Canto Nine – What a Witch Wants
The house was called the Gingerbread House by all Norwall kids because back in the days of the original Pirates, the old German Lady, Grandma Gretel had lived there. She had been a survivor of Bergen Belsen concentration camp during World War II, and was so full of life as a result that she baked endless piles of gingerbread to feed to the local kids. She had treated them like her own grandchildren, the grandchildren that she would never have otherwise, thanks to the dragons of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.
Mazie Haire had bought the Gingerbread House in an estate sale after the old German Lady had passed away with no heirs. Not only did the mysterious Ms. Haire move in, but she totally changed the fundamental nature of the place. It still looked like a gingerbread house on the outside, except for the horrible face on the door knocker, but the inside was like a Gothic horror novel. The walls were now bare gray brick, like the inside of a medieval dungeon. The wall that once separated the living room from the kitchen had been knocked out, leaving only a support pillar in the center of the big room. The fireplace had been expanded into a considerable hearth, all of gray stone. In the center of the hearth was a massive black cauldron where she apparently did all her cooking. In fact, Val knew that she would only use specific kinds of wood under that cauldron because Daddy Kyle had made the mistake of offering to sell her wood for her fireplace a couple of years ago. She had made him search all over Iowa for the amount of dogwood she needed and for sweetbriar that turned out not even to be from a tree. She wanted the apple-scented flowering plants with hooked thorns to burn in her fireplace, but the ones she planted in the yard of the Gingerbread House wouldn’t be ready to harvest for two years. After he finished that difficult job for her, he never volunteered to do such a thing again… even though she always seemed to have plenty of money and offered to make it worth his while.
“Hold that ice pack on the lump, girl,” Mazie said when Valerie accidentally let it slide a little to one side.
“Thanks for helping us,” mumbled Danny, “but if Val is better, shouldn’t we be going? I mean… err… you are going to let us go, right?”
Danny glanced nervously at the silent black cauldron on the hearth.
“Afraid I’m gonna cook ya and eat ya, are ya?” Mazie cackled softly.
“No, um… “
“Don’t you worry none, Danny Murphy,” Mazie said. “I don’t need your pushy old mommy meddling in my business any more than she already does, so I believe I won’t eat you and give her reason to fret. I have baby-sat for your little sisters and brothers. I didn’t eat them, did I? Cooking don’t make Murphy’s taste any better than they do uncooked. I’m likely to get food poisoning.”
“You don’t really eat people do you?” asked Valerie, nervously.
“I might eat you, sweet girl. Especially if you go around committing sins like spying through people’s windows.”
“You’re one to talk!” growled Danny, “with that telescope of yours in the attic room.”
“Oh, for goodness sakes, child. Get yourself up to the attic and see for yourself.”
Mazie pulled the folding ladder down from the ceiling. She forced both kids to go up, at the same time forcing Val to press the cold pack against the aching lump on the side of her head. She followed them up.
The telescope itself was fairly large. It sat on its tripod in the middle of the single upstairs room. It was pointed out of the dormer window. It was pointed up at the sky.
“That is not a spy telescope. It’s a stargazer.”
Valerie looked all around her at the many pictures on the walls. Most of them were fanciful drawings of constellations done in colored marker, and using both five and six-pointed stars.
“Well, you could point it at windows in people’s houses, couldn’t you?”
“Sure I could. Try it young Murphy. Find a window to point it at.”
Danny took hold of the telescope and pointed it more towards the buildings that faced the Gingerbread House on that side. There was the back side of the Fire Station. There was also the back side of the Post Office, Kingman’s Grocery, the old Brenton Bank, Victor Martin’s Bar and Grille, and Stewart’s Hardware store. He could also see the ground under the water tower and the front corner of old Cecily Dettbarn’s front porch.
“Not much to see, huh?”
“Well… If the windows were open…”
“How many windows do you count, boy?”
“Not counting the windows on the Dettbarns’ porch?” asked Danny.
“Not counting them…”
“One is the window in the back room of the fire station, and the other is on the back side of the Hardware Store. And, as you can plainly see, that one got broken a few years back and is covered from the inside with wood and cardboard.”
“There’s no x-ray vision knob on there anywhere, is there?”
“There most certainly is not. I do not use that thing for spying on people.”
“But my dad says you are always up here watching everything with this during the day.”
“I don’t generally watch people. Here, look at these.” Mazie opened a drawer in the sideboard and pulled out a sketchbook. It was filled with pictures of dogs and cats. Mostly different pictures of one dog and one cat… one very ugly cat.
“That’s Billy Martin’s dog,” said Danny. “That’s Barky Bill. I don’t know the cat, though. It’s a really ugly cat!”
“The cat’s true name is Scraggles,” said Mazie.
“True name?” Valerie asked, “what’s a true name?”
“It is said, mostly by me, that if you know a cat’s true name, the name he calls himself, then you can divine that cat’s thoughts and personality. Scraggles is what you might call a devil cat. He is somewhat evil and works to further the causes of Chaos.”
Danny looked knowingly at Val as she continued to hold the ice against the throbbing half of her head. “A witch, right?” he whispered.
“You may call me a witch,” Mazie said as if she heard Danny clearly in spite of the whisper, “but people who have the knowing are important to the community. They can steer you down the road where your destiny lies.”
“Erm, sorry, Miss Haire,” muttered Danny. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“Yep,” said Mazie, almost to herself, “If there is one admirable quality about that Mary Murphy with her great big personality and loud ways, it’s that she is good at teaching her children to be sorry about the wicked things they do. Now, if only she could do the same for that vile old grandpa of yours.”
Danny frowned at that. Val almost laughed at the change in emotion on his face… flustered embarrassment to confusion to indignation to almost speaking out, and back to flustered again.
“So you don’t spy on people with the telescope,” said Valerie. “How is it that you seem to know so much about the people in this town, then?”
“It’s the knowing. You are a clever young girl and could have it too if you just paid more attention to what you are seeing. Try it. Use it to solve the mystery of Billy Martin. He needs you two, you know… just not in the way you believe now because of what you thought you saw.”
“How do I use it?” asked Valerie, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “I don’t know how it works. I don’t even know what it is, or what you mean when you say it.”
“Try it on the cat. On the way home. Look old Scraggles in the two mismatched eyes. Try to figure out what he’s trying to tell you. If you can do that, you can begin to use the knowing as a force for good in the world.”
Val nodded as if she were agreeing, though, in reality, she was merely anxious to get away from this strange old lady. She didn’t even care anymore if she ever found out the answer to what a witch wants.