by Matt McGowan
The only witch I knew was Marcella Coral. Marcella lived in the big plantation house on the other side of the split-rail fence that separated the 1960s from the 1860s. Our lot was next to hers, at the edge of town, where a developer had subdivided property and installed a microcosm of suburbia – four ranch-style houses on land homesteaded by the man who built Marcella’s house.
Marcella was a bit of a hermit. Caleb and I were always trying to glimpse her tending her vegetable garden or waiting out on the front circle drive for the woman who picked her up every Wednesday morning to take her to the hairdresser. In this endeavor we were mostly unsuccessful, because school kept us away nine months out of the year, and Marcella guarded her privacy.
But sometimes it worked, and one time, in the summer of 1979, when I was twelve and Caleb was nine, it paid off handsomely.
On the other side of Marcella lived a wealthy but eccentric couple. These folks I didn’t know too well, but everyone in town was talking about them because hairy beasts roamed their property. The story I heard was they had visited Scotland, where they observed a special breed of long-haired cattle. They liked these animals so much they brought a few home. Eventually there were half a dozen of these bizarre-looking creatures with manes, mustaches and beards.
Occasionally one or two of them would find a gap in the fence and end up grazing in our yard or Marcella’s. I once saw one right outside my bedroom window. Another time I spotted one way over on the other side of the road, chomping corn in the big field next to the airport.
The day we got lucky, we weren’t spying on Marcella. We were just hanging around, playing in the yard, when we heard her scream. I ran to the fence and saw one of the fairytale-looking cows rooting around in Marcella’s garden.
Marcella appeared stranded, a prisoner on her own porch, standing there with her hands over her ears. The beast was straight across the backyard, no more than forty feet from the house porch. It was sniffing soil and ripping out radishes and peppers and asparagus. I happened to know that my father had warned Marcella that if she didn’t put a fence around that little garden, the deer and coons would feast on it. But Marcella balked. She told him she had her own “spiritual” methods of keeping critters away from her “roots,” as she called them.
Her scream sounded like someone had just been tossed into a fire.
“Mrs. Coral!” I shouted. She didn’t hear me.
Caleb and I hopped the fence and hacked our way through privet and honeysuckle.
“Mrs. Coral!” I yelled again.
This time she heard me and gestured for us to come toward her.
I didn’t know if Marcella really was a witch. That’s what my mom called her. There was nothing malevolent about this. She said Marcella had identified herself as one. All I knew was that Marcella was the old woman who wore colorful, flowing skirts; droopy cardigans; dozens of bracelets on both wrists; and a chain to hold her glasses.
Caleb and I ran to her and stopped at the bottom of her porch. She looked down at us through her spectacles. Her gray hair was a mess, slowly unraveling from a bun on the top of her head. The wrinkles and moles on her face and the black hairs sprouting out of her chin made her look even more exotic, like a gypsy from Bulgaria.
“Ma’am,” I said. “We can get him for you.”
“You’re not afraid of it?” said Marcella.
“No’m. It won’t hurt me. We’ve dealt with ‘em before.”
Marcella nodded and then looked at my brother. I did too. His eyes were wide open, like he expected Marcella to cast a spell on him.
“Hey to you,” she said to Caleb. “You appear mighty small to be handlin’ a beast like that.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Caleb.
Marcella then pointed toward the garden and the animal destroying her radishes. When Caleb and I reached it, the beast was uprooting a turnip. “Hey,” I said, “put that down,” but the animal acted as if it hadn’t heard me. Then I touched its shoulder. It lifted its head and looked at me dumbly. Caleb and I watched it consume the leaf and stem until the turnip snapped off and fell to the ground.
“How’s it look over there?” said Marcella.
“Torn up some,” I said.
“Can you get it out of there?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“You do that,” said Marcella. “I’ll take care of everything else.”
I took the beast by the scruff and we guided it out of Marcella’s garden. On the far side of the garden, closer to the edge of the valley that sloped down to the creek, we turned the animal around and then walked single-file through an old, rickety gate. When we reached the other side, now standing on the eccentric folks’ property, Marcella called to us.
We turned around and saw that she had walked to south end of the porch. The columns and portico towered above her, like the set of a movie.
“Ma’am?” I yelled.
“You come back this way when you’re done.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
We guided the animal through an open gate behind the barn. Returning to Marcella’s property, we found her in the garden, stamping down tufts of sod ripped up by the cow. She looked disappointed, but this attitude did not spill over onto my brother and me. In fact, when we reached her, she pointed to the stairs, where two bottles of Coca-Cola were waiting for us.
“Have a seat,” she said. “Thank you for getting that wildebeest away from my herbs.”
The Cokes tasted sweet. Marcella ducked inside her kitchen while we drank them in the hot sun. She returned with four cookies, two each for my brother and me, and a wooden chair for her. Facing the east, she sat in the chair and stared at the massive catalpa ten feet from the garden. Its petals were floating to the ground like snowflakes. Then, twisting her torso, she turned back toward the kitchen.
“This old house was here years before the town,” she said. “Built in 1842.”
“Whoa,” said Caleb. “That’s a looooong time ago.”
Then he frowned and furled his brow. His brain was calculating.
“And did you know there was a family of pigs livin’ in it when we got here,” said Marcella. “Wild boars. Mean!”
“What kind of boars?” said Caleb. He was always reading books about animals, and he loved watching Wild Kingdom with our dad.
“I don’t know, honey,” said Marcella. “They had brown hair, kind of bristly on the spine. They weren’t farm pigs, I know that.”
Caleb and I swigged the Cokes. I was only halfway through mine, and I already wanted another. Next door, we didn’t get much sugar.
“There were seven doors,” said Marcella. “Can you imagine that? All these big windows and seven doors. I betcha it got mighty cold during the winter.”
“Seven doors?” said Caleb, sounding precocious. “Where were they?”
“My gosh, all over the place,” said Marcella. “Four downstairs and three up.”
She removed her glasses and looked off toward the woods and the creek. “We took ‘em out,” she said. “Who needs seven doors?”
“Mmm mmm,” said Caleb, shaking his head, trying to look like an adult.
My attention was split between another Coke and Marcella’s description of the house. I would never ask for another drink, but I wasn’t sure about my brother. I kept an eye on him and waited for an opportunity to preempt him from asking.
As if he expected this, and he probably did, he did not look at me before speaking again. “Mrs. Coral,” he said. “You got any more of those cookies?”
Marcella planted her hands on the armrests and shoved herself out of the chair.
“Oh,” I said, “we don’t need … ” She hobbled across the porch and disappeared into the kitchen. She wasn’t listening or couldn’t hear me, but I also did not want to finish the sentence, because I, too, wanted another cookie.
As soon as she entered the house, I slapped my brother’s head. “Don’t do that,” I said. “It’s rude.”
“Stop it,” said Caleb. He did not retaliate but only because he was on someone else’s turf. “What’s rude?”
“Asking for more cookies,” I said.
“But they were good.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
We could hear Marcella returning, humming.
“Don’t ask for another Coke,” I said before she made it to the door. “One’s enough.”
“You’re not my boss,” said Caleb.
“Don’t!” I said, eyeing him severely.
Marcella returned with another plate. This one had five cookies. She gave two more each to Caleb and me, and she ate one. When she finished hers, she looked toward the creek again and nodded. Then she gave us what we’d really come here for.
“There was a little girl,” she said. “Upstairs.” Marcella leaned forward and touched Caleb’s head. “She was about your age. Eight, maybe nine years old. She wore a pretty white dress and a bow in her hair.”
“Who … Was she your granddaughter?” asked Caleb.
“Oh no, honey,” said Marcella. “My only granddaughter’s older than you. She was in high school back then.”
“Well who was she then?” said Caleb, a half-eaten cookie dangling from his hand.
Marcella laughed. “Well,” she said, “I did a little research on that. I think she was Belle Anne Whitehurst. It was her family who lived here during the war. She was just a little girl then.”
Marcella stopped and looked at Caleb. Then she turned back toward the creek. “I heard bushwhackers killed ‘em,” she said.
Caleb looked at me. The cookie was still uneaten. He had many questions. “What are bushwhackers?” was the first one.
“Soldiers, honey,” Marcella said. “Vigilantes, unofficial soldiers.”
“Oh,” said Caleb, returning to the cookie.
“But I don’t see her these days,” Marcella said. “She used to visit me a lot back when we first moved in.”
“Did she talk to you?” I asked.
“No,” said Marcella. “I talked to her. I asked her questions, but she never answered.”
“Was she nice?” said Caleb.
“Oh yes. She was darling. She came around frequently. I think she was worried about the place. I told her everything was okay, that we’d take care of her home.”
Marcella stared wistfully at the woods and the creek. It looked like she was trying to remember something.
“There was a storm,” she said, her voice lowering to a hush. “Oh, it was terrible. It happened in the summer, ‘round this time of year. We hadn’t lived here too long, maybe three years. Jimmy Jr. was in college. But he was home for the summer, and I was trying to get him to behave. Well … He really wasn’t doing anything wrong, nothing most kids his age didn’t do, just staying out late with friends.”
She patted Caleb’s knee. “I’m not naïve,” she said. “I knew what they were doin’. Drinkin’ and maybe other things. I worried about him.”
Caleb nodded, but he had no idea what she was talking about.
“Anyway,” said Marcella, “he was always coming home long after I’d gone to bed. Sometimes he’d be loud in the kitchen, and he’d wake me up. But I didn’t mind because that meant he was home and safe. I could rest easier then.
“Well, this night was different. We were trying to find out about the storm on the TV, but the reception was bad and finally the electricity went out. We thought it might be a tornado. Rain was coming down sideways, and the wind was blowing something fierce, just thrashing the front of the house. Oh, it was awful.
“And the old walnut tree … Years later we had to cut it down. Well that night, that old tree was swaying and bending so hard I thought it would snap. Its branches were scraping across the side of the house, right around the corner there.”
Marcella pointed to her right, beyond the end of the porch. I stepped up to the top step and looked over there. You could still see a hillock where the stump used to be.
“I was a nervous wreck,” said Marcella. “We stayed down in that cellar during the worst of it. I was worried about us and the house, and I had no idea where Jimmy Jr. was. Something told me … Let’s just say I had a premonition that something bad was gonna happen.”
As she got deeper into the story, an edge crept into Marcella’s voice. There was just enough emotion in it to scare me a little. I stepped back down to the bottom of the stairs. My brother was sitting on the edge of the fourth step. I could tell he was trying not to look scared. His jaw was set and he stroked his thighs with clenched fists.
“This went on for a long time,” said Marcella. “We stayed out in that cellar for at least an hour. But finally, around midnight, Jimmy and I crawled out and ran to the house. We figured that if the storm hadn’t knocked everything down by then, it probably wouldn’t. After we got inside, it was bad for a while longer. The rain was just lashing that big living-room window. But then, slowly, everything quieted down.”
When she said this last part, her voice lowered again, and her arm swept across the porch. Her hand, the way she held it, looked like one of those preachers on TV.
I looked at Caleb. He was at war with himself, badly wanting to stay and hear the rest of the story but also wanting to bolt off the steps.
“I was so tired and my nerves were shot,” said Marcella. “I tried to wait for Jimmy Jr. to come home, but after I got calmed down, I just couldn’t stay awake.
“Anyway, about an hour later, something woke me up. I couldn’t say what it was right offhand, but as soon my eyes opened I heard a crashing sound, like someone had dropped a silver tray or a cookie sheet. My eyes popped wide open then. I listened for a while and sat up. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would jump right out of my chest. I looked over at Jimmy. Bless his heart. He was snorin’. Nothin’ could wake that man up.
“It was quiet for a while. But then I heard voices. It sounded like two people shouting. But they were far away, maybe outside or tucked away in a room downstairs.”
“Who was it?” blurted Caleb.
Marcella touched his knee again. The veins on her neck and arms bulged. “Well,” she said, “It had to be Jimmy Jr. And I was mad, because I had just fallen asleep. Instead of feeling relieved that he was home and safe, I was angry that he woke me up.
“So I started to get out of bed.” Marcella thrummed Caleb’s knee with the ends of her arthritic fingers. “And I’ll never forget this, never, as long as I live. I was sitting right up there on the edge of that bed. My feet were touching the floor.”
“What happened?” said Caleb.
Marcella’s fingers clutched his knee. Her head hunkered down between her shoulders and she leaned in toward us. “I heard a door slam. Hard. And loud. It sounded like it was right outside our bedroom.”
I felt goosebumps on my arms. Caleb’s left hand touched the back of my knee. His other hand held on to the stair railing. He looked like he was trying to hold himself down.
“And then,” said Marcella, “real fast, one right after another, I heard six more doors slam, just as loud as the first one.”
Caleb flinched. I felt his hand squeeze my leg. “Seven doors!” he said.
“That’s right!” said Marcella.
“Then what?” said Caleb.
“Well it had to be Jimmy Jr.,” said Marcella. “I was mad! That was the only thing that gave me the courage to go out there.”
Caleb lifted his butt off the step. He crouched there, poised, like a cat ready to pounce.
“So I opened the bedroom door and walked out into the hall. I just knew I’d find Jimmy Jr. out there. But he wasn’t. There was no one. I called for him. No answer. So I marched down to his bedroom. He wasn’t there, either.
“Those doors I heard were awful loud, like they were right outside our bedroom, but then I thought maybe it was downstairs.” Marcella stopped here and scratched her chin. “So I walked to the end of the hallway, all the way down to the door that took you out to the front balcony.”
Caleb was vibrating. His fingernails dug into my flesh.
“The door was open,” said Marcella. “Just a crack, three inches maybe. This was strange. We didn’t use that door ‘cause we never went out on that balcony.”
“Who was it?!” said Caleb.
“Now here’s the thing,” said Marcella. “And you can’t repeat this or tell anyone. I haven’t even told my own daughter this.”
“What?!” said Caleb, his butt bouncing against his heels. “Told her what?!”
“Well, when I put my hand on that door, to open it farther, I felt something touch my back.”
Caleb reared back and almost lost his balance. “What?!” he said. “What was it?”
“A hand!” said Marcella, pointing behind her. “Right back here on my shoulder.”
“What’d you do?” said Caleb.
“Turned around,” said Marcella.
And who was it?”
“No one,” she said. “There was no one there.”
“Gaw aaaahhd!” said Caleb, shivering.
Marcella laughed. I slapped the back of his head. He looked at me and frowned.
“You think it was the girl?” asked Caleb.
Marcella thought for second. She stared at the creek. The look on her face mirrored the look she had when she did that before. Wistful. Then she started shaking her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve thought about that a lot, and I really don’t know.”
“That’s a good story,” I said.
“But I’m not finished,” said Marcella. “Don’t you want to know why that door was open?”
“I don’t care to,” said Caleb.
“Did the ghost open it?” I said.
“No,” said Marcella. “Guess who I found out there on the balcony?”
“Jimmy Jr.?” said Caleb. “Was it?”
“You’re a smart one,” said Marcella. “And the funny thing was, I scared him. He nearly jumped off that balcony when I asked him what he was doing out there.”
Marcella laughed at herself. I decided I liked her very much.
“And do you know what he said?” asked Marcella, picking up the plate and Coke bottles and turning toward the kitchen.
“No ma’am,” said Caleb.
“He said he was looking for the person who slammed those doors.”
Caleb stayed right next to me all the way home. We walked in silence. Then, right before we reached the driveway, I felt his hand on my elbow.
“Do you believe all that?” he said.
“Nah,” I said. “Not really.”
We saw Marcella many times after that. Sometimes she would wave. When she did, I noticed something about her, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. There was distance, a vacant look, as if she didn’t know us or had forgotten about the day she told us about the storm and the little girl who visited her.
But we hadn’t forgotten. Years later, we attended her memorial service in an old, country church. Our mother sat between us on a pew near the back of the nave. Several people, including a gray-haired Jimmy Jr., told stories about Marcella. Jimmy’s characterization of his mother as “colorful” caused Caleb and I to recall the same thing, and we both leaned forward and smiled at each other across our mother.
When Caleb leaned back against the pew, I noticed something odd. On the other side of the aisle, sitting by herself at the far end of a pew one row in front of ours, was a little girl. I could not see her face, but I could tell that she was wearing a white dress and had a bow in her hair. I watched her for a while. She didn’t move, and no one came for her. And then I couldn’t see her because the pallbearers came forward and carried the casket down the aisle. When they and the family passed, I looked again, and the little girl was gone.
Matt McGowan grew up in Southwest Missouri, primarily in Webb City, a small town founded on lead-ore and zinc mining. He finished high school there and attended the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History and master’s degree in Journalism. He is married with five children and works as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. Before that, he was a newspaper reporter. He has been writing fiction for about 15 years. When not writing or working or taking care of his family, he reads, runs, swims, cycles, lifts weights, hikes and floats Ozark rivers. He doesn’t fish or hunt, and he doesn’t watch too much television.