Read More: A brief interview with John Van Kirk
The horsechestnut tree was unclimbable from the ground—the trunk was too big around and didn’t fork until too high—but if you shinnied up the sassafras tree next to it, and then leaned over, you could cross into the horsechestnut’s crown. From there you could go up and up, as Henry Bowman and Joey Verdi had just done. Now, from a perch high in the upper branches, they had a clear view of the Weird Sisters’ house, a tilting construction of boards and concrete blocks almost hidden behind the twisted trees and overgrown bushes of the lot that capped the T where Verrazano Street ended at Delaware.
Two of the house’s inhabitants, believed by all the local children to be witches, were hunched over in a vast back garden, pulling carrots from orderly but overflowing vegetable beds. One was dressed all in black. Henry had seen her many times, limping down Verrazano past his house in the morning—his mother said that she was probably walking home from early mass, but Henry didn’t believe that, and he would always check to make sure she wasn’t coming, or that she had already passed, before he’d head up the street to Joey’s. The other one was dressed in a dull red sweater, khaki pants, and sneakers; her hair was covered with a purple scarf. Henry had seen her only once before, but he remembered it vividly: late one Sunday night she had appeared frozen in the headlights of his father’s station wagon, caught like a raccoon in the act of going through the Bowmans’s garbage cans—she’d drawn her arms out of the trash without straightening up, then moved sedately off, pushing a half-full grocery cart. Now, as the boys watched from the tree, she rose up for a moment, pressed her hands against the small of her back, stretched in a patch of sunlight, then bent back over the vegetable garden. The huge, bright carrots seemed to come up easily out of the soft black soil, and the sister witches piled them in a rusty toy wagon.
“So when you gonna do it?” Joey asked quietly.
“I’ll do it,” Henry whispered. “Don’t worry; I’ll do it.”
Just then they heard a sound like the harsh call of a crow below them, and they looked down to see a crooked arm and crooked bony finger flapping from one of the windows toward the women working in the garden, who answered back in words the boys didn’t understand.
“That’s the really bad one,” Joey said. “Nobody’s ever seen her face.”
When the boys climbed down, they had to hang by their hands from the lowest branch and drop to the ground, because there was no way you could get back to the sassafras without a partner on it to swing it over to you.
A few days later, Henry and Joey slipped again into the wooded lot next to the complicated, leaning, witch house, taking cover in a mossy dent behind a fallen pine. Henry had five small rocks. Nobody else was around, and the woods were eerily quiet; not even the chatter of a squirrel or the whistle of a bird broke the stillness. Henry stood up and threw, high and hard. The rock hit a piece of corrugated roofing at the very top of the house with a sharp whap, clattered as it rolled down a trough, and then fell to a lower, flat roof with a thunk.
“Good one,” Joey said.
The second rock landed in the garden, missing the house.
The third one banged square against a side wall.
Henry was getting ready to throw his fourth rock when the front door of the house opened and one of the witches emerged, squawking and shaking her fist. It was the one who always dressed in black; she looked like an old evil nun, but without the crisp white wimple. She was facing the street and did not realize that the boys were in the lot alongside. Henry let fly again, a high lofting throw, hoping that she still would not be able to tell where the attack was coming from, but the rock slapped through some leaves on the way up, giving the boys away, and slowing the stone, which fell to the ground alongside the house with a quiet thud. The witch turned and pointed a long, big-jointed finger at the boys; incomprehensible sounds sputtered from her wrinkled lips. Now the ragpicker appeared, wearing the same red sweater, khaki pants, and sneakers as the day they had seen her from the treetop; a snotgreen cloth was wrapped around her head this time. She too raised her arm, pointing and shouting strange words at the boys.
“Let’s get out of here,” Henry said.
“You still got to hit the house one more time,” Joey said.
“But they’re cursing us.”
“You still got to do it.”
Henry, frightened now, aimed right at the middle of the house. He threw with all his might. The rock went through the open spaces between the branches of the trees and hit a window with a crash. The shouting rose to shrieking, and Henry and Joey scrambled away from the sounds of falling glass and the witches’s high, raspy cries, running for their lives.
A car was coming along Delaware, and Henry, who was well behind Joey, was sure that he could clear it, but when he heard the sudden squeal of brakes and skidding tires he turned to look in panic, broke his stride, stumbled, and fell in the middle of the street. The black car bore down on him, tires squealing, but he couldn’t get up, his legs frozen, as in a dream. He covered his head with his hands; he was going to die. The car stopped, Henry half under it. He hadn’t felt it hit him. The shouting of the witches floated in the air like a distant squabbling of blue jays. The driver got out of the car, walked around to the front and stood looking down at Henry; he was a big man, in a dark suit and a fedora.
“Jesus, son, are you all right?”
Henry swam back into himself; the car hung over his legs, dark and hot. He hadn’t been hit after all. “I’m okay, mister,” he said, sliding out from under the big chrome bumper. He got up slowly, looking back toward the witch house, and then looking around for Joey, whom he couldn’t see anywhere. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” Backing away from the man and his car, still looking around, he saw Joey stick his head out of a bush at the corner of Minuit Street. Henry turned and walked slowly toward him. Joey waved his arm furiously. Henry, still dazed, started moving faster, just jogging at first, then running, then full out breathless charging up Minuit Street with Joey, past the few houses on the bottom of the street, past the weedgrown lots across from the foundry and the steel plant, hiding finally in a clump of bushes under the big cherry tree next to the house where the crazy old man lived. The boys watched in silence as the black car moved slowly past, the driver looking around but not seeing them.
“I thought you were dead,” Joey said.
“Dead, I thought you were dead; I thought that car hit you.” […]
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John Van Kirk is the author of the novel Song for Chance (Red Hen Press, 2013). His short fiction has won the O.Henry Award (1993) and The Iowa Review Fiction Prize (2011) and has been published in various journals and several anthologies.