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I
Once, the Ohio River ran thick with pig blood
which clotted in gullies along the silty bed. You could
sink your hand in and pull out a strand of intestines
silky as a rope of pearls.

The city slept through long nights, lulled
by soft river tides, save the dusk, when
two girls climbed out an open window to see
the moon’s milky eye catch the water. It was winter.

II
It was winter when sixth-grade rumors said
I looked too long at her legs in gym class.
I had a history of looking

past priests to the crucifix, cloth dripping to cover
the holy scrotum. We mouthed hymns at Mass.
And one day, she burned her hair straight,
the girl with the legs. I confessed to the priests
I had committed each mortal sin.

III
From the roof of the apartment, two girls
watched moonlight slide along the river like a sheen of oil.

Every horror story has a sin
and a monster.

They curled into each other and
watched a figure crawl, silk braided
between her fingers, from the shivering thaw
at the edge of the river.

IV
The girl with straight hair invited me
into her house. After school, we watched tv while
doing our math, and she showed me her
ceramic horses, her bowered bed.

You’re the prettiest, she said. Don’t tell anyone I said so.
Are you lonely?

V
Come down! The River Witch hollered
to the two girls on a roof. She stood
naked at the corner of their street,
water snaking over her in the sleet,
dewy and dripping from her long hair.

She’s licking her lips, one girl said. Oh look,
she’s coming closer.

VI
The girl and I climbed out of her window
to sit on her roof. Rumors said I licked my lips
when I looked at her. There was no moon to watch.
She caught my fingers and traced the lines of my palm.

Do you know any scary stories? She asked. I know the one about
the licked hand and the stranded hitchhikers, the ribbon-necked woman
and the babysitter and—

VII
They went to her.
They didn’t have stories to warn them not to.

The witch had eaten up the pig blood, but her hunger didn’t stop there.
She gobbled up the girls, beginning with their lips red as a dare.

VIII
I know the one about the River Witch, I said.

In winter, once,
the Ohio River froze so thick that you could doze
between two slick shores with no fear of drowning.

The witch fished her pigs from under the ice
and stitched them together again. In this story,
her kiss, blunt and precise, brings the dead to life.
So, hoping to become more alive—

She was my friend, and we climbed on her roof.
I’m tired of trying to find the right endings
for stories I didn’t write.

IX
The woman stood at the base of the fire escape,
strands of river weeds garlanding her ankles,
having walked through the streets of the city,
dripping footprints, dark red
to be found in the damp morning.

Done hollering, she looked up.
Ran her tongue over her teeth.

I picked my lips, ripping
long strands of dead skin
until ruby again
popped a liquid gem,
blood pearled, dripped
down my chin.

X
The River Witch’s body is not a bridge
between two shores of meaning.
Only a fool or a tourist swims the Ohio River,
which will malady your gut with moths and stars.
Only a fool twirls the swine’s silk
between her fingers. But there’s a part of me
that would follow a river witch—
if I found one—

My straight-haired friend asked,
Do you want to go swimming?


Editors: Poetry Department.

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors.



Originally from Cincinnati, Laura Grothaus now lives in Baltimore, the land of the Susquehannock and Piscataway-Conoy. She’s at work on a novel and collection of poems. Her collaborations with activists and artists have spawned theatre about desire, workshops about memory maps, and more. You can find her online at www.LauraGrothaus.com.
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20 May 2024

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