Thursday, October 26, 2006

 

An October Moment...


I don't know how many of you have spent time in southern New Jersey, but I'm here to tell you it's pretty frickin' humid in the summer in the southern part of the state. It's even more so when you get into the swampy, marshy areas of South Jersey, of which there are a great plenitude. They are nearly impenetrable, completely spooky places, filled with the reek of mud and dead things and a million, million buzzing insects. According to local legend, an early settlement was abandoned and lost for centuries in the swamps near our house because in the summer the colonists were overwhelmed by mosquitoes. Over the years, people have found old graves, a cannon and cannonball and other artifacts, but no trace of the original colony site. Little wonder. With all the rains and flooding and the constant change of the landscape, it's surprising that the swamps have retained any man-made features.

But on that hot summer day when I was 13, my friend Shawn and I found all too many gravel roads and dirt tracks throughout the marsh we rode to, looking for the old psychic that neighborhood kids had been calling the Witch Man.

We had found the Marsh Road easily enough--an old, cracked, but nonetheless paved road that led off the main state highway between our little town and the county seat. It had taken the better part of an hour to ride to this crossroad and when we got there, things didn't look too hopeful. The Marsh Road stretched on into the distance, surrounded on either side by drooping phone poles and tall stands of cattails and rushes. We pedaled for some time, looking for mailboxes or turnouts that might signify a blind or overgrown driveway, but after another hour's riding, we seemed to be nowhere: the reeds and rushes of the marsh rose up all around us and it felt somehow like we were trapped on some hellish circular path.

To complicate matters, neither Shawn nor I had thought to bring food or water with us (it was a simpler age, before every bike had a water bottle holder built into it, after all. And it almost goes without saying that we were stupid) so by mid-afternoon, we were both feeling decidedly woozy, from our exertions, from the heat, from the lack of refreshment.

At length, I collapsed under a scraggly tree that offered a feeble amount of shade. Shawn sat with a whoosh next to me.

"This stinks," he said simply.

"No duh," I agreed, wiping my face with the front of my t-shirt. "Maybe next time we'll write this guy a letter."

"Yeah," he nodded, looking up and down the road. "I guess he must have a box at the post office. I was thinking we'd see a mailbox or something." He paused, drumming his fingers on the dirt of the shoulder. "Any chance there's another Marsh Road somewhere around here? I mean, there are a lot of marshes."

"No," I said, shaking my head. I had a map of the county back home and had looked at it that morning.

So we sat there, soaking up the shade, listening to the ever-so-slightly eerie sound of the reeds creaking in the wind. Somewhere not far, I could hear swamp-like noises--the chirping of insects and the galloomphing of frogs as they croaked or jumped into nearby water. I was sure thirsty, but not thirsty enough to go off looking for a pool of swamp water to drink.

"Well, we're only going to get thirstier out here," I said, picking up my bike. Shawn grabbed the one he'd borrowed from my brother and together we started back.

It's just as well that we were as pooped as we were. If we'd been well-hydrated, we probably wouldn't have been coasting as aimlessly and slowly as we had. And if we hadn't done that, we'd never have seen the tire tracks in the mud.

Shawn spotted them first. We'd ridden right by them on our way down the road, but in his meandering along the shoulder, he spotted a treadmark and braked to a stop, pointing.

The marks were easy to miss: well beyond the shoulder of the road, almost invisible under the overhanging reeds. But they were tire tracks. Indeed, tracks on a well-worn path, as it turned out, once we discovered that the overhanging reeds had acted as a perfect curtain, camouflaging the old dirt driveway that led deeper into the swamp.

"Jeez, does this even lead anywhere?" Shawn hissed, not even realizing that his voice had dropped to a whisper.

"Dunno," I said. "But let's leave our bikes here and walk in a bit." So we propped the bikes a little ways off the road and stepped onto the track.

It was almost immediately darker--but no cooler--on that path. The reeds had a most claustrophobic effect, closing over us and the driveway and making us feel very much like lost children in an evil forest. With each squelching step, I could feel the gray mud pulling at my tennis shoes, almost as though some invisible force was trying to yank me underground, or at least steal my footwear.

The catchphrase "feel the fear and do it anyway" was most certainly not in common parlance then, but if it had been, I would have identified with it. Never before have I wanted to do something so little as walk down that driveway. I suppose I could call it foreboding, but really I was just creeped out. And yet I had a feeling that if I didn't lose my nerve, I could learn something useful to help me out with my own personal haunted house mystery.

I wouldn't call the structure at the end of the driveway a house, but no doubt its occupant did. And to be fair, it had at least been a cottage at one time, maybe even a pretty one. But all we saw when we reached the end of the driveway was a dilapidated old shack with peeling clapboards and a rusty sheet-metal roof. In its decrepitude, it reminded me a little of the old family Homestead back in New Hampshire, where my father grew up. Since my uncle had taken over, the Homestead had fallen on hard times and this place looked like it had the same kind of caretaker.

The shack occupied a small circular yard in the middle of the swamp. There was no lawn to speak of, only mud and pools of water in a cleared perimeter around the house. Next to the house was what appeared to be some kind of henhouse (although we saw no livestock during our time there) and stacks and stacks of scrap wood laid up against a truly ancient and rusting furnace-oil tank.

If it wouldn't have been gay as hell, Shawn and I would have held hands as we approached the screen door that stood in front of us, we were that scared. Instead, we simply stood as close together as possible, our arm hairs brushing each other.

Shawn knocked. Instead of a smart rap, the door seemed limp and moist and almost absorbed all sound.

We waited, listening for any signs of life.

Shawn knocked again.

This time, after a long moment, we heard a noise, but not from the house. We heard instead sharp explosions of noise coming from the bushes behind us and to our right. We waited there for a moment on the sagging steps of the house, hearts racing, mentally calculating the distance back up the road to our bikes, wondering what the hell was going to emerge and greet us.

The thrashing continued for a long, agonizing period, and then finally the bushes parted and out stepped the Witch Man.

He was reed thin and covered in head to toe with bits of earth and mud. His clothes--a denim jacket, overalls and a thin cotton t-shirt--were riddled with patches. For all his dishevelment, though, his face was smooth and appeared recently shaven. His hair was more black than gray and unfashionably long, but not tied in a ponytail or anything. I always find myself expecting psychics to be sharp- and clear-eyed, but this old fellow seemed to have vision problems. One eye was almost completely occluded by a milky-white cataract. The other was either black pupil or bloodshot white. I couldn't discern his eye color to save my life.

He stood across the yard, blinking at us. Finally, he pointed to something we hadn't noticed over by the henhouse.

"Water's fresh," he growled at us. "Get a drink, then come in."

Numbly, we did as he bade, moving as one to the pump. I cupped my hands underneath the spigot while Shawn worked the pump. When we switched places, I was surprised to see the man still standing there at his doorway. Maybe I was paranoid, but he seemed to be glaring at me. We locked eyes for a moment, then he went inside, banging his screen door as he did.

"What do you think?" Shawn asked. "Do we go in?"

"We didn't come this far," I said, feeling suddenly much more alert and intrepid, thanks probably to the water. "Let's talk to him."

Both refreshed, we stepped to the door and opened it. I leaned in.

Helloooaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

I said this last because at that moment, just as my eyes were adjusting to the dim interior of the shack, I felt a painfully strong pair of hands grab me by the elbows and all but throw me inside. Instead of landing on the floor, as I expected to, I hit a card chair with a loud squeak and bumped against a scuffed-up old wooden table.

"Get in here!" the man snarled as he stood between me and Shawn. When my friend stepped in, the man grabbed him and pushed him in a chair opposite me. Then he stood over us, glaring.

You know how some people just have no sense of personal space? Well, this guy was like that. He all but stood in my lap, his legs right up against the edge of the chair, staring straight down at me at such an intimate angle that I could actually count his nostril hairs.

Shawn opened his mouth to say something.

"Shut up!" he yelled at him, then turned back to look at me. "I know you," he said finally.

"You do?" I asked weakly.

He nodded, goggling at me with his milky eye. "You have a Mark," he said simply. And the way he said it made me think he capitalized that last word.

"A what?"

"You're Marked. Cursed. You serve him. The other one. Don't lie. I know! My grandmother could see, and so can I."

"I'm not--" I started, then the Witch Man raised his hand and I thought he was going to smack me one across the mouth. To my own disgust, I flinched.

"The problems you have right now. The people in your house. They're restless. You stir them up! Why can't you leave them be?!?" he was getting increasingly agitated as he said this.

"We found the stone. In the driveway. You were at my house once and said there was something buried there! We found it!" I blurted out, then braced, thinking this time the crazy old shit really would clout me.

The man looked first at Shawn, then at me. "You dug up a stone in your drive," he said slowly, as if tasting the words. "But not a gravestone, was it?"

I shook my head. "A carriage stone."

He uttered a harsh, barking laugh. "So you know what a carriage stone is?" he asked, somewhat mockingly I thought. "Well, well. You found the stone."

Shawn swallowed hard, then forced himself to speak. "Do you know why the stone is important?"

The Witch Man scoffed. "How should I know? Think they tell me everything?!? I just know what I'm told." He was no longer amused. He turned and poked me hard in the chest. "You get out. I won't have someone like you in my house. He can stay--" he pointed at Shawn. "I have some things to tell him. Things he should know. But you--you get out. I want you off my land."

Well, I never said I was the most popular kid growing up, but this was taking it too far. Shawn thought so too. "He hasn't done--"

"HE'S MARKED!" the man showed, spraying us a little with spit. And then before either one of us could say anything, he grabbed me by the ear and hauled me out of the chair. Instinctively I grabbed the guy's hand, but then he reached in with his other hand and gave me the mother of all titty twisters, pinching the entire right side of my chest and twisting as hard as he could. I swear I heard ribs splinter. Or I would have, if I hadn't begun shrieking loud enough to shatter glass. See, I'm not the most touchy-feely person at the best of times, and am even less so when I'm 13 years old in a strange old, squalid place, being assaulted by a strange, old, squalid man. I'm just funny like that, I guess.

Shawn yelled too and leapt out of his chair to grapple with the guy. He was a head taller than the Witch Man and a good bit stronger than I was. He grabbed the man's hand and pulled--taking a good bit of my skin and all three of my chest hairs with him. Still, my pal meant well.

"Show him! Show him!" the Witch Man howled.

"Get out! Get out!" Shawn yelled at the same time.

Well, if you had a choice between heeding the advice of a crazy old coot in a swamp and listening to your best friend, which would you do?

Damn right I got the hell out of there.

I practically knocked the old screen door off its hinges and was never so glad to be anywhere as I was when I hit that yard. Immediately, I went to wood pile and selected the first piece I could find that had remotely the same heft as a bat. I had no desire to go back in, but I wasn't pussy enough to leave my friend in there either.

I needn't have worried. By the time I got to the door, Shawn was there, his face as calm and impassive as ever. He had a hand up.

"Stop!" he hissed in that exaggerated whisper of his.

"What?" I asked, heart pounding in my ears. But even above the pounding, I realized the Witch Man was no longer yelling. "You lay him out? He taking a nap? What?"

He shook his head. "He calmed right down when you left. Stay out there. Or go get the bikes. If I'm in trouble, I'll yell." He turned to go back inside.

"You want this?" I asked, handing him the stovelength. Shawn just shook his head and disappeared into the darkness.

I backed away from the steps, still holding the stick.

I stood there in the yard, feeling rather awkward and stupid. From inside, I could barely hear the old man talking in a low voice to Shawn. I couldn't imagine what they were talking about, but I could only hope it was something helpful, and helpful was the one thing I wasn't being standing there. So, after several long glances back, I trudged back up to the road and found our bikes. I stood between them and walked them back to the shack. As I did, I felt even shakier than I had when I was dying of thirst earlier. No doubt it was adrenaline, but I was definitely out of sorts. Now that I had a moment to think, it occurred to me that I was in just the sort of predicament kids were always being warned not to put themselves in. I was in the middle of nowhere, feeling more or less at the mercy of a strange man. No one--and I mean no one--knew where we were. Not my mom, not my brother (who would be very put out if we disappeared, and took his bike along with us). If this old man turned out to be dangerously crazy, there was nothing stopping him from killing us and letting our bodies contribute to the general smelliness of the swamp.

And it was as this happy thought ran through my mind that I heard the car turning off the road and through the reeds of the overgrown driveway behind me.

I had all of three seconds to try and move myself and the bikes off to one side, but I got hung up in the reeds and was truly mired down. The car--a small, beat-up hatchback--stopped about a foot from where I stood.

I braced, not sure what the fuck was going to happen next, but I was reasonably certain that whatever it was, it was going to be bad.

So I was completely unprepared for the sight of a kind-faced woman of early middle years, who opened the door and looked out over the window at me.

"Are you okay?" she asked, with what seemed to be real concern.

Dumbly, I nodded.

"Are you lost?" she asked. "Or were you looking for someone?"

I swallowed, then said. "We came here to see the Witch-- the, uh, Marsh Road Family Psychics."

She smiled again. "Well, that's me," she said. Then she gestured down the driveway. I looked and Shawn was walking slowly and thoughtfully toward us. "Did you already meet my father? I'm afraid he's a bit confused and he can be a bit, well, freaky. You have a look on your face that says maybe he was freaky with you."

My chest twinged in agreement, but Shawn remained strangely silent as he approached.

"You okay?" I asked.

He looked at me. "Are you?" he pointed, and I realized I was holding my chest.

And that was pretty much the climax of our day. I know, I know, totally unsatisfying, totally unlike a really good ghost story, but what can I tell you: my life is so like that. Just when I think I'm traveling down a road that will take me to the answers I need, in the end I just get the mother of all titty twisters and then I'm sent on my way. I wouldn't even find out what the Witch Man said to Shawn for years afterwards.

I will tell you this: For my part, later I did tell Shawn why the Witch Man had freaked me out, and would reveal to my friend something no one outside my family knew: the fact that I was born with a third nipple.

As a kid, I was extremely self-conscious about it, so much so that I was positively traumatized that the Witch Man seemed to know about it. To this day I can't explain how this total stranger, someone I'd never met, would have been aware of it.

But for years before I ever laid eyes on the man, I do remember my mother joking that, had I been born a couple hundred years earlier, I'd have been burned as a witch for my little birth defect.

Third nipples, you see, were historically considered marks put on people who did deals with the devil. Something I had never done, incidentally. But try telling the Witch Man that.

One good thing did come of that meeting, though, and it was the Witch Man's daughter, Ruth. She never freaked me out with any strange revelations about extra body parts, but her advice and guidance would prove invaluable as the years passed and my experiences in the old farmhouse grew even stranger.

I'll tell you all about it.

One of these Octobers.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
Well, MM, very interesting tale there. I look forward someday to hearing more about what Shawn learned. Speaking as a fellow left-hander, I know that there was a time when that was considered a sign of the devil's work, also...so maybe the Witch Man sensed a "double whammy" with you.
 
What? That's it?! You're not going to tell us what Shawn was told? Or even Ruth's advice? Why are you holding out on us?!? Why, why, why?

A thoroughly unsatisfied,
Kat
 
well... that was... okay, it was a great story (yours always are); but you know when you watch a suspenseful television show and some weeks they have a storyline that, while it was good to watch, seems to just be marking time until they can draw you back with the rest of the story next week? Yeah. My husband and I call those "fillers". So this was a blog filler (although I think I just coined a new phrase for the internet). But you know what? We always go back to watch the next week, and anticipate the ending even more.
 
I love the flavor of this piece. It reminds me of IT, by Steven King, which I consider not only the best thing he's ever written, but one of the best novels ever.
 
Count me in as one of the crowd who says "aw, shucks, MM, why'd ya leave us hangin'?" Great story, but leaving out what Shawn was told and what Ruth told you? Totally not fair. Yeah, yeah, we know you're going to be a father and all for the 3rd time and everything, but seriously, October moments are not ones to leave uncomplete!
 
Same questions as Kat and Katie but definitely not unsatisfied by this tale. Excellent job describing the Witch Man -- makes me almost want to dress up as him for Halloween.

Also, since I neglected to leave a comment on your last post due to epic conflicts with blogger, congratulations and best wishes for all yours.
 
ARGH! want more now!
 
Suldog: I disagree. The first *half* of IT was possibly his best book ever. The last half sucked. Lame lame lame. The first half scared the bejesus out of me. I..hate..clowns.. Just the name Pennywise...ooooooooh.
Nice cliff hanger work, MM. You got us frothing for MORE!
Also, sicere congratulations on your newest confection to be.
 
We've still got a few days left of October... I'm going to spend it with my fingers crossed that we get to find out what happened next.

great story, MM
 
9/5/08

For anyone reading this story in the future, what the Witch Man said to Shawn is revealed in a post on
1/30/07. It's the first thing that comes up if you search for "shawn "witch man"" on blogger but I thought I'd just put that in here anyway.
 
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