Old Witch

Ha! Here they come into my yard, sneaking through the hedge to retrieve their ball. Look at them tiptoeing and shushing each other, fear blanching their choirboy faces, their movements about as subtle as a herd of elephants. Joey, the towhead, stumbles out into my flower bed, and Peter and Christopher snatch him back with hisses of alarm. Consternation on his freckled face, Peter stoops and tries in vain to make the broken tulip stems stand erect. I don’t really care about the flowers.

Reassembled, Peter now in the lead, they resume their stealthy trek. How close shall I let them get? The soccer ball lies near the base of the oak tree, halfway across my lawn. Ah, they’ve decided to brave the open stretch to the tree all together, counting on safety in numbers. Little fools! Look at them, sighing with relief as they lift the ball, mopping the sweat from their brows, stopping to congratulate each other on the success of their escapade. Now, watch:

“Get out! Get out! Get out of my yard! Get out, you filthy brats!”

“Yipes! It’s her!”

“Run! Run!”

“Hurry! She’s right behind us!”

Crashing into one another, shrieking, they blunder back through the hedge to Peter’s yard. There is no mistaking the panic in their hearts. Only when they have reached the sandbox, where Peter’s younger sister Emily starts at their noisy return, does their terror subside and bravado reemerge.

“Old witch! Old witch!”

I stalk back to my house. But the episode is not over. Watch:

Out the side door comes Donna Roberts, mother of Peter and Emily. She beckons the boys to her and places her hands on her hips with a sigh. I know exactly what she is saying. I know exactly their replies.

“Peter, were you and your friends in Ms. Davis’s yard again?”

“But, Mom, we had to get our ball.”

“I thought you were going to try not to kick the ball into her yard in the first place.”

“It was Joey who did it.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Roberts.”

“It’s all right, Joey. You boys get bigger and stronger every year. No wonder the ball keeps going over the hedge. Listen, if you just play quietly for half an hour more I’ll be done with my typing and I can take you all to the park. And I want you to promise me that if the ball goes into Ms. Davis’s yard again, you’ll go up to her front door, ring the bell, and ask her politely if you may go into the yard to get it.”

“Okay. But, Mom…? Why does Ms. Davis have to be so mean? We wouldn’t hurt anything.”

“I know, sweetheart. But Ms. Davis never married and she never had children, so I guess she just isn’t comfortable around them.”

“She’s an old witch.”

“Christopher! Please, that’s not nice. Now keep yourselves occupied for half an hour and I’ll be finished, I promise. And Peter, be sure to keep an eye on your sister.”

“Yes, Mom.”

Look at her, blowing them kisses as she goes back into her house. Be nice to poor old Ms. Davis. I’ll have her know I’m not that old, fifty-five, and my skin is as fresh and clear as a woman of thirty. Moreover, I happen to like the shock of white hair that runs atop my natural black. You can see people’s eyes rivet on it the minute I walk into the boardroom. But what would Donna Roberts know about that, with her little word processing service that she operates from a computer in her basement. She even had the nerve to put out a press release to the local paper about her new “business.” I’ll tell her what constitutes a career. I have a title, vice president for investments, I have a sixteenth-floor office, I have a secretary and thirty-two people who don’t dare breathe without my consent.

And don’t think for one minute, Ms. Roberts, that I don’t have a man.

*****

“Edwina.”

“Rolf.”

We don’t need to say more. The look is there in his eye. Everything about Rolf is lean, from his rakish smile to the cut of his clothes. He wears a black eye patch, the legacy of a sailing accident in his twenties. You may recognize his name. Rolf races on the international circuit in his maxi yacht Valkyrie, and he and his crew have put her through her paces for me in the Stockholm archipelago. I met Rolf when the bank sent me to Sweden to negotiate the loan for his shipping business, and though he is by no means the only man in my life, among the current crop he is one of the longest running. Tonight, in fact, is our five-year anniversary.

“For you.” From behind his back Rolf produces a bottle of champagne in one hand, a flat, square package in the other.

I unwrap the gift carefully. “Rolf! Where on earth did you find it?”

“A tiny bookstore in Paris. You like it?”

“Like it? Rolf, you bring me a first edition of Candide and you ask if I like it? It’s exquisite. What a treasure to add to my library.”

Rolf grins with pleasure, and I’m tempted to throw my arms around him, but I refrain. Even in private, Rolf does not care for passionate displays of affection outside the bedroom. He is a man of the sky and the wind, of lean muscle and hard lines, and later, when we make love, it will be the same way. That makes his gift extra special, for he has gone out of his way to add a unique volume to my rare book library, a love he understands but does not share.

“Let me open the champagne,” I say. “How was your flight?”

“Fine. No delays. I am prepared to meet with the New York consortium tomorrow.”

“Do you think they’ll accept your offer?”

“They have no choice. Thanks to your brilliant brokering of the buyout, my company is about to become the largest industrial shipping line in Europe.” Rolf raises his glass. “To you.”

“To us.”

Rolf is ten years younger than me, and like most Scandinavians he is totally liberated about such matters. Nor does he mind that I see other men. I don’t discuss Geoffrey with him, of course, or Victor or Luis. But none of them expects an exciting woman like me to sit home alone between our meetings. All my men are extremely important in their respective spheres, be it diplomacy, espionage or global humanitarian projects, and frequent separations are the price we must pay for their commitment. They, however, never dally with another woman. Why would they want to, when I am everything they desire?

“You’re sure you would not rather we went out tonight?” Rolf asks. “You are dressed so beautifully.”

Teasingly, I spread the skirt of my peacock-blue gown. “You like anything blue, because it reminds you of the sea.”

Rolf laughs. “That is true, but I would not mind showing you off.”

“Tell me…Of all the restaurants we have been to, which is your favorite, Rolf?”

“H’mm. The Canal House in Amsterdam?”

“Lindy’s in San Francisco?” I counter.

“The White Lion Pub in Cowes.”

“No, no, I have it. Los Amigos in Caracas.” Wait a minute. Wasn’t it Luis who took me to Caracas? No, it was Victor, when he was working undercover to bust the South American drug cartel. I back up—strike that last line.

“The White Lion,” I agree, “that marvelous old pub where we celebrated Valkyrie’s victory in Cowes Race Week.”

A wonderful aroma emanates from the kitchen, and Rolf nods toward it. “What have you made tonight?”

“Swordfish, parsleyed potatoes, green beans almondine. And your favorite dessert, sandbakelse. Shall we have candlelight?”

“By all means…Edwina.”

“Rolf.”

*****

Donna Roberts stands in her driveway, chatting with Carol Cathcart, my neighbor on the other side. A game of tag swirls around them as Peter, Christopher and Joey dodge behind the women, shouting.

“All right, knock it off,” Carol yells. Christopher and Joey are her sons. “Go play on the swing.” She shakes her head. “Boys.”

“They got into Ms. Davis’s yard last Saturday, and she chased them out,” says Donna, her sigh carrying easily to my open window.

“Huh,” snorts Carol. She is tough, not a namby-pamby like Donna. “One of these days she’s going to go too far, and I’m going to call the cops. Did you hear her screaming at Bill the other night? He came out to trim that forsythia that drips over into our yard, and she had a fit. Threatened to sue him for trespassing and destruction of private property. If she’s so crazy about her yard why doesn’t she ever come outside and enjoy it?”

“Well, of course she’s at work all week,” says Donna, “but you’re right. I never see her outside on weekends either.”

Carol shrugs. “Ah, well, what can you expect from a sex-starved bank clerk?”

“Carol!”

“Okay, that was uncharitable. But look, Donna, the woman’s cut herself off from all human contact, passionate or platonic, and you know that’s not healthy. She barks at everyone on the street. Maybe she thinks she’s better than we are.”

The Robertses’ back door opens, and the little girl, Emily, appears. She wears a yellow party dress, white anklets and pink shoes. Pink ribbons adorn her topknot.

“Don’t you look pretty,” Carol coos.

The child curtsies, and both women laugh.

“She’s going to a birthday party, one of her friends from playgroup,” says Donna. “Now you sit in the lawn chair and wait for me while I wrap the present, Emily, and then we’ll go. Don’t get your dress dirty.”

“I should get back to my laundry,” says Carol. “Send the boys over to my house when you leave, and I’ll watch them.”

Donna goes inside, and Carol turns down the driveway and heads up the street. Darting to my front window to watch her pass, I see her disrespectful glance toward my door, catch her lips mutter the words, “Old witch.” But what does she know of Voltaire or Balzac? Could she discuss international monetary policy with Geoffrey or yacht racing tactics with a man like Rolf? Would she have dared pose undercover with Victor or fly with Luis’s food lift to the earthquake victims in Mexico? No, she stays home and does laundry for her bumbling husband, Bill. You should have seen his face when I upbraided him, ha! Meanwhile Donna Roberts waves her underpaid husband off on another sales trip and pretends to run a “business.” Of course I’m better than them all.

As for sex-starved, wouldn’t they like to know.

A loud thump against the side of the house calls my attention. Well, well, it’s a baseball this time, lying not four feet from the side wall. Do you suppose they’ll remember their mother’s admonishment to come to my front door and ask politely?

I hurry up the stairs to the landing for a better view into the Robertses’ yard. There are the boys, huddled in guilty conference. I see them approach Emily, pat her on the shoulder, stoop to coach into her ear. Why, the little cowards! They’re sending the child. She looks puzzled, shakes her head. They fluff out her dress, straighten her ribbons. She beams under their attention. Don’t believe their flattery! But she does—isn’t that just like a woman? She skips up the street to my porch, and I fly down to the door to meet her. This should be interesting.

“Miff Dabis?”

I look down on her, all sunshine and curls. Her next line should be: “Can we pwease haf our ball?” But she is staring at me with a perplexed expression, and I realize that once again it is the dramatic shock of white hair through the black that has caught the eye of even one so small. I open the screen door to give her a better look and glimpse the boys lurking behind a bush not far away.

“You wa skunk!”

“What?” A skunk? Did the child just call me a skunk? She points—the white shock, the black hair. “You nasty imp! How dare you! Someone needs to teach you manners.”

I grab Emily by her bodice, jerk her inside. Her shriek splits the silent house. As I slam and lock the door, I hear the boys scream.

“Mom! Ms. Roberts! The witch got Emily!”

In my hands, the small creature kicks and cries.

“Stop it! Stop it, you little monster. Ouch!”

Her bite pierces my forearm like a pincer. I smack her across the face, and she falls shrieking to the floor, kicking in all directions.

“Stop it! Stop it!” I kick her back. Quickly I pull a silk scarf from the coat closet, and pinning her, I gag her mouth. Then I snatch a long wool muffler, drag the tot to the dining room and bind her in a chair. Once secured, she gives up the fight and sits whimpering as much as the gag allows. Panting, I notice a welt rising on her cheek where I slapped her.

“Stop it!” I hiss. “Stop it!” The child’s blubbering distracts my ability to think. I never intended to bring her inside. Once she calms down, I’ll send her home.

“Emily! Emily!” Fists pound on my door. “Ms. Davis, open the door! Emily!”

I ignore Donna’s cries. What does she expect, asking an eight-year-old to look after his three-year-old sister? If she cares so much about her children, why isn’t she out there watching them? Her and her loving husband and her precious little darlings. No one has the right to think their life is perfect.

I turn on Emily, her face contorted in a bawl though no sound comes from her throat. “Oh, stop it,” I say. “Your nose isn’t covered. I let you breathe.”

The sound of shattering glass comes from the living room, and I hurry there to find a large rock lying among the shards on the floor.

“You let my sister go!” Peter screams from the lawn. His face is livid, and the tendons in his neck stand taut with the force of his rage. “Let her go, witch! Emily! Emily!”

I thrust my face toward the fractured pane and sneer at him. He searches wildly around and seizes another rock. I duck away, Donna nowhere in view.

“All right. All right.” I pace the floor before Emily. Her sobs are subsiding. A few minutes more and I should be able to release her. The whole episode is getting out of hand.

Donna’s voice returns to my door. “Please, Ms. Davis. Don’t hurt Emily. I don’t know what the children did to upset you, but they meant you no harm. Please, don’t hurt my daughter! Just open the door.”

More footsteps run up my porch, and I Carol Cathcart’s voice. “They’re coming. They’ll be here any minute.”

“Oh, please,” Donna murmurs. “Hurry, hurry. Emily!”

From the end of the street a siren wail rises. What? What? They’ve called the police? Oh, this is too much. Well at least when the officers arrive we’ll have this matter settled. The child’s all right, for heaven sake.

“Police! Open up!” A heavy fist bangs on my door.

I open it and step back calmly to let them inside. A burly officer and his younger partner barge into the living room, Donna and Carol immediately behind.

“Emily!”

Donna flies to hug the bound child, then both women work furiously at the knotted scarfs. Emily falls into her mother’s arms, sobbing.

“Oh, darling, darling, are you all right? Did she hurt you?”

“She hit me, Mommy. She kicked me wif her feet.”

The four adults turn on me with stunned faces. The older cop stares at the empty chair and fallen scarfs while the younger one’s eyes dart around the room as he writes quickly in a notepad. Donna and Carol guard Emily between them as if at any moment I might attack.

The burly cop removes his handcuffs from his belt. “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney…”

What?

“No!” I cry. “No! You can’t do this. I never hurt the child.” I shrink toward the corner. “Don’t let them do this!” I appeal to Donna.

Donna hesitates, her face troubled. Emily clings to her hand, her eyes wide more with curiosity now than fright.

“Sir?” the younger cop interrupts, standing in the doorway to my library. “I think you better see this.”

“No!” I dash ahead of them into the room, flinging out my arms to protect my books, my men.

“Oh, my god.” Carol shakes her head. “Male centerfolds? Rare books?” She picks up the Candide lying on my desk.

“Don’t touch that! Geoffrey gave it to me!” No, wait, it was Rolf.

The younger cop frowns at the pinups. “She’s cut and pasted them. No wonder they look so distorted. There’s an older guy’s head glued on this one, a black eye patch here…”

The senior cop advances toward me. “Okay, ma’am. You come with me. You have the right to remain silent—”

“Wait!” Donna waves her hands. “Do you have to arrest her? Maybe what she needs is psychiatric care.”

“Ma’am,” says the cop. “I appreciate your concern. But this is kidnapping, assault and battery. The best thing you can do is press charges and let the court decide. If psychiatric care is what she needs, she’ll get it. Believe me,” he nods toward the pinups, and Donna winces, “you’ll be doing your kid and every other kid on this block a favor.”

The handcuffs poised above my wrists, I cringe back with a cry. Donna looks at me, pity in her eyes. Pity?

“Bitch!” I lunge at her, clawing. The big cop snares me, his arms crushing tight. “Bitch!” Ha! Did you see her jump? Did you see Carol start? Did you? But now the cop is dragging me out the door. “You can’t do this!” I screech. “I know men in top places in the diplomatic corps. International agents. Rolf! Victor! Luis!”

The last image I see is Donna Roberts weeping on my front porch, Emily in her arms. I’d like to know: What does she have to cry about?

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1993)

The TearSheet, Fall 1993

 

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