The witch-girl who lives by the bend in the river is said to keep a fart in a bottle.
It's a poisonous fart, green as cabbage, loud as a shotgun; and after moonset or before moonrise, her hut is illuminated by its pale mephitic glow. For a time, passersby thought she had television.
Of course, no antenna sprouts from her thatched roof, no satellite dish dwarfs her woodpile, and can you imagine the cable company stringing wires across the marsh and through the forest so that a witch-girl could watch the Occult Channel? Anyway, how would she pay for it? With the contents of her mushroom basket, the black candles she makes from hornet fat, her belladonna wine? With that cello she saws with a human bone?
It's conceivable that she could pay for it with her body: her body's been admired by many a fisherman who's chanced upon her wading the rapids in loonskin drawers. But no man's ever bought her body, and only one has had the courage to take it for free.
That fellow's gone away now. It's said he fled back to South America and left her in the lurch. Oh, but she still has a hold on him, you can bet on that. Our witch-girl's got a definite hook in that fly-by-night romeo. She's woven his mustache hairs into a tiny noose. She's got his careless fart in a bottle by the stove.
Turn a mountain upside down, you have a woman. Turn a woman upside down, you have a valley. Turn a valley upside down, you get folk music.
In the old days, the men in our village played trombone. Some better than others, obviously, but most of the men could play. Only males, sad to say. The women danced. It was the local custom. The practice has all but died out, though to this day, grizzled geezers are known to hide trombones under their beds at the nursing home. It's strictly forbidden, but late on summer nights, you can sometimes hear nostalgic if short-winded trombone riffs drifting out of the third story windows, see silhouettes of old women on the second floor, dancing on swollen feet in fuzzy slippers or spinning in rhythmic circles in their wheelchairs.
As noted, however, our musical traditions have virtually vanished. Nowadays, people get their music from compact discs or FM radio. Who has time anymore to learn an instrument? Only the witch-girl by the bend in the river, sawing her cello with a human tibia, producing sounds like Stephen King's nervous system caught in a mousetrap.
When milk sours before it leaves the udder or grain starts to stink in the fields; when workers go out on strike at the sauerkraut factory, the missile base, or the new microchip plant down the road; when basements flood, lusty young wives get bedtime migraines, dogs wake up howling in the middle of the night, or the interference on TV is like a fight in hot grease between corn flakes and a speedboat, people around here will say, "The witch-girl's playing her cello again."
Turn folk music upside down, you get mythology. Turn mythology upside down, you get history. Turn history upside down, you get religion, journalism, hysteria, and indecision.
The setting sun turned the river into a little red schoolhouse. Thus motivated, the frogs got to work conjugating their verbs. The witch-girl handled the arithmetic.
The divided a woodpecker by the square root of a telephone pole.
Multiplied the light in a fox's eyes by the number of umlauts on a Häagen-Daz bar.
Added a kingfisher's nest to the Gross National Product.
Calculated the ratio of duende to pathos in the death song of a lamp-singed moth.
Subtracted a mallow from a marsh, an ant from an anthem, a buddha from a peach can shot full of holes.
A white plastic bucket in a snowy field. A jackknife of geese scratching God's dark name in the sky. A wind that throbs but is silent. Candy wrappers silent against fence wire. Stags silent under their fright-wig menorahs. Bees silent in their science-fiction wax. A silent fiddle bow of blue smoke bobbing in the crooked chimney atop the witch-girl's shack.
It is on a cold, quiet Sunday afternoon past Christmas that the television crew arrives in our village. By suppertime, everybody but the hard cases at the nursing home knows it's in town. At the Chamber of Commerce breakfast Monday morning, hastily arranged to introduce the videopersons to the citizenry, the banquet room is overflowing. Understandably, we villagers assume the view is here to film the new industries of which we are rightly proud. The director is diplomatic when he explains that missile bases and microchip plants are a dime a dozen.
"We are making a documentary on flatus," the director explains. The audience is spellbound.
"A normal human being expels flatus an average of fourteen times per day," he goes on to say. There is a general muttering. Few would have thought the figure that high.
"We are speaking of all human beings, from babies in diapers to lawyers in three-piece suits. The mechanic billows the seat of his greasy coveralls, the glamorous movie actress poots through silk- and blames it on the maid or the Irish wolfhound. 'Naughty dog!'
"You people can do your math. That's eighty-four billion expulsions of flatus daily, worldwide, year after year. And that's just humans. Animals break wind, as well, so that wolfhound is not above suspicion. Anyway. We can explain reasonably well what flatus is: a gas composed primarily of hydrogen sulfide and varying amounts of methane. And whence it comes: generated i the alimentary canal by bacterial food waste, and vented through the anus. But where does it end up?"
Villagers look at one another, shake their heads.
"I won't trouble you today with environmental considerations, though I'm certain you can conceive of an upper atmospheric flatus layer, eating away at the ozone. This will be covered in our film. What I want to share with you is the difficulties we have encountered in trying to photograph the elusive trouser ghost, a genie as invisible as it is mischievous."
The director (a handsome man who wears a denim jacket and smokes a pipe) explains that attempts at spectrographic photography, while scientifically interesting, failed to produce an image with enough definition or optic impact to hold the attention of a fake. He goes on to explain how he and his staff fed a live model on popcorn, beer, and navy beans, then lowered her buttocks into a vat of syrup. Those of us who have just eaten pancakes for breakfast smile uneasily. "We got some marvelous bubbles," the director says, "but a gas bubble per se is not a fart.
"On Saturday, we heard from a reliable source that a resident of this community, or someone who lives nearby, has succeeded in actually netting a rectal comet and maintaining it intact. We were skeptical naturally, and on deadline, but also excited and a trifle desperate, so we impulsively dropped everything and traveled here at once. Now we are asking for your help. Does this person- and this preserved effluvium- exist? We were told only that the captor in question is some rich girl..."
"Witch-girl!" the audience cries out as one. Then, in gleeful unison- "Witch-girl" -they sing it out again.
As for what happens next, the village is of two minds. The village, in fact, has split into a pair of warring camps. We have come to refer to the opposing factions as "Channel A" and "Channel B." Here are their respective versions.
A week passes. The television crew fails to return from the river. Suspecting foul play, the sheriff and his deputies tramp through the leafless forest and across the frozen bogs.
The witch-girl has disappeared. So have the director and his camerawoman. The audio technician is found sitting on a stump, a depraved glaze coating his eyes. When asked about the whereabouts of the others, the soundman mumbles, "The hole in the cheese." Over and over, "Hole in cheese. Hole in cheese." Until they take him away to a sanatorium. (Some joker at the feed store said they hoped it was a Swiss sanatorium.)
Eight months later, on Cooked Angle Island, a prospector stumbles across three skeletons, strangely intertwined. Inside the skull of each of them, rattling like a translucent jade acorn, is a perfectly crystallized fart.
The witch-girl us a big hit on PBS. Millions see her play the cello beside a bonfire, an owl perched on her shoulder. This has nothing to do with the subject of flatulence, but the director is obviously in her thrall.
She has a second fart-bottle on her nightstand now.
And throughout our township, television reception has significantly improved.
Perhaps it should be noted that sometime during this period on an Argentine Independence Day, a notorious playboy fell to his death from one of the numerous gilded balconies of his Buenos Aires apartment. According to his mistress of the moment, he lost his balance while trying to capture with a gaucho hat a particularly volatile green spark that had escaped from a fireworks display in the plaza. "Es mio!" he cried as he went over the side. It's mine.