My nana says I got to be a good boy, or she’ll have the sack lady take me off her hands. Nana will let her in our house, serve me up on a silver platter like a roasted loin and let her haul me away to god knows where, the same place where Judas lost his boots, someplace far, far away. They say she knows magic, the black kind used in conjunction with the devil, and that with a snap of her fingers, she’ll shrink you and stuff you in her bag with the other boys and girls who only know how to misbehave and give their mamas, papas and nanas terrible headaches.
“Nana, nana, she’s coming,” I say.
I plop myself on top of a sturdy fruit crate by the front fence; the extra length from the wooden box gives me just enough height so that my eyes can catch sight of her from over the ledge. She’s trudging up the street, dragging her bad leg like a zombie with her trusty black sack thrown over her shoulder. The big old pouch slinging around behind her looks heavy. It rattles and shakes probably from the amount of tremoring children cramped up in such a dark space.
“Let us go, please sack lady, we’ll be good boys and girls,” that’s what I imagine they say.
I never get awfully close to her. I’m scared she’ll confuse me for some other poor boy, that she’ll open up the mouth of her bag, stretch it wide, and with a flick of her wrist suck me inside, keeping me trapped in the abyss of her clingy plastic snare. Sometimes I think about what it might be like in there, swimming in the depths of her magic bag. Does she keep the kids alive, place them inside a dollhouse, feed them breadcrumbs, toss them all into a ditch or shovel them into her fireplace where she burns them to a crisp?
Nana says I don’t need to think about any of that, that I have nothing to worry about. “As long as you’re a good boy, I’ll never have to call her, now will I?” Nana always teases.
She’s crossing the street into our front neighbor's house. She bangs on the steel door with such strength that I can hear the thuds from across the way. The sack lady flings her bag forward, drops it on the floor while she waits for my neighbor, Mr. Orlando, to open the door.
Mr. Orlando debuts with a yellow smile and shining golden teeth, the sparkle from his jeweled mouth noticeable even from a distance. He stretches his hand out, inviting the sack lady into his home. He looks at me, snooping from across the street and waves.
I jump off the crate, back away from the fence, and think, “She’s going to take Lisa away!” I scamper to the kitchen, “Nana, nana, I just saw the sack lady walk into Mr. Orlando’s house.”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Mr. Orlando only has one granddaughter. Lisa, remember? She’s going to take Lisa away!”
Nana starts laughing. Her hand rests over her belly as she chuckles, heaves, and catches her breath. “Now, now, I’m sure Lisa’s fine. The sack lady is probably just asking Mr. Orlando for something. Why don’t you go play and stop meddling in things that don’t concern you.”
“But Lisa —”
“Or maybe I should call the sack lady over, and you can search for Mr. Orlando’s granddaughter inside that bag of hers?”
I bite my lips shut and walk out of the kitchen, thinking about Lisa and how she has probably, by now, met her fate.
I perch myself close to the living room window, keep focus like an owl, waiting for the sack lady to reappear from Mr. Orlando’s.
“That witch must have cast a spell on him. No way, he’d just give Lisa up for no reason at all,” I tell myself.
The metal door from our front neighbor's house opens. Mr. Orlando walks outside, and the sack lady follows. Her bag looks bulkier, and she’s smiling like a horse, showing off her broken teeth and ugly gums. She stretches her arms out wide and hugs Mr. Orlando.
“What the —,” I shout. “Mr. Orlando’s hugging the sack lady, nana,” but she pays me no mind.
The sack lady grabs her bag, swings it, and with a single motion, it settles on her shoulder and dangles from her back. She leaves the front neighbor’s porch with a spring in her step, walking away, swaying her hips like she’s dancing, most likely happy from her latest catch.
“Don’t worry, Lisa. I’m going to get you out of there.”
I barely got any shut-eye last night. All I could think about was Lisa, the sack lady, and Mr. Orlando, that traitor who gave up his only granddaughter. I thought of Hansel and Gretel, how the sack lady probably baked up the kids she captured, turned them all into gingerbread cookies, and snacked on them before going to bed herself.
Maybe she played with them like action figures, had them fight each other with toothpicks and nails, the prize being that the last one standing wouldn’t get eaten that night. Perhaps Lisa’s not even in that bag of hers. Maybe the sack lady put her and all the other kids inside a cage, making them sing for her in exchange for their lives.
Regardless, I got to try to save Lisa.
The plan’s simple. Stay on the lookout, waiting for the sack lady to show herself like she does every afternoon, and then open that bag.
Nana’s pinning up some clothes in the backyard before the sun sets. The street’s pretty quiet, with only a few passersby and children on bikes. Mr. Orlando hasn’t shown his face since yesterday, and the sack lady should be walking up the street any second now.
I can’t be standing on the wooden crate today; I need to get close to that witch. So I put on my baseball cap, swap out my flip-flops for running shoes, and stuff a wooden cross that my nana takes to church on Sundays in my front pocket, hoping Jesus will keep me from winding up dead.
I sit on the edge of the sidewalk. The day’s pretty hot, and the concrete is cooking my bum. After a few minutes, I can hear it, the sound of her steps, the grumbling coming from her bag as if it’s hungry. The contents seem to be moving, shifting, tiny arms protruding from the plastic, trying to rip themselves free.
The sack lady is dragging, her bad leg keeping her at a slow pace up the street. She’s walking like a drunk; I know for sure I stand a chance.
She places her bag on the floor, only a few paces away, while catching her breath. I stand up, flip my cap back to get a clear view of my target. I beeline from the sidewalk, aim for the bag, and before she can react, I kick the godforsaken thing. It’s airborne, hovers a few inches above the ground, rolls like a poorly inflated soccer ball, and its contents spew out, littering the street.
There are crackles and clanks, claps that remind me of shattered glass.
“What in god’s name do you think you’re doing?” the sack lady shouts. She runs to the cans, the plastic bottles, the cracked jars scattered on the asphalt. “Are you one of those mongoloid children, the ones that never leave the house or something?”
“Where’s Lisa, you witch?! Give her back.”
“What are you talking about?” she says while retrieving the junk and shoving them back into her bag. “You mean Orlando’s girl?”
“That’s right, you took her! Give her back,” I run towards the sack lady, shove my hand inside her plastic bag and start trying to fish for Lisa.
“She’s not in there, boy,” she says, pulling the bag away.
“Where is she? Where on Earth is she?”
“You really want to know?” she asks, squatting to the floor, looking at me with her glassy eyes that look like marbles. “She’s dead.”
“What? No!” I blurt out. “You killed her, didn’t you? How could you?”
The sack lady starts cackling. Her head arches back and spews out droplets of spit. “I’m sorry, child —”
“You will be,” I return, cutting her off. “I’m going to tell my nana, and she’s going to —”
“Going to what?” she returns. “Child, do you really think I would kill her? Look at me.” The sack lady places her hand on her hip, plants her unreliable leg firmly on the ground. “I can barely see from my right eye, and my leg ain’t good for running. Honestly, are you stupid or something?”
“Then, then… What were you doing at Mr. Orlando’s house? Why was your bag bigger when you left there?”
“Huh? Were you spying on me, boy?”
“No. Maybe. What of it? The street's public!”
She shakes her head in disapproval, snaps her tongue so that it ticks like a clock, almost the same way my nana does when I say something silly or piss my pants at night.
“Come with me,” she orders while twisting the end of her bag.
“No,” I say, gripping the cross in my pocket. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Do you want to know why I carry this bag or not?”
Down the street, past nana’s and Mr. Orlando’s house, past the houses with white fences, murals, driveways with chromed cars, and trimmed hedges. Past the front yards with stray cats basking in the sun, a few blocks further out into the neighborhood where the houses are smaller and don’t have chimneys or mailboxes, lays an old house, torn and tattered like a worn-out sofa. The paint on its walls is cracked and peeling away in scabs. The windows are awfully murky, and the tiles on the roof could be easily blown away.
“What are we doing here?” I remark.
“Come on, don’t be shy. We're going to go around the back.”
The sack lady guides me through a passage to the side of the house, a narrow little hall with no door that leads us to the rear end of the property.
I hear something like windchimes, the sharp sound of bells or needles falling to the ground. There’s a tree, a willow, with its branches stretching out, covering most of the yard in a leafy umbrella. Bottles are swaying, glass glinting, capturing the sun’s rays. The flasks dangle, hang from the twisted branches of the willow, all higgledy-piggledy like heavy ornaments on a flashy Christmas tree.
Some of the bottles are mint green, others red, but the lot of them are clear, their only color being the brown stains from either staying in the trash for too long or from not being washed before hung.
The sack lady walks over to the tree, sets her bag on the cleft between its large roots. “Well, this is it, boy.”
“What is this?”
“This is my tree of sin. Where I hang the bottles from.”
“But, why? Where’s Lisa? Is she up there?”
“No, you stupid child. Lisa’s alive.”
“But you said she’s dead!”
“Didn’t your nana ever teach you to never believe the words of a drunk?” she returns. “Your friend Lisa, Orlando’s girl, helps me collect bottles, that’s why I went by their house yesterday. I didn’t kill her or stuff her in my bag.”
“But what about the other children?”
“The other children?” she repeats. The sack lady starts laughing, her arm against the tree, holding herself up as if she’s about to fall over at any moment. “I swear, what do your parents tell you kids about me?”
“So, are the other kids alive or what?”
“Tell me, boy, have you ever seen a child go missing in this neighborhood?”
“No, but —”
“Exactly, now stop being stupid and help an old lady out,” she says, spilling out the contents of her sack onto the grass. “Help me separate these, will you?”
The floor is flooded with crushed aluminum and plastic bottles of various sizes, shapes, and colored labels. The sack lady piles the soda cans into one mound, the plastic bottles in another, and she places the glass containers close to the tree, lining them up like bowling pins.
“I don’t get it. Why do you need all of this garbage?”
“For the money, of course!” she fires. “The plastic and aluminum pay for my house and meals. If it wasn’t for them, I’d be dead.”
“What about the glass bottles?” I ask.
“They pay for my sins. They remind me of what I did and what I’ll never do again.”
I look up to see the number of glass bottles strung to the branches. There are mason jars, beer bottles, jugs, and thin containers that look like beakers. “That’s a whole lot of trouble up there.”
“I still got plenty more to account for,” she answers.
We finish separating everything. The sack lady explains how she sells the trash she collects for coins everyday morning. She walks through the streets of the neighborhood, rummaging through bags for anything she can take. Somedays, she’s lucky and can fill up her whole bag to the point that she can barely carry the thing back home; other times, it ends up empty like her gut.
“That Lisa girl,” she comments, “sometimes she keeps a few bottles and cans for me, and I stop by Orlando’s home to pick them up. Yesterday was a good day; she had been stockpiling some recyclables for a few days.”
“Is that why you left his house all happy?”
“And what about the stories? Do you really not take the bad children away?”
She lets out a chuckle. “How about we continue this story another day. After all, you can’t expect me to explain the myth about the sack lady all in one sitting.”
“How about tomorrow? I can help you separate the trash again.”
She shines me a smile, and her gums still look pretty gnarly, but she doesn’t look that evil or sad; she actually looks kind of happy.
“Maybe, I can get Lisa to help out too.”
“That would be nice. You can help out with the bottles, and I’ll pay you back with my story.”
We shake hands as if striking a deal; her palm is calloused and filled with cuts, probably from picking up so many shards. I walk away from the shade of the sin tree, turning back to see the sack lady tying the neck of a few bottles with string.
“Hey,” I call her. If I give you some bottles that we have back at my nana’s would that be okay?”
“That would be a big help.”
I nod and follow the narrow path on the side of the house, running back home before sunset.
A few neighbors are putting out their trash, black bags with bulging sides that look swollen. Some of them are so full that they couldn’t even be tied off at the ends, and all I can think is that tomorrow will for sure be a good day for the sack lady.