I was only a boy when I learned of the witches, and the picture I’d formed in my mind—something akin to the marrying of the Wicked Witch of the West and the one from those Bugs Bunny cartoons—wasn’t the picture I ended up seeing along that mountain ridge. I saw no brooms or bubbling cauldrons gathered about that shack, only a few drying possum skins and a column of gray smoke from the chimney, an overturned metal pail by the well. Could have been any old body’s shack, really. Except this one wasn’t. Witch lived there.
“Ain’t no witch,” I said. But I said it low and kept my head that way too, one eye and all my body behind a stout oak some fifty yards away. “That’s just some woman lives there.”
“Ain’t,” Jeffrey said. “Ever’body knows she’s a witch. My mama came up here onced for medicine. Daddy didn’t want her to but she did.”
“Witches don’t give medicine.”
“This one here does. Mama says she makes them in a room in there. Says she prays over all these plants and stuff.”
“Witches don’t pray.”
Jeffrey said, “This one here does.”
That was the first (and only, as it happened) time I visited Jeffrey’s house and the deep woods beyond it, the two of us fast friends that year of first grade, two country boys marooned at a Christian school in the city. Ours was a kinship born of place rather than blood. While the other boys would spend recess putting together Legos and learning the names of the disciples, Jeffrey and I would be out in the mud patch under the basketball goal, digging up worms with our hands. He’d invited me over that Saturday afternoon, saying he had a lot better worms in his yard and more mud too, plus maybe we could shoot his daddy’s .22. Turned out Jeffrey’s daddy was gone that day and the sun had scorched that soft mud to brown concrete. That’s when he asked me—Hey, you wanna see where a witch lives?
“Where’s she at?” I asked, leaning out a little from the tree.
“I don’t know. Daddy says sometimes she turned to a bird or a deer so you can’t tell. He says she’s watchin even when you don’t think she is.”
“Let’s go up there,” I said.
“No way. You wanna get cursed?”
“Ain’t no curse.”
Jeffrey said, “This one here, she’ll curse.”
I’d like to tell you I went on anyway, left that tree and marched right up to the door on that shack and knocked with neither fear nor trepidation. But I didn’t and neither did Jeffrey, because right after that a crow called from the trees and we ran. Ran all the way back and never stopped until we were locked inside Jeffrey’s little bedroom, and then we never spoke about no witch. I never went back. Not to Jeffrey’s, not to that stretch of ridge. To this day, that part of the mountain is one of the few places I’ve tread but once.
That memory is still fresh in my mind all these years later. I can’t remember the name of my fifth grade teacher or exactly whose house I egged when I was seventeen or where I left the keys to the truck this morning, but I can tell you how the sun beat on our backs that day and how the creek water felt like ice when we ran through it hollering and stumbling and that something—animal or witch—followed us through the trees the whole way back from that cabin. I know it.
There are stories here in the mountains, secret ones told by granddaddies on their porches at night when the crickets sing and the moon is high in a dark sky and a Mason jar is in their hands. Tales to make your skin goose up. The ones with demons and angels are good. Ghosts are better. The stories of the witches some say still hide in these hollers, they’re the best.
I guess that’s the biggest reason I decided to add to those best stories with a tale of my own. Not about two small boys that happen to strike the ire of a witch, but an entire town that does the same and what happens when that witch seeks her revenge. About the darkness in us all, and the light.
The Curse of Crow Hollow won’t be out until later this summer, but you have a chance at getting your own copy a bit earlier. I’ll even scrawl my name in it. All you have to do is follow this link and enter your name. Easy peasy.
In the meantime, you keep away from those witches.