Earlene and the Witch, fiction by Misty Skaggs

Ivy swad­dled the sapling oak in the tat­tered remains of a patch­work quilt that got washed one too many times. The stuff­ing seeped out and clung to the young branch­es in worn white puffs, like tired clouds. She was care­ful not to tuck it in too tight around the roots. Dank dirt clods and frayed, stray threads lit­tered the kitchen table. She rubbed her grub­by hands over the fad­ed fab­ric and let her cal­lus­es catch and snag tight, resilient stitch­es final­ly worked loose. Her thoughts grazed across the needle­work, too tiny and del­i­cate for a scrap quilt. And then they wan­dered back to the patient woman who must’ve made those stitch­es. Ivy had giv­en fifty cents for the thing at a yard sale, talked ‘em right down from three bucks. Somebody’s sweet lit­tle Mamaw had been so care­ful, made such nim­ble moves with arthrit­ic fin­gers. That woman had to have been the kind of Mamaw who made drop dough­nuts while you slept in late and filled the kitchen with the smells of sug­ar and lard and cof­fee brew­ing. The kind of Mamaw with a puff of white hair pulled back in a bun, a woman who pre­ferred to be called Nana. Nana, who gave hugs freely and touched and loved on her grand-babies who grew up to be inap­pre­cia­tive ass­holes who sold her quilt at a god­damned yard sale.

Ivy’s Mamaw had raised her and she pre­ferred to be called Ear­lene. By all. There were no con­ces­sions for the grand-babies, no cute nick­names or hand­made quilts. No get­ting spoilt. They were expect­ed to pull their weight and help make the ends meet and to pay extra for the mis­takes of their father. The biggest one of all being run­ning away and leav­ing Ear­lene and her tat­tered twen­ty acres behind him. Dad­dy dis­ap­peared from the home­stead and slunk off into some big city and six months lat­er they sent his body back to the holler, cold as a wedge and stiff as a board and rid­dled with nee­dle marks and bruis­es. Mom­my killed her­self six months on after that. Slop­py, with a shot­gun in the cel­lar of Earlene’s house. In the cel­lar right below Ivy’s feet. Ivy didn’t remem­ber the dou­ble dose of death that had been her birth right, but peo­ple talked.

Ear­lene made damned good deer jerky. That was as close as she got to bak­ing treats. If you won her approval, you were reward­ed with a way­ward tou­sling of the hair and a mum­ble. Some­thing akin to “You done good, kid". Ear­lene had a coarse, gray head of hair, stained with nico­tine and nap­py, slapped back in a per­ma­nent pony tail. She was tall and broad, even in her old age when her spine humped up and she slumped over ever so slight­ly. The boys, Ivy’s lit­tle broth­ers, they didn’t stick around to watch Ear­lene get old and die. They broke loose as soon as they were old enough and she nev­er heard from either of them again. Ivy missed them. The way they had laughed often and easy and kept things around the house all riled up. Ear­lene blamed Ivy’s Papaw. Said he had bad blood, the kind that wan­dered. Said he passed it down. Papaw went to work in Detroit when Ear­lene was a young woman and nev­er sent for her and nev­er come back. Nev­er sent her a nick­el towards rais­ing her son, nei­ther. That’s what Ear­lene said. In this house, by her­self, Ivy could almost hear that famil­iar grav­el voice, grit­ty in her ear.

Ivy watched her grand­moth­er age, the two of them alone in the mid­dle of all those acres. They plant­ed a gar­den by the stars and the almanac and ate what they grew and bare­ly used the elec­tric. Towards the end, Ear­lene took to the out­house. Walk­ing through the cold night air to squat over a ply­wood hole instead of using her own, warm, toi­let down the hall. Togeth­er, they were cling­ing to the past, hold­ing on so hard they might rip a hole in the right now. So tight they might tear through the fab­ric of time with their dirty fin­ger­nails and bring back the dead. Ear­lene got super­sti­tious. She sprin­kled salt water around her bed and tacked up horse shoes above all the doors. She refused to clip her toe­nails on Sun­day and slept with a pock­et Bible in her pil­low case, even though Ivy nev­er remem­bered her set­ting foot in a church.

Ear­lene was still stout and stur­dy and she tromped around in boots that her grand­daugh­ter could still hear, haunt­ing a huffy path over loose floor­boards at night. One time, the only time Ivy ever saw Ear­lene scared, a bird got into the house. She cried. Ivy’s Mamaw, the woman who would kill a cop­per­head with one swift strike of her hoe and then hang it on the fence for all the oth­er snakes to see, hun­kered down on a stool in the cor­ner of the kitchen and stared at the lit­tle wren and wept and trem­bled. A bird in the house is bad luck of the worst kind. A bird in the house brings death. Ear­lene said she learned to look for omens.

Ivy went to the gro­cery store and bought packs of pork chops and bacon and packs of ground ham­burg­er meat, but Ear­lene still went hunt­ing. Said she pre­ferred the taste of some­thing wild. Ivy stood at the kitchen win­dow one fog­gy Octo­ber morn­ing and wait­ed up into the bright after­noon and then until the dusky evening mist rose up again. Ear­lene nev­er came back. Ivy expect­ed to dis­cov­er that well water and out­door toi­lets and Vir­ginia Slims were the secret to eter­nal life. She nev­er expect­ed her Mamaw to die at all. Ivy had expect­ed to make squir­rel dumplings or maybe rab­bit stew for sup­per. She nev­er expect­ed to dis­cov­er her Mamaw hav­ing a heart attack under an oak tree, clutch­ing her chest with one hand and her shot­gun with the oth­er. Ear­lene had a hor­ri­fied look on her face and her tough voice cracked into whis­pers and she blamed the witch for the way her hard heart burst. Said she saw her, stand­ing there at the edge of the clear­ing. A pale woman, fuzzy around the edges, call­ing to her from some­where else, some­where far away. Earlene’s last breath was a curse against a curse. A damna­tion of some female pow­er only she had wit­nessed, the vision of a beau­ti­ful beast who took away her boys, her men. Earlene’s last breath was a whirl­wind — a hex and a damna­tion and an extri­ca­tion of a promise from the only per­son who stuck around to hear it.

Ever since that bird got in the house, Ear­lene want­ed to trek out to the ceme­tery after every thun­der­storm, any time she thought she saw a stab of light­ning cut through the air and land on the ridge. She was scared of the omens. Ivy fol­lowed her through the wet woods to the most haunt­ed place. On many a morn­ing when the rain­drops were still caught in the trees, Ivy watched her tired Mamaw lean against the trunk of a tree, reas­sured to find it still stand­ing. Ivy shook her head and shook off a shiv­er and took up her bun­dle. Deter­mined to find the old grave­yard on the fur­thest cor­ner of the prop­er­ty, she head­ed out into the sun­rise light of day. She remem­bered the way.

Today, there was no mist seep­ing down off the foothills, just pink and orange light chas­ing the night away. No, Ivy thought, Ear­lene wasn’t the kind of woman who made quilts. She was the kind of woman who knew when to slaugh­ter a hog, accord­ing to how the plan­ets aligned. The kind of woman who didn’t want to be called Mamaw, the kind of woman who’s final wish­es involved plant­i­ng a brand new tree on an old witch’s grave.

skaggsMisty Skag­gs, full time writer and part time her­mit, was born and raised in the back­woods of east­ern Ken­tucky where she still lives. Her poet­ry and prose are root­ed firm­ly in Appalachia and have been pub­lished in lit­er­ary jour­nals such as New Madrid, Inscape, Pine Moun­tain Sand & Grav­el, Kudzu and The Pikeville Review. Her inter­ests include junk shop­ping, porch swing­ing, and cats. You can find more of her writ­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy at her blog — http://​lip​stick​hick​.tum​blr​.com

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