A Man and a River
The witch that lived near the river was not to be messed with. Everyone in the town knew that. It was just as accepted as gravity, or church on Sundays. Kids threw rocks at the grand houses on the rich side of town or shot pellet guns at store windows, but they never went down to the river, never made their way through the dripping ferns that would’ve left streaks of damp on their clothes in accusations of trespass. When the paved road went through, even it curved like a fat gray serpent away from the witch’s house.
The witch had always been there, that much was agreed upon. Where the witch came from or what the witch looked like couldn’t be settled on. Those who had been in the town the longest said it was an old woman, long hair piled on her head and pierced through with bones and crow feathers. They said she only went out in the night, and that she stole the laundry of those destined to drown in the river’s depths or be dashed to pieces on the rocks. When people in the town found laundry missing, fear would lay a cold hand on them, and they avoided the river like it would swallow them whole.
When the salesman appeared in the town, the townspeople didn’t pay him any mind–they’d had plenty of his like over the years. He moved house to house on the road, selling booze and bleach, and beads the color of the sky. Yards of beautiful cotton prints spilled from the trunk of his car. Packets of seeds filled wilting cardboard boxes, nestled near the sharp heads of gardening tools.
Within weeks, the women of the town had new dresses in cobalt and ivory and lavender, strings of beads in their hair and around their wrists, handkerchiefs white as clouds. Their husbands planted new varieties of seeds and grew fat red tomatoes, and cucumbers as long as their forearms. Shining hatchets hung in garages and sheds.
“You’ve sold to almost everyone in town,” Norton the electrician said, palming a bottle of liquor in his hand as the salesman tucked the money into his back pocket. “Ain’t you gonna run out of things to sell soon?”
“Almost everyone?” the salesman asked, slamming the trunk of the car. He was low on liquor and hatchets and seeds and beads, but he had never left a town without selling at least one thing to everyone in it.
“Well, there’s the witch,” Norton the electrician said and smiled wide to show bare gums. When he was younger, he’d gotten wires crossed rewiring the church, and his teeth had turned black and dropped out of his gums like pearls from charred oysters.
“The witch?” the salesman asked, and pushed his hat farther up on his brow. “What witch?"
“The town witch,” Norton the electrician said. “Every town has a witch.”
The salesman, of course, had sold to a great number of town witches. Usually, they were just old women who chased children out of their yards with threats to rip out their eyes in their sleep, promised curses on grocery store clerks when they packed the cold items right in with dry…or they were just lonely. He could handle town witches.
Norton the electrician had given him some directions but had warned him of the muddy tracks, low branches, and thick brambles. He told him the witch had been prying up the road with crowbars she stole from the mechanics just up the road from the turn-off, but the salesman expected the boggy terrain itself was harder on the road than whatever old woman lived out near the river.
When the salesman’s car got stuck in the mud, he got out, pushed his hat back, and packed ferns and twigs underneath the tires so they had something solid to back onto. When the low branches scratched the top of his car, he stretched the last of his white muslin over the top and secured it with twine to protect the paint. Where the brambles had overgrown the track and caught at his tires, he cut them back with the last of the hatchets until the blade was dull and all the brambles laid aside.
Set behind dripping birches, the house’s sagging front porch was supported by ropes tied to trees. Burnt-out Christmas lights snaked around the tree trunks. Bird bones wrapped in fishing line dangled from the gutters like wind chimes. A dog sat on the porch, snoozing in the summer heat. When the salesman slammed his car door shut, the dog opened one lazy eyelid, took a long look, and dropped back to sleep.
The salesman straightened his shirt, took off his hat to smooth down his hair, and approached the house. The front steps were decorated with curious symbols in faded blue paint, the same paint that was used to cover the peeling porch ceiling. From the open window came the scratchy strains of the blues.
The salesman knocked on the door and a muffled thump came from inside. The door opened and a child stared at the salesman from just behind the doorframe. The salesman’s brows rose in surprise. The child’s eyes were clouded over, set deep above sallow cheeks. One hand wrapped around the doorframe, nails long and black with lacquer. A threadbare silk robe was tied around its waist, tattered lace decorating the sleeves.
“Hello,” the salesman said, forcing a grin over his teeth. “I just finished my rounds in town, and someone mentioned you lived out here, and I was wondering if I could interest you in some new wares. Do you mind getting your mother for me?”
“I am the mother,” the child said, its voice like water pouring over rocks, low in its throat, betraying its age.
The salesman cleared his throat. “I see. The townspeople just said that you might be interested in some—“
“The townspeople are fools,” the witch said. It left the door open behind it as it moved to stand on the porch. A dirty mirror on the far wall seen through the doorway revealed a sagging couch and a sewing machine. The machine was threaded with something black—thick thread or human hair. The salesman shivered.
“I see you sew,” the salesman said and gestured at the reflection.
The witch blinked.
“I have some beautiful fabric. I’m out of muslin, but you could still make a dress, or maybe a table cloth,” he said, moving his head to see more of the room beyond, able to just make out a dark wood table that stood precariously on four different legs. Its surface was slick with dark liquid, which dripped onto the floor below. “All the women in town have new dresses now. Wouldn’t be fair if you didn’t get one too.”
The witch pulled its robe tighter around itself. “I am not a woman and I have no need for new clothing,” it said. “Did the townspeople not warn you about me?”
The salesman dropped the smile. “They did. They said you were a witch. But I’m not interested in what you are. I just know I have some fine things to sell, and anyone can use some fine things. I’ve sold to other town witches before.”
The witch stepped closer and narrowed its murky eyes. The salesman backed up, almost falling down the porch stairs. “I am not a witch,” it said.
The salesman cleared his throat. “But you –“
The witch spat off the porch, its spit dark. “They call me that in the town. I have been here since before anyone was called witch, and I will remain long after. I give those in the town something to fear in the dark, keep them away from my river…. But, let me see what fine things you have.”
The salesman unrolled bolts of beautiful fabric and the witch rubbed them all between its fingers mutely. He showed the witch the blunt hatchet and promised to sharpen it. The witch pointed to its own hatchet, blade edge glinting in the afternoon sun. The salesman showed the witch the bleach, the sky-beads, the liquor. To each it stayed impassive while its milky eyes followed his every movement.
“Nothing catches your eye?” the salesman asked after the last of his wares had been brought out. The witch picked up a bead and held it up to the now-fading sunlight.
“Glass breaks,” it said. “Fabric tears. Hatchets dull. Bleach dilutes. Liquor sours. All impermanent, all empty. You are a seller of illusion.”
The salesman looked around at the witch’s decayed house, at the bones and lights, at the broken lawn chair, and at the rusted pump dripping river water like an hourglass marking the minutes in steady tack tacks. “You need nothing,” he said.
The witch shook its head and raised one sharp-nailed finger. “I desire nothing,” it said. “I have a river. I have a dog. I have a house. I have a town that fears me and leaves me alone. What else ought I want in this cruel world of ours?”
The salesman pushed his hat higher up on his brow in defeat. “Well, I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time,” he said. “You have a pleasant evening.”
The witch followed him to his car, the dog shambling at its heels. The salesman offered his hand, and the witch took it. Its palms were surprisingly cool.
“I’ll come back with something you want,” the salesman said. “I’ve never not sold to someone before, and I’m not about to lose my streak.”
The witch took a step back and, silhouetted in sunset, watched as he drove away.
The salesman came back every year and bore magazine subscriptions, stained glass, necklaces, rings, kites, scarves, and cloth of every color. The people of the town grew used to him, and he learned all their names. “There goes the witch’s salesman,” the old folks would say. They sat out on their porches and watched their grandchildren chase each other down hot asphalt streets, the river glimmering in the distance. “He’ll never learn, that one.”
Each year the witch would wait in its yard while its dog loped towards the car, red tongue lolling. The salesman stayed a little longer each time, and the witch showed him how to spot eddies in the current, what mosses he could eat. It taught him how to clean a fish and they squatted together over the carcass, their hands and wrists slick with blood. He learned that the symbols on the steps were runes, and he understood their meaning. In turn, the salesman told the witch about the wars, about his children, the way the sun caught skyscrapers tall as giants. He showed the witch books about atoms and cells, and the witch spat and told him it’d like to keep the mysteries it had left.
“You’re a real witch aren’t you? I mean really,” the salesman said many years into their friendship. The witch eyed him and returned to tending the fire. A chicken twisted on a spit and its skin cracked and oozed clear juices.
“I am not a witch, child. You should know that by now,” it said. “I come from the river, and the river comes from me. We are one and the same. They’ve called me all manner of names, witch among them. But I am me, and it is me, and we are one, and you’ll keep a civil tongue in your mouth if you expect me to buy anything.”
But the witch never bought anything from him. No beads or buttons, strings or skillets, liquor or lotion. The salesman grew old but never stopped coming. And the witch still waited for him. It made him a chair out of bowed branches so that he had something comfortable to sit on, and it brewed him tea out of roots and leaves that tasted bitter, but helped his memory.
The witch grew older too. Its resplendent smooth skin turned a delicate crepe, its graceful fingers curled like fiddleheads. While the rest of it aged, its eyes brightened, until irises of startling green, like moss-covered rock, emerged.
When the salesman missed a year, and then another, the witch carried on with its old ways, cooking its fish and casting its spells for rain and flood and thunder, though more often than not, the weather did what it wanted.
One day, a car pulled up in front of the house. The witch had grown used to the quiet—the rumble of the motor made its skin prickle in irritation. The witch stepped onto the creaking porch. The salesman’s car sat in the yard. But when the door opened, not a salesman, but a boy got out. He was carrying a box. The witch’s dog bared its teeth at the stranger.
“Are you the witch?” the boy asked.
The witch gave a sharp jerk of its head, opened its mouth to argue over the name he had given it.
“My father said I could find you here.”
“You’re the salesman’s boy,” the witch said. Its voice creaked from disuse.
The boy nodded.
“Your father never sold me a thing, and you aren’t likely to either.”
“I’m not here to sell you anything,” the boy said. “Besides, I’m not as good a salesman as he was. He could sell a lie to a liar. He left some things for you, though, in his will.”
“I don’t want it,” the witch said, and turned away.
“You can throw it out then,” the boy said. “But you should take it anyway.”
The boy set the box on the ground. “I’m just going to leave it here,” he said, then drove away.
The box sat in the witch’s yard overnight. The dog nosed at it, and let out a small whine, but came when the witch called it away.
In the morning, the witch opened the box. Inside was a sketch of the witch, hunched over a fire. A handful of blue beads rattled around the bottom of the box, a dirt-streaked scrap of muslin was twined around a dull hatchet.
The witch cried for the first time in as far as it could remember. Its tears left rivulets that ran through the dirt to the river. The witch carried the box down to the rocky bank, and let the hatchet, the beads, and the muslin slide into the water. It tucked the picture into its robe over its heart, and there it remained, until the roads came too close. When the bulldozer knocked down the last stand of trees, the witch slipped into the river too, dissolving into streaks of foam. The picture stayed on the mossy rocks, caught on some bare roots, until the rains came and washed it into the river, where it too disappeared in time.
Megan Tilley lives in the Florida panhandle with a small army of rodents and a spider named Bashful. Her work has appeared in Fictionvale, Quailbell, The Rectangle, and the Deep Dark Woods Anthology, among others. She collects ghost stories, biscuit recipes, and various small skulls, and has an enduring love affair with rose-flavored lemonade.