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The author asks….
Do we still have Appalachian Granny Witches???
The Granny Witch
By Lisa Criss Griffin
The trek across the Appalachian Trail had been a fun and pleasant experience for the three friends until the night of the attack. It was almost dark, and the campfire was mostly embers that glowed like dozens of tiny red eyes peeking out from the charred remains of the fallen branches the boys had gathered. A cool, damp fog had settled over the rural mountain, mixing the fresh smell of mist with the heaviness of the wood smoke. A barn owl hooted somewhere over in the next holler, waiting for an answer before hooting once again.
The boys were almost asleep when one of them heard the sound of branches breaking under foot close to camp. It was the stealth of the predator that captured Jason’s attention. He sat upright, reaching over to shake Brandon. “Hey man…do you hear that?”
“Listen dude, something is out there!”
Brandon stood up slowly, listening intently to the night sounds of the forest. There was another crunching sound, closer this time.
Brandon nudged Jeff, who was already asleep. “Wake up man, wake up!” Brandon hissed.
Jeff rolled over and propped himself up on one arm. “What’s goin’ on?” he groaned sleepily.
Another branch cracked close by and all three boys were on their feet. They heard heavy breathing just beyond the glow of the dying fire. “Aaaaiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeh!!!” With the screech of a banshee, a filthy man with wild, tangled hair and a matted beard ran into the camp, slashing indiscriminately at the boys with a wicked looking knife. His burning, red-rimmed eyes practically spun in their sockets as he tracked all three boys with a feral gleam.
The three friends almost fell over each other as they dodged the slashing blade and ran out of the camp, the lunatic following closely on their heels. They careened down the trail, barely able to see where they were headed. In their panic, they chose to veer off the main trail onto a narrow trail leading them into the cover of the deep woods. Low-lying branches loaded with pine needles battered their faces as they desperately tried to avoid tripping on the stones and exposed tree roots that littered the pathway.
“This way!” Jason whispered as he disappeared behind a group of large, lichen-covered boulders. There was a hint of a path that led back through the boulders that shielded them from the main trail. They had just rounded the back side of the far boulder when they heard their nemesis crashing down the trail, cursing loudly as he passed by their hiding place. They waited behind the boulder until they could no longer hear him, pressed tightly against the cold stone.
Brandon exhaled slowly, realizing he had been holding his breath while the crazy dude had blustered by the group of boulders concealing them. He noticed his hands were shaking as he ran them through his hair, removing bits of twigs and pine needles. He looked at Jason, whose face was noticeably pale, even in the twilight. “You okay?” Brandon whispered quietly.
Jason nodded, but pointed toward Jeff and shook his head negatively.
Jeff had slid down the side of the boulder and was slumped on the ground. The side of his face was bloody from the buffeting by the pine branches, but he was holding his left ankle with both his hands. Jeff let out a low groan and suddenly leaned away, retching into a large fern. Jeff wiped his face with his sleeve and looked up at his friends, his sweaty face pale green.
“What’s wrong Jeff?”
“I think I’m snake bit, fellas.” Jeff turned away and dry heaved into the unfortunate fern.
Jason looked closer at Jeff’s ankle. “Why, you don’t even have your boots on!”
Jeff smiled weakly. “Well, there really wasn’t time to put them on, man.” He leaned back against the cool rock. “I don’t feel so good….” Jeff shuddered as another wave of nausea coursed through his body.
Brandon looked at Jason. “We have to get him some help.”
“We are out in the middle of nowhere with a looney tune chasing us around! Just what do you suggest?”
Brandon sighed, stood up straight and gazed off into the forest, running possibilities through his mind. He noticed a hint of a small golden glow in the woods across a ravine. “Hey, Jason. Look at that. Does that look like a light to you?”
“Over there, to your left, up on top of the other side of the ravine.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it does. We could get Jeff up there, I think.”
“You don’t think that is where that whacko lives, do you?”
“I doubt that dude has seen the inside of a house for quite awhile.”
Brandon snorted and looked at Jason. “No kidding!”
The two of them hauled Jeff to his feet between them and placed his arms across their shoulders. “Come on Jeff. We are going to get you some help.”
Jeff nodded in agreement, doing his best to stay upright. The boys made a beeline for the light through the woods. The going was slow as it was hard to see, and the ground was uneven and began to slope down into the ravine. The boys half slid and half fell down the side of the ravine, doing their best to keep Jeff from falling. Once they reached the bottom of the ravine, they stopped to rest by a trickle of a creek. Jason took out his handkerchief, wet it and washed off his friend’s pallid face, noting the dark circles that had suddenly appeared under Jeff’s eyes.
Jeff smiled his appreciation and closed his eyes.
“Jeff, Jeff, don’t go to sleep now. We are almost there!”
Jeff opened his bleary eyes as his friends stood him back up. “Hey Brandon, is that a rock staircase over there, or am I seeing things?”
Brandon squinted through the darkness at the incline across the tiny creek. “Well, what do ya know! It sure enough is. Let’s go now!” The two boys helped their friend across the creek and made their way slowly up the stone staircase, pausing at the top.
There was a stone pathway leading to a small house in the woods. A buttery yellow light shone brightly out of a small window in the attic, illuminating the pathway to the house. The boys shored up their friend and dragged him to the front door. Jason reached out and knocked firmly on the wooden door, praying the lunatic wasn’t on the other side of the door. Jeff moaned and started to slide to the ground. “No man. Stand up for one more minute. Stand up, Jeff.” Jeff locked his legs and swayed, doing his best to help his buddies.
Jason and Brandon heard a bolt slide across the inside of the door and it opened slightly. The wrinkled face of an elderly woman and the business end of a shotgun peered out at them from the crack between the door and the casing. “What do you want?” she croaked.
“Please ma’am. Our friend here is snake bit and needs help! Do you have a phone, or a car or something?”
The old lady shook her head sadly. “No, I don’t. But I may be able to help him if you care to bring him inside.” She lowered the shotgun and opened the light blue door.
Jason and Brandon lifted Jeff and carried him into the little house. It was a small, one room house with a kitchen in one corner, a round wooden table surrounded by four ladder-back chairs with woven seats in front of a fireplace, and a bed under the staircase leading to the attic. A handmade multicolored braided rug covered much of the wood floor. The walls were decorated with all different kinds of dried flowers and plants, suspended upside down from wires running the circumference of the room. Built-in shelves held small mason jars filled with different colored powders, dried berries, leaves and roots. Cheerful blue gingham curtains covered the downstairs windows, and the smell of freshly baked cornbread filled the room.
The elderly lady pointed to the bed under the staircase. “Put your friend over there.” She turned away to put a pot of water on top of the wood stove, and retrieved a cup and several of the jars off her shelves. Jeff sank down into the comfortable mattress gratefully and closed his eyes. “Have a seat over by the fire, boys,” she suggested as she measured some ingredients into a mortar.
The two friends sat down, suddenly realizing how cold and tired they were. The small fire popped cheerily, radiating light and comfort into the humble abode. Jason leaned across the small table and whispered to Brandon. “Hey, have you ever heard of a Granny Witch?”
Brandon’s eyes widened and he nodded. “Yes, but I never met one. Until now.” Brandon stretched his arms behind his head and searched his memory to recall what he knew about the Appalachian Granny Witches.
The Appalachian people lived in an area that was not easily accessible, so it was necessary to be as self-sufficient as possible. That included treating illnesses and injuries, whether it be with herbalism, faith healing, energy work, prayers, chants or all of those things combined. The Scotch Irish who settled in the mountains as early as the 1600s blended their own ancient folk medicine with the healing traditions of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) people. This knowledge was only passed down through generations of individual families and was never shared with outsiders. Each Appalachian community usually had a Granny Witch to meet their needs. Granny Witches were generally regarded as helpful and were highly esteemed within their communities. The practice was slowly dying out as accessibility to the outside world had improved.
The Granny Witch finished blending the herbs she had chosen, and proceeded to make a poultice that she placed over Jeff’s snake bite. She wrapped it on with some clean white cloth, and returned to her wood stove. The boys watched in fascination as she made a tea from the herbs she had harvested and dried. She returned to Jeff’s side and had him drink the concoction. She wiped his scratched face clean with a damp cloth and covered him with a colorful handmade quilt.
She returned to her kitchen and sliced several pieces of fresh cornbread. The Granny Witch broke off a piece of the cornbread, opened a window and tossed the cornbread outside before closing the window. Brandon recognized this as one of the traditions Granny Witches used to engage the fairy folk in their work. She served the boys plates of fresh cornbread with creamy butter and spring water while she busied herself in the kitchen, humming a little song to herself as she worked.
Brandon and Jason grew sleepy from their full bellies and the warm fire. The Granny Witch noticed and took pity on them. “Why don’t you two go upstairs and rest. I’ll look after your friend,” she stated kindly.
The boys stood up, noticing the light blue color of the ceiling for the first time. “Why is the door and the ceiling painted this light blue color, Granny?” Jason mused.
The Granny Witch giggled softly. “Well son, I thought everyone knew that. It is to keep the Haints away.” She looked at their puzzled faces. “Haints…the evil spirits…ghosts and such. Now go get some rest. You are safe here with me.”
The two friends climbed the stairs to the attic lit by candlelight, kicked off their shoes and fell exhausted onto a large bed on the far end of the room. Jason looked over at Brandon sleepily. “Do you think that lunatic in the woods could have been a haint?”
“I don’t know what to think anymore, man. I really don’t.”
The boys both fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Morning broke in the forest with the sounds of songbirds and the chatter of scolding squirrels. Sunlight streamed through the colorful autumn trees, caressing Brandon’s face with the fresh warmth of a new day. He stretched out his muscles on his bed of spongy moss, blinking the sleep from his eyes. He looked over at Jason, who grinned at him groggily from his spongy moss mattress. Brandon sat straight up, scanning his surroundings for Jeff.
Brandon rose quickly as he spotted Jeff a few feet away, covered with a blanket of colorful leaves. He reached down, half afraid Jeff was dead. He shook his friend’s arm gently, highly relieved to find that the arm was warm. “Jeff. Jeff, wake up. Jeff!”
Jeff’s eyes fluttered open and he focused on his friend’s face. “What?”
“Are you alright?”
“Well, yeah. I feel okay.” Jeff sat up and pulled up the left leg of his jeans to look at his injured ankle. The white wrap was still there. Jeff looked at Brandon. “What is going on here, dude?”
Brandon looked around, noticing there was nothing but forest around them and a light blue sky overhead. His hand brushed something lying on the ground next to Jeff. It was a bundle of blue gingham cloth. Brandon untied the top of the bundled cloth to find three pieces of fresh cornbread. Just then, he heard a bird warble the same simple tune the Granny Witch had been humming the night before.
Had they imagined the whole thing? Had they been chased through the woods by an evil haint? Was there still such a thing as a Granny Witch? Brandon looked over at Jason and saw the same questions in his eyes. Maybe it was time to end their adventure on the Appalachian Trail.
Brandon heard something giggle softly as he bit into the delicious cornbread. The three friends stopped chewing at the same time and looked at each other. Yep. It was definitely time to get out of the forest! Right after they finished their cornbread, of course.
Please visit Lisa on her Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/authorlisacrissgriffin/