The Swamp Witch
by Megan Parker
It began with a question, a deal, a wish.
A child’s barter—a promise of acorns, of berries, of stolen coin.
It ended, as we never thought, with a sacrifice squeezed of words.
On the hem of town, where dirt married water and clung clay-thick to our bare feet— where years of toes and heels stitched paths through swamp grass atwitch with creatures unseen, and zephyrs green with gas slipped through our hair greasy from unwash, where roots unfurled in secret knots, and fawns flicked their velvet ears against our cheeks—there would we find the swamp witch.
She is magic made flesh, a crone of gator skin and boar resolve, who, long ago, was as human as the rest of us. Her magic shaped destinies, her lips spelled fortune and downfall alike. She was fox-clever, and for generations the town sought her guidance, her destinies of scattered salt and painted cards, until her hair wrung silver.
But time is a giving thief. It cut her tongue sharper, and her spells lost their soft edges. She peered into soul-kept secrets and offered the town truths only guilt would nourish. She became devil-kissed, our parents said, and so the town cast her out to the coniferous muck.
Her bones turned to alder branches, her fingers calcified to cloven hooves. She broke teeth on pebbles in her bread, and animal hide furred over memory too human to preserve. She grew into whispers personified, into bedtime stories told to us by mothers who dried their tears with faded Tarot cards, by fathers whose futures were lost in mirrors of moon and gun smoke and blood.
To our parents, she was as ghost.
To us, she was as real as the wishes we carried.
For that is what we brought her. Our wishes, plucked and braided into wreaths of juniper brambles, into quilts woven with anhinga feathers. These offerings we would present to her in exchange for answers, for truths and salvations only magic could have wrought.
On winter solstice nights, we trekked the forested wetlands to find her lair. Each year, her hollowed tree would move to a spot yet discovered. We used to tie ribbons around pin oaks to guide us between seasons, hoping to see her in spring or fall. When they unraveled on a breeze, the youngest of us would drop painted stones from their pockets to mark the path. These too were lost, consumed by hungry water lizards. The stones rattled in their swollen bellies as they darted through the bog like otters.
The swamp witch had made this covenant with us. Only on winter solstices could she re-form as human and ripple the water for our futures. Only on these nights could we pay her in gifts cast from our own hands, in wishes shaped from children’s dreams. If we were worthy, the swamp would lead us to her and home again.
We safeguarded her secret from our parents, who hung nets of sticklewort across our windows and splashed angelica oil on our door lintels to ward away her ghost-spirit. Devilry, they said of her. She’ll trick your soul from your body. She’ll stitch her lies into your tongue.
Each season our numbers dwindled as the oldest of us stepped into adulthood, and magic was snuffed from memories. Superstition then took root in them, a ghost-chill pimpling grown skin. For that, said the witch, was the cost of adulthood.
The grown were blinded to what they did not want to see.
But we knew better.
We have huddled with the swamp witch around fires dug into silt and clay, flames of blue and green leaping skyward from burning, brackish roots. We have rubbed our fingers over the fleshy undersides of skinned raccoons and rabbits, circling oil with our thumbs to preserve the pelts. We have split the fans of gator tails with stone knives to feast on spines of meat. We have mixed moonbeams with swamp water, have drunk the sky of stars.
We could never tell of these moments.
At dawn, the swamp witch would whisper our wishes against the flat of her hooves and cast them into the vermillion glow. We would follow the rising sun through muck and grass, past trunks of dappled maple and calloused blackgum, until our town shed its foggy cloak. And we slipped between the anointed planks of our homes and into bed, our parents still adrift in dreamscapes.
When breakfast hearths blazed heat for salted pork and porridge, we would hear her on a sigh of wind and knew it was done. Our wishes answered in dried stacks of firewood in wet winter, in fathers returned home in summer from the war, in grandparents’ painless dips into the eternal. In bodies free of bruised beatings when magic slips from our lips.
For years, it had been so, the oldest of us raising the youngest of us in stories of the swamp witch, teaching the tots to seal their lips. And we would have kept our promise always, had the swamp witch not broken bond instead.
On our final swamp solstice, the winter night stretched long as a cat against its bones, and we took turns leading each other by lantern light through the rot-ripe mire. We trailed our palms against the prickled skin of black ash, let beards of moss tickle our shoulders, listened to the hiss of wind-washed grass. The littlest among us sang in nervous whispers behind cupped hands:
Thither flies the chickadee
With a wish for you and a wish for me . . .
Around our necks and within our pockets we carried our gifts for her, little treasures made with hope. We listened for her voice in the rattle of branches, in the reedy clack of cattails against our cottoned thighs.
Suddenly, a fox appeared on the path ahead, brown as dried blood in moonlight. He tilted his head as one does to hear a question. His bright eyes, swollen yellow, never blinked from our faces as he spoke his greeting:
Riddles three answer me,
And I will show you in.
Riddle poor, go forth no more,
Else tricks you’ll find herein.
It always went like this. The swamp witch loved her tests, for how else might she trust us? How else might we prove we were not yet grown, had not swayed in our belief? That we were worthy of her gifts?
The cleverest of us had never failed to solve the fox’s riddles. The first two questions we answered true. But the fox showed us his sharp smile on the last.
I walk afore you every day, but you cannot see me. What am I?
We hunched our backs to him, loomed together our fingers as though we could share our thoughts through touch.
Dreams? we wondered. The wind? Might it be the witch herself?
You are the stars, we said at last, triumphant, who are yet unseen in daylight.
Incorrect, replied the fox. His teeth lengthened like knives. But since you answered the first riddles in truth, I will claim but one of you, and still I will show you the way. Otherwise, return home now without spent wishes. Do you accept my bargain?
The smallest girls and boys, still young enough to feel afraid, shed tears in silent drips, but we nodded our heads. This was the way of things. This was sacrifice. The fox walked up to a girl who had not yet grown into her dress. Her hair, bowed with blue ribbon, curled in a red tail down her back, and when the fox nipped her palm, she didn’t startle.
Wide-eyed, we watched her transform in the shadows of the cypress. Her ears shot past her head in twin points. Her muzzle lengthened, her lips drew thin and black. She shrank until her dress belled like a lily around her, until she pulled herself from the seersucker bodice with four paws. Together with the fox, she trotted the path ahead, and we followed the brush of her tail through inky shadows.
Noises collected within the swamp like fat on milk, thickest on that, the longest night in winter, for the swamp never saw a cold December, and all living things rejoiced in its warmth.
When we came upon a tunnel of trees, the foxes stopped and sat back on their haunches.
This is as far as we can lead you, said the he-fox. Do not tarry within this stretch of wood. Do not let the thorns prick you. And whatever you do, do not eat of the fruit. And he and the she-fox darted into the bristly brush.
Let us link hands, we said, to withstand temptation.
We walked single file on our toe-tips through the soft squish of earth, arms stretched taut as bow strings. The night-creatures’ sounds extinguished as the tunnel folded around us. Nameless trees coiled over our heads, twisting their spiked iron boughs toward our faces. Pricked on their spindly fingers were orbs of fruit, glowing gold and bronze in the shadows of the trees. Punctured on spikes, they dribbled honeyed juice in our hair, slicked our joined fingers.
We are nearly there, we whispered to each other. Steady.
But for the hungriest of us, for him whose father came home from hunts empty-handed, this test proved the most difficult. My wish, he had told us earlier that eve, is for a belly full year-round.
From last in line, he stretched out his unheld hand and captured a palmful of golden juice. We turned to warn him, to remind him of the meat the witch would grant to slake his hunger—but his lips were already aglitter, and we could do nothing as a tree bent toward him. It wrapped him so completely in iron limbs as to make him invisible.
It was not until a strange light burst between the branches that the tree showed us the boy, transformed into a glob of fruit, bronzed and shimmering and too dangerous to touch. Trembling, we left him captured on the bough and slipped from the mouth of the forest onto the lip of swamp.
Whoops and chitters of nocturnal creatures exploded around us once more, and in between their night howls, we heard her speak. Now, for courage. Consume but one, and all may enter.
On a log green with ferns, we found three items with our lantern’s glow: a toadstool of slime, a flower of barbs, and a vial of glass.
We gathered our heads together. Our tongues withered as we deliberated, curling away from taste of slime and prick of barb. We debated so long that the moon slipped in the sky.
Surely, we said, we must choose between the toadstool and flower, for what bravery lies in an empty vial? Besides, what if death pours clear and we make it visible?
Ah, spoke the most audacious, but what better way to test our mettle than with mystery? For what courage can be found in reluctance? And despite our protests, she pressed the glass vial to her lips.
Hands over mouths, we waited for her to wilt like a rose or disappear into nothing. But she bloomed instead, beautiful and unscathed.
A tide of wind gushed through our ears and hair and noses in a torrent, bearing the carrion smell of rotting plants and rodents, the sweet laugh of the witch rising above.
Beside the quiet lap of swamp water, where shadow bent solid and moonlight painted all to bone, we found a massive hollowed tree. And before it stooped the swamp witch.
She had wrapped herself in the quilts and sashes we’d sewn for her from wool and feathers. Her cloven feet churned the muck, and her skin overlapped in iridescent black scales like plates of oiled armor, rippling between patches of silver fur. Horns spiraled from her matted skull, and her hair fell in coarse braids to her feet. As we approached, she watched with eyes elliptical, pupils splitting the blue irises like arrows.
My darlings, my darlings, she crooned through jagged, mossy teeth, Worthy of the world’s wishes.
We slipped our acorn beads over her head, tucked sprigs of lavender behind her tufted ears, and placed rocks of sugar beneath her dry tongue. Two coins of gold the richest of us dropped into the folds of her sash, a request she had whispered to us on yesterday’s wind. She kissed our brows each in turn, her humid lips smearing stardust.
I am afraid, my dears, that this is the end of us, she said, bowing her head. My magic is far too aged. My bones are breaking, my lungs are emptying. I use these coins soon to seal my eyes as I journey to lands unknown.
All of us wept and clung to the folds of her feathers and scales. Do not leave us, we begged. Never leave this world. For what is this world without the magic of you?
I must go, she said, stoppering our tears with her hoof tips. I was never meant to live forever. Your offerings have sustained my magic these years past, but no longer. You must understand.
The swamp lamented with us—the wind a serrated screech through our limbs, creatures keening as we sobbed. She embraced us each in turn, inquiring as to our wishes. But we no longer had wishes to offer. Even she could not undo our misery.
Please, we begged. Is there no magic that can spare you? Is there no wish we might make?
The witch paused, and something unfamiliar flickered in her eyes. There is one way, she said, drawing out each word as we drew breath. One way that your wishes might yet be preserved. And then, as if to herself, But how could I ask this of you?
She gave herself a little shake and halted last before the bravest of us, the lovely girl who drank of mystery. The witch lifted her chin delicately with a cloven toe. An exchange.
The girl frowned. Of what?
We all stood in silence, hearts thrumming like wings in bone cages. Beating, beating with trepidation, with fear that felt like hope—
To preserve magic, the witch said, marking us each with her stare, we must nourish it. Dress it in pure belief, in brazen courage. She looked to the brave girl once more. As I once was called to do, and many before me.
And what part do I play? asked the girl, jaw tight but eyes wide. Willing.
The witch offered a sad smile. The worthy sacrifice.
In winters past, we trapped rabbits for the swamp witch. Sliced the delicate membrane between hide and meat, thumbed gore onto each other’s faces as we laughed. We stretched their hides between branches, watched blades of fur bend like grass in wind.
We had never skinned a fur-less thing.
We had never seen the hidden side of human flesh.
It stretched in the most unexpected way, the skin, at once supple and delicate. We didn’t watch what the swamp witch did with the rest, a ritual of bone and veins and muscle. The swamp erupted in a chorus of howls and hisses, and we squeezed together like fingers around a knife, cutting our pain against each other’s shoulder blades, watching dawn rise like a bloody fist.
Sheaves of light poured over the murky water at our feet, the gold rippling past knee-bent cypresses, floating pads of lilies, the graceful leaps of frogs. When the light shimmered over the horizon and night’s wild threnody died on a breath, we turned around.
The swamp witch stood as beautiful and terrifying as she always had, yet something seemed to stir the air around her. Her scales and feathers glistened with an incandescence we had never seen. We looked at her and felt magic rise like bread in our stomachs, warm and full and sweet. She smiled. Her teeth dripped red.
With purpose comes sacrifice, she said. For youth is but a dying ember, its warmth a temporary balm. But magic— She hesitated, meeting our gazes one by one. Magic ignites. It is the lifeblood of the world, the heartbeat that orchestrates our every breath. It is the dream that soothes nightmare, the hope that launches a thousand wishes. Without it, we drown in mundanity, in hopelessness.
She ran a hoof over her newest hide, sunbeams highlighting its tiny hairs. We felt our skin prickle in response. Do no grieve for what is freely given.
And what of our wishes? we asked, trying to summon bravery. We had never felt fear in her swamp, and now our lungs were wet with it. Might we wish for her return?
Magic may never undo a wish, said the witch. And a sacrifice rejected is an insult to truth.
Her words hummed the air around us like a spell. The witch plucked the golden coins from her sash and returned them to the giver. Your wishes have gone stale, she said. Return home. My creatures will guide you safely from the swamp.
As if summoned by her words, the he-fox appeared at the tree line. He sat in silence, his eyes full of ghosts.
She turned toward her hollow tree, looking once more at us over her shoulder. Remember what was lost tonight in pursuit of desire, and likewise what you have gained. Remember that wishes can destroy as equally as they can save, that to find joy we must be willing to bleed. This shall be our new covenant.
And she vanished on a breeze of fur and claws and feathers. A moment later, the hollowed tree winked out of sight.
We traipsed to the edge of the clearing toward the fox, hand in hand and tongues sour with unspoken words. When we turned around, we saw that the brave girl’s skin was gone too. We tried to ignore the way our shadows stretched with lanky fingers and longer legs as we walked beneath dappled boughs.
We tried to ignore the feast of sorrow that gnawed on our spines, the bodies we stepped out of and abandoned to the moss.
Our last refuge of permanence.
Megan Parker is a mom and freelance editor by day and a devourer of worlds by night. She loves weird stories, especially those spiced with dark and creepy twists, but she’s always amenable to happy endings. Her fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Harpur Palate, The Sonder Review, FLARE, and Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulism, among others, and her story “A Good Thing” was the tertiary winner of SNHU’s 2016 Fall Fiction Contest. Currently, she resides in San Angelo, TX, with her husband and daughters, where almost nothing of note occurs. You can find her exploring the world via twitter @MegsMcSparren.