Witch in the Willows

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

The witch in the willows knows a secret about you....

Submitted: August 06, 2018

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Submitted: August 06, 2018



The most disturbing short story I came across is one I found scrawled on animal skin under my bed during the time I lived in an abandoned warehouse that was possessed by an evil spirit. A priest I called to exorcise the old warehouse told me there was so much evil there that an exorcism was not possible, I would have to leave or die in hellish unspeakable nightmare. The story I’m about to share with you now, according to the priest I consulted, was written by a demon known as Dagnomen - an evil spirit who as a human had been a much feared alchemist in medieval Nuremberg.

The deadly pit-viper struck Lauren just below her dimpled knee, its vicious sharp curved needle fangs penetrating deep below the surface of her delicate skin, force-injecting the toxic venom directly into her bloodstream. The fast-acting poison now raced through her system shutting down her internal organs and rapidly deteriorating brain function. I struggled violently to keep her awake. If she lost consciousness, death would be the irreversible consequence.

The danger sign at the park entrance warned of the threat, listing - along with shockingly realistic color illustrations - the species of deadly snakes known to inhabit the wildlife refuge. Together, Lauren & I had paddled far upstream, the rigorous workout tiring us both substantially, in spite of our athletic training. When we were getting out of the canoe, I didn't see the hideous serpent coiled ready to strike. Lauren, always alert to hazards, immediately noticed the murderous thing. I would have stepped on the foul lethal beast had she not rushed forward to push me out of the way. The painful strike that was meant for me hit her instead.

I never will forget the plaintive ululation of stark terror in her bloodcurdling scream.

It took a moment for me to realize what had transpired. When the gruesome reality finally slammed treacherously into my mind, Lauren was on the ground gripping her knee in what I know must have been torturous excruciating acute agony. Waves of sickening nausea swept over me as, horror-stricken, I watched the loathsome legless obscenity slither off into the dense shadowy undergrowth.

Lauren was pale as a ghost. In her watery gray eyes, I came face to face with the appalling grim specter of true fear.

I don't know how I kept from vomiting. Trembling all over in physically destabilizing weakness, I struggled to lift her into the canoe. Normally, I could have hefted Lauren up without strain, but the rushing adrenaline of overpowering strong emotion undermined my flagging strength. My limbs were lethargic. Her weight seemed an immense immovable bulk.

After nearly capsizing the canoe while getting Lauren situated as comfortably as possible, I began frantically paddling back downstream. I stroked the water like a convulsing maniac. I knew time was critical. The most profound sympathy of my heart went out to the beautiful woman who had sacrificed herself for me. Each moment that passed was bringing her closer to breathing her last breath on this earth. Hot tears were trickling down my flushed cheeks. I hoped to reach the ranger station in time for antivenom to be administered. Those awful moments of panic-stricken desperation seemed to drag out into eternity. I did not sense time to be on Lauren's side. Onward I paddled, hoping my fading strength wouldn't fail me.

I glanced at my ailing friend. I felt the color drain from my face. She was ashen. Her elegant complexion had the ghastly pallor of a corpse. Her healthy olive skin had turned pasty and sallow. A wan wild-eyed expression contorted her lovely features into a twisted mask of unbearable muscle spasms and stabbing pain. How far had we traveled upstream? Surely the ranger station would appear around the next bend in the slow-moving river. The next bend came and went with no ranger station in sight. The next bend passed, and the next, lush green vegetation nodding thickly over steep banks that paraded listlessly by in cruelly mocking serene succession. Where was the confounded ranger station? In my frantic recklessness, had I passed it?

Lauren’s respiration had become labored. My concern for her was deepening beyond what blood and flesh could endure.

“Elby,” she called my name, her voice faltering in distress, “I’m cold. Hold me.”

I had no idea how to respond to her confusing request. I blabbered a clumsy reply, not half knowing what I was saying, “I want to Lauren, but I’ve got to keep paddling. We must hurry to get you to the ranger station for antivenom.”

“We’re not going to make it, Elby. Please, I know I’m dying. I can feel my life slipping, darkness, I can’t see, everything’s dark. Please, I don’t want to die cold, alone, and untouched in the darkness. Hold me, Elby. Please, hold me.”

The ruthless poison must have been blinding her. Or was it something else - a diminishing of the spirit as if some unseen entity were sucking the life force from her now frail body? In unspeakable emotional chaos, I fought hard against my instinct to keep paddling furiously. Gently laying the paddle down in the canoe, beads of perspiration dotting my brow, I carefully moved forward to take the tragic form of my sweet friend Lauren into my unmanageable tremulous arms. I embraced her with soulful compassion, but what could I do? There was precious little time. Crucial moments were draining so swiftly away.

I remember that dreadful day. The ungodly horror of it is seared into my memory forever. That hot afternoon in June was 80 degrees, yet Lauren shivered uncontrollably as if the deadly venom coursing through her veins was turning her blood to ice. I think I might have whimpered, but I choked down the incoherent utterance so as to attempt some loyal effort of meager comfort. It pained me to no end to feel the canoe slow to match the lazy current of the muddy river.

“Tell me a story,” Lauren croaked.

“What?” my voice was barely a whisper.

“Tell me a story, Elby.”

“What story?”

“Anything, just talk so the sound of your voice will take my mind off dying. It hurts, Elby. Talk to me. Please tell me a story.”

Fighting back those burning hot tears of anger and helplessness, I racked my brain for a story, but could think of none. I scolded myself, goading my numb lips into speech. I don’t know why, of all things, that eerie memory popped up in my mind at that sad moment of suffocating despair. I hadn’t thought of the experience for over a decade, but it’s the haunting event from the past that dribbled from my dry mouth.

“The old woman, I don’t know, I saw her in Ohio. It was during my adolescence - a mystery, alluring, but terrible. Blasphemous, it made me afraid of all things paranormal.

The ghoulish phenomenon occurred one foggy evening in late September. It was the end of summer and the leaves were beginning to change color and die. There was an old fellow who lived in Millport, which is in South Bloomfield near Ashville, which is only about 20 miles south of Columbus. The old man lived meagerly and alone in a little wooden bungalow with a rusty tin roof. He died several years ago. No mourners grieved his passing. On a cold rainy day in November, a pair of poorly paid sextants unceremoniously laid him to rest in the Potter’s Field. His name was Ronnie Neff, yet the few who knew of him called him ‘The Hermit’.

The Hermit loved to go to Scowler Downs to bet on the sulky races. On the night of that ghostly paranormal event that befell my journey all those long years ago, I remember I had, that afternoon, returned from a bus-trip with the Hermit to Cleveland. On our way back, we stopped to eat at the Ole Farmstead Inn, which is right off I-71 at Marengo. I remember how the Hermit loved that rustic mom’n’pop joint. Anyway, in Millport there’s a legend about a witch who lives on a homemade houseboat, which is in essence a floating shack, that she keeps docked in the willows in the backwater of the Scowler River. She catches huge flat-heads and roasts them at night on a stick over an open flame while howling frightfully at the moon. The malignant harpy is reputed to be able to talk to snakes and make them do her bidding. Nobody knows how old the hag is. Whispered lore attests she was a beldam of ancient years when the trials hit Salem in 1692.

According to legend, once every generation the witch takes the life of a victim in order to sustain her own. She targets someone young, strong, in the prime of life. Usually, but not always, her victim is a robust athletic male.

On the night I saw the terrible accident, I had gone with the Hermit to Scowler Downs so he could bet on the races. He would always let me help him pick horses. Sometimes we would win a few hundred dollars. Once we won $1300 which was a very exciting night, but on the night the weird bad thing happened, we didn’t win anything. It was a sad night in many respects.

We read our bets to the lady with the green visor cap behind the barred window, then walked outside, all the way down to the railing right at the edge of the track. Back in those days, Florida law didn’t permit anyone under 18 years of age into the greyhound tracks, but in Ohio at Scowler Downs, it was legal for people of all ages to be at the track. They even had a playground with merry-go-round and swing set.

I remember seeing a very disheveled ragged old woman leaning her elbows on the track railing only a few steps away from where the Hermit and I were standing. Her nose was what is known as aquiline, a Roman nose, a hook-nose, a thick high bridge nose, long and pointy. Her eyes were tightly focused red pinpoints buried in deep shadow. There was something very disturbing about the old woman, something that couldn’t be seen in the pale lighting of the horse-racing track at night.

All those years ago, when I was at that young age, most old people seemed odd to me, but there was something grave and deeply distressing about this particular old woman. I don’t know exactly what it was that made her stand out in my eyes, but something about her just didn’t seem right. She made me afraid. My skin crawled to look at the sinister crone. I would have sworn she had twigs tangled in her long silvery ratty hair. Her face didn’t seem real - it was more like a rubber mask than a real human skin face.

I glanced up at the Hermit - he was 6’4” with suntanned skin and dark brown hair; he may have been part Indian (I never did ask), but the Hermit didn’t seem to notice the eerie old lady. When the gates opened and the wild excitement of the race started, all the adults’ eyes were of course glued to the track, many of them shouting for the horse they had bet on to win, but I could not watch the race because the spooky old lady in the long charcoal-gray dirty rag dress made me feel so nervous and alarmed.

She was keenly watching the little sulky buggies sprinting around the track, and as the racers came clod-hopping around the last turn into the home stretch, the ghoulish old termagant started making mysterious furtive gestures with her wrinkly sharp-nailed hands. When the vigorous group of sulky racers, jostling and jockeying for position, passed right in front of her, she tossed her ugly head back sharply. That’s when it happened.

Four of the sulky buggies somehow got tangled up and crashed into each other. People were screaming and holding their hands over their mouths - some of them hopped over the railing and ran out on the track to help because there were only two paramedics to deal with all that horrendous mess until some other ambulances arrived. The first jockey wasn’t hurt very badly, just some bruising with track dirt all over him. The second and third jockeys suffered contusions and lacerations. They had to be taken to the hospital for stitches. The fourth jockey is the one that got it worst of all. He left the track in a body-bag. He was pronounced dead on the scene. His neck had been savagely broken.

I never will forget how that creepy old hag walked away laughing.

News of the accident was kept very low profile, only a small item in the next day’s paper buried in the back of the local section. The mafia doesn’t like to let mishaps or tragedies that happen at their gambling establishments get wide publicity.”

An uncanny sense of skulking futility abruptly halted my nervous rambling babble. The canoe was sluggishly drifting sideways down the slow-moving river. I don’t know how long I had been talking and I don’t know what made me notice that Lauren had stopped breathing. Through the hurtful blur of humiliating despondent tears of heartrending sorrow that would no longer be denied, I gazed in helpless anguish at her gaunt face that had such a short time ago radiated with the youthful exuberance of life. Her lips had turned an awful dull shade of drab blue-gray, her mouth sagging agape, her eyelids half shut, her pupils hugely dilated, an eerie stare of utter emptiness in her glassy sightless eyes.

The canoe gently swirled around a scenic bend densely draped in weeping willows. The ranger station came into view. A gurgling choking “No!” escaped my lump-clogged throat. I held Lauren’s limp lifeless body in my trembling arms and I bitterly wept burning tears of grief, loss, and shame-ridden regret. From somewhere on the surface of the water, I thought I heard a voice whisper, “I know a secret.”

I looked, but all I saw was the gentle mocking current of the maddeningly slow-flowing brindle-colored stream of that merciless muddy river.

© Copyright 2018 Sean Terrence Best. All rights reserved.

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