They started to arrive three days before the funeral, ferrying into the Grand Canyon in pickups and minivans, although there was at least one school bus and the usual loners in a loose swarm of Harleys. The Crone’s grotto had been cooking for days by then, with the smell of roasted beets and slow simmered goulash guiding the witches back like smoke signals. The Crones pet monks, tanned, mute and muscled firm, set tables and hung hammocks deep in the witches cavern. They hummed in the dark, decorating altars and setting incense, arranging chandeliers and candelabras by sound and feel.
As night rose, the candles lit, and the cave shone like a palace. The Crone herself waddled through with cane in hand, pleased at her finery, a proper hall among the stalagmites. She squinted at the new moon, lost in the brilliance of the desert stars. Was she the only one that missed the broomsticks? At a clearing past the maypole, the welcome pyre waited. The Crone lit a cigarette, her first in years. She breathed in smoke and exhaled fire. Blue flame reached the skies, wakening the canyons long dormant shadows from their obscurity.
The witches crept to the grotto in silence, greeting each other with quick nods and guarded smiles in the dark. It was always like this. Their isolation kept them distant and shy. The bar by the fire would draw them together again. The Crone met them each with a wavering hug and warm eyes. She knew them all, of course. She knew them by name and shadow. She knew them by their tattoos and their scars, by the fire in their eyes and the pain in their smiles.
They were a dozen, then two dozen, then the full hundred. The Swamp Witch and her sister shared a bottle of scotch, while The Capital Witch traded stories with the Forest Hermit. The Mountain Queen, all 32 feet of her, lay holding court by the fire in her bearskin gown, a mountain of grace and kindness. The Kitchen Witches, predictably, cracked a tupperware feast to supplement The Crones own, to a chorus of cheers. Laughter echoed through the caves, the music of it accompanied by clinking glass and murmured, cackling gossip. The Ghost Witches flirted with the Shadowmen, always welcomed though not precisely invited. The Echo Park Bruja brought enough edibles to share and even The Elder Mothers split one between the four of them. The Detroit Banshee pulled out her guitar and The Mississippi Screamer joined her, just like she always did. By the time The White Nuns of Utah floated in, the party was full tilt.
At midnight the music lulled and the fire knew to dim itself. The incense and candles lit by unseen hands. The stars grew bold against the night. The Moon Woman felt it first, reaching for The Desert Seer next to her with a question in her eyes. Her answer was a nod and a tear. The earth shook with the Mountain Queens grief. The Gray Woman Of Asheville raised a hand and felt the wind die. Across the pyre, The Iowa Skinwalker caught her eye and they both knew. The witches turned as one, rushing to The Crone, sipping moonshine alone at the far edge of the fire. The Crone only smiled, winked and fell. It was her party, after all. The witches screamed in thunderclaps and the skies wept their torrents, a lash of ice and hail, beyond mercy or reason. After centuries, The Crone's fire went out.
The Mountain Queen carried her in like a broken doll, somber and delicate, her enormous, manicured hands trembling with care as she lay The Crone in her hammock. The others shuffled in behind, a catalog of shrugging nightmares, their eyes running with black tears. Claws and wings squeezed The Crones hand and stroked the rough peach of her cheek. The Forest Hermit placed a broom in the hammock, handmade special for the occasion. The Black Hill Shaman placed Owl-eye coins over The Crone's own. The Swamp Witch covered her with a veil of cursed lace. Witch-bags and talismans, sage and gris-gris smuggled into the hammock until the ropes groaned.
The Crone's monks wept in silence as they draped her in The Cloak Of Elsewhere, careful to tuck her presents in with her. The witches stood in awe and watched the cloak begin to take her, bit by bit, consumed to eternity. By the morning, she would be gone. There would be hauntings, of course, and seances, cloudy words in crystal balls, letters in the mirror fog, but it wasn’t the same. The Other Swamp Witch thought of her mother and The Moon Woman thought of her children, but they all thought of their sisters, half-mad, long gone, kissed by fire and missed now more than ever. The air in the cave grew stale and thick with emotion.
Cramped and miserable, The Mountain Queen stepped out first. The rain had come and gone, leaving the air fresh with dew. She stood tall, dwarfed by the canyon walls, and breathed in the heady sweetness of the desert mist. One by one, they followed, drying their eyes and filling their glasses. The Forest Hermit lit a cigarette and spit the flame to brighten the pyre, soaking wet but hungry to burn. Again, the flames licked high into the night. Overhead, a murder of crows cawed and circled. The Portland Harpy loosed a sad smile and spread her arms. The clouds funnelled down to her in a dreamy spiral, billowing her peasant skirt as they lifted her. The Swamp Witch stepped out of her dress, relishing the hungry air on her nude skin. She closed her eyes and spun a slow circle while her sisters disrobed around her. She stepped into the air, savoring the ecstasy of flight. As her sisters joined her, one by one, thunder and stars lit the heavens and the sky grew bright with the terrible joy of their laughter.
Joaquin Fernandez is a recovering filmmaker and South Florida native perpetually tinkering with his first novel. His work has appeared in Okay Donkey, Cotton Xenomorph, Cheap Pop and Pidgeonholes among others. He can be found on Twitter: @Joaqertxranger and on his website: joaquinfernandezwrites.com.