Sunday, December 12, 2010

Magic Beneath the Huckleberries

I wrote this on a typewriter (that’s how long ago.) It’s based on a true event that happened at Christmas time. In reality, I found the kitten in the snow and named him Wenceslas. He lived nearly twenty years. So, although the season isn’t mentioned in the story, for me, it will always be a Christmas miracle.

Magic Beneath the Huckleberries
Annie waited on the street corner, watching the army of buses depart the schoolyard. Occasionally, she’d recognize a classmate behind a high window of a bus and she’d wave and try to smile, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to look cheerful. Rain fell, ran down her legs and puddled in her new shoes. Her wool jumper had begun to smell like a wet dog.

A group of older girls approached. They wore only black and with their shawls draped over their shoulders they resembled crows. Annie knew them only by sight. They were in the same grade as her friend’s older sister, Claire, who had said they girls had formed a witch’s coven. As they passed, Annie moved to the edge of the sidewalk, the toes of her shoes over hanging the edge, allowing the girls as much room as she could.

A few cars passed, but her mom’s green Cutlass Oldsmobile did not. Annie waited until the girls were far enough ahead so that she wouldn’t appear to be following them, then she turned towards home.

Annie had lived at the end of Lilac Lane her entire life. She knew if she followed Lilac all the way to the dead end sign, she’d be home. And so, even though she’d never been allowed to walk as far as the school, she recognized landmarks as she passed. Terrace Park on the right. Mr. Roblinski’s house on the left. Eventually, she’d come to the where the sidewalk and pavement ended and she’d have to walk in the mud, alongside the electric fence that kept the cows in their pasture.

Rain rolled down her neck and she started to cry when she walked her shoes into the dirt road’s muck. Something must have been terribly wrong for her mother to have left her at school.

That had been months ago, long before Annie had learned the words, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, or cancer. Since then Annie had seen her mother vomit every day and she’d watched as her mother’s blond hair had washed off her head and lay on the bottom of the bathtub like a broken animal. A tray of medicine stood beside the bed her mother rarely left and an evil odor permeated the house. Mrs. Lopez had been hired to care for the house and Annie, but Annie had learned to avoid both.

She spent the afternoons at a friend’s house. Jenny was allowed to watch TV after school and her mom bought cookies from the store. Annie’s homework sat unattended in her book bag.

“Did you hear that Rose Koontz put a curse on Pete Womack?” Jenny asked.

“What kind of spell?” Annie asked, fascinated by the witches and their dark work.

“I don’t know that, but I do know Rose had been going into the woods with Pete.” Jenny looked meaningfully at Annie; they both knew why a girl would go into the woods with a boy. “And then she and everyone else saw Pete kissing Meg O’Toole under the bleachers.”

“Why didn’t Rose put a spell on Meg?”

“Oh, she did!”

“So, what happened?”

“Nothing, yet. Clare said a spell could last for years – that a witch can curse your future husband and even your unborn children.”

At dusk, Annie walked home from Jenny’s. She had to hurry before her father came home, but she didn’t want to be alone in the house with Mrs. Lopez. She didn’t remember her mother in the back bedroom. She peered into the woods as she passed, keeping a close watch for the witches. Annie often walked in the woods with her parents, following the cow trails to fields and ponds. In the late summer, she and her mother picked wild strawberries, huckleberries and blackberries for pies. In the spring, Annie liked to count the lilies. The bright white flowers only grew in the darkest part of the forest. Picking the flowers was forbidden, Annie’s mother had told her, because the flowers only bloomed every seven years. Of course, Annie’s mother never walked anymore and Annie didn’t know if she’d be able to walk in the spring or even the late summer.

Somewhere, in the thick of the trees, stood two abandoned houses. For years, trespassers had been stripping the wood and using it to build forts and fires. They shot out the windows for target practice. Several cats, feral, her father had called them, lived in the houses, dodging children, thrown rocks, and BB gun shot.

The porch light was on when she got home and her father’s car had replaced Mrs. Lopez’s. Annie didn’t know if her father would have the energy to be mad at her for being out so close to dark. She quietly opened the front door and crept to her room. She wrinkled her nose. The house stank of Mrs. Lopez’s cooking. Even though the door was closed, Annie could her father crying. He did that often, and though the sound was now familiar, it made Annie uncomfortable and frightened.

Annie looked out the window and thought about God. Every night she prayed for her mother to get better and every morning she woke hoping to find her mother dressed and making breakfast. She’d and hand Annie a sack lunch, kiss her goodbye and tell her to have a good day at school, as if good days were somehow plentiful and there for the taking. In Sunday school Annie’s teacher had read from the gospel of Matthew, telling her to ask and receive. Annie had begun to murmur silent prayers asking God to cure her mother. If Jesus were alive, could he heal her? The Sunday school teacher told her that Jesus was alive, but Annie didn’t know how to find him.

Still, her father cried. Annie looked out the window and noticed smoke rising from the thick of the woods and she wondered if the witches were there. How powerful was their magic? Were they more powerful than God? No, but could they be more sympathetic? More here? Annie slipped out of her room, passed her parent’s room and ran out the back door. Running through the woods, she refused to be afraid. When she could see the clearing, she stopped, her breath ragged and catching in her throat.

The witches sat around a campfire, boys beside them. They drank from long necked bottles; cigarettes dangled from their fingers. Nicotine smoke mingled with the bonfire’s and rose together in the twilight sky. A few couples were kissing. One boy had his hand beneath a witch’s shawl. No one noticed Annie, standing at the edge of the woods.

Suddenly, Annie knew they couldn’t help her. Whatever magic they held it wasn’t any stronger than her own.

She turned to go, but she hadn’t gone far when she heard a small cry. Annie stood statue still listening to the witches’ laughter, the crackling of the fire and something else. Stooping, Annie peered into the branches of a huckleberry bush. Pale green eyes peered back. The kitten didn’t move when Annie reached for it. She felt the its ribs beneath the matted fur and its frantic beating heart. Holding the kitten to her cheek, she whispered to it. The kitten responded with a mew. Annie took off her sweater, bundled up the kitten and hurried home.

Her father told her it was the ugliest cat he’d ever seen and that if it didn’t live, he’d by her a prettier one. Although it could hardly stand on its wobbly legs and its tummy was distended like a misshapen balloon, Annie knew it would live. Placing a saucer of milk under its nose, she felt a rush of love. The kitten only sniffed. Annie dipped her finger in the milk and placed a droplet on the mouth. Its raspy tongue on her finger sent a chill up her arm. That night she placed an old baby blanket in a basket and set it beside her bed. “I’ll always love and care for you,” she whispered to the kitten when she turned off the light. She named him Magic.

Years later when Annie would bring her children to the house on Lilac to visit her father, she would walk them into the woods and show them the lilies that grow in the dark and teach them how to find the wild strawberries that grow in the thickets. She would tell them of her mother who dwindled in illness and died and of the kitten that grew and thrived. Magic, she told them, and love are always entwined and can sometimes be found in the huckleberry bushes.