It was on the banks of the Mississippi river, across the street from Grandpa and Grandma Schwab’s, down a steep, steep bank of sand and dirt, stinging nettles, gnats and mosquitoes, and big, tall, leafy trees that I saw Witches Island for the first time.
The grass was high and the bank along the river was cooled by shade and water. Grandma had sprayed us liberally with Off mosquito repellent. Immediately beside the bank the water was still. Not far from there though it looked fierce and swift. From where we stood, looking north, the river flowed southeast. And it was there, downstream, to the southeast, that the waters parted on either side of a point. “Look Grandpa! It looks like there’s an island over there.” one of us said. “Oh, that’s Witches Island down yonder.”
Are there witches? Is it scary? Is it safe? “Yes. I’ve been told. Yes. So I hear. I don’t know.” he answered. Grandpa was a storyteller, a weaver of tall tales. He was a legendary teller of legends. One day, when the river was lower, and the witches are maybe out fishin’ in deeper waters, maybe he’d take us there.
When the day did come we didn’t bring our rods with us to Witches Island, exploring and fishing were exclusive. Today we had to be aware of drop-offs, deep under currents, slippery rocks, loose rocks that fall on tennis-shoed feet, and all sorts of other rocks that caught, cut, and trapped little feet. There were a few fallen trees as we skirted the bank sloping up to where across the street was Grandpa’s farm. We soon entered unknown territory, and that alone was excitement enough! Grandpa stopped, told us not to make a sound. He had to hear if it was safe enough to approach; then where.
Not much further southeast he heard some rapids. Perhaps there? Maybe the witches had constructed a bridge? Maybe we could cross it without being caught? There was no bridge but the water was indeed shallow enough for eight and six year olds to cross without falling into the depths. We crossed safely and were on Witches Island!
There were lagoons and quiet waters, sand and sandy beaches, trees and more trees! We found some iron stakes. They weren’t from witches but probably from the days when logs were sent down the river. Grandpa said that they sometimes used to stake some of the logs together or fasten them to the shore. We even saw what we thought to be a house! Is that the witches house Grandpa? He didn’t know but if we crept real quietly we could take a look. We did. All the while our eyes big, half-scared, half-excited. Would we run screaming? I didn’t know how I would react if I saw a witch. Turns out, the house was probably, Grandpa said, a hunting blind, long abandoned. Maybe it was abandoned because of the witches? He didn’t know. Could be.
We headed home. The same way we came because it was the safest. And we made it back to the banks of the Mississippi at Palomino Acres. We still had to climb that big cliff with the stinging nettle, but from where I stood, from the water’s edge where I would one day soon throw stones into the mighty Mississippi and my cousin would also throw stones but while standing directly behind me, I saw Witches Island and knew I would return.
The island’s mystique drew me back but faded only in regards to fright and fear and witches. It changed for me to become a place where the Mississippi took a break and invited me to do the same. Tony and I would walk down to one of the island’s lagoons and swim in the still waters on hot summer days. The water there was also warmer because it didn’t move much. The bottoms of the lagoons were soft with sand and the banks too.
One time, the only one time we actually did get scared, and that was because of me and had nothing to do with the island or the waters or the weather, was when we had canoed from Grandpa’s and set up camp on Witches Island. We were safe in our tent, the fire was dying, and the weather still. There was occasional rustling in bushes and such but we knew there was nothing to harm us. It was then I told of the story. I told of the story called Burnt Offerings.
I told my brother Michael, and our two Tony friends, Tony Miskowic and Tony Villar, about the family that rented a house for the summer. When they arrived the house was an absolute dump. The lights weren’t working, the gardens were a shambles, everything was dilapidated. Then, while the mother was preparing dinner, she cut herself. There was no need to look for spare light bulbs because suddenly all of the lights in the house were functioning as though with all new bulbs. The elderly aunt, a firecracker for her age, found herself wanting to sleep in just a little bit more each morning. And each evening she’d retire a little bit earlier. And each day the house became more beautiful. And each day she stepped closer and closer to death; and then she died. The story continued until the house had completely rebuilt itself and killed its occupants. And when the owners returned they were so pleased with the wonderful house guests whose portraits were already placed on the bureau of the top floor suite…In Mother’s room!
I slept well. Real well in fact, but it was the others who told me the next morning that they were all so scared and couldn’t think of much else that night than the house that rebuilt itself by killing the people in it.