Witch

From the author’s cover letter: “Witch,” is a personal essay, of around 2100 words, that is a quite accurate account of my suddenly deciding, at age 5, that my mother was a witch. While it’s funny now, it wasn’t funny then, and I hope I’ve succeeded in merging the two age perspectives in my writing.

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My mother’s nose had a slight bend in it at the tip. When she smiled the down-turned part dipped even lower, although like the illusion of moving backwards when the car next to you moves forward, it probably was that her mouth rose up, not that her nose crooked down. Whatever the reason, however the degree of hook, it must have reminded me of a fairy tale witch’s nose, possibly that of the villainous child-devouring witch in Hansel and Gretel. In our house there was always candy in the candy dish and that only served to make things appear worse.

One day my mother was my mother. The next I was firmly and utterly convinced she was a witch and trying to get rid of me. For months I had gone merrily off to kindergarten, usually walking to school with my older cousin who lived across the street — we could do that in 1952 — or sometimes being dropped off by my mother, mostly if I was late, which I was often, and my cousin wouldn’t wait for me. She had a friend she met along the way and while I was okay company for two blocks, I was a tag-along burden once she and her friend got together. Mostly though, my cousin was nice to me and could be counted on to get me to school.

It was a day when I missed my cousin by a few minutes when my mom and I arrived at the school drop-off. With the fresh awareness that my mother was a witch, I refused to get out of the car unless she walked me in, which she did. But at the classroom door I refused to go in. I started to cry. “Come in with me,” I begged, and she did that too. Once inside, I clutched onto her legs with all four limbs like a spider onto a fly, clung and wouldn’t let go. The teacher must have grabbed some part of me to try and pry me off. The other kids probably found this a curious and intriguing spectacle, but I didn’t care. My small fingers were claws that dug through my mother’s skirt. It would rip off if she walked away. At first the teacher wouldn’t let go of me and I became the rope in a tug of war, but I was determined. Finally, she gave up.

“Okay, I’m not leaving yet,” my mother said. “Sit down while I talk to Miss Byington.” I let go of my mother but hovered close. I didn’t think she would do anything wicked in front of my teacher, but even if my mother was a witch I didn’t want to lose her. Not her, not my home, not my life!

The two stepped apart and called me over. “Miss Byington said I can’t stay in the classroom,” my mother bent over and whispered, giving me a closer up view of her nose, “but I’ll stand outside in the hallway.”

“You can get up and look any time,” my teacher assured me.

I sat on Miss Byington’s lap for reading, a place of privilege and honor, but I could only last a few pages before climbing down to go check on my mother. She was there! A few seconds later, though, I was dismayed to see that I had lost my favored spot — another child had already slipped onto the teacher’s lap.

I went to the door throughout the day, opening it a crack, peering out and seeing my mother standing in the hallway.

The next day was a replay of the first, but this time my mother brought a book.

On the third day, my mother said, “You know, if you look out and don’t see me, I might be in the bathroom. Sometimes I’m tired of standing and need a place to sit down. I might even go to talk to the principal. But don’t worry, I won’t be gone long, and I’ll be back.” I must have accepted this, because if I checked once and she wasn’t there, she would be there the second time a little later.

On the fourth day, my mother said she had to do some grocery shopping, but she would be back way before the school day was over, waiting in the hallway when we got out.

The following week, instead of bringing me to the classroom door, my mother took my hand and led me down the hallway toward the principal’s office. I was surprised when instead of going in, we passed his office and entered another doorway I had never seen before. On the door was a name followed by a strange long word I didn’t recognize and couldn’t pronounce. It began with the letters “p-s-y.”

We entered a small room with a desk and some chairs and with another door that went into another room. Still holding my hand, my mother walked straight into that second room. There, a big woman was sitting behind a big desk. She greeted my mother and then turned to me. I couldn’t stop staring at her nose: it was large and bulbous but it didn’t curve downward. As I stood debating whether I should turn and run, she said, “I have something to show you,” and I became curious.

She got up and walked over to yet another door and slowly pulled it open. At first I thought there was going to be a third room, maybe with another person, but it was a closet. My legs shook with the anticipation of what might be inside. They shook because they were ready to bolt. They shook even more because I didn’t know if this woman was a witch in disguise and she and my mom were going to push me into the closet. My eyes darted back to my mother, then to the door to the first room. The woman opened the closet door further.

“You see that?”  She pointed to a pink and white box resting way up on the top shelf. “It’s a doll. Would you like to see her?”

I nodded but took a step back. She reached up, stood on her toes and used her fingers to walk the box to the edge of the shelf. When it tilted an inch she managed to grab the edge with both hands and bring it down. A glassine window revealed a pretty girl baby doll, but I didn’t dare come closer and before I could see her in any detail, the woman lifted the box over her head, stood on her toes again and shoved the box back onto the shelf.

“I’m going to give you that doll,” she said. I didn’t really like dolls, I liked stuffed animals, but I knew enough to be polite and say thank you. But there was a hitch anyway.

“But only if you go to school by yourself and don’t make your mother stand in the hallway,” she said. “Okay, go wait outside.”

And just like that I was dismissed, sent to sit in the front room alone. The woman shut the door behind me.

I could hear them talking through the wall but not their words. I didn’t want to be by myself but I didn’t want to be in that room with the closet either.

The following week, if my mother took me to the classroom door and was waiting for me when it was time to go home, I could go to school and not worry, but those were the only worry-free hours in my day. Once I was home, I watched her carefully. If she pre-heated the oven I would lurk by the door but stay out of the kitchen, ready to flee but not knowing where I would go. One time when she bent over to put something onto the oven shelf, I thought about pushing her in, but what would happen if she was too heavy, or I missed? Maybe, unlike the witch in Hansel and Gretel, she was too large to fit. Besides, I loved my mother even if she was a witch, and if I succeeded in cooking her, then I would have no mother.

My mother must have asked me what so suddenly had gone wrong. Of course I couldn’t tell her I knew she was a witch. Even at age six I knew not to let on — my only advantage was that she didn’t know I knew. If she found out, she might move precipitously. As long as she still was calculating the exact right moment to dispose of me, I was relatively safe.

I might have figured that my father wouldn’t abandon me, but I already knew that witches cast spells and perhaps my father was under her influence. Or he might side with my mother just because they were married, and they were together first.

After a while I managed to be in school without my mother. I waited for the woman with the doll to come and find me to give me the doll, but she never did. The woman, the meeting and the doll were never mentioned again and I felt my first betrayal by a grownup. My mother may have been a witch, but she never had betrayed me. If she was born a witch that wasn’t her fault. You couldn’t help being what you were. But that woman was a liar and that was something you could help.

Some days when my cousin was busy with something after school or went to a friend’s house, I walked home by myself. I would be okay for the first three blocks, but when I turned the corner onto our street and looked way down to see if my mother’s car was in the driveway, even though it was still too far to see, my heart sank and my whole body trembled. Maybe if she hadn’t found a way to kill me, she would just leave and dispose of me that way. My head buzzed with a fear that didn’t go away until I got close enough to spot the car.

Once the car absolutely wasn’t there! I ran as fast as I could, my school bag practically flying off my shoulder, my heart shattering my ribs; the buzz in my brain turned into clanging that banged against the inside of my skull. I didn’t know why I was in such a rush to get home only to find the house empty, my parents and all of their belongings gone for good. But when I reached our front lawn, my mother called to me from across the street where she was talking with my aunt who had driven her back from the car repair shop.

One time my parents and I went out to eat. They parked the car on the street in front of the restaurant. After the meal, my mother realized she had forgotten to mail some letters. There was a mailbox on the corner. “Here,” she said, handing me the letters. “Go drop these in the mailbox.”

This was it; I was sure. This was the moment, the perfect opportunity to get rid of me. Not in the neighborhood, as I had thought. Not near my aunt and uncle and cousin who might see something, not near the school where the teachers and kids knew me, but far away where no one would recognize or help me. I knew that as soon as I reached the corner my parents would drive away.

“No,” I said.

They couldn’t understand. “Just take the mail and drop it in the box.”

“I don’t want to.”

My mother kept insisting. I kept saying no. In the end I knew I had no choice. I started slowly, trying to prolong the proximity to the car, but when I heard my father start the engine I raced to the corner and shoved the mail into the box. One letter escaped and fluttered to the sidewalk. For precious seconds I froze, torn between leaving it on the ground which I knew was wrong and retrieving it. Quickly I scooped it up, stuffed it into the slot and tore back to the car as if my life depended on it, which I believed it did. By then my father had begun to back the car up, ready to maneuver out of the parking space. I reached for the back door, sure it would be locked, and nearly fell over backwards when it opened. I scrambled inside.

Bit by bit, day by day, when I found myself still with parents, still with a home, still alive and uncooked, I guess I just stopped believing that my mother was a witch.

*****

Photography Credit, author photo: Vicki Topaz

Lee Chinalai has published a number of articles on tribal art in the United States and Great Britain. This is a creative nonfiction debut.