The Witches of Poscataw County

As I drove home that afternoon I felt a dull ache that started in my gut and gradually spread up my chest and down my arms and legs and finally found a roosting place in the front of my head, taking on the quality of a migraine.  I was tempted to drive back to the blue mailbox and wait for the postman to come and intercept the envelope before it could reach David Drysdale, but I knew good and well that wouldn’t work.  I’d cast my die.

When I got home I found Cathy was the only one there.

‘Where’s Helen?’

‘She went looking for you.’

Somehow this didn’t surprise me.

Cathy turned the subject away from my girlfriend and back to our little game of the night before.

‘Jackson, do you know anything about some gunshots fired?  Down the road a couple miles?  Guess some fellow dressed in silver tried to assault Mary Cathaway.’

‘I haven’t a clue.’  I fought back an embarrassed smile.

‘It’s on page four of today’s paper.’

It wasn’t a long article—more of a blurb than anything else, falling under the ‘Crime Report’ section:

A woman on Route 19 reported that she was attacked by a man wearing silver.  ‘I was out getting the mail,’ the woman said.  ‘And he attacked me.  I ran back to the house to get my gun and found him creeping up my road, all sly-like.’  The unidentified man is still at large.

‘I’m famous.’  The humor of the situation was an idle escape from the reality of what I’d just done.

‘Pretty good press,’ Cathy said.

‘How’d you know it was Mary Cathaway?’

‘She called here this morning asking if I’d seen anything suspicious.  She didn’t elaborate but when I saw this I figured it out.  I don’t know too many people who’ve been shot at.  And Mary Cathaway’s a witch.’

‘Really?’

‘That’s what they say.  Serves her right.’

I was now intent on a second act.  I visited the Poscataw City K-Mart to stock up, purchasing a new pair of running shoes (generic brand with Velcro straps), clear-lensed ski goggles, a synthetic hunting hat, Russell Athletic shorts (black), and a can of silver spray paint.  At one point I paused, wondering if I was asking for it: would Peter Bingham’s next set of photographs depict me in silver?  I shrugged off all worry.  I’d done all I could about Peter Bingham.

When I got home I spread out newspaper.  I painted the shoes and hat silver.  With a brush I got the rims of the goggles.  Consistency is essential in the branding of a superhero.

Feeling motivated, I had the LeBaron hauled away around noon.  It cost a couple-hundred bucks, which I expensed to the Cannabis Fund.

‘Get it out of here,’ I said, handing the tow-truck driver a wad of bills.  In a final moment of sentimentality I thought to take a picture or at least retrieve Tito’s burnt plastic corpse.  I took hold of the charred mannequin’s arm and it broke loose, splintering ash.  I threw the ashen limb into the back seat.  So much now depended on Luscious Jackson.

I waited until midnight to unleash my new costume.  Helen watched as I obsessed over the clock.

‘You gearing up to go somewhere?’

‘Not really.  Might go for a run later.’  Helen raised an eyebrow but didn’t push it any further.

I hid my silver outfit in a gym bag, stashing the bag in the woods behind the house.  At midnight I pulled on the tame black Russell shorts and a vanilla t-shirt.

‘So you’re going?’  Helen was disappointed.

‘Yeah, I was going to go run.’

‘Why don’t you come to bed.’  She put her arms around me and began to squeeze.  ‘You can go for a run tomorrow.  You were gone all day.’

‘I’ll be back in an hour—will you wait up for me?’  Helen withdrew the hug and took a step back.

‘No I’m going to bed.’  She turned her back on me.  ‘Where were you, anyway?’

‘Out and about—running errands.’

‘More lies.’  I didn’t dignify her comment, instead heading for the door.  Once I got clear of the house I donned my costume.  The tight silver shorts slid up over my uncooperative ass.  I buttoned down the silver shirt and set my goggles in place and laced my silver sneakers and hit the road.  I tried to find some solace, knowing that Peter Bingham would pay.  But try as I might I couldn’t get beyond the image of my father hefting the Sunday Times and finding David Drysdale’s account of Clyde King’s final days.  It was a given now that I must confront my father, bring him the letters and see what he had to say for himself.  Now if only I could work up the courage to do so.

I didn’t stop running until I reached Mary Cathaway’s driveway.  I ran up the driveway, sacrificing stealth for speed.  When I reached the house there was only the porch light.  I flanked the place and came in from behind, choosing a large window for prime viewing.  I raised my eyes to the threshold and was startled to see Mary Cathaway leaning over a stove, offering her profile.  If not for the window between us I could have reached out and tapped her on the shoulder.  She was younger than I’d realized, in her early forties.  She had shoulder-length black hair and it fell in front of her face as she leaned over to tend stove, concentrating on a heavy black cauldron.  You could cook an adult male in a pot that size.

She was an attractive woman, with dark features framing pale skin, but she looked tired.  I imagined her as a tender witch, spent after a long day of craft.  I could see her mouthing something to the cauldron.  Through the glass I faintly heard her incantations: ‘Around the pot you go, blackened okra row.’ She stirred with a heavy ladle.  I saw a frog leg pop up from the surface.  It made a swift kick before she pushed it down with the ladle.  ‘Listen to the big pot go bubble.’ The act of stirring somehow seemed erotic.  I could think of worse things than being seduced by a witch.  ‘Some hemlock I dug up in the dark.’ Suddenly she turned and looked right at me through the window.  I bolted.  I was down the driveway when I heard the screen door bang open.  A rifle report confirmed her opinion on all things related to me.  I made for the road and didn’t stop running till I got home.

When I woke up the next morning I went looking for Cathy.  I wanted to know more about Mary Cathaway.  My nocturnal activities were turning into an obsession—a straw man for what really concerned me.

‘Why do people say she’s a witch?’

‘She puts spells and hexes on people, that’s why.  You get on Mary Cathaway’s bad side and you’re in trouble.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well one time, when we were little, Mitchell got caught trespassing.  She dragged him back home and gave him an earful.  She said she was gonna make Mitchell pay for what he’d done.  The next day he woke up with the chicken pox.’

‘Huh.  That’s kind of strange.’

‘And then once, a few years ago, they had a gumbo cook-off down at Poscataw East Elementary and she brought the winning gumbo.  Everyone thought it was just the best gumbo they’d ever had but it turned out to have some other affects.  It made people really…really, um…well, sexually aroused.’  I recalled the stewing cauldron.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well…I shouldn’t say.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s kind of embarrassing.’

‘How so.  C’mon: you can tell me.’

‘I heard….I heard…’  Cathy gestured then, pointing toward her mother’s bedroom.  I looked at Cathy, dumb for a moment, before it registered.

‘Your Mom?’  She nodded as color rose to her cheeks.  ‘With who?’

‘I don’t even know.  That’s the worst part.’

‘Aunt Faye making the rounds!’

‘There were other stories, too.  People around town.  It was weird.’

‘Did you have any of the gumbo?’

Cathy nodded.

‘Well…what was it like?’

The color in her cheeks deepened.  She clicked her heels together in embarrassment.

‘It was…different.’

‘Like what kind of different?’

More color in the cheeks.  When she spoke it came out in a gush.

‘It was like being on the edge of the best orgasm you’ve ever had.’  She was beyond red.  She tossed her blond hair, trying to act casual.  ‘There were three children conceived in Poscataw that night, or that’s what people say…but that’s just an urban legend.’

‘Rural legend you mean?’

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’  That sealed the deal.  I’d been curious before; now I was downright intrigued.  Around 1 a.m.—after Helen was in bed—I slinked out of the house.  I had a new tool that night: an expired credit card.  The cat-burglar’s weapon of choice.

I ran the distance to Mary Cathaway’s; the house was dark.  Her lock was old, and the deadbolt wasn’t in use.  I slid the credit card in the crack between the door and the frame.  I had to work it for a while and had already bent two of the four edges beyond recognition when I felt the card slide into the lock.  I slowly opened the door, but not slowly enough to keep it from creaking.  I slipped inside the dark house.  I felt a wall to my right and open space in front of me. I saw a window opposite the door.  It cast the slightest light—enough to make out the shape of a lampshade and a couch next to it and, on the couch…

A woman.  With a rifle over her knees.

I saw movement—a flutter in the darkness—and then there was light.  Mary Cathaway’s hand retreated from a light switch to the barrel of the rifle, which she stroked sensuously.  She eyed me with wisdom in her crows’ feet.  She wore a thin bathrobe that draped her figure.

‘What are you doing here?’

It was a simpleton’s calling card but I said it anyway.

‘I heard the story about the gumbo.  I wanted to try some.’  She smiled.

‘What have you heard?’

‘I heard it’s a sexual stimulant.’

‘More of a virility agent,’ she corrected me.  ‘Think Viagra Stew.’  I wet my lips.  ‘And you want to try it?’  She smiled but kept both hands on the rifle.  ‘Why the getup?’  I didn’t know what she meant.  ‘Take off your goggles.’  Oh, yeah… I did as told.  ‘I’ve got something stewing.  You came at a good time.’  I caught the aroma: rich and biting.  ‘The secret is the local okra.’  She rose to her feet, rifle in hand.  With her other hand she took my wrist and led me to the kitchen.  She set down the rifle on the counter and picked up a ladle.  ‘Get me some okra.’  She pointed to the sink.  I picked up a pod.  It was sticky with a deep green skin and dark brown freckles.  ‘There is a special breed in Poscataw, if you know where to look.’  She leaned over the cauldron, dipping the wide wood ladle into the mix.  I could see it was hearty, full of rich rice and beans and colorful vegetables.  Mary Cathaway sampled the mix, smacking her lips.  ‘It is ready.’

She reached above the stove to pull down two wooden bowls.  The fabric of her robe parted and I saw the curve of her breast.  She may have seen me looking because when she handed me the empty bowl she held me with her eyes.

‘You can dish yourself up.’ I sank the ladle into the mix, sweeping the spoon through once, then again (looking for a frog leg) before serving a heavy portion.

‘Have a seat,’ she said.  The table was made for two.  I could feel my knees against Mary Cathaway’s.  My first bite caught me off-guard.  I fought off tears to get it down—so spicy.  ‘What do you think?’  Mary Cathaway leaned toward me.  Her thin robe parted and again I could see the lines of breasts.  I tried to keep my eyes off her.  Don’t let the witch seduce you.

‘It’s great,’ I said over a full mouth, meaning it.  There was a tasty reward if you could stomach the kick, brash as a Dixieland trumpet.

‘What are you doing out here?’ she said.  ‘Most people would know better than to come back a second time, let alone a third.’

‘I’m…curious.’

‘There’s something else afoot.’  She stood up.  ‘Care for something to drink?’

‘Yes please.’  I said it over a full mouth.

‘What’s on your mind, boy.’  She poured me a tall glass of something brown—I wasn’t sure what—from a wooden pitcher.  When she brought me the glass the drink crackled with carbonation.

‘What is this, Coke?’

‘Drink it.’  She resumed her seat and I felt her foot nudge against mine.  ‘It goes with the gumbo.’

I took a tentative sip.  The drink coated my tongue with a rich chocolate sheen.  The bubbles must have been from something other than carbonation; the beverage went down easy.

‘Now tell me what’s on your mind,’ she said.  ‘I would have shot you by now if I didn’t sense you had something interesting to say.’

I had a mouthful and took the opportunity to collect my thoughts.  Something about the way she looked at me—she’d see through a bullshit veneer.  I noted the rifle sitting on the counter, just within her reach.

‘I’m…I need to confront my father.’  I took another sip of the brown drink.  It seemed to open up my throat and encourage talking, like some sort of truth serum.

‘But you are afraid.’

‘We’re…we’re not on the best of terms.’  Mary Cathaway brushed her dark hair back from out of her eyes and tucked it behind her ear and looked over my shoulder with a pensive slant to her mouth.

‘I know the man.’  She said it softly, more to herself.

‘Johnson Calvert?  How?’

‘I know everyone in Poscataw.  Everyone who has ever come or gone.’  She turned back and leveled sharp eyes on mine.  ‘Even you.’

‘Do you know what he did?’  Again, Mary Cathaway looked away.  I loaded up my spoon with gumbo.

‘I see it…faintly.  You fear you are like him.’  I forgot about the loaded spoon and the gumbo slid off and onto the tablecloth.

‘Nevermind that,’ she said without looking at the brown stain.

‘How do you know?’  I set down my empty spoon in the bowl.

‘You’re not the first to want such things.’  She smiled.  ‘Or the last.  Do you think confronting him will help?’

‘I don’t have any choice.  Things have been set in motion.’

‘What will you gain?’  I picked up my spoon and resumed eating.

‘I’ll find the truth.’

‘That matters very little.’  Her eyes drifted down to the gumbo and I focused all my attention there.  I made quick work of my midnight snack after that.  An empty bowl in front of me, I leaned back and put my hands on my stomach.  I couldn’t remember a more satisfying meal.  But there was something missing.  I couldn’t pinpoint it at first but then it became clear: I felt the overwhelming desire to ravish Mary Cathaway.

‘What’s on your mind now, boy?’

‘Nothing.’  Mary Cathaway knew better than I did.

‘You have to decide,’ she said.  ‘Are you staying with me or did you have someone you wanted to get home to?’

I swallowed hard.  ‘I’ve got someone to run home to.’

‘Well then ta ta.’  She began to clear the table.  ‘A glass of milk for the road?’

‘No.’ I wasn’t sure if I could run home with a full stomach.

‘I won’t be seeing you anymore, will I?  Running around my woods?  Peeking in my windows?  Breaking into my home?’

‘No I don’t think so.’

‘Good.  Because next time I won’t let you go.’

I went running back to the house, fighting off stomach cramps in the name of my libido.  When I got there I went straight for the bathroom, peeling off my costume and scrubbing down in the shower.  Then I woke Helen.

‘You’re back,’ she said, groggy.  ‘I was beginning to think I’d finally gotten rid of you.’

I climbed into bed and nuzzled up next to her, wrapping one arm around her and pulling her against me.

‘It’s late,’ she said, smacking her lips.  Her scent—on top of whatever it was I’d eaten—had me ready to go.

‘It’s too late for this,’ she said, feeling me for the first time.  Without a word I began to run my hands through her hair and let them roam down her body.

‘Jackson…’  She said it as a way of warding me off but I could already feel her resolve slipping.  I breathed heavy, tasting the soft skin along her neck and moving down.  She whimpered slightly, now whispering my name and yielding to the night.  We moved together and I could feel our bodies aligned.  Helen’s whispers gained volume but lacked words.  She began to cry out, griping at me with an urgency fueled by the recognition that for one night at least I wasn’t going to get away.

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