The Spinners resided in a ghost town with no name under big prairie skies. Grasses had reclaimed a strip of dirt that used to be a street, and weeds pushed through the porches of an old jail and an abandoned feed store.
Peter hitched his horse outside the saloon. He found the Spinners inside. They watched him from behind the bar while he stepped around broken tables and chairs, boots kicking up thick dust off the floor.
Legend had it the Spinners’ eyes saw farther and deeper than other men’s eyes and their hands could perform miracles. Peter hoped the stories were true.
His hands trembled as he tipped his hat.
“Why have you come?” asked the first one.
“My wife died in childbirth. So did the babe.”
“You want her back?” asked the second.
“What price will you pay?” asked the third.
“I’ll do anything.”
The first laid an empty pouch on the bar. “There’s a cave in the mountains, due west through a steep pass and in the shadow of a peak shaped like a buffalo. Fill this with what you find there and bring it to us.”
Peter took the pouch and rode out, and after many days he found the cave. The mouth yawned wide and dark, with stalactites jutting like teeth. Inside was nothing. No treasure or mystical objects or even old bones. He filled the pouch with what he could and returned it to the Spinners.
They opened the pouch and breathed in its scent.
“Ah, what perfect nothingness,” one said.
“Go home,” said another. “Your wife is there.”
Peter tipped his hat. “Many thanks.”
He turned to leave when the last one said, “We cannot spin the dead back to life. Some barriers are impossible to break. We spun your wife here from a world much like this one but also different. She will not be exactly as she was.”
He remembered the warning — until he saw Eloise in the doorway of their small house, brown hair braided over her left shoulder just as she had always worn it.
The days that followed were good, but still Peter felt the itch of something-not-right. Eloise needed reminders of their life together. In the evenings, they sat beside a cast-iron stove and he told her about their wedding in the town chapel and how she had come every day to watch him build their house. He went farther back to their first kiss and first dance, both at a harvest festival when they were sixteen. Further back still, to their childhood, when the two of them and Tommy Miller shucked work to swim in the creek and skip rocks all summer long. But he could not ignore how his stories, kisses and assurances of love did not lift her sadness.
He asked what he could do to make her smile.
Her answer sent him back to the Spinners.
“She misses her baby,” he said. “Ours died.”
“Her baby did not.”
“I can’t bear to see her so sad. What must I do?”
They gave him a vase stopped with a cork.
“Bring us the innocence of a child.”
Peter took the vase, but he could not puzzle out how to take a child’s innocence and whether he would do it even if he could. The world had too little innocence as it was.
Still he searched from town to town. On clear nights, he lay with his saddle for a pillow, stared at the stars and thought about other worlds, places where Eloise and their child were alive and not buried beneath the oak tree on the hill. He yearned for such a world with a desire so strong it hurt.
After many weeks, he happened across a gunfight. A man fell dead, and a boy ran into the street to cry over his father’s body. Peter uncorked the vase and watched, fascinated and sickened, as mist of the purest white poured inside.
He took it to the Spinners.
“Your wife has her child,” they said.
His daughter’s name was Emily. She had brown curls, blue eyes and a cheerful disposition. Peter had never seen a more beautiful baby. He tried to forget that his own dead child had been a boy.
The three of them lived happily for many months before Eloise again, gradually, slipped into despair. She left the house less and less, and then not at all. She ignored Emily, stopped eating and lost weight.
Peter pleaded that she tell him what was wrong.
Her words chewed a hole in his heart.
He stood before the Spinners one last time. “I am not her husband. She married Tommy Miller. We were good friends, the three of us, until he died of small pox. He was 12.”
“We know this.”
“Why did you spin me an Eloise with a different husband and a child not my own? Why didn’t she tell me right away?”
“She made a deal with us, one we will not divulge. In coming here, in doing what she did, she fulfilled her part of the deal.”
“Will you send her home?”
“That depends on you.”
Peter sobbed. “I said I would do anything. I meant it.”
“You ask us to return her to her true home?”
“We will do so on one condition.”
“What is that?” Peter asked.
They smiled knowing smiles. “Your life, freely given, to spin where we please.”
“You would do to me what you did to her?” he asked.
They nodded, and Peter understood how neatly he had walked into their trap. He yearned for a world where Eloise and their baby had lived, but if he agreed, the Spinners would twist his wish into something unrecognizable.
He hoped Eloise, at least, would find happiness.
“Send her home. I am yours.”
The Spinners began to glow. They raised their hands. Peter closed his eyes, clenched his fists and waited for the spin.
Jennifer Campbell-Hicks lives in Arvada, Colorado, where she tries to find time to write in between her two full-time jobs as a journalist and a mother of three.