You boys need to sit a spell. It’s a helluva swelterin’ day to be out river-raftin’ and I reckon you could use a moment in the shade to cool yourselves off. I’m sure them rapids will still be waitin’ for you in an hour or so. They ain’t goin’ nowhere, ‘cept forward, of course. Funny how the river moves on, but remains in place. Even that turbulence. I’m sure it’s all wear-and-tear on the arms, fightin’ those currents and that mean old spittle of the river. Me, I couldn’t do it. Maybe in my youth I could. Then again, I ain’t so old as I appear. I know, I know. Time ain’t been good to me, but really it is the genes that are to blame. The bad blood in me. Too much inbreeding where I come from. Ain’t good for the specimen, or the species for that matter. That’s why I married me a girl from other parts. No need to have the branches entwined with the roots, if you get my meaning. Anyhow, yessir, I’ve been a chewer most my life. Chewin’ the leaf helps me chew the cud. Mastication, they say, means to chew things over. And I’ve a lot to chew over as I become an old man too soon. It ain’t a bitter leaf, mind you. And if it is, well, that’s just the type of flavor you like in your old age, however premature it may be in comin’ to you.
Yeah, you whitewater rafters have your skin in the game for sure. The river can be mighty fickle as it runs along. He’s a merciless daddy to piggyback on. But when I was a boy growin’ up in Appalachia, the thing most folks said you had to fear wasn’t so much whitewater as silent, still, stagnant water. My daddy’d get kidney stones all his life, and that was because there was a limestone spring where he grew up at, and he and his folks would get their water from it. Yessir, water and minerals all in one gulp and go, and then kidney stones later on. Damn near killed him, those kidney stones. Like givin’ birth for a man. Almost dropped him with a heart attack. But he’d pull through.
Anyway, what you really had to fear was stagnant water fed off from the river. Watershed lakes, is what I mean. You see, it is true that whitewater can chew you up and spit you out as bad as any black momma bear, but still water can devour your body and soul, inside and out. And I ain’t just talkin’ ‘bout chemicals and pigshit and the other stuff that enterprisin’ individuals like to flush down-river; I’m talkin’ ‘bout the history in the bottomlands and their watersheds. I’m talkin’ the torrent of history that bleeds off and gathers in little pools that are so silent and still that people forget about them until they find themselves steeped up to their chins in them, or else drownin’.
I’m talkin’ ‘bout myths. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the Pitcher Woman.
Where do I start? The bottomland was a place where the sun never looked in none. The floodwaters brought thick soils with them that grew them trees tall and taut together, like bundles of giant broccoli, their foliage a roof in a great columned hall. Moss carpeted the ground there, if anything, and lichen and mushrooms grew in fairy rings like portals between worlds. And they were portals between worlds, mind you, though the worlds were nothing you’d ever want to visit.
It waited there, in that stagnant lake, eating frogs and water fowls and whatever else wondered into that forgotten lake, save for when the floodwaters opened the way for the river to bleed prey into that natural cesspool. Deer disappeared there, too, and it was said that a family of slant-eyed tourists had died after eatin’ bad mushrooms near the lake. But that was not true. Their bones joined the others at the bottom of that lake, their souls long gone before that. No one picnicked on bottomland, even eccentric tourists. But you know how drunk kids are with youth. Piss and vinegar can wash away fear faster than a spilling river from a broken dam. And that dam bled freely in our hearts.
And by we, I mean me and my cousins. Not yet teens, but we thought we could rule the wilderness. We went walking along the river every weekend in that Summer. This was back when Summer break was a good three months or so, so the farm boys could help with the harvest. But me and my cousins weren’t farm boys. We was River Rats. Our kin lived our lives along and in the Birchpike River, like muskrats. Fishing, boating, noodling—my granddaddy had lost three fingers to an alligator snapping turtle while trying to pull out what he thought was a flathead in a hole. Didn’t matter to him, though. Said it was the best soup he ever tasted.
Anyway, my cousins and me often explored the backwoods and the backwaters. Hell, they was our home! Elm, oak, and birch were as much our kin as any of our distant cousins (and no cousin back then was really distant since we all lived near the same town).
But I’m gettin’ lost in the thicket. My cousins and me, we liked to push our luck in that treacherous maze of Nature. Cottonmouths and copperheads lurked under every root, rock, and clover patch. Fiddlebacks webbed the underbrush and scrambled through the decaying leaves of every Fall that had come and gone since we had been born. But we was intrepid— foolhardy, you might even say—and armed ourselves with youthful laughter and rusty machetes to clear a path through that riverside wilderness. Everyday of that Summer we cut deeper into the cluttering chaos of countless plants and silver-barked trees. We pressed on beyond the higher land near the river and crossed a muddy wash-out ravine, using an uprooted tree for a bridge, and then descended slowly toward the bottommost bottomland. I remember like it was only yesterday.
Just me and my cousins— Andy, Trevor, and Nick. We were all roughly the same age, give or take a few months, and so nobody was really a leader. We just sort of decided things, and had an accord. An unspoken compact. We would go as far along the river as that Summer would let us. It was a binding pact, too, and one none of us would renege on. Now, you have to understand something: we were all Christians reborn in the blood of Jesus Christ, but that didn’t mean the Irish threads in our souls had forgotten the pagan vagaries and mysticisms of the old country, even here in America. We were prone to our own moments of daydreaming and fancy. What’s more, the Cherokee threads pulled at our sense of awe, too, and so the exploration was as much a pilgrimage as it was a preoccupation to pass the time. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we were men; strong, brave, and independent from our mommas and daddies. Course, if one of us had been snakebit we would’ve realized how make-believe all that shit was in our heads. I guess it was no different than when we pretended to be cowboys shootin’ at Indians.
Actually, it might have been better had one of us ended up snakebit. Then perhaps we would have never dared to go so far along those bottomlands.
It all seemed like harmless fun, though, and so we kept at it for weeks. Chopping underbrush with our machetes, joking about the dummies at school, and talking about the cute girls that we liked, and laughing about how dumb the teachers were. It was how we passed the time when we weren’t fishing or helping dig lateral lines or shingle roofs or whatever. Back then I was too young for chewing tobacco, so I settled for candied ginger root. My cousins thought it something funny, me chewing ginger, since I was myself a ginger. Can’t tell it now that I’ve gone all gray squirrel, but I used to be redder than a fox squirrel in my youth, and speckled worse than Easter eggs. That fiery color’s all extinguished out of me over the last few years. I guess settling down with a woman— no matter how pretty and good she is, or how happy she makes you— will do that to a man. Anyways, ginger is good for ya. Good for allergies and sinuses and breath. Ginger and horseradish. They’re the twin doctors of good health. Maybe I ought to take them up again. Couldn’t hurt me. The good life seems to be killing me. Nowadays, tobacco is my only bad habit. Maybe it’s what’s agin’ me prematurely. Could be the chemicals they use in ‘em now, but I doubt it. Otherwise others would be agin’ like me, too. Nah, it’s just my bad blood. Stagnant to the point of sickness.
We didn’t see the lake until we were almost on its banks. The trees were thick here, too, and rose up around it like a half-assed wall. The lake was congealed thickly with duckweed and green algae. It stank of stagnation. Water that sits tends to do that. Blood does, too, if you know what I mean. That was one of the reasons I got me a wife from Boone County— far enough away to be wife, but close enough to be family without being actual kin.
As I was sayin’, the water stank, and the algae was slimy and green, like mucus in a pneumonic lung. Naturally, my cousins and me wanted to poke at it with our machetes. Each of us started to stir our machetes into the shoals, cocooning the algae around our rusty blades like spools of green gossamers.
Trees rose from out of that stagnant lake, same as they did in all other parts of the bottomland, and so the shadows stagnated too; long-lingering shades heaped black and deep. We did not see the waves when she rose from the center of the lake. We did not see the wrinkles or the rings or hear nothing. One moment the lake was a solid spread of algae and the next she stood upon the water, easy as Jesus on the Sea of Galilee. I’d say she just appeared outta’ nowhere, but that ain’t exactly true. No, it was more like we looked at her without seeing her— like looking at a snake in the bushes without knowing what you are looking at, and then, all of a sudden, you see the snake after being blind to it for so long. There she is! If she was a snake she would’ve bit me.
But despite her walkin’ on water, she seemed a broken woman. Her back was bent and her knees bowed outward in a squat, almost like a frog as her long arms held a clay jar as she hunkered over it. Even so, my grip on my machete tightened.
My cousins and me looked at each other for a second— all with the same gobsmacked look on our faces—and when we looked back at her, she was standin’ on the edge of the lake, close enough to grab us with her long arms. But she didn’t grab us. She just eyed each of us in turn, as if she was our grandmother and knew something we didn’t about how we reminded her of some other relative she might’ve known once upon a century ago, and she tilted her clay jar, or pitcher, toward us. We looked in, being boys, and couldn’t see no bottom. It was all dark as night in the pitcher. But lookin’ in it made me feel like I was fallin’ forever in a dream from which I couldn’t wake up. When I came to, my cousins and me were leanin’ awfully far over the mouth of the pitcher. We shook our heads and turned away from that jar, or pitcher or whatever it was. I could feel my blue blood all sloshy with ice in my veins. Later I’d wonder why I hadn’t run away, or cut at the pitcher with my machete, or at the old woman, but no story ever comes true if you get up and run away from it, now does it? Death is the only exception, and that is only because every story has to end.
Anyhow, the old woman spoke to us. Her voice croaked up out of her corded throat like a bullfrog’s imitatin’ a woman’s speech, and to hear it was to feel it in the deep of your chest, where what they call the fight-or-flight reflex is stalled and stays at the “or”, unable to do nothing but hammer the heart until a cold sweat leaks from your every pore.
“I am Pookjinsquess,” she croaked, “your dear Aunty Pookjinsquess, and you dear boys deserve your heart’s content. A boon for my dear, dear boys! For visiting your Aunty of the Old Waters.”
We were too scared to move, and overawed by the fact that the woman didn’t sink none, nor her pitcher, as she stood upon that filthy water. She was a sight to see, even if you don’t believe me. She was copper-skinned, humpbacked, and had an old man’s warty face full of spindly, long spider hairs. Her drooping breasts were so warty that they looked like mushrooms growing up out of overfull leather sacks. Her white hair had a radiance all its own that shone even in that darkness beneath the trees, and it was long and damp, thankfully covering part of her naked body. Seeing the ugliness of her made me want to fly, but I was like a damn rabbit fixed by the stare of a wolf. Goddamn I used to think rabbits were the stupidest animals I’d ever seen, but now I was the rabbit. Or maybe I was the fish hauled up from the river, hook in mouth and gawping like an idiot with my eyes wide. What a haul for her, too. Though my machete was tight in my grip, it was all but useless as my hand refused to move.
“My dear, delicious boys,” she croaked. “How lovely you all are! In your prime! Bones cloaked in your strength. Meat draped with perfect skin! So lovely, all of you!”
With startling speed, the old hag snatched a snake up from the water— a cottonmouth slithering toward my leg— and bit its head off with a quick snap of her long, crooked teeth. Crunching bone and meat, she looked dead-eyed into the distance beyond us. The sound of the serpent being reduced to pulp in her jaws must have stirred me and my cousins to move. Or maybe that old hag thing lost focus on us for a moment. But the moment didn’t last long enough for us to get away. We stepped back, but her attention snapped right back to us, and fixed us in place like nails to a board.
“Oh my dear lovely boys!” she mumbled, her jaws still working at the bone and meat in her teeth. She swallowed the cottonmouth’s head, her Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in her hairy gullet. “For spending time with your Aunty I will give you each your heart’s desire!”
“Our heart’s desire?” Andy said.
“Really?” Nick said.
“Of course! Of course!” the old hag said. “Anything you want!”
It should have been hard to believe that the old hag could give anyone anything, except leprosy, but I knew it had to be true. I knew it had to be true, just like I knew the sky was blue and the grass was green and I was a child dear in the heart of Jesus Christ.
“What’s the catch?” Trevor asked. He was always to the point.
“Oh, no catch!” she said. “No catch at all.”
This was not true. We were the catch. Her catch. She was hauling us up as she spoke to us, all of us caught in her net.
“Just a sweet little kiss,” she said. “A sweet little kiss for your Aunty.”
All of us shivered. I could feel the bile rising like hot vinegar in the back of my throat. None of us dared to kiss that hideous face. Would have rather kissed a pig’s muddy ass.
“Or,” she said, “if you can’t give me that, Aunty wouldn’t mind a little spit-shine on her pitcher. It is so dirty, and some boys like you could clean it nicely.”
The pitcher was as filthy as an outhouse shitter. Green and brown gunk clung to its fat flanks and the rim of its mouth.
“Why doncha’ just use the water here?” Trevor asked.
“We could take it home and clean it there,” Nick said.
“No!” the woman croaked. Then, in a quieter voice, “No, it’s got to stay with your Aunty. And the water here is no good for cleaning things. Just…just a little spittle is enough, my little darlings. A little spit in the pitcher will work wonders, and I will work wonders for you.”
I wanted to leave, but then Andy stepped forward.
“Can you stop my momma and daddy from gettin’ a divorce?” he asked, his voice all quavering.
“Of course, my poor dear!” she said. “My poor, poor, sad dear.”
We all knew about the fighting that was going on between Andy’s momma and daddy, and we all heard the whispers about them gettin’ a divorce. It bothered Andy more than he wanted to let you know. And none of us knew how to talk to him about it.
Before we could stop Andy, he leaned over the pitcher and spat into its mouth.
“That’s what I want,” he said. “For my parents not to get a divorce.”
“That is not a problem for Aunty,” the hag said, nodding. She seemed to stand a little more upright now. Andy teetered a bit, as if he was tired, but he didn’t fall. Boys recover fast at that age. The drowsiness lifted from him soon enough.
Trevor scoffed. “I think this is a bunch of hogwash,” he said.
The hag eyed him in her knowing, grandmotherly way. “There must be something dear that you desire, my boy. Don’t act all high and mighty and lose this chance. Aunty only wants to make your dreams come true.”
Trevor’s brow crinkled angrily, as it always did just when he was thinking, or when he was about to hit you in the arm. “What have I got to lose?” he reasoned aloud. He went to the pitcher and spat in it. “I want to be rich.”
“And you will be, my dear boy,” she said. “You will be.”
Chris shrugged and stepped forward. He spat into pitcher. “I want to be famous.”
“And you will be, my dear boy,” the hag said. She then looked at me. I won’t deny that part of me wanted to take my machete and lop off that ugly bitch’s head, and I won’t lie and say that it was the larger part of my mind. No, I was thinking about my wish and what I most wanted. A ginger like me was luckless with girls, and knew it would only get worse as I grew older. My daddy warned me so. He said I got the freckles of my momma, and that’s fine on a woman, but it is unmanly in a man. So I was afraid I would be alone for the rest of my life.
And me, I was a sucker for romance. Even then. I always wanted a woman of my own. This desire was stronger because my daddy told me I wouldn’t ever find it. But he was a bitter old coot after momma left him, so, that factors in, sure.
So, what did I do? I told my cousins to scram. I didn’t want them to hear my wish and mock me for it. And they would’ve, too. Sure as flies on a sweaty hog, they would’ve. So, when they had given me enough space, I leaned over that ugly woman’s pitcher and I spat into it and I said, “I’d like to find me a woman to love and marry till the end of my days— a faithful woman who no man would take from me.” Or something thereabouts. And that hag’s face crinkled all over something monstrous as her jagged brown teeth shown between her warty lips. Took me a moment to realize she was grinnin’. Somehow it scared me worse than the first time I had seen her. Again, if I wasn’t so scared I might have hacked at her with my machete.
The old hag winked at me. “Be seein’ you, darling.” She then raised her voice, croaking like a bullfrog. “All of you lovely, lovely boys! Your wishes will come true, I promise!”
Me and my cousins left without another word. Her spell had let us go, finally, or perhaps our nerves had had enough. We were four boys with four machetes, but it was like they had been dulled on our nerves. We stumbled home, feeling exhausted. We never returned to the bottomlands, and rarely went to the river after that.
And then the wishes started to come true. At the end of that Summer Andy’s parents were close to filing for a divorce. They fought constantly, and worked up a storm between them. But then came the car wreck, and both of ‘em died after swerving off the road and plummeting off a gorge. Some people think they were arguin’ in the car. Regardless, they never did get a divorce.
Me and my cousins never talked about what happened down at that stagnant lake. I don’t know if we was spellbound and couldn’t talk about it or if our own cowardice kept our mouths shut. Maybe we wanted to forget about it all. Maybe we wanted to act like it never happened, especially after what happened to Andy’s momma and daddy. I told myself it was a coincidence, a fluke of timing, and I am sure my other cousins told themselves the same. One thing’s for certain: we never followed the river into the bottomland again. Besides, life started to accelerate after that. The whitewater rapids of puberty hit each of us, and those craggy rocks of Middleschool, and then Highschool, and the plunge of the waterfall into the adult world. It was all right at first, mind you. We had mostly forgotten. Willfully so.
It took some time after the car wreck for the other wishes to come true. When Trevor hit sixteen he started working at a fast-food restaurant. There was a freak accident and an electric fire from one of the grills burned him up all over. His parents sued the franchise and won him millions of dollars. But he didn’t enjoy it none. He lived in pain for three years after the accident and then died. He had a closed casket funeral, which should give you an idea of what it was like for him while he was living.
It was a year after Trevor’s death that Chris was murdered by an exgirlfriend while he was at the mall. The security camera caught it all on film as the crazy bitch cut him up with a cleaver, loin to throat. It was ruled a crime of passion. The video leaked to the News, then found its way to all of the broadcasting networks. It was horrific to see. Gruesome. Horrifying. His wish had come true, albeit as twisted as a worm on a hook.
Shit washes downstream. Fish wash downstream. Bodies wash downstream. Why not other creatures? Why not terrible things? I’ve tried to look for answers, but all I’ve got is more questions. What can be said of it all? Things run far in the river. They wash off to the sides, too, and carry a long way off. Feelings do, too. Resentments. Old hatreds. They flow out and shed off and stagnate in areas. Maybe she was an old resentment for the Natives long ago, and now, stuck where she was, she hadn’t anything but to brood and stagnate and bless with her resentments. Baleful boons, I suppose they were. Curses in the guise of gifts. Whatever the case, she got almost all of us good.
Almost all of us. For whatever reason, I was spared. My wish came true without any fishing line attached to it. Maybe it was on account of me being so good-hearted with my wish. My cousins wanted material things, where I was always keen on love. Don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Then again, Andy only ever wanted his parents to stay together, so that can’t be it, neither.
There were times when I thought maybe my wish wouldn’t come true. Maybe, I thought, I hadn’t spit enough in her pitcher, or maybe my curse was that the wish wouldn’t come true. Too good a wish to come true. I tried to convince myself it was for the better. Maybe I feared that what happened to my cousins would happen to me. Maybe my wish would be all twisted and grotesque, like the corpses of sparrows hung in a dreamweaver.
And then I saw her by that lake in Boone County. She was squatting down in the shoals, looking at her reflection in the water. It was love at first sight for this boy, I tell you what. I saw her and thought she had to be the prettiest damn thing in the whole of God’s green earth. And it had to be destiny, too, because I went right up to her as if the path had been laid for me and I said, bold as a shotgun with the safety off:
“Whatcha’ doin’ darlin’?”
And she smiled and said, “Waitin’ for you, darlin’.”
And by God if we haven’t been together every day ever since! We are absolutely perfect for each other, too. She likes for me to call her “pookie”, and I don’t mind it at all. It is old-fashioned, I know, but it’s better than “babe” or “darlin’” or “sugar pie”. People stare at her all the time when we go out for groceries or go see a movie. They just can’t believe how beautiful she is. And how considerate the angel is! She’s always bringing me a fresh pitcher for my chewing tobacco whenever the old one is close to overrunning. That’s love for ya’! Even your bad habits don’t matter to the love of your life.
That’s not to say that I’m not still haunted by that hag in the water. Sometimes I have dreams at night— nightmares, really— about that moldy old witch and her bottomless pitcher. I dream that she’s caught me in the big clay mouth and I can’t escape, and she laughs and laughs as the thick black swamp within her jar swallows me up. But when I wake up my wife tells me, “Shush, my dear lovely boy. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Give me a sweet little kiss and lay your head down to sleep. Be happy. Be content. Everything is a wish come true.”