The Witchy Woman
written by: Jackie Harvey
To outsiders the bayou may conjure romance. The Cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, especially in the haze that hovers over the water, are icons of these parts. To outsiders, but not always to those who call them home. The bayous and swamps are mysterious places. When the sun’s gold is elbowed away by the moonlight to bathe instead with blue and the breeze flutters through the moss they appear another world, another time.
Parents tell children not to venture too far into the swamp. Alligators may ambush and their victims be dragged down to the depths – never to be seen again. They warn other creatures lurk there too; creatures not of this world. As children we believe our parents – but as we get older and braver we are more likely to heed our peers. The threat of danger, of the unknown, begins to evaporate even in the mystical atmosphere of the bayou.
At twelve my fear began to evaporate. Denny and Lucas, at two years older than me, had already grown fearless; fearless enough to want to find out about the strange woman who lived in the cabin by the creek. We all wondered about her. She arrived like a hurricane in a beat up old flatbed truck. The ramshackle cabin that had lain empty for a long time became her home. What, if any, connection it had with her we never found out. The local busy body approached her to ask while she was loading the truck in town one day but a dismissive wave of the hand and a throaty chuckle was her only reply.
We wanted to check her out for ourselves. The way to the cabin took us along a track off the creek road. To follow her was too difficult though as the truck could cope with the mud but our sneakers couldn’t. Should we reach the cabin anyway all we would be able to see was the back so Denny came up with a plan. He would borrow his dad’s field glasses and we would hide on the other side of the creek opposite the shack. We would be safe, she wouldn’t be aware we watched; we could find out what happens. Folk suspected nefarious goings on. I didn’t understand what the word nefarious meant but judging by the hushed tones in which they spoke I suspected something dodgy.
We slipped off after supper. I told my mom I was going to Lucas’ house, got my flashlight and went to meet my friends. We needed to be in place before sunset because ‘what went on’ started around sunset – according to the whispers. Going through the trees in the almost dark was spooky – rustling among the shadows. There was just enough light to make our way and to hopefully catch the Witchy Woman. What her name was we never found out and I had never seen her until that night. The nickname we lifted from the Eagles’ song. It suited her well according to her description by those who had seen her; raven black hair and ruby red lips. In the song the Witchy Woman was driven to madness with the silver spoon. What that meant I didn’t know. Not then. I do now of course. Her cabin was in view; we got settled. The mist on the water made it appear to be floating, hovering. Lanterns hung along the porch, coloured lanterns that gave an eerie glow – their reflections dancing on the mirror water of the creek.
We could hear movement and, barely whispering through the almost still air, wind chimes. Denny studied them through the field glasses then passed them to me. They were unlike any I had seen before and definitely did not come from the local hardware shop. No way. There were shells and sticks and beads and a silvery spoon and bones; bones larger than the other items that hung there. Where did the bones come from? Had she killed something -or someone? I shuddered. We all shuddered.
From inside came voices, laughter; crazy laughter. Not hers alone but a man’s voice, maybe two men’s voices. They came out. Yes two men. They flopped down on an old worn settee – frayed and dirty like a tired lumbering animal but they didn’t care; they looked at home. I remember what they said -.
‘Where is it? Bring that sweet stuff out here honey – the best.’
‘Always the best here; y’know that, everything you get here is the best.’
She laughed; a laugh unlike anything ever from a woman. I still can’t explain. She sashayed out carrying a glass flagon and swilled the contents round and round before pouring into mugs for the men. She was very beautiful and wore a dress that my mom would regard as indecent. Our eyes popped. Lucas thought he recognised one of the men but couldn’t be sure. Perhaps just as well. Moonshine, the flagon contained moonshine. Lots of illegal stills were hidden away deep among the Cypresses and the good stuff didn’t come cheap. I recall listening to mom and dad talking about Witchy and how she got hold of it with no means of support – how she paid. She must have ‘reciprocal arrangements’ they decided. As with nefarious I had no idea what that could mean at the time.
When the men finished downing two mugs full the biggest one stubbed out his cigarette among the parched flowers in the lop sided window box and they drifted, staggered inside. She went in last; she paused, didn’t actually look round but wagged her finger behind her. It was as if she knew she was being watched and, maybe, warning us off. Lucas and Denny were fidgeting; they didn’t notice – but I did. We waited a while as odd noises emanated out – noises we were not familiar with, but decided we better scoot home before the darkness closed in completely. We didn’t speak to anyone about that night. It was our secret.
Soon after she was no longer around; she disappeared as suddenly as she arrived. No one saw her or her truck in town. No gossip snippets about her exploits – imagined or real. She seemed to have vanished. No one was surprised. No one really cared – well some did but they weren’t telling. Me, Denny and Lucas decided to visit the cabin – this time along the now dried up track. We dared, despite being scared what we would find. I pushed the door which creaked open. It wasn’t locked. We went inside. Empty. Nothing. We went onto the porch. Stuffing poked out of the old settee and mice had made their home inside. The window box held a multitude of cigarette butts among the long dead flowers. The wind chimes, however, no longer hung on the nail where we saw them.
We left kind of disappointed; nothing dramatic. What I expected I don’t know. Denny expected a body – a rotting corpse he said. Although if that had been the case I think he would have fainted, I know I would have – but given what he went on to do for a job perhaps not.
All that happened over twenty years ago. I left for a corporate job in St Louis, got married, got divorced and came back to visit my parents from time to time. Just before my last visit a monumental storm caused havoc over the bayou. Not a hurricane fortunately because they are always a threat in this part of the country. That was why I came – to make sure mom and dad were ok. The thunder, lightening, heavy rain and wind had passed now. The oppressive heat had returned to suffocate everything living and the air moved not an inch.
Whilst on this visit I met up with Denny. He moved away to become a police officer in New Orleans, also married but stayed married. On his recent return he became elevated to Chief of Police. Lucas relocated up north to Boston so just the two of us reminisced about our childhood and the time we spied on the mysterious Witchy Woman. Was the cabin still standing? I asked him. Apparently so, and only visited by boys about the same age as we were – or teenagers up to nefarious purposes of their own. Witchy never returned. We would go visit, for old time’s sake.
As Denny and I stood on the side of the creek where we spied from all those years ago we heard wind chimes. Heard them clearly; the sound chimes make when the breeze is strong. The sound they shouldn’t be making at all in the motionless air – even if they still existed. But they didn’t and hadn’t since she disappeared. Why, if they no longer hung, could we hear them? It was as if they called to us somehow – summoning us. We felt compelled to get closer but the jangling appeared to move. It wafted further away from the cabin and along the creek. Denny and I looked at each other in puzzlement but followed to where the road nudged the water further along from the cabin. The creek had been much disturbed by the storm. Trees and rocks were lifted and moved; trees and rocks that had not moved for some twenty odd years.
We drove round to the other side of the creek, parked up and picked our way down to the water’s edge ignoring the splashes of disturbed alligators. Showing above the chocolate swamp water like one unseeing eye, poked a headlight – the corner of a truck. It must have been dislodged from its watery tomb by the storm. Denny radioed for a team. The truck – an old flatbed – was lifted. The wind chimes faded away as we made our discovery. Neither of us imagined this. It was real.
On the floor of cab next to the remains of Witchy Woman lay a scattering of shells and beads and a rusty spoon and…bones. The sticks and string had long since rotted away but the bones had rested alongside hers all these years. Now we finally knew what happened to the Witchy Woman. What we don’t know and never will, is how nonexistent wind chimes playing on nonexistent wind led us to her grave.
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