by Pauline Chand, guest author
The only time that Savannah Street, the street of my childhood, resembled the more famous Savannah was in the summertime. In the middle of this particular summer afternoon in 1948, Savannah Street was hot, humid and oppressive. You could see the steam rising from the blacktopped road. The only sound to be heard was the occasional drone of a bee or Dragonfly. There was not a person in sight. Everyone had retreated indoors, windows shaded, to escape the sweltering heat.
I spent the morning playing with my best friend, Rosemary. As the sun grew hotter, we took our game of Jacks indoors and sat on the cool linoleum of her kitchen floor. Rosemary’s mom hummed Italian opera to herself as she ironed on her mangle, her tune in harmony with the soft thud of her foot on the pedal and the swish of the sheets as she folded them. Our rubber ball thumped with each bounce and our jacks tinkled as we tossed them onto the floor, then quickly scooped them into our hands. The rhythmic sounds of the mangle interspersed with the “bounce-tinkle, bounce-tinkle” of the jacks made us feel drowsy and we soon became bored with our game.
“What do you wanna do now?” I asked. “I’m too hot to move.”
“I know,” said Rosemary, “let’s make up stories about Miss McKay.”
We were both about nine years old and delighted in making up stories about our neighbors. Our favorite subject was Miss McKay, the neighborhood “witch.” We tried to top each other, making each story more fantastic and scarier than the last. Just as our imaginations soared and our pulses quickened, Rosemary’s mom said, “It’s ‘Life with Luigi’ time.” She was Italian and “Life with Luigi” was her favorite radio program and my cue to go home for lunch.
I was a bit nervous because the street was deserted and I had to pass Miss McKay’s house to reach home. Her house was large; a three story Victorian painted dark brown with black trim and surrounded by a black, wrought iron fence as well as a tall hedge. The windows were always shuttered, making it look as if no one lived there. During the summer, if I stood on tiptoe, I could see the tops of the rose bushes in Miss McKay’s garden, but I had never seen Miss McKay. Usually, if I had to pass her house I would cross over to the other side of the street, but today I decided to walk right in front of it. Just imagine what Rosemary will say when she hears how fearless I am, I thought to myself. Besides, everyone knows that witches don’t like sunlight. Miss McKay will never see me.
As I neared the house, I suddenly became bold, walking faster and faster. My heart beat quickened, urging me on. With each beat, it seemed to say, “Closer, closer…take-a-look, take-a-look.” Then, with courage coursing through my veins, I did the unthinkable. I stopped, stood on tiptoe, craned my neck…and peered directly into Miss McKay’s garden.
I ran away fast as I could, sobbing and hysterical by the time I reached home. I gasped with relief as I set foot on the familiar peeling grey paint of our front steps and tore open the front door, my entire body shaking. I sped through the hallway and into the kitchen where Mom, her back turned to me, was frosting a cake.
“It’s true, it’s true! She’s a witch! She has a dead lamb on her head!” I cried to my mother.
“A witch? A dead lamb? What are you talking about?”
“Miss McKay. I-I…I s-saw her,” I blurted out in between gulps and sobs, barely able to speak.
My mother took me in her arms and rocked me back and forth. Safe at last, my face pressed against her smooth, worn cotton apron, I smelled the comforting scents of home—a hint of Ivory soap and Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder on my mother’s skin, a freshly baked chocolate cake on the counter and onions sizzling in the skillet. I felt secure in my mother’s arms, comforted by familiar sights and smells and wished I could stay right here forever.
“She’s not a witch. You made a mistake,” Mom said.
“But I saw it! It’s true! She has a dead lamb on her head!”
“Let’s go have a look,” said my mother.
“No, no!” I cried louder than ever. “She’ll cast an evil spell on us!”
“Then you wait here and I’ll have a look.”
I trembled at the thought of my mother meeting Miss McKay, but agreed to let her go, “Okay, but don’t let her see you. She truly is a witch…a real witch.”
I stood at the front window, watching Mom as she disappeared from view. I crossed all my fingers for good luck and prayed, “Please come back, please come back…” over and over, fearful of what might happen if Miss McKay spotted her. Our desolate street seemed ominous as I waited for her to reappear. Why was she taking so long? And then, all of a sudden, there she was, walking back home, her brown curls bouncing in the sunlight. Breathing a sigh of relief, I unclenched my fingers. Mom was okay. I rushed to greet her. My brave mother had done it. She had walked past Miss McKay’s house and looked into the garden.
“Guess what I saw?” she said, a smile teasing her lips.
“What?” I whimpered, fearing the worst.
Mom put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. “Miss McKay is sitting in her garden…in the sunshine…drying her long wavy, white hair which is spread out all around her shoulders. There is no dead lamb on top of her head; it’s only her hair.”
“Drying her hair? No dead lamb? Are you sure?”
“No dead lamb–just old Miss McKay drying her hair in the sunshine. She’s not a witch, Pauline. She can’t hurt you. Witches aren’t real, you know. They’re only make-believe.”
Relief again flooded over me. I hugged Mom and we both began to giggle. But I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would’ve been to tell Rosemary what I saw: a dead lamb on top of Miss McKay’s head.”
Pauline Chand is a memoir writer
story illustrated by Betty Auchard