My Grandmother is a Witch

–After Squeak Carnwath’s, “Bush on Fire”

            We moved to Grandma’s house after the apartment burned down and everyone cried, “Fire, fire,” in the black night, embers pirouetted to the street, sparkling in the air like blessings no one wanted, smoke careened from the window, until firemen slanted their ladders against the side of the building, climbed up and found us lying fetal on the floor. Everything was red, red, and orange, Mom placed a wet rag over my mouth; the firemen rescued her also, and carried us downstairs, rung by rung like heavy packages from the supermarket, and then we moved to Grandma’s house. Now I don’t know which one was worse—the fire or living with her. No one could rescue us. She was a real witch.

            We lived in the backroom of her house and slept on a bed that pulled down from the wall.  Every morning we pushed it back, laughed, and called it our secret. The place was located far from the city, even farther than the suburbs or any shopping mall, a place where coyotes howled at night from the rim of her property, and Grandma Avochoka answered them, stuck her head out the window and yipped back in coyote language. And then everything went quiet, which was the scariest part because I never knew what was going to happen next—whether she was inviting them to dinner and serving us as the entrée, or if they were just passing the time between them, being that there was not much else to do. One day my mother disappeared. I was sure either the coyotes or Grandma had done something terrible to her. I knew my time was short.

            She looked ordinary enough, white hair wrapped in a tight bun stuck with a plastic spray of lilacs. Her clothing was tailored, embroidered with pictures of small animals, rabbits and squirrels, and lined with gray silk, which was the softest thing I ever touched. Any time she smiled, which she did sometimes before talking to the coyotes, I saw silver wires along the top of her gums. They held her teeth in one place like staples. Sometimes she placed those yellow teeth in a glass jar next to the sink and stirred the water with her finger. I always avoided them, afraid they’d leap out from the jar and bite me. But the thing that gave her away, the thing that made me know she was a witch, was a mirror she spoke to every morning in a voice that wasn’t hers, where she pleaded over and over to see my mother.

            I was eight years old. I had no place to go, no idea how my mother could’ve grown up so normal. Grandma said once summer was over, I could start school, and said the teacher was an old friend. None of that sounded good. I never saw a single car pass by her house, otherwise, I would’ve darted outside and asked to be taken to the fire station, anywhere else, but not with Grandma Avochoka. By now, I could pull the bed down from the wall, but had to stand on a stool to reach its handle. I spent a lot of time in bed crying for my mother, or wandering outside pulling dandelions from the weedy grass, wishing to find her, and following the seeds as they drifted along in the air.

            Grandma always spied on me, her plastic lilac drooping over her one ear. “You can’t go wandering far from the house. There are snakes out there,” which didn’t surprise me one bit. She was scared I’d escape and I’d run and tell everyone how awful she was, and how she had fed my mother to the coyotes, and how she took out her teeth at night. I stood outside her kitchen window and collected pebbles, small rocks, admiring their different sizes and colors, and threw them one after the other at the glass, faster and faster, everything began to rattle. She ran down the front steps with a broom. “Stop! You must stop!” I started screaming as loudly as I could, a noise that came from deep within me. The scream made me stronger and her house burst into flames, smoke careening from the windows, and she shouted, “Fire, fire!”

Lenore Weiss