Story of a Witch

by R.A. Matteson

There was a witch in our town, but not anymore.

Even after everything that happened, most people admit we were lucky. Our witch didn’t strangle our calves or poison our wells. You could go to her with any sort of problem—broken vase, broken ankle, broken promises—and for the right price, she would help. She didn’t give advice. All she did was tell you about your pain. She would tell it to you simply, in words that fit your feeling better than even you could say. You would leave her hut feeling like you understood what had happened.

And we said, “It sounds bearable when she says it.”

She lived far beyond the edge of town and that’s where she stayed. If you wanted to see her, you had to take the walk yourself. You had to step out of the bright, treeless circle of the town and into the darkness of the sun-choked woods. You had to walk down that loose-stoned path with its carpet of black pine needles and its silence. As children, we went there all the time, even when we weren’t sick, to see if one of her cracked hands would drop candied ginger out the window. There was salty with the sweet. It tasted good because we didn’t know better yet.

There is a hero in this town. Before he was a hero, he was a man whose wife had died while he was away. We knew it happened before he did. We heard the screams by the man’s paper mill. People who lived nearby said they’d heard the crunching of bone. It was a long time before the man could get the machines to run again. On the day after his wife’s funeral, the man went to the witch. In her smoky, ginger-smelling hut, she told him about his pain. Whatever she said didn’t make him feel better, though. The hole inside him yawned bigger at each word.

And he thought, “If she knows so much about it, maybe she caused it.”

He liked the sound of the thought, and eventually he said it out loud. He said it to anyone who would listen, and he said it to people who tried not to listen. A lot of people said the man didn’t know what he was talking about. They said the witch had always been with us. They said we needed her.

The man kept talking and eventually other people talked too. They talked about how the witch told them things she shouldn’t know. About how the words she said wouldn’t leave them alone at night. She said things they had thought before, but didn’t want to hear. They wondered what gave her the right to talk about pain that wasn’t hers.

And they said, “She is stealing our pain. She is eating it.”

I still remember that last night, when the men with black dogs waited outside our door after dinner, telling my daddy to hurry up and help. Mama gave us candied ginger (sticky sweet all the way through). She told us to go to bed even though it was still early. She told us to stay. Later, when I heard shouts, I didn’t look out the window. I just lay under the quilt, staring at the torchlight that bounced off my bedroom wall and listening to the yells of anger and the yelps of people slipping down the loose-stoned path away from town.

Now when something or someone is broken or gets lost, no one touches the pain. Now the stories are safe inside us. There was a witch in this town. But there never will be again.

R. A. Matteson lives in New York with a turtle that will probably outlive her. She does lots of things like sail tall ships and make ketchup, but she’d rather tell you a story, if that’s okay with everyone.
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