Every autumn, the clatter of leaves somersaulting along sidewalks reminds me of the October I met the witch. The small southern town of Saint Claire didn’t have a lot to boast about but the worst football team in the county, the annual watermelon festival, and Ag shows that brought the fattest pigs and beefiest steers to Main Street, where they showed their appreciation by crapping in front of the cafe, the antique store, and the True Value hardware that still sold hard candy from glass jars. Unbeknownst to the folks outside our insular world, Saint Claire had its very own witch, too. Mothers all over town scared the devil out of us kids every time they warned us to steer clear of the rickety old house that lurked on Mistletoe Lane. My own mother joined the hype. “Colton, you leave that place alone. I see you anywhere near it, I’ll bust your hide.” To which I inevitably replied, “But why, Mama?” She’d only respond with the look that meant, “You better do as I say.”
The first time I found myself outside the witch’s gate was a complete accident. Jimmy Harden and I rode our bikes to the cow pond on his grandpa’s place, hoping the fish liked the taste of the grubs on our hooks. They did, as it turned out, so we kept tossing our lines in till almost dusk. Realizing the time, we tied our stringers full of half-grown bass to our handlebars and hustled back to town. We were in such a hurry to avoid a whooping for being late to dinner that we turned one street too soon. Jimmy hit his brakes; his back tire left a black streak that must’ve been a mile long before he came to a stop. Pulling up alongside him, I stared in horror at the crumbling gingerbread house. I’d only ever seen it from the corner, in passing, as Mom hit the gas to get through the intersection fast as she could. Now that I was getting a good look at the place, I decided she’d been right all those years. It was a wonder anyone could live there at all. The house was scary as hell, staring back at us in the manner of Hamlet’s skull, pondering our demise. Weeds grew thick as jungles inside the leaning picket fence, and a pair of arborvitaes hid the front façade like hands thrown over a face too hideous to endure. White paint scrolled from the eaves, the wood underneath dry and gray. A couple of upper story windows boasted holes big enough for birds to fly through. The whole place reeked of cat piss.
To me, the creepiest part were the tattered Halloween decorations left over from years past. Though it was June, plastic jack o’ lanterns lined the walk to the front door. They used to be orange, but had faded in the southern sun to a whitish yellow, just like skulls of beheaded children. One of those ridiculous “crashed witches” was nailed to a giant catalpa tree near the rusted mailbox. Her broom had lost its broomcorn and was just a plastic stick that made a likely perch for blue jays. On the front gate hung a weather-beaten sign that read “The Witch Is In.”
Scared the witch might be watching, I backhanded Jimmy in the shoulder. “Let’s get outta here.”
Jimmy grinned in a way that said he was contemplating mischief and swept up a chunk of gravel from the ditch.
“No, man!” I cried.
He chunked it with his Little League arm; it sailed right through a window. Clink, clink, crash, went the glass.
We hightailed it for home, scared out of our minds and exhilarated at the same time, but Jimmy soon came to regret chucking that rock. The next week, his dad fell off a roof and broke his spine. He’s been in a wheelchair ever since. Then Jimmy came down with appendicitis that nearly killed him before his mom got him to the hospital. We never openly blamed these things on the witch or told our parents about the rock he threw, but he and I knew. That was when we were nine or ten.
The autumn I met the witch in person, I was thirteen, suffering through the tortures of Junior High and wet dreams about Elizabeth McDuffy, the Freshman cheerleader with green eyes and hair the color of autumn itself. It was Saturday afternoon, and the week before Halloween. A handful of jocks led by our star running back, Trev Reynolds, were conducted the yearly cat round-up. It was an unspoken tradition. Though all of us Saint Claireans knew about it, we openly denied its existence. For the whole month of October, the town’s cat lovers locked their pets indoors to protect them from the annual purging. It was the vagrant alley cats and their unwanted litters that satisfied the grotesque human desire for destruction. Me and Jimmy, along with Adam Laughton and Tyrone Banks, weren’t invited to take part. The secret ritual belonged to the cool older guys, not green, virginal junior high boys. We could only stand back and watch Randy Tillman’s black pickup truck painted with orange flames roar past just like a dragon. Piled into the cab and in the bed, our heroes hollered and cussed and displayed their trophy: another plastic grocery sack writhing with an irate cat.
All we had was our bikes, bigger and better ones now that we were older, but we were still unable to catch up. At Jimmy’s urging, we tried. We pumped those peddles as fast as our scrawny legs could go. Our war cries sounded less inspiring, because our voices were cracking and we kept choking on the dust kicked up in the pickup’s blazing wake.
Out on county line road, Tyrone hit a pothole and flipped over his handlebars. We stopped to shovel him off the asphalt. “Ah, hell, Ty,” Adam complained. “We’ll never catch ’em now.”
Tyrone’s hands were bleeding, so was a gash on his leg where he’d caught the jagged edge of a peddle. He groaned and cussed, and Jimmy said, “Shut up. I hear something.”
We listened. Rrreeeeow! A cat in distress!
Up ahead, the road crossed Tallulah Creek. A dirt trail, no more than twin lines of red earth veered off from the main road and plunged out of sight. We tossed our bikes off the road and followed it to the creek bank. Tyrone hobbled fast as he could, dragging his bleeding left leg. Randy’s black truck crouched at the end of the trail, silent and sleeping. The jocks clustered under the bridge, struggling with a manic beast. Rrreeeeow! it shrieked. The bridge amplified the protest. I imagined a creature the size of a panther, but when hunters tugged the rope and hoisted up the noose, all I saw was an ordinary alley cat, orange and white. Her teets were heavy. She had babies somewhere. Jimmy, Adam, and Tyrone cheered with the big guys as the cat kicked and scratched at the noose around her neck. I watched, mesmerized and feeling like I might throw up. The cat was so scared it dropped feces, and the big guys jumped back, squalling and cussing as if the cat had done it as a purposeful act of revenge.
It was then that a couple of the jocks noticed us and chased us down. Trev Reynolds grabbed me and Tyrone by the scruff. Joey Osborn, the coach’s son, caught Adam by the shirttails. Jimmy stopped halfway up the trail and measured his options. Ditch his friends or help them out. He was a beefy kid by now, but nowhere near big enough to stand up to these guys. He crossed his arms. “We just wanna see!”
The rest of the brave and bold hunters saw that they’d been caught, and some began to panic. “Ah, man, they’re gonna tell Coach!”
“He’ll kick us off the team,” said Randy Tillman.
Joey Osborn said, “You dumbnut, we are the team! What’s he gonna do?”
“My dad’s the Baptist preacher! He’s gonna kill me.”
“They won’t tell,” said Trev Reynolds. He had eyes like a snake, real cool and mean. They looked straight at me, then at Tyrone and Adam. “We’ll beat the shit out of ’em if they do, and they know it.” He jabbed a finger at Jimmy, lingering a safe distance up the hill. “You! Get down here.”
Jimmy craned his neck, likely hoping there was some kind of help coming along the road. No luck. He did as he was told and crept back down under the bridge. Trev Reynolds grabbed him by the shirtfront. “We’ll let you see, but you gotta get us another cat. All of ya! Go find us another cat and bring it to the dumpster behind Al’s shop. We’ll meet you there. If you don’t show, we’ll find you and hang y’all up instead.”
Over the crowd of taller heads, I saw the cat. Her eyes were popping and her tongue stuck out of her mouth. She no longer struggled. Three others hung from rafters under the bridge.
Reynolds slapped me upside the head. “You gonna cry? Go with your girlfriends, Colton Brisby. Yeah, I know who you are, and I know where you live, too. Go get that cat.”
* * *
“Ah, shit, we’re dead. We’re dead!” groaned Adam. We walked our bikes back to town, our enthusiasm as withered as nuts dunked in ice-cold water. “We shouldn’ta listened to you, Jimmy.”
“Did they mean one cat for all of us, or a cat apiece?” asked Tyrone.
“Ah, shut up, man, we’re friggin’ dead.”
“Quit whining!” Jimmy bellowed, and Adam shut his trap. “We’ll stop by my place and pick up an arsenal and catch as many cats as we can. Then they’ll let us be.”
Our arsenal consisted of the pair of slingshots that Jimmy and I used to shoot frogs at his grandpa’s pond. He held mine out, but I shook my head. I didn’t want to shoot a cat, not after watching that alley cat strangle to death. But what’s a guy to do when his friends look at him like, “What the hell’s gotten into you?”
“Hey, I want it!” Tyrone grabbed the slingshot and practiced aiming with it. The rest of us loaded our pockets with bright steel shot and took off before Jimmy’s mom could ask what trouble we were up to.
The first cat we found was slinking around behind the police station. “We can’t shoot that one,” I said. “What if Wade comes out and sees us. He might arrest us for cruelty to animals or concealed firearms.” Saint Claire was so small we only had three town cops; Wade was the police chief.
Jimmy shook his slingshot in my face. “Not very concealed, is it, dimwit.”
“Well, for brandishing weapons inside city limits, then.”
Jimmy rolled his eyes. “How ’bout jaywalking? We been jaywalking all over town, stupid. Everybody does it, and nobody gives a shit.”
“Jaywalking don’t hurt nothing, dumbass!”
Adam, at least, saw my reasoning. He broke up the argument before fists started flying. “C’mon, let’s find a different cat.”
We searched and searched, and the longer we searched the more Adam panicked. By late afternoon he started looking downright sick, trailing along behind, holding his stomach. We’d raked the town and finally found ourselves on the northern edge. Past Seventh Street, there wasn’t much but cow pasture.
Tyrone stopped cold and cried, “There’s one!” A giant beast slunk through the tall grass in the roadside ditch, on the prowl. He turned those malevolent yellow eyes on us and darted off. “It’s a black one, too! Get it!” Tyrone wasted three good shots trying to hit him on the run. Jimmy took slow, careful aim, leading the cat by a few inches. Then the stupid animal paused in the intersection to glance back at us. Jimmy let fly. The steel ball lit a bright streak across the breeze. The cat yowled, spun, looking for the source of its pain, then took off like a bullet. We loosed our war cries and gave chase, leaping fences and flowerbeds and scrambling over cars parked in driveways. For a while we thought we lost it, but it darted out from under Mrs. Stein’s garden shed, a dozen yards away. We were nearly on top of that poor cat, when it turned onto a dilapidated street. I stopped so fast that I nearly ran out of my Converse shoes. Mistletoe Lane. And that black cat was limp-running straight for the witch’s house. The guys seemed to realize all at once, and stopped in the middle of the street. Panting and sweating, we stared at a shadow moving across a window. The front gate was propped open and the ragged ol’ sign said, “The Witch Is In.” The cat hobbled through, leaving a bloody paw print every time it stepped with its back foot.
A strangled, gurgling scream came from the house. The screen door banged shut and a woman ran up the sidewalk between the faded jack o’ lanterns. Except for the green skin, she might’ve been the twin of the Wicked Witch of the West. Long chin, hook nose, bony fingers, everything. Her black hair was a wild mess of frizz, and her eyes bugged out of her face, full of madness. She scooped up the wounded cat and cradled it like a baby, cooing and whimpering in a strange, ungodly language.
The four of us backed away slowly, but she looked right at us, and her free hand flicked and snapped out some symbols. Jimmy wailed, “No! Nooooo!” He turned and fled. The rest of us weren’t two paces behind.
We didn’t stop running till we reached the school yard. The swings and teeter-totters for the elementary kids looked like the most benevolent place in the universe. Jimmy collapsed on the merry-go-round and sobbed. “I’m doomed. I didn’t know it was her cat. Ah, God, I didn’t know.”
“You’re not doomed, Jimmy,” Tyrone said, sitting beside him, fingers clasping the metal bar between them.
Jimmy ignored him. “Colton, you know. You saw what happened, and now my dad’s in a wheelchair, and it’s my fault. Ah, God!”
I couldn’t argue. I just stared at the deep wallow that hundreds of feet had dug around the merry-go-round and listened to him sob.
“My mom’ll be next. She’ll die of the plague or something and I’ll have to go live with grandpa. I hate cows!”
“What’s he talking about, Colt?” asked Adam, looking sicker than ever. I told him and Ty about the rock Jimmy threw all those years ago.
“I never had my tonsils out,” cried Jimmy. “I don’t want to go back to the hospital. The food’s terrible and those nurses treat you like meat, then they hand you a balloon like everything’s gonna be okay, but it’s not. I’m doomed.”
I sighed. “Well, this time we’re all doomed together. Maybe the curse will just stick to us and not bother our families. We can die heroes.”
Adam finally caught on. “Cursed? Ah, shit, man, we’re dead.”
“You think she’ll eat us?” asked Tyrone. “My Auntie Tisha said the witch had a sister who used to live with her. But they fought and the witch poisoned her and fed her to them cats.”
“Nobody’s gonna eat us, Ty,” I said, though my tone lacked conviction. “Y’all come sleep over at my house tonight. We’ll go to church in the morning and pray that the curse don’t take hold.”
“What about Trev Reynolds and the others?” Tyrone asked. “We gotta bring ’em a cat, or they’ll kill us before any curse will.”
I had to puzzle that one out. “We’ll sleep with the slingshots.”
“We only got two!” cried Adam.
“I got a BB gun,” said Ty.
“Okay, go get it, and be at my place by dark.” I’d rarely felt so exhilarated. All we needed was an Ennio Morricone soundtrack playing in the background. On top of dodging bullies and waiting for the shootout, we’d been cursed to boot. Life couldn’t get more adventurous in Saint Claire.
* * * * *
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copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn
None of the text of “The Witch of Mistletoe Lane” may be reproduced or copied without the written permission of the author.
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