The Witch of the Abandoned Streets
The witch of the abandoned streets sits on a bench, cursing the world in her obscure witch language. She is cursing all those passers-by heading toward destinations she will never arrive at; she is cursing all those elusive pieces of time which had slipped through her thin fingers; she is cursing the superior entity above, although she is not convinced it or he or she exists any longer. Did this miserable world ever hear of such a witch? A witch who lacks witchcraft altogether but is still, nonetheless, a witch?
It is late afternoon. There isn’t any watch on her slim wrists to name the passing hours, but then again, she isn’t some random witch — she is the witch of the abandoned streets. She doesn’t need any watch — she can read the omens of time in the sky. Nobody knows how she does it exactly. Some say the movement of the clouds has something to do with it; others believe that flocks of migrating birds spell out the time for her as they hover high above. The sun disappears, enabling gloomy, dark clouds to take its place in the skies. Soft little rain drops start coming down, alternately dotting the sidewalks of the city and hiding inside the pooling puddles on the roads, upon which the cars are heading on their way home, wherever home may be. She covers her bare dirty feet with some old newspapers she had found a couple of days ago near the roofed bus stop in which she slept.
“Never hide from the rain,” her mother told her once in her childhood, a period which seems a lifetime away. “When it’s raining outside the dead can see us. They constantly, blindly seek us, feeling their way through the dark streets. The rain is just like magic. For a few short seconds, all those spirits in the sky know exactly where we are. They come down to us, leaving delicate footprints behind. They want to see our faces; see how we’re doing, their loved ones, just for a short while, before losing us again.”
Maybe her father would finally visit her? She hadn’t seen him for years, not since having left this world four days before her seventh birthday.
A little girl passes by, hiding underneath her purple umbrella. She is accompanied by a slim, tall, and clean woman, her mother. The fancy mother-woman has lipstick-red lips and cared for nails. She is wearing high heels, a sweet perfume scent following each one of her rapid footsteps. The woman’s eyes encounter the witch’s by mistake and she quickly looks away, urging her daughter to hurry up. The two of them vanish around the corner, next to the candy shop, her candy shop. The witch likes to stop in front of it every day after leaving the roofed bus stop, just before starting with her aimless daily wandering in the streets. Sometimes, on extremely difficult days, she indulges herself by visiting the shop three, even four times. Today is such a day. Out there, in front of the external side of the display window — the bad side, as she calls it — she usually observes all the childhood dreams lying on the shelves inside. She doesn’t understand that little girl. How could she just walk on by, not pausing to look at the magical world waiting for her in there? How did she let her hasty mother lead her so easily and pass over the sweet corner, the last jam left in the lonely city?
The witch rises up from the bench and follows the scent of wildflowers left behind by the fancy mother-woman. The rain keeps everyone inside, everyone but her. Now she is free to do whatever she wants. The streets are empty, which means no eyes to accidentally meet hers; an entire world intersecting for a brief moment with her own miserable world, only to disappear from her forever. No, there is no one to look at her with that expression, filled with pity, horror, and disgust. There are no eyes, she is safe. She had enough of those momentarily frontal collisions when a stranger’s glance is encountered with her beautiful, bright green eyes. She knows all too well the sort of thoughts that run inside that unfortunate victim’s head: What had happened to this woman, that made her this way? It seems she was beautiful once, very beautiful, how old is she, anyway? Who is hiding underneath the misfortunes of the street? Of the sun? But then the glance escapes, again, and there is no one to wonder who she really is and how she became to be the witch of the abandoned streets, to begin with.
The rain ceases gradually. The witch of the abandoned streets presses her face against the window and observes the weekly display. Each week the display at the window is replaced. Last week it presented a circus — a tough circus manager with a curly licorice mustache and a waffle top hat, colorful women dancers on a dark chocolate rope, marzipan lions with jellybean manes, and a multitude of small tense audience faces sitting on a biscuit made balcony. Today, the circus has been replaced with an enchanted forest — trees with flake bars as trunks and parsley-head treetops, pink gum flamingos, little white chocolate ghosts peeking behind the trees, brown bears with a belly full of colorful kisses, and jelly snakes hanging from the sweet branches.
The witch looks at the old shop owner, inside. He is standing behind the counter, ignoring her, as he always does, as they all do. Sometimes she spends hours in front of the window and observes the old man as he tends the customers, handing out chocolates. But during all this time she had known him, she had never seen him leave the store. Not once. The round moon-like old face, prolonged banana nose, and that silent smile, had always remained behind the counter. The witch looks at him as he opens the glass jars on the counter, refilling them with various kinds of chocolate and cellophane-wrapped colorful sweets. The shop is empty, enabling him to sit comfortably behind the counter and read a book. He searches in one of the drawers and takes out a pair of narrow reading glasses. She watches him, as she does every single day, and wonders if he’d been cursed, too. Is he imprisoned inside his sweet world without the ability to leave it as she is imprisoned by the abandoned streets?
As she stands outside of the old man’s spell-bounded world, she tries to figure out where to find her next meal. Perhaps from the soup kitchen located three-thousand-five-hundred-and seventy-three steps from here — her steps — as opposed to two-thousand-and-eight-hundred steps of an ordinary, healthy, and strong person. No. Perhaps she shouldn’t. She doesn’t feel like standing in the long queue along with all those lonely and miserable people. After all, she is different from them. The spell had brought her to the streets, nothing else. She would probably have to sneak into the kitchens of restaurants and cafés again, and find some leftovers before they make their way to the garbage cans.
Suddenly, she sees the reflection of a little girl in the window. It’s the same little girl who had passed by earlier, accompanied by her pretty mother. She is walking alone, back and forth, looking down at her open palms. She seems to be very concentrated. Now it’s clear that the little girl is counting the shiny coins hidden in her hands. She stomps angrily with her pink boot. The girl looks up and seems to notice the witch of the abandoned streets, whose face is still pressed to the window. She approaches her and the witch slowly turns to face her. The girl opens her small palm and reveals the shiny coins, her eyes reflecting curiosity and warmth. It’s as if she can truly see her, the real her, before the spell. The girl asks her if she could help her count the coins in her hand. Her mother told her that she can come back to the candy shop and pick one piece of candy, she tells the witch. Her mother doesn’t usually allow her to eat candy, always saying that it’s bad for the teeth, but today is the girl’s birthday and she’s willing to make an exception. Earlier, when they were still at home, her mother had asked her what she wants for her birthday this year. They were sitting in the bright white kitchen, just the two of them and eating their usual breakfast — a bowl of whole-grain cereals with pieces of fruit. No cookies. No sweets. It wasn’t allowed. The girl had been playing with her spoon, picking up a spoonful of cereal, and sinking it again in the milk. She knew what she wanted for her birthday, she had always known, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. She knew it would make her mother sad.
“How about a new dress? Would you like that sweetie?” her mother asked, stroking the girl’s long brown braid with her soft hands.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I want mom!” the girl lied.
“Then let’s finish up here and go do some shopping. We’re going to have such a fun day!” Her mother left the table and started clearing the dishes.
The witch feels paralyzed. For the first time in six months, ever since being cursed and becoming the witch of the abandoned streets, somebody is actually talking to her. Somebody is asking her for help. A little tear comes down from her eye and she quickly wipes it away. She clears her throat. It has been six months since she had last spoken or even uttered a single word.
“Can you hold all the coins you got there with one hand?” she asks the girl. Her voice trembles a bit. She is surprised that it sounds exactly like it did before the spell had been cast upon her.
“Ohh, I don’t think so,” the girl says. “There are too many. Can you maybe hold them for me?”
The witch isn’t sure if it’s a good idea. What if someone walks by and sees her taking this little girls’ money? What would they be thinking?
“Please?” the girl asks. “I can’t do it alone — it’s too much.” The girl sighs and looks down at her pink boots. “My mother doesn’t know I can’t count,” she adds, a sweet, innocent blush spreading across her young face.
“Alright.” The witch reaches out two dirty hands. She holds her palms up as if they were a bowl. The girl puts the coins in her hands.
“Can we count together? I’m not really good at counting.”
The witch feels her knees shaking. She still can’t believe the girl wants to talk with her. Her. “You just need to practice and I’m sure you’ll ace it. Let’s give it a go. Ready?”
They both start counting together. The girl takes every counted coin and puts it in her right palm. The witch looks nervously around her. There is nobody there. Just the old shop owner, too absorbed in his candy world to notice what’s outside.
“…Eighty-five, eighty-six, eighty-seven.”
“Eighty-seven!” the girl announces. She raises her round brown eyes to the witch and smiles. Her wide smile is missing three milk teeth. The girl puts back the coins in the side pocket of her blue coat and looks at the witch. “Thank you!” she says and smiles again.
The witch of the abandoned streets nods and stretches her lips. She has forgotten how to smile. Something in the girl seems different. Her smiling eyes become instantly sad as she acknowledges the witch’s bare bruised feet. “Are you a homeless person?” she asks.
The witch, astounded for a moment, tries to remind herself that children will be children, just being themselves, without all the costumes they put on once turning into adults. “No,” she answers quietly. “I have a home but I can’t go back to it because of the curse.” The witch can’t stand looking into those big brown eyes, withdrawing her gaze. Those young eyes are forcing her to remember.
“A curse?” the girl asks. “A real curse, like those in the fairy tales?”
“Yes”, says the witch and moans. She takes a tissue out of the pocket of her torn stained jacket and wipes her face with it. The tissue is so dirty, it seems to make her face even dirtier.
“Can you please tell me about the curse? What did it do yo you? Who cast it?” The girl can’t believe she is talking with someone who had been cursed. “Maybe if I hear more about it I’d be able to help you break it.”
“I can’t remember.” The witch looks at the sky. “You should go and buy yourself a treat and then hurry back to your mother. I’m sure she will start getting worried soon.”
“When is my mother not worried?” The girl takes off her pink wool scarf. She looks like she wants to say something more. “She wasn’t always like this. She changed when my sister disappeared almost three years ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the witch says. She feels so sad and angry at the same time. The girl is so young. Why did she need to experience all that sadness at such a young age? She has her entire life for that. Why so soon?
“We were on a trip together, the three of us, mom, Anna and me,” the girl says. Her voice sounds different than before. If the witch were to close her eyes right now, she could quite easily think that she’s talking to an adult and not to a little girl. “We went to the beach. There were so many people there. We held our mom’s hands but some man bumped into her and she let go. When she turned to take our hands again, she could only see me. I don’t remember much of it. I only remember that I was never as scared as when I saw my mother screaming and running, trying to find Anna.”
“You are a brave girl,” the witch says.
“No, I’m not. I should have taken care of Anna. I am the older one.” The girl kicks an empty can rolling on the street. “Can you tell me now about the curse?” It’s clear that she doesn’t want to talk about her sister anymore.
“Very well. Before the curse, I was working as a nurse. I had a loving husband and two daughters. I looked different, not ugly like I am now.” She sees her reflection looking back at her from the display window. Her hair is a black tangled mess, her skin grayish from dried dust and mud, her shoulders skinny and slouching. Her eyes are the same eyes, though. Bright green. She had gotten them from her grandmother.
“And what happened?” the girl asks.
“My husband became sick. He promised me that he would win this disease. He was actually doing better at one point, but then he started feeling bad again. He simply gave up and left me all alone.” Should she be talking about these things with such a little girl?
“But what about your daughters?” the girl asks.
“My daughters are all grown up and have their own lives now. They want nothing to do with me. Not after the curse. They are ashamed of me.”
“Did they leave because of the curse?”
“Yes, I believe so.” What a lie!
“But who cast it? We have to stop him, so you could go back home and see your daughters,” the girl announces, determined.
“I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that.” But she does know. What if she tells the little girl that it was all her fault? Would she still want to help her? What if she tells her how him giving up on her, had pushed her to the very edge? How her inability to forgive him turned her into the wretched creature she is today? How she couldn’t take it any longer and left for the streets, where nobody knew her; where they all just let her be. She wants the girl to understand that life is a constant struggle and those who are not strong enough, disappear. Like her.
Instead, she tells the girl about the curse. How she woke up six months ago, not recognizing the face looking back at her from the mirror; how the curse made her leave: first her job, then her family and friends. The last thing she remembers from that day is taking some random bus and heading towards a far away city, in which nobody knew her. And here she is now. A homeless person, like the girl said, but not a real homeless, like the others, because she had a home.
Little drops of sadness appear in the girl’s eyes as she asks her how the spell can be broken. Surely there’s a way, there always is. But before she has the chance to answer, the door opens. The old shopkeeper peeks out, asking the witch to step aside and leave the girl alone. It is the first time he bothers to look at her; it’s the first time he isn’t ignoring her. But his stare is hideously ordinary, just like all the other stares. The round moon-like face, prolonged banana nose, and silent smile vanish in the haze. The familiar fear and aversion appear, instead. He invites the girl in. It’s cold outside and he can help her choose a special chocolate inside. The girl looks at the witch and asks her if she can come inside as well and help her choose a candy. She had almost never eaten candies before and she doesn’t know what to choose. The witch tries to smile at the girl, but instead of a smile appears some sort of hybrid creature, half spasm half smile. The spell doesn’t enable her to smile. The girl takes her hand and leads her into the store, but the old man holds them back. He can’t let the witch go inside. It’s not a place for people of her sort. She’d probably steal from him and god knows how dangerous she really is. The girl tells him that if he won’t let the witch in, she too would leave. At last, the old man complies. He walks beside the girl, showing her the exhibit of the enchanted forest and accompanies her alongside the candy-filled shelves. It is warm in the store and the sweet smells seize the witch. She hadn’t smelled such great scents for a long time. She lumbers behind the old man and the girl, listening, together with the girl, to the man’s explanations. “Here, in this jar, are chocolate fudge balls and here,” he points at the blue jar, just beside it, “are caramelized almonds.”
The old man offers her to taste some sweets, so she would know what flavor to choose, but the girl shakes her head and explains that she had promised her mother to only pick one piece of candy. The old man smiles and promises that she doesn’t need to worry, he won’t tell. The girl keeps on shaking her head.
The witch doesn’t understand her. It is almost impossible to leave the old man’s enchanted world with only one piece of candy. Were she to pick out only one piece of candy, what would it be? She realizes that she doesn’t even remember what is her favorite candy. The girl turns to her again and asks her to choose a candy, whatever she wants, but without telling her what she chose. The girl quickly covers her eyes with her tiny hands. The witch tries to explain that she doesn’t even remember what chocolate tastes like, that it would be better if the girl chose herself. But the girl wouldn’t hear it, her small hands still covering her eyes and her back turned to the witch, just like in hide-and-seek.
Being left with no choice, the witch examines the shelves, going from one to the other. She glances in the girl’s direction. She doesn’t even try to peek like most children would. The witch tries to remember what her favorite candy as a child was, but the spell is too strong. Dark chocolate with nuts? No. Strawberry-filled white chocolate? Not quite. A white-chocolate-bellied hedgehog with sweet cigarette spines catches her eye. The hedgehog it is! She asks the girl to open her eyes and points at the hedgehog. The girl jumps up and down for joy. The chosen hedgehog is gently placed on the counter and the old man puts it inside a sealed brown bag. The girl asks the old man the price of the hedgehog and smiles when she understands the coins in her pocket are enough. The girl opens the bag, looks inside and takes out the hedgehog. She gently divides it into two halves and hands one of them to the witch.
The door of the shop swings wide open and brings in the cold winter wind. The hasty mother approaches the counter, holding small bags with gold-plated names of famous jewelry designers. She looks disbelievingly at the witch of the abandoned streets and then at the indifferent old man behind the counter. She takes the brown bag out of the girl’s hands, puts it on the counter, and grabs the girl with force, leading her out of the store. The witch, who is left inside the candy shop, looks beyond the display window. Out there, she sees the girl as she tries to release herself from her mother’s grip, whose shouts are well heard even beyond the closed door. Tears are coming down from the girl’s brown eyes and she stomps with her pink boot again, screaming at her mother that she still doesn’t know how to break the spell. The witch hadn’t told her yet. Her mother drags her along the street and they both disappear.
The old man asks her to leave. He didn’t want to be blunt around the girl, but now that the girl is gone, it’s time for her to leave as well. She doesn’t want to cause any trouble and quietly steps out of the store. Outside, there isn’t a sign of the girl and her mother. Even the scent of the wildflowers has evaporated by now.
The witch of the abandoned streets walks by herself, not taking her eyes off the injured chocolate hedgehog. She wanted to catch up with the girl and her hasty mother and return the hedgehog, but they were too fast, and now there is no telling where they are. The sky above is completely gray and the streets are emptier and more silent than ever. The cafés have brought all the chairs inside; the restaurants have already turned on the lights inside, the faces of the diners looking joyfully at their plates, not caring what’s out there, in the dark streets; the food stands from the festival are gone and so is the music; the street artists who had presented their crafts to all of the onlookers, are not there any longer, and so are the visitors and the beggars, hoping to exploit the turmoil of the fair for a few extra bucks.
The night is falling as she heads back to the roofed bus stop. She looks around and searches for something to wrap herself with during the cold night. Tonight she isn’t as lucky as the night before when she, at least, had some newspapers to cover herself with. She stares at the brown bag with the chocolate hedgehog in her hands. Although she’s extremely hungry, she can’t bring herself to eat it. She will look for the girl again, tomorrow. She will bring her the hedgehog, with both of its split parts.
The witch lies down on the bench, trying to fall asleep despite the cold wind blowing outside, but it’s of no use. The memories awaken in her head and threaten to defeat her. Why isn’t she able to forget it like she had forgotten so many other things? It has been six months now. No. It is far too early to come back home and there is no point either. They probably think she isn’t alive anyway. She shakes her head and tries to think of something else. She remembers how the girl had looked at her. It was just like he used to look at her. Gentle raindrops start coming down from the sky. She imagines how the invisible dead make their way to her as the rain becomes stronger. Maybe they will take her with them this time, to him. She only barely swallows the lump in her throat and gives into the blessed darkness.