Sophie Wisniewski is a witch. We know this because she says so and because she's outlined her strange eyes in black. She's also wearing a shiny purple bedspread draped over the pink nylon night gown that covers her all the way to her lime green flip-flops.
It's February and 40° in a time when battered wives ask for it, children need to be taught a lesson, and TV comics make a living pretending to be alcoholic. The neighborhood lawns are gray and sodden; the surrounding woods an uninviting slush of dead leaves. Nonetheless, after the hundredth repetition of “I'm bored,” my mother has heartlessly handed me my coat and pushed me out the back door to “play.” It's a damp, chilly world whose dim, colorless excuse for sunlight would look just right in a morgue.
Walking down the main street of our ridiculously named Green Acres, I encounter Glen Shiflett and Eddie Zbigniew. They are my friends by default, as there is no other boy in the neighborhood within five years of my age. I explain that once again my mother has taken all my books away because reading is making me “weird.” Glen admits that he has for some reason epoxied the sheets to his bed frame, causing his mother to lock him out of the house and throw his coat out a window as an afterthought. Eddie says nothing. It's understood that he's just wandering around looking for things to destroy, since this is what he does every day. We amble along, dispirited, until we discover that Sophie Wisniewski has built a small fire in the matted, knee-deep grass of the Wisniewski front lawn, and this strikes us as promising.
“I am a witch!,” she says as we approach.
That she is dressed for some Halloween acid trip four months after the fact is unremarkable, given the Wisniewski manse is still sporting blinking Christmas lights at 4:00 pm in February. That she's setting their front yard on fire without interference only serves to emphasize the enviable way in which her parents sleep through whatever any of their many children finds to do. Similarly, her resemblance to a hungover raccoon invading the Goodwill donation dumpster means absolutely nothing. The Wisniewskis are infamous for their own special amalgam of the Brady Bunch, the Adams Family, and Lord of the Flies. This serves a useful social function in the neighborhood, in that anything from groaning zombie in-laws to exploding eyeball cancer can be instantly normalized with the magic words, "Well, it's not like we're the Wisniewskis!”
In fact, Sophie's suddenly purported witchiness fits well with the the legendary Wisniewski lifestyle. It could explain everything from the fact that her parents sleep all day (vampires!) to their venerably overflowing septic tank (entrance to the underworld!). Given this new information, even King, their ancient, cataract-ridden collie takes on a decidedly Hell Hound aspect. (King once inspired me to invent a game called “Radiation Poisoning” which involved staining one's gums with Welch's grape juice, pretending handfuls of noisome mangy collie fur were one's own falling-out hair, and clutching at the knees of unknown adults while rasping “Please... heeeeeelp meeee!” Toothlessness is King's salvation – were he actually able to bite, he would have been destroyed years ago. As it is, getting gummed by him is merely smelly, and we have to ask people we hate to hold still while we gently guide his trembling arthritic jaws to their shins.)
Sophie has acquired an empty five pound Folger's coffee can, and has used part of a rusting barbecue to suspend it over a small fire that appears to involve a geography text and part of a Danish modern lamp. She's stirring the contents with a broken snow shovel handle, with which she threatens us as we approach.
“Back! You'll ruin the spell!”
“Your so 'flicted!“ This is Eddie's single witticism, and he barks it reflexively at anything he doesn't understand, which is everything.
“What's in there?” Glen means well, but I know that if left undistracted, his interest will sooner or later result in clogged plumbing or the water feature of a nearby golf course bursting into flame.
“It's fuckin' 'flicted!” Eddie barks, inevitably.
“Is it sticky? Does it burn?” Glen is equally predictable.
I'm less afraid of Sophie since my mother explained that the rule about hitting girls doesn't apply to girls who are bigger than you, especially if they hit you first. That, and the sense of impending intellectual suffocation I feel in Glen and Eddie's company provokes me to blurt, “What spell?"
Sophie's been waiting for this. “The witch's' spell!” She shrieks and opens her creepy, pale Alaskan Husky eyes wide. “The spell of power!” She claws the air and I see her fingernails are clotted with dried blood. “The spell of punishment!” Her cackle is awesome, combining the parrot shriek of a pubescent girl at a Beatle's concert with her infamous filching of her father's unfiltered Camels.
Glen is intent on the boiling black goo, which I understand has the potential to result in Mrs. Shiflett smoking five cartons of cigarettes. She will do this while the Shiflett home is being steam cleaned and she and my mother discuss why, though Glen did whatever was done, it's still my fault. (Since everyone knows Glen is only slightly brighter than King the collie, it's hard to counter these arguments.) Eddie is staring at Sophie's little fire in a way that reminds me of last fourth of July, when his patriotism was extinguished only when two fire engines rolled up our street and firemen spent five hours putting out a riding lawn mower, a tool shed, and an acre of forest.
Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde war briefly in me, but lose hands down to Mother Teresa. I feel sad for poor lonely 'flicted Sophie, so much an untouchable that even normal parents who're awake at midday can't see she's about to burn her own house down. Not for nothing am I in the fourth grade at what my older brother calls Lady of Our Perpetually Sorry Elementary School and Concentration Camp. I know Jesus would play with Sophie as surely as I know he'd wash his hands with soap afterwards.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!" I intone. I'm eleven and while I won't grow hair on it for another year or so, several months back I inexplicably acquired the voice of James Earl Jones. I'm still exploring the fact that Vincent Price's Abominable Dr. Phibes now sounds like a Chihuahua next to my German shepherd. And outcast that she is, Sophie is quick to sense opportunity.
“Idiot! If you're wise, you'll fear my power!” Sophie waves her claws in my face, and from the smell I realize her nails are covered in dried ketchup, not blood. She tosses her hair in a way intended to evoke Bewitched, but since Mrs. Wisniewski bleaches all her many daughters' hair green using what is commonly believed to be Clorox, it's more like being threatened with a broom of chemically scented straw.
“Thou. shalt. not. suffer. a witch to live!" I repeat, taking a step forward with each word. Since I'm running out of lines, I add the Ghost of Christmas Future's dire, pointing finger from the Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol.
Sophie waves the snow shovel stub in our direction, and I'm afraid Glen will become fixated on the boiled black sticky substance on the end of it. Fortunately, I'm both a compulsive reader and an altar boy. I chant some random Latin until I'm struck by a brilliant idea.
“Burn her!” I bellow. “Burn her body now, lest her immortal soul burn in eternity!”
Sophie screams in an agreeable way, exposing her buck teeth in a snarl, not unlike Mr. Ed reaching for an apple. Then she runs.
We pursue, a posse of diminutive John Hale's in sneakers. It's well known that Sophie can outrun us all, but we never begrudge her this. After all, her father has been known to chase her naked down the street with a belt at 6:00 am, while the rest of us wait for the school bus. It's not unmanly to be shown up by a girl whose track and field skills are honed by frequent flights for her life.
We're further delayed when she leads us through the legendary Wisniewski Back Yard of the Black Lagoon. Like natives familiar with the village quicksand, only Wisniewskis can be sure of avoiding the ruptured septic tank in the hip deep grass. Sophie, fleet as a deer despite the flip-flops, cackles and shrieks as she runs, the purple bed spread flapping behind her, her chlorine green hair in a poison dandelion seed nimbus around her elfin head.
The satisfaction of eventually catching her is lessened by the awareness that we've done so only because she's gotten bored running. Green Acres' failed, half-completed suburban optimism is lost in the abandoned pig farm it was intended to replace, and there remain many acres of woods to run through. This time of year it's so easy to escape adult supervision that, like fireflies, they seem only to exist in summer. Sophie, unfazed by having run a marathon, arranges her bedspread cloak about her thin shoulders, swathing her equally knobby elbows, hips, and knees in purple polyester. With her sweat spiked hair she resembles nothing so much as the deranged younger sister of the Status of Liberty, and she fixes us with a gaze I won't see again until Judi Dench plays Lady Macbeth.
My lungs are on fire and I'm groping for dramatic inspiration. Fortunately, the elementary school library at Perpetually Sorry Assed Lady has a wonderful History of the Spanish Inquisition complete with illustrations – the perfect way to pass an hour as Sister Robert snores through “Library Skills.”
“Hold her!” I hiss, pointing downwards with an imaginary Margaret Hamilton manicure. Glen and Eddie obligingly pin Sophie's thin arms to the wet ground. She writhes and screams operatically, thrilled at all the attention. But for her unfortunate teeth, rail thin body, and electric hair, she'd look perfect in King Kong's fist.
I spread my arms wide, palms toward heaven, and pant, catching my breath.
“My child, you must repent your sin!”
Glen and Eddie are of course public school heathens so I add, sotto voce, “Witchcraft is a sin and she has to say she's sorry or she'll burn in Hell.” Sophie knows this - she's a public school nightmare, but as her parents occasionally wake up on Sunday morning, she sporadically attends catechism classes at Perpetually I'm Really Sorry, Lady.
“Never!” she screams, opening her mouth so wide I can see that the spaces between her teeth continue all the way to her molars.
“Recant!” Glen and Eddie look at me in complete bafflement, but I can't think of a shorter word. Being the brains of this gang is a thankless job.
“I'll never cheat on my husband, Satan!” This strikes me as brilliant for a girl who, unlike me with my superior Catholic education, has surely never heard of the Spanish Inquisition. I become determined not to be outdone.
“Press her under stones!” More baffled looks from everyone, and I try to contain my irritation with the fact that none of them remember Hope Lang's indelible performance in the made-for-TV classic, Crowhaven Farm. We all pause while I deliver a concise plot summary, explain the Salem witch trials, and add a few extra notes from The Little Golden Book of Torture in Our Perpetrator Lady of Bastinado Is Sorry's school library.
A search for a suitable board ensues. Glen discovers a discarded gate from someone's demolished fence. We put it on top of Sophie, who snarls, "I curse you!” while lying agreeably still. Large stones prove harder to come by, and Eddie's idea of using dirt, like all of Eddie's ideas, quickly proves unworkable, as do our attempts to balance a discarded toilet on the gate.
Piqued by our failure to squash the sin out of her, Sophie shrugs off her board, brushes the wet leaves out of her toxic straw hair, and says, “This is dumb and my feet are cold.”
This strikes me as unsportsmanlike, but since she's wearing flip-flops, I can see her toes are indeed the grayish pink of a frozen ham steak. Still, inspiration is upon me and I mustn't spurn my muse. I bend down, lift Sophie's chin in my hand, and whisper thrillingly.
“My child. If you will not recant, you will leave us no choice. Admit your sin! Repent!”
I can tell she's impressed, and I'm excited to have finally found a use for all the crap I've been listening to nuns babble since I was five.
“Recant!” I think I've found my new favorite word.
“Never!” She turns her head away and thrusts out her chin.
“What are we gonna do now?,” Glen whines because of what will later be called ADHD.
“This is 'flicted!” Eddie barks, because it's the coolest word in a vocabulary that includes only 29 others, excluding obscenities.
“The witch must burn,” I bellow because I'm a future Drama Queen of America.
“Burn the witch!” shrieks Sophie, because her entire family is bat shit crazy.
Like it always does with all Really Bad Ideas, the universe cooperates wholeheartedly with this last suggestion. Glen finds a great towering brown hulk of a discarded Christmas tree, complete with sad tinsel. Eddie runs away to cut down someone's clothesline with the sort of knife budding sociopaths are never without.
I say “Recant!” several more times, rolling the initial “R” and trying to generate actual spit on the terminal “T.” I have a clear picture in my head of Montgomery Clift playing a priest in I Confess and I widen my eyes sorrowfully at what I'm being forced to do.
Sophie moans, ”Lucifer, save me!” and embraces the tottering tree backwards. It occurs to me I'm not the only one who knows about Joan of Arc, and I'm once again startled by the vocabulary of a girl who has been known to apply makeup with magic markers and style her hair with spray starch.
In no time, her upper body is sloppily webbed to the cactus-prickly tree. I'm gearing up for another round of my new favorite word when Eddie intervenes. He is of course the sort of eleven year old who has never seen a handkerchief but is guaranteed to have a Zippo in his pocket. He applies it to the tree before I can explain "metaphor," which was my favorite word before I was seduced by “recant!”
We discover that given the slightest encouragement, a dead pine tree goes up like a torch. Sophie's body is somewhat protected by the serendipitously quilted bedspread, but the back of her hair is shriveling in a way reminiscent of my mother stopping a run in her nylons with a lit cigarette. I am trying to find the end of the rope when she screams and takes off running with a flaming Christmas tree tied to her back.
I follow her with all the speed I can muster, but if I thought it was difficult to catch her the first time, it's impossible now that she's wearing a forest fire. She's a screaming comet obscured by its own fiery tail, presumably rocketing back to Planet Wisniewski. I can barely see her through the flames and smoke, but I believe her feet have somehow left the ground as she flees the woods.
Glen pants “Shit!” and Eddie bleats “Fuck!” and it belatedly occurs to me to have hysterics, but I'm gaining on Sophie and I can't run this hard and scream “Stop, Drop, and Roll!” at the same time. She, on the other hand, while smelling of happy holidays, sounds like the “duck and cover” siren they occasionally test at school.
Until, all of the sudden, she doesn't. Out of the woods, she enters not her own yard but that of the house next door. The people we ignore all summer because of their swimming pool. She hits the canvas winter cover like a pine scented meteor, and both her screams and the fire are extinguished with a violent rip and an unseasonal splash.
— • —
It was all terribly exciting.
Do you suppose poor Sophie was burned, scarred beyond recognition?
Drowned in pool chemicals, maybe? Her agonized rictus face the same pallid green as her hair?
I didn't mean to upset anyone. Shall I stop here?
No? Are you positive I shouldn't just stop and claim I made it all up?
Are you sure? It was an awfully long time ago and surely you have something better to do than...
Oh, all right. Sit down. But there's really not much more to tell.
— • —
When we get to her, Sophie will be sort of sitting in the wrecked pool cover. We'll haul her out of the icy water unencumbered by clothesline, tree, bedspread, flip-flops, the lower half of the singed pink nightgown, or – seemingly – her senses. She will laugh hysterically, leaving us to assume her brain has dissolved in the pool's winter antifreeze.
Glen will be primarily interested in retrieving the quilted bedspread, intrigued by that fact that only the purple side has melted.
Eddie will say, “Fuckin' 'flicted,” but with a rare tone of admiration.
Checking Sophie for burns from her head to her feet and finding none, I will start to cry when she absently touches my head.
We boys will want to be rescued by an adult, whatever the consequences, but that won't be necessary. As the last of the winter light fades, drenched Sophie will spin in front of us, skinny white arms outstretched, laughing hysterically. She will be half frozen, half naked, and half shorn, but she'll cry “I told you I'm a witch!”with every evidence of joy. We'll wrap her in all our coats and tiptoe her home, whispering furiously at her to be quiet. She won't listen, but as there will still be some faint gray in the sky, her vampire parents won't wake. The rest of us will sneak back into our warm houses and flinch every time the phone rings for the next 24 hours.
Later I will hear from my mother that Sophie received a beating with a belt buckle for the singeing of her bleach-green hair, and for the big black smoldering circle in the Wisniewski front lawn. As is usual when the Wisniewskis are discussed, words like "those poor children," "crazy," "shame," and "what can you do" will be heard. Social services will be mentioned but not called. Sophie will claim to have burned her hair in the lawn fire and to have been alone. No one will question this.
The following summer, Glen, Eddie, and Sophie will simultaneously discover the word “fag,” and I will have neither their friendship nor any other until I grow six inches in as many years and run away from home. In the meantime, I'll observe from a distance as Glen discovers crystal meth, inspires an unwanted pregnancy, and is finally tried as an adult and sent to prison on several narcotics charges. It will be whispered that Eddie has been institutionalized for killing and skinning small animals and masturbating with their bloody pelts. I'll never see either of them again.
Older boys will discover Sophie is a girl, and therefore something they want, at about the same time they realize I want other boys, and am therefore something they hate. She will achieve a semblance of social acceptance as the neighborhood slut and when her larger, older boyfriends beat me up, she will never fail to scream “Asshole!” and hurl herself at them. She'll become to me a sacred monster, and I'll fear, pity, and envy her in equal measure.
Eventually I'll pretty much stop leaving the house and so won't see her again, but I'll hear rumors. My mother will report when Sophie abruptly gives up boys, bleaching what will turn out to be thick auburn hair, and responding to anything other than her given name of “Sophia.” This will shock people almost as much as when she vanishes, allegedly on scholarship.
More than that I don't know.
I can tell you, though, that for the rest of my life I will think of her whenever I'm spared the terrifying consequences of my own stupidity, and whenever I'm confronted with incontrovertible evidence of my own magic. I'll wonder how she survived, though I suppose it's obvious...
She didn't recant and she didn't burn. She flew, then floated, then kept a secret through trial by ordeal. She practiced her wiles on those who meant neither of us freaks well, then grew her dark hair long and flew once more, this time for good.
And we all know what that means.