Beware: The Witch Lives Here, story by Jennifer Christiansen at Spillwords.com

Beware: Witch Lives Here

Beware: Witch Lives Here

written by: Jennifer Christiansen

@JChristiansen13

 

The young girl’s room was enveloped in blackness. She lay in her narrow bed, her eyes wide open. Sleep would not come. A combination of fear and pain guaranteed that it would be a long night. Her eyes darted around the room, finally coming to rest on the thin white curtain covering her window. It blew in the light breeze, like a haunting spirit. Pale light from the nearby waterfront filtered through the translucent cloth, casting fluid shapes on the wall.
The girl found no comfort in these familiar surroundings. She was alone, and she was going to die there. She was sure of it. She turned on her side and felt sweat run down her back, yet she was shivering. She clutched the cotton sheet to her small body. It smelled like a mixture of sweat, vomit, and Ivory soap. Her sobs turned into a high wail that pierced the silent and oppressive night air. The movement hurt her ribs and stomach, sore from her constant retching. She waited to hear the front door signal the arrival of her mother. She writhed and tossed in the tangled, clammy sheet, unable to find comfort. Suddenly, the pale-yellow light that bathed the room turned into a hot, orange glow. Everything around her was engulfed in the eerie, shimmering color of rust. It was the hell that her mother had recounted from the Bible. She screamed in fright. Then, she gave in to the sweet relief of nothingness. Everything went black.

***

Sarah always knew her mother was different. Whenever they walked through the small town together, she would watch as the townspeople stood back to let them pass. Anabella towered over everyone at almost six feet tall, and her billowing black dress made her large frame look even bigger. She had long, bright-orange hair flowing behind her. She left it wild and loose, not like the other mothers who fixed their hair in a tamed bun. From a young age, Sarah realized that, with her black hair and small, skinny body, she did not resemble her mother. Anabella often told her that she was the image of her father, who had died shortly after Sarah was born.
Anabella’s looks were not the only thing that set her apart. All the townspeople knew that she had strange powers, and Sarah had seen the evidence with her own eyes. The brave and the curious would pay Anabella for her psychic readings. Her regular customers were the Jewish women in the neighborhood, who would ask her to contact the spirit of a deceased loved one or to forecast the future. Sarah often watched her mother’s performance from the top of the stairway, remaining hidden in the shadows, listening as the desperate women discovered whether their husbands were having an adulterous affair.
One night, as she peered down the steps into the cramped living area, she watched three gray-haired women holding hands with her mother around the table. Their faces were illuminated by candlelight, and she could hear faint chanting. The smoke of the burning sage and musky incense wafted up the stairs. Sarah shifted uneasily. The hardwood stairs were icy-cold beneath her. The curious stare on her face turned to one of disbelief as the table rose from the ground and hovered for a short time. She ran back into her bedroom and hid under the soft covers until the morning light helped her to believe it had all been a foggy dream. After that night, Sarah tried to forget what she had seen. All she wanted was a normal life with her mother.
Anabella never talked about her abilities with Sarah. Her evening work was a separate part of her life. Her powers had caused her much confusion and unhappiness in her lifetime. They also left her alone for most of it. She did not want Sarah to suffer the same fate. She tried to instill in Sarah her beliefs and values. Most of these were superstitions that were absurd to most, but she also had a deep faith in religion. At night, she would read her daughter a passage from the Bible to ensure that Sarah would grow up with an undying love for God.
One evening, the pair were saying their prayers. It was a difficult time. Business was slow and money was scarce. They had existed solely on bread for the last few days. Anabella feared for Sarah’s health. She prayed to her patron saint, Saint Theresa of the Roses. Sarah stared at her mother’s face and saw the tears streaming down her cheeks, like rivers with no end. Her eyes were shut tight, and she was praying with an intensity that she had never seen. Suddenly, a suffocating aroma of roses entered the room. It lingered only for a few moments but forever in Sarah’s mind. Anabella’s eyes opened, and she smiled through her tears as she put her child to bed. The following day, business picked up and their problems were over for a time.

***

The decrepit, old woman shuffles down the dark, narrow alleyway. A crude cane made of beech wood supports her. A torn, black shawl drapes over her humped back; the hood covers her deformed and wrinkled face. Wisps of her greasy, gray hair escape the confines of the threadbare fabric. The stench of urine and rotting trash makes her cough, and she covers her huge nose with a tattered handkerchief. No one bothers her. In fact, when people see her, they make it a point to turn the other way. Everyone fears her, and she likes it that way. People believe that if they crossed her path, bad luck will soon follow. She stops at the garbage cans and dumpsters outside the restaurants. She tosses aside the lids of the trashcans; the metallic echo reverberates down the alley. She impatiently tears through the empty pasta boxes and tin cans that once contained tiny green peas or kernels of corn. She mutters vile curses to herself when she cannot find her prize. Gin, vodka, whiskey. Just a precious drop in a discarded bottle would make her journey worthwhile. Her rotten, decaying body demands it. There are no beer bottles left on the ground for her to drain, so the woman turns her path toward home.
“These townspeople will pay for what they have done to me,” she says to herself. “They owe me. Look at what I’ve become.”
Her thoughts wander back fifty years, to when she was a young woman. She remembers Louis. Dear, sweet Louis. How she had loved him. She always made it a point to walk by the hardware shop where he worked every day. Hour after hour would slide away as she stood across the street and stared into the window. She would watch as he sold loose nails or colored paints to customers. How carefully he would count the change and smile politely to the patrons.
One day, she worked up the courage and decided to follow him as he went to the bank to make his daily deposit. A gust of wind picked up a paper he was carrying and it blew down the street. It stopped by her feet, so she picked it up and ran after him. She was a little out of breath, but said, “Excuse me, you dropped this.” When he turned his dark-blue eyes to meet hers the friendly look quickly changed to repulsion and fear. He scanned her large crooked nose, thin lips, and small brown eyes, snapped the paper from her bony fingers and continued down the street. Not a word of thanks left his mouth.
How she had cried that afternoon, breaking every mirror in her house with her screams of despair and intense gaze that could cause a lion to turn away and run scared. On that day, she learned the strength of her powers. Over the years that followed, she perfected the art of directing her energies. Dear, sweet Louis now lived in a dilapidated shack on the outskirts of town, blind as a bat and a recluse as well, rarely venturing outside.
The stench of stagnant water brings the woman back from her delicious memories. She sees her houseboat in the distance. The yellow moon hangs over the foggy water like a beacon to guide her. Rotting plywood covers some of the windows of the ancient boat, broken by brave neighborhood children. The words, “Beware. Witch lives here!” are written across the boards in red graffiti. The woman notices a faint light in one of the intact windows. Probably an oil lamp she forgot to put out. She crouches down to the street to pick up a discarded cigarette butt. She saves it for later.

Sarah and her mother were having a comfortable evening at home. The pleasant smell of beef stew wafted through the house. Anabella washed the dishes in the kitchen while Sarah played the piano. Sarah was musically gifted, and her mother had saved for a long time to afford the second-hand piano. The mother hummed along with the music.
A knock at the door broke through the dulcet notes. Anabella dropped a glass and it cracked in a pattern as delicate as a spider’s web. Sarah jumped, and the last note of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony was off key. Anabella walked towards the door, motioning for Sarah to continue playing. When she opened the door, an unseasonably cold breeze blew into the house causing the shades to bat against the windows. Standing on the doorstep was an old woman with gray hair, greasy and uncombed, covering part of her face. She was hunched over her cane, clutching a worn black shawl to her bony figure. The smell of old sweat and grime assaulted Anabella’s nostrils. The woman was decrepit and tired, and yet when Anabella looked into the woman’s face, past the large, hooked nose, the eyes were alert and alive. A shudder went through Anabella’s body as she met the direct gaze of the woman. She knew her. She had seen her around a few times, picking flesh off fish bones by the dock. She knew that this strange, poverty-stricken woman lived in a rundown houseboat along the waterfront. She knew that the old woman was feared even more than she was. When this woman walked through the neighborhood, people locked their doors and hid their children. Children called her a witch and disbelieving folk called her a crazy alcoholic. Anabella tried to compose herself. She could not let the appearance of the woman cause her to be rude. She attempted a smile, which froze as she looked into the woman’s fiery eyes.
She managed to say, “Can I help you?”
The woman answered in a raspy voice. “Spare some money for an old woman in need. I haven’t eaten in days, and I have nowhere to turn.”
To Anabella’s ears, these words were less of a plea and more of a demand. In any case, Anabella was willing to do God’s will and help the poor old woman. But she knew, from the woman’s reputation, that her hard-earned money would go to alcohol and smokes. So, she refused to give the woman money but offered her some of their leftover dinner instead. When the old woman refused the meal, Anabella apologized and began to close the door, relief coursing through her. She never wanted to see the old woman again. But the old woman, angry at her denial, jammed her cane in the doorway and pushed with all her pitiful strength. She did not like to be refused.
The woman hissed vile curses at her. She didn’t want their food. How dare they refuse her! Anabella did not hear the piano stop playing. She didn’t realize that Sarah was standing directly behind her, curious to see the commotion. She tried to push the cane out of the doorway with her foot.
Just as the door began to close, the old woman’s face was illuminated by the moonlight.
“You will pay for this! You will pay for this!” she spat.
Through the crack in the door, the old woman directed her gaze at Sarah’s innocent face. The dreadful thud of the door finally closing echoed in the mother’s stammering heart.
Hours later, lying awake in dead silence, the mother dreaded what she knew would come. Like a shriek from the mouth of hell, Sarah’s cries suddenly rippled through the house. Anabella ran into the child’s bedroom and clutched her child to her breast. Sarah was burning up with fever. Bits of last night’s beef stew spattered Sarah’s bed and the floor beside it. She moaned in pain and begged for it to end.
Anabella looked through the window and out at the night sky. Mixed in with the stars, she saw two cold and heartless eyes staring at her. She heard an evil, raspy chuckle reverberate in her ears. She knew what she had to do to save her child. She tucked Sarah in and promised to be back soon. She put on her coat and walked out the door in the direction of the waterfront.

***

Sarah played in the playground with some of her classmates after school. The pain of that miserable night was only a dim memory to her now. She glanced sideways at her mother reading on a bench. Gone was Anabella’s fiery hair. The copper-orange color had drained from each strand, as if an evening spirit whitewashed them as she slept.
Sarah listened as her friends babbled about the old witch who had lived in the houseboat. One of the girls had overheard her mother gossiping with a neighbor. It was said that the woman’s boat had caught fire a few nights before, burning her to death. It was believed that her oil lamp had been knocked over while she was sleeping. Then they all played hopscotch beside the sweet waters of the running river.

My momma, your momma, gonna catch a witch,
My momma, your momma, flying on a switch,
My momma, your momma, witches never cry,
My momma, your momma, witches gonna die!
Witch number one, drown in a river!
Witch number two, gotta noose to give her!
Witch number three, gonna watch her burn,
Witch number four, flogging take a turn.

Jennifer Christiansen

Jennifer Christiansen

Jennifer Christiansen, a writer and school librarian, lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two miniature schnauzers. She is an animal advocate, traveler, bibliophile, and lover of all things dark and romantic.
Jennifer Christiansen

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