The Legend of the Potomac Witches

Submitted into Contest #65 in response to: Write about a group of witches meeting up on Halloween night.... view prompt

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Horror Holiday Fiction

I scribble this statement with a trembling hand. My heart still pounds fiercely, though the horror I am about to relate is but two hours past. I have been taking brandy since I arrived at my home, but my nerves are yet unsettled. To he who holds this account, I implore you to read carefully and beware the great Patowmac River.


My story begins on this last night of October, just after the clock in the city square had struck 11. My brother John had paused in his travels from Pennsylvania colony to spend three days with me before returning to his studies at the College in Williamsburg.


We rode out of Alexandria City and onto the road alongside the Patowmac. I was astride my saddle horse Franklin and John on his mount, a fine half-Arabian called Blue. A full moon had risen over the river casting a pale light across the road. It was muddy and slick this night after several days of heavy rain and our horses trod more slowly than was their regular pace.


The leaves had only just started to fall so the thick foliage occupying the space between the road and the river prevented us from seeing any signs that something was amiss. Nor would we have thought evil was lurking in those most esteemed waters. We were the only two riders on the road that night. A fox dashed across our path and into the forest. All was well.


Then Franklin halted. I could feel his muscles tense beneath my seat. He refused to move even when I pricked him with my spurs.


“Walk on,” I commanded, digging my spurs in harder. He snorted, raised his head high and laid his ears flat. 


A vile odor reached my nose and I raised my hand to cover it. I turned to John, but Franklin suddenly jumped to one side, almost unseating me. He reared, whinnied and bolted down the road. When I finally reined him to a halt, he was shaking and sweating. He tossed his head, flinging lather in all directions and backed up, half-rearing.


I laid a hand on his neck, perplexed by the behavior of my gentle steed.


“What’s wrong, boy?” I asked. He was breathing heavily with back rounded, about to buck.


I looked up, seeking John’s help, for he was the more expert horseman between us. 


And that is when I saw a horror seared into my memory for all eternity.


A thick fog was seeping off the river and through the trees. It was an opaque cloud surrounding John and Blue, carrying a most foul odor of decaying flesh. I could see only a faint outline of John and his horse through the mist. Blue was pawing the ground and lurching, as though restrained, and John leant over the saddle speaking, as though pleading with someone. Yet, ‘twas very strange as I now ponder, that the fog did not reach me. It took the form of sphere, encasing only my brother and his horse.


“John!” I called to him. He sat up and turned to me. He seemed to shout, but I heard nothing. Only then did I see an old hag standing just beyond the fog. She was hunched and cloaked in rags. Her arm, so thin and pale it looked like only a bone, was raised. She clutched a gnarled staff pointed to John. Long and straggling strands of hair emerged in patches from a bald and scarred scalp. Her eyes were blank orbs.


Then a second creature drifted out of the fog. This one staggered, leaning heavily on a cane of driftwood, fingers so misshapen they appeared almost as claws. Her face seemed frozen into a snarl. One bloodshot eye stared out of her skull while only a black cavernous space took the spot of her other eye. Seaweed and moss covered her head and fell from her dress.


All this I saw in mere seconds. I spurred Franklin forward, but the terrified animal only spun around in fright. Cursing, I jumped from the saddle and ran toward John as Franklin galloped into the night.

But suddenly, I was stopped as though run into a wall. Only then did a see a third hag, clad in a soiled and damp dress. She held both arms out toward me, blackened flesh hanging from bone. A ragged and stained turban was twisted over her head and her yellow eyes glowed out of her cracked face. 


I could not pass through that wall I could not see.


“Let me through!” I demanded, drawing my dagger.


She fixed her stare on me.


“Traveleeeerrrrrr,” she said. Her voice came as whine, but one that suddenly seemed magnified, as though she spoke from every space around me. “Traveler,” she moaned again, setting off a ringing in my ears. “There is no path.” The others echoed her in a singsong cry that filled the forest and the sky. “Traveler, there is no path….traveler, there is no path…traveler, there is no path.”

I stared at John. Though still shrouded by the fog, I could see him more clearly. His eyes were panicked. He was shouting, but I still heard nothing.


“Tell me your names and your purpose,” I commanded, shouting as I would at my servants.


Their chant became cackles, until the rotting one with yellow eyes silenced the others.


“We are the Sisters of the Swamp. We come from the deep beyond,” she said gesturing to the river. Her voice, reedy and booming, chilled me to my very core.


“Release that man!” I ordered.


Her eyes now glowed red and she pointed a bony finger at the fog. It thickened and John faded. I banged my fists against the force that held me back.


“Stop! He has done nothing!”


But it was too late. John and Blue had disappeared into the mist.


I turned on the hag, fury overtaking fear.


“You will pay for this!”


The three cackled again. Their grotesque laughter seemed to emerge from every tree in the forest and penetrated my head like a thousand blades. I fell to the ground. They huddled together and held their staffs to the sky, faces turned to the moon.


“A curse upon this land and those most unfortunate travelers who trod this path,” crowed the one with blank eyes.


“On this night when the veil between living and dead falls away,” whined the one covered in seaweed.


“A great plague will fall over this land and we will again emerge from the depths of your most revered river,” screeched the one with glowing eyes.


They shrieked and howled with delight. Then, before my eyes, they faded into the Patowmac’s waters, taking their cackles, their stench and their fog with them. I ran to the spot where I’d last seen John and scrambled through the forest hoping to find some trace of him, but knowing I would not.


I collapsed against a tree with a pain in my stomach. The hooting of an owl startled me and I ran, not stopping, not even for a single breath, until I reached my farm. 


There, I found Franklin standing by barn quivering. I rubbed him down and gave him a warm mash with drop of whiskey.


My wife and children sleep peacefully in their beds as I write, unaware of the tragedy that has befallen their young relation. The brandy has done its work and my hands cease to tremble, but my heart yet does.


I know not why these creatures appeared nor when they will return to claim another. But I repeat, dear reader, to beware the Patowmac lest you befall the same fate that came upon John and me.


Nathaniel Fox

October 31, 1752


Nathaniel tucked his document into a secret compartment in the wall of his home. He tried to warn neighbors and the local magistrate, but they laughed and eventually looked on him with pity, believing him insane. He died just as the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired and it wasn’t until 1885 that distant cousin discovered the statement. Assuming it was merely the ravings of an ill man, he turned it over to Alexandria’s local museum, where the librarian carefully filed it in the archives among stacks of local history.


The new spelling of “Potomac” was made official in 1931. The river remained a calm and tranquil place. Sailboats, kayaks and motorboats filled the Potomac’s waters through the spring, summer and fall. Fireworks exploded over the river on Independence Day and the space shuttle Discovery was flown over the Potomac on the back of a jumbo jet in 2012.


The city built a tree-lined bike path alongside the river, filled with cyclists, families and dogs most days. It was there, in the very spot where John and Nathaniel had encountered the witches, four teenagers found themselves close to midnight on this Halloween. It had been a frustrating night for the kids. The raging coronavirus pandemic meant no parties, no restaurants, no fun. They snuck beer from their parents’ fridges, made their way to the most secluded part of the path and flung off their face masks. For the first time since the lockdown they laughed and relaxed and felt almost normal. So normal, in fact, that no one noticed an unusually thick fog beginning to creep over the bank and a whisper emerge from the river. “Traveleeerrrr….oh, traveleeeerrrr.”

October 30, 2020 09:19

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29 comments

Kristin Neubauer
07:16 Nov 07, 2020

Thank you!

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No problem! :)

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09:48 Oct 30, 2020

"Nor would we have thought evil was lurking in those in those most esteemed waters." Remove one 'in those' "Only then did a see a third hag" Change to I. "There, I found Franklin standing by barn quivering." Standing by the barn would be appropriate, I think. The words were deep and scary. I just kept reading, wanting to know more and why everything sounded like something not made up. Sometimes when I read stories, I see traces of real life in them and it makes me happy. I see some in this too. You are great with words and the way y...

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Kristin Neubauer
12:46 Oct 31, 2020

Thank you so much for catching those mistakes. I'd been writing/submitting while on a conference call for work so more mistakes slipped through than usual. I managed to fix one but the story was approved before I could fix the others. I'll be more careful next time. And thanks for your compliments and encouragement - I tried to sort of imagine myself as Nathaniel for a bit and write what I thought he may be experiencing. It was fun!

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Raquel Rodriguez
17:01 Nov 01, 2020

I knew it! I knew it was a body! As soon as the odor came along, I knew it was a body! I don't know how, but I think since I'm familiar with writing horror (not really) I know that if someone smells a horrible odor outside, it's most likely a body! This was great, Kristin :) The ending was my favorite, and I love it so much! :D When the fog encased John in a bubble, I found myself biting my nails, so that's great, lol.

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Kristin Neubauer
16:36 Nov 02, 2020

Oh, thank you, Raquel! I really appreciate your comments and encouragement. I'm relieved it was literally a nail-biter for you! 😊

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Raquel Rodriguez
16:56 Nov 02, 2020

You're welcome, thank you for commenting on my stories, I really appreciate it. I love scary stuff because the feeling of being scared is great, so yay! :D You've officially gotten me to the nail-biting stage, congrats! :)

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16:26 Nov 01, 2020

Oooh Lovely read! I loved the way everything was described! Thanks a lot!< btw i absolutely love such horror stories, so lemme know if you have any more! -Sia

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Kristin Neubauer
16:34 Nov 02, 2020

Thank you so much! This was my first crack at this kind of horror story, but it was kind of fun to write. I may try it again if I come up with a decent idea - I appreciate the encouragement!

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02:31 Nov 03, 2020

Happy to help!

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Skyler Woods
18:53 Nov 01, 2020

Wow! This was so delightfully spooky! I could visualize these witches! I could also smell them! I felt so bad for John and Blue. You did great with this horrifying tale! 💗

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Kristin Neubauer
16:38 Nov 02, 2020

THanks so much, Skyler! I really appreciate that!

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Skyler Woods
19:29 Nov 15, 2020

I was looking for some subscribers for my new YouTube channel. I hope you enjoy the narration! ❤ https://youtu.be/7kmQOnrZuQce

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Julie Ward
16:09 Oct 31, 2020

You just officially set off those Halloween vibes! I love it. From old-timey ghost story language you used to the descriptions of the forest and the ghosts. Those old hags gave me the chills! You also have such a way with weaving the past into the modern day-from Sleepy Hollow creepy to Covid times spooky. What an entertaining read. I can tell you had fun with this one!

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Kristin Neubauer
16:49 Oct 31, 2020

Thanks so much, Julie! You got it - I was going for that old-timey vibe....The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was on my mind the whole time as I was writing this and I felt a little more license than usual to be a little looser and more creative. I'm so glad you liked it!

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Rayhan Hidayat
10:36 Oct 31, 2020

I was wondering when horses would turn up in your stories with a profile pic like that! This was positively eerie. Loved the setting and how the narration reflects the time period; it gave the horror a mythical, urban legend-type of energy.

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Kristin Neubauer
16:29 Oct 31, 2020

Thanks, Rayhan! Horses almost always come into my mind as I'm working out the prompts and I have to hold myself back otherwise my whole page might be full of horse stories. I am relieved that you could feel the time period. Usually I like to ground my work in lots of research, but I was writing on the fly this week and didn't have as much time as I wanted to research voice and language from the 1700s. But it was fun to write something a little more imaginative!

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20:07 Oct 30, 2020

This is so spooky, and you absolutely nailed the voice of an old-timey, tell-it-around-the-campfire ghost story. (There must be a better phrase for that, but I'm not finding it.) I'm not always the biggest fan of a tag at the end of a story story told in a different POV and time period, but it works here because of the genre. I can totally imagine it in an anthology of scary stories. And I know the ending isn't supposed to be funny, but I laughed out loud at the teenagers flinging off their face masks. Personally, I'd rather take my chances ...

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Kristin Neubauer
15:45 Oct 31, 2020

Hah! Me too! I hadn't really planned on ending with the tag....but when I finished Nathaniel's statement, it didn't quite feel over. Maybe if I'd had more time, I could've come up with a different ending, but I was scrambling to finish this by deadline. It was a different way for me to approach a story (usually I have a very clear beginning, middle and end sketched out), but it was kind of fun too!

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Kristin Neubauer
09:25 Oct 30, 2020

Author's note: The inspiration for this story came from several mornings of heavy fog that we've seen here in Alexandria, Virginia. I live on a hill just over the Potomac and I commute into work on the GW Parkway, which runs right along the Potomac River. The fog rolling in off the river was super-creepy and seemed the perfect atmosphere for the Potomac witches.

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Daniel R. Hayes
05:02 Mar 15, 2021

Bravo Kristin!, I love this story! I wish you could hear me clapping right now. I saw this play out like a movie. Your descriptive writing really popped, and the story was so good. I thought I knew how to write horror but this is a masterpiece. It just might be my favorite story from you. You have so many great ones, but WOW! This one just might give me nightmares tonight. Loved it!! I sent you an email, I hope you got it. If not let me know and I'll send it again. Have a great day :)

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Kristin Neubauer
17:51 Mar 15, 2021

Thank you! I had never taken a stab at horror before - and can't see doing too much of it, save around Halloween - but when this prompt came out, all I could think about was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow....that sort of imbued the whole story. It's one of those where I didn't really know where it was going as I wrote it (which is unusual for me)....I just sort of pulled creepy elements out of the air and kept stitching them together. I'm glad you liked it!

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Daniel R. Hayes
18:25 Mar 15, 2021

Of course I liked it. In fact I loved it! I was so surprised to see you wrote a horror story. You did an amazing job with it :)

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Ryan Dupont
03:22 Nov 07, 2020

This story was so well written and so good. The narrative was excellent and those first several paragraphs made me feel like I was listening to someone right out of the past. You never had to tell me I was listening to someone in the past or what year it was supposed to be, as the reader I knew before I even realized I knew and that is what made it such excellent writing. The way you wrote and the words you used just pulled me into the story and it flowed so smoothly. You did that so well. The ending was a nice subtle return to the horror...

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Kristin Neubauer
10:31 Nov 07, 2020

Hah! Perhaps they would have - the alternative ending. Thanks so much for your comments. I'm glad the 18th century sound of the narrative worked for you. I didn't have time to do as much research as I'd normally like to do to ground it in authenticity, so I had to rely on what I'd picked up in reading and films. I had fun with this story. It was sort of liberating not to have a plan and pull bits of ideas out of the air as they came to me. A different approach for me but fun - I will have to try it again sometime!

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Yolanda Wu
10:18 Oct 30, 2020

Wow, what an intense and gripping story! As usual, this story bears your unique writing voice, and just the tension created throughout was amazing. I was so hooked onto every sentence, wondering what they would find, wondering what would happen to them. And my, was it intense! I could imagine all the fog and the witches and the scenery because your descriptions were wonderful. I saw the witches so clearly in my head, and goodness could you imagine encountering them. I loved how it jumped forward to the future at the end, and my, if only witc...

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Kristin Neubauer
21:04 Oct 30, 2020

Thank you so much! I used your technique of making it up as I went along. By Thursday morning, I only had four lines written and no idea where I was going with it. I was about to delete the whole thing and skip another week but I figured I’d give your “no plan” plan a try and went with whatever came in my head. It was a new adventure for me, but the story got done - and I had fun with it! I’m glad you liked it!!

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Yolanda Wu
21:44 Oct 30, 2020

I'm glad you gave discovery writing a shot! And what you came up with was fantastic. It's good to try out new techniques. Sometimes I completely go in without a plan, other times I kind of jot a few scenes down. It all depends on the story. :)

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