by Randy Townzen
Hiwasse Arkansas was a tiny rural community in 1931. It was caught in the slow decline of the Great Depression and witnessed the struggles of countless families to keep and maintain their property and livelihood. Growing up there created a treasury of stories and a lifetime of memories.
As a student in third grade, school recess was the favorite social activity for my mother Reta. While the boys preferred baseball outside, the girls stayed in-playing jacks, using the flat desk tops to practice their game. With just one ball and one set of jacks, Reta and her friends would patiently wait their turn, hoping someone would fail to scoop the correct number of jacks or miss the bouncing rubber ball. Reta was especially good at one-handing the ball and jacks. Easily embarrassed, she didn't want anyone to see her other hand and the ugly cluster of warts that grew down her finger. One-handed jacks became her specialty.
Next in line was Natalie, and she was not patient. Though a good friend, causing a distraction was her game plan. She would lightly bump the desk just enough to cause a miss, and Reta was growing tired of her tricks. After one bump too many, Reta grabbed Natalie's arm forcefully and demanded she stop. Natalie's eyes widened, filling with tears of pain and fright from the harsh touch of Reta's ugly left hand. She quickly ran home.
Reta knew she had gone too far. Natalie would probably cry to her mother and there would be trouble, but even worse, there was only one other way to walk home without going through Natalie's yard. That path led down the railroad tracks, past the Witch's house.
The autumn sun was setting far to the south, making long shadows on this late afternoon. The falling leaves tumbled across the old railroad tracks, crackling as Reta stepped on the. The wind chilled her legs below her coat and dress hem. The little house ahead made a dark silhouette from the glow of the lights in the windows. It was Aunt Susan's house, home of the With, or so she and her friends believed. Whether Aunt Susan was a widow or a spinster, Reta didn't know. She didn't even know why they called her "Aunt Susan". She and her friends only knew this old woman had lived in that little house by the tracks forever and she was known for doing strange, extraordinary things. Reta thought maybe she captured children with the smell of Gingerbread like Hansel and Gretel and kept them in a clock on the wall.
Smoke curled from the chimney and filled the air with hickory as Reta walked ever closer. She couldn't stop shaking. She couldn't breath. She wanted only to run, so run she did.
Thankfully home safe, mother Cora could see something was wrong. Reluctantly, Reta told of the trouble at school and how sorry and embarrassed she was at Natalie's reaction to the touch of her hand. How relieved she was to her mother Cora promise to take care of the problems at school and end her embarrassment.
So by lantern light, wrapped up warm, they walked back up the long dirt road... not toward teh school, not toward Natalie's house, but toward the home of the Witch, Aunt Susan. The air still smelled of hickory and the windows glowed from the flickering light inside. They stepped up on the porch and pulled back the creaky screen to knock on the weathered wooden door.
Slowly the door opened.
It was warm inside and smelled of fresh biscuits. The loud tick of a wall clock broke the silence. The clock was carved with leaves and branches, and on each hour tiny figurines turned and danced as the chimes rang. Again, Reta couldn't speak. Aunt Susan told her to sit by the fire as she pulled a chair close in front of her. What terrible magic was this Witch about to do? Silently, Aunt Susan took Reta's small hand, and rubbing the warts with her gnarled finger, whispered a low, imperceptible prayer. Over and over she rubbed the afflicted hand, occasionally touching her own whispering lips with her finger.
There was no broomstick, no pointy hat and cape. There was no cauldron of witch's brew. The clock was not Hansel and Gretel. There was just a kind, caring old woman with a mysterious, secret gift.
Then, as if returning from a doctors visit, Reta and her mother walked home. She never met or spoke to Aunt Susan again.
That old house is long gone, along with the railroad tracks and the school. Memories and stories have passed like the hickory smoke up the chimney and Reta never again thought of Aunt Susan as a Witch. She just remembers that soon after that strange and spooky visit, her warts went away.