An Ecstasy of Hex Biddies, and Other Tales of Witchering

Our Witch’s Needs

We’re worried about our witch. Not her demeanor—sullen, ill-humored, bearish—for it has ever been such. No, it’s the loneliness engulfing her daily. What she can’t help but perceive as her growing obsolescence. And if this were to ripen into contempt for us, her benefactors? Her growing malaise manifesting in bitter shenanigans aimed at our youngest?

When she moved in at the request of the aldermen—thirty years now?—nervous nellies challenged the decision. Fools we are, inviting her kind into our fold. Like harboring a feral animal and calling it “pet” they snarled. Is it not true they covet the skins of hairless babies?

Others objected to her lack of hygiene, or declared she’d turn all our mirrors into wood.

But the toad population had exploded, all our attempts at culling the animals resulting in failure. The one-inch blighters were everywhere: on beds and windowsills, floating in the afternoon soups. The pathways, coated in crushed gore, had us scraping our boot soles with spatulas.

Within two days of her arrival, our witch had restored the natural order (a process she called, in her toothless lisp, “evening out your flows”). Soon all but the most virulent objectors were inclined to admit her utility.

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the council drew up a contract, the terms of which allowed her to stay indefinitely in return for seasonal services on a needs be basis. We spruced up the Rothsteins’s abandoned cottage by the salt pond, daubing fresh pitch on the walls and re-thatching the roof. We made a few gaffes—went to great lengths to put in a garden of nightshade and belladonna, only to learn such plants held no place in her personal apothecary; she tore out the herbs, substituting heirloom zucchini and beefsteak tomatoes. And though we grew anxious when the children approached her, brazenly asking where she kept her pointy hator why the purple satin tracksuit, she took no offense. Passed out sourball candies from her satchel instead.

That was then. Today our village has expanded threefold. When problems arise— when the water supply turns milky, geese devour our grain stocks, nettles molest our arms and necks, or neighboring communities menace us by hiding charmed fetishes in the woods—we resort to more modern methods of purification, control, negotiation, and inoculation.

We still try to include our witch in as much as we can. But mostly we call upon her for ceremonial events everyone knows no longer warrant her skills. We invite her to spread concoctions across the center square when blackflies surge in spring, but in truth our perimeter torches do the job just fine. Each year fewer young people request her potions of romantic enticement; the ambitious no longer buy her glyphs and tokens in order to effect wealth. Even her woven bracelets, which had been so popular when the children collected them (her price: an animal tooth, small fossil, or feather), have fallen by the wayside. Today only a few of us wear them; the young folk would not be caught dead sporting such rude bangles.

It’s not that we are showing outward signs of disrespect. At least we don’t think this to be the case. Each solstice we still organize a festival complete with strongman competitions, baking awards, and mule sacrifices, and our witch is the centerpiece, the Woman of the Hour. Yet each year the crowd that used to stick around and applaud as she poured libations atop straw effigies diminishes. She had once made no small show of her demonstrations, taking the honor quite seriously, and afterwards, for the kids, happily turned polished stones into miniature roosters, ropes into mewling snakes. But as years passed her incantations became more perfunctory and matter of fact. Last year she did not even show up at all. Said her gout was acting up.

She has moved to a smaller cottage, beyond the enclave walls. We rarely see her any more. When we do, she is mumbling beneath her breath, staring at us guardedly through a caul of unkempt hair. Sprinkling pinches of powder from her satchel into puddles, making them ripple and steam. She has retired her tracksuit for more traditional garb—wears now a burlap cowl, casting her unfortunate nose and sallow eyes in perpetual shadow.

Lately some of our children have complained of night terrors. And just last week there were reports of toad infestations in two of the gardens. Some on our council feel the witch is doing this intentionally, to spite us. There is talk now of bringing in another consultant, a warlock this time, to speak to the witch and try to reason with her or, barring that, remove her the way she did the toads those thirty, or was it forty, years ago?

The Art of Removing an Enemy

Whenever we sought Parson Wilmur’s council re: the manner of removing an enemy—and we did so frequently, given how his interpretation of procedural specifics could change with the weather—he’d lean back in his repurposed barber’s chair, squint into the rafters, tug a bulbous earlobe, adjust his bolo (yes, the one with great granddad’s glass eye set in silver and turquoise), and list the steps in his croaky, runaway monologue:

“Children. First you must braid the limbs of a willow tree and always before breakfast. Then you are to melt a wax effigy of the oppugnancy  in a skillet; coat with shattered glass and salt. Third: place, before the day is out, the hardened puddle beneath the bandit’s bed, or car, or front porch and finally, upon returning home, eat only spinach; refrain from antics; and every day, for no less than nine, declare—once upon waking, at noon sharp, and again before retiring—your intentions through clenched teeth, eyes shut, ears stoppered with cotton balls.”

“Hokum,” Sister Ernestine would spit, picking crumbs off her apron as she sat by the hearth. (Sensible Sister E., our trusted Second Opinion on all such matters.) “Parson’s methods have at best a thirty percent success rate. What you want is to lay a twist of worsted across the bastard’s bedroom doorway, make to him a gift of peppermints wrapped in foil ribbon, and whisper into the ear of a black dog: spirit of the red wind hear me when I call: turn sweet to sour and blood to boil. Now go and make so-and-so batshit crazy.” Her oaths never failed to elicit sidelong glances and mouth-covered giggles between us girls.

I am old now, with but a single tooth in my head. Looking back on those days (and I mean this literally, utterly dependent as I am on my “seeing cubes” to supplant the vicious withering of memory), I notice patterns I failed to see as a child. Each community adherent had his or her own flavor when it came to the art of extermination. While most of the rituals (obviously) involved degrees of abstinence, endurance, and flame, each elder introduced their signature flourish into the mix. Aspirant Mathilda favored trickery with foodstuffs—delightful exercises in malicious bakery. Brother Josephus incorporated the pounding of copper nails into a four-trunked black oak at the bottom of Digger’s Basin. Truly nasty flora made their way into Auntie Polly’s recipes: Baby’s Gasp, Talonbane, St. Caspar’s Wort, and Seven Kidney Tansy (the latter proving impossible to locate; to this day I believe she made that plant up).

But my favorite machinations were concocted by half-mother Myrtle. Her trials seemed more a brand of silly gameplay than invocations of murder . True, the foci of her operations died gloriously and with all the requisite brutality—dissolving innards, spines turned to syrup, cuspids spearing upwards into brains—but to bring on these deaths she conjured the most charming ad hoc amusements, often with their own little names: Poke the Puppy; Squat Atop Miss Moppet; Girlie-Go-and-Run-Away. With celebratory custards dispensed to us kids after the killing was complete. I still have one of old Myrtle’s fingers in my juju bag. When the insults of my infirmities plot to overwhelm, I squeeze the relic in my palm and am greatly settled by her residual aura. I miss her.

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