How to Swim a Witch

Ahlana Hirschfield

My best friend Emmylou Adler is the best liar I know. She can tell all sorts of stories, like little white lies you tell your mama, or big, elaborate ones like bad guys tell in movie pictures to stir the pot. The best one happened this summer in the courthouse, when Emmylou fooled a whole town’s worth of grown-ups. It was what some might call a magnificent performance, and by some I of course mean me ‘cause I’m just about the only one who knows it wasn’t real. She did it just like she’d been practicing in front of me and her mirror for a week. At the very end, she dabbed at her teary eyes with a pink, silk handkerchief and it made the whole room gasp and say things like “that poor darling” and “what a brave little thing.” When it was all over, after old Judge Hatch said the word guilty in that low growl he always does, they strung that boy up the very next night and that was the end of it. And that night, when we watched it happen, Emmylou grabbed my clammy hand and gave me her best devilish grin, ‘cause we got away with the biggest one yet.


The first one was two summers before that. Emmylou turned eleven one month and seventeen days before me that summer, which was an age difference I knew by heart ‘cause she just had to remind me all the time. “I’m the oldest,” she’d tell me, “so you simply must do as I say.”

We decided it would be the year we became ladies, and Emmylou said we had to do something grown-up to prove it, so of course we did ‘cause what Emmylou says goes. On a very hot Sunday after a most boring church service, the two of us sauntered into Big Al’s drugstore with swaying hips like our mamas would do, and stole two big, fat milk chocolate bars.

“Don’t make it obvious, Stell. Don’t be a baby. Just do it like me,” Emmylou said, when I got scared to grab the chocolate. I could tell she was nervous ‘cause of the way she snapped at me. She snatched her chocolate bar with quick little hands and stuffed it in her dress pocket to keep it close.

“I’m not a baby,” I said. A slow bead of sweat rolled down my spine like warm honey spilling over the lip of a mason jar.

“Well, then, prove it.”

I copied Emmylou’s swiftness and stuffed the candy in my bookbag, and in an instant it was over.

“Good girl,” she said.


Now when we take things, Emmylou likes to slide them down the front of her panties and hide them there, ‘cause she says she likes the way it makes her feel. “Maybe when you’re a little older, you’ll like it, too,” she told me recently. “Mama says I’m an early bloomer.”

I still use my bookbag ‘cause I don’t need it to feel good.


When we walked out of Big Al’s, I kept my head down, but Emmylou gave a dazzling smile and a sweet, twangy, “So long, Mr. Al” to the mindless man behind the counter. That was one of the times I most wanted to be like her, like my best friend. Except I wasn’t, and I knew that then.

“Easy peasy, honey,” she said.

And even though I wanted to tell her I was quite scared to get caught, I just said, “I know.”


Emmylou lived in an Easter-egg colored Victorian house on a patch of land big enough that you could fit ten more houses just like it right there. But there was only the one, and it was beautiful as can be. It had a narrow wraparound porch that Emmylou and I would sometimes play tag on. Tallpin oak trees guarded the house like soldiers. You wouldn’t believe it by looking at it but set back low, behind the house was one of the best, nastiest swamps in the state of Louisiana. It took about ten minutes to walk there and sometimes we would complain ‘cause in the summer the heat feels a little bit like it’s suffocating you with a sweaty, slept-on pillow, but it was always worth it as soon as that salty air hit the tips of our noses. We used to play all day long, down there in the marsh water, swatting bugs with muddy hands and letting dirty water mat the curls to our heads. But that was when we were little, and we aren’t so much anymore.


We padded barefoot up the stairs to Emmylou’s lavender-colored bedroom after we hit Big Al’s, plopped on her canopy bed fit for a princess, and unearthed our goods. Emmylou took a bite out of hers first, her head lolling back between her freckled shoulders in satisfaction. As I unwrapped my treasure, Emmylou’s mama appeared in the doorway. Mrs. Adler looked at the chocolate curiously and asked where it came from. “I don’t keep sweets in the house,” I remembered Mrs. Adler telling my mama once at a church bake sale. “I like to stay trim.”

I thought we had been caught, found guilty, but before I could try to clamor my way out of it, Emmylou did what she does best without a bit of hesitation. “He was the darlingest little boy, Mama, and they were selling chocolate bars outside the market to pay for his hospital bills,” she said. “I just had to spend my allowance to help him. And I couldn’t very well get chocolate for myself without getting some for Stella.”


Mrs. Gemma Adler was in two movie pictures, but that was before she was Mrs. Gemma Adler. When she was a teenager, she had two lines in a 1929 talkie made before the Production Code—the ones where they could show real awful, grown-up things without getting in trouble. And then she did another one later, but she had no lines, and it wasn’t dirty, so no one talks about it. My mama says Mrs. Adler is a cheap phony, but I think she’s just spectacular. She takes Emmylou and me to see movie pictures and she lets us stay up late, and she never tells my mama. She’s very glamorous and doesn’t leave the house without plenty of rouge and lipstick. Emmylou says the women who don’t like her mama are just jealous ‘cause she’s a star. But Emmylou says a lot of things.


“You’re such an angel girl,” Mrs. Adler said, stroking Emmylou’s head with her perfectly varnished nails. “But don’t fill up on sweets before supper.”


It’s hard to pinpoint how the best one started. Whether it was because Mrs. Adler hated Juliette Caron’s mama, or because we learned about the Salem witch trials right after Juliette transferred to our class. I don’t know. All I knew at the beginning, was that there was something about Juliette that made Emmylou’s skin crawl, and what made Emmylou’s skin crawl made mine crawl, too. The difference between us was that when I didn’t like something, I tried to stay away from it, but when Emmylou didn’t like something, she just couldn’t leave well enough alone.


“I like your accent,” Emmylou said, twirling the end of one of Juliette’s braids after cornering her in the hall. She looked terrified but she didn’t swat Emmylou’s hand away from her hair. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“New Orleans,” she said back, real quiet after waiting too long to answer.

Emmylou started to undo the braid very slowly. “Do they all talk like you in New Orleans?”

“I don’t know,” Juliette said. “My mama’s French.”

“I think we’re going to be great friends,” Emmylou said. Then she smiled back at me, let go of the half-undone braid, and walked away. I trailed behind her and grabbed her hand.

“She was so scared of you,” I said.

Emmylou giggled. “Good.”


Juliette got a lot of attention at school. Everyone wanted to talk to her ‘cause she sounded different, but she was pretty like Emmylou. For a while Emmylou couldn’t stop talking about Juliette. Half the time I couldn’t tell if she still hated her or if she really did sort of wanted to be her friend. That thought made me simply furious ‘cause of course I didn’t want anyone to steal my best friend. I was especially upset on the day we got to pick our group for our history projects because Emmylou called out Juliette’s name before she called out mine. Mostly I was upset because I’m always her first pick, but also because I didn’t want to spend any more time with Juliette and now I had to.

“I don’t like her,” I told Emmylou after class. “Why’d you have to go and pick her?”

“We have to take care of her, Stell.”


That night I slept over at Emmylou’s and we watched the sunset on the porch, which was always my favorite because every time we did, Mrs. Adler would make us kiddie cocktails with lemon juice and soda pop and gossip with us while she drank her gin.

“The most awful thing happened today, Mama,” Emmylou said. “Me and Stell got stuck with Renée Caron’s girl for our history project.”

Mrs. Adler’s body went sort of stiff like in her rocking chair at the mention of Renée Caron’s name, like maybe she had just heard a gunshot in the distance and was listening for another. So, Emmylou fired another round. “I guess she’ll have to come to the house so we can work on the project.”

Emmylou’s eyes glowed with anticipation for a reaction. “No, Em,” Mrs. Adler said. “I don’t think she ought to come here.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t really think—”

“Why not, Mama?”

“Stella, baby, can’t y’all work on the project at your house?”

Emmylou answered so quick I didn’t even have a chance to. “Mama, no, Stella’s house isn’t as nice for hosting.”

Mrs. Adler swallowed her gin drink in one big gulp like I’ve only ever seen my daddy do. “I don’t give a damn,” Mrs. Adler said. She stood up and her silk robe gaped open a little at the chest. “Renée Caron is not allowed on my property.” Then she threw her glass on the porch so hard it shattered into a million little shards. She stared at the glass while tightening the robe around her waist before going back into the house. Emmylou rolled her eyes and grabbed the bottle of gin left beside the rocking chair. She took one quick swig and giggled.

“Emmylou,” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry about her. Mama likes to perform when she drinks.”

“Who’s Renée Caron?”

“Juliette’s mama,” she said. “She’s a witch.”


I’d never seen Mrs. Adler get mad like that. I’ve heard her tell some mean gossip, sure, but I never saw her throw things or heard her yell at anyone but Emmylou’s daddy. When I went home the next day, I told my mama about what happened, and when I told her about how angry Mrs. Adler got about Renée Caron, Mama got a smirk on her face that made me think she might be kind of delighted about it.

“Emmylou says Renée Caron’s a witch,” I said.

Mama huffed and lit a cigarette. “She’s something alright.”


Later that night when I was supposed to be asleep, I snuck out of bed and perched myself on the bottom of the staircase ‘cause I heard Mama talking on the phone and I like to listen when she calls her friends at night. I like the way she talks when she thinks I can’t hear her.

“Well, honest to God, I just think it’s funnier than hell. Don’t you?” I could hear ice clinking against her glass. “Uh-huh. The French one who tried to read my palm at the bake sale.” Mama cackled. “If that ain’t some karma. Gemma Adler’s seduced every woman’s husband with a prick and a pulse in this goddamn town.” Clink, clink. “I just think it’s marvelous. Christ, Arthur Adler’s sure got a type.” Clink, clink. “Uh-huh, you said it. Trash.”

Emmylou and I spent a lot of time at the library doing research for our project on the Salem witch trials. We read all sorts of books about witchcraft—first about Salem, and then we made our way back through history we didn’t even learn about in class, all the way back to some of the first witch trials in 15th century Europe. It was exciting for a while, but I got tired of it. Not Emmylou. She just kept devouring the books, pointing out old paintings and drawings of witches being hanged, burned, drowned, ripped apart limb by limb; and saying things like “ain’t it just fascinating?”

When I got dropped off at Emmylou’s on Saturday, she was waiting on the porch, wearing one of her prettiest white lace dresses. She was giddy and a little shifty, kind of like how she gets when we steal money out of the collection plate at church when no one’s looking.

“Juliette’s not here yet,” she said, even though I didn’t ask, and I didn’t care. We sat side by side on the porch steps, just waiting. Emmylou seemed very focused, except for occasionally, when Bobby, the boy who does the Adler’s yard work, would walk by with the lawnmower. Then she would snap out of her trance just long enough to wink or bat her eyelashes at the boy. Just long enough for him to blush and hide a shy smile before rounding the corner to the other side of the house. That’s because Emmylou kissed him once, down by the swamp, and he’s been smitten with her ever since. Or at least that’s what Emmylou says.


I remember sitting around the Adler’s dining room table, decorating a poster board, and eating fruit that Mrs. Adler cut up for us after Juliette finally showed up. Whether it was strawberries or watermelon, I don’t know. I remember Mrs. Adler not being able to look at Juliette’s face.

I remember Emmylou selling the swamp to Juliette. Telling her how fun and scary and exciting it was down there, and how special it was to us. How we didn’t allow just anyone to come down to the swamp. I remember playing tag near the water, which was the first time I ever heard Juliette laugh. For just a while, we really were having fun.


“Do you know that most witches weren’t actually burned at the stake?” Emmylou said. Juliette shook her head. “Usually they were hanged.”

“Really?” Juliette asked.

“Really,” Emmylou said.

Juliette stepped in some mud and splashed around a little. “We should put that on the poster.”

“Juliette,” Emmylou said. “Are you a witch?”

Juliette stopped splashing and froze. “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Well, I think you’re a witch. And Stella here thinks you’re a witch. And everyone knows that mama of yours is a witch.”

“My mama’s not a witch,” Juliette said. “She helps people.”

“Uh-huh,” Emmylou walked in circles around Juliette. “She sure helped my daddy. Didn’t she, Stell?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, anyway,” Emmylou said. “You’re going to have to prove to me you ain’t a witch.”

“How?” Juliette said.

Emmylou looked at the water for too long. “Well, back in the olden days, people could tell if someone was a witch or not by swimming them.”

“Swimming them?”

“Uh-huh. If you throw her into water and she floats, she’s a witch.”

“And if she sinks?” Juliette said, taking a step backward.

“She’s innocent,” Emmylou said. “But she sinks.”


The whole town fought for a long time about who they thought did it. Some people thought it had to be some stranger from out of town because that somehow made it less scary. Some thought it was Renée Caron. A few people even thought it was Mr. or Mrs. Adler for a while, but that one got ruled out quickly because Mr. Adler was a lawyer, and the Adler family has always been very important in our town. It simply couldn’t be.


They settled on Bobby Morris because he was in the right place at the right time. He was right there, doing the yard work, making eyes at little girls. Everyone in the courtroom thought it must be true because Emmylou said so. “That man is a monster,” my mama said when Bobby stood up that day in court, except he didn’t look like a man or a monster. He looked like a scared little boy.


When we were alone together Emmylou would squeal about how magnificent it was to know something that grown-ups didn’t, to have a secret, to be in control. Then she’d recite her speech from the courtroom, saying things like “one time Bobby tried to kiss me by that swamp, but I never thought much of it” and “how terrible to see my new friend like that” and “I’ll have nightmares about it ’til I die.”


The part about nightmares is the part she stole from me, ‘cause now I have them every night. I see and hear the same things over and over. Emmylou’s open palms smashing into Juliette’s shoulders. Juliette’s foot catching the back of Emmylou’s ankle, toppling her over onto the ground like a pitiful child. Mud caked into the lace of Emmylou’s white dress. The heat of anger blazing up into me and taking over.

Marsh water splashing up into my face.

The earthy taste of it on my lips.

Mrs. Adler screaming our names behind us; her fist around a clump of my hair to pull me up from my knees.

My hands letting go of something in the water.

Juliette floating.

Emmylou whispering something in my ear. “Good girl.”


Author Bio

Ahlana Hirschfield is a fiction writer and female villain apologist. She is currently pursuing her MA in Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. Here work can be found in the Fall 2020 edition of Bridge: The Bluffton University Literary Journal.