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Witch Catcherby Mary Downing Hahn
I found them in the kitchen having tea and talking softly. “How did you ever end up in a boring little town in the mountains of West Virginia?” Dad was asking Moura.
She smiled. “Its a long story, Hugh.” Dad reached for her hand. “I love long stories.” When I cleared my throat loudly, Moura looked at me. Shed finally removed her glasses. They lay on the table beside her cup, casting colored shadows on the tablecloth. Her eyes were large and a light greenish gray, the pupils ringed with yellow. “Have a seat, Jen.” Moura motioned toward a chair. Her lips curved briefly into a smile that didnt reach her strange eyes. Somehow she made me feel unwelcome without being anything but polite.
Reluctantly, I slid into the seat and sat there tongue-tied with discomfort, the third person, totally unnecessary. Dad patted my hand, but I had a feeling he wished I hadnt interrupted the conversation. Cadoc lay at Mouras feet, his head resting on her sandals. When he saw me, he raised his head and stared with eyes as pale and cold as his mistresss. Although he didnt growl, I moved my chair away, ready to run if he so much as opened his mouth. I was glad Tink hadnt followed me downstairs.
Moura patted the dogs head. “Cadoc wont hurt you, Jen,” she said. “Come closer.” Feeling childish, I forced myself to do as she said. Her perfume was strong, cloying. It made my head ache just to sit near her. And her eyes . . . When she looked at me, I wished shed kept her glasses on.
“Cadoc,” Moura said, “this is Jen.” The dog sat up and extended a paw for me to shake. I took it gingerly, feeling the hard claws housed in soft fur and velvety footpads. “Pleased to meet you,” I lied.
The introduction finished, I backed away from Moura and her dog, relishing the distance from both of them. “Isnt he amazing?” Dad asked me.
“Moura has trained that dog perfectly.” I nodded, but I was glad to see Cadoc lie down again. “Perhaps we could take a walk with Cadoc one fine day,” Moura suggested to me. “I know a lovely path by the river.” Dad went on for a while about how much fun it would be to ramble through the woods with the scariest dog I‘d ever seen. Of course, he didnt think Cadoc was scary. No, he was Mouras dog and just as perfect as she was.
During a lull in the conversation, I asked Moura what she thought of Great-Uncle Thaddeuss things.
She smiled. “The house is full of treasures—paintings, sculpture, porcelain, silver, old books. If your father wants to sell his great-uncles possessions, hell be a rich man indeed.
Why, the dining-room furniture alone is worth at least fifteen thousand dollars.” I stared at her, absolutely amazed.
“Who on earth would pay that much for old furniture?” “Collectors,” Moura said, “dealers, maybe even a museum. The set is solid walnut, handcrafted, and in perfect condition.” I turned to Dad. “Are you going to sell it?” He shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. We just moved in, Jen. I want to live with Uncle Thaddeuss things for a while before I make any decisions.” When Dad paused to sip his tea, Moura turned to me, her eyes keen. “I was expecting to find something I was told your uncle owned,” she said slowly, “but I didnt see it anywhere.” “What were you looking for?” I asked.
“A glass globe, about this big.” Moura cupped her hands to show me. “Its decorated with a swirling pattern of colors. Theres a little spout on one side and a loop at the top so it can be hung in a window.” While Moura described my globe, I drank my tea silently. I didnt dare look at my father for fear Id give myself away. The globe was mine. Id found it, and I wasnt going to give it to anyone—especially Moura.
“Some people call it a sun catcher,” Moura went on, “but its original name was witch catcher. In the old days, superstitious people believed the pretty pattern in the glass had the power to draw witches and other evil creatures through the spout and into the globe. Trapped inside, the witch was powerless.” “Is that right?” Dad leaned toward Moura, amused by her story. More worried than amused, I studied the tea leaves in my cup, wishing I could tell my own fortune. I was haunted by the girl Id seen in the painting, her hands pressed against what Id thought was a glass wall. Had Great-Uncle Thaddeus captured a witch in that globe? Was she at this very moment hidden in my closet?
Moura smiled her strange smile. “Well, its certainly true that the globes were called witch catchers, and people hung them in their windoows to protect themselves.” She stared for a moment into her own teacup, her long slender fingers curved around the fragile china. “Today witch catchers are valued for their beauty, but I find their history fascinating. Suppose the old superstitions are true and witttttches actually are held captive in those pretty globes? Suppose you broke one and the witch escaped?” As she spoke, Moura gazed directly at me. Her voice was light, even playful, but the expression in her eyes was anything but humorous.
I shrugged and looked away. If Moura thought she could scare me into confessing I had the trap, she was mistaken.
“Nonsense,” Dad said with a laugh.
“These days, you wont find witches roaming the countryside just waiting to be trapped in glass globes.” “Youd be surprised,” Moura said in a voice so low Dad didnt seem to hear. But I did. Maybe because she was looking at me, not my father. Despite myself, I shivered. Was she warning me? Or just trying to scare me?
“I have a client who collects witch catchers,” Moura went on in a normal voice. “Hes most anxious to acquire another. I know for a fact hes willing to pay several hundred dollars for the one your uncle owned.” Her head swung toward me, and her long hair swirled around her pale face. “Have you seen the globe, Jen?” Taken by surprise, I shook my head.
Near my feet Cadoc stirred and sighed, his breath warm on my leg.
“We havent explored the tower,” Dad said. “Maybe Uncle Thaddeus kept it up there.” “Theres nothing in the tower,” I said.
“You told me so yourself.” “Would you mind if I had a look?” Moura asked. “Well all go,” Dad said. “Jens dying to explore the place.” “But you told me its not safe,” I reminded him. “You said it was about to fall down.” Dad laughed. “Goodness, Jen, I didnt think you believed anything I told you.” He meant it as a joke, but his words stung. Sarcasm wasnt Dads style. “Im sure the towers perfectly safe,” Moura said, apparently missing both the joke and the sarcasm.
Getting to her feet, she reached for her glasses. Reluctantly, I followed Dad and Moura outside. Cadoc ran gracefully ahead, his long, lithe body stretching as if his bones were strung together with elastic.
The first thing Dad noticed, of course, was the broken lock. He turned to me and frowned. “Do you know anything about this, Jen?” “A burglar could have done it last night,” I said, choosing my words carefully. Not a lie, but not quite the truth, either.
Dad stared at me, his eyes filled with suspicion. “What thief would come all the way out here just to break into this old ruin?” Moura surprised me by saying, “Jen may be right, Hugh. Weve had several robberies lately. Probably teenagers with nothing else to do.” Dad obviously didnt want to argue with Moura, but I could tell he wasnt convinced I was being truthful.
Without saying more, he shoved the door open, letting out a whiff of dank, moldy air. Moura stepped back, her nose wrinkled in distaste. Dad smiled. “The towers been closed for so long, its no wonder it smells bad. Once we get to the top, you wont notice the odor.” When Moura hesitated, Dad took her arm.
“Come on, Moura. Wheres your sense of adventure?” Cadoc ran up the winding stairs, ahead of us all. Moura allowed Dad to lead her across the threshold and up the creaky old stairs, but the expression of distaste stayed on her face. Unfortunately, I hadnt thought to straighten up before Id left. The chair stood on the table where Id put it. Worse yet, the dust was marked with footprints, clearly showing the ridges on the soles of my running shoes. Dad frowned at me. “Someones been up here,” he said. “With feet just about the size of yours. How do you explain that, Jen?” Moura surprised me again by laughing.
“Children will be children,” she told Dad. “Theyre as curious as cats. And just as devious.” “Lets hope they have nine lives as well.” Dad gave me a look that plainly said Id hear more about this later.
Pretending indifference, I watched the two of them search the room. Dad bumped his head on a low rafter. Moura coughed. A pigeon took wing from a rafter and flew out a broken window. Mice scurried from one hiding place to another. Cadoc made no move to chase them. He seemed more interested in prowling about, sniffing at things.
When theyd looked in all the obvious places, Dad turned his attention to his great-uncles paintings, but Moura came to me. “Youre sure you didnt see the witch catcher, Jen?
It might have been hanging in one of the windows.” I gave Moura the sweet look that worked so well on my teachers. “I didnt stay up here very long. The dust bothered me.” As proof, I covered my mouth and coughed.
“But why is the chair on the table?” Moura asked. “Was there something up there that you were trying to reach?” I shrugged. “I wanted to see out the window better.” Moura continued studying me, her eyes hidden behind those tinted glasses. No trace of her earlier smile lingered on her lips. Touching Dads shoulder, she said, “I think weve seen all there is to see, Hugh.” “Before we go, take a look at these paintings. Theyre quite remarkable.” Dad gave Moura a warm smile. “They remind me of Yeatss poetry somehow. Do you remember ‘The Stolen Child?” Moura nodded. “‘Come away, O human child! . . . For the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand,” she quoted softly, eyeing me while she spoke. In her voice, the words had a menacing quality Id never noticed when Dad read the poem to me. Dad nodded, unaware of anything but Mouras knowledge of the poem he loved. “Yes, thats the one I was thinking of. Fairies and all their ambiguity.” He pointed to the painting on the easel. “Its a pity Uncle Thaddeus never finished this one—or the others of the same face. They have an unearthly quality, altogether unsettling. Is she scared? Is she angry? Is she good or evil?” Moura glanced at me. “Id say shes wicked, the very sort of creature who finds witch catchers irresistible. Look at her eyes—the curious slant, the hint of evil in their depths.
Shes not someone Id want to meet in a dark wood.” “Yes, I see what you mean.” Dad turned to me. “How about you, Jen? What do you think of her?” “She looks scared.” I edged away and almost stumbled over Cadoc, who was lying on the floor behind me. He growled so softly no one heard but me. “Not evil.” Moura removed her glasses and contemplated the paintings, her head tilted so that her hair fell straight and shiny to one side. “The same client who collects witch catchers has a keen interest in fairy lore. Shall I tell him about these paintings? Hed be willing to pay a great deal for them.” Dad hesitated before he answered. “Im not sure I want to part with them just yet,” he said at last. “But if your client wants to look at them, I have no objection.” Taking the paintings with him, Dad led the way downstairs with Moura behind him, her long skirt flowing. Cadoc followed, close at her heels. I brought up the rear, allowing plenty of distance between myself and the dog. At the bottom of the steps, I lingered in the tower doorway and watched Dad and Moura walk across the lawn, their heads close, talking softly. Cadoc loped in circles around them, as lean and graceful as a greyhound but far more menacing. When I caught up with them, I heard Moura tell Dad, “Im sorry I cant accept your invitation. I have a business engagement this evening. Perhaps tomorrow night?” Dads face brightened. “That will be even better. Ill have more time to plan a great dinner for you.” Moura waved to Dad and me and got into her car. Cadoc made himself comfortable in the passenger seat, and off they went, leaving a cloud of dust behind. As soon as the car was out-of-sight, Dad turned to me.
“Im disappointed in you, Jen,” he said. “Not only did you go into the tower, but you lied about it. Worse yet, I have a feeling you know exactly where that witch catcher is.” Ashamed to meet his eyes, I looked at the ground and shook my head. Even though it upset me to lie to my father, I had no intention of giving the glass globe to Moura. I enjoyed knowing I had something she wanted.
That night, I retrieved the globe from its hiding place and stared into the glass. I saw nothing. No witch. No evil spirit. It was all nonsense anyway. How could a full-size witch be sucked into a glass globe no bigger than a softball?
I strung a green ribbon through the loop at the top and tied the ribbon around my curtain rod. The globe spun slowly in the night breeze, catching light from the moon. Tink watched the globe turn, his eyes big. He rose on his hind legs as if he longed to bat it back and forth like one of his toys. “Oh, no, you dont.” I scooped him up, and he snuggled against me purring, his eyes fixed on the globe. The breeze blew harder, and the globe spun slowly, casting its pattern of delicate blues and greens and violets faintly on the moonlit floor. An insect buzzed loudly—a cicada hidden in the ivy draping my window, I guessed.
Suddenly, Tink twisted out of my arms and leapt at the globe as if he meant to knock it down. “No!” I shouted and gave him a light spank on his side. He hissed at me and ran under the bed.
I knelt down and peered at him, almost invisible in the shadows. “Im sorry, Tink,” I whispered.
“I was afraid youd break it—and let the witch out.” I was joking, but he growled at me, his tail twice as big as usual.
“Tink!” I reached for him, but he growled again, louder this time. “Whats the matter with you? Are you afraid of that cicada?” I reached for him again but got the same grumpy response. “Okay, stay there. See if I care, silly old cat.” I slid under the covers and turned out the bedside lamp. The cicada cried louder, buzzing as if it were in my room, not in the ivy outside the window. Drowsily, I watched the witch catcher turn this way and that, subject to every whim of the breeze. The glass seemed to glow with a greenish light, as if it caught moonlight as well as sunlight. A moon catcher, I thought, liking that better than witch catcher. Slowly I slid into a deep sleep full of strange dreams. In the first, I was alone in a dark forest. Tall trees loomed over me, hiding the sky. There was no movement, no sound; not one leaf stirred, yet I sensed someone watching me. I turned slowly, fearfully, but saw nothing. I walked farther. The mossy ground was soft and damp. My feet sank into it, making no noise but releasing the smell of decaying leaves.
I was frightened. I tried to run, but the soft ground held me back.
Suddenly, not very far ahead, Moura stepped out from behind a tree, her face like the moon, her clothes like the night, her glasses trapping darkness. “Give me the witch catcher, Jen,” she said in her soft voice. “I know you have it.” I looked at my cupped hands. Though I hadnt noticed it earlier, I was holding the globe. An odd green light seeped through my fingers, and the glass warmed my skin.
Moura came closer, taller and more menacing with each step. Her neck lengthened, her body thinned. A black gown clung to her body in a scaly pattern. “No games,” she whispered. “You dont know who I really am. You dont know what I can do. Foolish girl, you dont even know what you hold in your hands.” I tried to call for help but could do no more than gasp. The globe grew warmer, its light shone brighter, and it moved in my hands like an egg about to break open.
“Give it to me quickly!” Moura grabbed my hands and tried to take the globe. Its heat burned her fingers, and she sprang back with a curse. Dropping to the ground, she took the shape of a long black snake. Just as she reared to strike, the dream changed, and I was alone in the tower. The moon shone through the tiny windows, illuminating the painting of the girls face. Suddenly, the leaves behind her stirred and rustled. Turning her strange eyes to me, she pressed her hands against the canvas as if she were trapped behind a wall.
“Help me!” she cried. “Please help me.” Terrified, I backed away and tripped on something long and sinuous. The snake slithered across the tower floor behind me. But I wasnt what it wanted this time. Its attention was focused on the girl in the painting. “Help me,” the girl begged again as the snake coiled around the base of the easel.
But I could do nothing, neither move nor speak. Paralyzed, I watched the snake rise higher and strike the painting. At the same moment, a flock of crows smashed through the window, exploding into the room, filling it with wild cries, sharp beaks, and black feathers. The serpent fled, the crows swooping after it.
The girl was a painting again. The leaves were still and so was she. I was alone in the dark, silent tower.
I woke suddenly with the image of the girls face before me. In my bedroom window, the witch catcher sparkled in the morning light. Tink perched on the windowsill beneath it, watching the globe intently, his ears pricked as if he heard something.
While the cat watched, I carried the globe back to its hiding place in my closet. Still under the spell of my dream, I almost expected it to feel warm in my hands, to glow and pulsate, but its glass surface remained cool.
Copyright © 2006 by Mary Downing Hahn.
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