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.
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.”