As they stood there and talked, the red sunset melted died, and the light in the willow grove slowly shifted toward silver and grey. They spoke first of trivial things: books and stories, poetry that neither liked, the daily grind of households that adolescents become painfully aware of. After that they moved into things just as trivial, though perhaps of more weight to them: the gossip of the town, what boys were pulled from school upon seeing the futility of continuing, what young women were likely to marry, and what young men had been given horses or allowances.
David listened to Ezra talk about seeing Gilbert, a young man of eighteen, who had arrived with his family from Texas recently and been asking about both of David’s sisters. While she spoke, David watched the moon intently.
“What is it?” Ezra said, seeing what she took to be his lack of interest in the subject.
“Trying to guess how late it is. I need to fetch something for my brother before returning home.”
“What is it?”
“Coffin water. I guess the voodoo woman on the other side of town sells something like it.”
Ezra gripped his arm. “You’re joking, right?”
David turned to look at her. “No. Why? Do you know what it is? Michael said it was sort of a cure-all.”
“Heavens no, David! It’s for making black magic!”
Ezra looked serious, though he could barely make out her eyes in the moonlight. He forced a chuckle and said, “Of course, anything with voodoo is black magic.”
“No, David. Coffin water is used to curse someone, or to turn a curse.”
“How do you know?”
“I read it, of course.”
“In what book? Where did you get it?”
“From a dealer in Massachusetts, a friend of a cousin. I’ll show it to you some other time, as long as you keep it a secret. But trust me, coffin water is something you should not be getting for your brother.”
“I promised him I would.”
“That might be a promise you need to break. If Tabitha even has any of the real stuff.”
“What is it, exactly?” David said. He reached in his pocket and felt for the few silver dollars there.
“When a man is dead and laid to rest, he rots. As he rots, the fluids leak out of his body. If the coffin is tight, you can go in and collect it. That’s coffin water.”
“You’re a doctor’s daughter,” David said. “I would think he would have told you about such processes.”
“Of course he did.”
“Then what makes this one magic?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s magic itself. I just know it’s used in black magic. Wanting to have it is a bad, bad sign. Not that I think Michael is…” She trailed off and took another deep breath.
“Michael’s sick. He said he overheard the slaves talking about it. A potion made with Coffin water as a cure-all.”
Ezra thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “You’re probably right. I shouldn’t assume bad intentions when it could just be ignorance. But promise me you won’t go getting him any.”
“I already promised him that I would,” David said.
“Well, promise me you won’t, and at the least, you will have one promise kept for one broken.”
David shook his head. “I really owe it to him. I wouldn’t have been able to come out here to meet you without him.”
“Maybe you owe him a curative,” Ezra said. “That’s his intention, right?”
“Your father has the curatives.”
“True, but he wanted it from the witch. Get him one from the witch. They’re all spurious, but at least they will allay his spirit.”
“How can you believe that one bit of witchery is fluff, but the other is wickedly dangerous?” David said.
Ezra grumbled. “Just promise me you won’t get it.”
“I will not,” David said.
“Why? Why not promise me? Don’t you believe me?”
David sighed. “My father used to tell me to be careful making promises or taking oaths, because you bind yourself to an uncertain future. I see the wisdom in his words, now.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Ezra said.
“I bound myself to an uncertain future with my promise to Michael. I’d best not promise you too.”
Ezra let go of his hands and stepped away. “If you won’t promise me this bit, how can you promise me more? That’s just like a man, to steal a kiss and give nothing in return.”
“I need to be a man who keeps his promises is all,” David said. “If I broke my promise to my brother, how could you trust me to keep one to you?” David took a step toward her. Ezra folded her hands and lifted her chin with a look of defiance on her dimly lit face. “How about I give you another promise? I promise I will come and see you again, whenever you choose, and whatever the consequence.”
Ezra stepped forward again and wrapped her arms around David. “I suppose I shall have to be happy having my way in this small thing. You should know, however, that a woman prefers to have her way in all things.”
“And a man prefers to have his way in only one thing.”
“Don’t be foul, David, it is unbecoming of you.”
“What?” David said, and they both chuckled. “It is getting late, though. I should escort you back.”
“Not far,” Ezra said. “One of my cousins will take me home. He was supposed to be taking me mushroom hunting. Don’t worry, he’s in on the scandal.”
“Well, we’d better light up a lamp and find a few to complete the ruse.”
“I already gathered some earlier. It’s all according to plan.”
“Yes, I wish I had been able to conjure up a plan.”
“Did you just go running out the door?”
“More or less. I’m sure to get it when I get home, which is why I need to get this coffin water now.”
“You shouldn’t have come, then.”
“It’s worth the cost. I couldn’t very well disappoint, could I? Wait-” David grabbed Ezra’s hand and pulled her backward and downward, into a crouch.
“What is it?” Ezra said.
“Quiet,” David whispered. He inclined his head and put his hand to his ear. Ezra did the same. Softly, they could hear the sound of dragging footsteps.