We called her The Witch. She was the only witch on the street I grew up in. Not that we lived in times where witches were in abundance, but the lore still prevailed. And those lores turned into legends, and like every legend that has good, it has evil too.
Our seven-year old imagination decided to make her the evil in our legend.
Every evening, when the clock would strike five, the six of us would be running wild across the street. Twelve tiny feet flew on the cobbled streets of Bandra, one day dressed as tribal chiefs and another, dressed like superheroes.
Often one of us would just stop running and stand, as if in a trance, staring at the first floor balcony of House #17. It was almost like we were transfixed to the ground, stuck to where we came from. Our eyes would be locked with the grey eyes of The Witch. She was not a young witch then, neither was she old, the witch. I had a theory that she was perhaps the ageless evil that had lived for centuries and will live again for centuries to come.
Mini believed her to be vampire, Sandy thought she was troll, and Dhruv thought she was an old witch with warts and all, dressed in the beautiful skin of the last virgin she sacrificed. Most of us were more inclined to believe Dhruv, because, well he was Dhruv, a whole five months and three days older than me. And also because with her glossy, fiery red hair, her strong body that stood tall and her pale skin stretched tight against her face, it was her eyes that made us believe in the legend of witches.
The grey eyes of a wolf, sharp as a whip, and a toothy grin like that of a predator.
Sometimes I would discuss The Witch with Mummy. I dared not call her The Witch then, else Mummy would’ve made sure I hand deliver that next batch of almond cookies at The Witch’s place. So then it was by her real name Ms. Violet D’Souza, or rather just Ms. Violet.
Once when I was fifteen, I suddenly found myself curious to know more about The Witch.
“Mummy, did Ms. Violet always live here?” I asked.
“She has been here for many years, but she has also travelled a lot.” Mummy answered.
“Where did she go to, and why did she come back?” I asked again.
“Becca, what do you mean by ‘why did she come back’? This is her home, her mother’s home, her mother’s mother’s home. Of course she would come back.” She almost shouted at me. Mummy never tolerated any kind of disrespect for anyone, old or young.
“What I mean is, like why would she come back to India, to Bombay? Like there is nothing here.” I spoke, carefully, not to incur the wrath of my mother again.
“Why don’t you ask her, Becca? Plus I don’t want you talking nonsense about the city and country you live in.” She said handing me a batch of cookies. And just like I had feared, it was my turn to go and deliver cookies to The Witch.
I called Dhruv, who was also then my boyfriend, and who would later shatter my heart into a million pieces and teach me the most important lesson of my life; that nothing lasts forever.
We held hands and walked to The Witch’s home. It was a nondescript, desperately in need of paint, house during the day, yet upon sunset, it had the ability to transform itself into a house of terrors. It cast long shadows on our narrow street, and the massive bougainvillea that lined the dome entrance of The Witch’s house, did nothing to add color to the thing that The Witch called her home.
We entered the gate and walked in complete darkness, except for a faint yellow light, casting a sickly glow from the first floor balcony.
Dhruv pulled me close, he did not trust the house, or the darkness. Even in our rebellious, Satan worshipping, teenage gothic hearts, we feared The Witch. At seventeen the six of us would hang out on the street, every night when the clock struck nine. We still would refuse to look at the first floor balcony of The Witch’s house; lest we stand transfixed by her grey eyes. That is the power of legends and lores, they take shelter in your deepest core, where logic cannot penetrate.
Dhruv and I, tentatively felt for the massive oak paneled door, and found our way to the doorbell. A faint music, purely of percussions interspersed with tinkling bells, guided our way. We rang the bell and prayed that The Witch would be asleep, or perhaps bathing in the blood of a virgin. But such was not our luck. The door opened wide, The Witch opened it. She was in a flimsy white gown. Upon a closer look, I realized that her glossy red hair had thinned like the roots of a dying willow. They were no more red, rather the color of rot and death. Her face of sharp edges was rife with wrinkles and spittle of red juice dribbled down her chin. On that dreadful night, seeing the object of my nightmares stand there in a white gown, with her scanty hair sticking out, and the a rivulet running down her neck, I was sure we disturbed her during a bloody ritual. What confirmed my belief was the tinkle of numerous tiny bells that were strapped on both her ankles. She was wearing ghunghroo, while drinking virgin blood and dancing to the silent, sinister tunes from the devil himself!
I thrust the cookie basket at her, and without meeting her eyes said, “Mummy gave this.” As soon as she took the basket, her hand brushed against mine, and a current of shiver ran through my body. Dhruv quickly pulled me away from her, as she managed to say in a feeble voice, “Would you like strawberries, children?”
We ran from there, we ran from The Witch like our lives depended on it. We ran from the old woman who looked like death itself. We ran from the sorceress who was out to get us with her ‘Strawberries’.
That night I had the highest fever ever. I was later diagnosed with Dengue and stayed locked at home for more than a month. I was sure The Witch had cursed me with her touch.
As time passed, our fear of The Witch slowly dug itself into the crevices of our childhood memories and lay dormant.
A few years after that incident, all of us, the ‘Hexsome’ (our term for the awesome six) moved to different parts of the world for further education. Some moved with their families, like Dhruv, some left their families behind, like me.
At twenty-five, working as an app developer, one day I sat in my office in Bangalore. Staring at the screen, wondering if my entire life was a series of one bad date after another, one failed code after another, when Mom called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with a nightmare.
“It is just cancer, baby.” She said.
“What…what do you mean, just?” I asked incredulous.
“Well, it is nothing. One year of chemo would do the trick.” She said again, with her fake optimism. When I knew that she would burst into tears of sorrow and loneliness the minute she would hang up the phone. With dad gone, I wasn’t going to let her go through that alone.
“I am coming home.” I said and hung up.
I worked from home and looked after Mom, all that time she struggled with cancer, with a weakening body and a scrambled mind. By her second chemo session, she was a frail shadow of herself, her vitality gone; her curly brown hair lost to the poison and her scalp, white and blotchy with diseased cells.
Often I would take walks in the night, on our street that after almost two decades, still managed to remain the same, untouched by time. I would dare myself to look up, look up at the balcony of House #17, The Witch’s house. And sometimes in the night, through the blinds I would see the silhouette of a wheelchair, a stand with a bottle of glucose hanging, and a person not much bigger than a ten-year old frail child sitting and breathing hard. Some nights if I listened hard enough, I could almost grasp the raspy sound of her short, dying breaths.
Then one day, I saw an ambulance, and a stretcher, and a body lying on the stretcher covered in a white sheet. I knew that day that The Witch was dead. People I had never seen, her relatives perhaps, or friends or maybe a part of her cult, locked up her house and left the key with Mummy.
They said they did not need it for now; they would collect it when they decide what to do with the house.
Mummy cried that day, inconsolably, continuously. Over and over repeating herself, “No one…no one should have to die alone. Especially not Miss Violet.”
That night, my curiosity got the best of me. I grabbed the key, a flashlight and sneaked into The Witch’s house.
My heart beating like drums, I inserted the key to open that massive oak door with ornate patterns crafted all over, like sharp vines. For a moment, the key seemed to groan, stuck with reluctance, stuck with loyalty to its mistress.
Finally, the door gave in and I entered into a large, black space, until I switched on my flashlight and closed the door behind me. It closed with a groan as a strong draft whooshed past me, almost pushing me against the closing door. My shivering body gathered itself as I looked around me. I did not know what I was searching for. I did not know what I would find, but I did know that I had to look. Look as hard as I could.
I ran my torchlight around the living room. It looked like any other old house. Dusty antique furniture, heavy drapes, ornate mirrors and a reflection of me, shining through the torchlight in the mirror. I decided to start from the floor above, perhaps her bedroom with its balcony, where she would stand and watch us.
I took the stairs, two at a time, my courage was dying by the minute and until I found something, anything, to allay my fear of that place. In al likelihood, I was due for an embarrassing exit, screaming in terror.
As I entered the first floor room, her bedroom, I do not know if it was my imagination or reality. But I felt like I was entering another realm, the air around her room was thick, viscous, warm but cold, almost like half hearted resistance; a reluctant hug.
An eerie shroud hung over the room, awash with moonlight. I decided that if only I could focus on my feet, physically will them to put one step after another, I might not scatter and fall apart in absolute terror.
I looked around. The walls of her room were like a museum of framed photographs and letters from a time forgotten. The pictures and pages were yellowed and it was a good thing they were framed, because just a gentle breeze would be enough to shred them to dust.
I started with the wall towards my right, I shined my flashlight at the scores of pictures, letters and postcards. Ms. Violet had sent those to her mother, from her travels. Her mother who lived in the same house alone and died alone, just like Ms. Violet did.
There was one where she was dressed in Ukrainian costumes and twirling her skirt. There was another where she was on an ancient looking motorbike. Another where she was trekking snow capped mountains, and another where she was performing Bharathnatyam somewhere in an opera hall.
And then there was the one with Ms. Violet was in deep, passionate lip lock with a soldier at some train station and a letter next to it describing to her mother about how she met Samuel, and how they are engaged, and how they plan to marry when he comes back from the war.
Next to it was another one, where she sat, holding a folded soldier’s uniform and her face expressionless, like a doll’s.
The whole room was filled with echoes of a life lived with abandon, a life of adventure, a life of love. A cold draft passed through my body as I scoured the pictures, my hair blew past my face and I realized that all doors and windows were closed. I shivered, not in fear, but sorrow.
We feared her all our lives, when there was so much we could have learned from her. So much we could have given her. Yet, we painted her out into a monster.
I realized I was tired, so tired of living all my life in my own cocoon of perceptions. I was tired of calling Ms. Violet The Witch, I was tired of my own arrogance at thinking that I was always right and I was tired of standing.
I lowered myself to Ms. Violet’s bed and put my head on her soft pillow. Her bed smelled of piss, puke and medicines. And it also, very, very faintly smelled of strawberries. I closed my eyes and mourned for the woman, I never gave a chance.