Far to the north of downtown Harlem's juke joints and supper clubs (and the occasional meandering zombie) the island of Manhattan dramatically transforms from shadowy warehouses and abandoned streets into granite cliffs and imposing trees. Other than a collection of foot paths and bike lanes, the vast majority of the park's rolling hills remain largely free of landscaping. Officially, the Parks Department says there's simply too much acreage to tackle; but unofficially, the legend of Hagnatha the Inwood Crone keeps snooping rangers at bay. Of course the fine folk of this city know to give credence to such legends, especially ones involving a centuries old witch with a taste for curious children.
Stray from the bike paths, through the underbrush of Inwood Park, and the woodland begins to change. The shimmering greens and yellows of sugar maple leaves fades into darker oranges and blues before disappearing altogether into a seemingly nighttime palette of deep purples and violets. The chatter of hikers and the rings of passing bicycles are replaced by hooting owls and an occasional gust of wind accompanied by distant, cackling laughter. Explore even deeper and the cool forest floor moistens, the trees begin to thin and dense stands of cattails and squat swamp plants appear as the Harlem River Salt-Marsh makes its presence known.
The prolific pitcher plants in salt-marsh draw insects to them by emitting a sweet, sugary scent. Likewise, the only account of Hagnatha's home comes from a young boy who, in 1914, says he lost his way, and (allegedly) followed the scent of cookies to a swamp. He said he discovered a cottage crafted of candy canes, sugar cookies and licorice drops. A cheery lady, plump as a Christmas ham with rosy cheeks and a mischievous grin, offered him shelter and all the sweet breads and pudding he could eat. A Spaniel puppy coyly barked and whimpered, as if begging for the boy to come play with it.
Luckily, the boy was a bit touched. Some say he was dropped on his head as a baby, others say his mother cavorted with faeries on full moon nights (like tonight) while he rested in her belly. Whatever the cause of his second sight, it literally saved his skin that day.
The boy almost obliged the nice lady, but for the briefest of moments he saw her for what she really was.
Hagnatha was spindly like a spider with long, hairy arms and curled hands ending in sharp, yellowed nails. Her black hair grew in patches and dragged the ground where all manner of bugs called it home. Her bloated face was covered in warts and her crooked smile revealed row after row of blackened, pointy teeth. Seeing that the boy wasn't following, Hagnatha daintily strutted towards him on a little pair of chicken's feet.
The candy house had changed as well. In its place was a filthy cave; its entrance clogged by poison ivy and broken branches. Where once stood giant candy canes, now existed jagged poles each with a tiny skull as decoration.
The boy turned and ran for his life. He said he darted through the Inwood Park for five days and four nights, adding the entire time Hagnatha flew after him on a butter churn. She screamed that she wanted to skin him, eat his meat and boil his bones. When he was finally discovered, the boy was dehydrated and delirious. And being a bit touched, park officials didn't give much credence to his story.
Nonetheless, the legend of Hagnatha the Inwood Crone lingers to this day.
With good reason...
Hagnatha squatted inside her miserable hole. A small pig lay dissected upon a crude altar, his entrails picked through to form a peculiar pattern. Something had alarmed the old crone as she prophesied on the eve of the Harvest Rites and Sam Hain's ascension.
Now she turned to her trusted cards for further answers.
The flickering candles by which she scryed cast shadows against the damp cave walls -- also against the brittle skins of children who hadn't been so blessed as the one who got away. An obese black cat with glowing red eyes and two tails forcefully brushed against the wicked witch's haunches. She pushed it away and focused on her cards, turning them one by one, letting the images tell her a story of what is to come.
She gnashed her pointed teeth and dragged her yellow nails across the floor as she re-studied the cards spread before her. Without wasting a further moment, Hagnatha climbed on board an antique butter churn. With her weirdly small chicken feet securely in place, the crone flew from her cave. Against the illumination of the Harvest Moon she cackled madly and aimed her path towards Bergen. The future never determines for better or for worse, but there were pertinent developments Sam Hain needed to understand regarding his forthcoming ascension and marriage.
Back in the dank pit of despair Hagnatha called home, the sinister, two-tailed cat contently flopped atop the cards. It purred and stretched, concealing some of the cards with dirt.
All except five...
Still visible were The Magician, The Fool, The High Priestess, The Emperor and The Tower.