For my Girl Ellen
I had always hoped that someday I would become a great writer. The great American novel which I had in my head would surely attract the attention of every literate person of merit. They would proclaim me to be a “brilliant” new talent and that everyone should run to their nearest bookstore to buy this American classic.
Well, it didn’t happen that way. That great American classic has still eluded me. At this point in my life I had become quite lazy in my quest for immortality, and have settled for the quiet mundane life of a suburban squire with a soccer- mom wife and two sons of somewhat average intelligence. I write articles about people and their uninteresting hobbies, content with sending them to small newspapers and local journals. Once in a while I see some news article that interests me and I do a little investigative journalism. Not much, mind you, I am incredibly lazy and have the spare tire around my waist as proof.
About three months ago I was travelling through Perry County meeting with a man who had collected sports memorabilia. It was an exhaustive collection of cards, signed balls from people I can’t remember, tickets from games and team photos of baseball’s “heroes”. I heard more about baseball than I ever cared to know. I was a pretty decent hitter in my youth and followed the Phillies as most of the kids where I lived, but I lost interest when I discovered women. Well, I discovered them, married one, then another, and am lost my interest there too.
Well this guy was going’ on and on about this team and that team as I took pictures of him with his collection. I was ready to leave when I felt the urge to use the bathroom. I didn’t know my way around here, and preferred the cleanliness of his bathroom to that of a gas station or a fast food restroom. He showed me the way to the powder room which ended at the end of a hallway of even more baseball pictures. It was a small bathroom for a big guy like me, so I had to do some maneuvering. While sitting there looking for something to read, I picked up the local paper looked at the headline Witch of Ickesburg Sighted Again!” What?” I thought. “What kind of witch?” Well, this was a little town and I guess witches are pretty scarce. You could turn on a trash TV program and find as many as you want. I finished my “business” and walked over to thank the man for his time and tell him to look for the article in his paper the next week. I joked that he better watch out for the “Witch of Ickesburg.” I could hardly believe it when he told me that he surely would, and he wasn’t joking. Karl was the man’s name as I can recollect. He showed me pictures of himself, his fat wife, and numerous grandchildren. I managed to escape after fifteen minutes or so with my baseball story, but I wanted to know more about these supposed sightings of the “Witch.”
There is a sportsman’s club that is frequented by most of the retirees in the area. They mostly sit around, catch up on the latest gossip, or tell lies about their youthful escapades. I was curious and knew that if you feigned interest in their stories, you could ask anything you wanted. It sounds weird, but I just had to get to the bottom of this tale.
The sportsman’s club had a bar there, so I ordered a beer and a roast pork sandwich. I was pretty hungry so I don’t remember if it was good or not, but I got the attention of some of the members. “New here or just visitin’?’ I looked around and saw the skinniest old man I have ever seen. He was tall with thick glasses and big irregular yellow teeth. “Just visiting," I laughed. “I’m a reporter for The Observer covering a man with a huge baseball collection."Know him?” I asked. “All my life!” he responded. “It’s Karl Martin, has a wife looks like a pig, boring as hell, dumb as a tree stump.” “Not a friend, I suppose.” I said. “Oh no, we’re like brothers, me and Karl. We hunted together for years…saw the Witch of Ickesburg with him, Dennis and Marlin too one night!” “The Witch?” I replied. “Yep”, he said. “Everyone around here has a story about the Witch, right fellows?” The other old timers agreed and a young girl cleaning the tables swore that she heard the Witch’s screams one night. I had such a good time with these folks that I just had to listen to their local folklore. I called my wife and told her that I would be late because I was working on a “Story”. She laughed and told me not to wake her when I got home.
Tammy, the cleaning girl rubbed the tables in circles and told me that she heard stories about the witch coming in the fall each year looking for kids to eat. They were probably descendents of the people that condemned her. I asked her if she noticed any kids missing. Of course she couldn’t remember any lately, but she was sure that the Witch had gotten a hold of a few of them in the past. Ted, the scarecrow-looking guy, said that it was so. I asked him how he knew. He told me he had seen her with his own eyes. Dennis and Marlins agreed. They had seen her on a hunting trip in 1974. I’m a sucker for a good story. I started taking notes.
Ted began his story. “Well, me, Dennis, Karl, and Marlin went hunting one weekend, and were having a really good time.” “Ain’t that right boys?” There was a howl of laughter from the gang. “It was a bee-utiful night with hunter’s moon out, and not a cloud in the sky.” “We were talking about catchin’ a buck or two for the winter, and how we were all going to retire someday and do nothin’ but hunt and fish, ‘til we all croaked.” We had a nice fire goin’ since it was getting colder and we heard some kind of a moan comin’ from the woods around us.” “We laughed a little and thought that our friend Woody had sneaked away from his wife and joined up with us. He had a campsite that he owned down the road, y’see, and he was always making excuses for not showing up for our outings.” “Then it was Woody?" I asked. “Nope!” he responded. “It was the Witch of Ickesburg!” She was real tall”, said Marlin. “I suppose about eight or nine feet tall”, said Dennis. “Yep, and she had a white gown, green skin, wild hair like snakes curlin’ and a face like a horse.” said Ted, who looked a little like a horse himself. “Scared the living daylights outta us!" said Dennis. “An’ she had a little kid's leg in her hand that she cooked and was eatin’”. Marlin and Ted agreed that they had seen it too! The Witch came right at them leaping and screaming according to their story. Ted, Marlin, and Dennis took off on their heels and ran as fast as their legs could take them. Karl ran in the opposite direction down the dirt road toward Woody’s campsite. Karl was huffing and puffing with the Witch Closing in on him. His little legs were running as fast as they could, but the Witch was right behind him moaning and swinging that poor little child’s cooked leg back and forth. Karl’s baseball playing days were far behind him and his middle age paunch was slowing him down. He was so tired but the Witch came closing in on him. Suddenly, he felt his leg go out underneath him as he turned his ankle, and landed with a thud! He yelped” Dear God help me!” He saw the Witch run over him and down the road toward Woody’s house. Karl could see her white dress flap in the night and disappear into the darkness. With his leg hurting, Karl screamed in pain. Miraculously he saw Woody who helped him up and drove him to his house. Karl was the last person to see the Witch. Not to be outdone, others in the club began recounting their stories about seeing the Witch and hearing her screaming for something to eat. Well, after hearing this I realized that I had to talk to Karl. I had spent the morning in total boredom with him and now my curiosity had the better of my good judgment. I just had to talk with Karl.
I said goodbye to my hosts who let me know that I was welcome back anytime but advised to get out of the area before dark. It was October and they all knew that the Witch haunted the area at this time of year. I laughed and made a playful jog toward the door. I arrived back at Karl’s house five minutes later.
“Forget something?” said Karl. “No, but I would like to ask you questions about the Witch”, I replied. “Talkin’ with Ted and the boys?” croaked Karl. “Well, I did have lunch down at the club and your name did come up.”, I thought you might want to talk to me about your Witch encounter. It would be a great story.” Karl thought about it and then relayed the same story. His fat little wife walked into the room, and, just like Ted had noted, she looked like a pig.
“Karl, tell the man the truth!” she said. Karl looked sheepish and rubbed the back of his neck.” Well, Woody...” “Woody is dead now, so, tell him the truth.” She cried. This is the story that Karl told me:
Karl did run from the Witch and it wasn’t a miracle that Woody found him on the road. Woody had been out in the woods that night, but not hunting for game. He was looking for his wife Vera. There had been an Oktoberfest at the campsite, and Woody had finally said goodbye to the campers and was closing for the season. He and Vera had worked their fingers to the bone preparing for the festivities. Woody could fall asleep on a rock, but Vera always had a hard time sleeping. Woody was a small quiet man married to a tall athletic wife. They looked so odd together but they got along just fine. Vera was loud and playful and still could run like she did in high school. She participated in all the activities and games that day and couldn’t sleep a wink. Woody knew that she took a sleeping pill, but she couldn’t sleep and said that she was still a little hungry. Vera was a comical sight with her hair full of curlers, face covered in some kind of avocado paste, and her teeth left in the jar. Woody lay in bed and heard Vera rustling around in the kitchen. He was just about to nod off when he heard the back door in the kitchen slam. Woody jumped out of bed and looked into the kitchen. Where was Vera? He looked out the back door and found one of Vera’s curlers on the ground, and another, and yet another. Woody took off in search of his wife. He knew what had happened. Vera was a sleepwalker. Every time she took one of those dang pills, she would wander off. Woody heard Vera let out a yelp and followed her cry through the woods. He noticed a campfire and heard men yell out. When he reached the campfire he found no one there. It looked as if the campers left everything as it was. Then, out from his side view he saw Vera running and yelling down toward the house. Something was in the road, but like the hurdler she was in high school, Vera jumped over the crumpled mass that was Karl. He helped Karl up and took him home. He had apologized to Karl and begged him not to tell anyone about Vera’s sleepwalking.
Karl looked at his wife and said. “I promised Woody that I would keep the story quiet.” The story was true about us seeing the “Witch” but it was actually Vera sleepwalking with a turkey leg in her hand.” She hurt her leg falling on a downed tree and yelled from the pain.” I guess that she knew her way home and ran toward it.” Woody said she went to bed and woke up the next day with a big bruise on her calve. Woody always kept the secret from Vera, ‘cause he knew that she was a proud woman and would have died from the embarrassment of it all.” They’re both dead now. Vera died a couple of years back and Woody shortly afterwards. The people in town heard that loudmouth Ted tellin’ his story and how scared and dumb I was, but I never let on. I hate to tell a lie, but I promised to keep his secret. Well, I guess the truth had to come out sooner or later.
I went home that night and wrote my story of the Witch of Ickesburg, and like Karl, I kept Woody’s secret.