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The Swamp Witch

By Thom Schilling

Hot and boring, the summer of 1958 marked my first real adventure. Too big to play in a sandbox and too young to play Little League Baseball, I was at the age when imagination ran wild and reality nudged my daily routine. My main source of entertainment came from my best friend and next-door neighbor, Paul. We spent countless hours at each other’s house, but on this steamy August day, Paul was in the mood for adventure. “Do you wanna go to old-lady May’s swamp and hunt for tadpoles?”

“I’m not sure mom will let me go,” but I knew her answer would be a flat, “No!”

Paul tilted his head and looked at me. “Don’t be a baby. She won’t say no if you don’t ask.”

“I could get in trouble.”

“Come on. We’ll be gone an hour tops, that’s all. She won’t even have time to miss you.”

“I suppose so, but I have to be back by 3:00.” My father called home about that time every day and my mother would send me to the store to buy groceries for supper.

“Where is old-lady May’s swamp?”

“It’s only a few blocks from here,” taunted Paul. “We can be there in a few minutes.”

I didn’t ask about the swamp or about old-lady May. Everyone knew about her. She was the Swamp Witch; the woman from nightmares, and the scourge of every boy in town. Folklore told of curses and spells that she cast on unwary trespassers. Young boys who cursed and swore at her would be struck silent for weeks. Lads who made faces would have their features locked in distorted expressions. Those who showed the least respect were doomed with insanity or cursed with poison ivy on the most unspeakable parts of their bodies.

“Are you sure we’ll be back by 3:00?”

Paul’s tone was too casual. “Yeah, sure.”

That was all the encouragement I needed. We immediately set out on my first quest off the block. As we walked towards the swamp I asked, “Paul, do you believe what they say about old-lady May?”

“Sure do! I saw her once. Old and wrinkled, a hooked nose with a wart on its tip, bent at the waist, and painfully ugly. She almost caught me the last time my brother and I went to the swamp.”

“What do you think she would have done if she caught you?”   

“I don’t aim to find out. As soon as she saw me, she started after me yelling and shaking her cane. You know that cane can turn into a snake. I heard that it slithered into a boy’s room in the middle of the night. It bit him and he went into a coma.”

This was one of those times when I didn’t know if I should believe Paul. I scoffed, “No, that couldn’t happen. It was probably just some other snake.”

In a frenzied voice, Paul said, “It really happened! I heard the boy had a snakebite on his arm and they found a cane in his room. I know it was old-lady May’s cane!”

 “No, if that happened the police would have taken her to jail.”

Paul stood firm. “Well, they didn’t.”

“What happened to the boy?”

Paul looked straight into my eyes. “He died.”

I challenged, “He died from old-lady May’s cane?”

Paul could not hold back his smile. “No silly. He was hit by a car a few weeks later.”

Even though Paul was my best friend, I never knew when he was telling the truth. One of the things I liked most - and hated most - about Paul was his ability to make you believe anything, anything at all. Like an adventure movie or great book, he was a storyteller of the highest order. Paul could whisk you away from life and escort you down that path located somewhere between fact and fantasy.

#

After a while, we meandered to May’s Swamp. At the edge of town, our expedition transformed from neat rows of clapboard houses, across a wide street, to an open area overgrown with weeds, moss, and trees drooping from the weight of the summer humidity. Here reality ended, and time stood still for more than forty years.

“Paul, I don’t see a swamp. These are just woods.”

“No, it’s a swamp. You can’t see it from the street. There should be a path over there.” Paul pointed to the big cypress tree in the middle of the block. Walking to the tree, we snaked our way down a narrow path until we arrived at a small algae-covered pond. Paul dropped to his hands and knees, and crawled the last few yards to the edge of the water. I followed.

The swamp flourished in wildlife: rabbits, squirrel, opossum, raccoons, field mice, snakes, turtles, frogs, and tadpoles called it home. However, within seconds the insects devoured us. After crawling a few feet our heads were covered in spider webs, mosquitoes left large welts on our arms and legs, and gnats hovered near our faces. Occasionally they flew up our noses; making our eyes water.

After a few agonizing seconds, Paul whispered, “She’s here.”

As I crawled next to Paul to get a better look, I replied in a tone softer than a baby’s breath, “Where?”

Paul pointed to the house. “On the porch, sitting in her chair.”

I was shocked to see how close she was. The pond was a mere twenty feet across and she sat only a few feet further.

Wiry, not frail, she was a slight woman who looked a hundred years old. A nest of snow-white hair sat atop her pointed weatherworn face. Her eyes were haunting, deep-set and pale gray - almost white. She had a large bent nose bridging her thin wrinkled lips. Gums absent of teeth clung to an unlit, half-smoked cigar. She wore a stained and dirty pink dress dotted with tiny flowers. Cut just below the knees and two sizes too big, the dress made her emaciated arms and legs look like bones wrapped in wrinkled parchment. As she rocked back and forth in her old rocker, her white socks seemed to flash each time her black slippers lifted her feet off the porch.  

Peeking between the blades of grass, I hugged the ground as we watched her for several minutes. She would rock back and forth, stop, lean forward on her old wooden cane, listen, sniff, and then lean back and start rocking again. She repeated this routine several times.

Afraid to even breathe, I mustered a faint whisper. “Do you think she can smell us?”

Paul muttered, “I don’t think so, but she knows something is wrong. Stay real still. We don’t want her to see us.”

I lay there watching until the unimaginable happened. I sneezed.

“Who’s there?” crackled a shrill high-pitched voice.

Paul turned to face me and put his index finger over my lips. I didn’t need the hint. I was petrified.

“I know somebody is there! Come out before I use my cane on you.” I have since learned she meant to rap us with her cane, but at that age I expected her to turn us into snakes or tadpoles. At the very least, she would use her cane to cast a spell on us.

 The witch screeched, “I see you! Come over here before I get mad.”

We were motionless until she jumped out of her chair and started to swing her cane high over her head. Blood-curdling banshee-like screams filled the swamp, and inaudible curses flowed from the witch as soon as Paul shot to his feet and ran.

Frozen to the ground, I could not move.

She laughed and seemed quite pleased she scared my best friend, and started to sing and dance on her porch.

Overflowing with fear, I watched her glee.

After a few moments she went into her house. With the witch out of sight, I was freed from my paralysis and started to scoot backward. I had moved only inches when I felt a blunt object poking the middle of my back. As I turned, I saw Mrs. May looking down at me. Without thinking I bolted up and ran. Unfortunately, I was looking at the witch and ran straight into the mire. By the time I could stop, I was up to my knees in the black, smelly, pond muck.

“Don’t move boy,” she sneered.

I felt myself sinking. I tried to turn my body, but only my waist moved. My legs were stuck and sinking fast.

Mrs. May inched her way to the edge of the black water and held out her cane. She mumbled some words but the only thing I heard was, “Take it boy.”

I climbed the cane as she held fast. Once free from the sewage-smelling muck, she led me to her house. As I walked two paces behind her, through thistle, stinging nettle, Queen Anne’s Lace, and sundry weeds, I realized this frightful woman had saved my life. Maybe she was a good witch, or maybe she wasn’t even a witch at all.

 When we arrived at her front porch, she pointed to the step and said, “Sit here, boy.” She went into the house and dutifully I followed her directions. Although only a few minutes passed, it seemed like she was in the house for hours. From my seat on the top step of the porch, I noticed the house. Once a cute white-frame bungalow, it now sat gray and unpainted. Clumps of green moss hung from the roof. The wrap around porch had a dirty white refrigerator near the side door, and heaps of old newspapers and boxes stacked to the ceiling. The gutters, full of leaves, had turned brown and rusted over the years. Finally, my eyes focused on the window and I tried to look inside, but it was frightfully dark. The only things I could see were the shades and sheer curtains, both yellowed from age. I heard the swamp witch walking toward the door and dropped to my place on the step.

Mrs. May walked outside with a pink apron in one hand and a glass of lemonade in the other. She handed me the lemonade. “Boy, you’ll get skinned alive if you go home looking and smelling like that. Wrap this apron around you and give me your pants. I can get them cleaned in a few minutes.”

I did as told, and she took my pants, socks, and sneakers in the house. By the time I finished my drink she magically reappeared at my side with clean, odor-free clothes. As I dressed, she sat down, lit the cigar, and began to rock in her creaking chair.

I thanked her for saving me and helping me get clean. As I walked away, she cackled, “Hurry son. You need to be home by three o’clock.”

A chill shot up and down my spine. How did she know I had to be home by three? 

I ran all the way home and arrived at exactly three o’clock. Nobody other than Mrs. May or I knew what happened that afternoon. Even my best friend was too embarrassed and afraid to ask what happened after he ran away.

Over the next several years, I often saw Mrs. May in my dad’s tavern. Whenever I asked him about her, all he said was that she was a nice but misunderstood old widow lady. He always treated her with respect, and she would always cackle at his jokes. At ninety plus years of age, she would sit on a barstool - before it was permissible for women to sit at the bar, puff a cigar, and chug a pint or two of draft beer. She could pound them down with the best of ‘em.

Sadly, she is gone, but certainly not forgotten.