reeled in and saw the white, slimy, bloated figure rise up out of the creek they scrambled up faster than a hare with a burning tail and fled to find Omie’s adoptive parents. Immediately the town suspected John Lewis - and though he proclaimed his innocence for the world to hear, everyone knew better. Within a week they had hanged him, and thrown his body in an unmarked grave.” I take a deep breath. “But that ain’t the end of it. Everyone knows that a body who died a wrongful death will walk again, and so, they say, Omie did. Legend tells she placed a curse upon the Lewis family. She haunts this self-same spot, lying just beneath the water and waiting, waiting for each Lewis man to come back here with his pregnant wife… And when he does, she reaches up and-”
I glance at Lily’s face, which is stark white and wet with tears. She looks up at me, her eyes wide and shadowed. Abruptly I stop speaking and gently wrap my arm around her shoulders, drawing her close and turning her from the water. She relaxes into my touch and buries her face in the crook of my arm, letting out a shuddering sigh.
Below us, the cool still water is broken by a series of ripples - and then a long-fingered hand, white and slimy like the underbelly of a catfish, pokes out and gestures impatiently to me. All right, all right, I mouth, then softly kiss the top of Lily’s head.
“Don’t you worry about that curse,” I murmur. Omie’s head is above the water now, a mass of gnarled, pale hair sprouting from a fish-white, dripping, distorted face. She purses her lipless mouth at me and fixes her lidless, staring eyes on Lily.
“There, there,” I say - and then, without a second thought, I pick my Lily up and toss her into the river. Omie catches Lily and, with a wet smack, shuts her up before she can scream. I watch, expressionless, as oozing white limbs snake around Lily’s pink blouse; take one last look at Lily’s pretty face and flowing dark hair.
“I done what you asked,” I say to Omie, who bares her brown teeth in a grin before disappearing under the frothing water, dragging her prize with her.
Then I turn around. The stream settles into a quiet blue burble, and the peculiar silence of the Appalachian woods sprawls around me as I walk away for good.