The first time I saw her, I remarked on her footwear. “Oh, you’re a red-boot witch,” I said, and shared a brief conspiratorial laugh with a woman I assumed was the mother. The little witch did not join in, however. She looked up at me with a solemn gaze, gray eyes serious beneath the wide brim of her black hat, and I felt chagrined. Hadn’t I vowed, when I was young, to never be one of the adults behaving just as I was then, laughing at a child under the guise of charm? Because of guilt I told her she could have two candies, and watched her little hand, fingers small as sticks, fingernails like glass, searching through the bowl until she found two of the exact same tiny chocolate bars, and then another.
“Did you say thank you?” the woman asked. The little witch looked up at me as she dropped her contraband into the hole at the top of the pumpkin’s head.
“Yes, she did,” I lied, and only then did the child smile, if you could call it that, devoid as it was of mirth. As they walked away I observed a distance between them as if adult and child had come to some sort of truce. She walked boldly, that little one, in her red boots, creating enough of a stir to cause her cape to float aloft behind her.
Every year a few trick-or-treaters set in my mind, individuals amongst the pack, and that year she was one of the remembered. After the last candy was dropped—wearily—into a plastic bag’s maw, lights turned off and candles blown out, I retired to bed, shivering beneath the stack of quilts because a chill had gotten into my heart. When I finally closed my eyes, I saw the little witch stealing that extra chocolate, which is how it came to be that I fell asleep smiling for the first time in quite a while.
I barely gave another thought to her, however, in the year that passed between one visitation and the next. The holidays arrived with the increased tempo life had established as a contrapuntal to my own increasingly measured pace. Because I had seen what happened to people who thought they could continue moving about as though their bones had not grown old along with their skin, I hired a boy to do the shoveling. He did sloppy work for which I paid five dollars. I considered him a borderline crook and was quite unhappy with our arrangement until he broke his leg and turned the job over to his sister. She cut neat lines down the walk and driveway, then finished with a sprinkling of salt. Sometimes I watched from my bedroom window, marveling at her strength. I thought we would like each other but she had no interest in becoming my friend. She plucked the five dollars from my hand as though fearful that by touching me she would be contaminated. “Your body will change too,” I muttered, watching her run down the safe path she had cleared.
I did not mean it as a curse and was severely distressed to learn of the accident that severed her fingers. Not all of them. I was never clear how it happened exactly, but by that time it was spring and her services no longer needed. I sent over a cranberry pie nonetheless, and a note, though neither was acknowledged in any way. Shortly thereafter the entire family began the distressing practice of crossing to the other side of the street at my approach, which caused me to suspect the cranberries had been sour.
Spring was welcome, as it always has been, followed by summer, which was, of course, too hot and too short. Then—and it seemed all at once—the leaves were gold and red, the sky a wooly gray, pumpkins appeared in the neighborhood gardens as if grown overnight through October magic, and I was standing in my doorway greeting the little witch in her red boots.
“Why, you’ve hardly grown at all,” I said, then bit my lip, worried I hurt her feelings. Age had unleashed me as unkind in ways I never would have imagined when I was young. “Go ahead,” I said. “You can have three.” Of course she took four.
I searched her face for signs of humor, but her gaze remained steady, so I looked up at the woman, thinking we could share a smile, though she stood outside the porch light and might as well have been composed of shadows as blood and bone. By the time I turned back to the little witch she was walking down the stairs, her cape blown aloft, each leg in turn, jutted straight out before her like a little Nazi. I wondered if the boots were too large for her small feet and if she had adopted the peculiar gait to compensate.
I went to bed that night with a raging headache, tossing and turning against all my shortcomings. I should have asked more. I should have knelt down, looked into those gray eyes, and whispered, “Are you all right?”
The next year I did, peering closely at her face for signs of age not evidenced in her size. I realized she might be one of those people who would never grow tall, but when I summoned all my strength to lower my body to kneel before her, I looked into the face of a child, even if her gaze was preternaturally solemn.
“Are you all right?” I whispered as I extended the bowl toward her.
She looked at me with her hand hovered above the treats; I guessed she was waiting for permission so I nodded, and she thrust into the pile of candy with fingers splayed as spider legs, scooping up considerably more than her share.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She was so intent on stuffing her pumpkin I wasn’t certain she would answer, but once the last candy was settled she returned my curious gaze with her own. “Alice,” she said, then shocked me by speaking further. “What’s yours?”
I had taken no notice of her companion, and was startled when I heard a peculiar noise coming from the shadows, a short abrupt sound that seemed more bray than cough and, indeed, was taken aback as I turned to see the figure obscured but for twisted horns that rose from its head, alabaster against the dark.
I didn’t have a chance to answer Alice’s question; she was already hurrying away in a manner I had not seen her employ before, moving so quickly that not only did her cape bell out behind her but fallen leaves rose as some kind of tempest when she passed, then settled all at once, as if admonished by the horned figure that followed.
I felt, suddenly, both weighed down as if some spectral shawl had settled on my shoulders, and hollowed out as a jack-o’-lantern. In that state, I placed the bowl of treats on the top step and went back inside to sit with Gerta, the cat who’d recently come to live with me. Even with the doors closed tightly against their invasion, I was able to hear the soft footsteps of children who politely selected a single candy, perhaps two, then continued on their way. It wasn’t long at all, however, before the noise was that of youth with heavier footsteps followed by shouts and laughter, which I would not have minded had the sound carried a happy tenor rather than derisive glee. Sensing my irritation, Gerta jumped off my lap, and I went to the porch to retrieve the bowl, tossed on the brown grass—empty, of course.
“Naughty children,” I mumbled. “What becomes of such wicked creatures?” I took the bowl inside and went to bed, later awoken from a nightmare of blood and screams when Gerta curled beside me on the pillow, purring loudly.
I spent the next day getting to know my neighbors. It turned out I had been right to ignore them all the years before. They were rude people. Even the woman who lived in the darling yellow house with the swag of autumn leaves draped around the door sneered, as if I wore garbage for perfume, when I asked if she knew anything about the little red-boot wearing witch.
“She comes every year,” I said. “Her name is Alice.”
“Well, what do you want with her?” Ms. Yellow House asked.
“I don’t know exactly,” I lied. “I suppose to make sure she is all right.”
“Why wouldn’t she be?” the annoying woman asked.
“She hasn’t grown. Not an inch.”
Ms. Yellow House began slowly closing the door, as if one of us might become violent at any sudden movement, but I stuck my foot in to stop it, which caused her eyebrows to jump halfway up her forehead, and her mouth to drop open.
“Also, her guardian appears to be a goat,” I said.
“I’m going to call the police.”
“Good idea,” I said, and removed my foot. I sat on the front step to wait, remembering a time when folks didn’t leave visitors to chill on their stoop but, clearly, that was not the time I was in.
Several gold leaves spiraled down from the neighbor’s oak when a crow landed in the branches with a harsh caw, soon followed by the piercing wail of sirens that screeched, from various directions, to a central point that sounded close. So many crows arrived, the gold became thoroughly tarnished. I knew what that meant.
I followed the trail of bloodred noise until I could go no farther because the policewoman blocked my way. I peered down the road at the scene of an accident involving one car and an electric pole. Halloween candy littered the street around two piles of bloody clothing, which I thought made no sense until I realized they were bodies. The police appeared focused on administering aid to the source of screams from inside the vehicle. When a paper blew over my shoe, I looked at it long enough to note schoolwork before releasing it, pausing on my way home to pick up a few pieces of wrapped chocolate for solace.
It was several days before anyone followed up on Ms. Yellow House’s call. The policewoman looked familiar but it was a few minutes before I realized she was the one who had blocked me from the accident where four teenagers died.
Unlike my rude neighbors, I invited Officer Sharon inside. When she told me to call her that I wondered if it was the best approach for a woman doing such serious work. “Sounds more like a school crossing guard,” I said. To my surprise, she laughed and then bent low to pet Gerta, who shamelessly wove between the officer’s legs as if lacking affection. I apologized for the black hairs she shed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Officer Sharon said. “I love cats. I would have a whole house full of them if my hours weren’t so erratic.”
“Oh, you live alone?” I asked, but she did not appear to hear the question and, after a moment, stood up.
“I suppose you wonder why I’m here. We’ve received some concerned phone calls.”
“Well, isn’t that nice?” I said, surprised to discover my neighbors more attentive than I’d imagined.
“Several people wanted to let us know you seem interested in a little girl.”
“Yes, she comes every Halloween and hasn’t grown an inch.”
Officer Sharon nodded. “Well, you know, some people don’t grow the way others do.”
“Yes,” I said. “But I worry she isn’t being fed enough.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Every year she takes more candy than I say is allowed.”
“And her guardian is most peculiar.”
“Peculiar in what way?”
“She never lets me see her face. Well, she did once: the first time, when I wasn’t really paying attention. She was almost friendly then, but now that I am onto her, she isn’t. This year she was a goat.”
“No. What sense would that make? A goat.”
Officer Sharon spent an unusual amount of time looking at me. I became quite uncomfortable but, at last, she spoke.
“You do know some of the parents enjoy dressing in costumes for trick-or-treat, right?”
It was then I began to accept I would have to take matters into my own hands.
“Please,” I said. “Won’t you join me for tea?”
She seemed hesitant, but soon followed me into the kitchen, where she pretended to be friendly yet watched everything I did with unnatural interest from a comfortable seat at the breakfast table across from Gerta, curled in her favorite chair. I made a careful selection from my herbs, a little of this and a little of that. The jars were unlabeled, but I was not confused.
I noticed, however, that while Officer Sharon stirred and stirred, and even brought the steaming mug toward her mouth, she never took a single sip. I had been visited by the dead many times before, but never one so corporeal. Such power was harnessed from either great evil or great good. I proceeded with caution.
“What else can you tell me about this child?” she asked.
I waved my hand over Gerta, encouraging her to move.
“One of the neighbors said you mentioned a name.”
I lifted the edge of the chair cushion, tugging it until Gerta finally jumped down and trounced out of the room with nary a backward glance. “I don’t remember,” I lied as I swept the cushion to the floor so I could sit without becoming covered with hair. “But I am very old,” I said. “My memory is not what it once was.” The table in my small kitchen was flush against the window, and the light fell across my guest with a pall.
“Look,” I said. “Snow.”
When she turned to peer over her shoulder, I was able to study her closely, noting the way her skin was speckled with gray as if whatever glamour she wore had begun to shred.
“You need to be careful,” she said.
I understood it as a threat, though when she turned to face me, she assumed a friendly demeanor.
“I always am,” I said, going along with her game. “A woman my age has to be. I’ve hired a professional service to do the shoveling. They are very good. I mostly stay inside in winter. It doesn’t bother me, really. I enjoy telling stories by the fire.”
“I want you to make me a promise,” she said.
I crossed my fingers over the mug of tea and nodded.
“If you have any other concerns—any at all, about the child or anything else—you call me. Okay? Here.” She toggled in her seat to reach in a back pocket for a wallet she opened to reveal the gold badge, though that wasn’t what she was after. Instead, she pulled out a card she slid across the table. “Put this someplace where you won’t lose it.”
I escorted her to the front door, and watched her walk down the steps to the police car parked at the side of the road. I was old enough to remember when the veil between worlds was not so tattered. I would never have imagined, when I was young, that the dead would hold positions of power. I raised my hand high in imitation of a friendly wave as she drove past, her smile wickedly bright beyond the glass.
When I returned to the kitchen I found Gerta sitting on the table, dipping her paw into Officer Sharon’s tea. Not usually given to drama, I screamed and grabbed the mug. Gerta reached to swipe me as I passed, which I found endearing even in my distress. I flushed the tea down the toilet, and tossed both mug and spoon into the trash, along with Officer Sharon’s calling card, which I tore into tiny pieces to lessen its effect.
Still, when I woke up the next morning, Gerta was not on the pillow beside me, nor on her favorite chair, nor on the couch or the rocker, but curled into a ball beside the cold hearth as if she’d suffered an unbearable chill in the night. She looked like her old self, yet when I reached to pet her, she was more rock than animal.
It took me several hours, working in shifts, to dig her grave, positioned so I could keep an eye on it from the kitchen table. The ground was hard, though not yet frozen, the flurries that fell the day before mostly melted by the time I finished. I collected my tears in a small cloth cut from my quilt to wrap Gerta in. Several mornings I saw her sitting on that mound of dirt, but then winter fell in earnest and her cold little spirit moved into the house, where I spied her watching from dark corners. Poor thing. She regularly appeared in the kitchen, crying for food, but when I placed a handful of dry kernels into her bowl, only looked at me as if insulted. This happened with water too, and the small puddle of cream I poured into the primrose dish, and her favorite treats shaped like fish, and the little bit of tuna, untouched until the stink became unbearable.
That was a particularly long winter. I mailed so many checks for snow removal I began, for the first time, to worry about the viability of my account. Still, it was a relief to watch it being done, and done well, from the comforts of my warm little house, without ever having to engage the workers who arrived dressed in dark snowsuits with hats drawn low over their brows. I rather liked the anonymity of the whole exchange.
I ordered groceries to be delivered as well, sitting at my small desk tucked in the corner, scrolling through the choices, Gerta’s ghost often curled in my lap. I clicked on whatever food I might want and the next day it appeared on my front step.
Spring arrived with a riot of blossoms as if taking the long winter to task. My daffodils had never been a bolder yellow, my dandelions never more wild. When summer tripped in, she dropped a curtsy of bountiful green and wore a perfume that lingered well into the night, seeping through the open windows, making sleep difficult.
In all that time I did not forget the little witch. After a cold snap, the leaves turned afire, and I stood beneath the branches of my neighbor’s oak, watching red and yellow flames swirl around me like an omen.
That night was warmer than usual, so I sat on my front step with the candy by my side, watching the creatures that meandered past my house, refusing to stop: a superhero, a soldier, a warrior, a jellyfish, and a monster—all accompanied by large creatures mostly disguised as adults.
“That’s right. Just keep going. I’m not here for you anyway,” I mumbled from my place on the step.
At one point, a little fireman broke free of his keepers to run to me, sporting a splendid smile until a harsh voice told him to stop. So thorough was their control, he did. He ran back to them and asked, “Why?” over and over again as they walked away until a woman’s voice said, “She’s a witch. You’ll get lots of good candy tonight.”
I waited until the pleasant air became unpleasant, and the zombies, dinosaurs, and wizards dwindled to bands of wild-eyed teenagers, bloody from recent wrecks. Occasionally, one began to make their way toward me but inevitably another would pull them back. Eventually the street was quiet again, glowing beneath a hunter’s moon.
I left the treats on the top step and went inside to take care of my nighttime rituals. Later, when I retrieved the bowl, it remained full of candy. I brought it with me into the house, and fell asleep with sorrow in my eyes, so old I had no tears left. I awoke from a very deep sleep, startled by the figure beside my bed.
“Hello, Alice,” I said.
“What are you doing here? Where’s your goat?”
“Do you have any more candy?”
“I have a large bowl of it. But where’s—”
“I ate it already.”
“All of it?”
She shrugged so vigorously that her cape fluttered open behind her like wings.
“That’s an awful lot of sugar for a little witch to eat in one night.”
“Not awful. It was good.”
“And I’m not little.”
“Oh? What are you?” A light, pale as the tears I could not shed, suddenly poured
through my bedroom window, causing the little witch’s face, beneath her conical hat, to glow. “Would you like some toast?” I asked, and she nodded.
It usually took me so long to step out of bed that I often mused I was doing the business of turning into a skeleton while I slept—all bones, jangling and sharp—but that night’s excitement must have fired up my endorphins because I sat up easily, slipped into my clogs, donned my sweater, and followed the little witch out of my room until she unexpectedly stopped to slip her small dry hand into mine.
“The bird in my chest is beating really fast,” she said.
“Well, that’s all the sugar,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said. “I thought I was afraid.”
I asked her what she might be frightened of, but she only shook her head. I decided
not to turn on any lights. My neighbors had given me no trouble since the phone calls to the police, but the disturbing behavior of the trick-or-treaters led me to suspect I had a reputation that was not wholly positive. A person should be free in her own home, of course, but I wasn’t certain what might happen if mine were suddenly all lit up at an unexpected hour.
Alice seemed perfectly happy to eat her marmalade toast by candlelight and, when she got to the third piece, I noticed how her little legs in the striped stockings and red boots had begun to swing happily beneath the kitchen table.
“Sorry I don’t have any milk or butter. I’m lactose intolerant.”
“Me too,” she said.
“Should I prepare another slice?”
She shook her head no. When I pulled out Gerta’s chair to sit across from my visitor, I noticed, by the flickering light, a splatter of red across her face.
“Did you have an accident?” I asked.
Her hand darted from the toast to pet her own cheek. Similar spots dotted her fingers.
“Maybe a problem with paint?”
Rather than answer, she bit into her toast. Tired, I rested my elbow on the table
and made a fist to lean my cheek against while I stared at the moon-bathed yard. When I returned my attention to Alice I saw her eyes had begun to droop, and she was in danger of falling asleep with the point of her hat in the flame.
As her head nodded nearer to the table, I slid the plate away and blew out the candle, leaving her to make a pillow of her arms while I checked all the locks, which were drawn as I remembered. When I checked the windows, I found one that, while closed, had not been bolted. It was several feet off the ground, however, and did not make sense for such a short creature’s portal unless she had a broom somewhere I had not yet discovered.
I carried her upstairs, careful not to bang her head in the narrow passage, stepping with caution since Gerta had emerged to accompany us. In my bedroom I gently removed her boots, but chose not to touch the stockings for fear that would disturb her. When I reached for the hat her little splattered hand shot up, so I let her keep it. I tucked her under the covers, then whispered I would not be far away.
“I’m in the next room. Just call if you need anything.” She mumbled a sleep-slurred response. “What?” I asked.
“Be careful,” she said, clear as the sound of bells on a winter’s night.
I thought for a moment that she was playing a trick of some kind—after all, it was the season for tricksters—but her eyes were closed, her breathing heavy, and I decided she was just a child talking in her sleep. I clicked my tongue for Gerta to follow, but she curled on the pillow beside the little witch’s head, like a traitor.
I slept in the guest room beneath a pile of old coats I had been meaning to mend for a while. The room was cold, and the atmosphere unpleasant overall. How long had it been since I’d used it for actual guests? The answer was never. As long as I could remember, it had been a dumping ground, a holding space for things I meant to fix, which every so many years I boxed up to bring to the Goodwill. The irony was not lost on me how, on that night, I was in the room of discarded things—an old woman whose own dead cat had lost interest in her. It was difficult to sleep with the pins that poked from the half-attended mending while the hunter’s moon shot its arrows through the window onto me as if I were the hunted.
Yet sleep I did. Confused when I awoke in the strange space, I fumbled my way through jumbled thoughts until I remembered the little witch. She was not in my bed or, upon further inspection, anywhere in the house. Finally, standing in my kitchen, I spied her in the backyard. Seeing her for the first time in daylight, I observed dark hair tangled beneath the hat’s brim, the sheen of her cape like that of an otter, a black dress with the hem frayed above red-and-white striped stockings, and those boots. She probably wasn’t dressed warmly enough but I was loath to interrupt her as she frolicked about, waving her arms, twirling and talking to the air. Charming, I thought, and right then noticed Gerta, looking much more embodied than she had for a long time, sitting on her own grave.
When I called Alice inside for breakfast she ran across the yard (so young, so free) with Gerta following along in her new manifestation, leaping like a kitten.
“My goodness, Alice,” I said. “Haven’t you had enough exercise already?”
She looked up at me with rosy cheeks and bright eyes, all splatter gone from her face. Perhaps I had imagined it. We discussed what she might enjoy for breakfast, and she had quite a bit to say about it, surprising me with her babbling discourse about the cereal she preferred (round) the deficits of all dried fruit (raisins look like eyes), etc., until I began to feel irritated, and invited her to look through the pantry.
I poured a cup of tea, then sank into my chair and returned to a sort of mindless morning state, staring blankly into space until it became occupied by Gerta pacing across the floor in a distressed manner.
“You know you can’t eat a bite, you silly thing,” I said. “You died some time ago.”
“Oh, you have bloodroot!” Alice exclaimed from the pantry. I jumped out of my chair, so quickly I almost tripped over Gerta as she tore out of the room.
“Don’t touch that,” I scolded, arriving just in time to see she had unscrewed the lid and was reaching inside the jar. Her hand was so small it fit easily.
She looked up at me with a wounded expression through which flashed, for just a moment, the cold gaze of a much older person.
“Come on now, Alice,” I said, snatching the jar from her. “Let’s be serious. How about toast? You liked it well enough last night.”
She deigned to agree. I scooted her out of the pantry and then set the jar back in its rightful location on the highest shelf, puzzled at how she had been able to reach it. I reminded myself I would have to be careful now, with her in my house.
“Gerta is crying,” she said. “She’s hungry.”
Perhaps it was just as well I’d never had children. I was not in the mood to be bossed about. People often complained about how exhausting parenthood was, and I was surprised to discover how quickly I agreed.
“I’m sorry to say, she cannot eat. She’s dead.”
But I emerged from the pantry to find Alice pouring cat food from the small plastic pitcher I’d kept it in, into the little blue bowl, working around Gerta’s head as she leaned into the dish, opening her mouth wider than I’d ever seen before.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “What have you done?”
Again she looked at me with a direct gaze, older than her years.
“This isn’t natural,” I said as she walked past me to sit at the table, her hands folded before her.
“Toast, please,” she said, staring straight ahead. I made her toast and spread the marmalade across it to the accompaniment of the once-pleasant morning noise of Gerta’s chewing, then slid the plate across the table until it pressed against Alice’s hands, which she unfolded.
I drew a glass of water for her and placed it beside her plate, leaning over her shoulder as I did to whisper, “You be careful.” She was turning toward me when the doorbell rang, pealing through the house so loud all three of us jumped: Gerta, Alice, and me. In all my years it rang so rarely I always forgot the vow I made each time it did. “I need to replace that with something less violent,” I said. “You stay here. Be still. Don’t move.”
The woman standing at my door was familiar to me, but I couldn’t place her, even as she introduced herself as Mrs. Iyler from down the street. “The yellow house,” she said. “You spoke to me last year? About a little girl.”
“You were worried about her?”
She had pinkish hair, perhaps once red, that bushed out at the sides of her head from beneath a brightly colored knit cap. Her eyes were small and very blue. She wore no makeup that I could see, which gave the impression that she had no lashes at all. She was unadorned but for the small gold cross affixed to the collar of her tweed coat.
She sighed loudly. “Well, she came to my house last night.”
“The little witch. The one with the red boots.”
I shivered in the damp air.
“I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind,” she said. Just then, a clatter emanated from the kitchen. I began to close the door. “Well, thank you for stopping by,” I said.
“I was hoping we could talk.”
“Yes, but right now I have to go to the bathroom.”
Her blue eyes widened, her pale lips parted, and she nodded without enthusiasm. “Oh, well. I’ll stop by later, if that’s okay?”
“Yes, that would be fine,” I said, then added, “Be careful crossing the street.” I wanted to take it back immediately, but that’s not how these things work.
I found Alice sitting where I’d left her, with one hand holding her toast aloft, the other rested on the table, so still she looked like a mannequin.
“You can move now,” I said, and her body deflated like a pin-pricked balloon as she bit into her bread. “You are a most peculiar child,” I said, not meaning to cause alarm, but she paused in mid-chew to look at me. “I like that about you,” I added, and she smiled, revealing crumbs, marmalade, and tiny teeth splattered with red.
I gave her a lesson in dental hygiene, which I tried to execute without inducing shame. Who amongst us has not occasionally missed spots of blood when brushing? I did notice, as I guided the process, that the blades of her little teeth were unusually sharp. I wondered if that was why she seemed to resist smiling, although—from any distance at all—their peculiar cut was not apparent, and they polished to the sheen of selenite.
When I offered to comb her hair she looked at me as if I had suggested pulling it out, so I told her we were finished with grooming for a while. I was just escorting her from the bathroom, experiencing pangs of doubt about what I could offer as entertainment, when I heard the sirens. We rushed through the hallway already spinning with red to the window overlooking the street.
“Oh, an accident!” I exclaimed.
I debated letting her come outside with me for the obvious reasons, but decided that, since it was only the day after Halloween, her attire would not arouse suspicion. Besides, everyone was quite distracted by Mrs. Iyler, splayed on the road, almost bloodless but for a deep gash on her forehead. I wondered what had become of the knit cap until I located it on the bumper of a car parked nearby at an angle. The woman I assumed was the driver sat on the curb, weeping and rocking, and ignoring the police officer who suddenly turned to lock eyes with mine, then broke the gaze to look at my young companion.
I gently spun Alice around and guided her back inside, where she immediately crouched to pet Gerta, who had come running to greet her.
“What do you know about dead people?” I asked.
She paused in her petting as if pondering the question. “Be careful,” she said, which I felt, while not directly responsive, might be just right.
Sure enough, it wasn’t much later when the doorbell rang through the house, once more causing all three of us to jump. Gerta tore out of the room and Alice followed.
Using a trick I had begun to employ several years before, I greeted Officer Sharon as though she were a stranger by assuming a pleasant, not overeager smile.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said.
I pretended to study her face as though I had no recall of her earlier visitation, and
then pretended the subject didn’t interest me much anyway.
“Mrs. Iyler?” I asked, not forming the entire question, as one who found it too horrible to consider might do.
“My understanding is she stopped by this morning?”
Again I instructed my face to remain untroubled, even as my mind raced through the options, finally landing on truth. “Yes, she did.”
“Welllllll,” I said, dragging out the last consonant while I worked it all out. “She wanted to talk. I wasn’t clear what about. We agreed to do so later. She was behaving oddly, I will say.”
“Not completely cognizant.” I tapped my own temple right at the spot where I’d seen the gash on hers.
“Huh. So she seemed confused?”
“Well, either she was or I am,” I said, and smiled as if I didn’t understand the revelation of my own remark.
Officer Sharon closed the small pad of paper she had not written in. “I noticed you with a child?”
“Not quite ready to give up the ghost, huh?”
“She was still wearing her costume.”
“Yes,” I said, and struggled with what else to add. “She really enjoys being a witch.”
“You ever find anything out about the one you worried over last year? The child you thought wasn’t getting enough to eat? Did you see her last night?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t see anyone. I mean, I saw them. But no one stopped at my house.”
“Oh?” Officer Sharon’s expression softened.
“Cause I’m old, I guess. They find me frightening.”
“Well that’s not— Hey, I remember you.” She crouched down to pet Gerta, who suddenly appeared out of the nowhere she resided in. Officer Sharon did not linger, however, but stood up abruptly, reminded of the somber nature of her mission by the brief yelp of a siren, as if to summon her.
“Is Mrs. Iyler going to be all right?” I asked, and the officer shook her head as she walked down the steps. Gerta seemed to intend following but made it only to the end of the walk before she disappeared, and I found her curled on her old chair, glowering up at me, when I shuffled into the kitchen, feeling quite pleased. I poured myself a cup of mugwort tea and sat at the table to stare out the window the way I liked to do in the early morning, though by that time it was already late.
She was out there, of course. Many witches quite appreciate nature. I watched her for several minutes, waving her arms and talking to the wind before I realized her feet in the red boots did not touch the ground but floated above it. I did a quick scan of the borders of my yard to reassure myself that all the years of neglect had provided a nice barrier of overgrown bushes and trees which did not allow for neighbors’ spying. It was then I noticed Mrs. Iyler herself, standing in the east corner, almost obscured by shadows and pine trees. She did not look happy to be there, but I didn’t expect her to cause any problems when already she was drifting apart, like a cloud formation following its natural course. Sure enough, by the time I finished my second cup of tea, she was gone.
What I remembered that winter was how quickly one can adjust to change. What seemed so foreign the first morning soon became routine. Alice regularly enjoyed a breakfast of marmalade toast, followed by outdoor play. Her boots withstood all kinds of weather, her hat never drooped—even when wet—her cape was apparently warmer than it looked, but her hands turned white as frost one bitter morning, so I made her stay inside while I knit a pair of red mittens. She was unhappy until I made a game of it by taking turns telling stories while I worked. I sat beside the fire, but Alice sat across the room. She did not like to be near the flames, I had noticed, though she agreed the warmth was nice. Gerta curled beside the hearth, much in the place where I’d found her when she died. Alice liked the bloody stories best and shouted her recitations, which I found quite effective, so I began to shout stories back at her, and we did this until the room had filled with shades of terror and fancy, we both had hoarse throats, and she had a new pair of mittens. She surprised me very much when she threw her little arms around my neck and squeezed. I think she meant it as an affectionate gesture.
She resisted baths and showers but came to accept the indignity of the warm washcloth I handed her every Saturday night before leaving her to her privacy. She never took off her hat, even sleeping in it, but her hair did not appear to grow any more than she did, and I agreed with her that tangles were nicely wild.
One morning in mid-December, Alice surprised me with a pine tree dragged into the kitchen. When I asked where it came from she pointed outside and I saw a gap in the border where the tree had once stood. I felt relieved that other branches reached across the space, keeping the yard’s shelter secure.
“But how did you cut it down? Do you have an axe?” I asked, to which she responded by looking up at me from beneath the wide brim of her hat, giving the appearance of an eye roll.
She was very strong, that little one, and carried the tree into the living room while I stood puzzling the whole thing out. Her voice, when she called, surprised me with its tenor. She could be quite bossy at times and occasionally—as then—sounded almost like a man.
“Bring me the tree stand,” she said.
I found it in the basement with the ornaments and lights I hadn’t used for decades. We had quite a day of decorating and, later, I ordered a bag of oranges, which we sliced and dried to hang with string from the branches. Another day we made gingerbread. I used the heart and star cookie cutters while Alice employed a paring knife to cut out indefinite shapes she insisted on hanging in a particular order as if they were hieroglyphs. On Christmas Eve we had our dinner of soup and bread, and later ate some of the ornaments with hot cider. Alice helped me carry the quilts and blankets from the bedrooms to place on the floor so we could sleep under the tree.
We awoke Christmas morning to falling snow and presents. Alice received new mittens that looked exactly like the ones she had, because she loved them, though they were worn so regularly they did not always dry out. She also received a box of small glass jars with hand-painted labels, which contained a variety of roots and herbs.
I was moved—almost to tears—by a sculpture made of sticks and a stack of blank paper that looked very much like one I had recently misplaced. Even Gerta received a gift of a mouse that had been set aside and frozen for the occasion.
Later, after we’d eaten our toast, when I showed Alice her stocking stuffed with candy canes, oranges, and nuts, she looked up at me and said, “It feels like there is a flower opening in my chest.”
“Well,” I told her, “that’s happiness.”
It was a perfect Christmas followed by a perfectly bitter January, bleak February, and muddy March. We worked and played and got along quite well, and then it was spring and the daffodils began to insist we notice their silent bells before they were briefly subdued by a late snow which quickly melted, leaving in its wake puddles and buds and sprigs of green. We opened the windows and began to take walks after dark, dropping into shadows at the sight of any person’s approach.
“I’m sorry for all this, dear Alice,” I said on one such occasion. “I just worry they will take you from me for not putting you in school.”
“What’s school?” she asked.
“It’s a place they send children,” I explained. “To make them normal.”
She began to shake her head no, rather violently, which caused her to lift from the ground, but I quickly grabbed her little hand and pulled her to me.
“It isn’t going to happen,” I said. “I won’t allow it.”
That summer the flowers were intoxicating. I think I might have said it every year, but that summer it was true. Neither of us could think clearly for the perfume that wafted through open windows on the humid air. Dark came so late we often grew grumpy waiting for it but, once it arrived, we took to the streets and hills and neighbors’ yards to steal blossoms we brought home by the armful to place in glass jars and old vases throughout the house. Several times we brought in bees by mistake, but Alice was quite good at catching them, and considered them a treat.
“How do they taste?” I asked.
“Good,” she said. “Hairy and sharp.”
Which did not sound appealing to me, but each of us must serve our own appetite.
Between the sun-soaked rooms and late start to our walks, we were both relieved by fall’s arrival, though it came and went several times before it made up its mind. At last, it did. Our neighbors’ gardens began to sport jack-o’-lanterns, grinning in spite of the severed nature of their existence, and ghosts and spiders dangled from porches. Occasionally we saw what was supposed to be a witch, mashed against a tree, but I told Alice to just ignore it. “Look at the skeletons, instead. That’s what happens to normal people after a while.”
“Even you?” she asked, and I shrugged. I did not want to alarm her or reveal my own concern. Lately, I had been having pain in my scalp and when I rubbed the area, discovered hard lumps. I wasn’t going to let it ruin our season.
By the second week of October, we walked wherever we might want, whenever that might be. I was prepared with an answer for any authority. “My granddaughter,” I’d say. “She is staying with me for a while.”
No one asked, though early in the month, several people did comment on Alice’s attire. In response, I told myself stories about someone tripping down the stairs, or burning the birthday cake, or being falsely accused of murder.
Although in that season, as no other, Alice had the run of the town, she seemed to enjoy it only for a while and most often played in the backyard with Gerta or some roadkill she found. I liked to watch her from the kitchen while I drank tea with a hot salve on my head, though the pain did not stop, nor the growing protrusions.
I ordered pumpkins and set them out with knives but they remained unviolated and, in the end, we agreed to place them on the porch as a reminder of Jack’s origin story, which Alice told me one night to distract me from my pain. I thought she didn’t understand what was happening but one morning she paused on her way out the back door to say, “I’ll miss us when you are gone.”
At last our night arrived! I filled a large bowl with candy and wrote a note advising visitors to choose two, adding that should anyone take more I would put a hex on them, which I knew was very wicked, but in keeping with the season.
Alice didn’t wear a costume, of course, but I searched through the pile of old coats I’d meant to mend to find the one that looked like it was made of hair, an ugly thing I quite liked. After I turned off the light to leave, I briefly mistook my reflection in the mirror for a frightening creature, some kind of horned beast, which was an effect I approved of.
It was a cold night under a dark moon, perfect for celebrating the dead. I had not walked amongst them since I’d been a girl, myself, a very long time ago, and was pleased to see how alive the holiday remained as we begged from house to house, in and out of unfamiliar neighborhoods, part of the horde of ghosts and zombies and princesses and those who pretended they were from the other side, and those who pretended they weren’t.
We stayed out so long that my feet began to hurt, porch lights blinked off, and the sidewalks were sparsely populated but for a few lost spirits and a werewolf trapped in transition.
“Well, Alice, this has been a spectacular night,” I said. “And you are very good at trick-or-treat. Look, your pumpkin is so full you are spilling candy! I like the way you always take too much. But it’s time to go home now.”
She refused in her charming manner, stamping her feet and shaking her head. I clasped her hand to stop her from floating away and asked what would soothe her greed. She looked down the strange street, so far from our own, and pointed at a small white house with green shutters, its yard overgrown.
“All right,” I said. “But it looks abandoned.”
She kept her hand in mine as we traversed the crooked walk lined with mullein and dead asparagus to ring the bell. I listened to the sound echo through the house as if all the rooms were empty, then noticed a small paper wasp nest in the eave over the door. Just as I suggested we should go, it popped open, and a woman stood there, smiling broadly.
“Look at you,” she said, offering a bowl filled with candy. “Aren’t you the perfect little witch?”
Alice thrust her hand into the bounty and the woman turned to me with a bemused expression.
“Officer Sharon,” I said.
“So you remember.” She crouched down to place the bowl on the ground. “Take as much as you like,” she told Alice.
“She’s already very strong,” I said. “And really quite safe.”
Officer Sharon nodded. “One can never learn too much about power,” she said. “I’m sure you agree.” She did not wait for my answer, but extended her hand, which Alice took without hesitation. Together they walked into the house, leaving me alone with the empty bowl at my feet. While I stood there, trying to decide how to proceed, Gerta came running up the walk, sprinting right past me and through the closed door. I heard shouts of greeting. Joyful shouts, I had no doubt.
I told myself a little story. Officer Sharon taught Alice how to negotiate with the dead and defend against the weapons humans use, while Alice taught her how to conjure, and Gerta found that they both made cozy laps when they sat, at the end of the day, munching on bees and chocolate.
It was then I felt the blossoming in my own heart and, for every petal, a thorn.
When that was finished, I walked away, and just kept walking. It wasn’t long before all the houses were dark and the night mostly returned to its regular occupants, the dead and haunted, the drunken revelers who cowered at my approach then laughed at my back when one exclaimed, “Jesus Christ, I’ve been hearing about that witch for years; I never thought I’d see her!”
I told myself a story about the stream that runs through the park, and the bearer of the voice with its drunken slur taking a shortcut through water, and I saw the way the world can feel so firm and then suddenly be liquid and how we can believe we know enough, but don’t really know anything at all, and how lonely that feeling is when it arrives and also how powerful.
I walked past houses with leering pumpkins, and ghosts hung by the neck, and houses that had none of that. I walked past yards devoid of leaves, and those smothered by them. I smelled woodsmoke and the perfume of dying gardens and I just kept walking into the dark until, at last, I found myself far from town, fallow fields on either side and, in the distance, a farm. I was weary by then, my feet stiff as hooves, so tired I could go no further. A ravine by the side of the road offered a cleft for me to rest in, which I did. I told myself a story. In a corner of the house I once lived in, an errant cinder festered and, before long, the whole place was engulfed. I closed my eyes and inhaled the scent of winter’s approach, but my coat kept me warm and I burrowed further until, at last, I slept, cradled by the earth.
“The Little Witch” copyright © 2020 by M. Rickert
Art copyright © 2020 by Jon Foster