Dead Hand Butter

“Round and round, dead hand go,
churn the milk to creamy butter.
round and round, to and fro,
to a thickness like no other!”

‘Twas a dead hand for a black rite,
pickled with a virgin’s blood draught
and churned round in the dead of night
to waxen, corpse-like dairy craft.

The hand had belonged to a lass
affable to those who knew her
and of a soul as clear as glass;
a wise butterer and brewer.

Her latter talents earned the wrath
of the resentful preacher’s wife,
who claimed the maid on a dark path
and, so, exiled her from church life.

Nor did this sate the preacher’s wife,
for her jealousy could not cloy
and like a pagan god of strife
she sought to torment and destroy.

The preacher’s wife convinced the flock
that the maid’s crafts were blasphemy
and, given time and serpent talk,
a noose was dangled from a tree.

They confined the maid in the jail
in the cold month of December,
and soon she expired in her cell
without wamth of cloak or ember.

The trial was forfeit, hereby,
and the village claimed God’s will done,
for guilt, they said, had made her die,
whereas virtue warms like the sun.

They buried the maid on the side
of the graveyard reserved for those
unbaptized, heathen, all whom died
destined for purgatory’s woes.

And the preacher’s wife, like a fox,
crept to the graveyard where there laid
her victim, exhuming the box
to cut hand from wrist of the maid.

For the preacher’s wife was the witch
that churned butter with a dead hand
a hand that would tremble and twitch
at the hag’s covetous command.

The Witch Jar

Glass jar, your belly clattering
with rusty nails, urine, and hair;
glass jar, cease the crone’s chattering
in the witching hours, cease her ere
she drives me mad with her flights,
riding me beneath the moon
like a steed through dark nights
all whilst laughing like a loon;
trap her soul in your glass pit
and keep her, warden, while I
recover from this Fae fit;
lift it from me ere I die.
Through hearth she sought me betime,
yet ’twas my heat she desired,
clinging like gooey birdlime
as I struggled ‘fore I tired
and was confined to my bed,
growing ill with chills and sweats,
soaken, clammy in the head,
my forehead wrinkled with frets.
Dreams oft come astride fever,
staying in wakeful daylight
like thoughts from the Deceiver
which tempt and torture and bite
until we surrender, thus,
and He claims a bit of soul
from evils compelled in us
and, bit by bit, takes us whole.
So was she set in her toil
like a raven in the eye
of a dead man half in soil,
her chattering ever nigh
her raspy song of old trees
during Autumn, when the wind
twirls the leaves, before the freeze
that brings Summer to its end.
So, please jar, capture this witch—
Bellarmine, confine her now!
By St. Andrew’s cross, the bitch
must be imprisoned somehow!

As It Pleaseth Part 1

There was a cottage near icy waters
and in that cottage a family fair
with father, mother, and seven daughters
whose upstairs bedchamber was theirs to share.
The eldest daughter was of such an age
that she looked upon the neighbor lad’s heart
with the favor due, both proper and sage,
of a Christian virtue and reserved art.
All the town spoke of their marriage as though
it had been a prophecy long foretold,
and her preacher father deemed it just-so:
as right and goodly as if writ in gold.
All said the eldest was pureborn as Eve
before she had partaken from the fruit,
and said she was of nature as would leave
all others impoverished, stem to root.
But the eldest daughter dreamt otherwise,
seeing a face midst trees not far from there
and, at night, she flew across starry skies
to meet the man who beckoned her elsewhere.

So, one night, when all had fallen asleep
the eldest lay with her shift set aside,
she opened the window, without a peep,
and looked out upon the auroral tide.
Airclad in night clouds, and boldly leaping
from out of her cottage bedside window,
while nearby her young sisters were sleeping,
shoulder to shoulder, in a restful row,
the witch bore herself up, beyond the home
where her father had sought to teach her fear
so her soul would nest at night, never roam,
admonishing the lass year after year.
Yet, her preacher father could not forbid
the eddies of her heart that rose in gusts,
and she flew free as a soul gone morbid,
yet alive, burning pale and hot with lusts.
Over glen and vale, veiled in stars and shade,
she escaped the lectern’s brimstone bluster,
coming to a man camping in a glade
whose dark eyes gleamed with a goatish luster.
“Where fare you, my fair lithesome lass of night?
Where do you go, lass, mantled in the moon?”
She said, “To swim in the milk of moonlight,”
and into his arms she swept in a swoon.
As a hart in Winter’s rut he set to
and she welcomed the rhythm full and fine
while the winds rose up, the smoke black and blue,
and lips ripened sweet as grapes on the vine.
And, indeed, there was pain in their union,
and there was pleasure to be had betwixt,
much as grapes with stones ate in communion,
and a sweet wine can sicken if not mixed.
Yet, she had chosen him all on her own
and knew her preference better than most,
nor did she flinch, skin to skin, bone to bone,
nor from the coiled horns of her woodland host.
When their congress had swelled unto its end
they laid aside, the one near the other,
cooing like doves in a curious wind;
she said, “I am nothing like my mother.”
Her new lover laughed in sardonic glee
and stood up, stroking his grey satyr’s beard.
He said, “Your mother could oft leap a tree
to enjoin in my company.” He leered.
He then disappeared from the glowing  glade
and the fire went with him, nought but embers,
but he whispered low to her like a shade,
“It is not love, but it warms Decembers.”

Returning home, barefooted in the snow,
the young witch had much too much to regret,
and was surprised by the hearth’s sullen glow
through the pane—her father’s hard features set.
“Jezebel!” he shouted. “Harlot! You whore!”
He yanked her indoors, his fist lifted high
and struck her once, twice, many times the more
until black and blue—she thought she would die.
Crumbled on the floor, the witch could but weep
as her father read to her Bible verse,
meanwhile her sisters pretended to sleep
and her mother lamented her own curse.
“Now the works of the flesh are manifest,”
the patriarch quoted, his voice afire
like the hellmouth hearth as he beat his chest
and denounced daughter to a phantom choir.
“Think you well on your blackened heart,” he said,
“and recall the bruises I have dealt you
when next you dare wickedness out of bed,
for the next sin shall be your last to rue!”

He left his witch-daughter slumped on the floor
and returned to bed a beast beneath yoke,
and though his wife sighed, he would hear no more,
saying, “Speak not. My fists never misspoke.”
And thereby the grapes of his daughter’s lips
bled out to sour as vinegar in haste,
the wine spilling, aging, the bitter pips
expelled like her Bible lessons…a waste.
She rose up, at length, from the floor to stand
and tottered by the hearth, much like the flame
that swayed weakly in the hellmouth hearth, fanned
by the cold wind through the open door’s frame.
“Let only the sinless cast the first stone,”
she muttered to the shadows twisting round,
and then, listening to the cold wind moan,
she read her own blood, trickling on the ground,
and she saw a tooth within that puddle
and she knew it the pip from her own maw,
and she bethought how utter a muddle
her life was to follow any man’s law.

The Brass Squire, The Birch Witch

Aegis, the shield-hand, ventured on a quest
alongside his compeers, the Gran Stone squires,
each besotten with dreams to thus attest
the worth of their training, their hearts—the liars.

Twere young men spurred by the heat of their lungs
to ride Northeast and challenge the Black Knight,
all the while flapping their overproud tongues
and profiting on all peasants in sight.

But Aegis, the chaste, aspired to be more
than the snide squires with which he rode Northward,
sworn to the heroic tenets of yore,
of shield and sacrifice; not only sword.

So when an old hag pleaded for their aid
and his brethren mocked her bark-skinned face
and then left her in the woods, Aegis stayed;
the Brass Squire would deign to witness her case.

“The demoness stole my youth,” she complained,
“That demoness Vanus, her artful wiles
being vanity to all, her heart paned
with the glass to tempt all to their own guiles.”

Aegis knew the crone was a wily liar,
yet she seemed pitiful beneath her hood,
aggrieved as elders are ere they expire,
so he agreed to do as a man should.

He braved the birch woods and their mysteries,
seeking the glade-laid heart of the forest
while the Birch Witch recalled the histories
that the trees whispered far from the Nor’west.

“When in times when old was young, and death cried
as a newborn dropped from the cosmic cleft,
the World-Unfurled was neither far nor wide,
but was as a small peaceful patch of weft.

And no beast was a hunter, nor beast prey,
and the day stretched on with sunlight profound
nor darkened at the closing of the day,
but all was pure innocent, round and round.

For there were no beasts nor hearts nor desires
as the Weft lay smooth in its little square,
but soon life arose, from which there transpires
the wolf and the sheep, the fox and the hare.

And then I came, from up high, as an owl
to hunt amidst the moonlight and the birch,
screeching to silence even the wolf’s howl
and to make pellets of pelts from my perch.”

The Birch Witch laughed, then, and Aegis wondered
if he was a fool, her motives clearer,
but then came a glint of light that sundered
shadow from shadow—it was a mirror.

The demoness was tall, slender, a snake
with fine arms and legs and claws and a head
that looked almost womanly in its make,
but crowned in black horns, her smirking lips red.

But most striking of all was the gilt pane
embedded in her bark-scaled belly, fat,
for that mirror drew Aegis, as a rein,
and he could not but be spellbound by that.

Dismounting from his horse, Aegis stepped forth
with his sword forgotten in the saddle,
meanwhile the witch watched him, the haggard dwarf
warning that he should not let his wits addle.

Vanus, the demoness, spoke thereafter:
“Gaze, gentle squire, and witness thy desire,
for it is what thou most wish.” Her laughter
resounded through the glade in a great gyre.

In the molten mirror the squire beheld
the fancies of an ideal come to be,
but it was the deceit with which she veiled
the truth of his unconfessed vanity.

Aegis saw himself ornate with festoons,
gloried by men and women, one and all,
and beyond, his tale told on golden runes:
a song in every court and mead hall.

But the demoness lied, he knew too well,
for she smirked as oft the cruel squires did
just before they took to some fancy fell
and did what horrors honor should forbid.

Wroth, then, with himself and the other squires,
the Brass Squire lifted shield against the glass
fending off reflections of his desires
and smashing his dreams with his turtled brass.

The demoness screamed, as did her slayer,
for her demonic blood surged to scald skin,
melting his young face, layer by layer,
until he swooned unto oblivion.

When he awoke later, it was to pain,
his face a cocoon of loose cloth wrappings
while the Birch Witch advised him to refrain.
She said, “You’re not the strongest of saplings.”

She tended him for a time, with great care,
applying honey and sap to his face,
but though stronger, he was no longer fair,
nor had she regained her youth in its place.

“We both of us lost,” she told him, weeping,
“but you lost most of all, my poor young man.”
Aegis said nought for a long time, keeping
his griefs to himself, if but for a span.

“I am free,” he said, “free from dreams now past,
and though it aches alike my face, I yet
seek to be as shield made in fire to last,
branded to remind me lest I forget.

I am free to do as duty demands,
free from the temptations that slough like skin
peeled by your tender, careful hands, such hands
that could have slain me in the chance given.”

Then the Birch Witch and the Brass Squire both smiled,
smiles pained by the scars of Time and of War,
seeing one another true, unbeguiled,
and journeyed forth into the lands of yore.


The trees are cracks in the blue sky

as the sun descends—baleful eye

that sets alight its dusky wake

as a witch fettered to a stake.

Smoking moon low above the trees,

orange glow, cold air, and no breeze.

She walks—slow-tread—from house to house,

her footfall quiet as a mouse,

her black hair spilling to her hips,

nude but for the ash on her lips,

as she threads the street and lampposts

all aglow like luminous ghosts.

The cars are still, the windows dark,

houses dead, the dogs do not bark,

and owls watch her, their heads askew,

eyes aflame with the twilight view

as the moon becomes orange flame,

embers flaring, woman the same,

but she walks on, pale flesh like wax

melting off her bones, wet and lax,

dripping along Salem sidewalks

like bright-burning candle stalks—

on she walks, slow, and the moon glows

with the fire the other one knows

as they both burn clean to white bone,

meeting down the street, leaf-strewn

with the sloughing leper’s season

of Autumn’s withering treason.

Bone to bone beneath umbrous hoods,

woman and moon meet in the woods,

bearing each a paternal gaze

to its end, its requiem phase,

dead themselves, and so free at last

from will o’ the wisps of the past.

They kiss the other a good night,

snuffing, at last, that baleful light.

Handsome Blue Eyes, Immaculate Teeth

 The moon was bloated with moribund light as Phoebe walked along the desolate fields.  Jagged stalks gleamed with the first frost of the year, crunching beneath Phoebe’s boots.  Her shadow walked beside her, stretching out long and thin, as if mocking her short height with the taller figure she wished she possessed.  Phoebe was a vain creature, especially for her thirteen years of life, and while she would have rather worn more ladylike shoes when out and about, even she bowed to the necessity of muck boots when in search of Devil’s Fen.

 “Perfectly white teeth,” Phoebe said to herself.  “Immaculate teeth.  The best teeth in the whole county.  And handsome blue eyes.”

 The fields curved upward upon the hilly countryside, as if swelling like the seas at the beck of the moon and arching slowly like a groggy cat upon waking.  The slow rise and fall of the slopes beneath Phoebe’s boots mirrored her breath.  She scarcely trusted her own breath in the unsettling silence of that hour, for it rose phantasmally before her in the Autumn chill.  She could see her immediate surroundings well enough beneath the moon, but the distant trees were black fringes from which wolves, or worse, might come bounding swiftly to catch her unawares.

 This was a pilgrimage, she told herself; a pilgrimage for the sake of Love.  She would not be deterred, come dragon or demon or damnation.  The hag had promised Phoebe that she would have her wish fulfilled, and yet Phoebe felt misgivings amounting all around her like a pack of snarling fangs.

 “Perfect teeth,” she said to herself.  “Like pearls.  And always grinning; always so handsome.  Handsome beneath his handsome mustache and handsome blue eyes.”

 The hilly fields gradually sloped downward, away from the moon.  Yet, the moon illuminated the receding earth brightly, as if its glow bled and pooled here in this vast valley that deepened and drained at last toward the peat-heaped lowland known as Devil’s Fen.

 “Perfect teeth,” Phoebe said, “and our children will have perfect teeth, too.  And beautifully black hair.  Handsome chin.  And the bluest eyes.”

 It was good that Phoebe wore her muck boots.  Devil’s Fen was choked with water and mud, the only visible earth carpeted in moss that was so saturated that it held nothing as the cold moonlight glittered off of the scab-pocked mirror of water.  Rushes and sedges grew everywhere in wilted clusters, and here and there lonely willow trees hung their heads in sorrow.  From all of these did Phoebe set about gathering up the materials she would need.  She had brought twine, and she uprooted rushes and reeds, cut them with a bone-knife the hag had given her, and sawed off withy from the mournful branches of the willows, stacking them all together and binding them in twine.  The moon seemed to watch Phoebe as she worked among the shallow pools of festering plants.  Whether it looked on in pleasure or abhorrence, Phoebe could not say.  She was not given to such fanciful thoughts.  She cared only for the task at hand and how it would win her the man she most desired.

 And it was a man that the thirteen-year old most desired.  William Clements was twenty and two and the most handsome of all the men in the county.  He was brawny and broad-shouldered, had a full crown of dark black hair and bright blue eyes.  Moreover, while all of these things recommended him in the admiration of the women, it was his teeth that truly shined as an endorsement of his qualities.  A man with such fine teeth was a man to covet, and all the women coveted him, including Phoebe, despite her young age.  Unfortunately for the women in Wischmeier county, William Clements’s blue eyes only ever followed the weaver’s daughter, Marianne Mayswell.  Phoebe loathed Marianne.  Marianne was fair and milky-figured, made graceful by both a healthy living and the primacy of her seventeen years of age.  Though she would have never admitted it—even to herself—Phoebe could not compete with Marianne, either by figure or by feature, and despite being the daughter of the mayor, Phoebe could not induce William Clements’s fondness with either her promise of wealth or of beauty.  She had tried, of course.  Phoebe had her father buy several dresses and bits of jewelry with which to bedew herself as a rosebud in a golden dawn.  And yet, at her rising, William only turned his head ever toward that humming afternoon sunshine that was Marianne Mayswell.

 And so Phoebe had gone to the hag, and the hag had sent Phoebe here, to Devil’s Fen.

 “Teeth so white and spotless,” she said to herself.  “Cleaner than moonlight.  Brighter than the sun.”

 Her boots splashed up a puddle of mud, sullying her new dress.  She did not care.  It was just another dress that had failed to garner the admiration and affection she envied in Marianne.  The latter could have worn a potato sack and outshone Phoebe’s most regal raiment. 

 Whereas Marianne sewed all of her own clothes, Phoebe received her clothes from the big cities in the Northeast, her father bringing them back with him as gifts whenever his enterprise occasioned his presence in Baltimore or New York.  Her father owned a lumber mill, and was the richest man in all of Wischmeier County.  He employed most of the men who did not own their own lands with which to prosper.  This was also why he was the mayor, for no one dared to challenge him and his resources, nor to cross him, or question him in things concerning the town.  He held power nigh absolute.  The only exceptions for the mayor’s power were the matters governing the romantic hearts in Wischmeier County and, of course, the Fall Festival.

 The Fall Festival was held every year, during the Harvest Moon or thereabouts.  Nearly participated in the Festival.  It was the catharsis of a year of hard labor, and a consolation for the bitter Winter to come.  There was apple cider, and moonshine, and dancing, and storytelling.  There were many contests, too, and each contest rewarded its winner with an assortment of prizes.  Naturally, Phoebe had never stooped to compete in any of the contests, deeming them beneath her.  Yet, the hag had foretold that Phoebe would only win her husband by fabricating her own scarecrow in the Festival’s contest.

 The hag said:

 “With the rush and the reed,

 with both withy and need,

 in the dark Devil’s Fen

 will you thereby know then

 your fateful groom’s grin—

 most unique among men.”

 Phoebe might have dismissed this prophecy as the ravings of an old crone with more cats than sense, but the more she thought about it, the more plausible it seemed.  Marianne always won the scarecrow contest, year after year, for she was the best weaver and seamstress in town.  Phoebe often overheard, with resentment, the men and women who spoke so fondly of Marianne’s talents.  But none spoke more fondly of her scarecrows than did William Clements.

 And it was this latter fact that had convinced Phoebe to take up the hag’s words in earnest.  Even if Phoebe did not win William’s heart, she would at least attempt to win the scarecrow contest.  She must conquer Marianne by some measure, at the least.

 Phoebe stomped about the glittering waters of Devil’s Fen, gathering the materials she would need.  It was a chilly night, yet the work brought a heated flush to her young face.  It was as much heat of temper as of labor, for she had never worked so hard in her life, and it miffed her greatly.

 Phoebe had gathered enough for the scarecrow’s body, but she was unsure what to do for the head.  The hag had told her that Phoebe would know what to use to cap the fellow off when she saw it, but so far Phoebe had seen nothing that snared her attentions.  Leaving her pile of materials on a mossy embankment, Phoebe dared to trudge deeper into the Fen.  She walked for some time, aimless in the moonlit waters except where some preternatural instinct prevailed, and came to the heart of the fen.  The moon’s reflection shivered and dissolved upon the wavelets of the fen as she halted.  There, in front of her, crouching upon a peculiar stone in the center of the fen, was a fat bullfrog.  It was the fattest bullfrog Phoebe had ever seen, its broad green and yellow mouth like a wry smile.  Phoebe felt a keen jolt in her bones.  This was the missing material she needed for her scarecrow.  There was no doubt, even if there was apprehension.  She expected the frog to leap away as she reached for it, but it only squatted there, surrendering to her outstretched hands.  Normally, she hated frogs, and toads, and all such things squishy and slimy and given to the muck and mud.  But Phoebe was so assured now that she would have her heart’s desire that she did not mind the bloated heft of the bullfrog’s flesh as it bulged between her cradling hands.  She carried it back to her stack of rushes and reeds and withy with a confident, determined air.

 Her materials gathered, Phoebe set to work by moonlight.  How long she worked, she did not know.  Hours upon hours seemed to pass, and yet the moon never descended a single hair’s breadth.  Had she not been so fixated on her creation, she might have noticed such unnatural spans of unmarked time, but her heart and soul were consumed by the task, and the seductive dream wrought therefrom.

 As for the frog—to be plopped atop as the scarecrow’s head—the hag had given Phoebe a pot of foul-smelling muck.  Phoebe knew not what the muck was, but it was blackish-brown, like molasses, and smelled like sulphur.  Taking the strangely docile frog, Phoebe dropped the bachtrachian unceremoniously into the pot.  She waited for a time—again, she knew not how long, for she busied herself with other things—and then she dumped the pot out and cleaned the frog with water from the fen.  The frog had lost all of its color, becoming a uniform light brown unlike the complexion of William Clements.  Moreover, its slimy skin was now leathery, wrinkled, dried and stretched unnaturally until the frog’s mouth was just like a lipless smile.  The head now finished, Phoebe impaled it on the scarecrow’s reedy spine and overtopped it with the withy hat.  Phoebe then began the process of thickening the scarecrow’s body.  Using mud, peat, and moss, she fattened the scarecrow to the dimensions of a man.  Using a cattail, she gave him his manhood.

 Phoebe had wanted to have one of her father’s servants to weave the scarecrow together for her, but the hag had said that no other could lay hand to the labor without spoiling the spell. By Phoebe’s work alone would the scarecrow exist, or else her groom would not be procured.  Thus, Phoebe set about with a plaintive, but ultimately passionate, effort to form the figure of reeds and rushes, to stuff him full of sedges and moss and peat and mud.  Over all of this she gave him a shirt she had woven from potato sacks, and britches made of wool, and instead of a straw hat, she had woven a hat made of withy from the willow.

 The scarecrow was finished.  It was as big and heavy as a man—a man very familiar to Phoebe, in a yearning manner—and so she left it there, in Devil’s Fen, hidden beneath a willow tree as she eagerly awaited the Fall Festival.

 Phoebe began the long hike home.  It seemed so much farther to walk now, going uphill out of the Fen and the valley and following, once again, the undulations of the hillocky fields.  She glanced back, once, at the willow tree where she had placed her scarecrow.  Moonlight glowed on the mournful tresses of the willow with a wan wistfulness.  As she turned away a phlegmy cackle echoed from somewhere in the darkness of Devil’s Fen.  A mallard, Phoebe thought.  Nothing more.

 Head heavy with exhaustion, and too much sleepless dreaming, Phoebe trudged home like a sleepwalker in want of a bed.

 On the day of the Fall Festival, Phoebe requested her father’s housemaid, Millie, to fetch her husband and son and have them all aid Phoebe in transporting the scarecrow from the outskirts of the Fen to the town square where the festival was to be held.  The family aided Phoebe with a wheelbarrow and wary glances.  As soon as they saw the scarecrow they crossed themselves.

 “You superstitious fools,” Phoebe muttered.  She added, more loudly, “Hurry!  I don’t want to be late for the contest!”

 The father and son pushed the wheelbarrow from the Devil’s Fen up through the valley and along the undulating fields, coming to the town square.  The Fall Festival was always held on the town square, in among the dogwood trees and the maples.  Festoons hung from branch to branch, and large tents stood steepled on tall posts, one after another, each sheltering a contest or auction or certain games for the children.  Normally, Phoebe felt nothing but disdain for the cake contests and the games of horseshoes and the poor families juggling pennies to outbid one another for novelties that would be mocked as rubbish in any affluent quarter of a New England town.  But she felt excitement to see the commotion made in the bustling crowd as the wheelbarrow was pushed through to the center of the square, its limp passenger nodding with the motion like a drunkard in his cups, or a corpse drawn up out of the bog.

 “Is that real, momma?” a little boy wondered aloud, his eyes wide to the whites.

 “I don’t know,” the boy’s mother said, drawing him back behind herself with a protective arm.  “I reckon not, but I don’t know for certain.”

 Such remarks only pleased Phoebe the more.  That her creation should give such misapprehension to the country bumpkins proved to her that she had made a formidable scarecrow.  A more grotesque specimen was never known.

 Fortune smiled upon Phoebe more that day, for the scarecrow contest was to be held in the central pavilion of the town square.  This was a large wooden roof, like that belonging to a barn, only hoisted high upon tall, thick posts.  The scarecrows from the other competitors had already been erected on stakes for all to see.  Marianne Mayswell had her scarecrow front and center, its cloth body assuming a fine semblance to a man in caricature, from his protruding nose to his button eyes and his fine-fingered hands.  The weaver’s daughter had outdone herself this year.  The scarecrow’s pants were good enough for a child of equal size to wear to church, and the flannel shirt was checkered with perfect little red and black squares.  Marianne’s scarecrow was superior to the other scarecrows in every way.  Seeing it made Phoebe’s heart sink.  It was perfect.  But then she turned and looked at her own scarecrow with its all-too-human proportions and its unique fen-furnished materials.  Marianne’s was perfected tradition, Phoebe thought, but Phoebe’s was unique.  Strangely unique.  Bizarre.  Otherworldly.  At the very least her simulacrum deserved due consideration by the judges, if not outright praise.

 “Be careful!” Phoebe admonished her helpers as the father and son struggled under the weight of her scarecrow.  “If you break it my father will have you whipped out of town!”

 The father and son steadied the scarecrow—even if they trembled now more than ever—and then, having secured it on a large stake, retreated from their mistress, disappearing into the crowd.  The crowd swelled forward more closely around Phoebe’s scarecrow to stare in wonder, and abhorrence, at the grotesquery wrought before them.

 Yet, while many faces contorted with fear and disgust at the strange, foul-smelling scarecrow, the only face that mattered at all in the crowd was that of William Clements as he stepped forward to gain a better view of the curio in their midst.

 “It sure would scare crows away,” William remarked, smiling nervously.  “It would scare me away if I saw it standing in a field on a dark night.”

 “Not so,” Phoebe said, nearly giggling with giddy joy as she gladly stepped up to meet him and his pearly white teeth.  “I know you too well, William.  You are too brave and strong to be scared away by anything.”

 William’s shoulders, and eyebrows, shrugged.  “I have my limits,” he said.  “If I’d caught sight of this thing in the field at night I’d kick up enough dirt running away to bury half the county.”

 “Then perhaps you wish me to accompany you home,” Phoebe said, radiant with moon-eyed delight, “to protect you from my scarecrow?”

 William did not answer her, for Marianne approached, then, and he had eyes now only for the weaver’s daughter.

 “She has talent,” Marianne said.  “And I like the curious use of reeds and moss.  It lends it a different character than the normal sort of field-uncle that the rest of us made.  And the use of leather for the head is a clever touch.”

 It was generously said, and yet any generosity afforded to Phoebe by the beauteous Marianne smacked of condescension, regardless of how good the intention.

 “I don’t have the lay skills of a tradesman,” Phoebe said, sourly, “or a tradeswoman, and so I make do with what my elevated upbringing has given me.”

 The acerbity was unmistakable in Phoebe’s voice, yet she was young, and so negligible, especially as William and Marianne turned their attentions toward each other at the exclusion of anyone else.  Phoebe saw how their eyes met, and could feel their tidal force.  She felt suddenly reduced in size, small, shrinking beneath the taller, prettier girl and the mutual attraction William shared with her.  Were Marianne and William to kiss, Phoebe realized, William would not need to stoop to kiss her, the young woman being as tall, whereas if he were to kiss Phoebe he would need to stoop as if picking up a child.  And Phoebe was no child, she insisted to herself.  She was as much a woman as Marianne, if not more so.  Being the daughter of the mayor, she had real power in Springfield.  She wore the mature dresses of France and Italy.  Phoebe considered herself worldly in her wardrobe and her wiles.

 And yet, her mind was arrayed with the thoughts of their first kiss.  It would not be romantic.  It would not be passionate.  It would be absurd.  William was a man, and she was a little, foolish girl.  She felt tears burning at the edges of her eyes, unnoticed by the crowd gathered around her scarecrow.  Before the tears could bubble free, she hurried away from the pavilion to the solitary shade of a maple tree.  No one was near her now.  She sat on the ground, unmindful of her pretty green dress from France, and cried bitterly.  It was some time before she realized that the shade had deepened and darkened from noonday blue to midnight black.  Raising her head, she saw that the hag was standing over her, smiling a toothless smile within her faded gray hood.

 “Do not cry, my little lamb,” the hag said.  “Whatever could be the matter?”

 At the sound of pity, Phoebe’s temper flared.  She leapt up, clenching her fists at her side.  “You liar!  You said he would love me if I made that stupid scarecrow!”

 “It is but a step along the way,” the hag said, her feigned pity replaced by a sly smile.  “Be careful how you foot it, for there are more dangerous paths than fens to wind one’s way through.”

 “You say a lot without saying anything at all,” Phoebe retorted.  “I trudged through mud and spent all night making that useless scarecrow, and to what end?  To what end, you old, ugly hag?!”

 “The end has not yet come,” the hag said simply.  “You will have exactly what you wish.  A husband with handsome blue eyes and immaculate teeth.  You must have faith, child, for it will come to pass.  You will have a husband with all the things your heart values.  You will have his handsome blue eyes and his immaculate teeth.”

 “But Marianne has his heart!” Phoebe moaned, feigning a swoon against the tree.  She suddenly sprang upright, her green eyes flapping open suddenly and brightening with the fulgurous thunderclap of a thought.  “Unless you mean some misfortune will come to pass for Marianne?!”  She clapped her hands together excitedly.  “Ohhh, is that it?”  Still smiling, she feigned sadness.  “Oh, but I must not wish too mortal a fate for her.  It would be beneath me.  She is, after all, only a weaver’s daughter.  Better would it be that William were to reflect on his first choice and realize the folly of it, choosing instead to pursue truer taste in one as highly bred as I am.”

 “You will have the man with the beautiful blue eyes and the immaculate teeth,” the hag said.  “As you said you desired.”

 “But when?” Phoebe moaned.

 The hag gestured toward the town square with a wart-clustered finger.  Phoebe’s eyes followed the gesture, falling again on the pavilion.  There was a commotion within the crowd.  Many were glancing toward her—at Phoebe—and Phoebe was taken aback.

 “What are they gawking at?” Phoebe demanded, outraged.

 The hag was gone.  She had vanished into thin air.  Someone broke away from the pavilion crowd and approached Phoebe.  Much to her delight, and agitation, it was William.  He strode toward her with his long, loping stride.  Coming from among those commonfolk, he was as a proud stallion stepping forth from amongst a herd of dim-witted mules.  Phoebe’s stomach whirled with butterflies and she felt as if she was reeling on a merry-go-round.  She felt she would have to steady herself by grasping his mustache.

 “Phoebe,” he said, “the judges have decided that your scarecrow is the best.”

 “Really?” Phoebe said.  The excitement in her voice had nought to do with her scarecrow; rather, it was elicited by the impeccable grin on William’s face.  “So I won?  Me?  What a surprise!  I am so happy!”

 “You should come get your prize,” William said.

 “What is it?” Phoebe asked, excited at the thought that it might be a kiss from the young man standing before her.

 “A quilt,” William said.  “Woven by Marianne’s father, Michael.”

 Phoebe’s smile instantly soured.  “I do not want a quilt,” she said.

 “But it really is a pretty quilt,” William said.  “One of the best her father has ever woven.”

 “Then let her keep it,” Phoebe said, irritably.  “What good can I have from a quilt?  I get all of my blankets and sheets from France.  They’re softer and better made in France.  Because of their more finely bred fingers.”

 William’s countenance darkened with what Phoebe knew to be anger.  But instead of offering a cross rebuke, he merely turned away from her in silence, walking toward the pavilion.  Phoebe watched him go with a feeling of terrible finality all about her and the cosmos.  This finality consumed the spheres and made her feel claustrophobic, like a mouse chased deeper and deeper into a narrowing hole by a mouser.  Her greatest fear seemed soon to reach fruition.

 “William!” she called out, her voice cracking.

 He said nothing, nor did he turn to look at her.  He merely halted.

 “On second thought, I wish to see this quilt,” she said, hurrying forward.  “It is, no doubt, as good as any French blanket, if not Oriental silk.  The Maywells are very talented people.”

 William turned about now, a wary smile returning to his face.  “They are, as a matter of fact,” he said.  “Not a weaver for four hundred miles that could do better.”

 Phoebe’s luck seemed to take a change for the better a little later when Marianne had to escort her elderly father home.  He had a wet cough and she, being his only child, wished to see him rectified with a bowl of hot soup and a warm fire.  Reluctantly, William said his goodbyes to Marianne, and prepared to leave, himself, from the emptying town square as the gloaming drew its crepuscular fabrics all around.  Phoebe, however, had a mind for fatefulness.  So, she took the rare opportunity and asked that he take a walk about the town with her.  Seeing no harm in it, William agreed, and not only agreed, but carried the quilt that Phoebe had won with her unique scarecrow.

 Phoebe and William took several turns about the square.  Phoebe spoke much about her father’s businesses, his prosperity, the various things he bought for her, and all of the material comforts which she thought a goodly lure for the man she wished to betroth.  After a time, William interrupted her diatribe about the superiority of China to American pewter plates to remark upon her scarecrow.

 “It seems your father had some people carry your scarecrow away,” he said, pointing.

 Phoebe blinked in confusion, then followed his finger.  Beneath the pavilion, the large stake was vacant of its former resident.  This baffled Phoebe, for she had made no request for anyone to take possession of her creation, nor to carry it elsewhere.  Her father, in fact, did not even know the scarecrow existed, for he had foregone the Fall Festival in favor of a festival of his own, awash with ale.  Whichever way the scarecrow had come to vanish, Phoebe did not care.  It had served its purpose, and now she was walking and talking with William Clements— alone, in twilight, with no one else eavesdropping upon them; and, truth be told, if someone did so happen to be eavesdropping, all the merrier for Phoebe.  Let it spread around Springfield and to the bordering counties.  Perhaps the rumor would gain momentum enough to carry this night into a foreseeable day of matrimonial bliss, or at least obligation.

 “William,” she said, suddenly halting and facing him.  “What are your plans for the future?  What are your dreams?”

 William’s brow furrowed with thought.  “Well, I suppose I would like to own my own farm.  Maybe someday I would even own two farms.  Three even!”  He laughed, and the laugh was full-chested with booming alacrity.

 “You should really think about being mayor,” Phoebe said in earnest.  “Someone with your recommendations could easily be a mayor.  In fact, with the right wife you could become governor.  A president, I should think.”

 William squinted painfully, as if he had been struck on the head with a chance acorn.  “I don’t think I would take to that sort of life,” he said.  “I know cows.  I know sheep.  But running a town?  I would be happy enough running my own barn without it burning down.”

 Phoebe shook her head irritably.  “No, no, no.  It is simple, really, running a town.  It is like a barn.  You merely need to shepherd the people, as you do with cows and sheep.  It is no different, truly.  I can help you do it when we are married…”

 William’s dark eyebrows lifted in surprise, furrowing his brow like plows.  He sighed.  “Phoebe, that is not possible,” he said.  “I’ve tried to be soft about this, but you are making it hard for me.  Marianne and I are getting married.  You are too young to…”

 Phoebe did not wait for him to finish.  The tears gushed, followed by the venom.  “Marianne is a stupid cow!” she screamed.  “I’m the one with money!  Why don’t you want to marry me?!”

 William stepped back, one hand raised while the other cradled Phoebe’s unwanted-yet-won quilt, and his eyes darting about in wild terror.  Dogs barked in the distance.

 “Phoebe, please,” he pleaded.  “It is not about money.  This is about love.  And I love Marianne.  She is of marrying age.  You…you are too young.”

 “Then wait for me,” she said, her lips quivering with chaotic, conflicted emotions.  “I’ll be of age in a few years and then you can marry me!”

 “Marianne and I have been engaged in secret for two years, Phoebe,” he said.  “I cannot break my vow to her.”  He held out the quilt for Phoebe to take.  “It would hurt her, and it would hurt myself.  You have to understand.  She and I were meant to be…”

 Phoebe jerked the quilt away from him and threw it to the ground.  Her scream was an infernal peal of primal rage.  She pressed her hands to her ears and then ran away in a wild direction, heedless of where she was going.  She ran and ran until the town square, and the town itself, was lost to the evening mists and shadows.

 “She lied to me!” Phoebe wept.  “The old witch lied to me!  Will won’t marry me!  He hates me!”

 Sobbing and running, she went downhill until she finally fell to her knees, breathless beneath a wanly-glowing willow tree.  The moon slowly rose, as if gloating over Phoebe’s sorrows.  Her whole body rattled and shook with her weeping.  She did not care about anything thereafter—whether wolf stealing through the woods or viper creeping through the weeds—and did not observe the world’s clock as it ticked on and on.

 And yet, after a time, she stared down at her new dress.  It was a French dress quite fashionable in Parisian salons, and now it was stained with the derisive touch of grass.  She did not care.  Her whole life had been marred, she thought, because William would not be bound to her.  She wished her father would pillory Marianne and have her flogged.  Phoebe was so wrathful that, had she seen Marianne’s face then, she would have clawed out Marianne’s pretty blue eyes.  Blue eyes!  Like William’s!  As if matched by Providence!  All of their children were fated to have such blue eyes, and they would taunt and haunt Phoebe to the end of her days!

 “Weeping again, child?” the hag said.  “And on your wedding night?”

 “Do not…mock…me…” Phoebe said between sobs.  “Leave me be.  I just…want to…to…die.”

 The hag cackled—a phlegmy, thick cackle like wet, rotten wood split by an ax.  “You will not die, child.  Not for many a year.  You have too long a married life to live.  Too many children to bear.  Your groom comes.  He will be here soon.”

 “Go…away!” Phoebe rallied, her rage crashing, like lightning, through her shower of tears.  Her hand found a stone, and she raised it with a fury.

 The hag was gone.  All around Phoebe was now silence and the moon-drawn shadows within Devil’s Fen.  Lips still trembling, Phoebe rose to her feet.  She breathed reluctantly, as if to breathe meant to endorse the life she now lived with all of its inherent hopelessness.  Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she turned toward the slope leading out of the Fen.  Up from the valley her eyes wandered, as if looking for a sign.  She found one.  There, atop of the hillocky expanse, was a figure etched black within the moonlight.

 “Wi…Will?” she whispered.

 The figure approached her, walking with the same strong, long loping stride that stamped William Clements’s approach.

 “Will?” Phoebe said louder, with more hope and joy.  “Will, you do love me, don’t you?”

 She wished to run to him, but dared not move, for she feared it was a dream from which she would abruptly wake.

 The moon slid down lower as the figure descended into the valley toward Devil’s Fen, its full orange glow unobserved.  Phoebe waited by the willow tree, the world overcome with a silence pregnant with anticipation.  No whippoorwills chanted.  No crickets chirped.  No wolves howled.  The silence pervaded, and Phoebe could hear her own heart pounding hard in her chest like thunder.

 “Will, I promise I will be your perfect wife,” Phoebe said, or whispered, or mouthed.  “I won’t ever disappoint you.  I will love you, and honor you, and cherish you.  I will bear you many sons with your same blue eyes and perfect white teeth.”

 The figure came to the bottom of the valley’s slope, nearing the willow tree.

 “If you want to be a farmer, you can be a farmer,” Phoebe said.  “I will be a farmer’s wife.  I don’t have to be a governor’s wife, or even a mayor’s wife.  So long as I am your wife.  Will, I…”

 Phoebe’s mouth went slack, loosening into a gawping hole of horror.

 The scarecrow loomed over her, its frog-face broad and leathery and stinking beneath its withy hat.  Something dark and wet and fresh glistened all over its lips, dribbling down its cheeks and chin.

 “No…not you…” Phoebe whimpered, shrinking in terror.  “Please…go away…”

 The scarecrow did not go away.  It leaned forward, its familiar blue eyes inching closer.  Its leathery lips curved upward, then parted wetly.  Gleaming in the milky moonlight, each one as finely white as any polished pearl, were many an immaculate tooth—teeth more immaculate than any others in all of Wischmeier County.

Confessions And Silence

There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods.  No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over.  The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion.  And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea.  And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.

 Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God.  Some said a god died there long ago.  Some said in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher that something yet more ancient than gods had died there.  Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits.  And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death s release.  It was what they strived for beneath the preacher s watchful eye.  It was what they all wanted more than anything.

 That was, all except for Tilda.

 Tilda was the preacher s daughter.  She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers.  She especially disliked being the preacher s daughter.  Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows.  Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden.  Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes.  Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin.  Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.

 She hated Confessions most of all.

 Her father s sermons were dreary things.  For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored.  Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such.  Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father s mouth.  She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith.  She liked how her father s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed.  She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday.  Of all the Biblical passages she liked few though they were she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes.  That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.


 There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp.  No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like.  They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk.  The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became.  After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash.  She was now determined to meet the witch.  She knew it was her destiny.

 And so one night Tilda crept away from her father s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky.  The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named.  Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch.  It was common knowledge.  Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp.  A candle illuminated the hut s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch s fireplace.

  Come in, my little fawn,  a voice cackled from within.   I have been expecting you.

 Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut.  It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also.  She was an old crone  as witches often were and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak.  Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.

  You will make me a witch,  Tilda said.  She did not cower from the witch s scowl, but was emboldened by it.   You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps.

  Do I know such things?  the witch pondered dubiously.  She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman s of the same-seeming age.   I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn.

  I am no fawn,  Tilda said defiantly.   I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such.  I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help.

 The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.

  Dear me, you are a presumptuous one,  she said.  She looked the preacher s daughter up and down from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul.   You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent?

 Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly.  She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.

 The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face.   And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn?

  By reaching between the fire and the heat,  Tilda said proudly.   Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides.

  You speak rightly enough,  the witch said.   And you manage a magic…of a crude sort.  But what of your soul, my little fawn?  What can you manage of it?

 Tilda scowled.   You are squandering time, beldam.  The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night.

 The witch s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself.  For a moment  just a moment  the beldame s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree.  This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.

  Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron,  she remarked.  She stood up from her stool or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut.  Perhaps both.  At length, she settled down, or shrank.  Her voice was low; calm and quiet.

  Know you lemongrass, my little fawn?

 Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.

  And what of belladonna?

 Again Tilda nodded.

  And hemlock?  Wolfsbane?  Yarrow root?

 Tilda nodded to all three in succession.

 The witch smiled wryly.   Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me.  I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand.  Baby s breath.  A good man s guilt.  A double heart.  And so on.  Now leave me.

 Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision.  She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch s face had unnerved her.  A glint in the witch s eye sent her to the door and back home.  It was such a glint as a cat s eye had upon spotting a mouse.




 Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise.  She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk.  Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night.  Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats.  Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.

 Tilda s father was summoned.  He counseled the aggrieved parents.  He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way.  Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own.  When pressed by Tilda s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners.  Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.

 Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods.  While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing.  The woods were a haunted place, after all.  Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming.  Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal.  Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere.  Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger.  The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do.  They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.

 Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required.  Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime.  Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day.  When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged.  Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.

  You are playing with devilish mischief!  he roared, indicating the basket.  He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin.   When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”

 He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved.  Her hands stung and were bruised.  She returned to her bedroom.  She did not sulk.  She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due.  She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts.  She thought of power.  She thought of revenge.

 And so, at the darkest hour of night when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires  Tilda crept out of her father s house and went to find her willow basket.  It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.

 Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket.  Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up.  A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.

 Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch s hut.  When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before.  Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before.  The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.

  Hello, my little kitten,  the witch said as she stirred the cauldron.  Her voice was different.  It was lower, older.   She said you would bring what was needed.

 Tilda approached the witch with empty hands.   I had gathered them,  she said, trying not to cry, but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and…

 She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before.  She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.

  Those never mattered, my little kitten,  the different witch said.   What matters is the trouble of gettin  them.  The willingness.  The sacrifice.  Especially the punishment for gettin  them.

 The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.

  Come, my kitten.  Hold your hands in the steam.  It won t hurt you a bit.  I promise.  In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth.

 Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron.  Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid.  But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge.  The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.

 Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot.  The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms.  The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer s day.

  There we have it, my kitten,  the witch said.  She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve.   Now you must drink it.  Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek

Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid.  She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation.  Her repulsion stayed her.

  Do you desire power or not, my kitten?!  the witch screeched.

 The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater.  Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared.  Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting.  The more she drank, the more she craved of it.  She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep s gut stuffed overfull.  Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron s yield.  Conversely, she grew lighter.  So very light.  Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions.  She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive.  Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.


  Now is the time, my little kitten,  the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit.  The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking.   Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten.  Do as you will, and do much.

 As a dream Tilda went wandering.  Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast.  The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud.  Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her.  She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch s hut on the Borderlands.

 Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name.  He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling.  He was not supposed to defecate in the brook no one was but he did so anyway.  His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days.  He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook.  She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled.  Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him.  Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.

 Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on.  She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air.  He blinked at her in confusion.

  Wallace Eckridge,  she said.   You will come with me.

 Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.  

 Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch s hut.  She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him.  She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure.  The creatures in the woods did not bother him.  Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased.  A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself.  Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.

 To the hut they came at last.  The witch thanked Tilda for the offering.  Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared.  She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.

  It is true what they say,  the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls.   True power does not die, nor does it rot away.  It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it.   Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady.   Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass.  My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth.  They grow stronger.

  What are they?  Tilda asked.

  What is earth?  the witch countered.   What is the sky?  What is hate?  What is hunger?  What is the meaning of things?  So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things.

  Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god?  she asked.

  How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist?  the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure.   We exist, do we not, little lamb?  And that is all that matters.

 Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home.  The power had gone from her at daybreak.  She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air.  She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world s men with a word.  She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.


 Her father awaited her in her bedroom.  But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise  or worse, make Confession of her he was summoned away.  Wallace Eckridge s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft.  At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace s lecherous advances.  Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together.  They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers.  Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.

 But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace s disappearance.  She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic.  Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister.  This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village.  Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart.  Much ado was made of it before the day was done.


 Before nightfall Tilda s father returned.  He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter.  Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night.  Her tears were her sole company as she waited.  Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again.  She wept as she walked, each step painful.  Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.

 The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.

  Hello, my little lamb,  the witch said softly.

 Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.

  My little lamb,  the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind.   My poor, dear little lamb.  Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe.  Let it console you.  Let it invigorate and strengthen you.

 Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again.  To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten.  Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep.  Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut  which was more a house now than before and went floating through the woods.

 Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook.  At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott.  Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her.  Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.

  You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott,  Tilda said, for you do not believe the innocence of your wife.  Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.

 Tilda s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him.  She led the man out to the witches  hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared.  Alongside him disappeared Tilda s powers once more.  Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.

  My dear little pup,  the witch said, gladdened by Tilda s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott s sudden evanescence.  Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye.   You have done so well.  And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup.  For you are strong in the ways of us witches.

 The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.

  What do you do with the men I bring to you?  she asked.

 The witch s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile.   My pup, it is but a matter of conference.  We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet.  In time, they welcome the Silence.

 This all meant nothing to Tilda.  She could not understand the witch s real meaning.

  They are dead?  she ventured.

  No more than the gods,  the witch said.   My little pup.


 Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn.  Her father was not there.  He was busy blessing the water from the brook.  He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening.  He also used it for Baptisms.  He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort.  As a man must, he claimed.

  We should aspire to be as this brook,  he often admonished his flock.   For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction.  We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife.

 Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.

 No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott.  Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge.  Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin.  Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.


 Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession.  A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron.  Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.

 Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods.  The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns.  When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically.  For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.

  Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge,  Tilda demanded.   I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest.

 The woman s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods.  Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming.  They came to the house-sized hut and entered.  Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold.  The witch who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil told her more arcane secrets.

  Primordial gods do not fade.  They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself.  We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp.  All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands.


 The next day Tilda s father was in a foul mood.  Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her.  Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life.  Perhaps even her soul.  The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.

  It is God s wrath,  he proclaimed, and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety.  We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith.  We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil.  We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire.

 Tilda s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night.  After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled.  The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.

  My dear little fledgling,  the witch said.   Whatever is the matter with your legs?

 She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night.  Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however.  She muttered through her

 “I want to complete my transformation,  she said.   I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call.  Not just borrowed powers.  I want to be a master adept, like all of you!

  Oh, my little fledgling,  the witch sighed.   That is such a momentous change.  Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now?  Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people?  Surely it is enough, isn t it?  It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you?   The witch smiled furtively.

  I am ready,  Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks.   I wish to be untethered.  I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties!

  If you wish it,  the witch said, then your wish shall be granted.

 The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house.  A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly.  But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated.  Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge.  Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession.  The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself.  She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches.  Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world.  They were not debased.  They were exultant.  They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.

 The steam was not hot.  It was cool, like mist.  It reminded her of a heady miasma.  She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup.  Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid.  It did not burn.  It did not scald her.  Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.

 What did she feel?  She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking.  Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness.  All grew dark and still within the cauldron.  Deathly.  Soon, however, she felt life stir within her.  It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot.  The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her.  It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what.  At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.

 With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods.  She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook.  To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.

 She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell.  Tilda floated above him for a time.  Then she entered him through his empty spaces  as he so often did her while in Confession and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her.  Taking her time, she led him through the woods.  The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut.  The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered.  Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses.  Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.

 He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.

  I have made abomination with my daughter,  the preacher said.   I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years.  I have sullied her, and made ruin of her.  I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt.  I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite.  I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be.  I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence.  God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell.

  No,  the witches said as one.   Not Hell.  To something…purer.  To something Holier.  To the Silence.

 Tilda s father vanished into the Silence.


 Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp.  As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before.  The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager.  She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.

 Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless.  Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms.  And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago.  And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures.  One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.

The Witch Ditch

Yellow wheat billows in the ditches
woven in wilted waves athwart the valley
like the hair of a hundred withered witches
all waiting for the Witching Hour to rally
so they may raise their sodden, sodded heads
beneath the wan moon and its waxen glow
and hex a thousand children in their trembling beds
with many a bad dream and many a woe.
Their wrinkles are cut deep in cheek and brow
to sow sorrows wherever they may grow
not unlike drowning ditches cut by the furrowing plow
in this wet, wicked, Winter tableau.

The Grasping Tree Part 1

2018-11-04 01.50.10

Cool October winds blew over the holocaust scene of cornstalks, their remainders jagged and broken in the fields that made a leapfrogging patchwork of the farm. The grass was yellowing, and the leaves reddening in the distant knobs, and the sky was dark gray in the middle of Saturday morning.
Edgar sat on the porch, feet dangling in front of the porch lattice, above the naked rosebushes. His eyes were fixed upon the old black tree that leaned toward the farmhouse, its trunk angled uphill as if the finger-like branches were stretching, grasping toward the house. It looked like it might fall at any moment, but it had yet to fall during all of Edgar’s nine years of life. Keeping his eyes on the tree, Edgar spoke to his grandfather. The latter was nodding off in his rocking chair, just behind his grandson.
“Papaw,” Edgar said, “What kind of tree is that?”
His grandfather snorted and mumbled, rousing slowly, his voice drowsy, distant, from a faraway time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Seems to me a black oak, but ain’t never had any leaves or acorns, even when I was a boy. Should be dead by now, but it ain’t never gone to rot yet.”
“Why haven’t you ever cut it down?” the boy asked.
There was a long silence. Edgar glanced back over his shoulder at his grandfather and found the old man’s head hanging low, chin to chest, snoring softly. A drop of drool hung from the old man’s pink lips. It fell like a raindrop onto his denim coveralls. Edgar wore the same kind of coveralls, but in miniature. He shifted slightly on the edge of the porch, trying to adjust his coveralls. It had been only a few months since Edgar was shipped off to his grandparents while his parents finalized the divorce. He had not gotten used to coveralls yet.
Edgar repeated his question, louder, and his grandfather stirred.
“Never seemed right to,” the old man said. “Clutching to life after a hundred years. Maybe more. Don’t know if any axe could cut it down. And I always got a strange feeling when I thought about it. It’s one of them ‘buzzard trees’. And it’s bad luck to cut them down. They say the buzzards have nowhere to roost no more and so they roost in your heart. And it…invokes the…Evil Eye on you…”
The old man drifted off to sleep again.
Edgar cast his sight again toward the tree. It was, as his grandfather said, a “buzzard tree”, except Edgar had never seen buzzards roosting in it, nor any other bird, nor squirrel, for that matter. The animals shunned it. His grandfather’s dog, Samson, who was the most ornery German Shepherd ever, never lifted a leg near it, eschewing its shadow like a pool of venomous snakes. It dawned on Edgar that he had avoided it without thinking to do so; as if it was as natural as avoiding a wildfire. But it was a silent wildfire. And it was sneaky; sneaky in that it seemed to grow closer to the house every day.
A breeze blew through the outspread branches, and their forking fingers trembled as if in a silent fury, trying to reach out to Edgar, clasp him, drag him into the deep, dark bowels of the earth.

Edgar took a bath in lukewarm water, and prepared himself for supper. Going to the kitchen, he found his grandmother heaping mashed potatoes, gravy, steak, and green beans on three plates. His grandfather was sitting at the table already, his eyelids heavy as he waited for his food. A big glass of milk awaited Edgar at his place. He went to the kitchen drawer and fetched three forks and three knives, arranging them around the table. He then sat down and glanced around the kitchen. It was small, rustic, bare. It had an oven, table, sparse tabletop next to the sink, a few cabinets, refrigerator, and a single window looking out toward the knobs. The pantry was a small closet in the corner of the room and was stocked with bags of dried beans, sweet potatoes, and flour. It was a very humble kitchen when contrasted with the kitchen that his mother and father had in the city.
Edgar suddenly wondered whose kitchen it was: his mother or his father? Divorces, he realized, were strange.
“Here you go, Egg,” his grandmother said, setting the plate of food in front of him. He picked up his fork and began to scoop a lob of potatoes toward to his mouth. His grandmother tsked him. “Not yet, Egg. Wait until everyone is ready to eat. And we have to pray, too.”
Edgar’s stomach grumbled, and he whimpered, watching anxiously as his grandmother gave his grandfather his plate, and then went to fetch her own, finally sitting down. The three of them then steepled their fingers and his grandmother prayed. The prayers finished, Edgar took his fork to the plate ravenously.


Through the cupola window he saw the moon. There was a halo around it— wide in circumference and thin in width—behind the tree, looking like a large white pupiled eye, the whole sky a dark face searching for him within his room, wanting to take hold of him and never release his soul.
That night Edgar dreamed of a woman standing in the yard. She was tall, thin, with one eye blue and the other pale, like milk. She had bone-white hair and wore an old leather frock, stitched together with what looked like sinew. She beckoned toward Edgar with one hand. The other hand remained behind her back, hidden. She smiled widely and Edgar could not guess how old she was. He approached her, his feet moving of their own accord. He tried to fight, to resist, yet his body moved without his permission, as if it was inhabited by someone else. Soon she was towering over him, her teeth gleaming. Behind her, the black night reached toward him. And then she drew her other hand out from behind her, and he screamed in terror. It was burnt black, cracked, scaly like tree bark, and as she reached for him the spell broke and he fell back, away from her, scrambling to escape, but moving so slowly, as if through thick molasses, and her hand grew larger, blacker, branching outward over him, becoming the Grasping Tree.
And he knew, as he screamed himself awake, that he could never escape its stretching fingers.


Edgar did not often enjoy going to church. His parents never made him go to church in the city. It seemed to him a lot of wasted time that could have been used for play or exploration. But today, at least, he was glad that church gave his grandparents the excuse to take him to town, and away from the Grasping Tree. Dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a collared white shirt, Edgar sat between his grandmother and grandfather in the cab of the truck, no seatbelt strapped across his chest and feeling the old clunker truck rattle itself half to death at any moment, and yet felt relieved despite the long sermon awaiting him at the church.
They arrived early— always too early for Edgar—and his grandparents sat in the front pew, keeping Edgar between them. It was an old church, built in the 1700’s, and had gone through minimal renovation. It was small, but big enough for the rural flock that gathered there every Sunday. Edgar’s grandfather told him, and often repeated himself in saying so, that the church had long history that began with the first settlers of Grayson County. By the time Father Douglas finished with his sermon, Edgar felt like he had spent as much time in the church as the founders. It did not help that the orange juice he drank that morning was already brimming in his bladder. While the flock exited the church to talk out in the churchyard, Edgar raced to the restroom in the back of the church. One of the few renovations the church boasted were the two restrooms, and Edgar aspired to make immediate use of such modern facilities.
He came to a screeching halt, however, when he saw Billy Mudford enter the Men’s restroom. Watching helplessly as Billy closed the door, Edgard despaired. Billy was a large teen, round like a pig and freckled red like a butcher’s block. When he used the restroom there was no hope for the next occupant to survive the miasma. But Edgar’s bladder was ready to bust. He wanted to cry. Glancing down the hall, he saw no one else, so he took a deep breath and opened the door to the Women’s restroom. Lee Frampton was standing by the sink, trying to look over it to see herself in the mirror. When she saw Edgar she merely furrowed her brow in irritation and put her fists on her hips.
“Egg,” she said, her irritation making her Southern drawl twang sharply, “this is the Ladies’ bathroom.”
Edgar just stood there, frozen in fear and bewilderment.
“Is Billy using the Men’s bathroom?” she asked.
Edgar only nodded.
“I thought I heard him gruntin’ like a sow in labor,” she said. She tossed her blonde curls, as she always did in the meantime when she was deciding something. She was a year older than Edgar, and a couple of inches taller, and so she was the de facto leader insomuch as Edgar was concerned. Whatever she said was what went.
“Come on,” she said, gesturing him into the restroom. “I’ll guard the door if you have to go that badly.”
Edgar could only nod and obey, walking toward the toilet while Lee stepped out and closed the door, standing guard in the hall. It took Edgar time to overcome his embarrassment and finally relieve himself. When finished, he opened the door, and was about to mutter thanks to Lee, but she shot him a scowl.
“Wash your hands,” she said, crossing her arms.
Edgar did what she told him, then came out of the bathroom. Billy’s stench was already invading the hall with preliminary fumes, and so Edgar and Lee left the church, going outside where the rest of the kids were playing. They did not join them, however. Instead, they stood under an oak tree in the churchyard, near the gated cemetery.
“Thanks,” Edgar said. “For…you know.”
“You’re welcome,” Lee said. “That stinky-butt Billy does it on purpose. Probably eats all the sausage and bacon and eggs he can before he comes here. Then comes out grinnin’, and smells like the sulphurs of Hell.”
She chuckled as if she had said something very funny. Edgar did not know what to say to any of that. Firstly, he did not know what “sulphurs” were, and, secondly, he knew Hell was a bad word. His grandparents always said the Framptons were “good people, but a little uncouth”, but he never understood what that meant, either. Maybe, he thought, it meant they didn’t give a single deer pellet what other people thought about them. And while Edgar had known Lee for a few months now, she was still a mystery to him. Despite her white dress and her curlicues, she was a tomboy, and he had never met a tomboy in the city. They were much more fun than the regular girls he knew who only told him he was gross and made of puppy dog tails. She liked to do things, like race and throw baseballs and climb things.
“Want to climb the tree?” she asked him.
He nodded, and up they went; Lee first—faster, with a firmer and more confident grip— and then Edgar after her—slower, more methodical, much more diffident in his fumbling finger-holds. At length he came to the lowest branch, sitting upon it, close to the trunk. Lee chose to sit on the branch above his, and farther away from the trunk. Unlike Edgar, who kept both hands always on his branch, Lee sat carefree on her branch, gesturing with her hands freely as she spoke.
“I wish papaw had this tree in his yard,” Edgar said. “Instead of that ugly tree that’s there.”
“I know about that tree,” Lee said confidently, her Southern drawl slowing around the vowels.
“You do?” Edgar said, his interest piqued.
“Sure I do,” she said. “It’s an old witch’s tree. A witch was buried there.”
“Under the tree?” Edgar said. “But what about the roots?”
Lee shook her head. “No, you ninny. I mean she was buried first and then the tree just sprung up from where she was buried. Everybody knows about it. It ain’t no secret around here.”
“Why didn’t mamaw and papaw tell me?”
“Because they didn’t want to scare you none,” Lee said. “It’s a gruesome story.” She smirked, her blue eyes twinkling with mischief. “Wanna’ hear it?”
Edgar did not know what “gruesome” meant, but he guessed that he probably did not want to hear the story. Watching Lee’s smirk widen, however, and seeing the twinkle in her eye grow bigger, he decided he would not let her think him a scaredy-cat anymore than she already did.
“Yes,” he said, taking a big gulp.
Lee’s smirk parted into a grin and Edgar wondered if he had not made a mistake.
“There was once this witch. She had magical powers. But she was a good witch. She did nothing but help people. But the judge had his mind set on her. They prepared a fire and the judge told her that if she didn’t marry him and put herself right by God she would burn in flames. The townsfolk pulled her to the fire when she refused. The judge gave her one final chance, but she fought back, falling down as they brought her toward that fire. Her hand went into the fire and she screamed in pain. Her hand got burnt up, but while it was burning it found the Devil’s hand waiting for her, and there and then they shook hands upon a compact.”
“What’s a compact?” Edgar asked.
“A deal,” Lee said, impatiently. “He made a deal with her for revenge. She then rose up, with her hand all fiery, and she tried to grab the judge. But somebody stabbed her with a knife.” Lee thumped herself in the chest with a fist. “Stabbed her in the heart. She died and they buried her where that tree is, in an unmarked grave. And that crooked tree grew up where she was buried. And then one day the judge was found dead, sitting next to her grave. They say it looked like he had a black ring around his throat, as if he’d been hung with a burning rope. Some think he had been strangled by the woman’s lover.”
Lee became silent, and the whole world seemed to become silent, and then Edgar thought he heard a witch cackling. And it was a witch: Mrs. Sparrow was cackling as she spoke to Mrs. Murrow and Mrs. Curtsinger. Edgar did not like Mrs. Sparrow. None of the children did.
“Why didn’t papaw tell me?” Edgar asked.
“Probably because he was afraid it’d give you nightmares,” Lee said.
“I did have a nightmare yesterday,” he said. “But…it didn’t scare me…not really…” He was overcome by disquiet.
“It’s just a story, Egg,” Lee said, her finger in her nose, digging away. “Don’t let it bother you.”
“It’s not bothering me,” he said defensively. “I’m not afraid. It’s just a stupid tree.” He stared down the side of the oak tree’s trunk, glaring at it as if it was calling him a scaredy cat. “I’m going to climb it when I get home.”
“You are a pretty good climber,” Lee said generously. “For a city boy. But I don’t think you should. I could climb it. Maybe momma and daddy can come over after church.”
“I can climb it by myself,” Edgar said, scowling.
“We’ll climb it together,” Lee said. Her scowl was much more intimidating than Edgar’s, so she won the argument.


That afternoon, after the Sunday luncheon, Lee’s parents brought her over to the farmhouse. Edgar was both happy to see her and resentful. He did not like it when someone treated him like a baby. His parents had done that for too long now. Everyone thought he was fragile; as if the truth would break him. But he could handle the truth. His parents should not have sent him out here, away from home. Even if home was cracking in two, it did not mean he would crack in two.
A misty rain was falling over the farm. Lee’s parents went indoors to talk with Edgar’s grandparents. Lee and Edgar walked toward the black tree. Lee glared up at it like it was a bully threatening her for her lunch money, and she would has its lunch money at the end of the day.
“It’s too wet to climb,” Edgar said, seeing the black bark glisten darkly in the falling mist. “We shouldn’t…”
“Don’t be a baby, Egg,” Lee said. “If you can climb a tree when it’s dry, you can climb a tree when it’s wet. Ain’t no big trouble. Now grabbing hold of a muddy hog, that is some hard wrangling.” She regarded the weirdly angled tree. “This…this is just a piglet chalked up in dust.”
Despite the wet chill of October, Lee was wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt and tennis shoes. Her curly blonde hair was bound back in twin braids that clung tightly to her scalp, as if stitched there. In short, she had made herself ready to climb the tree.
“Maybe we should wait until it stops raining,” Edgar said.
“This ain’t rain,” Lee countered, holding a palm up for emphasis as the little mist softly alighted there. “This is just the fart of rain. It ain’t nothing.”
Every fear Edgar voiced circumspectly, Lee dissolved into shame, much the same as the mistiness dissolved the distant hills into vague shadows. He kept silent now, but Lee was not finished yet with his acid bath.
“Just stay here, if you want,” she said. “It ain’t really a hard tree to climb. It’s all bent over, inviting you up its back. Hell, it does the climbing for you, I’ll bet.”
And it was bent over, the tree having grown sideways so much that Lee easily scampered up its trunk, without the aid of any branches, her fingernails gripping the grooves in the bark.
“Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy,” she said.
But Edgar only watched her, steeped in his own apprehension. He could not move. He had never been this close to the tree before and he felt in his bones a chgill that was much colder than anything the rain could impart. The farther Lee climbed, the greater the chill he felt.
“Lee,” he called, “I think you should come down!”
But Lee was at the first branch of the tree— a thick, stumpy branch, almost fat and jointed like a thumb at the warty knot. Reaching this, Lee dared herself upright, standing to her full height. Edgar was too scared to be impressed, however, and moreover he had always seen Lee as being “higher up” than himself in many ways. He only wished she would return to the ground, but she just glanced back at him with a self-satisfied smile.
“You coming up, Egg?” she asked.
“No!” he said, his voice creaking with defensiveness and fear.
“You’re afraid you’ll fall and crack,” she said. “Like Humpty Dumpty.”
“Please come down, Lee!” he pleaded. He rarely used her name, for fear it might scare her away. He fidgeted as he stood in place, anxiety an army of tickling ants in his pants. “Lee, please come down. We’re going to get in trouble…”
He hoped an appeal to adult authority would convince her, but it didn’t. She only laughed…
And ventured farther out along the tree.
The sky was still gray, as it had been since Edgar first arrived in this county, but he saw everything clearly. The misty rain was still falling, but there was no wind. No other tree circumscribing the farm bobbed to the unrest of a breeze. No leaves, fallen or otherwise, rustled or tumbled or fluttered. Yet, the black tree moved; it trembled softly at first, then shook, and even as Edgar was rooted in place his mind went to catch Lee as she fell. He swore he moved to catch her, and yet he watched helplessly from afar as she fell. She screamed and her arms flailed as if in search of wings. But the only thing she caught was the earth, and the earth caught her as she fell to one side, one hand at a bad angle. She bounced on the soft wet grass, but there was a terrible crunching sound, followed by her protracted shriek. Edgar watched her roll around, clutching her twisted hand and twisted fingers with her unharmed hand. He then sprinted toward the house, yelling for any adult that could hear him.


There was a lot of shouting added to Lee’s wailing. It seemed to match the screaming inside Edgar’s head. He felt as if his head would explode and his heart would burst. The rush of her parents out to scoop her up, the screech of the tires of their truck as they took off toward the hospital, and the frenzied questions of his grandparents was all too much for Edgar. His mind was full of crashing, spasmodic images: the black tree, Lee falling, Lee’s ruined hand, her parents’ furious faces, and. A panic beset him and his breathing heaved and lurched rapidly until his grandmother took him to the living room’s couch, sitting him down and bringing him a warm rag which she put on his forehead while rubbing his back. As he calmed down, and his heart stopped racing, his eyes rested on the front window through which the black tree
His grandfather asked him a question, but he did not hear him. He only heard the echo of Lee’s scream, cycling endlessly. It deafened him to all other sounds. Gradually it subsided and he turned to look at his grandfather.
“What?” he whispered.
“What were you thinking, Egg?” he asked. “I thought you had enough sense not to climb in the rain!”
“I didn’t climb the tree,” Edgar said, still too disoriented to explain anything.
“But you let that little girl climb the tree?!”
“She’s taller than me,” he said, his thoughts still clogged by everything that had happened.
His grandmother interceded. “Please, Sam, leave the boy alone. You know he didn’t mean for anything to happen to her. She climbed that tree of her own will. You know she can be…well…uppity. Always has to prove something. Them Framptons have always been that way. Have to prove something. You heard Ellie in here, bragging about her rosebushes. And the way she said I should use more cinnamon in my apple pie.” His grandmother shook her head slowly, ruefully. “That’s not the way you are supposed to talk when you’re a guest in someone’s house.”
His grandfather nodded in agreement. “You’re right. Them Framptons have always been uppity. I just hope they don’t sue. Not that it was our fault. They asked to pay a visit and then their girl just goes and hurts herself. Awfully suspicious.”
“Lee didn’t mean for it to happen!” Edgar said suddenly. “I told her I was afraid of the tree and she wanted to show me there was nothing to be afraid of!”
His grandparents regarded him quietly for a moment. Then his grandfather spoke.
“Well, I guess she had something to fear from it, after all. Just stay away from that tree, Egg. And other trees, too. I don’t want to catch you climbing no more. It’s all well and good, being a kid, but there’s too much to risk at it. Not that I didn’t climb when I was your age…it’s just…well…”
“Your papaw thinks you have enough on your plate,” he grandmother explained. “What with your momma and daddy going through their…troubles.”
Edgar stood up, taking the warm rag from his head. “I want to go to the hospital,” he said. “I want to make sure Lee’s all right.”
“We’ll give ‘em a call,” his grandfather said. “She’s likely in a lot of pain, and, well, it’d be best not to bother them.”
“That’s right,” his grandmother said. “Folks need their privacy when they are dealing with their problems. And that ain’t ever truer than with the Framptons.” She stood, too, and went toward the kitchen. “I tell you what, Egg. I’ll make you a nice loaf of banana bread. That sound good? I think you deserve something sweet after all you been through today.”
“That’s a mighty fine idea,” his grandfather said, eagerly following the old woman into the kitchen. “I could do with some, too.”
Edgar stood alone in the living room, looking out the window at the black tree. The Grasping Tree. He had to do something about it. He just didn’t know what he could do. He glanced around the living room. There were crucifixes on the wall, and a painting of Jesus, framed, and other framed pictures— black and white photos of relatives he had never met and rustic paintings of barns and barnyard animals and angels— and. Then his eye alighted on the rosary that his grandmother coiled around her Bible. Unwinding the rosary, carefully, Edgar took the long tethered beads out to the tree and nestled it in among the roots. He then went inside and prepared for bed.


That night Edgar dreamed of a man in a black robe with a black hat and a black gaze. He held a Bible in one hand, and in the other a letter. The man was silent and stern, solid like a standing obelisk made of granite. But then his dark gaze faltered and he clasped the Bible and the letter to his chest, collapsing to his knees and weeping. A tall figure loomed over him. She bent down and embraced him with her long, willowy arms. As the man sobbed, the woman looked up at Edgar, and beneath ivory white hair and a blue eye and a milky white eye, her lips parted and a gleaming toothed smile spread in triumph.
Edgar woke to rain smattering upon the cupola window. Getting up from bed, amid shadows cast across his room by a nightlight, he looked out the blurry glass and saw the tree still grasping toward the house. He stared at it for a long time. Maybe it was only a trick of the heavy rain and his groggy eyes, but the bent-over tree looked as if it was closer to the house than ever before.


The next morning Edgar found the rosary shattered and scattered away from the tree. Rain was falling still, as it ever did, and his grandparents were inside. Now certain that it was, in fact, a witch tree, Edgar ran to his grandfather’s barn and fetched an axe. Edgar had used the axe before, helping his grandfather chop wood for Winter, but he had never used it to chop down a tree. Yet, he was a fast learner, even if he wasn’t a fast climber.
Edgar walked to the side of the tree that leaned away from him. Taking the axe in both hands, he eyed the trunk’s circumference and, taking a deep breath, raised the axe above his head. Hesitating only a split moment, he brought the axe down, striking the tree. It was not a solid strike— the axe head bounced off the tree, taking only a few black chips of bark with it. Worse, the rebounding axe almost chipped his shin. He steadied himself, his heart pounding and his brain afire with images of the witch and Lee’s broken hand and the tree shaking to life and the dark-eyed man weeping. He swung again, with a solider strike, planting the crescent blade into the trunk. He almost smiled, so proud he was of that swing. But it was raining outside, and it was a chilly rain, and he was chilled to his bones with fear and rain. He tried to pull the axe out and realized it was stuck. Putting a foot on the trunk, he jerked up and down on the axe. Gradually he pried the axe loose, seesawing the blade until it relinquished its bite, taking with it an oozing red pulp. The wound bled copiously, then, trickling sap that mixed with rain. Encouraged to see his enemy bleed, Edgar swung again, hacking an inch block out of the grievous wound. Now he was excited, feeling like a knight killing a dragon, and he raised the axe for another swing. It was as axe rose to its full arc above his head that the tree began to shudder in anguish. He felt it in the earth—a deep rumbling of rage—and he saw images in his head of the witch’s corpse clawing her way up through the wet soil to drag him down to Hell with her. Panic overtook him and the swing struck awry, his aim overextending and striking the trunk with the wooden handle rather than the head. The handle cracked up its shaft and the impact jarred Edgar’s bones, from his wrists to his shoulders. He fell backwards, scrambling out of the way as the axe leapt up and then came tumbling down toward him. It missed his food by half an inch.
Standing up, Edgar checked himself all over. Finding himself intact, and mostly unscathed, he stared at the tree. But it was still. It was silent. It held its secrets.
And then Edgar’s grandfather appeared.
“Boy,” he said, gawking between the tree and his grandson, “what’s gotten into you?”
“That tree is evil,” Edgar said, nearly breathless with fright. “We need to cut it down.”
“For the love of God, Edgar,” his grandfather groaned. “That Frampton girl put some strange notions in your head, didn’t she?”
Edgar began to cry.
“Jesus,” the old man said, not too unkindly. “Don’t go cryin’ at your age, boy. It ain’t right. Why, if my daddy saw me cryin’ he’d of given me somethin’ to cry about.”
Edgar’s grandmother came out, then, hurrying beneath her umbrella to see what was happening.
“What’s goin’ on here?” she demanded. “Egg, what’ the matter? Sam, did you whip the poor boy?”
“No, ma’am,” her husband said. “He sure tried to whip that tree good, though. Look at my brand new axe! Splintered to pieces…” He sighed in exasperation.
“Sorry, papaw,” Edgar said, wiping the rain, and tears, from his eyes. “But it’s evil. It hurt Lee. It’s trying to reach the house. I know it is.”
“Of all the nonsense…” his grandfather began to say, but the old woman cut him off.
“Sam,” she said, in a tone that bridged no argument. “I have always wanted to get rid of it, anyway. It’s an awful eyesore.”
Edgar’s grandfather gave her an indecisive shrug. “I mean, it’s a part of history…but it had to come down sooner or later, I reckon. And with a notch like that in it, it’ll die soon anyhow.” He sighed sadly. “When the rain stops, I guess I can get my chainsaw and take her down. The wood’s no good, it seems like. Too much sap. Just have to haul it all away…”


Edgar’s grandfather did as he said he would. Edgar watched from the front porch as the old man revved the chainsaw to its high whine and took its teeth to the Grasping Tree. Perhaps it was the acoustics of the holler playing tricks on Edgar’s ears, but he though he head a shriek beneath the whine of the chainsaw; and that shriek increased as the chainsaw touched the wood with its growling, hungry bite. Whether he truly heard it or not, he was glad when the tree came crashing down. He was even happier when his grandfather used his tractor and chains to haul it away. Yet, even as the tree dragged behind the tractor, it appeared to be reaching for the house; receding in the distance like a witch being dragged, clutching and kicking, to Hell.


Edgar went to bed that night expecting bad dreams. But he dreamt only happy dreams; dreams about his mother and father sitting at a table, smiling at him as the three of them sat and ate pancakes together. His parents talked and laughed and the world wasn’t falling apart. It was happy. No one was angry with anyone else. His mother took him to school in the morning and his father picked him up later, in the afternoon, but when they returned home, both of his parents returned there. Together. No one yelled. No one slammed doors. It was such a happy dream that it made him cry.
But in the morning he woke up to a real nightmare.


Edgar followed the scent of pancakes downstairs, feeling happier than he had in quite some time. His grandmother was in the kitchen, at the stove, pouring pancake batter into a sizzling pan. Beside her, on the counter, was a plate stacked tall with pancakes.
“Morning, Egg,” she said. “Sleep better last night?”
“Yes,” Edgar said, emphatically. He fetched three plates from the cabinet, and three forks, arranging them around the table. His grandfather came in from the living room, yawning.
“Papaw,” Edgar said, sitting down at the table. “Do you think we can go visit Lee later on?”
His grandfather and grandmother exchanged glances.
“In time,” he said, stiffly. “Maybe next week you can see you at church. Right now I’d give them some space.”
“But I want to make sure she’s okay,” Edgar said. “Please?”
“Tomorrow,” his grandfather said, his tone terse and final. “But I’m staying out in the car. The Framptons weren’t exactly nice to me on the phone yesterday.”
Edgar seemed to shrink in upon himself in his chair, as he always had when his mother and father were arguing. “They blame me for what happened to Lee,” he said.
“They blame all of us,” his grandmother said, disgruntledly flipping a pancake over. “But ain’t that just like a Frampton to blame others for the way they raise their own kids.”
This was little solace to Edgar. Suddenly he was afraid to see Lee; afraid her parents would yell and scream at him, and his grandparents, and he could not endure that. He had enough yelling and screaming back home in the city. He hated when adults argued. The whole world seemed to fall apart and nothing made sense anymore. It was as though their hateful words broke the sky itself and it would come crashing down at any moment, like a lamp, plunging the world into darkness.
“Don’t think on it, Egg,” his grandmother said. She brought the pan over and, using her spatula, slid a fresh, crisp pancake onto his plate. “Here. Starve your troubles by feeding your tummy.”
Edgar smiled up at her and cut his pancake into bite-sized pieces with his fork, pouring molasses over the brown-and-white bits of flat cake. But it was a long time before he managed to eat the pancake, and even then only with effort. He had lost his appetite the moment he learned that Lee’s parents was angry at them.
Maybe, he thought, Lee was angry with him, too.


It was a schoolday and Edgar’s grandfather always drove Edgar to school. The farm was so far away from town that the school bus could not travel that far in a timely manner. Edgar did not mind the school. It was smaller than the one he attended in the city, and so had a lot less bullies in it. Edgar also enjoyed the smaller class sizes and the quieter school. He was so used to the noises of the city that he never had the opportunity to realize how much he enjoyed silence.
And yet, as Edgard walked toward the truck, towing his backpack over one shoulder, there was a strange silence pervading the farm. His first instinct was to look to the Grasping Tree, but it was not there anymore. All that remained was a scattering of broken twigs and branches and the ugly, oozing stump which the rain had failed to washed clean.
He opened the truck door and climbed in. Buckling his seatbelt, he wondered if he would see Lee at school. Then he remembered that Lee was homeschooled and didn’t go to his rural school.
His grandfather checked the truck’s oil, as he always did before going anywhere, and Edgar, meanwhile, stared out the window, trying not to think about Lee and how anxious he was to see her. He could not say the exact moment it dawned on him that something was wrong. The silence was pervasive, of course, except for his grandfather’s gripes at the engine. Edgar was used to fairly quiet mornings at the farm, but there was always a soft ambience at the edges of the horizon. Birdsong. Cow lowing. Donkey laughter. Chicken bickering. Today, however, he could not hear any of those gentle accompaniments. He heard only a terrible silence.
And then he let his eyes wander away from the farm, out toward the knobs that were crowned in forests. The trees were utterly bereft of leaves, as if a great wind at swept through in the night and, all at once, disrobed the multitude. Trees as far as his young eyes could see were denuded of their flaring foliage. And what remained beneath were angry, clutching branches that all leaned toward the farmhouse like the burnt hands of Hell. His grandfather shut the hood of the truck and then got into the cab, turning the ignition.
“Gonna’ need to change the oil soon,” he concluded bitterly.
“The trees…” Edgar said. “The trees have changed.”
His grandfather glanced toward the horizon, where all of the trees reached toward them. “Lost all of their leaves, is all.”
“They’re not right…” Edgar said. “It’s all wrong…”
“They are a mighty bit uglier for it,” his grandfather said. “But that’s how it is. You know that. Lose their pretty red colors for Winter and then Spring comes round again and they’re the prettiest green again.”
“They’re just like that Witch Tree,” Edgar said. “They’re reaching toward the house.”
His grandfather regarded his grandson for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. “Damn it, Egg, don’t go on with that stuff. I can’t cut down every darn tree that makes you upset.”
“But they’re evil…”
His grandfather sighed angrily, and shifted the truck into Drive, easing down the gravel driveway.
“Now, Egg, you know better ‘an that. You’re just…overworked in your head. You need some work for your hands to keep your mind preoccupied. Maybe when you come back I can show you how to sand scuffs out of a chair. Or whittle wood. Or maybe .”
Edgar did not say anything. He only stared out the window, looking at all of those trees grasping toward the farmhouse.


Edgar arrived at school feeling wary. His nerves were screaming in an insistent chorus of alarm as he said goodbye, quietly, to his grandfather. He walked into the old brick school with his eyes darting to the left and to the right. Unlike the city school that he used to go to— with its many wings all arranged around a central lobby like a confused octopus—Grayson County Intermediate School was more or less a three-storey mansion with the gymnasium added to the back in a later century. It was more an eighteenth century mansion than a modern school, and it was decrepit and powdered with endless dust and the tiled floors were stained so badly with scuff-and-stuff that Edgar could not discern its original color. As soon as he entered the front doors the secretary’s office was on the right, the principal’s office was on the left, and the lobby lay straight ahead of him, cluttered with children opening and closing their lockers, chatting, horsing around, and generally doing what most kids in the city all did— albeit not so loudly, for lack of numbers, and with a slight drawl to their conversations. Did Edgar feel like an outsider here? Yes, but he often felt like an outsider in the city, too. And the children of Grayson County, much like the children in the city, ignored him since he neither offended them or impressed them.
And yet, Edgar felt eyes watching him. He felt eyes following him as he looked around, trying to espy his stalker in among the crowds and cliques. Several students returned his glance—with frowns of irritation or apathy or quizzical concern—and yet when they looked away the unseen eyes remained on him, urgent and unwavering.
Walking toward his Home Room, Edgar felt as if he could not trust any shadow, including his own.


In the schoolyard the leaves still clung to the branches of the trees encircling the recess area. The children were playing kickball and Edgar stood near the farthest edge of the clearing, so as to not be too involved in the game, and so as to not be culpable if his team lost. In fact, he was more preoccupied with staring at the different colors all clashing together in the woods than he was in the antics of the ball as it bounded past him. It was no wonder he jumped, so startled was he by its mischief. It leapt and charged into the woods like a wild animal seeking freedom. Edgar would have been happy to let it live out its remaining days in among the trees, free from the offenses of children’s feet, but his teammates shouted for him to fetch the ball before the other team could score a full run. So, reluctantly, Edgar tripped and stumbled and crashed into the woods, a hesitant hunter seeking his prey.
The ball, like flighty prey, ricocheted from one tree to another, zig-zagging in rabbit fashion and seeking shelter in the deeper, darker depths of the woods. When it finally came to rest in among the roots of a tree, Edgar was breathless with the chase. Gulping down air, he bent over and put his hands on his knees, trying not to vomit. The back of his throat burned with bile. The ball had led him on an escapade farther than it had any reasonable right to and though he could still hear the students calling for him in annoyed tones, their voices were softened by distance and density. The trees crowded around him and the voices of his classmates rebounded in devilish ways, tricking him with the acoustics of the woods so that he knew not which direction to go to return to the schoolyard clearing. The air suddenly became colder, chillier, cooling the bile in his throat and making his lungs ache. He felt the eyes upon him again, more intense than before, and stronger in intent. He knew he had to leave, and leave quickly. He knelt down to pick up the kickball. It was as his hands lifted the ball that he realized it had not been nestled between roots, but between boots. A chill caught in his chest, like a fist of ice clutching his heart, and, slowly, reluctantly, inevitably, he looked up to see that the trunk of the tree was actually a tall, stern man with a black gaze. The dark clad, dark-eyed man reached toward Edgar with a pale hand. Edgar fell back and away, fleeing in no one particular direction. He ran and ran, more wildly than the ball had when it bounded into the woods. As he carried it out into the clearing, he cursed the ball and he cursed his own rotten luck.

When Edgar emerged from the woods he was panting and sobbing. He fell to his knees and crawled across the yard, the kickball rolling away from him. His gym teacher, Mrs. Bradley, rushed to him, helping him to his feet and looking him all over.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Man in the woods,” Edgar moaned between sobs.
Some of the children exchanged worried glances. Others snickered. Mrs. Bradley looked toward the woods fearfully, then toward the children.
“Everyone inside! Now!”
They went into the Health classroom and waited there, confined indoors while the principal searched the woods for a trespasser. Finding no one, he returned and asked Edgar for a description. Edgar blurted out the details in earnest, never realizing until it was too late how absurd it was.
“He was tall and had a long black coat and black hat and black eyes and a curly white wig!”
The principal and Mrs. Bradley frowned. The principal rolled his eyes. Mrs. Bradley leaned over him, smiling thinly. Edgar knew that kind of smile; knew that it meant an adult did not believe you whatsoever.
“You’re not making up stories, are you, Egg?”
“He was standing in the woods. I’ve seen him in my dreams. The witch…he and the witch belong together!”
The students glowered at Edgar for the rest of the day. He had ruined their kickball game and shortened their recess. He had been a “baby” and ruined everything with his crying, they said. It was like the city all over again—just like when he tried to get his parents’ attention from the top of the bleachers. He had not meant to fall. He only wanted them to see him, and to stop arguing in the parking lot. He shouted at them and when they begged him to come down, he tripped over a seat and tumbled over sideways. He did not remember much after that except someone crying, and his own pain. Perhaps he was the one crying. Neither of his parents ever cried—they were too busy blaming each other. He had landed on his head, or so they told him later. It did not crack, but the yolk inside sure was scrambled for a few days. They said he had a “concussion”. It wasn’t a big problem for him. He had headaches, occasionally, but no worse than the ones he had suffered before his fall— the ones when his mom and dad yelled at night when they thought he was asleep, keeping him awake so that he went to school sleepy and dizzy and often too tired to think without his head throbbing.
And now everyone at his new school was looking at him with contempt, or mockery, or both. He was a “liar from the city”, like all cityslickers who came out to the country to boast of all of the useless things they knew, talking down to the locals, or committing that terrible sin of being worldly.
Yet, not everyone in the school was unsympathetic. Mrs. Ansel, the librarian, was a favorite of Edgar’s, as he was one of her favorites, and she spoke soothingly to him about her own misadventures in imagination while in the woods. Since he liked the old woman so much he did not mind that she did not literally believe him. At least she did not believe he was “cracked” like the other teachers.
“I remember when I thought I saw a fairy sitting upon a toadstool,” Mrs. Ansel said as she sat at her desk, Edgar across from her. “My mother thought I had been eating mushrooms and was delusional. She jammed her fingers so far down my throat that I thought she was trying to turn it inside out. And she nearly did. She didn’t stop until I had given up everything I had had for lunch, breakfast, and all of the cookies I had eaten secretly between. Even after all of that she watched me sideways for a week, fearing I might keel over any moment.”
Mrs. Ansel laughed softly, her eyes peering back through the misty decades. Edgar— who was no more intentionally manipulative than any other child his age—asked Mrs. Ansel if there were any historical books about Grayson County I the library. She holy half-roused from the thick, sticky web of her memories.
“There are a few at the Grayson Public Library,” she said. “But none here. Really more like folktales than legitimate historical works.”
Edgar did not say anything else. When his grandfather came to pick him up he asked to go to the Public Library. His grandfather shrugged indifferently, one way or the other, and so, an hour or so later Edgar returned to the farm clutching three books to his chest, as if they might shield him from the Grasping Trees now surrounding the farm.
The first book, “Grayson County History” was as dry and unappealing as its humdrum title. Edgard read it for about twenty minutes—skimming the pages like a water strider over a pond—until he came to an entry concerning a prominent judge named Ethan Blake. It did not say much except in mentioning a few reforms concerning “Patrilineage” laws in Grayson County. Edgar did not know what it meant. It did not provide elaborations, either on the law or the judge’s “queer death”, nor were there any pictures or drawings; only thick blocks of stale, dense text.
The second book was “Grayson County Folklore”, which was as dry a title as the first, yet benefited from its more flavorful subject matter. Or so Edgar had thought. Whoever wrote it, wrote it drily, too. He began to think that the two books were written by the same man, or woman. Yet, as he read it, sitting next to the dormer window, it was bettered by the vista of the Grasping Trees, which lent an urgency to his reading that was stonewalled by the previous book’s bland subject matter. As he read through the titles of these folktales he could feel the trees reaching toward him with their gnarled, black, skeletal fingers. And when he saw the title “The Witch’s Ghost” he knew, in the ancestral marrow of his bones, that he had all reason to be afraid. But he read the story, overcome with a clammy sweat. The story told him nothing new or different from what other people had told him. However, to see it confirmed on a page, in a real book, somehow granted his mind permission to feel justified in his fright, which only frightened him even more.
“Egg!” his grandmother called upstairs, making him jump. “Supper!”
“I am not going to crack,” he whispered to himself. “I am not going to crack…”


That night he dreamt of many hands reaching for him, grabbing him, fighting over him, pulling on him as voices boomed thunderously, arguing and screaming with gale-force winds, blaming each other and him. They yanked on his arms and his legs and his hair, wrestling him one way, and then another, until they abruptly released him, all at once, as if he was no longer worth having, as if he was spoiled, and he plummeted toward the earth, shattering on impact.
“I’m not going to crack, I’m not going to crack, I’m not going to crack,” he repeated, pressing his palms upon his temples as if to keep his skull from splitting apart. “I’m not going to crack…”

Common Sense

Upon the common the villagers gathered,
having sense to know what needed to be done,
and so, being obedient as a well-trained herd,
they complacently waited to see a bit of fun.

While the grim guards marched the widow out
she wept, her head hanging limp and low,
and the crowd gave a triumphant shout—
for they knew all they needed to know.

The guards walked her to the standing stake
in the center of the jumbled wood pile,
and the children laughed in her wake,
taunting her stupidity all the while.

They tied her tightly to that vertical plank
so, try as she might, the cords would not budge,
and there stepped forth a man of imminent rank
within that community: the wigged Judge.

“Goodie Blanford,” he said, “by your peers you have been tried
for the crime of practicing witchcraft
and have been found guilty.” He then stepped aside,
motioning a guard for his oil-wrapped shaft.

“I just gave the sick boy some lemongrass!”
the wretched widow cried. “Only herbal tea
to help his lungs so the Autumn flu would pass.
He would be dead right now if not for me!”

The Judge took the torch, struck it alight,
and lit the sticks at her bleeding feet;
the complacent flock leaned into the sight
as if eager for a delightful treat.

The whole village watched the hungry flames
as if mesmerized by their lurid glow,
and the widow called out each by their names,
begging them to pardon her, let her go.

But she was a witch, this much they knew to be true,
and for that she had to pay a truly mortal penance
as even their young children in attendance knew—
it was, after all, only Common Sense.