The Witch of the Narrows

The Witch of the Narrows

by

Phillip McCollum

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you it was all hearsay and legend. But I know you, Pat, and you’re gonna be stuck in one of your funks, unable to let it go, completely useless to me as a client and a friend.

So, I may as well tell you what I know.

Head east out of this town of swindlers and backstabbers and once you hit the I-15 in Victorville, exit Bear Valley until you come to Ridgecrest Road. Make a left and cruise a few miles past the nice homes on the man-made lake until you’re stopped by the ranger shack. Pay the entrance fee and park your car.

Here, I drew you a map for the rest. You’re on foot for the next mile-and-a-half through the trees and rattlesnakes.

Don’t shout, don’t whistle, don’t do any stupid shit like that. You’ll probably get eaten by a mountain lion.

They say that if she wants to see you, she’ll let you find her.

#

Pat Falcon performed a few jumping jacks and stretched his legs beneath the August stars, shaking out the seventy-mile trip from Hollywood. There were three campers in the lot around him, all Winnebago knockoffs, all plugged into rattling generators so they could run the air conditioning and ameliorate the hot desert air.

He ran his hand along the front of his truck. A crack in the headlight’s plastic cover was the worst of it. He’d left in the black of night which had grown progressively blacker as the city lights popped out of existence behind him, bulb by bulb. When he arrived here, the entrance had been closed and no one was in the guard shack, so he accelerated his Mercedes SUV through the flimsy gate arm which snapped clean off.

California’s High Desert was familiar. Besides driving through here on the occasional spendcrazy visit to Las Vegas, Pat had been up this way several times over his career. Most memorable was filming Tough Break almost twenty years ago out on a dry lake in the early nineties. He’d performed his own stunts in that one, playing the slick-haired antagonist to Sylvester Stallone. Sly hadn’t returned his calls for several years.

The last two trips had been for direct-to-DVD movies filled with pathetic CGI-aliens and scripts that could only have been written by the producer’s teenage son. But there was alimony, several house and car payments to make, and the increasing number of collection letters.

The Witch of the Narrows seemed to be Pat’s only hope.

#

He had memorized his agent’s map and headed west of the park’s Horseshoe Lake. The lake itself was a tiny thing, thinly veiled by cat o’ nine tails while sun-faded pedal boats slept at a dock in front of the bait shop. Once he hit the railroad tracks running alongside, Pat moved north, sweeping his flashlight’s beam across the loose gravel in front of his feet. Even though the stars shined like mad up here, the moon was incognito tonight.

Sweat gathered at his brow and beneath his arms. Pat didn’t consider himself out of shape, but he had to admit he carried a few extra pounds since both his metabolism and available work had slowed down in equal measure over the past few years. What was the point in sacrificing the occasional bowl of creamy pasta and bottomless Old Fashioneds just to maintain a six-pack that nobody clamored for anymore?

But the Witch would fix it all. He had never bought into the wooey crap floating around a city that overflowed with it, but there was something about her story that convinced him she would call to him–if only he put forward the effort and held the faith. She was an old Hollywood legend. Had apparently been a star since before Pat was born but disappeared without a trace. Nobody remembered her stage or real name, but she had several epithets.

The Old Woman in the Desert.

Gray Gypsy.

The Witch of the Narrows.

All of these floated around the land of cinema like puffs of smoke. Nobody ever claimed to have actually benefited from a visit. It was all ‘I heard so-and-so made the trip’ and ‘you didn’t hear this from me, but…’

Not everyone spoke glowingly, either. It was usually the fellow washouts at Pat’s favorite bar. One of them even claimed to have visited the Narrows herself and all she had to show for it were scratched-up ankles and forearms covered in mosquito bites.

After a mile of walking, Pat knew he was close. The willows and cottonwoods grew thicker as he neared the two granite hills enclosing the dry Mojave river like columns of a giant gateway. A modern bridge spanned the north side of the outcroppings where occasional headlights appeared and disappeared as they crossed into the sleeping town of Apple Valley.

A knee-high rock on the side of the tracks called out to Pat’s sore legs, so he turned off his flashlight and took a seat. Lightly sweet scents of the cottonwoods entered his nostrils, making the back of his throat itch a little. He tried to fight off a couple of sneezes, picturing those mountain lions his agent mentioned canvassing the riverbed like assassins, waiting for a vulnerable moment.

How long should he wait? Was he in the right spot? What if all it took was to be off by a few feet and that was the whole problem with those who’d never found her?

He tried not to overthink it, but he couldn’t help wonder what he would do if this whole adventure turned out for naught. Bankruptcy was on the horizon. It didn’t seem fair. It wasn’t as if he had blown everything on a ridiculously expensive drug habit like some he knew. Sure, he liked his nice cars, fancy dinners, and sleeping in comfort. He’d earned all that.

As the minutes ran on and Pat’s thoughts darkened, the tracks at his back beckoned his attention. That ought to be a painless way to go. He could just lean back a little. Rest his weary head. He wouldn’t know what hit him.

His depressive reverie was shaken by something rustling nearby.

Pat realized just how much his impulsiveness had put him in jeopardy. He didn’t have anything to defend himself with and he was pretty damn certain he couldn’t outrun whatever decided to chase him.

He flicked the flashlight back on and shined it towards the source of the commotion. A shaggy old dog that looked like it hadn’t seen a bath in years emerged from the bushes. Its fur was matted and though Pat didn’t know the first thing about breeds, to him, it looked like the offspring of a bloodhound and a grizzly. It stood well over waist-high and its head was tilted down like an old librarian appraising him over her reading glasses.

Warmth and goosebumps ran over Pat’s body. The dog appeared harmless, panting lazily. There didn’t seem to be any foam at the mouth.

They stared at each other for ten uncomfortable seconds before Pat realized that maybe he ought to stand up and do something. As he did so, the dog turned and swung its tail, heading back into the bush.

Pat took a deep breath while working up the nerve, then followed.

#

It wasn’t a particularly tall or dense bush, but somehow following through the gap where the dog had passed revealed an old cabin sitting in the middle of the riverbed.

Pat’s flashlight highlighted the home’s rotten sideboards and rusty tin roof, all draped over by a pair of surrounding willows. There was a single crooked window, dusty and opaque. A glowing candle sat just inside the sill and a thin wooden door was cracked open slightly, pushed further by the dog creeping inside.

Was this real? Did Pat actually fall asleep by the train tracks? Who the hell builds a house in the middle of a river, even if its dry?

No, this was it. This was her way. She had to be calling him.

He stepped inside. A musty odor hit his nose immediately. The floorboards squeaked, giving a little bit under his dusty shoes. His heart stopped and the flashlight fell from his hands as soon as it revealed what may have once been a complete woman. She sat in a worn, tall-backed chair, looking almost like a doll but for the fact that she was missing half of her thin gray hair. In its place was scarred over flesh that had the appearance of unmolded clay. The giant dog was curled up near her feet.

“Don’t look if it bothers you, but take a seat.”

Her voice was like poor radio reception. Staticky and warbling with a slight Southern twang. Though she was quiet, her words carried easily across the single room of the cabin. It sent a whole new set of shivers down Pat’s spine.

His flashlight still lay on the floor and he realized that its bulb was shattered, leaving only the tiny candle in the window for illumination. Seeing the old woman’s droopy eyes peering up at him along with her dog’s was enough to empty his bladder. The next thoughts were of the door. Pat turned and panicked.

What door?

Maybe the candle was casting odd shadows. He rushed back to where he thought he’d come in and scrabbled his fingers along the splintery lumber, trying to feel for a handle.

“Take a seat,” she repeated. “You came to beat your gums, so let’s get to it.”

Pat wiped away the sweat dripping into his eyes with his forearm. He spent a moment facing the doorless wall, gathering his will, reminding himself that he was here for a reason. If she was a genuine witch, he had to expect strange things, but he scolded himself once more for not having the forethought to at least bring a pocket knife.

Slowly, he turned around, irrationally self-conscious of the stain across the front of his pants. Both the woman and her dog still watched him. He noticed an empty, duplicate chair resting catty-corner to her’s. Pat felt like he was wearing cement shoes, but he managed to shuffle over to the chair and fall into it. A tiny cloud of dust lifted as he collapsed, leaving him feeling bound by the tall back and high armrests.

“There was a time when men couldn’t stop eyeballin’ me,” she said. “Used to have the admiration of them all and I wasn’t but sixteen.”

Her tone was anything but wistful.

Pat still avoided looking into her face, focusing instead on her hands which were curled together in her lap like broken twigs. He didn’t know what to say. Adrenaline was rushing through his bloodstream and the lump in his throat wasn’t going anywhere.

“Who are you?” was all he could muster.

“You know who I am. Probably you meant to ask who I was.”

Pat said nothing.

The witch wheezed a little, appearing to take as deep of a breath as she could. Her chest was sunken in below her neck like she was missing her sternum.

“It don’t matter, really, but I’ll tell you anyway.” She moved a gnarled hand down to scratch behind her dog’s ears. He craned his head up to meet it.

“Time moves quickly,” she continued, “and even more so in Hollywood. Today becomes yesterday and before you know it, you may as well have not existed. Turns out the friends weren’t friends and the money and fame were as real as last night’s dream.”

A wind stirred outside that hadn’t been there before, setting the window pane to rattle.

“I was once a cute little girl with curly blond hair and dimples, you know.”

Curiosity got the best of Pat. He strained to hold his gaze as she smiled widely for him. One of the dimples was still there in the jowl that wasn’t scarred over, though it was easily overshadowed by a mouth whose only teeth left poking through were jagged and brown.

“Yeah, I did alright for myself. I sang and danced like that Shirley Temple, but I had ten times the talent.

“Anyhow, I got older and the parts got better. The studio had big plans for me,” she said. “An epic movie that was supposed to give me top billing. We began filming on a soundstage at MGM. I was playing a genie that was gonna pop out of a giant, jewel-crusted lamp. There were pyrotechnics. Something went wrong.”

She held her hand to the scar across her face and laughed a wicked laugh.

“Instead of lighting up the outside, you can imagine where the fire went. If that wasn’t enough, the lid wouldn’t open. Broke most of my bloody fingers before they managed to get me out of there.”

Pat noticed his fear of the witch dissipated, leaving only empathy.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I can’t imagine–”

“You can’t imagine nothin’!”

A little of the fear came back. She took a drawn-out pause before continuing.

“It all became hush-hush. My parents were given a bucket of cash so they wouldn’t sue and word was put out that I’d decided to quit show business and pursue education. I wasn’t allowed to go around and show my face, else my folks would put me out on my own with no way to support myself.”

Her story had pulled him in, but it seemed a long way between then and now. “How did you come to be here?” he asked.

She smiled her ugly smile again and raised what had probably once been eyebrows.

“You know, this place was a coffee stain on a map back then. A couple of dude ranches and a perfect place to put somethin’ you didn’t want found. I was a girl with a lot of time and a lot of anger, so I read, and read, and read some things that I probably wasn’t s’posed to.

“I was up to no good at first, but at a certain point, I decided I didn’t have to be that way. The more problems I caused, the more the heat inside me sorta dwindled and I decided I could help folks instead of hurtin’ ‘em. My parents were still connected to some in the industry and I began to help those who visited and complained about how hard things had gotten for them. At least I thought I was helpin’ ‘em.”

Their eyes locked for an uncomfortable amount of time.

“Which brings me to why you’re here,” she finished

Pat nodded.

“You’re sure you want my help?”

“I’ve never been more sure of anything, lady.”

“You willing to pay the price?”

“You want my soul?” Pat laughed to himself, figuring she would ask for something ridiculous like that. It didn’t much matter if he didn’t believe he had one.

The look in her eyes made him shrink back into his chair.

“You been watchin’ too many of your own movies. No, keep your soul. You’re gonna need it.”

Pat wasn’t sure what she meant by that.

The witch took a deep breath and with a struggle, pushed herself to her feet. Dust fell from every inch of her clothing. Her bones cracked and squealed equally with the floorboards. She had obviously been short to begin with, but with her bent back, she couldn’t have been an inch over four feet tall.

“Fact is, I’m gettin’ a little tired of this gig. I’ve been doin’ what I thought was a service for folks like you for so long, I think it’s about time for a change.”

She looked down at her dog.

“This here is Al. Used to be my father. He’ll treat you real good.”

The stale air of the cabin left Patrick’s lungs and he had a hard time getting it back in.

“Wait, what?”

The witch walked towards the cabin wall where he had come in. The door which had disappeared was back in its place.

Pat tried to spring to his own two feet, but it was as if an army of invisible hands were holding him down.

“Hold on a minute, you damn witch! You’re supposed to help me!”

She turned back toward him. Those droopy eyes that had frightened him only minutes ago were now pitying him like a beaten animal.

“I am helping you, Pat. If I let you back out there, you’re just gonna do the same things again and you’re gonna die a miserable man, probably at your own hands. At least this way, you’ll have time to think about doing somethin’ good for a change.”

Pat fought to get up with every ounce of his being. His head bobbed but his body remained in place, frozen in the chair. Whereas the high back and armrests had only seemed vaguely suffocating before, he swore his arms sank down and became a part of the material itself.

“Don’t worry, Father will show you the ropes.”

The door swung open on its own volition and the woman hobbled hunchbacked into the still, hot night. Pat’s heart ached at the final glimpse of cottonwoods and bright stars shining through their branches before the witch departed and the wall sealed itself shut behind her.

Al got up on his paws and ambled over, collapsing beside Pat. He raised his head, expecting a few good scratches from the Witch of the Narrows.

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