When he was 9, Jasper's mother got pregnant with his younger sister, Clara. It was a difficult pregnancy, and after she was confined to her bed, he and his brother spent long unsupervised hours playing on the family's land. This included riding horses bareback, wading in the creek that ran across the edge of their property, and lots of pretend sword fights with branches. Between getting thrown from the horses, nearly drowning in the river, and Jasper almost losing an eye to his brother Sam (the first of his scars, a long crooked one above his eyebrow that disappeared when he was turned), his mother often said it would be a miracle if they both survived till the babe came.
That was also how they met the fortune teller, the day Jasper got the first inkling that his future would be something... unexpected.
It was a day so hot they couldn't do anything but lie in the shallowest part of the creek where the water trickled over the rocks. Their pa would take the belt to them if they went too deep because they couldn't swim that well, but it had been so long since the last rain that the deepest part of the creek didn't even reach Jasper's thighs. Jasper stretched his arms out, closing his eyes and seeing the sun burn red on the back of his eyelids. It was a feeling he never quite forgot - how good the sun used to feel on his skin, back when it could warm him all the way through.
"Want to pan for gold again?" Sam asked. He swore to Jasper that he had found a real gold nugget in the creek once, that he had dropped it in the field running back to the house, but Jasper already possessed a suspicious nature and never believed him.
"Naw, it's too hot." Jasper felt his stomach rumble and wondered what Ida Bell, their hired girl, would make for lunch. Her expertise was limited to cornbread and jerky or beans on toast and he was so sick of both of them he could vomit. "Sammy, could we catch a fish downriver, do you think?" he asked, and then a shadow moved over his head.
"Seems I caught me two fish right here," a voice said and Jasper's eyes flew open. A haggard, dirty woman stared down at him, pretty much the definition of what his nine-year old mine would have called a witch. Not that he believed in witches.
He wasn't sure how to sit up and keep his eyes on her at the same time so he stayed where he was. He heard Sam splashing in the water and then his voice - "Who're you and where did you come from? This is Whitlock land."
"That so? You don't begrudge an old woman a chance to cool off in your creek on her way, do you? Only passin' through."
She continued to stare down at Jasper as she spoke to Sam. All the wrinkles on her face were lined with dirt and dust and she wore a tattered man's straw hat on her head, but her eyes (one green and one brown, he noted with fascination) glinted with humor.
Sam allowed as to how he supposed that would be all right and she nodded. "Who might I thank for the privilege then?"
"Jasper Whitlock," Jasper said finally, sitting up as quick as he could and pushing his long dirty blonde hair out of his face. "That's my brother Sam."
The woman swept into a surprisingly elegant bow, sweeping her hat elaborately before plopping it back on her head. "Josiane Hebert. I don't suppose you two would be willing to do an old lady another favor and share what grub you might have to spare?"
The brothers exchanged a look but Josiane continued, "It would be a right Christian thing to do and I'm sure you two are of the Christian persuasion, ain't you?"
"Pa says we can't feed nobody not willing to work for it," Jasper said finally.
"Yep, that's his rule," Sam nodded.
"What kind of work would you have ole Josiane do then?" She sat down heavily on the edge of the creek, bending to splash some water on her sunburned face. "I could spin a tale for you if you fancy."
"What kind of tale?" Sam asked suspiciously. "We ain't gon' feed you for a fairy story, you know."
"Why don't you go scrounge up this feed and I'll see what I can think of." She flashed them a smile, showing a mouthful of cracked brown and yellow teeth. Jasper looked at his brother, who gave him a one-shouldered shrug, and then they ran off through the fields back to the house.
"What's for lunch, Ida Bell?" Jasper called as they thumped up the porch and slammed into the kitchen.
"I told you a hunnert times not to slam into this house. It wears my nerves out!" Ida Bell was a skinny little thing with a nimbus of blonde hair that frizzed around her head and made her look like a stalk of wheat swaying in the wind.
"Sorry, sorry, what's for lunch?"
"Not beans and toast again, I hope," Sam muttered.
Ida Bell scowled at him. "You should be so lucky as to get whatever I feed you, Samuel Whitlock. If you were my boy I would tan your hide from here to Sunday. And no, today we're having cornbread and jerky. It's on the table." She jerked her head toward the two battered plates sitting on the family's big wooden table.
"Ida Bell, can we take them down to the creek and eat there?"
"Of course you cannot, Samuel Whitlock, you sit down at that table and eat. I ain't havin' you traipsing all over this land chewin' your jerky like a cow chewin' cud. 'S not proper."
Sam rolled his eyes and looked at Jasper. Sam, all of eleven years old, was taller and stronger, but Jasper had his mother's fair looks and what his daddy called her silver tongue. He could talk a chicken into laying its neck on the stump, his daddy always said.
Jasper smoothed his hair back and moved toward her. "Ida Bell, it's so pretty outside today. I sure would love to eat this delicious lunch in the wondrous outdoors that the Lord created for us to enjoy. Plus it's hotter 'n Africa indoors and out. Couldn't we cool off by the creek? We'll be back in less'n thirty minutes and then I'll go read Mama some of the Bible this afternoon."
"Well," Ida Bell put her hands on her hips. "I suppose, but jest to the creek and back. And don't take those plates out there and lose them."
"We won't," Jasper grinned at his brother as they scooped the cornbread and jerky into the hems of their faded shirts.
When they reached the creek, Josiane was sitting just where she left them, smoking a stubby hand-rolled cigarette. They had never seen a woman smoke before and Jasper was fairly certain that was a sin.
"That's a sin, that is," Sam spoke up, pointing to the cigarette and Jasper nodded, pleased to have his belief confirmed.
"That a fact? Don't your daddy smoke? Or your grandpa?"
"Yes, but a woman ain't supposed to."
Josiane laughed, low like smoke. "Funny how God assigns sins based on what parts we come out with. Of course, we women always pay with pain in the end regardless."
Jasper tilted his head and stared at her. "Here - you can have my jerky." He held out a hunk of it and her fingers brushed his when she reached out to take it.
"And my cornbread, I s'pose." Sam passed her his offering. "Now what kind of story are we going to get?"
She carefully stubbed out the cigarette on a rock and put the remainder of it back in the pocket of her dirty button-down shirt. "Thought on it, and the best story I could offer would be the story of Sam and Jasper Whitlock."
Sam smirked. "And what would that be?"
"Fortune tellin'," Josiane said, speaking around a lump of cornbread in her mouth. She pulled a canteen from her belt and took a slug of something that didn't smell a bit like water. "Palm readin'. I was trained in New Orleans by a genuine Voo Doo witch and I read palms for kings, queens, robbers, Injuns, all sorts of folks. Figure I can read palms for you two now."
"That's a sin too," Sam said flatly. "That's the darkest witchcraft."
"Is it?" Josiane looked surprised. "God wrote you a whole story there on that dirty hand and it's sinful for me to tell you what he said?"
Sam and Jasper both looked down at their browned and blistered hands. "God wrote them?" Jasper questioned.
"Who else? The author of all." Josiane pointed at the sky, swallowing the cornbread with another slug from the canteen. "I don't hold with the devil, never have."
The brothers exchanged a wary look. "If you did hold with the devil, you'd like to tell us you didn't to fool us, wouldn't you?" Jasper hedged.
"Suspect I might," Josiane allowed. "But would I be able to wear this?" From under her shirt, she brought out a tarnished silver cross on a rope chain. She cradled it in her palm and looked at them with raised eyebrows. "If I held with the devil, it would burn me, ain't that true?"
Sam decided to throw caution to the wind. "All right then, read the story God wrote for me." He marched to her with his hand outstretched and Josiane peered down at for a few seconds, then spun a colorful tale of heroism on the fields of battle, falling in love with a beautiful blue-eyed girl (Sam was just old enough to find that idea interesting as opposed to disgusting), and becoming a successful Texas Ranger, traveling around and catching criminals and ne'er-do-wells.
"Huh." Sam looked down at his hand again when she finished. "That's all right then, ain't it, Jasper?"
Jasper was practically jumping up and down with eagerness, sure that his future had to be at least as exciting as Sam's, if not more so. "Yeah, that's real nice, Sam. Do me now," he rushed to Josiane's side, pushing his palm into her face. He smelled her breath, the tangy aroma of whatever spirit she'd been drinking almost covering up the rot of her teeth.
She glanced up at him with a smile, then looked down at his hand and went still. She stared at it for a long time, long enough that Jasper started to sweat. He looked at his brother, who shrugged. "Josiane? What-" He looked down at his palm, seeing the familiar lines and calluses that looked the same to him as his brother's. They were both bigger than other kids their ages but surely that wouldn't change their futures none. It hadn't changed Sam's anyway.
Josiane looked back up at him, her eyes wide with fear. Jasper's stomach clenched and he worried, for the first time, what he was capable of doing. He considered himself as good as most people he knew, if not a little better than some. He could talk people into things easy enough but he knew better than to use it to hurt them. He did his chores, he even won an award for reciting the most Bible verses of anyone in his Sunday School (two more than the pastor's daughter!). What could Josiane see that made her so afraid of him?
"Some things are already written and cain't be undone," she told him quietly. "It don't make sense at the time and we wonder why God chose it. But it don't do to question him too much. He got a plan no one can fault if they could see it from his eye view. That right, ain't it, Jasper?"
"Yes'm, I suspect it is." His mind whirled as he tried to make sense of what she was saying.
"It gon' be a different road for you, son." She let go of his hand, gone cold and clammy in her tight grip. "The one comfort I can give you is this. You mindin'?"
He nodded, his eyes staring so deep into hers he would always be able to draw those eyes, one green and one brown, from memory. "Love is real, and in the end, it's the only thing that matters. You won't know her 'til she finds you. Never let her go."
He crinkled his face up. "What does that mean?" he asked suspiciously, but Josiane abruptly rose up and began splashing away down the creek. She turned back at the bend, chewing on the jerky they'd given her much like the cow chewing cud that Ida Bell had feared they would be.
"Don't forget it, son. God put you on a different path."
She nodded at him again, fear still alive in her eyes, and then she was gone. They never saw her again.
After a moment or two, Sam laughed and nudged Jasper's side with his elbow. "She had you goin', didn't she, brother? That crazy old lady makin' up all those stories! She gipped us good out of our lunch. Oh well, let's go back to the house before Ida Bell gets all het up." Sam grabbed his brother's arm and pulled him back toward their home, but part of Jasper stayed inside those words. He puzzled over them in his quiet moments and wondered what this path was, his "different path."
It felt like forever, but in truth it was just the blink of an eye until he understood exactly what the fear in Josiane's eyes had been for.