The Witch on the Corner
1328 words long
She was a witch, was all, and witches prefer to be left in peace.
Notes from the author:
Construction on my regular bus route has reached the landscaping stage. As we inched along between the big orange barrels, the workers were lining up young shrubberies to be transplanted into the median. I felt a little sorry for those plants. Breathing exhaust fumes for the rest of their lives couldn’t possibly be healthy. Would it stunt their growth? And would that be a good thing? Would it save on labor hours otherwise spent pruning? Moreover, if their environment keeps them small and sickly, might they need less nourishment and care than would a full-sized, healthy plant?
Since I was looking to convert this into a writing prompt, the next thought was, what if instead of a plant, it’s a human child? Give her less emotional and physical nourishment than she needs, right from the start, and she’ll grow up needing less—and, because she’ll never know that having more was an option, wanting less too.
I have a writer friend who occasionally accuses me of being mean to my characters. Generally it’s because of stories like this one.
Nobody lives on that block anymore except for the witch on the corner. She likes it that way. She used to have neighbors, but they made trouble for her, and now she doesn’t have neighbors anymore. But you mustn’t presume from this that she’s a bad witch. She’s a witch, is all, and witches prefer to be left in peace.
Her Neighborhood Association was always sending her notices. They notified her about the unruliness of her lawn (she never had time to mow), or the unattractiveness of her front garden (henbane and mugwort weren’t pretty like roses and gardenias), or the odors emanating from her back yard (distilling potions was an unavoidably smelly business). The witch paid her fines when it seemed the best course and ignored the notices when it didn’t.
She’d ignored the notice five years ago about the Safe Children, Good Homes initiative. “As you are no doubt aware,” it began, “the sight of children at play raises property values by communicating wholesomeness and community.” Then it continued, “blah, blah, long-term efforts, blah, blah, hope you’ll contribute.” Those weren’t the actual words they used, of course, but the witch was skilled at translation and understood completely.
The latest notice said, “It has come to our attention that you persist in failing to comply with neighborhood standards as regards the Safe Children, Good Homes initiative. Despite repeated warnings, you have made no apparent efforts toward contributing. If the situation has not improved within the next three months, you will be found in contravention of the neighborhood covenant which this Board will not hesitate to enforce to the highest degree.”
The witch translated that to mean they’d run her out of town. She’d half a mind to call their bluff. Any legal action on their part, successful or not, would hit them hard in the budget. But she liked living here. The location was of deep astronomical significance, and she’d invested years of patient work in the orchard out back.
So she made up her mind to acquire a child.
There are many ways for a witch to acquire a child. You can probably think of a few. This witch decided to take a child from a family which didn’t want her, such that everyone involved would be better for the transaction. But you mustn’t presume from this that she was a good witch. She was a witch, was all, and witches like to keep things simple.
The child was a girl, twelve years old, silent and small for her age. Her arms were like matchsticks and you could see every rib through her skin. The witch fed her a good meal and put her to bed in the spare room. The next day she instructed her to sit on the porch and smile and wave at the traffic going by.
The child did so with neither complaint nor interest. She waved like a robot in precise repetition, and her smile sat upon her face as though painted there. She spoke to no one at all, not even the witch. She made no sound except when her nightmares woke her. At those times, the witch would come to her room and sit quietly beside her bed, speaking gentle words and offering to hold her hand. Sometimes the child let her. Sometimes she didn’t.
After several weeks the child’s nightmares grew less frequent, the lines of her skeleton less stark. She began to take a certain interest in the witch’s activities, watching with quiet, focused attention. Afternoons she spent stationed on the front porch, smiling and waving. She still wouldn’t speak to her neighbors, but she stopped shrinking away when they came up the walk to greet her.
This wasn’t quite enough for the Neighborhood Association. They sent the witch another notice thanking her for her efforts so far but insisting that she was not yet in full compliance. The witch’s child, they complained, did not play. She did not kickball or hula hoop. She did not ride a bicycle nor even roller skate. The other children on the block filled their afternoons with games and fun, the very picture of a safe and happy neighborhood. Perhaps she could follow their example?
Exasperated, the witch told the child to go play with the other children. Then she tore up the notice and stomped off to tend her orchard.
An hour later, there came a frantic banging on her door. She answered it, still brandishing her pruning shears. Her next-door neighbor cringed momentarily from those iron blades, but rallied quickly to demand the witch come out and take responsibility for her daughter. The witch rolled her eyes but followed her down the block to see what was up.
There was her child, huddled on a neighbor’s front lawn. Her clothes were torn and she was covered in mud. She was protecting her head with her arms. The other children stood around her in a ring, some of them still holding clods of earth ready to throw. They’d been yelling, but at the witch’s approach they grew silent.
The witch spoke a word that scattered the children. Her child looked up, attempted a smile, and held out her arms. The witch carried her home without another word.
She was angry. She was angry at the other children. She was angry at their parents. But mostly she was angry with herself. Still, you mustn’t presume from this that she was a good witch. She was a witch, was all, and witches expect a lot from themselves.
She held her temper as she washed and soothed her child. She held her temper as she put the child to bed. She held her temper when a representative of the Neighborhood Association knocked on her door, and she kept holding her temper as she heard him out.
Her child, he said, was not up to good standards. She’d been making the neighbors uneasy for weeks, and now this had happened. There was no help for it; she had to go. Her presence caused strife. She was a bad influence. She was not a worthwhile contribution to the Safe Children, Good Homes initiative—much the opposite. The witch would be given eighteen months to rectify the situation. Given her history of noncompliance, the Association hoped she’d agree this was extremely generous.
The witch took a moment to consider the representative’s words. She weighed her options. Then, with a terrible deliberateness, she lost her temper. She let it fly right into the representative’s smug and self-important face. It broke his nose and flung him out the door. Then it flew all over the block, smashing windows and blowing down trees and sweeping the shingles from the roofs. It drove the neighbors out of their homes, screaming, to collide with each other in the street.
(But you mustn’t presume from this that she was a bad witch. She was a witch, was all, and a witch’s temper is a potent thing.)
When at last the witch’s temper was spent, every house but hers was an unrecoverable wreck. Every garden but hers was a green and muddy mess. Every tree except for those in the witch’s orchard was reduced to splinters and leaf-pulp. No one was seriously injured aside from the representative with his broken nose, but everyone had suffered cuts and bruises to match those of the witch’s child. And the witch’s child herself slept peacefully on.
No one but the witch and her child have lived here since. None of the other houses have been repaired. The witch’s child no longer sits on the porch to wave and smile; there’s no one to wave and smile at, and besides, she’s too busy these days. She’s apprenticed to the witch.
Will she learn to be a good witch or a bad witch? That’s a foolish question. She will learn to be a witch, is all, and that’s quite enough for anyone to learn.
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