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Halloween Tales ; Eulogy For A Witch--Chapter 3
Back To The Witches Isle
It was late afternoon of the next day before my parents and I arrived at my grandfathers house on the bay. There were other people still arriving every few minutes. Some came in old beat up trucks and cars, while a few people drove up in fancy automobiles with foreign sounding names not often heard of in these parts.
One such example--a long, black, Mercedes sedan--managed to find a space among the dogwoods and azaleas planted around grandpa’s driveway. For some reason--perhaps because of the unusually warm winter --the blooms on these beloved southern plants were in full flower. "A warm spell I suppose you could call it," my Dad said with a wry smile.
The driver of the car was a very neatly dressed young black man who smiled at us and quickly opened the rear door of the car. The person he helped get out of the sedan was a very distinguished elderly gentleman wearing a dark hat matching his obviously expensive suit. I wondered who he was and said so to my mom. “Thomas Hawkins is his name,” she whispered “he was the little boy bitten by the rattlesnake.
You do remember the story, don’t you”? So this was the little Hawkins boy! He’d come so close to dying, and would have had it not been for the sisters sticking their noses into Brother Lang’s business. “Tommy Hawkins didn’t just get well after the sisters healed the snakebite,” my mother continued after the old man and my grandfather had sauntered away towards the back of the house--perhaps to get a sip of homemade whiskey from granddad’s demi-john, if I know him like I think I do-- “he excelled in school and went on to medical school where he accomplished great things in the field of medical science."
"The medicines he helped develop have saved countless lives," Mom said "not just here in America, but around the world. Now he’s come back here to pay his respects to a witch!” She laughed softly. “My, isn’t this a strange and wonderful world.”
By this time, the sun had sank far past the cypress trees ringing the open water of the bay, turning the formerly amber colored skies into a royal blue. When only a pale orange tint remained to show where our closest star had departed for the night, my grandfather began showing folks--at least those people invited to visit the witch's funeral--to their places in the boats.
No, not everyone was invited to the island. The driver of Mr. Thomas Hawkins also got into a boat with him, but I didn’t think anything about it at the time Most of the invited mourners were those who had actually been touched by the witch’s hands at one time or another. In fact, as far as anyone knew, my father was the only one allowed to attend the wake who was not of the witch’s blood, or had never been in need of her healing hands.
I could tell he was pleased by this invitation--Black Hannah had personally sent a hand written message by Granddad-- and I could tell Dad also felt relieved in some manner or another which I couldn’t understand at the time. Where my grandfather rounded up all of the boats for the procession, I’ll never know.
I believe most of them were freely loaned by those from neighboring Carson's Bay and other local swamps, and from those who had never needed the witch for anything before, but were always thankful she was there if ever they were in straits dire enough to call on her. But at any rate, there were seats aplenty for the 100 or more souls making the dark, and certainly dramatic, sojourn to the witch’s island.
Finally we began silently paddling the small armada out into the bay--motors were not even considered for such an honorable gesture--with the lanterns in the boats making an almost festive spectacle out of an otherwise solemn occasion.
An Earthly Tribute to the Dead
The trip through the night was unnaturally quiet, with no frogs croaking or chirping, nor rambunctious gators bellowing for their lovers or issuing challenges to their rivals. Orion rose in the night skies as grandfather led us through the maze of moss draped trees and around the remaining stumps and knees of ancient dead cypress giants.
But finally, we began to see a glow through the trees, and as we got closer it became two separate beacons, as Hannah had lit the two fires lone last time in the old pits by the dock. She waited there, as she always had when the witch was still alive. It seemed to comfort us who had been there before. It was meant to, of course.
When everyone had landed and stood milling around on the shore of the island, Hannah suddenly held her arms up for silence from the group before beginning to speak. Though not nearly as old as the witch--who had recently counted 104 years of life on this earth--Hannah's old wrinkled face still emanated wisdom and peace to us all.
The perpetual smile on her face seemed to say : “Be happy with the world, don’t try to understand all of it, as no one soul can hope to do this alone” While my great grandmother had always dressed in colors as vivid as those surrounding her life, Black Hannah instead preferred black dresses, with a matching black turban to hold her hair, with only a single white sash tied loosely around her rotund figure.
“To accent my dark side with a bit of good,” she said. “Besides, folks tend to respect me a bit more, and respect is useful from time to time”. What would become of her, I wondered? There were so many things to consider now that the witch was no longer around to make the decisions for everyone.
One Final Spell
Hannah led us up to the old log cabin where she had the witch laid out for us to have one last look at her. One of the witch's former patients--a little tanned wiry man who built furniture and cabinets-- had constructed a most beautiful casket for the witch to sleep in. “Heart cypress, it is,” he said to my father “it’ll lie in the ground for 200 years before it even begins to rot."
"But I speck the witch won’t stay in it that long”! The man laughed heartily at his own joke, but my father only smiled enough to be polite. He was clearly out of his element. There was so little room in the small cabin it was impossible for everyone to view the witch at one time. Hannah held her hands up again and announced to the gathering the plans for the night.
“Before we close the lid of the casket there will be a chance for everyone to see the witch up close, but because of the lack of room in here we’ll have to go single file past the casket and then out of the side door. Take your time, we’ve plenty of darkness left”.
I held back for some reason. Of course I was a bit scared, that goes without saying, but there was something else making me hesitate. I had decided not to go look at her as Mom had said it would be okay.
But as the last few people slowly edged away from the casket, I suddenly had a strange urge to see the old girl and rushed up to the back of the line until there I was, staring down into the witch's face.As I said, she was 104 years old and certainly not as beautiful as I’d heard she once was, but still, there was certain something her now lifeless face seemed to need to say to me.
There were still faint traces of red in her hair, the famous mole above her lip--which danced around so much when she was particularly angry--was another reminder of the many tales surrounding the old girl. Suddenly, it was as if I were frozen in place, almost like a spell had been cast and I couldn’t move. At that point Black Hannah closed the casket lid in my face, breaking the spell--if spell it indeed was--and I unsteadily walked out the side door to join the others. Chapter 4