The Brunton Hag

by John Paultis

Previously published in Heart Attack Magazine, December 1991.

I was both superstitious and foolhardy as a kid. I suppose that’s why the old hag who lived in the shack on the deserted Pitcairn property frightened me so. And why I so enjoyed tormenting her. Growing up we had a ball, Tom, Billy, my best friend, Jeff, and I. Sneaking through the bushes of the Pitcairn place to spy on the old hag. We loved to throw stones at her and run as she shook her wrinkled fist at us. When she was away from her shack, we sneaked into it a couple of times. What a mess. I can still remember the smell.

We wouldn’t go near her in public, but whenever she saw us on the streets of Brunton, our small hometown in southeastern Pennsylvania, she would stop and give us the most god-awful smile. That smile made me want to torment her even more. When she caught us out with our parents, she would come over, be polite, and say to us, “When will you be out to see me again?” Then to the parents, “I love when your children pay me visits.” Then she would wag her finger at us as if she knew it was we who had thrown the stones. Doubtless she did. Then she would shuffle off, leaving mom or dad perplexed and uncertain, and I’m sure that our refrain of “She’s crazy, mom,” did little, to reassure them. We’d inevitably be forbidden, under threat of the worst punishment imaginable, to go near that woman’s house. We said we wouldn’t but, of course, we went right on bombarding her with glee. But we pretty much lost interest in her once we reached high school, and much younger women consumed our attention. But until then she was the summer’s favorite sport. And I readily admit that, for whatever reason, I was the most active of the bunch in tormenting her. The sight of her bursting from her doorway after the rocks hit her shack, eyes blazing, searching . . . it was just exciting.

I’d heard stories back then of people—adults—going to her for favors. Just rumors. Things like curing a sickness or getting a hint about what tomorrow would bring. No one ever admitted having done so, but the old hag somehow always had money, and perhaps it came from doing these little favors. Who knew? At any rate, it was just part of the mystery about her—of the aura of strangeness about her.

I moved away from Brunton to attend college in Boston and stayed away. The only people I kept in touch with were my family, of course, and Jeff. Jeff and I chatted on the phone, exchanged emails once in a while, and when I went back to visit, Jeff and I would always get together.

I got married and moved to Cambridge outside of Boston. I worked for a computer software firm that sold communications systems to trucking companies. Gina, my wife, and I had just had our first baby, Cecilia. But from birth Cecilia had not been well. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong, but she failed to gain weight. She ate poorly. She slept poorly. Manys the night that Gina and I sat up trying to console the poor baby who would wail incessantly. To be honest, Gina and I were crushed by this stroke of bad luck. Gina had quit her job and was eager to be a stay-at-home mom. She’d bought toys, dolls, and clothing galore for the baby. I bought a video camera outfit, top of the line, to record the baby’s every move. But soon the baby wasn’t making many moves. She’d just lie in her crib, her eyes looking despondently around. She didn’t even cry any more. It was as if she had accepted her bad fortune and was waiting patiently for it to pass.

“If only she would cry or fuss or do something,” Gina would say. “Seeing her just lie there . . . ” It was doubly devastating to have this misery issue from where great happiness had been expected. But our every hope was that she would soon get well.

Gina convinced me to take a couple days off and get away—go back home. I didn’t want to but I was exhausted. I’d been working a full schedule on little sleep. It was impossible to relax with Cecilia the way she was. I finally agreed only when Gina consented to go away for a few days herself when I got back.

It was July. I headed for Brunton to spend a long weekend with my parents. On my final night there, Sunday night, Jeff and I were sitting on his porch drinking beer. I was telling him the whole story of Cecilia.

“Awful,” Jeff said. “I can see how all of this has worn you down.”

“It is awful,” I said. “It’s a real torture to go through this. I feel worse when I see Gina holding the baby with tears in her eyes. And the poor kid, she just lies there. I really don’t know how we face each day. Life wasn’t like this when we were kids.” I opened another beer.

“Why don’t you go see the old hag?”

“What? Who?”

“The old hag on the Pitcairn place. She’s still there. The stories still go around of her curing for money.”

“She’s still out there living in that shack?”

“She is. And the stories still go around. I believe them. I could tell you things.”

I looked at Jeff to see whether he was serious. He compressed his lips and nodded at me.

“Tell me what?”

He shrugged and turned his eyes away. “Just believe me. I suggest you go and ask. It’ll only cost you a little money to find out. What have you got to lose?”

I drained my beer and gave it some thought.

“Will you come with me, Jeff,” I said.

“To the hag?”

I nodded. “I don’t want to go alone.”

Jeff laughed. “This sounds like the conversation we had the time you dug the hole in front of her door.”

“Oh man, I remember. I threw stones at her door until she came out. She went right into the hole.”

“Broke her leg, remember?”

I nodded somewhat ashamed.

“She was well awfully quick if you remember,” he said, giving me a knowing look.

“I don’t remember. I always wondered whether she knew I was the one who dug that hole. If she did, I don’t know why she didn’t go to my parents. We left her screaming in that hole.”

“I remember. She still has the limp, too. You didn’t want to go alone that night either. You asked me to go with you.”

“And you did. So go this time, too.”

“Let’s have just one more,” he said, pulling two cans out of the tub of ice he’d brought onto his porch. “Then we’ll go. It’s only seven-thirty. It’s still early.”

The light was fading when we approached the shack I remembered from years before.

“Do you think she’s in?” I whispered.

“Why don’t you throw some stones and find out,” he laughed. “Come on, follow me.”

Jeff marched straight up to the door and knocked. I followed him, glad he was with me. We heard some shuffling inside. Then the door opened and there she was. A charge went through me. The same worn face and threadbare clothes. The same musty smell came from the shack. I felt twelve years old again. And she still scared the hell out of me. After dealing with this woman on the level of child to monster, how was I going to approach her adult to adult? I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible, certain I was making a foolish mistake.

The old hag’s eyes brightened. “You, I know,” she said to Jeff. She glared, studying me and brushed a fly from her cheek. I gave her what I hoped she took as a friendly grin. She spoke to me. “And I know you, too. You once lived here, didn’t you?” she wheezed.

I cleared my throat. “When I was a boy,” I answered.

She searched my face a moment more. “The boy who liked to dig,” she said patting her leg. “I remember how much you used to like to visit me. Do you remember, too?”

I felt like a six-year-old brought up before the teacher for dipping Sally’s pigtail into the inkwell.

“My friend wants to ask you a favor,” Jeff said, coming to my rescue.

“Does he?” she said, extending her hand, palm upwards.

“How much?” I asked.

She bent her fingers in and out a couple times. I dug into my pocket and counted off a hundred dollars. She eyed the money, smiled, and bent her fingers palmward again. I peeled off two more twenties and passed the money over to her.

“And the favor?” she said, riffling through the money.

“I have a baby. She’s ill. I want the baby happy and well.”

The old hag’s eyebrows crawled up her forehead. “Come in.”

She led the way and as she did, I noticed her limp. We sat where she motioned us, around a dilapidated old table.

“Do you believe in this?” she asked, producing a cloudy, round ball from a box under her cot. She joined us at the table.

I nodded mechanically, giving what I hoped was the right answer.

She looked at me. “Did I tell you that I remember you? The little boys still visit me, but you I remember you the most.” She cupped her hand over the ball. “Stones and torment,” she intoned, eyes closed and rocking slightly side to side. “Now you want a favor. I’ll give you a favor. Tell me all.” Her hands moved caressingly over the ball, and as I spoke, she continued to sway from side to side. Her breathing was unnervingly sibilant. When I finished my story, she stopped moving and opened her eyes. “It is done. A favor for a favor.” She waved the fist that contained my money toward me. “That baby will be alive and well as of, “ she paused, “noon, Friday. Now go.” Then she laughed, rose, and opened the door for us. I was the first one through it.

I was to leave Brunton the next day, Monday, but late that night, around two, I got a call from Gina. The doctor said that Cecilia was very ill, and I should come right home. I was home by sun up. Home in time to watch my daughter die in my wife’s arms.

Gina and I somehow gathered the strength to go through the funeral and burial formalities. I don’t know how we managed. It was the hardest, most painful thing I ever hope to do. There’s nothing more I can say about it.

The following Sunday night, Gina had already gone to bed. I was pacing the living room, trying to burn off some of the agitation that still plagued me since the death of my daughter. I turned on the television but couldn’t pay attention. I tried a book but couldn’t follow what I read. It was past one and I was just sitting in a chair staring into the dark when headlights flashed past my living room picture window. The curtains were closed, but it was obvious that a car had pulled into my driveway. I got up and parted the curtains. It looked like Jeff’s car and sure enough, Jeff got out. He walked toward the house. As I was about to let the curtain drop, I saw him turn and get back into his car. I was still dressed so I went outside and approached him.

“What in the world are you doing here?” I asked.

Jeff’s hands were covered with mud and dirt. When he got out of the car, I saw that his clothes were in the same filthy condition.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he said.

“What’s wrong? Your voice is shaking. Are you okay?”

“No. No. Get in. I’m sorry to have to do this.”

I got into the car. Jeff pulled out and headed off down the road.

“Do you think you might enlighten me as to what is wrong with you?”

“It’s the hag.”

“What about her? Her damned magic didn’t work, did it?”

Jeff looked at me. “She passed me on the street today. I came here right afterward.”

“From working in your garden?” I asked, eyeing his filthy condition.

“Oh, Jesus. Do you remember what the hag said when you gave her the money?”

“Yes. A favor for a favor. Money for a favor. She shook the money at me.”

“No, not the money. She was shaking her fist at you. And the favor you did for her that she was returning was the favor of breaking her leg and tormenting her all those years.”

Jeff was getting on my nerves. “Where are you taking me?”

“She has the power, Jim. She does. She can do what she says. She cured my boy. I was ashamed to tell you on my porch that night. Chris and I were hunting and he caught his leg in a trap. I took him to her, and his wound healed in two days. There wasn’t even a scar left behind. She can so what she says.”

Jeff turned the car off the road. “The cemetery?” I cried. “You’re taking me to the cemetery? Why are we here?”

“Cecilia was alive last Friday at noon just as the hag promised.” Jeff stopped the car and we got out.

“Cecilia died Monday,” I nearly shouted. “She was buried on Thursday. What are you talking about?”

Jeff grabbed my wrist, pulled me off the path and brought me among the graves.

I yanked myself away from him and was on the verge of punching him. “This is the way to Cecilia’s grave. Why are you bringing me here?” Then I stopped and stared. Someone had opened Cecilia’s grave and in the moonlit gloom I could see that tiny, sad coffin sitting on the grass next to the black, open grave.

“The hag told you so specific a time for a reason. She taunted me with it today. I didn’t want believe her, but I knew it was true. She has the power. I wouldn’t have done this if I hadn’t been certain. That hag did see to it that Cecilia was alive Friday at noon. She brought her back to life. Look.”

The coffin lay open in the moonlight. I rushed over to it. I will never forget the look of horror on that poor baby’s face. Her wide eyes. Her open, toothless mouth. Her tiny fists clenched in terror at what had been done to her. Made well by that hag’s magic only to die again after lying screaming for God knows how long in her own grave.
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