XII: Poor Valley Witch. Landon’s Path.

Welcome to the twelfth installment of Poor Valley Witch! This is a serial short story I’m writing as I go along, with minimal editing. I have to admit, it’s gotten a little creepier than I had expected. If you’re just tuning in, click here to go back to the beginning. Feel free to leave your comments below!

Read on, reader!

***

Landon and his mother trudged down the faded, cracked, asphalt road to hell. They passed the house trailer where Landon had run over the corpse of a dog, and two boys (heathens. minions. lost boys.) had drug it out from under the car by its leg. The old woman stood near the canted cement steps to her front door, watching silently as they went past.

Out of some sense of ironic fatalism, Landon raised a hand in greeting. She shook her head and he thought that was all she’d do, but she hesitated and then waved in return before turning and walking around the back of the trailer house. The boys were nowhere to be seen.

“Friend of yours?” his mother asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “We go way back. I ran over her dog.” She looked over at him, perplexed by his glibness.

“It was already dead,” he said, as though this explained the whole story. They walked along a few more steps, heading into the woods. The light dimmed immediately, as though they’d crossed a substantial border. It felt nice under the trees, though; the morning sun was starting to get hot back there, baking up at them from the old blacktop.

Landon was about to open his mouth to say so, when a resounding CRACK sounded in the air, causing his heart to jump into his throat. This time it was he who put the “Mom-belt” in front of his mother, pushing her back in time to miss being hit by a falling tree by mere inches. They both fell back on their asses, breathing hard, studying the slim oak over the road in front of them. Slim by tree standards, but still substantial enough to have knocked them out, or worse.

“She’s trying to kill us!” Landon’s words came out in a high-pitched wheeze.

“No,” said his mom, struggling to get up. Shaking with adrenaline, Landon pushed himself up off the road and extended a hand to help her out. “No, if she wanted us dead, we’d be dead. Trust me. It’s cat and mouse.”

“Nice,” he answered. They flinched as more trees fell over the road beyond, one after the other like dominoes, except out of sequence. Their road had become vastly more difficult. The woods echoed with crackling limbs and the ground shivered beneath their feet with each impact.

“Nice,” said his mother, wryly. They looked at each other, still breathing heavily, then broke out into matching grins.

“So,” said Landon. “Are we being blocked, or herded?” The last trip he’d taken down this way—what, two days ago?—he had lost memory of this part of things. He’d ended up just outside the witch’s house, about to open the makeshift plywood door. But he’d chickened out, and she’d made fun of him, and he’d been spit out by the valley back in town, at the old gas station. So what was she doing with them now? More cat and mouse, but he had a gut feeling that she didn’t want to drive them away, just freak them out on their way to her.

Landon took his mother’s hand and started back the way they’d come, back toward the trailer house, toward the sunny part of the road.

“What are you doing?” she asked. She didn’t resist him, though; she sensed he was working an angle. She was just genuinely curious about his motive.

“Not sure yet. Trying to flush it out.”

“Flush what out?”

“That.” Landon stopped and nodded his head toward the two boys he’d seen at the trailer house a couple days earlier. They were around, after all, and they were peering out at them from up in a couple trees, just up the bank from where Landon and his mother stood on the road. “Them. I think we just found our guides to the path we’re supposed to take.”

The two travelers scrambled to climb the bank even as the two boys jumped down from their perches in the trees. They were shirtless, and dirty in the way that boys who play in the woods always are. They didn’t say anything, just turned and started walking away from the asphalt, up a path that wouldn’t have been visible from any vehicle down below.

Landon and his mother followed.

They hadn’t gone far when Landon realized he was alone with the boys. He stopped short, looking around wildly for his mother. She was gone. Gone. Disappeared, with no word, no sigh, no rustle of undergrowth. He opened his mouth to call out for her when one of the boys was suddenly by his side, taking his hand. Landon looked down, bewildered, and the boy shook his head, bringing one finger to his lips. Landon looked around again, hoping that his mom had only stepped off the path to pee, or something, but the boy tugged his hand insistently. He scooped air with his free hand toward the path, in the universal sign that meant “Come on! Get going!”

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Landon followed, his spirits plummeting. They’d said he’d have to sacrifice himself. Mamaw had mentioned it, first, and then his mom had said it outright. She’d said he’d have to give himself to the witch. It was the only way, she’d said. He had hoped, up until this moment, that she had a plan, some master, secret way to defeat the witch in the valley. He kept waiting for her to reveal it to him, on their walk. But she’d turned tail and run. Left him. That was it, after all.

The boys led him around the bend in the path. It was totally silent in the woods. Not even a bird trilled, or frog croaked. Nothing made noise except him, walking along the path. There was a building of some kind up ahead. An old outhouse, maybe, or a hunting shack. The boys trooped up to it and stopped, turning around and crossing their arms, standing sentry at either side of the doorway. He was supposed to go in.

Sighing, feeling strangely like he was on a conveyor belt—he certainly wasn’t directing his own feet, anymore—Landon went to the shack and peered into the deep gloom. There, on the floor, was a gleaming, white mint tin. The very one that held the nubbins. Landon instinctively felt the ring on his finger, making sure it was still there, that it hadn’t disappeared like his mother had. He shuffled through the doorway and bent to pick up the tin, but before he could get a grip on it he fell—and kept falling.

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“Here, hold this,” his mother’s voice whispered in his ear. “No, don’t look around, you won’t see me. But hold this, it helps with the vertigo.” Landon groped around until he found a stick and gripped it, hard. True to his mother’s words, his sensation of falling eased and he felt the solid dirt beneath his back. He couldn’t see a thing, not one photon of light. His eyes kept trying, kept sending little phantom shapes to his brain. He’d read that that happens, when people go into deep caves where there is no light at all. Their brains kept trying to create things to see.

“This is a safe place,” his mother said. “We made it safe from the witch. She controls all the roads in the valley, but other creatures have laid claim to the old paths in the woods. And this place, this old shack, is a very special place indeed.”

“Who … who’s we?” Now that Landon no longer felt like he was falling, he felt a bit nauseated. Carsick.

“I’m here, too, son,” his father’s voice spoke in the blackness. “I had to wait on the sidelines. Your mother and I, we’ve found the way to beat the witch. At least, we think so. But it’s all you. We tried. We looked for every solution, read every book, spoke to any weirdo who might have a better answer, but this is the only way.”

The relief and pleasure Landon felt at the sound of his dad’s voice ran out of him. “I have to sacrifice myself.” His parents’ silence was answer enough.

“And you have to …” his father began, but Landon had the distinct feeling his mother had shushed him up. She put the mint tin firmly into the hand Landon wasn’t using to clutch the stick.

“Take the nubbins,” she said. “Go to the witch. You’re almost there. Tell her you’re ready to give yourself up. Landon—and this is very important—you must hide the nubbins. Put them down in your underpants, if you have to. And go in to the house. You have to go in. All the way in.”

“I love you, son,” said his father’s voice in the dark. And with that, Landon was alone.

***

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Long Live Print!

You know the lament: print is dead, and nobody reads anymore, anyway.

I think that’s wrong. And it’s not just because I’m a writer. And, I don’t think it’s as simple a matter as “print is dead;” I think it always comes down to the content.

Take my old hometown’s newspaper, for example. It would be easy to jump on the lamentation bandwagon, beating my chest and crying out that subscriptions have all gone down because the people just won’t support hometown journalism … but, quite frankly, it’s a terrible newspaper that has always been terrible. They consistently print wrong news (not sayin’ it’s fake. No Trumpisms here. It’s just … not correct.) and they can’t seem to find an editor worth her semicolons. They’re a rag. Pure and simple. So I don’t much care whether that particular publication survives the Great Print Purge of the 21st Century.

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But there’ve been some truly great papers starting up lately and, yes, they’re in print. They’re online, too. Take a look at this little beauty: The Knoxville Mercury. It’s one of my favorites, consistently printing stories running the gamut of the Knoxville lifestyle, from a day in the life of a junkie (which spurred an actual lawsuit against Big Pharma for misrepresentation of opioid use. Now that’s good journalism!) to musing on the human detritus that washes up (or away) in the Appalachian wilderness.

I’m a fan of print. I like that I can hold a paper, or book, in my hand. I like that these things aren’t firing photons at my retinas at a rate of one thousand strain-decibels per second. (I made that measurement up. Pretty sure decibels measure sound, anyway. You get the point.) I like that I can pass a print publication to my friend, in person, without a password (unless I just feel like using the old treehouse password for old-time’s sake.)

But, more than being a fan of print, I’m a fan of good content. Not something recycled, not something meme-ed, although I like a good otter pun as much as the next gal. I think that’s what the traditional papers should be pursuing, if they’re interested in staying alive: hire good writers. You’ll probably have to pay them a decent wage. It’s a trade-off that’s worth it.

And if you like the Knoxville Mercury, give ’em five bucks. Their writers probably need a raise.

 

Poor Valley Witch XI: Walk Into the Fray

Welcome to the eleventh installment of Poor Valley Witch! If you are just tuning in, go here for the first story post.

***

I have to sacrifice myself. It’s what his mother had said. Landon sat on the front stoop of his grandmother’s house, staring out at the tops of the tall pines that marked the highway, way out beyond Cherry Street. And, beyond the highway: Poor Valley. Fireflies were starting to come out, blinking their codes for all to see, if only they could understand it.

Landon felt like he was stuck in that firefly language. He was here, with his family, but he didn’t recognize anything about his life. Everything he’d thought he understood about his family, his history, was upside down. It was sideways. Hell, it wasn’t anything that resembled sense.

He’d thought all the bustle, all the business with the vultures in the attic, and his grandmother’s hoarding the nubbins for the ring, his mother flying up so suddenly from Florida … he’d thought all that had been to save his life, because the witch had put her eye on him. But no, he was supposed to fall on the sword. You’re going to have to sacrifice yourself. It’s what his mother had said. And where the hell was his father? Landon had no idea, hadn’t heard back from the man after texting him earlier.

His mom was asleep in the house, now. Mamaw had made fried bologna sandwiches for them all and tucked his mother into bed in the small guest room, before going to bed herself. Landon had camped out on the couch, but he couldn’t seem to settle his mind, so he came out into the humid night. The summer air humming with cicadas always seemed to soothe him. It made him think of nights, so long ago the memories seemed made-up, he and his family had gone camping.

Landon was afraid. He didn’t know what the witch wanted with him, and his mother hadn’t given him any clarity at all. Did she want a slave? Did she want to marry him as a proxy to his father, who’d left her behind? Did she want to kill him? The tall, black pines swayed against the starry sky. Landon shivered in the warmth.

***

“It’s time to go,” Mom said. Mamaw stood at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes. Once, when Landon was a kid, the family had gotten together for a great-uncle’s funeral. They had stayed together at Mamaw’s house, had breakfast together. They’d gotten dressed up in their Sunday best and it had felt almost like a vacation, like a reunion, except that between jokes and conversation came waves of tears from Mamaw and even Landon’s dad. He felt like that today, like the warmth and comfort of being with family in the familiar kitchen was a blanket that only hid the sadness that came through like a sharp knife, ripping holes in the illusion.

Landon and his mother stood and walked out of the kitchen. He looked back at Mamaw, once, wondering if she’d come with them. She stood resolutely at the sink, gazing out the window, tears coursing down her cheeks. Silent. Landon turned away and went out, walking to the car, opening the driver’s door. He looked around for his mother and saw that she had already made it to the end of the small gravel drive on foot. He closed the door again and hurried after her. CDs twinkled on their strings in the morning light, tied to the patio chairs and low branches. No vultures were in sight, though. Not this morning.

“We’re going on foot?” Landon caught up to Mom. She nodded and reached out her hand to take his. They set off on Cherry Street, headed toward the highway. To cross it. To get to Poor Valley.

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“When you were born,” said Mom, startling Landon into missing a beat and almost stumbling, “We thought it would be alright, your father and I. Cecilia seemed to forgive us, seemed to wish us well. She even gave you a present!” She shook the mint tin gently in her free hand.

“The ring,” said Landon. He wore it today, on his right pinkie finger.

“The ring.” Mom nodded. “But you got sick the day she gave it to you. You almost died.” She sighed, like telling the story made her tired. “And we knew she’d done something. She’d cast a spell on the ring. So, I took it to a professor. I was still in college when you were born, you know.” He nodded. They walked quietly for a few steps. They were almost to the highway, now. Almost ready to cross over.

“My professor, she thought I was doing research for old Appalachian lore and customs,” his mother continued. “And she found me some books to research, full of stories like what people used to do with placentas, or how the old herb doctors would treat pain. Stuff like that.” She barked a short laugh. “Made me glad I’d had you in the hospital, where they dispose of placentas like they are a biohazard. Probably put it in the incinerator, for all I know.” Landon had no idea what she meant by that, but he decided to let it lie. She seemed to need to talk, so he let her.

“Anyway, I found the information I needed, and I put our blood in a new ring. I remade it in the shop at the community college. I had to carve a mold out of wax, and put it in this clutch of clay, and fire it so the wax dripped out.” They stopped at the edge of the highway, now. A semi truck went by, blowing hot air and tiny bits of road debris into their faces. They turned away, squinting to keep grit out of their eyes. When the coast was clear, mother and son crossed the highway and started up the gentle swell of road on the other side. They passed the little cemetery on the right hand side.

They were going to Poor Valley.

“After the wax dripped out, and the clay cooled, I used the centrifuge to spin the metal, and our blood, into the mold,” his mother continued. She sounded a little strained. He looked at her face, now below his. It gave him a pang to realize that; he was taller than his mother. He’d been taller than her for years, now, but she’d been so distant that he tried not to remember when she had been the one towering over him, bending down to hand him a cookie with a kiss in the soft light of their kitchen. Now, she seemed to be walking against a stiff wind, though Landon could not feel it. She saw him noticing and shook her head, warding off questions. They walked on. Under the boughs of a huge oak tree, now, its roots so old and powerful they pushed up the side of the asphalt road.

“I gave you the ring and kept the nubbins,” she rattled the tin again, “Until Cecilia realized she couldn’t just outright kill us all, anymore. The ring is a powerful charm. But she could hurt us, and she did.”

“She made you leave,” said Landon, his heart pounding. He swallowed down a sob. Walking, and sweating, and dredging up sad memories almost undid him. Mom put an arm out in front of him, like she’d done when she’d taken him places in the car as a kid. She’d called it the Mom-belt. She put her hand holding the mint tin, nubbins inside, out in front like a talisman, then walked forward, pulling him along. They passed through something invisible, and Landon felt a weight he’d only barely been aware of lift away. He could breathe better, and as they kept going, he saw that his mother no longer fought an invisible gale.

“She’s putting up barriers,” said his mother, when he looked at her questioningly. They held hands again. The old trailer house was next, the one where he’d run over the dead dog.

The witch was putting up barriers, and Landon wished with all his heart they weren’t pushing through them. He wanted to turn around with his mother and fly back to Florida with her. He wanted to leave this podunk town and never return.

Landon did not want to see the witch.

***