The Witch: And Other Tales Re-told

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9780147516985: The Witch: And Other Tales Re-told

A National Book Award finalist and bestselling author, Jean Thompson’s new collection of “bewitching improvisations on fairy tales” are “spellbinding” (Booklist, starred review).

Jean Thompson—author of the National Book Award finalist Who Do You Love and the New York Times bestseller The Year We Left Home—is a writer at the height of her powers. Capturing the magic and horror in everyday life, Thompson revisits beloved fables that represent our deepest, most primeval fears and satisfy our longings for good to triumph over evil (preferably in the most gruesome way possible). From the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” to the beauty asleep in her castle, The Witch and Other Tales Retold triumphantly brings the fairy tale into the modern age.

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About the Author:

Jean Thompson is the author of six novels, among them The Humanity Project and The Year We Left Home, and six story collections, including Who Do You Love (a National Book Award finalist). She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 by Jean Thompson 


THE WITCH 


My brother and I were given over to the Department of Children and Family Services after our father and his girlfriend left us alone in the car one too many times. The reason we were put in the car had to do with some trouble when we were younger, in some of the different places that we lived, when we were left home by ourselves. Neighbors had made calls and DCFS had come around, turning our father into a concerned and head-nodding parent, at least while the interview lasted. Once the investigator left, he had things to say about people who tried to tell you what to do with your own goddamn kids. They should just shut their faces. “Let’s go,” he said. “In the car, now. Vamoose.” He wasn’t bad-tempered, at least not as a rule, but people who thought they were better than us, by way of criticism or interference, brought out the angry side of him.

At the time when everything changed for us, my brother Kerry was seven and I was five. We knew the rules, the chief one being: Stay in the car! We accepted that there were complicated, unexplained adult things that we were not a part of, in places where we were not allowed. But sometimes we were scooped up, Kerry and me, and brought inside to a room with people and noise and the wonderful colored lights of cigarette machines and jukeboxes, encouraged to tell people our names, wear somebody’s baseball cap, and drink the Cokes prepared for us with straws and maraschino cherries.

And sometimes Monica, our father’s girlfriend, drove. Then she’d stay in the car with us and keep the engine running while our father went inside some unfamiliar restaurant or house. These errands made Monica nervous, made her speak sharply to us and turn around in her seat to keep watch, some worry in the air that filled Kerry and me with the uncomprehending anxiety of dogs. And when our father finally returned, we were all so glad to see him!

But mostly it was just me and Kerry, left on our own to wait. We were fine with being in the car, a maroon Chevy, not new, that drove like a boat. We knew its territories of front and back, its resources, its smells and textures. We always had something given to us to eat, like cheese popcorn, two bags, so that there would be no fighting. We had a portable radio, only one of those, so that we did fight over it, but the fighting was also a way of keeping busy.

Most often we fell asleep and woke up when our father and Monica returned, carrying on whatever conversation or argument was in progress, telling us to go back to sleep. The car started and we were borne away, watching streetlights through a bit of window, this one and this one and this one, all left behind by our motion, and this was a comfort.

Normal is whatever you grow up with. Sometimes Monica made us French toast with syrup for breakfast, and so we whined for French toast whenever we thought it might pay off. We had television to watch, and our intense, competitive friendships with kids we saw in the hallways and stairwells. All of this to say, we didn’t think anything was so bad. We knew bad right away when it showed up.

Kerry was a crybaby. Our father said so. Kerry was a candy ass. This was said in a spirit of encouragement and exhortation, since it was a worrisome thing for a boy to be soft, not stand up to teasing or hardship. People would keep coming at you. When Kerry tried not to cry, it was just as pitiful as the crying itself. He had a round chin and a full lower lip that quavered, or, as our father used to say, “You could ride that lower lip home!”

The expectations were different for girls, and anyway, I didn’t need the same advice about standing up for myself. Our father’s name for me was Little Big Mouth. I didn’t have a portion of Kerry’s fair good looks either; everything about me was browner and sharper. I don’t know why we were so different, why I couldn’t have been more sweet-tempered, why Kerry didn’t have more fight in him. Throughout my life I’ve struggled with the notion of things that were someone’s fault, of things that were done on purpose, and it was a relief when I finally came to understand that one thing we are not to blame for is our own natures.

Monica hadn’t always been with us. I knew that from having it told to me, and Kerry claimed he could remember the very day we met her. I said I did too, even though I didn’t. My baby memories were too confused, and how were you supposed to remember somebody not being there? Or maybe she had been around us but not yet living with us as she did now. I think she was a little slow, with a ceiling on her comprehension. She had a round, pop-eyed face and limp black hair that she wore long, and she favored purplish lipstick that coated the ends of her cigarettes. If Kerry or I did something we weren’t supposed to, she waved her hands and said, “You kids! Why you don’t behave? I’m telling your dad on you!” We never paid attention. Monica wasn’t entirely an adult, we sensed, and could be disregarded without consequences.

Our father didn’t like to sit home. He’d done something that involved driving—a truck? a bus?—until he hurt his back and couldn’t work regular hours. His back still pained him and we learned to walk wide of him when it put him in a mood. But if he was feeling good enough, or even borderline, he needed to get out and blow the stink off, as he called it, see and be seen, claim his old place among other men of the world. And since Monica wasn’t going to be left behind, and since now we could not be left behind either, we all went.

One problem with staying in the car was when we had to go to the bathroom. Sometimes either Monica or our father came to check on us and carry us to some back entrance or passageway where there was a toilet. At other times they didn’t come and didn’t come, and we tried not to wet ourselves, or sometimes we did and were shamed.
Once, whimpering from urgency, Kerry got out of the car and stood behind some trash containers to pee. I watched, unbelieving and horrified. And jealous at how much easier it was for boys to manage these things. “I’m telling,” I said, when Kerry let himself back in and relocked the car door.

“You better not.”

“I don’t have to, they can see right where you peed.”

He looked out the window to see if that was true. “No you can’t,” he said, but he didn’t sound so sure.

“You are going to get beat bloody.” It was one of our father’s occasional pronouncements, although so far we had not been made to bleed.

“Shut up.” He kicked me and I kicked back.

When our father and Monica returned, they were fizzy and cheerful. “How are my little buckaroos?” my father asked. “How’s the desperadoes?”

We said, faintly, that we were okay. Monica said, “They look hungry.”

“Now how can you tell that by looking? Let’s get a move on.”

“You know what sounds good right about now? Chicken and waffles. Where’s a place around here we can get that?”

“Some other time, Mon.”

“That’s not fair. I bet if you was the one wanted chicken and waffles, we’d be halfway there by now.”

“Shut it, Monica,” our father said, but not unpleasantly, because he was in such fine spirits. “If you were the one with the car, you could drive yourself to the moon.” He turned on the radio and started singing along with it.

Kerry and I kept quiet in the back seat, and I didn’t give him up. Like it or not, we were stuck together in some things.

So the next time I had to go, I told Kerry, “Move.” He was sitting next to the door on the sidewalk side. On the street, cars passed by us fast, with a shivery sound of rushing air.

“You better not.”

I popped out and made a face at him through the car window. I walked a little way, looking for a good place. But everything was out in the open, and it wasn’t fully dark yet, and I didn’t think I could crouch down and pee on the sidewalk, in front of everyone. I didn’t know where our father and Monica had gone. None of the buildings looked likely. I kept walking.

Behind me, a car door slammed, and Kerry ran to catch up with me. “You’re gonna be in trouble.”

“Well so are you now.”

Kerry walked backward in front of me. “Where are you going?”

“Home.”

“Uh-uh!”

I ignored him. He didn’t have any way to stop me.

“You don’t know where it is.”

“Yes I do.” I didn’t think we were that far away. And both Kerry and I wore house keys around our necks on shoelaces, just in case.

Kerry looked back at the car. It wasn’t too late for him to return to it, but he kept walking with me, looking all worried. “Candy ass,” I said.

“You’re a candy ass,” he said, but that was so lame, I didn’t bother answering back.

If I’d found anyplace I could have peed, or if we’d managed to get ourselves home, things would have gone differently. But we walked and walked, and the street didn’t offer anything like a bathroom, and we came to an intersection I didn’t recognize, though I set off with confidence in one direction. Walking, I didn’t have to go so bad. I thought I could keep on for a while.

Kerry lagged a pace or two behind me. He thought I was going to get in trouble and he was trying to stay out of the way. It was dark by now and the lights around us, from cars, streetlights, store windows, were bright and glassy, and the shadows beyond the lights were a reaching-out kind of black.

I’d been lost for a while. I knew it but I didn’t want to come out and say it, and anyway, I had the idea that I could find our building if I only looked hard enough. At least I think that’s how I thought. I was five, and it was a whole world ago.

The street was becoming less and less promising. There were vacant lots with chewed-looking weeds, and the gobbling noise of loud music from a passing car. I wondered if our father and Monica had come back yet and found us missing, or if they were still inside having their important fun. I was holding on to my pee so tight, I was having trouble walking. We came to a big lighted storefront, a grocery, with people going in and out of the automatic doors, and we hung back, afraid of getting in the way.

A lady on her way out of the store stopped and peered down at us. “Harold,” she said to the man with her, “look, two little white babies.”

Because we were white, and the lady and the man and everybody else around us was black.

“Where’s your mamma?” the lady said, and we just stared at her. We didn’t have one of those. “Awright, no matter, we fine her for you. You-all lost? Harold, you go put them bags up and come right back.” She squatted down in front of us. “Can you talk, honey?”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I announced. Now that there was somebody to complain to, I was tearing up.

“Yeah?” She took my hand. “Come on with me, then. Brother too.” She held out her other hand to Kerry, who was sniffling now. We were both moved by our own piteousness.

She led us through the store, back to the place with gray mops resting in buckets, jugs of blue industrial cleanser, and a small, walled-off toilet. The lady asked if I needed any help, and it shocked me to think of some strange lady watching me pee, though she was just being nice. After I came out, Kerry said he had to go too, and then the lady directed us to wash our hands, lifting us up so we could reach the utility sink. She took us back through the store again, and we were set on a bench in an office where a radio played, and given cartons of chocolate milk and a package of cake doughnuts to eat.

And shouldn’t everything have been all right then? We had been found, tended to, soothed. Our father and Monica should have come in, full of remorse and relief, to bear us away, and promise never to let us out of their sight again. Or maybe we could have gone home with the lady who found us. She seemed to know a thing or two about children. She and Harold could have taken us in, two strange little white birds hatched in a different nest, and we would have begun a new, improbable life.

Instead the police were called, and protective services, and different adult strangers herded us this way and that, talking in ways that were meant to be reassuring, I guess, but the enormity of what was happening made us both cry. Of course they had all seen crying children before, and children who had been beaten, burned, starved, violated, in much worse shape than Kerry and I. They were, perhaps, a little brusque with us, a little impatient. We sat in a room decorated with crayon drawings, with books and puzzles and rag dolls and toy trucks, and these were meant to distract and amuse us, but none of them were our toys, and we hung back from them.

Because it was already so late, too late to do anything else with us, Kerry and I spent the night in a kind of dormitory with blue night lights on the walls, wearing clean, much-laundered pajamas, each of us tucked in with some other child’s stuffed bear. We were the only ones sleeping there, though we heard adult feet passing the open door and, from other rooms, different shrill or urgent sounds. I must have slept. But I kept waking up and seeing the blue lights and then I would remember everything that had happened, the weight of it sliding onto me in an instant.

I heard Kerry in the next bed, moving and restless. “Are you awake?” I whispered.

“Why did you get out of the car?” he said, and his voice was thick and full of snot from all his crying.

“Shut up.”

“You weren’t supposed to.”

“Well you did too.”

“You started it!”

Some noise beyond the doorway made us stop talking, and fall back into uneasy sleep. This was exactly the weight bearing down on me: the knowledge that I had set a terrible thing in motion.

In the morning we thought that we’d be going home now. But after breakfast (juice, apple slices, oatmeal that curdled in our mouths), it was explained to us that we would be going to stay at a lady’s house for a while. There were some things that had to be discussed with our father. He was fine, he said to tell us hello, and that he missed us. (Kerry and I looked down at the floor at this. It was not a thing our father would say.) Meanwhile, we would be with Mrs. Wojo (her name was longer and more complicated, but that is what we heard), a lady who helped out with children when they needed a place to stay.

I said that we didn’t need a place to stay, we just needed to go home. But we would not be going home. Explained and repeated to us by adults who had so much practice in telling children unpleasant things. We were going to Mrs. Wojo’s.

Was our father mad at us, was that why he wouldn’t come for us? Did he really know where we were, or were they making that up?

In the car on our way to Mrs. Wojo’s, I tried to memorize landmarks so that we could find our way back to somewhere familiar. One of the DCFS people, a woman, sat in the back seat between Kerry and me so I couldn’t talk to him. Another woman drove, and I guess they had names but I’ve forgotten them. It was one of those spring days that freezes up and turns water in gutters to oil-covered sumps, and a scouring wind pours out of the sky. We passed blocks and blocks of old warehous...

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