Sunday, March 1

Witches

‘One night I got up and told my father there were witches in my room.’
Low
Witches

ONE NIGHT I GOT up and told my father there were witches in my room. There is only so much one can tolerate; I had tired of them. The house is quiet at that late hour. I steadied myself on the banister as I descended the creaking stairs. My parents both looked at me as I appeared in the doorway. I told my father there were witches in my room.
I was a private young man, who would often lie for hours in bed before falling asleep, my mind a flurry of thoughts and ideas. With the darkness hanging over my head, I could let my brain wander and relax warmly.
It was one Sunday evening, just before returning to school, that I was lying in bed and thinking about pilot whales, having seen one in an encyclopedia that day, thinking them comical looking animals and deserving of further research. This was typical of my thoughts at these times.
That was when I was first disturbed.
A rustle came from the wardrobe that did not cause me to jump or to panic, but I got up on my elbows and stared. The rustling continued and then entered a middle-aged woman, from the wardrobe, stepping into my bedroom as though it were as much hers as my own. She was big all over, with a perm, thick lips and a chubby nose. So as to put me at ease, she said—
‘Hello, my name is Chair.’
In return I introduced myself.
Chair sat at the end of my bed and continued with her knitting. A long thick tail of woolen scarf followed behind her, joined at the other end to two thick needles and a ball nestled under her arm. She started talking to me about this Thai soup she makes with prawns and sweetcorn. I told her that I did not like sweetcorn.
‘You’ll grow to like sweetcorn.’
‘Have you heard of pilot whales?’ I asked her.
‘I have heard of them but I dunno what they look like. Doubt I could even pick them out a lineup of one.’
‘That’s okay. I only learned about them today.’
‘A friend of my ex-husband’s, he used to hunt whales but I dunno if he ever hunted pirate whales.’
‘Pilot.’
‘I never liked the man, myself. Hunting whales never sat right with me, not on any moral level – who knows if they’re as smart as everyone says they are – but because I could never wrap my head around the logistics! How can you get something that big back to shore?’
‘I don’t know.’ I had laid back down by then, staring at the ceiling, listening to the click of her needles. ‘Probably best to just let them swim around the ocean alive and not bother them.’
‘You’re probably right.’
‘Why did your husband – ex-husband – like this whale-hunter?’
‘I don’t know, actually. He had questionable taste in other people. It was one of the things that led me to murder him.’
‘You murdered your husband?’
‘Yes. How else do you think I ended up a witch?’
I could not think.
Apart from the history of murder, which did little to unnerve me, Chair was a most enjoyable partner during those late nights. We spent hours talking in hushed voices. A cool line of light penetrated underneath the door, it dashed and dimmed, the corridor extinguished; I lost track of time but the rattle of needles cast me off to sleep and she would still be talking. During the night, before dawn, she disappeared back into the wardrobe.
A month and a half after Chair first arrived, another witch came. For all of my young bravery and inquisitiveness, this witch scared me the most. Her name was Zamara and I sensed she was very damaged. She was substantially younger, only ten years older than me, tottering around the room in tennis shorts and a polo shirt. She never talked much. Her big eyes were thrown into the distance, yet within them stirred something that I found arresting.
‘Chair said you were good to talk to,’ Zamara said.
‘That’s nice of her, but I don’t think I am.’
‘… Chair said you were good to talk to.’
No use.
Her thin pasty body reclined on the floor. She looked up on the wall at my posters: a map of the stars, two diagrams of the human body (muscles, organs), a geographic map of the world, a political map of the world (1948), a (recently added) poster of whales ‘the order of cetacea’, and an x-ray view of the engine of the world’s fastest car.
‘Cars bore me.’
‘Don’t drive them, then.’
‘I don’t... I didn’t, but the one time I did…’ She trailed off. She did not say much when she was with me but one could tell that she was thinking very hard. Mostly she would play with objects picked up from around the room, investigate my drawers, or gaze at my school clothes that I kept folded neatly on a stand near the wardrobe. She asked me—‘Do you have anything long and thin, like a mop handle?’
‘There might be one downstairs, but I dunno where my mum keeps it.’
She sighed. In her hand were a small number of dried mushrooms that crisply glowed in the black air. Zamara came over to me in my bed, pulled back the covers and removed my underwear. On the tip of my infant penis she balanced the mushrooms and then she sat on me quickly enough that I gasped and yelped in pain. It was hot as a cup of tea and I did not believe that witches could be so hot. She climbed off me, sat down and slumped, not saying another word for the rest of the night.
It was not easy to sleep with her nearby, as I found her so genuinely scary, unpredictable. Intermixed with that fear, fierce and young, was a sympathy that I cannot express. Around two in the morning, while she still slouched, twitching, I fell asleep and woke alone and tired.
Lynne was my favourite of the three witches who frequented my room.
She was also the oldest, though as playful as she was old. She bragged to me of how beautiful she had been in her youth and how she could have had any man she wished, but she often chose the richest and did not care how unsightly he was. Always she lived extravagantly, not wanting, but joyously spending his money. ‘Then I’d ask for a divorce and move on to the next man, the next sucker!’ and she’d cackle and her eyes would glimmer at me as I listened keenly. Then one day her husband, a very rich man with a false eye, and her got into an argument during which he slapped her across the face with all his might. With a broken jaw, she stabbed him eleven times in the neck. It was what made her a witch.
‘What classes do you have tomorrow?’
‘English, art, biology, PE, history and maths. It’s my favourite day.’
‘I used to like history as a child, as well. Especially the Aztecs.’
‘I like the Aztecs, too, but I think my favourite were the Vikings.’
‘Good choice, young man. So… are there any girls you have your eye on?’
I smiled with my hands behind my head. ‘There aren’t. Is that bad?’
‘I don’t think so. But it’s nice to have one’s eye on someone. Even when I was married, there were men I was very interested in, men who took my fancy and I would lie in bed at night dreaming of them and waking up with a smile. It’s good and it makes things more interesting if you have someone to think about when there is nothing to think about.’ She quieted her voice—‘But when you fall in love with someone, never raise your hand to them, do you hear?’
I heard.
‘Never. Never raise your hand to the fairer sex, do you understand?’ Her finger was pointed at me.
I reassured her that I understood.
‘One day,’ I told her—‘I accidentally kicked a football and it hit a girl who was having a picnic and she slapped me across the face!’
Lynne laughed very loudly so that I thought she might wake my parents—‘Yes, sometimes a lady might slap you, but you can bet she’ll have a damn good reason for it!’ We both of us chuckled.
Pause.
‘How comes you didn’t just slap your husband back as hard as you could?’ I asked innocently.
She looked at me so that a little candle of light could be seen in each of her eyes and replied—‘Sometimes you have to make a point.’
The witches came and went on different nights, for months. It was soon Christmas and Christmas passed and still they visited. Nine times out of ten they came one at a time, but occasionally more than one would show up and jealous fits of rage gripped them so that I was completely ignored and the intruding couple argued between themselves. Zamara was often indifferent to the company, preferring to be silent herself, but sometimes she became offended by something apparently trivial and then all hell would break loose. It was worst when Lynne and Chair turned up at the same time. Such times I would tune out, resume my own thoughts and let the pair of them battle it out; this led to one or the other leaving back through the wardrobe and the remaining party being so flustered by the ordeal that she could not get her words out straight.
One night in February all three of them turned up at the same time. They would not stop shouting at each other and I could not block my ears up enough to get away from it. Ah! torture! I pleaded with them all to stop but they were wrapped up, they didn’t hear me! Their voices were shrill scraping! Their voices went straight to the bone!
I got out – not one of them noticing – and told my father there were witches in my room. He turned the volume on the television set right up loud so that our dog started barking. Then he grabbed a cricket bat from the garage, gave it to me and said—‘Son, here’s what you do…’

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