She smelled like fire and brimstone, or so the neighborhood kids told me when I moved in. This wasn’t the only reason I avoided the house at the end of the road, but it certainly made the list, and added to the intrigue of my new neighborhood.
I kicked a small rock down the pavement between houses, careful not to step on any cracks. There was no room in my day for bad luck, and my attention to detail was paying off. We had a beginning-of-the-year fundraiser, so I’d been sent home the first week of school with a pad of order forms and a product booklet. I wasn’t what anyone would call particularly ambitious, but I did want the Gameboy featured on the back of the prize sheet. Every single house I went to purchased something, but when I reached the end of the street, I paused. Staring up at the big townhouse with the steepled roof and wrap-around-porch on the side, it certainly looked like a witch’s house. I didn’t believe the stories, being a primary source of some of the new ones started over the summer, but still. I had to steady my breath more than once as I climbed the stairs up to her front door.
The navy paint that coated the house was cracking, but the porch was neat, and the forest green door looked brand new. The doormat read “Dog Lover” and boasted two paw prints, one on either side of the text. I was certain she must have a black cat, too, but I couldn’t have known for sure.
I looked down at my materials in hand, making sure everything was secure and accounted for. If I needed to make a run for it, I wouldn’t drop anything in my hasty retreat. Obviously that wouldn’t be necessary, but it never hurt to be prepared for anything.
Just then, I saw a flutter of curtain in the front window. My breath caught in my chest and refused to move despite the desperate urging of my increasing heart rate. Suddenly my feet were boulders, anchoring themselves to the wood beneath them, refusing to let me make my escape. Why was I always freezing at the worst moments?
The metal doorknob began to move, and all I could do was stare in horror as the door swung in. My eyes only registered graying, scraggly hair at first, before settling on wrinkles so deep they looked like canyons. I forced my gaze to meet hers, and was taken in immediately by light blue eyes beneath barely-there eyebrows, thankfully pulled up in a welcoming – if not slightly surprised – expression. The small brown fluffball of a dog yapping at her heels seemed surprised too.
“Can I help you?” Her voice sounded less like the gravel I’d expected and more like smooth river stones.
I stared just a moment longer. With the arrival of her voice, I suddenly realized that her hair wasn’t graying at all; It was a light blonde. And her wrinkles weren’t all that deep either. Sure, they bowed out from the corners of her eyes and mouth, but otherwise her skin didn’t look all that unlike my own mother’s.
“Um –” I chastised myself inwardly and summoned a more confident and fearless self. “Yes. Hi. I go to Sky Trail and we’re doing a fundraiser.”
“My kids went to Sky Trail.” She seemed to be assessing me as well, because her eyes only looked at the papers briefly before returning to my face. Her head tilted to the side more than once during the examination and it took everything in me not to fidget or run screaming away from the witch. “Is Mr. Shandy still teaching there?”
“Yeah, he teaches fifth grade. I’m not in his class, though.” My right foot rubbed against the patio despite my efforts. I hated that it was always obvious when I was nervous. I
“Ah, well that’s too bad. He was a wonderful teacher to my girls.” Blue eyes glistened slightly, glazing over with memory before Ms. Scarecrow remembered I was there. “Now, tell me about this fundraiser.”
I opened my mouth to speak, preparing to go into my tried-and-true spiel about funding books for our classroom and blah, blah, blah, but I didn’t get a single sound out.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! How rude of me. Would you like to come in and sit down while you show me?”
Now, this was the nineties, so it wouldn’t have been unheard of to go into a neighbor’s house for lemonade or whatever, but there was no way I was entering this woman’s abode. Sensing my apprehension, Ms. Scarecrow shook her head wistfully. “My goodness, ignore me. How about I grab us both some water and we sit out there?” A smoother-than-expected finger pointed toward two rocking chairs with a small table between them. I wordlessly nodded in agreement to the new proposition.
She retreated inside, and through the open window I heard the clinking of ice falling into glass cups, and the sputtering of a faucet turning on. I selected the chair closest to the stairs, just in case I needed to bolt. This would put my back squarely to the front door, however, so after setting down my booklet and order forms onto the table, I paced.
I looked around her porch, but I couldn’t find anything indicating that the neighborhood stories were true at all. I’d heard about the spiderwebs surrounding her door, but there weren’t any. One boy told me that she carved the names of her enemies into candles and lit them in her window so that everyone would know she’d cursed them. All that I saw in her window was a beautiful suncatcher with a hummingbird hanging between gold wire and blue glass. Perhaps the most terrifying account was from a girl who moved last summer. She swore that Ms. Scarecrow kept the bones of her old cats as ornaments for her plants. All I could see was a glass mushroom sticking out of foliage in the window box. There were definitely no bones, cat or otherwise.
The door creaked open and slammed shut, sending me spinning back in the direction of the noise. “Sorry about that. I have to shut it quickly or Chunk will run out and jump all over you. He loves new people.” She walked carefully over to the chairs, setting down two cups of ice water and a plate of cheese and crackers. “I didn’t ask, and you don’t have to eat any, but I haven’t eaten in hours, so I figured I’d nibble while we chat. Would you like some? There’s plenty to share.”
My stomach grumbled even though I willed it not to. I was starving. The plan was to finish up this side of the road and go home for food. “Thanks. I’m not hungry.”
She eyed me with a raised brow, but didn’t insist. “More for me.” A smile.
I took my seat, less cautiously now. “I – I’m sorta new to the neighborhood. I just moved here this summer.”
“Oh, I see. I didn’t think I recognized you.” She picked up the booklet.
“Yeah…” Nobody ever saw her outside, so how did she know who lives here? Fear jumped back into my gut. What if she watched from her crystal ball? I heard that she uses it to plan who to curse next.
“I bet it’s hard moving to a new place. Are you liking it so far?” Ms. Scarecrow was scanning the items in the book, pausing here and there to make notes on the back of an order form. “I moved a lot as a child, too, and it was difficult for me. But maybe you like it?” She raised her brows toward me.
“I like it here so far, I guess.” I looked away, scanning the street to see if anyone was around. They weren’t.
“This is a wonderful town for kids your age. I’m sure the longer you’re here, the more you’ll like it.” As if on cue, Chunk appeared in the window, pushing the curtain aside to bark in agreement.
I shrugged and nodded. “I kinda have to. We’ll be here for two years, so it’s best to make the most of it.”
Ms. Scarecrow nodded in solidarity with an I-know-what-you-mean expression, and I believed her. I’m not sure why, but I think it was something in the way she managed a smile despite sad eyes. I knew that mismatched combination well. I’d stared in mirrors countless times, trying to make my eyes smile alongside my mouth. I hadn’t mastered it yet, since my face seemed to always say exactly what I was feeling or thinking, even when I didn’t want it to.
“There are lots of kids to play with, so at least you have that.” Although she said it as a statement, it sounded more like a question, inviting me to share more if I wanted.
To my surprise, I found myself speaking. “I made friends when I was younger, but then we moved. The next place I decided to stick to myself, and when we moved I didn’t really care as much, so I don’t know if I want friends here. It makes it easier when we leave.”
“Hmm…” The sound came out as a sigh, and she lowered the booklet into her lap. “I’ve felt that way. I stopped letting anyone get close, too. A person can only take so much loss, y’know?”
I did know. No adult had ever talked to me like this. “Did you make friends again?” The question shoved its way out of me. I was mortified but did my best to act casual.
She considered me for a moment before answering, running her fingers along the sweaty cup next to her. “I was older than you when I decided I was better off protecting myself, so I haven’t figured out the ‘letting people back in’ part just yet.”
I leaned into the familiar feeling. “Me neither.”
It felt nice to not have someone tell me it’d get better, or that I was young and would get over it, so I sat comfortably back in the rocker and watched birds dive into the tree line. Listening to the rustle of pages being flipped, and notes being scratched onto paper, it was peaceful. It was several moments later, after Ms. Scarecrow set down her pencil, that I realized I never even gave her my pitch.
Looking down, I gasped. “Whoa! Thank you, Ms. Sc –” I bit off the name as quickly as I could, but it was too late.
Sadness was quick and fleeting, before something more mischievous settled into her eyes. “Ah yes. Ms. Scarecrow. I’ve heard the rumblings of the witch who lives in my house.” I appreciated her attempt to alleviate my embarrassment with a wink, but I slumped into my chair, avoiding eye contact.
Her voice was cool water, refreshing and soothing. “It’s alright. I know what the kids say.”
“I’m sorry.” My small voice was even smaller than usual, and my head raced with thoughts that wouldn’t collect themselves into anything else that was coherent.
Sensing my predicament, she put out her hand. “We haven’t actually introduced ourselves, so maybe that’d help. I’m Margaret, but I like being called Maggie. And you?”
Relieved, I shook her hand. “Molly,” I responded with a smile that pressed my cheeks into little balls beneath my eyes.
“Maggie and Molly. I quite like that!”
Me too. “Ms. Maggie?”
“No need for the title. Maggie is just fine.” She sat back and took a sip of her water.
“Maggie,” I began with hesitation. “Why are there so many stories about you?”
A wry smile. “Well, I suppose it’s because I don’t bother to correct any of them, so the stories grow wilder every year. At this point I even enjoy hearing some of them.” When she paused, eyebrows reaching for one another in the middle, she pursed her lips for a moment before continuing. “I don’t particularly like when the kids mess with my garden or leave unkind notes on my steps. But the whispered stories that float up through my windows – Those make me chuckle.”
My hand came to rest on my guilt-ridden tummy. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
“What for? You’ve never dug up my garden or scattered ill wishes on my porch, have you?”
“Well no, but –”
“Then no apologies for any of that.” She tutted and shook her head.
I wasn’t satisfied. “Maybe I didn’t do those things, but I did judge you. So that’s what I’m sorry for.”
Maggie rubbed the side of her face and swept some unruly waves out of her eyes. “I appreciate that very much. Apology accepted.”
Bravery returning, I ventured another question. “Are any of the stories true?”
This earned me an unmistakable grin. “I suppose there’s enough truth in one or two of them in order to ignite such tales.” She didn’t elaborate.
“What about…” I didn’t know if I wanted the answer. “Did you have two daughters?” There was a story of how she’d killed them and buried them in her garden – Hence the late-night disturbances to her lawn.
Maggie’s eyes closed and I instantly regretted my question. “Never mind. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to –”
Her hand raised and she shook her head. I wasn’t sure if I was being admonished, but if I was, I probably deserved it. So, I sat back and twirled the drawstring of my shorts around my thumb, praying for her to break the silence. I counted heartbeats, and after sixty-two of them, Maggie spoke.
This time her voice was gravel-y. It was the hoarse sound of someone trying to speak through a throat closed by sadness. “I did have two daughters.” I took shallow breaths, afraid that if I made too much sound, she’d close up. “Sarah and Christine were twins. They were born early, and in those days we weren’t quite as advanced as we are today. Christine had lots of health problems, but was always trying to keep up with her sister.”
I could tell she wasn’t done, but her voice slid to a halt, smothered by the pain of whatever memory she was reliving. I could tell she was reliving it, because I did the same when my mind went to memories I’d rather forget. Her hands gripped the arm rests, and she was working hard to breathe. I may have only been ten years old, but I understood what was happening. My parents said I was ten-going-on-thirty because of how perceptive I was, but the truth was that I had secrets of my own, and things I was trying to keep buried.
In any event, I closed my eyes, urging myself to breathe in long, deep breaths. It’s what worked best when I started panicking, and I thought it might help Maggie, too. My old therapist had to do it at least once a session, and most of the time it did the trick. I was so focused on breathing that I didn’t notice when Maggie opened her eyes.
I’m not sure how long she watched me, but by the time I opened my eyes to check on her, she was staring at me quizzically. “Where did you learn to do that?”
A simple, affirmative nod.
“Therapy.” I’d never told anyone else that I saw a therapist.
She seemed surprised. “Oh? Children as young as you go to therapy now?”
More of them should. “I guess those of us who already suck at life do.” I wasn’t allowed to say suck at home, but something told me Maggie wouldn’t mind. I was right.
We spent at least another hour together that afternoon, eating cheese and crackers, drinking cold water, and learning about each other. As it turns out, Christine had died as a teenager. Her lungs were compromised from the early birth, and she’d gotten an infection that her body couldn’t fight off. Sarah didn’t handle her sister’s death well at all, and after years of suffering, went to be with her sister. Maggie didn’t say more, but I knew what she meant even though she was trying to shield me from it. I promised myself I wouldn’t let her be so alone anymore.
My parents worked a lot, so instead of going home to an empty house after school, I’d head to Maggie’s house for snacks. Truth be told, I didn’t feel quite as lonely either. She helped me with homework and showed me pictures of her daughters. She wanted to hear about my day, and encouraged me to make friends. When a kid at school started bullying me, it was Maggie that I confided in about it. I had to practically hold her back from marching down to the school right then and there.
It’s been twenty years since I spent those afternoon’s with Maggie, but there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about the witch – who, as it turns out, was a Presbyterian – and our conversations. When I got married, Maggie was there. When I had my first child, Maggie was there. And when Maggie’s time here on earth was done, I was there.