I ran up the hill to the house with my empty bucket, not looking back. I didn’t want to see a silver arm rise from the pond. My mother was outside watering the tomatoes. Seeing my muddy feet, she screamed.
“You went near the water?” She slapped at me. “You know what can happen!” She grabbed my wrist and pulled me onto the rubber doormat, spraying my feet to clean them.
“It was just the edge; it’s muddy! I didn’t go too close; I swear, mama!”
“Dry your feet and go upstairs — I made you a tuna sandwich.”
The 400-year-old Acequia irrigation system in New Mexico held more than water — it held secrets. Willies. If you were on a ditch and had a pond, you had a Willie. You had to feed it live food, or it would walk on land and eat your babies. We fed our Willie fish. Some of the other people in our village fed them other things that I didn’t like to think about; the live fish were bad enough. I was ten when I started feeding ours. My father, after fighting with my mother for a week that summer about it, called me to him and said I was old enough, now, to feed the Willie. My mother cried when Papa and I went out the back door with the bucket of fish, but I smiled and waved at her.
“It’s okay, Mama — I can do it!” I called back to her and followed my father down the rocky little road that led to our pond. He stopped me a little ways from the water’s edge.
“Are you ready?” I nodded. I was proud that he trusted me. I knew about the Willies, but I was not allowed to go to the pond alone, and my father had never let me see one. He put the bucket down and pulled a fish out by the tail. “Hold my hand. Don’t be afraid.” He bent to look into my face. “Don’t scream. You’ll make it angry.” I gritted my teeth together to keep my mouth closed. He threw the fish high into the air above the water. A fountain erupted. It was our Willie; She rose into the air after the fish, long white hair streaming, silver skin sparkling in the sun. I gasped — she was beautiful! “Shhhh,” My father cautioned. Then, her face split in half. Her mouth was enormous and filled with teeth. My eyes filled with tears. She caught the fish on her razor teeth and flipped back into the water. My father picked up another fish and tossed it even higher. She leaped again, teeth flashing. I tried to step back, but he held me tightly.
“Now you see. When you come down here, stay back, and throw the fish in like this.” He tossed them in one by one but lower, so she didn’t have to jump; until there was one fish left. I leaned against my father’s worn work pants and wiped at my tears with the back of a hand. He put his arm around me and hugged me quickly.
“Don’t be afraid. Here. You do this one, and you’ll see — it’s not hard.” He handed me the last fish. It was cold and slippery, and it struggled in my hands, falling to the dirt. He laughed. “You have to hold it tighter. Pick it up.” I leaned down and grasped the fish tighter, holding it against my shirt and getting dirt all over myself. “Now, throw it into the water.” I raised the fish as high as I could and flung it towards the water. As it neared the surface, a silver arm rose up. A hand, about the same size as mine, grasped the fish by the tail and yanked it down. There was a little splash and then stillness.
“I did it!” I grinned up at my father, tears drying itchy on my cheeks.
“You did it.” He smiled down at me. Next Saturday we’ll come again, but you’ll throw all the fish. The Saturday after, you’ll do it by yourself, because in two weeks I will have a new job, and I need your help with this job so I can make us more money. Okay?”
“Okay, Papa. I can do it. I can feed the Willie.”
And I do. I feed it every week like our people in Rio en Medio, and maybe in all of New Mexico, have always done. And even though it’s very hot, and we have a little pond, I never swim because I know what could happen to me if I did. Because this is our life.