The Old Witch
by James L. Secor
The old witch lived in the inn at the edge of town. It was an old inn, run-down and nobody stopped there any more. She was an old lady, bent and crabbed with arthritis. There was a woman who went once or twice a day with food but she left it on the veranda. She would not venture inside. She had, one day, when curiosity got the better of her, looked in at one of the open windows. Most of the windows were shuttered. She saw, in the place of honor, a little bell with an oblong mirror behind it along with the little pine branches on either side. The name of the little tablet she could not read. Anshin she thought it said, “easy,” “relief,” “safe.” Or maybe it was anji, something suggestive. She saw the old woman sitting before the relics, the bell and mirror and pine branches. But she could not see the reflection in the mirror. The glass was too small and cloudy and, of course, too far away. She saw the old witch rise, so she ran down the path as fast as she could, only pausing to look back at the gate to be sure she was not pursued. But she talked a good story when she got back to town. It was a small town so word got around. In one form or another.
It was rumored it was best to be far away from this old witch. This old woman. It was rumored there was something disrespectful about her past and that is why she lived alone with no friends and no visitors.
No travellers bothered with her hostel, it was so unkempt. Indeed, the front gate looked to be falling down at any moment. The weeds in the garden had choked out the flowers and any trees that had grown there had been shorn of their leaves by the strangling vines that hung limply from the bare branches. It was indeed a desolate inn. Only the path remained clear and passable. No one thought this was strange but perhaps they should have.
The cracked and grained wood had lost its vitality and was pitted, water-rotted, almost black. The shutters, pulled all around but for the one window, were warped and falling in on themselves. But it was at the front doorstep that the food was left, a great slab of stone worn down from the feet of long ago travellers.
The tatami mat flooring showed weeds poking through in places. It was worn colorless where the old witch sat. A path led from the entranceway to the sitting place and from thence into the dark depths. The old witch dragged her heels when she walked.
One day, after years and years of silence and teasing stone-throwing by the neighborhood boys and girls, a traveler stopped at her inn. No one saw him go in but the next morning when the woman brought the old witch a morning meal, there was a memento attached to the falling down gatepost. It was red but had no temple’s name written on it. It was blank but for a little dragon crawling beneath a bell.
From that day forth, the old witch never touched her food and so people assumed she died. Because after awhile, the lady who brought the food stopped bringing it. If the old hag wasn’t going to eat it, it was a waste. There were others who could use it. No one visited her decrepit old abode to find out if there was a body there or not. No one was that crazy or brave. They just let the house rot and fall in on itself and the weeds grow over it.
Oddly enough, out of the mess beautiful flowers grew and, some years later, it became fashionable for lovers to traverse the path and pick a flower for their loved one. Never more than one flower was picked. The lovers always had happy fulfilling lives, so a truth was established.
One day, a traveler came to my house and though he could not pay for his keep, he said he had a story to tell. A strange story of love and deception. It was, indeed, worth his night’s stay. I thanked him and pondered on the tale afterwards. . .
He came to an old inn one night. It was a new moon. The place looked very tumble-down but he nevertheless took himself to the font door. He opened the door with some difficulty–it stuck in its trough. He entered and shut it behind him. In the musky blackness he shouted out for the master. “Hello? Is anybody here?” There was no answer, so he moved further into the large room, stopping at the first set of sliding doors. “Hello? I’ve come for a room.” Pause. “It’s a desolate night.” No answer. Just as he turned to leave, he heard the shuffle of steps somewhere in the darkness beyond the doors. He spoke again, “I’ve come for a place to stay the night. Can you put me up?” A pale lamp and a face floated up before him. The shuffling stopped. The silence carried on. She stepped aside and let him enter. She moved ahead of him, then raised a hand to have him wait. She shuffled out of the room and returned with a second small lamp. She indicated that he should follow her. He did. Keeping close so as not to become separated and lost in the blackness. The rooms smelled unkempt, dirty. The meager light showed up walls wrinkled and wasted like old men. Perhaps they would fall in on him as they groaned into the night.
The old woman led him to a small room to one side of the house and indicated he should sit. The tatami felt damp. The table was dusty. She did not bother to clean it off. He looked up. She had disappeared. Outside the tiny circle of his little lamp reigned darkness and the sounds of the house trying to maintain itself. He took out a cloth and dusted the table. She appeared out of nowhere with food and set it down on the table. With a swift, jerked movement, she bid him eat. She stood to one side, holding her lamp, waiting for him to finish. When he finished, she took the tray away. He was finishing his tea when she returned and spread out his bedding. Then she left him to himself.
Not once did she speak. His lamp went out and he was lost in the oppressive darkness and creakiness. Dank and musty smelling and a little cold, he shivered and climbed into the bedding. Cold and dampish. Soon, though, it warmed and he fell asleep. He dreamed. . .
“Strange dream. Strange. . .even now as I’m telling you I’m not sure whether it happened or truly was a dream. It seemed that she came into the room about midnight and sat down at the head of my bed. She had her little lamp with her and was haloed at the edge of its yellow waxy glow. The apparition spoke: ‘I have a story to tell you.’ I looked up at her and suddenly the air about her began to glow and shine. An ellipse of brightness that cast no aura. She was a mess. Her clothes rotting from her frame, her hair falling about her shoulders like a ghost’s, her hands hoary with arthritis as they lay silent and polite in her thin lap. There was not much life left in her. The light seemed to pass through her making her appear diaphanous. ‘It’s late and I’m tired,’ I said. ‘Yes. It is late. Too late for me. I must tell you my story. You must hear me out.’ I nodded. She smiled a toothless smile without mirth or sadness, just an open widening of the thin lips. She licked her lips.
“‘This was also not a time when the clergy were as attentive to their vows as they are now. One day, one of them stopped by on his travels. I could hear his voice from within. I stopped my sewing and went to have a peek at who could have such an enchanting, warm voice. Rich and mellow and coming out of the depths of a body like a spring from the mountains. He was beautiful. If a man may be beautiful. A marvelously handsome man. I wanted him right away. I had never had a man before but I knew what the feelings that rose up in me were. I felt all wet and warm and perhaps a little dizzy and a pressure grew in me that fairly choked me. I went back to my sewing but was not at all concentrating on it–I stuck myself several times with the needle. Little pinpoints of blood stood out on my fingers. So I put my sewing down and went again to look at the lay monk. He was gone. I had expected him to stay the night. Most did. I was taken by some kind of hysteria. I immediately left the house and ran after him. My parents called after me but I did not answer. I could not answer. I felt my heart, my soul was leaving me behind and I had to catch up to it before I died. I ran and I ran but did not find him. I asked some travellers along the road. They said, yes, they had seen such a man, a monk, and that he had gone down the leftward road. I ran on. It is not easy running in long skirts. I felt they were breaking my legs. They were getting caught up and I could not abide them. I tried pulling them up and running but that was no good. They tripped me from behind. My clothing became quite dishabille and began to fall away as I gained speed. This urgency overrode my senses. My hairpins fell out, leaving a trail behind me. My hair flew about my face and stood out behind me in a wildly undulating wake. I ran into other travellers. They laughed at my appearance. Others pulled away, shocked and frightened–I must have looked a sight! Women simply did not run about as I was doing, hair falling all about their shoulders, clothing in disarray, where it still clung to my body. They, too, told me the monk had passed along this way. He had gone to the river. I grunted and flew on. And my legs began to feel very heavy. Great massive tree trunks. I was panting and my face was stretched taut with my straining. There! I could see him at the ferry. I called to him: Wait! I yelled: You cannot leave me! He looked up. He looked at me as if I were a demon. Fear contorted his face. Quick, he shouted to the ferryman, get me across the river before that demon catches me. For, you see, I had turned into a great dragon. My hair tangled in a mass round my head. My face pinched and pointed with bulging fiery eyes. There were nubs, like little horns, growing out of my head. Out of my mouth grew fangs and I lathered, my tongue snaking out over my lips. But I only learned of this later, on my return journey, when people told me of the vicious beast they’d seen pursuing a hapless young monk. At the time, I could not understand why he would look at me with such loathing, run from a woman as beautiful as I was–and I was beautiful. I was held to be the most beautiful for several counties. And he was running from that exquisite beauty! Why? I knew monks were not chaste. It was a well-known fact. They often strayed. Stray with me! I want some of your holiness! Some of his holy love. It had to be holy coming from a man so beautiful himself.’
“Here, she, the old lady glowing at my bedside, sighed. The sound was the exhaling of steam.
“‘I continued on. There was nothing for me to do but go on. Nothing to my existence but having this man. I accosted another ferryman but he ran away and jumped into his own boat screaming obscenities at me. Did he think I would eat him when I was hungry for another? He rowed like mad out into the middle of the river. I was left standing on the bank ranting and raging after my love. He was my love, you know. I had to have him. My love. My soul. My body cried out for him. My heart was no longer mine. Who was I? I was enflamed. I jumped into the river and swam. But my body weighed me down. I felt long and old and worn out. I looked back and saw my dragon tail, my dragon scales. And my tail seemed to grow as I swam. Only, I wasn’t swimming. I was undulating through the water. When I reached the other side, I ran on along the road. An unbearable chore. I grew slower and slower, heavier and heavier. I could hear him screaming ahead of me. Then I could see him screaming at a robed man, screaming and pointing down the road at me. I heard, later, that I was a great cloud of dust and fire that bellowed along. Everyone took flight, not even closing the gates to the temple compound. I plunged through the gateway into the barren courtyard. No one. There! On the bell tower! The bell was off its perch. It sat on the wooden flooring. They thought they were so clever–hiding him under a great bronze bell. This temple, Dojo, was known for its bell. It rang out over the hills when it was struck. But now it was impotent. I wound myself around the bell, squeezing tightly. I squeezed until I fused my body with the bronze behemoth. My energy turned me red and I heated up. Smoke rose round me. Heavy waves rose from my body. It was all I could do to hold him tight. Hold him to me. So I passed the night wound round the bell, holding his love. Keeping the silence. Just at sunrise I left and returned here. I have been here ever since.’ She licked her lips, relishing the memory maybe? ‘When the monks saw that the mighty dragon had gone, they tried to move the bell but it was too hot. Still glowing. They burned themselves for their humanitarian efforts. They threw water on it and waited until late in the afternoon. Then, as dusk began to descend, they raised the bell and. . . the monk had been fried. He was a pile of ashes. I had burned him up with my passion.’
“Her eyes looked down at me. They penetrated right into my body.
“‘You looked so like him. . .so I told you. I could not help myself. I had to say this. I am not a bad woman.’
“She got up and walked out of the room, leaving me in hazy, grey blackness. I’m not sure if I slept the rest of the night. When I rose the next morning, she was nowhere around. The sunlight somehow penetrated the dreary insides of the inn and there, to one side in the main room, I saw the little bell and mirror and the pine branches. I stopped. Took a deep breath. What was it had happened that night?”
It has been years now since the man told me this story.
I had once picked a flower in that old, overgrown garden but my love had not been so obsessive, so possessive, so overwhelmingly consuming. We had a good life, not the disaster that befell such an extreme woman.
(c) 2014, James L. Secor