When a kindly witch offers a pregnant woman a solution to her distress, what is born (and raised) is far more than just a little girl…
by: Alicia Niemann
“Um, excuse me,” said the witch, “but what are you doing?”
A heavily pregnant woman squatted in the dirt, turning awkwardly to squint against the narrow beam of the flashlight. Below her slitted eyes, her cheeks were full to bursting, an echo of her distended belly. It was hard to tell, given the circumstances, but the witch was pretty sure the visitor was her back fence neighbor.
The witch glanced down. The woman clenched a handful of greenery, her knuckles white and ready, like she’d been in a cat-fight, dragging the plants out of the earth.
“Are you…” the witch frowned, “…are you eating my parsley?”
With as hefty a sigh as she could manage with her full mouth, the unexpected visitor let go of the herbs and sat down heavily in the dirt. Jutting her legs out in front of her, she flattened what was left of the witch’s herb bed.
“Yes,” she replied, after having swallowed with some difficulty.
When the woman offered up nothing else, the witch cleared her throat. “May I ask why?”
Another sigh. “I heard that it…” the woman shrugged bony shoulders. “I heard that it could get rid of this,” she lowered her chin in the direction of her stomach.
The witch swung her flashlight down to the woman’s belly then back up to her face. “It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?” she asked. “How far along are you? Eight months? Nine?”
“I’m due next week.” Her voice was a pinched knot of animosity, pride, and despair.
“And you suddenly got cold feet?”
“No,” the woman glared up from under her eyebrows. “I didn’t suddenly get anything. I never wanted it. I never wanted him either.” Another jerk of her chin, this time in the direction of the witch’s back fence. She’d guessed right. “I didn’t want any of it! But nobody ever asked me. And now when he comes home he wants what he wants and what I want matters even less.”
The witch sucked on her lower lip. Other people’s troubles always made her feel embarrassed, especially when they were much bigger than any of the problems she’d ever had, which, seeing as she’d led a relatively sheltered life, was most of them. “I’m sorry,” she said, because she couldn’t think of anything else.
“Not your fault, so…”
“Well, no, but…”
Their ellipses dragged on, making the witch uncomfortable.
“Look, I’m sorry about your parsley.” The woman began heaving herself laboriously to her feet.
“No, it’s fine, really. I just…parsley doesn’t actually cause miscarriages, you know.”
“No, obviously I did not know,” replied the woman, still only halfway upright. “Fuck,” she said. Whether this was for the parsley or for the prolonged process of standing up, the witch was unsure.
“Do you want some help?” the witch asked, finally offering her free hand.
“What help could you…” Hands on her knees, the woman paused in her sentence and her ascent, and the witch wasn’t sure if she was thinking or resting. Abruptly, she grabbed the witch’s hand in her own, pulled herself up, and said, “You’re a witch,” apropos of nothing as far as the witch could see.
“Yes…” the witch agreed warily.
“You could get rid of it for me.”
“Okay, well now, actually—”
“You witches know all sorts of potions and shit. You’d know what to do.” The witch winced as her neighbor’s grip on her hand grew uncomfortably tight — and again the witch was unclear whether it was in excitement or in threat.
“Look, I’m not…that’s not really my…honestly, I don’t know how,” the witch admitted.
“What? Why not? Isn’t abortion, like, Witchcraft 101 or something?”
“What do you think this is, the Dark Ages? It’s not like that anymore. We specialize. It’s a pretty intensive learning process, you know.”
“Oh really,” said the woman, clearly unimpressed. “And what’s your specialty, then?”
The witch cleared her throat. “Hermuval,” she mumbled, ducking her head.
“Hair removal,” the witch repeated, still not looking up.
“Hair removal? What the fuck kind of specialty is that?”
The witch shrugged. “It’s actually very lucrative. And there’s no delicate legal ground like with, you know, abortions.”
“So, what, you’re like the plastic surgeon of witches?”
“Well, actually, that’s a whole other branch of—” the witch cleared her throat again. “Sort of,” she finished.
“Just my fucking luck,” said her neighbor. “A beautician witch. Christ almighty. I thought you guys were all about helping women in need.”
“Well, I mean, technically I am hel…” again the witch let her sentence wither on the vine. “Sorry,” she said instead.
For a moment the two women just stood there, still holding hands, each lost in her own thoughts. Stars twinkled, clouds scudded, parsley wilted, the moon meandered upwards.
“I think…” tentatively, the witch cleared her throat again, “I think maybe I could still help you.”
Helping people, despite what she’d been about to say earlier, was not really the witch’s forte, so her plan took a moment to come together.
Her neighbor raised an eyebrow. “Uh huh,” she said, her tone vacillating between a question and an affirmation.
“I’m getting transferred next week. The chain I work for is expanding but they don’t have a lot of really experienced witches on staff so the other day my boss asked me if I would be willing to go down south to help a new branch that’s hav— doesn’t matter,” the witch interrupted herself, correctly interpreting her neighbor’s expression. “My point is I’m leaving town.”
“And?” her neighbor asked. “What, are you going to leave me your parsley patch? Because you just told me it doesn’t work, so I don’t need it anymore, but thanks anyway.”
“No,” said the witch. “What I mean is that, if you’re serious about getting rid of your baby, I can take it.”
“Yeah,” said the witch, getting more excited as her plan came into focus. “You can tell your husband I’m your midwife and we’ll have the baby at my place and then I’ll take it with me when I go. Afterwards you can tell him you had a miscarriage.”
“Uh, first of all, you just said you did hair removal not babies.”
“Okay, yeah, I don’t do babies, but I have a friend who does. That’s not a problem.”
“Well, let’s just get that friend to abort it then. Because that seems a lot less complicated.”
“I told you,” said the witch. “You’re too far along for an abortion.”
“Fuck,” said the woman again.
“I just said I’d take the baby.”
“You can’t be serious. Who just takes a baby?”
“Well, I mean, it’s that or keep it.”
“Well, you could put it up for adoption then.”
“He wouldn’t let me.”
“Have you ever considered divorcing him? I mean, just a thought.”
“He’s not the kind of guy who lets you just walk away.”
“I see,” said the witch, even though she didn’t.
Her neighbor looked at the witch out of the corner of her eye. “No, you don’t,” she said. “Whatever. Doesn’t matter. You’re better off that way.”
“Yes,” said the witch with all her usual tact.
Another silence, but this time the witch didn’t mind it as much.
“So, do you, like, know anything about taking care of babies?”
“No,” said the witch. “Do you?”
“Sure. I’m the oldest of seven. I’ve been taking care of babies my whole goddamn life.”
“I guess that would be why you know you don’t want this one then,” said the witch, feeling embarrassed again.
The neighbor nodded. “So you know jack shit about babies? And you still want mine?”
“I mean, currently this baby’s options are being aborted or being adopted by me. I’d like to think living with me would be slightly preferable.”
The neighbor’s mouth made a shape like a gash that the witch could only assume was a smile. She smiled back.
“I’ll let you know when I go into labor,” said the neighbor. “Tell your friend to be ready.”
“Okay,” said the witch. “Do you, uh, want my number? So you can call when you go into labor?”
“Oh,” said the neighbor. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
“Why don’t you come inside?” the witch offered. “Maybe sit down for a second. Have a cup of tea or something.”
“That’d be nice,” said the neighbor, roughly, as if the words were foreign.
There had been other options, of course.
But the tower was, first and foremost, cheap and so was she. Second, it had a large garden. Third, there were no neighbors to be kept up all night by the baby, or, for that matter, to come rampaging through her herbs whenever they were in crisis.
Once all the movers had left, the witch stood on the ground floor and looked up the circular staircase to the skylight four floors above. “When you’re older you can have the top floor and play grunge rock and sulk and stand at the window and smoke cigarettes you think I don’t know about. How does that sound, Baby?”
The baby in her arms chortled and pulled one of the witch’s fingers into her toothless mouth.
“That’s what I thought you’d say,” said the witch.
At this point, the baby was mostly cheeks and limbs and vague gurgling sounds, but on her forehead, a dark corkscrew of black hair was beginning to take shape. The witch often caught herself secretly wrapping it around her pinky finger, as if enjoying its fragile, silky rub against her skin was itself some embarrassing private flaw. But after a few months of screaming and crying (on both their parts), shit-splattered diapers (just the baby’s), and hysterical regret (just the witch’s — at least, as far as she knew), interspersed with moments of profound, bone-melting harmony, the witch would slough off her old embarrassment and the two of them would settle into something like love.
And they would go on like that until the day the witch came home to find a tall, pale-haired boy loitering amongst her beans. The neighbors, it seemed, were not as far away as she had hoped.
“Can I help you?” the witch asked.
The boy, who clearly knew he would grow up handsome, smiled. “I’m looking for Petra.”
“Did you try the doorbell?” the witch asked.
“Yeah, but she didn’t answer,” said the boy.
“Well, then, she’s probably not home. Why don’t you text her?” the witch suggested.
“I don’t suppose I could just come in and wait, could I?” asked the boy.
“Honey,” said the witch, “I’ve spent all day making small talk with strangers. I’m not spending all evening doing more of the same. Text Petra. She could be anywhere.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boy replied formally, though the way he said it did not make the witch feel he meant to be polite.
She watched him lope off up towards the main road and unlocked the door.
“Is he gone?” Petra asked, hanging her head over the fourth floor bannister. She looked like she was at the top of a very long, bright tunnel. Then her braid slid over her shoulder and down, opening with a whoosh and a snap like a banner.
The witch raised her eyebrows, tugging the tip of the braid in a silent question.
“Oh my god, he’s sooo boring, you have no idea. I already told him I didn’t want to go out tonight.” Petra came galloping down the stairs. “Can we have pizza for dinner?”
“Mmm,” the witch began.
“I’ve already ordered it,” Petra told her.
“Well, in that case.”
Petra put her arms around the witch’s neck and kissed her cheek. “Love you,” she said.
At sixteen, displays of affection were growing fewer and farther between and the witch would pay for them in pizza if she had to.
“I love you too. Do you want to talk some more about the boy?” She held onto her daughter for a second longer, gently working a bramble out of her hair. Petra always got caught on the thorns when she went berry picking.
“No,” said Petra, pulling away and looping her braid over her shoulders, once, twice, three times. “He’ll get bored eventually.”
The witch took a good long look at her daughter’s unfurling body and wondered if that were true.
“When are you going to let me trim your hair?” she asked, changing the subject.
“When I win the world record and the Guinness people have taken a million photos of me,” Petra replied, wafting around the room, preparing the table. “Then you can magic it off and hang it in the spa to show everyone how good you are at your job.”
She always answered the same way, though the witch had no idea whether she meant it or was just fucking with her. Knowing Petra, the witch tended towards the latter.
“I picked some blackberries,” said Petra, pulling a bowl out of the fridge.
“Yes, I know,” said the witch, holding up her spiky prize.
Petra made a face. “I’m thinking of them and ice cream for dessert?”
“You are a genius, child,” said the witch, and set the twig on the counter.
“I’m home!” the witch called, frowning down at the front door, which was open when it shouldn’t be. She pulled it shut behind her.
The witch waited, looking up the long tunnel of light. She heard nothing. No thumps, no shouted reply. Only sunny, buttery silence.
“Petra?” she called.
She heard a gasp and it sounded like someone had taken hold of the silence and torn it down the middle.
“Petra?” she called again, one hand on the bannister. “Is that you?”
There was a sob and the witch felt like she was being ripped in two as well. She ran up the stairs, hitting her shins on the low steps. By the time she got to the fourth floor she could feel sweat pooling in the too-tight band of her bra.
Petra was wedged between her bed and the curve of the wall. From the stairs she was invisible, given away only by her long hair leaking out around the edge of the bed. The witch felt a split second’s ridiculous but terrifying panic — her daughter had melted and left behind nothing but a dark puddle.
“Petra,” said the witch, getting down on her knees. The muscles in her thighs twitched and spasmed, frantic like her heart.
Without looking up, Petra pulled herself forward, tipping wet and heavy into the witch’s lap.
“What happened, Petra?” asked the witch. Her hands hovered above the girl’s head, a flicker of her old embarrassment rising, then falling, born down by uncertainty: would to touch be to break or mend? How much of embarrassment, she wondered briefly, is actually just uncertainty?
Petra looked up finally, turning her head awkwardly in the witch’s lap. Her eyes were swollen. She moved her lips silently as if practicing what she wanted to say, or as if to see how the words felt, to decide whether she wanted to say them at all. Finally she said, “He didn’t get bored.”
The witch remembered the pale-haired boy standing in her beans, every slender, insolent inch of him. She felt very cold all of a sudden, and the cold sucked up all her doubts. She put her hands on Petra’s face and wiped away her tears. Petra wrapped her fingers around the witch’s and clung.
“Do you want to talk about it?” the witch asked.
“What if there’s a baby?” Petra replied. “You don’t know that kind of magic.”
“I’ll learn,” said the witch, without hesitating. “Or I’ll find someone who does.”
“Thank you,” said Petra and she lay her cheek back down against the witch’s thighs.
Petra did not go back to school. She didn’t leave the tower for days. She stayed in her bedroom on the fourth floor and looked out at the road that led to town and to the sea. Then she’d cross to the other side and look out at the dark, ruffling trees and down at the blackberry bushes slowly crawling up the walls to meet her. The witch did not suggest that she go out, only combed her hair each night and braided it.
Then one day the witch came home and heard voices in the house. She went to grab the carving knife from the block, but it was already missing. She took the stairs two at a time.
Petra was standing in her room, gripping her braid in both hands as it hung over the lip of the window, twitching and swaying.
“Just one more floor,” Petra called down to someone the witch couldn’t see. On a chair beside her, the carving knife caught the light like water in the sun. Petra glanced at the witch out of the corner of her eye and shook her head, slowly, like she was afraid of startling her. “You’re almost there,” she shouted out the window. “Come on!”
“I can’t believe that bitch actually locked you in,” replied a voice that the witch recognized. “You’d better make this worth my while.”
Petra gagged silently and reached for the knife, bending awkwardly as she tried to grab it without letting go of her hair. The witch got there first. Petra looked at the witch, then at the knife, then back at the witch. The witch tested the knife’s edge on her thumb. She felt like an action hero in a movie. But blood pearled, bright and very real, from under the blade.
The invisible climber swore and the witch knew he was close. Any minute now his fingers would appear, fumbling for the window ledge. The witch wrapped one hand around the dark braid and began to saw, the soft hair curling back as though burned.
“Hurry,” Petra whispered unnecessarily.
The knife flickered; the braid came apart; the women let go.
They heard: “What the—”, then: “Fuck!,” and then a crunch, a thump, and a scream.
Petra reached for her mother, and the witch held her, and kissed her ragged hair, and felt the heaving of her daughter’s heart as if it were her own. Then, together, they looked over the ledge of the window.
The pale boy was caught in the blackberries, bloody hands grabbing at his bloody face. He was screaming for his eyes.
Petra took a deep breath.
“I think we’re going to have to move again,” said the witch.
Alicia Niemann has had fiction published in the Canadian anthology Fantasy from the Rock and a translation published in The Lyre. Currently, she teaches Spanish in a high school in Vancouver, Canada.