The Salt Witch

Juana thought this was bullshit. She had found the broken sailboat in the south wind and tried to pilot it to Hispaniola, but it wouldn’t go in the right direction. You’d think flying would be the hard part, but no, it was steering. And you’d think witches would be born knowing how to sail boats on the wind toward the Caribbean but no, apparently not, and that was…that was bullshit, was what it was.

She pointed it away from the Mainland again and the boat spun out of the gust, splintered wood creaking and shredded sails flapping, blown back to the north as ungracefully as a discarded plastic bag. Swearing, Juana held onto the mast, the rough wood sun-warm against her hands.

“What’s the deal?” she demanded aloud. “Come on, boat, cooperate!”

It came to her that the boat wanted to go to Hispaniola as much as she did, but it couldn’t, something dragged it back. Juana swung around the mast to squint into the blue horizon, toward the thing that tugged on the boat like a net. She spotted a coastline, the low rise of a barrier island, and the sight of it was the taste of salt and the smell of cotton candy. She didn’t want to go there, even if it wasn’t really there, just the ghost of a place trapped in the storm. Compared to all the other ghost islands of the Caribbean, it was sure to suck.

“Oh, man,” Juana complained quietly to herself. It would be easier to just fly on her own and not mess with the sailboat, but she had it now and she couldn’t just abandon it. You didn’t abandon things you were responsible for. You didn’t, even when you were a witch.

She was a witch now and did as she pleased, and it pleased her to stay with her new friend the boat.

She grumbled, “Okay, let’s go that way.” Maybe she could figure out what was dragging at the boat and fix it.

Released to follow its heart, the boat shot back across the sky, barreling forward against the wind, caught in an air undertow. Juana had fought undertows since she was a kid, playing in the waves. The undercurrent dragging her along toward the jetty rocks, her plastic water shoes filling with sand.

Maybe she thought about that a little too hard because the boat dropped like a thing that wasn’t supposed to fly after all. She dragged the sail around to catch the air, but they plummeted toward the ocean.

The hull crashed on the surface and promptly flipped over in the next wave. Juana slammed into salty water as warm as a hot tub and flailed. Her feet raked the bottom and she staggered. The warm summer current shoved her toward the beach and a wave smacked her in the back of the head like a light tap from a crow bar.

She stumbled to her feet as the water dropped to her knees. She stood on a sandbar, a shifting ridge of sand still forty yards or so from the beach proper. For a ghost island, this place was vivid as hell. She wasn’t even touching it yet and her body felt solid in a way it hadn’t for days, years, decades, forever. The steady wind at her back, the view of the long beach that stretched out to meet the rolling ocean, the grassy dunes rising past it and the cloud-filled sky.

“Barrier island,” she said aloud. Barrier to what? The ocean and the wind was sure free to go back and forth. What was the barrier for? What was it guarding the land from?

Something bumped her leg and she glanced back to see the battered sailboat. It had righted itself.

“Thanks for nothing,” she told it, and stepped aboard.

The next big wave shoved it off the sandbar back into deeper water and Juana swayed as she rode it the rest of the way in, until the bow ground into the beach.

She stepped out, the wood scraping her knees, the wet sand shifting between her toes, and told it, “You wait here, budro.” The wavelets chased her feet up the beach, giving up as she stepped past the seaweed drifts and the carpet of broken shells. She waded through dry sand drifts and tall wet wildflower grass, until she could scramble up the tumbled rocks to the sea wall. She shaded her eyes and frowned as the fitful wind pulled at her dripping shorts and t-shirt.

Mist and clouds obscured the view further inland, but there were several, maybe more than several, places fighting to come into being here, flickering in and out like a TV with a failing satellite. She caught flashes of shrimp boats with their nets up and puttering engines, a conquistador ship dropping anchor, French pirates storming a dock, the big dugout boats of the Karankawa pulled up onto the sand. Victorian bathhouses decorated with so much white wood lace they looked like wedding cakes. A pleasure pier with a Ferris wheel that went from wood and steel to flashing neon as it rotated. She took a breath of heated air thick with exhaust fumes, rotting fish, suntan oil, the intense green scent of the wildflowers, the ozone in storm wind.

Through the sunlit inland mist, the white dome of a cathedral rose. Victorian houses turned into low, battered surf shops selling ice cream and margaritas, and the cathedral vanished behind tall gleaming hotels. Then it all dissolved into a desolate empty plain of collapsed stone and weeds and storm wrack and the heavy odor of death.

“Oh, I got a fucking wrong feeling about this,” Juana said, and started to walk. None of this should be here, all of it should be here. With a witch’s wisdom, she knew these places should rest in layers, like a cake, not jumbled up like a salad. Something was profoundly wrong.

And something had drawn her and the sailboat here, like a leash on her heart. She stopped in her sandy tracks, resisted, to see what would happen. The pull eased away, each tug weaker. It felt like something drowning, scrabbling for purchase on a rock. The image disturbed her enough that she started to walk toward it again. She was a witch, so it wasn’t like anything on a ghost island could hurt her.

She followed the pull through the dunes that wavered in and out of sight, translucent weeds scratching at her legs. Despite the cloud-torn sky, the sand was hot and the air was bright. Ahead she spotted moving figures.

Juana squinted. Oh, not good. Definitely not good.

She ran through deep drifts and her bare feet slipped, losing purchase. The figures were kids, a dozen of them, all ages from eight or nine up to young teenagers. They struggled through the sand, their feet moving inches at a time as if chained to anchors. Their ragged clothes were old-fashioned, matching the Victorian bathhouses. Makeshift ropes of torn cloth were tied around their waists, some kids still linked together by the stained fabric, others stumbling alone. Leading them was a woman in a ragged nun’s habit, struggling to walk. She held kids by the hands and pulled them along with the ragged determination of the desperate.

The nun was strong, and could have made faster time on her own. But once you were responsible for something, you couldn’t just leave it behind. Her stomach sinking, Juana paced around the group until she could see the nun’s face.

Her skin was dark brown and her full cheeks were streaked with sand and tears. Her gaze lifted and fixed on Juana, and she said, “Please, is the castle much further? The water’s rising, and we have to get to high ground. I can’t see the castle anymore.”

Juana’s throat went thick. She couldn’t help these people, not now. She managed, “I don’t know. If I find out, I’ll come back and tell you.”

The nun sighed, then bent her head and dragged herself and the kids forward another step.

Drowned kids, because the reason you tied people together like that—makeshift ropes, that they could easily untie or wiggle out of—was when you needed to wade through high water together to get to safety.

Juana turned back to her own slog through the drifts. She knew ghosts of the storm when she saw them. Barrier island, bulwark against a threat, castle fortress shelter, our lady of the perpetual storm, protection. And something wrong and terrible in the center of it, pulling all the layers of life and death out of shape. It was a puzzle Juana couldn’t solve yet.

She barked her big toe as the sand under her feet turned into pavement. More buildings flickered in and out.  On a diagonal to the shore, a whole street competed to appear. Flashes of a 1940s casino, more Victorian cottages, a 1930s art deco diner with gleaming chrome and neon, a modest brick Presbyterian church side by side with a blocky stucco 1960s synagogue, and a whitewashed 1970s mosque with an elegant little dome. She thought, Looks about right, the Buddhists were always up on Persimmon Street and the Catholics liked the high ground. Then, How do I know that?

A barrier island battered by wind and rising water, stuffed with religion, almost every kind of religion. Religion blossomed in the hurricane wind, when the storms came every year like clockwork, except when they came more often, wilder and harder, walls of unstoppable destruction as the seas boiled.

“I know this place,” Juana admitted, and felt that terrible drowning grasp on her heart again, that distant cry for help. It wanted to lead her further east, where a broader beach curved out from the sea wall.

But then she saw the castle.

It wasn’t as tall as the gleaming glass hotels but it stood rock-solid, stone walls meant to withstand the wind and water, angled to break the hurricane on its strongest corner, and wings extending out to shelter a green sweep of yard and palm tree-studded garden. Heavy wooden shutters covered the windows, all the way up to the center tower and its open stone balustrade.

She plowed her way toward it, drifts giving way to mixed patches of pavement and tarmac. Just at the edge of the yard, she found a man.

He was stuck waist-deep in the sand in his tailored suit, arms folded, his dark wrinkled face furious.

She recognized him, the knowledge floating out of her chest like a bubble. Mr. Benson. He had let the local kids whose families worked in the beach motels swim in the pool on summer Mondays. He eyed her with a trace of disappointment and said, “What are you doing here so early, little girl? Did the storm take you?”

“I’m not a little girl, I’m a witch,” Juana corrected. She had to be clear on that, no backsliding. And she had to ask, “Is this hell?” She doubted it, though. With a witch’s knowledge, she knew Benson wasn’t the ending-up-in-hell type.

He sighed, angry but not at her. “Hell is people, witch, and some people are so bad they can make anyplace into Hell, even a place meant to be a refuge.”

Juana looked at the castle, more fragments of memory floating together into a raft. She said, “This was a hotel. The hotel, the big one. Everybody liked it.” The Queen, the monarch of the island, the one that made the newcomer glass and steel towers look flimsy and cheap. And the Sunday brunch was fabulous, chocolate fountains and mimosas and everything, her…her something…somebody had really enjoyed it. This raft of memories would break and drag her under in the deep water if she wasn’t careful, so she pushed it away.

“This is high ground on a low-lying island at the end of a hurricane highway. It’s always been a refuge, before one stone was stacked on top of another. Everyone taken by the storm comes here, welcome or not,” Mr. Benson said, grim the way he had never been when he was alive, even that time the plumbing backed up on the Fourth of July. “But this POS had the audacity to die inside my hotel of a heart attack, and now here we are.”

Mr. Benson actually spelled out “POS” because he wouldn’t swear in front of a lady, even a witch. Juana said, “Come on, I’ll get you out of this and you can show me what’s wrong.” She reached for his arm.

He said, “Careful, I think he’s set a—”

“—trap.” Benson’s voice echoed as Juana suddenly stood in the Queen’s lobby.

“My bad,” Juana muttered. That had been a mistake.

It was like a dark cavern, the floor to ceiling windows shuttered, the archways into the restaurant and the big hall to the terrace shrouded in shadows. Everything smelled weird and musty, like mold in the compressors. And there was way more gold than she remembered, gleaming dimly like a troll’s cave in a movie.

It was empty, and this place was never empty. How many storm-taken souls like the nun and her orphans had been forced back out into the wind?

Then the elevator door slid open. Even the ding sounded wrong. Like The Shining, Juana thought, and said, “Yeah, no thanks.” She started up the stairs, climbing into the dark.

If someone had taken over the hotel, they would be up in the penthouse.

The wool carpet was scratchy instead of soft like her feet remembered. Even the smooth polished wood of the banister felt wrong. As if all the little comforts of this place had turned against her.

As she made the turn onto the first landing, sickly yellow light glowed down from the third floor foyer. Maybe not the penthouse, then. But her witch instincts told her there was something there, way up high, squatting like an evil toad, weighing the building down.

She stepped into the third floor foyer and saw a man, facing away from her. He was dressed in gleaming silk and puffy pants, a tarnished cuirass and a helmet. Oh yeah, him. Juana said, “I know you. The Conquistador poltergeist. You were here before they built the place in 1904, the first beach hotel. You threw a Catholic priest across the ballroom so they called the Rabbi in to settle you.” Juana could see it like a movie in her head, though she knew it was a story the bellmen had told on the ghost tours. The Conquistador seemed too faded to be a threat. “Are you back or what?”

He turned to loom over her, baring fang-like teeth. “When you see what’s up there, you’ll wish I was back.”

Juana didn’t like being loomed over, so she put her hand through his insubstantial chest and waved, just to be an asshole. “Who’s up there then, a demon? A monster?”

He sank back, looking more human, like the portrait they said was his in the corridor that led to the new banquet rooms, just a tired old bad man. He said, “Little witch, sometimes men are so evil they sink into the walls and floors and stay forever. They taint everything they touch, through all of time, past and future. This place is a fortress but it’s anchored on a stolen land of death and misery, where stolen lives and stolen souls were taken by the wind. And its heart was vulnerable.” He sounded like an old black-and-white TV bad guy but he faded into coils of mist, taking the sick yellow light with him, until she stood in the dark again.

It worried Juana a little. If a Conquistador thought you were evil, you were probably pretty damn bad.

Juana let out her breath. “You’re a witch,” she told herself, “you got this.” She turned back to the stairs.

At the sixth floor landing, the light was blue-white, like the glow of a corpse.

A figure stood in the big round foyer, facing windows that looked out into a star-filled sky above a dark ocean, as if the day had turned to night in the few minutes it had taken Juana to climb the stairs. But maybe it was always night up here.

Whoever it was, they were smaller and slighter than the Conquistador, and swathed in yards of yellowing silk and torn veils.

“Uh-oh,” Juana muttered. She knew another witch when she saw one.

No, wait, she knew who this was. The figure held a bouquet of dying white roses, just in case Juana needed another hint. And she stood in the spot where the engaged couples always wanted their formal photos. This was the hotel’s Ghost Bride.

Juana walked forward as the veiled head turned toward her. “Hey, you. You look tough. And ghosts and witches should stick together. You want to team up?”

Through the veil she could see the stark white skin melded with the bare bone of the woman’s skull. That had to hurt.

A voice behind her said, “She’s with me.”

Juana turned. Okay, yeah, she thought, here we go.

A person, a thing that had been a person, stood in the doorway into the penthouse’s foyer. It blurred and shifted in front of her eyes, it was one man, it was a hundred, it was the landlords who drove out the poor to build mansions, the slave ship owners, the rich men who had broken up the union when the Black and white dock workers tried to collective bargain, it was the politicians who left the refugees to the storm, it was cancer, it was rot, it ate misery. It was a Demon King. She took a deep breath and said, “What about no.”

It said, “What do you mean, no? No to what?” The voice was sneering and deep, just like she had expected, but also just a little whiny.

“Monsters like you, you got to start with ‘no’,” Juana said. “Then just keep working your way further toward ‘hell no’.”

The Demon King laughed. “I don’t want anything from you. I don’t need anything from you.”

Juana had the bad feeling that was true. She was a witch, not a princess. Witches didn’t have castles to give away. But she said, “Mr. Benson said you died here. Does that mean you think you own the place? ’Cause lots of people died here.” She jerked her head toward the Ghost Bride. “Like her.” They said the Ghost Bride had hanged herself in Room 407, or maybe jumped off the penthouse balcony. Either way, there was more intentionality there than just dying of natural causes. “Why isn’t she in charge?”

The Ghost Bride had said nothing, and the woman’s silence worried Juana. The Demon King said, “She does what she’s told, like a good girl. It’s bitches like you that cause all the problems.”

I’ll cause you problems, Juana thought, and walked past him to the door of the penthouse. What the… The foyer and the reception room beyond was filled with white roses and tulle bunting and gold cherubs. “Oh, I’m dumb,” she said aloud. The Conquistador had practically told her the secret in so many words. “This is how you got your greedy feet under the table?” She stalked forward. “You’re not powerful. It’s her, right? She’s the—”

The Demon King held out a hand and Juana stood in bright daylight, hot sand between her toes.

This was the beach to the east, beside the seawall, next to a little motel raised up on old wooden pillars.  All of it was elevated, the office, the rooms with their rough wooden balconies, the ramp that led up from the parking lot, the cafe, even the pool. The motel had its claws into the open stretch of sand and grass to the east of the big fancy commercial beach, hanging on for dear life. It was clapboard insubstantial next to the castle’s stone and towers, but it was terribly solid against the shadows of every other time in history flicking in and out around it.

The Demon King said, “Look. Just for you.”

Juana turned. Out over the water was the hurricane’s wall. A roiling mass of suspended darkness, bearing down, the herald of death itself.

Juana’s throat closed. “No.” The memory raft was back, buoying her up just long enough to take her out where the current could catch her and drag her to the bottom.

The Demon King said, “Look at this flea trap. Hard to believe it’s still here. Now look closer.”

Out in the waves, between the hurricane and the motel’s tiny share of beach, there was an overturned car. The low tide washed over its helpless upturned tires.

The Demon King said, “And there you are. You’re not a witch, you little idiot, you’re just a ghost.”

That was it, that was the weak drowning tug Juana had felt on her heart, the pull to the east. It wasn’t the old family motel, it was the place she died.

You have to catch me first, Juana thought and bolted down the beach. Except she got two steps before something grabbed her ankle and she slammed face-first into the ground. “What the fuck?” she yelled, and scrambled around. It was an anchor chain, locked around her ankle, the other end attached to the motel’s wooden pier. “You have to be kidding me,” she snarled up at him. “This is what you got? Man, evil is going downhill! At least I expected some imagination.”

The Demon King sneered down at her. “I didn’t come up with this, you little fool, you did.”

“Stop saying ‘little’, you asshole!” Juana shoved to her feet in a flurry of sand and threw all her weight against the chain. It didn’t budge. He had anchored her to her family motel, come the fuck on. “Wow, symbolism,” Juana said through gritted teeth.

The hurricane wall drew closer, swamped the overturned car as the water rose over Juana’s knees. A figure stepped out of it. A shape and a face that made Juana freeze inside.

Her mother reached for her. “You left us, baby.”

This was wrong, all wrong, it was a trick, but part of her just wouldn’t believe that. She shouted, “You’re not my mom! And I didn’t leave!”

“You left your family…”

Oh, that was so unfair. This wasn’t her mother, this was the Demon King’s vision of her mother, but the power it had over her turned her heart to rock. “You liar, I did not, I died!”

Yeah, she had died. Just like the Ghost Bride, and Mr. Benson, and the Conquistador and the nun and her drowned children. Just like everybody else on this doomed barrier island, breaking the hurricane wind so the mainland had half a chance of survival. It would be the first to slip beneath the rising waters on the last day, when the ice burned, leaving only this ghost image behind. But somewhere in time it existed, somewhere it had been a place to live and work and play and die at the edge of the ocean, and Juana had been part of it, like her mother before her. And then the hurricane came, the fourth one of the season, raging in like the end of everything.

She breathed out, owning it. “Yeah, that’s me under the car. I died. When they called the evacuation, I stayed. I wanted to take care of the motel after the storm was over. It’s a crappy old motel but my mom loved it. I always wanted to fix it up, just never could get the money to do more than keep it running. I didn’t want to give up on it. I was supposed to go to the civil defense hurricane bunker with the others who were staying, but I was boarding up the windows and there was so much to do, and I left too late. I was so nervous I took the shortest way, along the seawall, and then my car was in the water and then…”

The Demon King said, “On the social media they’re saying what they always say, you’re a stupid cunt who should have left earlier.”

Insult to injury, how fucking unfair. “Come on, I was going to the hurricane bunker! I had a fucking job to do first!”

“And the funniest part? That roach motel of yours is still standing. The global warming’s changed all the hurricanes and this one came in at a weird angle. It drowned the back of the island and the west end, but didn’t do shit to the east. If you’d stayed put, you’d have got your feet wet but that’s all. You’d have lived. If you can call that living.”

She spat at the Demon King, poison witch’s spit. Then the hurricane wall struck and the Demon King vanished in the cyclone of water.

The sand settled and Juana and the motel were underwater, surrounded by confused fish. The specter that wasn’t her mother still stood there, stretching out insubstantial hands toward her.

“I did call it living,” Juana said and gave the chain another tug. The storm can’t hurt you, she reminded herself. You’re dead already. Dead under her car, the hermit crabs nibbling. No, don’t think about that.

“You’re a witch,” she said stubbornly. She braced herself and pulled harder. If dying in the Queen had given the demon a foothold there, then had dying in the ocean given Juana power over it?

No, not power over it. But it had made her part of it. Part of this place. And for all the Demon King had died in the Queen, he wasn’t part of it. You had to love this place with all your heart or hate it with all your soul, preferably both, to be a real part of the magic.

The memory fragments boiled up and together again, not a rickety raft this time, but a boat, a trawler, a ferry, a cruise ship. Rage growing in her chest, Juana said, “And my mom would never have wanted me to die here like this.”

Her mother’s image flickered and solidified. She said, “Go back to college, baby.”

Juana stared, shocked almost back to life. She choked on an unexpected sob. “Okay, now that’s really my mom.”

Her mother didn’t respond, this was like a recording out of her memory, not a real ghost. Her mother had died in a hospital on the Mainland, she wasn’t here. Where she was now, Juana didn’t know. Maybe flying like a witch over Hispaniola. The image said, “I only want you to take this on if you love it, and how will you know if you love it if you can’t leave?”

Yes, she remembered her mother saying this now. Juana should have listened to her, hindsight was always 2020. If you love something let it go, it’ll still be here somewhere, like the bathhouses and the diners and the Ferris wheels.

And everything suddenly made sense, clear as a bell. Her witch power, and how to use it.

“I’ll leave, Mama,” Juana said. She kicked her foot, and the chain dissolved into broken shells. “But first I need to take out the trash.”

She slogged her way up slope out of the waves, where the sailboat patiently waited for her, its bow jammed into a sand drift.

The boat flew Juana right up to the penthouse’s stone balustrade and she jumped down onto the balcony. She flung the French doors open and stomped right into the big reception room. It was dark and light all at once, the gleam of the crystal chandeliers and the polished wood muted, the sick smell of rotting roses, the gold everywhere like a dragon’s hoard. But instead of an awesome scaly fiery dragon, there was just this asshole.

He stood with the Ghost Bride in the center of the marquetry floor, glaring at her.

“What the hell are you doing back? Get out, you dirty bitch!”

The high-ceilinged room was packed with souls but they were gray-shrouded, faceless.

Juana ignored it all and walked straight up to the Ghost Bride. She said, “Do you want this? Or do you want the man you jumped out the window for?” She pointed with her thumb. “’Cause that sure ain’t him.”

The Ghost Bride growled. She tossed her bouquet down. Juana backed away but didn’t stop talking. “He didn’t leave you, did you think he left you? That’s not how these stories go, not here. He died in the storm, babe, like I did.”

She stopped and let the Ghost Bride loom over her. This close the smell of camphor and dying flowers was overwhelming. The Demon King was yelling but Juana used witch power and tuned him out, like pressing down the volume button on the TV remote. She said, “It’s so dangerous out there, you don’t even know. You’re stressed and you’re scared and you try to go the way you always go, the shortest way, and it was a mistake. It should have been a five-minute drive, straight down the seawall to the city hurricane bunker in the old World War II gun emplacement under the Waves Resort. My God, it was a mistake. I left too late and the storm got me. And your man made a mistake, too, babe. Was he a sea captain? Or just a young guy with a sailboat?”

The Ghost Bride’s expression changed, the skin half of her face sinking with dismay.

The last piece of the puzzle. Juana said, “It was a sailboat, like the one that brought me here?”

The Ghost Bride’s hollow gaze went to the doors, the boat riding the wind outside. “Yeah,” Juana said, “that’s a coincidence, huh, this happening to you and that boat finding me and bringing me here. You know you made a mistake, too, lady, even more dumb than mine.”

The Ghost Bride’s gaze dropped to her again. But it was less hollow this time, a gleam growing in the skull-side eye socket. Juana hoped it meant something good and pushed onward. “He didn’t come back because he was probably dead, and it’s not like he could help that, right? And if he did mean to leave you, you know, so what? Saved you the trouble of dumping him when you found out he was a bastard. Whichever, it’s no reason to chain yourself to the storm.” She took a deep breath, because this part was still hard to say. “We’re here because we’re dead, but we don’t have to be ghosts. We can be witches, baby. You got to own your power.”

The Ghost Bride whispered, “Own my power?”

“Your power. You’re the heart, honey. The queen of the Queen. This is the fortress of the barrier island, the last wall before the rising water, and you’re the key in its lock.”

The Demon King pushed forward between them, shouldered the Ghost Bride aside, and shoved Juana with a clammy hand. It broke through her power, and his voice rang out again, loud and harsh. “You don’t know how to kill me!”

Juana laughed. “You’re already dead, just like us. We just need to get you out of here.” Outside the wind rose, that freight train howl, the hurricane’s death knell. “The storm will do the rest.”

She looked at the Ghost Bride. “What do you say?  We get rid of him, you can redecorate. Reopen the bar, have tea and cake on the garden terrace like the rich white ladies club every Tuesday. Swim in the pool, it’s the best one in town, it’s got a waterfall and a hot tub. Let all the others in again, where they belong, where they’ve always been, and have the best costume party ever.”

The Demon King grinned at her with gold teeth. “She wants a wedding.”

“That was a long time ago. Things change.” Juana didn’t take her gaze off that gleaming eye socket. “Rescue yourself, queen. Start with ‘no’.”

The Ghost Bride turned to the Demon King, lifted her veil, and said, “No.”

The storm hit the windows like an out of control semi. Juana grabbed the Demon King by the lapels and slung him toward it. But he grabbed onto her forearms and they both staggered out the doors. The rough hand of the storm grabbed them and snatched them off the balcony.

The Demon King’s grip dug into Juana’s skin but the storm ripped him off her like a Band-Aid. Through the gray light she watched him tumble away out to sea until he was just a black dot on the horizon. It tried to do the same to her, but Juana laughed at it. “You already killed me,” she shouted. “You can’t do worse than that!”

The storm howled in fury and flung her straight down toward the ground.

It shattered Juana like a glass, and it took her bits a while to come back together. She lay on hot sand, feeling it soak into her drowned bones, until she could stand up, dust herself off, and walk back to the castle.

This time she went straight up the drive, to the hotel’s porte cochere. Two bellmen smiled and opened the big doors for her, and Mr. Benson waited there. He said, “No outside food or drink,” and winked at her.

She saluted him and walked past.

The lobby and the terrace and bar were brimming with people, talking, dancing, the Sunday Buffet and a hundred or so weddings all happening at once.

She stepped on a rag and looked down to see a discarded cloth rope. The drowned kids ran and screamed on the green lawn outside the open terrace doors, chasing tennis balls and playing with someone’s excited yappy dog. The nun sat on the silk upholstery at one of the tea tables, a china cup and saucer in her hand.

The Ghost Bride stood at the reception check-in counter and Juana went to stand in front of her. She grinned. “Good save, lady.”

The Ghost Bride was smiling with the flesh half of her face. She said, “Stay? Please?”

It was tempting. But this was a refuge, a shelter for people who were exhausted and done, spit out by the storm. Juana was just getting started. “I can’t, babe. Witches got to witch.”

The Bride’s veiled head dipped. “Then visit.”

Juana took a petal from one of her white roses. “That I can do.”

She walked outside through the open doors. The sailboat was waiting for her on the lawn.


(Editors’ Note: “The Salt Witch is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 37B.)


Martha Wells

Martha Wells has been an SF/F writer since her first fantasy novel was published in 1993, and her work includes The Books of the Raksura series, The Death of the Necromancer, the Ile-Rien trilogy, The Murderbot Diaries series, media tie-ins for Star Wars, Stargate: Atlantis, and Magic: the Gathering, as well as short fiction, YA novels, and nonfiction. She has won a Nebula Award, two Hugo Awards, two Locus Awards, and her work has appeared on the Philip K. Dick Award ballot, the BSFA Award ballot, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List.

Photo by Igor Kraguljac

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