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December 1, 2016 | Nonfiction

All of Them Witches

Alex Ebel

All of Them Witches photo

The first seven years we dolled ourselves up as witches in black nylon and swampy grease paint. Our sheer, pointed hats shined with shooting stars and crescent moons. The same soft black wax we used to cover our teeth, we worked between the heat of our fingers, molding it into unsightly warts. We pressed them against our chins and foreheads. We cackled, carrying wicker brooms too stiff to sweep with, dragged and scratched carelessly across the red tile floors of our house.

My mother never cared that I was a boy; there was no pressure to be a wizard. No hint or suggestion of a grey beard, no cloak, just the two of us in our tattered dresses, sitting in front of the living room TV every year on Halloween, waiting for the sun to set. She would watch monsters and devils prance across the television over my shoulder while she trimmed the edges of my rubber nose with a dull pair of cuticle scissors. She’d smile at me, on her knees, while I sat still as a corpse on the carpet, eyes closed. She’d brush spirit gum along the sides of my nose and blow at the surface, waiting for it to set, letting it become tacky before positioning the long, craggy prosthetic on my face. The adhesive stung my eyes.

“It smells bad.” I’d wince and try to wipe it off. Gently, she would convince me to stop fidgeting and let the glue dry.

“Hang on, in just a few minutes we are both going to look sooo scary.” She stuck black Lee press-on nails into the beds of my fingers, then slipped plastic rings the shapes of spiders and pumpkins down over my knuckles. “There,” she said, “go look.”

I remember practicing ghoulish faces in the mirror, testing out witchy flourishes with my talons and grimacing, my neck growing damp, suffocating beneath my cheap plastic wig. I was undeniably happy. The first decade of my life is punctuated by memories of the two of us every October, preparing to go out on the town, a matching pair of toad-faced hags. There are pictures of us together, taken with the harsh flash of a disposable camera, the walls behind us stark white and washed out, our eyes red and glowing. We smiled and clawed at each other, my mother’s set of warty rubber fingers falling off in the process. Then she would stand me in a corner and train the lens on me alone, carefully folding her green fingers away from the viewfinder, smiling.

“Okay, say, ‘Halloween!’” She did it every year as a sort of benchmark, the same way other parents might track the growth of a child with a yardstick, or a pencil scratch on a pantry door. My mother traced our lives together with snapshots of her son dressed as an old crone. At the end of the night we would fall asleep tangled beneath blankets on the couch. In the background muted black and white figures lurked through lagoons and cobweb-filled passages, living out the final scenes of their stories until the following year.

I grew out of the witch costume eventually, replacing it each year with something new, shifting from zombie to vampire to mummy, food dye for blood, corn flakes and liquid latex for wounds.  My mother wore the same ragged old witch costume long after I stopped spending the holiday with her.

After I moved away for college, she would ship me boxes full of decorations: a card with a handwritten note taped inside the box flap, an envelope with a single picture of me in full costume, a caption on the back, Say Halloween, love mom. I would spend hours thumbtacking orange crepe paper along my porch railing and bending the articulated limbs of a cardstock skeleton into a friendly wave.

I was leaving work the night she called to say the package might come later that year.

“You know, I’m just not sure I’ll be able to get it there in time. I have all the stuff I want to send you, but I haven’t been able to go by the post office.” She sounded distracted. “I keep having to go back to the hospital for blood work. My Lupus is acting up. It just takes forever, and all the driving makes me tired. But I’ll get around to it this week. Don’t worry.”

A week later, my brother called and told me she had actually been calling from the hospital for the last few weeks, she hadn’t left.

“We were waiting to find out if she was going to get sent home before we said anything, but now I think you should probably come up here, tonight if you can.”

I made it home seven days before Halloween the year I turned twenty-five. When I arrived in my mother’s hospital room, I found my brother sitting beside her, watching her struggle to stay awake. I sat down next to them and waited while a group of nurses shuffled in. They unhooked her from her web of cords and machinery, then rolled her entire bed out of the room and down the hall to perform a transfusion. Through the open door I saw her look back and raise a weak hand to wave, disappointed to have to go so soon.

I only remember my mother crying in front of me a handful of times. In the second grade, I found her in our kitchen, all red-faced and bloodshot, feigning a smile when I asked her what was wrong.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she had said wiping tears from her face with her palm. “It’s my mom’s birthday, I just miss her a lot. It’s nothing.” She reached for a hug. “I shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it, I’m sorry.”

 My grandmother died of Lupus when my mother was 17 years old. People her age were planning their high school graduations and summer vacations while the woman who raised me sat tucked away in a church pew at her mother’s funeral.

I remember my mother hugging me that night in the kitchen, and I remember my arms squeezing her frail waist tightly, greedily, because at that moment losing her seemed like the worst thing that could ever happen to me, so I held onto her the only way I knew how.

***

“It’s so nice of you to come to town to see me. Dad said you were coming,” she whispered into her paper mask as the nurses hooked her back up to the monitors. She was barely there, wheezing and withered away, still pretending everything was fine. I decided to pretend with her. I remember thinking as I watched the nurses leave, Oh thank god she can’t see my face, grateful for the blue paper surgeon’s mask that obscured my twitching lips and running nose.

“Of course, Mom,” I said casually, poking around the room looking for the remote control. Her television sat in an alcove above a mini-fridge stocked full of Pedialyte and stale crackers. The remote was velcroed to the tray table attached to her bed. “Let’s see what’s on TV, there should be some scary movies on somewhere.”

I fiddled with the crooked metal antennae until the static ceased and the screen cleared. The skin on my hands cracked and stung from the white foam the nurses made me rub up to my elbows every time I entered the room. Everything was metallic and sterile. We watched Dracula in silence, but rather than lying next to her with my head in her lap, I lay beside her bed, stretched across the window seat of the hospital room, alternating glances between a dark castle on-screen, illuminated by flickering candelabras, and the light glowing down onto my mother’s face from her heart monitor.

For a brief moment, she took her eyes off the screen before us, and closed them. I waited, terrified, until she reemerged and turned to me, pulling her mask down below her chin, the paper strands stretched like a smile across her jaw.

“Oh.” Her smile softened in confusion. “Hello.” She looked down at our hands, then back up to me. “I didn’t see you come in here.”

I waited.

“You know, my youngest son is in town. He lives in Austin, but he came home to see me.” She cleared her throat and began fidgeting with the cords that snaked out of the collar of her hospital gown.

“Oh, no,” I said as I tried to stop her from getting tangled in the network of wires until she finally gave up.

 “Halloween is a big deal for us.” She pulled the mask back over her face and turned back to the television. “I’m so glad he’s back.” She paused. “I miss him all the time, so much.”

“That’s…” I said, my panicked voice muffled by my mask. I wanted to say, That’s me, mom--you’re talking about me, but I was afraid it might frighten her, so I squeezed her hand tried not to blink the tears out of my eyelashes and down my face.

“That’s so great.” I said.

I waited for my mother to fall asleep, watching the line of her heartbeat zig-zag and scroll along, listening for her wheezes to grow quiet and uniform. Then I slipped my hand out of hers and made my way to the parking lot.

My mother’s room was on the fifth floor of the hospital. She died around 8 o’clock the next morning, while I was somewhere between the second and fourth floor in the elevator. I stepped into the hallway to find a team of nurses moving quickly in and out of the open door of her room. Standing at the threshold, I could only see the end of her bed, and my mother’s tiny, socked feet, resting just beyond the hem of her blanket.

“I’m sorry, she just passed.” A masked nurse stopped me in the doorway. I stood there staring at her feet, wondering if she had been cold in the night. “Would you like to come in and see her?” I heard the elevator ding behind me and the rumble of the doors opening, the rubber soles of nurses’ shoes scuffing against the tiled hallway. I turned back into the elevator without responding and watched my mother’s room disappear behind the rolling doors.

I flew back to Austin on Halloween. My porch was half-decorated with uncarved pumpkins and holly bushes tangled with matted clumps of fake spiderweb. I was grateful to be alone, sitting on the carpeted floor of my living room with the lights out. I held a set of armor in my lap, I had made it for my costume nearly a month earlier. Bent up foil turkey pans hot glued over the legs and torso of a grey sweatsuit, the helmet was a grey knitted cap with a red feather pinned onto the side. As the sun set, I stuffed the costume into the trash and heard the voices of neighborhood families in the street: children running across lawns and yelling to one another, the distant sound of doorbells that belonged to other houses reminded me to go and turn off my porch light. As I reached for the switch, I pulled back the curtain and looked out onto the street.

Princesses and ninjas skipped across the sidewalk and held their parents hands. Wolfman and Darth Vader pushed through a crowd of Power Rangers and made their way along the edge of my neighbor’s driveway towards his door. I followed them with my eyes but stopped half-way to see a woman with three little girls in tow. They wore crinoline skirts and sequined lace tops in matching neons: green, purple and pink. The mother wore a midnight blue cape over her day clothes, paired with a mismatched black pointed hat. Its wire brim twisted and flapped in the wind, she laughed as her hand pressed the hat firmly onto her head. The three little girls carried wands with glittering plastic handles and battery-powered lights in the shape of cartoon stars. Blinking in Technicolor, they made their way toward my door. The ends of their hats sparkled with stiff veils that hung in the wind and trailed behind them as they moved. They were probably supposed to be fairies, nice ones who granted wishes and turned pumpkins into carriages, but in that moment, standing before the curtained window of my front door, they were witches, all of them.

They don’t have the noses, I thought. There aren't any warts or missing teeth. I wished for the acrid smell of spirit gum stinging my nostrils, the heat of synthetic hair on my shoulders. I crouched down low beneath the windowpane and waited for them to pass my house, but the steps grew louder and the crunching of fall leaves beneath their feet slowed until I could hear them right outside my front door. The floorboards of my porch creaked as one of the girls approached the bell.

“Go ahead.” I heard the mother whisper as I slumped onto the floor, covering my mouth to muffle sobs. The bell rang and echoed through my house all night, for what seemed like an eternity, as I waited for November to come.

***

I sat in a tour group, next to a little boy and his grandmother five years later. The man before us groaned through the crackling speakers that hung from the ceiling. His head was twisted toward the audience and frozen in pain, his plaster lips permanently parted in speech. He lay before us in on a pile of rubble. Wooden planks balanced on his chest beneath piles of massive stones. The sound of artificial wind whipped through the plastic trees and shrubs behind them as the recording continued. Another figure spoke aloud.

“What sayeth thou, Giles Corey?”

The room fell silent, waiting for the mannequin’s response. Finally, he let out another groan, followed by a pained, “Moooore weight.”

I sat giddy in my seat as the lights came back on and the tour guide continued to explain the history of the Salem witch trials. A dusty, pitchfork-wielding statue of Satan watched over the tour group as we shuffled one after another out into the rest of the museum.

“In our final segment of the tour,” our guide said into her microphone, “we’re going to be looking at different types of witches throughout history.” She led us along a wide corridor, stopping at different glass enclosures filled with dioramas of dried herbs and pagan rituals, earth mothers in peasant gowns and braids woven with garland.

“Unfortunately,” the guide paused for effect, “this is likely the most common interpretation of a witch that most people will know today.” She raised an open palm to the frozen figure of a green-skinned woman in a floor length black wool dress. She carried a broom and her nose was crooked as a broken finger. At the very tip of her chin sat an impeccably placed wart, hair and all. The crowd grumbled and the children gasped. I stood there in admiration, happy to have finally made it.

I still have the paper skeleton my mother sent me. Folded up into a pile of flat bones and hidden away in a brown shipping envelope. I take him out every year and hang him on display in different positions for guests to admire. He smiles and dances. He reminds me of what it was like the first seven years, when we were witches.

I stepped out of the gift shop and sat outside the museum entrance, breathing the smell of wet hay as I watched the second round of tours patiently line up along the street outside the old stone building.

“Excuse me.” I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to find the elderly woman I had sat next to during the presentation. Her grey hair was cropped short and a pair of glasses hung around her neck on a beaded lanyard. “Would you mind taking a picture for me?”

“Of course,” I said, turning around to take the camera. The woman slowly made her way towards a man who appeared to be in his late 30’s. Setting his little boy down, the man grinned sheepishly as the old woman took his hand and led him behind a plywood partition with two holes cut into it. Painted onto the surface facing me, two witches stood side-by-side, one stirring a cauldron, the other dropping a toad into the bubbling liquid it contained.

The man crouched down and pressed his head into the cut-out, positioning his face over the headless body of the witch stirring her cauldron. His silver-haired mother put her head into the empty spot next to him. I watched them both giggle and grin through the lens of the camera as I steadied my hand and took a deep breath. For a moment, I felt the strongest sense of familiarity, and something worked its way out of the recesses of my mind, but in an instant, it was lost.

This happens to me, memories play out in flashes, sometimes so quickly, I barely notice. I’m able to remember the tight sleeves of a funeral suit with the same vivid detail as the weight of a black witch’s dress on my shoulders. Some days, I can recall the most insignificant moments, holding my mother’s hand, following her through an empty, rain-wet parking lot. Other days, I can’t remember her face.

 

image: Carabella Sands


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