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Halloween Tales : Eulogy For A Witch--Chapter 1
I was fifteen years old when we learned the witch had finally died. Mom had answered the phone late one afternoon, and as tears streamed down her face, she listened to my aunt --Mom’s twin sister Ellen--relate the details of the event. Mom’s name is Helen Borden and mine is Scotty.
My mother, before marrying my Dad, Robert Borden--known as Bob, of course-- and moving to Atlanta, was a member of the McCall family This was an old clan whose ancestors were some of the first Highlanders to move inland from the coastal areas, and into and around the great swamps of southern Georgia.
The McCall’s were known for their intense family loyalty, steadfast bravery in any conflict, and also for their beautiful women and handsome men. I like to think I inherited at least some of those McCall traits through my mother. “Some would be okay” my dad always said when mom was talking about her folks.
Making The Witch's Acquaintance
While many children were frightened by tales of witches, I never had such fears. I first met the witch of McCall’s Swamp when only 4 years of age. I don’t remember it of course, as I was unconscious and on the verge of death when I first made her acquaintance.
My father never liked to hear Mom tell this story and always left the room when it came up. As far as I know, it was the only thing in his life he really regretted concerning his marriage to my mother. No, not his marrying Mom, he never regretted that, just his own actions leading up to my visit to the witch. No one faulted him for what he did, though. He didn’t know any better.
The witch was my great-grandmother. No, she wasn’t the stereotypical broom riding, wart faced, black cat, caldron stirring kind of witch, but she was a witch, nonetheless. Or at least some of us thought so. There weren’t many good doctors around the swamps back in the latter part of the 19th century, nor anywhere else, for that matter. Medical science had not advanced far enough to forget the old ways yet.
A Spell Of Illness
A swamp witch--or witch woman as some called them-- was a combination doctor and herbalist, using what useful plants--and sometimes living creatures--the wilderness provided. Much of this knowledge was learned by their having intermarried--or having had ancestors who did so--into the now extinct tribes of Indians who’d once lived and roamed the wilderness of the great swamps.
The wealth of information these earliest American's bequeathed to their progeny for thousands of years is now largely lost to time. But the witch had not forgotten everything. I had developed a strange infection which the doctors at Atlanta could not diagnose. I became progressively weaker and so delirious the doctors could give my parents little hope I’d survive the illness.
Against my father’s wishes, my mother bundled me up and threatened to drive me to the swamps herself in the middle of the night until my dad finally relented, reluctantly agreeing to make the trip with her. He says he hardly remembers the 250 mile drive, even though it was made during a raging storm which made the trip much worse. Even when we reached the home of my grandparents the ordeal wasn’t over, as we still had to travel deep into McCall’s Swamp to reach the witches island.
To The Witch's Isle
My father simply collapsed on the sofa when we got to grandpa McCall’s house. He hadn’t slept for three days and nights and was of no help in the swamps anyway. Grandpa’s old wooden boat had a 2 horse kicker on it which made the trip to the island faster than paddling, but it still took over an hour to reach the witches house, according to mother.
“As we got closer to the island,” she said “I saw there were two bright fires blazing in the fire pits on either side of the old dock. The witch already knew we were coming somehow. I could see her waiting silently, her old eyes looking steadfastly into the darkness long before the firelight illuminated our small boat and its passengers”. “Hey Momma,” grandpa said to the old woman dressed in a faded green dress. “Where’s the child?” was her only response to him.
“Give him to me, Helen” she demanded “we don’t have much time as it is”! Mother said the witch grabbed me and scurried back to the old cypress cabin where she had already prepared the potions for my treatment.
She neither looked back at mother nor said anything else to grandpa either. “Did you tell her we were coming, Pa?” she asked my grandfather. “Why would I” he asked? “She always knows when someone needs her help, especially when it’s blood of her own". My grandfather always lived in awe of the witch's powers, even though she was his own mother. He wasn’t alone, of course.
The Witch's Lair
Old Black Hannah came down to the dock bringing some hot coffee to my mother and grandpa. No one was allowed to be in the cabin when the witch cast her spells, not even Black Hannah. The witch’s longtime companion was indeed black. An African princess, she claimed to be, as most former slave women always do.
Hannah was not as old as the witch was, but still she was ancient, and like my great grandmother, had not left the hidden island in over 50 years. They say witches cannot cross over water easily. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say.
There was a small shelter next to the dock for those waiting until the witch finished her spells. No, my mother didn’t use the word “spell” when referencing her grandmother’s strange and wonderful healing techniques, but everyone else did. And it wasn’t merely because she was indeed a miracle worker with sick folk, it was because her very aura mesmerized even those who knew her best.
She was that powerful. For three days and nights my mother, grandpa, and Black Hannah kept the two fires going in the pits, waiting anxiously until finally, the witch brought me back down to the waters edge. I don’t remember much at all about the incident, just a little about the boat ride on the way back through the swamp to grandpa’s house.
I never saw the witch alive again, even though she would live another decade plus, but that really wasn't unusual. Many people never returned to the witch’s island after once being treated by her. At least that’s what I’ve been told.
Beginnings Of Witches
“A witch is not born,” my mother said. “at least not the good kind like my grandmother. Mom felt impelled to explain to me the difference in good witches and bad, even though she said she didn’t actually believe in the bad kind. “Ordinary bad folks are bad enough,” she said “there’s no need for any more evil from anywhere else”.
I understand what she means now, but back then things weren’t so crystal clear. Age doesn’t always dim the mind of man. Clarity occasionally sneaks through the cobwebs of old memories, and in through the cracks to one’s soul. “There were once two of them, you know,” she continued “twins, just like Ellen and I. Twins run in the McCall family and the witch had a twin sister too. Identical they said, but I don’t remember her, as she had died long before I was born.
They were both beautiful girls, wild as was the rest of the family, but somehow different at the same time." "I always hate telling this part of the story”. Tears again. But tears are free and cleanse the sadness from one‘s soul, my mother believed. So she paid them no attention and plugged away with the tale while I did a bit of soul cleansing myself.
Tara and Sarah they were called. Inseparable and seemingly able to read each others minds it was said. Both were red haired and green eyed. Apparently they inherited these traits from their mother, born of an Irish father but having a mother with Indian blood in her veins not far in the past. The two girls had spent quite a bit of time with their maternal grandmother, who was herself daughter of a shaman, according to the witch herself.
I suppose this is where they learned their magic, if indeed magic it was. But it seems there is always a dominant twin, and Tara was the most aggressive of the two girls. Sarah, although strong headed herself, always deferred to Tara’s wishes, as if she knew herself her sister was more powerful in some manner.
And it was eventually Tara who caused all of the trouble which was to strike the twins in such a cruel manner. Of course, it probably couldn’t have been prevented anyway. Some things are just meant to be. Chapter 2