Old Mother Witch
by Alice Shechter
1959 – Brooklyn
In that Brooklyn summer of 1959, I was just eleven, and every day was long with yellow pollen heavy in the still air and the rustle of leaves, a constant drowsy sigh above our heads. One afternoon the stillness was shattered when the Old Witch of East 26th Street plunged down the stairs of her stoop and got taken away in an ambulance. Margaret-Anne Savino and I realized someone would have to feed the dozens of cats that lived in the witch’s house.
It happened during a version of a street game we played called Old Mother Witch. One child was It—the witch—and the rest lined up chanting, “Old Mother Witch, are you ready at one o’clock?” then two o’clock, then three. Whoever was It could surprise the other players by giving chase at any time, trying to tag the next witch. That summer, the Thompson twins, Freddie and Frankie, and Jerry Sivio—big boys who were not so much vicious as thoughtless and bored—dreamed up a nasty variation on the game. On listless afternoons, they would suddenly tear down the street on their bikes crying, “Witch Hunt!”—a signal for any kids on the block to gather in front of a shabby house where there lived an old woman with skinny arms and unkempt hair.
The story was that she had been a teacher at our school, PS 206, many years before. There were grownups on the block who remembered being in her class. She was strict, they said, and rail-thin even then. Some said she had moved in an overpowering cloud of perfume; once I heard my mother Ruth tell her friend Little Norma that the perfume masked the smell of booze oozing from her pores. I didn’t know what that meant, and now that I do, I can’t say if it was true. She was Irish—that much I did know, for Frankie and Freddie and Jerry called her a mick, and that meant Irish the way wop meant Italian and kike meant Jew. My mother thought the Irish were all anti-Semitic—which might have accounted for her branding the old lady an alcoholic. About anti-Semites she could be harsh, my mother, Ruth.
Once the big boys had gathered up the younger kids with their frenzied Witch Hunt call, they would lead them in an “Old Mother Witch, are you ready?” chant right outside the old witch’s house. Margaret-Anne and I did not play. We knew it was wrong, and neither of us had the stomach for it. We never baited the deaf boy Alan on our street by mimicking his distorted speech. We didn’t squat with other kids beside lines of ants, beaming sunlight through the cheap magnifiers we got as prizes on the rides that came around our block on trucks—the Whip and the Half Moon—and watching the ants scurry or burn in the hot glare. But the fascination with cruelty was powerful, and once the game got established as a fair summertime activity, we often watched.
The game might have died on its own, for at first, there was no response from the witch’s silent, dilapidated house. But after a few episodes, the woman sealed her fate by trying to chase the children. One day she banged hard on the window with the flat of her hand, and the line outside broke into a scatter of shrieking boys and girls. That only worked once or twice. By the third time, the line held, and a few of the braver voices cried, “Hey, lady, we’re not scared of you,” and, “Who’s afraid of a skinny old witch?” A few days later, they ran away screaming and laughing as she opened her front door a crack and shook a veiny fist at them. This drew the attention of a neighbor who intervened with a sharp, “Get out of there, you kids. Why don’t you leave that poor lady alone?” But every few days, the boys on their bikes would rally the 26th Street children for another round.
One afternoon when the chanting began, the old woman’s door opened slowly, creaking as the dark crack widened, very much like the door on a haunted house. Her head appeared, then she stepped unsteadily onto her porch, brandishing a bamboo leaf rake with many missing tines. Her wild gray hair was loose; her arms stuck like chicken bones from the armholes of her housedress. She shuffled to the edge of the stoop, rattling the rake like a shaman. One of her floppy slippers caught the cracked surface of the top step. We watched stunned as she tumbled headfirst down the stairs, and the rake came flying at the children as if she had hurled it. This time their collective scream was real; the whole small mob bolted helter-skelter down the sidewalk, hardly knowing which way to run. Some were terrified at the sight of an old woman falling, some at the catapulting rake. Some returned to stare from a distance at the woman’s crumpled form with solemn, curious faces and later swore she had flown down the steps, her worn housedress rising about her like wings.
I knew she was not a witch. Still, I was afraid to go to her as she lay moaning on the ground. It was Margaret-Anne who first knelt beside her, then stood a fierce and glaring watch until grownups from down the block came running.
“What happened? Stupid kids! What happened here?” they shouted.
The adults who did not know Margaret-Anne grew impatient when she did not answer and elbowed her out of the way. Others knew that though eleven like me, Margaret-Anne had not spoken since the age of seven when she had cowered behind her mother as three cops led her brother Anthony, accused of stealing a car, down their stoop. Anthony was a burly teen, his oily hair slicked straight back from his low, pimply forehead. He looked like a brute, but everyone knew he was just slow-witted. His father, slight and dark with ropey arms and a head full of white hair, stood on the top step in a yellowing undershirt cursing in Italian and shaking a fist at the police. Anthony’s mother, in a shapeless black skirt and cardigan, her hair in a neat bun and stockings rolled below each thick knee, cried, “Mio figlio” over and over, and prayed and wrung her wrinkled hands. When Anthony reached toward his back pocket—he was checking for his comb— the cops shot him dead.
Margaret-Anne never said another word.
No one could make her speak, not that anyone besides me really tried. To her mother—with four other children, including the oldest daughter, Lucille, who lived upstairs and had three children of her own—it was no catastrophe to have one quiet child. To the nuns who taught her at St. Edmund’s parochial school, Margaret-Anne’s silence was a blessing, and she earned perfect A’s in Conduct on all her report cards.
I had my own problems making myself heard. I had plenty to say, but it always got smothered in a blanket of awkward self-consciousness. Adults seemed drawn to a kind of precocious chattiness that escaped me, and I was not petite or cute or any of the things that defined the ideal little girl. But Margaret-Anne had been my friend since before her voice went dark, and her silence did not change that. I was sure that if she could speak, she would, at least to me. When we huddled side by side at the top of my stoop, I always began, “You know what?” counting on her to listen faithfully through my stream of heartaches and disappointments—my recounting of things I had seen or heard or wondered about.
“I hate when they call me Chubs,” I whispered and confessed my longing to be as pretty as my cousin Gloria who lived across the street. Margaret–Anne lifted my chin and gazed at my face, offering an approving thumbs up. “Do you know Jo in Little Women?” I said. “I’m going to be just like her. A writer, a brave writer!” To this, Margaret-Anne’s look was quizzical—she was not much of a reader, I knew that. I even carefully explained why, after seeing The Buccaneer at the movies, it was Yul Brynner’s swashbuckling swaggering boots I envied and not Claire Bloom’s rustling skirts; he seemed to have the much more interesting adventures. Margaret-Anne nodded emphatically.
She never took her eyes from me, took in every shrug and sigh, each declaration of life’s injustices and outrages, and occasionally, its joys. As she paid solemn attention, I felt she understood and agreed—or at least, did not judge me. And I understood her, too, had learned to read her long, somber face, sense yes or no in the slightest flick of her head. Did I wish she could speak? I longed for it at every chance: on twilight’s first star, at the flight of ladybugs known to grant wishes; even at the blowing out of my own birthday candles. At any event that promised the fulfillment of a heart’s desire, I wished for Margaret-Anne to talk to me, for she was my truest friend. Sometimes I imagined the sound of her voice, and before falling asleep at night, could make up whole conversations in which, among other secrets, she told me how kind her brother Anthony had been sharing his candy and his pocket change.
All to no avail. Her silence persisted, and eventually, I just settled for accepting without question that her steely eyes would never fail to watch out for me. On the street, I was indeed nicknamed “Chubs” for my jiggly thighs and full moon face, teased for my freckles and too-big teeth and clumsy efforts on the punchball court. But Margaret-Ann had grown up among brawling brothers and cousins; regarding bullies, she knew no fear. Not many children on the block had the stomach for tangling with the tall, wiry, silent girl who had appointed herself my guardian.
When the ambulance left with the old woman and the sirens died away, Margaret-Anne and I looked back at the house with its peeling paint and cracking window shades, cardboard patches taped where glass should have been, and saw the cats. Some had gathered on the porch when the witch’s door stood ajar after her fall, and one or two were framed in each dirty window, basking in the sunlight that filtered weakly through. I followed Margaret-Anne’s gaze as she first surveyed the scene, then lifted an imaginary utensil to her lips, and raised her eyebrows: who would feed the cats?
We couldn’t do anything then, there were too many people watching. Along with half the neighborhood, Margaret-Anne’s older sister Lucille, and my mom, too, had come out to review the shocking incident on our usually quiet street. Had we gone anywhere near the house, a chorus of grownups would have reached for us and hissed, “Get away from there, go on!” So we turned to our everyday habits—waiting after supper for the ice cream truck and playing Hit the Penny for a few hours longer until we could no longer see the penny or the ball.
Then it rained for two days. In the rain, Margaret-Anne and I had no place to meet. Her house might have been in another country, so foreign did it seem, with old parents and vinegar smells and the dark pall of sorrow that death had left. And Margaret-Anne had never been to my house, either. Though bright and busy with the doorbell ringing and a stream of neighbors and relatives in and out, there was no place in it for us to be. I shared a room with my sister, and the living room, though hardly elegant, was not for every day and never for children. The kitchen belonged to my mother—her stage and her court.
My life happened on the stoop, the sidewalk, the cement expanse of alleyway behind our house. Rainy days meant reading inside, drawing, squatting by the windows to watch the street and follow the streams of coalescing raindrops channeling down the panes until the sun burst through again. But this time, the rain was so hard and constant that on the second day, my mom broke down and took me and my brother and sister to the Kingsway Theater to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—though my brother and I had seen it twice before—and twenty cartoons.
When the sun finally came out on the third day, Margaret-Anne and I met in front of the old house. Nervous though I was about getting caught, I was shorter, and it was easier for me to crouch behind the hedgerows and clumps of weeds as we circled the perimeter of the decrepit building, looking for a way in. I only half-heartedly tried the ground-floor garden windows. They were stuck, and at each one, I shrugged, turned my palms up in a gesture of defeat, and started to walk away. But Margaret-Anne adopted her most insistent stance: stone-faced, head half-turned from me, arms crossed tightly across her chest. She could be so stubborn, and I knew there was no point defying her. I kept on, going window to window, brushing away cobwebs, avoiding small shards of glass that had splintered out of their frames. None would open.
Then with a pantomime of turning a doorknob, Margaret-Anne organized our next move: trying all the doors. Front and side were locked—someone must have thought to secure the place after the accident. But with Margaret-Anne hovering beside me, I finally had a moment of triumph at the back door. It was warped, and as I leaned into it with all my weight behind one shoulder, it gave way.
It crashed open into a mass of stinking, yowling animals. I shrieked, retching from the smell, which was more like a putrid substance than an odor. Margaret-Anne did not shriek; silent as always, she planted her long skinny body in front of me, kicking at the writhing knot of hungry cats.
“We have to get them away from us,” I cried as we stood in the sickening current of bodies and matted fur that swirled at our ankles and frantically pawed our legs. Margaret-Anne surveyed the room, her search halting at a sack of dry cat food propped on a high shelf. She stared at me and slid her eyes almost imperceptibly toward the sack, once around the room, then to the door, communicating a plan as clearly as if she had spoken it into my ear: grab the bag, toss the food, run.
I fought my way toward the twenty-pound bag of Purina, following in the wake of Margaret-Anne’s powerful strides that were sending cats flying in every direction. Short and a little fat, I was no natural warrior—not like my steadfast friend. But I read a lot—everything I could get my hands on—and in my imagination, I sometimes rose to acting heroically—a resourceful prairie girl, a brave princess, a clever orphan living by wits alone. As I began to weave myself into a daydream in which I was Margaret-Anne’s courageous lieutenant, someone screamed, “Look out!” as a big orange tomcat launched himself at me from the top of the nearby fridge. Without thinking, I swung my arm hard, batting at the heavy cat so that he hit the wall with a thud, momentarily stunned. I spun around to find Margaret-Anne, her hands clapped over her mouth as if to push back into her throat the warning cry that I was only just realizing had come from her. We stared at one another in shock—her words hanging in the air between us like the afterimage of a flare shot up against a dark sky.
The big tom was on its feet again, back arched, fur on end as if electrified, crouching and hissing at me like a snake. The other cats must have been starving; I could barely turn, for they had wound themselves around my shins in an ever tighter and rising river of fur. And I did not want to turn—did not want to look at Margaret-Anne. I had never been so scared, scared of the cats and their frantic hunger. But worse was a creeping dread that I knew I would have to face, and soon: what would I say to Margaret-Anne? What would she say to me? She had withheld the secret of her speech, and my mind was a tangle of shock and bewildered resentment. While into the well of her silence I had dropped every pebble of hurt, every wondering stone of a question, I had never heard the echoing splash of a true response.
At the crackle of paper behind me, I wrenched my head around. Margaret-Anne was trying to hoist the bag of Purina down from the shelf, but the cats, sensing a meal, were leaping onto the counter below it, scratching at her shoulders and forearms, clawing at the bag, and in their desperation, at her. An unfamiliar anger rose in my chest, dredging with it a cruelty I had not known was in me. I thought of myself as a good girl, a kind child. But now, I watched with unflinching curiosity as panic overtook my friend’s always stoic features. I wanted to hear Margaret-Anne call my name, cry “Help,” wanted it more than anything. Our eyes locked only for a second but long enough, I knew, for her to read my thought. Her face composed itself, her chin flickering side to side so slightly that only I would ever have seen it. No.
Then I was moving through the mob of cats, kicking, trampling tails and paws, not caring. “Grab one end!” I shouted, and together we flung the bursting bag of cat food out through the open back door. Every cat, even the furious orange tom, streaked past us toward the cascade of scattering pellets.
By the end of the week, the cats were used to us. Once a day, we parked our bikes or clattered to the back door on our metal roller skates to refill their water bowls and put out food we bought with birthday money, and later, with change pilfered from our mothers’ purses.
One afternoon as we stood inside spooning cat food, my heart jumped at a footstep behind us. We spun. There stood the old witch, leaning heavily on a cane. I slowly raised my hands as if she had ordered me to drop my weapon.
“We, we were just feeding your cats,” I stammered. “We thought you were still … away.”
“Maybe thought I was dead, is that it?” Her voice slid between raspy and shrill.
“No, no!” I squeaked, shaking my head. Margaret-Anne took a step closer to me.
The woman eyed us suspiciously. “How did you get in here, anyway?”
As I haltingly told her everything, she interrupted with questions.
“Wasn’t the door locked?”
“We, uh, broke in,” I stammered, “but only to feed …”
“What’s your names?” she interrupted, and I said we were Miri and Margaret-Anne.
She turned her watery gaze to the small stack of canned food, gesturing toward it with a hand still bruised and purple from her fall.
“Where did you get the money for that, girlie?” I was a poor liar, and a shadow of disapproval crossed her face when I finally admitted to stealing from my mother.
She turned to Margaret-Anne. “And what about you?”
She waited. I waited. Margaret-Anne crossed her arms, staring straight ahead.
“She, um, she doesn’t talk,” I finally said.
The old woman peered at Margaret-Anne.
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing’s wrong with her,” I mumbled, awkwardness overtaking me. “She just doesn’t like to talk.”
The woman pointed her cane toward the two of us.
“Well, fine, let her stand there like a dummy. No surprise,” she muttered, looking at Margaret-Anne, “You’re the one from that house full of gangsters past the alley, aren’t you?”
“And you,” she said, turning to me, eyes narrowed. “Your mother is that redhead, isn’t she, the Jew with the big mouth. No wonder you’re doing all the talking.”
For the second time in that room that reeked of cats, I felt the unaccustomed flare of a fury I hardly knew I had. Margaret-Anne had moved to put herself protectively between me and the woman, but I stepped in front of her.
“You know what, lady? You’re so mean, a horrible person.” My voice rose, steady. “Your cats could have all died, but we took care of them. Instead of calling us names, you should thank us.”
The old woman peered at us, looking down her long nose with her pointy chin raised as if sniffing the wind, and for what would be the last time, I thought how much she did look like the witch of our nightmares. Rummaging in a battered black purse that dangled from her arm, she fished out some bills and waved them at us with a trembling hand.
“Oh, here,” she spat, “Get this back to your mothers.”
We backed away from her and stumbled clumsily through the door. Then we grabbed our bicycles and pedaled away as fast as we could. The wind rushed through my choppy hair, while Margaret-Anne’s long horsetail waved nearly straight out behind her. Her mouth was open in a silent chortle as we sped three times around the block, finally collapsing on her stoop. Margaret-Anne stared at me for a long time, her gaze steady.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me you could talk?” I said. “It was me. You could have talked to me.” She just shook her head in that almost imperceptible way. Then she put two fingers to her lips and touched them to my forehead—like a blessing or a farewell.
A year later, I started junior high and Margaret-Anne went to Good Shepherd Academy. From my stoop, I sometimes saw her with a little gang of tall girls, their eyes dark with liner and mascara, pleated school uniform skirts rolled at the waist to fall high above their knees. The boys on their bikes rode alongside them, catcalling and whistling, and Margaret-Anne laughed loudly and called back insults in a voice I did not know.
But in those last days of the summer when the old witch fell, we still had each other. We never did give the money back to our mothers; instead, we bought popsicles after dinner. Each night it was a little darker when the ice cream truck finally came, the dusk shaving a sliver of light from the end of each shortening day. The chilly breeze set the tree leaves to rustling, and in the sound, there was a faint dry rattle of fall.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alice Shechter was born, raised, and still lives in Brooklyn, the backdrop for many short stories and most memories. She wrote a lot as a child, spent a long time having kids and doing work she hoped would make the world a better place, and now in retirement is writing again. She is shocked at how far down she has to scroll on internet forms before she hits her birth year.
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