Summer had stayed too long. The local creek sat at a trickle, blanketed in gnats and an explosion of spiderwebs. Each hike in and out of the woods required sticking her hands out like a blind offering and feeling the ghostlike webs clinging to still-green leaves before they brushed her face. She emerged from the woods and into the neighborhood sidewalks squinting into the full sun. It was the uphill climb home that made her conscious of her limp from the years of cowering, becoming small, hiding, freezing.
No one in the neighborhood knew her, but no one had interest. She didn’t fit the perfectly coifed women behind the freshly painted and decorated Halloween doors of each home, pots of orange mums and cheesecloth ghosts in trees hanging in perfect stillness.
Their lives were straightforward. They had routines, budgets and small pine tree air fresheners slung to the mirror of their minivans. In the mornings at around 6:45 am, the women would look into those mirrors and run minty tongues over properly cared for teeth. They’d smack their freshly glossed lips making a sound like a mimosa cork, and then remind their backseat charges to buckle up and be good.
Over time “be good” becomes code for “comply”. And most will. They will dutifully drag gold and red leaves into piles, clean their gutters and cover the matching Adirondack chairs until Spring. But this year, the drought deprived the neighborhood of these autumnal duties. Instead, families sat together in the green wilted grass, carving pumpkins while flies and disoriented honey bees lead an assault on the fresh pulp.
On weekends she didn’t usually make it out of her house until dusk for her usual walking loop. She liked to move through the sidewalks in and out of the woods anonymously, while everyone ate dinner. Dinner rendered the neighborhood a ghost town as families consumed perfect meals on espresso veneered tables. A Whole30 bowl in the tan rancher, a Paleo rack of lamb in the brick colonial.
She snorted at the neighborhood’s inability to enjoy food. She liked meatloaf with mashed potatoes. She also knew that admitting this to anyone she might meet (if anyone ventured to say hello), would be the confirmation they all sought– that they cared more about their bodies than she ever could hers. That the cauliflower bowls may even unlock a spiritual completeness if they just tried harder to “be good”. That their completeness and goodness harkened hospital bed sheet corners in a mental ward. The perfection of her neighbors scared her.
No mysterious figure, she had an Instagram account where she collected images of natural elements she liked. Sometimes the geotags would overlap with her anonymous neighbors and she’d see the square portals into their lives. A process photo when making a cheesecloth ghost, a slice of pumpkin pie with the words “earned it” next to a screencapped FitBit workout. A tree pose on a rock formation with the hashtag “grateful”.
“Bitter” doesn’t make for a nice sentiment over a yoga selfie in the woods or a slogan on a coffee mug. “Bitter” doesn’t look good in woodblock letters over a fireplace and next to the entryway where the Halloween candy bowl sits. Candy waiting for a doorbell ring and those little hands that seem to work as perfect sonar for peanut butter cups.
“Bitter” was her brand. “Bitter” seemed to fit the mood on Halloween night as temperatures soared and neighborhood cats hid under trees and grills searching for shade.
On that evening, she dressed in all black and bobby pinned a witch hat to her dark curls. She sat on the steps of her front porch beginning at 5 pm with a bowl of typical favorites. The peanut butter cups, red licorice, and as a gesture, full-size candy bars. She thought she’d make an effort to meet the neighbors.
The children, defeated from the heat began taking off their masks and carrying their capes with utterances of “it’s too hot!” They asked their moms and dads for juice, but juice wasn’t allowed– “too much sugar, you can have water,” was the standard reply. Face paint melted slowly. A cowgirl without her hat, a spaceman without his helmet. The sun sunk lower painting the neighborhood orange as the crickets began their evening chant.
No one stopped at her house for several hours. She began to call out to families passing, “Your trick-or-treat bag looks light! I have full-size Hershey bars! That might help!” She let out an uncomfortable chuckle. A mother dressed as a cheerleader stopped, pulled her football player son closer to her and said, “we don’t do sugar, but thank you.”
The witch approached the family, slowly moving down the steps, black, pointy hat shifting to the side, “then how do you trick-or-treat?”
The cheerleader mom backed up into the grass off the sidewalk, “well, it’s on the neighborhood board. You give small toys or healthy snacks. If you were on the neighborhood board you would know this.” The witch moved closer to extend her hand and introduce herself, but the rattled cheerleader was now walking backward into the street, away from the witch’s house.
“Good to meet you!” The cheerleader yelled as she clipped across the street turning her back.
The witch held up her arms pretending to be a scary woman, conjuring whatever witches conjure as a joke to herself for how uncomfortable she had made the cheerleader. Another neighbor dressed as a 1950’s housewife saw the move, and by Monday the chorus of “she thinks she’s a witch” became “she worships Satan and tries to lure children to her home with candy.”
Over time, she became known as the Witch of Barclay Road. No one spoke to her or introduced themselves. The neighborhood avoided the house on Halloween, and curious children whispered about the woman who lived there. She learned to turn out her porch light and pretend she was not home. She learned to take walks only in the dark. She made herself smaller and smaller until one day, she disappeared. The Witch of Barclay Road passed away in that very house, quietly, to no bravado.
But really, had anyone dared to ask– she was simply Rachel, a downtrodden divorcée from Michigan. She escaped an abusive marriage and worked a telecommute textbook editor job. She liked long walks and milk chocolate. She never had children.
The neighbors only learned of her real name when they searched Zillow on their cellphones, casually, at the Fourth of July Parade. A minor note, as the real task at hand, was discerning their current property values.
“Too bad that old witch is dead, her house doubled in value. Someone is going to make a killing in real estate.”
Carolyn Green is a misunderstood Chicago transplant to the D.C. Suburbs. She does not own a witch hat.