The Stake

The news came on at midnight, at the end of Eric Garner’s smoke break. The witch’s house was burning. Everyone had been inside.

No one but Eric called the witch “the witch”. They called her other things, and even occasionally by her real name, but whenever Eric spoke of “the witch” everyone seemed to grow inexplicably uncomfortable around him. It was, Eric reflected, the nature of witchcraft to make the innocent doubt its reality.

At the news of the witch’s fate, Eric’s colleagues muttered their apologies. They avoided his gaze, and averted their eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Joe, one of the receptionists at the front desk, said.

“Whatever for?” said Eric.

Joe stared. “Well… your… your family was staying there.”

Eric shrugged and tapped out the ash from his cigarette. “They’re not my family anymore,” he responded.

Joe looked at him, and Eric saw the young man’s kind gray eyes draw back and hide itself, and then his eyes were as distant and uneasy as the others’ were. Eric turned away, and then he heard Joe speak behind him.

“Did you do it, Eric?”

Well, Eric thought, at least he had the guts to ask. “Of course not,” he replied. “What sort of question is that?”

— —

Joe later confided to a friend, “I didn’t ask.”

— —

Eric had never liked the witch when she first moved into the little house by the edge of town, even before he figured out she was a witch.

He was pretty sure the witch had never liked him either.

He had been doing quite well before the witch. His wife was sweet, his daughter caused him no trouble. He’d had a job at a bank which brought in a good income. Life was good.

But the witch ruined everything.

Even before they ever spoke he had disliked her. Something about her had seemed wrong. It wasn’t anything rational, he thought as he observed her walking down the street to her home (just a few streets from Eric’s). But it wasn’t less real.

By chance, it began to rain. It had been an unusually stormy spring, and everyone was heartily sick of the weather. If not for this, and what happened next, Eric sometimes thought, he might never have known about the witch.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Eric muttered, entirely to himself, “not again.”

There was no way she could have heard, but as soon as he spoke the witch’s head snapped up. The box in her arms fell to the ground and her eyes sparkled with anger (which, somehow, he knew were green…) She sank to the ground with a cry at the Lord’s name.

Eric’s wife, a dull though occasionally kindhearted woman, had rushed out of the kitchen where she had been baking a welcome pie. She ran over to the witch and helped her up. Later, she told Eric that she had apparently been struck by a sudden stomachache.

But from that moment, as he watched his wife help the witch struggle to her feet, her face hard with malice… Eric was sure. She was a witch. She had powers, and she hated God. She was evil.

And she knew that he knew.

— —

It hadn’t gotten better.

Soon the witch had struck back, in the form of a swarm of black flies. They crawled on his kitchen walls, made his young daughter burst into tears. No matter how many poisons his wife applied, she could not get rid of them. Only Eric knew what they really meant- and the witch. Her black eyes glittered with satisfaction every time he passed her.

Somehow he was sure they were black.

To his disgust, his wife started to fraternize with the witch. He came home each day to hear his wife casually gossip about the witch- her life, her job, her house, like she was just another one of the neighbors.

Eric did not know at first what to do about the witch. In modern times no one said how to deal with actual evil. He had never thought about evil before, but now he realized it was everywhere. How had he not noticed? He saw the darkness hiding behind everyday life. The flat female faces on television, dark mold on a forgotten loaf of bread, all hid the familiar shadow of the malevolence of the witch’s face when she heard the lord’s name.

But Eric felt enlightened, not afraid. He fought back in his own way. As he passed the witch’s house on his way to work, he spoke old prayers he hadn’t thought of since he was a child. When he cursed at some mundane misfortune, he remembered how the witch had whitened (had known, somehow) he first time he saw her and had unknowingly broken her façade with the Lord’s name, exposing for that crucial second the wickedness within.

But the witch’s little curses continued. Mold sprouted on the bathroom tiles. Things broke. His daughter’s grades dropped. Eric began to have chestaches, pain in his lungs that burned whenever he smoked a cigarette or exerted himself to hard.

As he inspected a batch of bills at the postbox (exterminators for the flies, doctors for headaches, tutors for the daughter, and a thousand others for every damn thing) his chest flaring up, he somehow knew to look up- and across the street he saw the witch’s gaze, quickly turning away but sparkling with secret amusement.

To his disgust, one day he came home and found his wife and the witch talking quietly together in the kitchen, flies buzzing around their heads.

He asked his wife to stop talking to the witch. She was offended. There was an argument, which turned into a fight. He saw a nasty glitter in her warm blue eyes. It was an unhappy week.

His daughter came home crying. Girls, she said, were cruel to her. Anger rose in his chest. How dare she bring his daughter into this. This was between the two of them. He went to the girl’s home and talked to her parents. The girl’s eyes glittered insincerely as she lied her way through her apology.

He thought of that insincere eye as he dropped a glass at work. That evening his daughter came home and reported that the lead girl had slipped in gym and was in the hospital with a broken ankle. God was listening.

However, curses continued to plague Eric’s house. Ants crawled into his daughter’s bed, making her shriek in the night. A nasty smell lingered in the basement. Food seemed to rot twice as fast than normal, and flies hung around the kitchen in twos and threes constantly. He was sure it was the witch’s doing, as it got worse each time he made a little secret stab at her.

Little battles, he thought, but he would win.

But witch’s curses must have taken its toll on her body, because every time he saw her she was paler and thinner. She started going outside less and less. Eric watched carefully.

But good things never last. He banned his wife from talking to the witch and she argued, again. The witch was her friend. She had cancer (which Eric was surprised but pleased to learn of.) He was firm. Their relationship got cold.

Smoking made his lungs hurt, so he started getting drunk. He went to the bar after work, but he started bringing bottles home with him. One night, when he and his wife were alone, he got too drunk. He spoke too much about what he knew about the witch. He was never sure what he’d said or done exactly- his wife was too afraid to tell him.

Next day, she and their daughter were gone. They left a note, which was long and meaningless at the same time. The witch looked in amusement at Eric as he went up and down the streets, searching, head pounding.

He waited for his daughter to go to school. She didn’t come for a long time, but he waited until she did. It took a lot of effort for him not to run to her immediately, but instead he followed her. And, well, he wasn’t pleased when she quietly ducked into the witch’s garden. He saw his wife through the kitchen curtains, talking intently with the witch. The witch looked back at him.

His wife’s lawyer told him that she wanted a divorce. His wife and daughter continued to live at the witch’s house. Eric no longer bothered hiding his dislike of the witch in front of his friends, and his friends alternately agreed, and tried to change the subject.

A doctor checked out Eric’s cough, which was worse. The doctor said it was probably asthma, though he was willing to do more tests. In the doctor’s waiting room, he met the witch sitting there.

— — -

Eric wanted the witch to die. He stood outside, chainsmoking cigarettes. He thought hard about the witch, his wife, and his daughter. The exhaled smoke curled into the cold winter air. A fly landed on his hand, which seemed like a good omen.

Which was when he got the news that the witch’s house had burned down.

— — —

After he broke away from work, he stumbled home, where he fell asleep on the couch almost immediately, the flies on the ceiling tracing patterns inside his head.

He dreamed that the dead witch was sitting on his chest, a black and narrow figure, so that he couldn’t breathe. The witch’s eyes were the only things with any color left in her face. Of course it wasn’t over.

Also the room smelled strongly like gasoline.

“Get out,” he rasped.

The witch jumped back, but the pressure in Eric’s chest didn’t let up. He started to cough.

“You’re awake,” she said. “I’d have thought you needed your sleep after your stunt. Well, you do have power, of course.”

Eric laughed, though he struggled to move. He could not get up from the couch, as if the witch were still sitting on his chest. “I thought you were dead.”

“I was in the hospital,” the witch said, “actually, when you burned my house down. I’m very sick, you may have heard. You,” she sighed, “have been cursing me ever since you met me. Witches can tell, you know.”

Eric blinked away the fog of sleep over his brain. The smell of gasoline triggered alarm bells in the back of his mind.

Blearily, he remembered how the name of the Lord had caused the witch such pain, so long ago. He started to recite his prayers again. The witch swayed on her feet, as Eric spat out everything she had done to him.

“I didn’t do that,” she said. “We have rules.” She lit a match. “It’s not God you’ve been talking to.” She took out a box of matches.

The room was dark but flies were still everywhere. They crawled over the walls and ceiling, and over the witch’s face. The witch grimaced as she lit a match. Eric tried to raise his hand to stop her, but it was too heavy.

“You made me very sick,” the witch said listlessly. “You burned your family. This is the only way to break the curse. Sorry, Mr. Garner. If you’re in there.”

“Help me Lord,” Eric muttered. “Get rid of her.”

The witch moved forward to stop him from speaking but jerked back.

One of the shadows on the wall moved. The flies on the ceiling and the walls and in the air moved as a group in front of Eric to protect him from the witch, biting her hands and arms. Eric coughed and coughed. To his relief, he finally felt the pressure in his chest disappear as the flies crawled out. They left him feeling light as air.

The witch backed away, but the shadow came closer, the flies sent by Eric’s Lord swarming as thick as a shield.

They were, Eric thought, shaped just like an angel.

Unfortunately, the witch threw her lit match into the pool of gasoline just before it reached her.

The second fire that night burned so hot that no one could come near it until morning. Neither witch was seen again. Though everyone wished there had been more bones.