After dinner, I’m cleaning dishes. There’s a witch in the backyard burying something in the garden—probably someone’s heart—when my children start screaming and biting each other in the basement. It’s not long before they’re in the kitchen, my children, with red semicircles up and down their arms, arguing and soliciting punishments for each other, which I‘m wont to officiate. The next morning, or maybe it’s early afternoon, I take notice of the birds on the shed—crows and vultures—as my dog runs, spinning circles and barking in the yard. It’s clear from her legs, muddy up to her chest, the dog’s been digging in the garden, and she’s unearthed something, a large bag of some kind. Upon closer inspection, it’s probably a human torso, free of everything but an arm. The dog’s excited by my attention and grabs the arm at the wrist, dragging at the body—she wants to play—but it’s too large. It’s a small hassle shooing the dog away from the body, but once she’s free of it, I rise to see the charcoal witch standing at the fence of a neighbor’s yard, three houses down, watching me. I wave and abruptly return inside with the dog, dragging her by the collar.
A week later I’m at the Target looking for mouthguards for my children when I see her again, or I think it’s her, crouched down and sorting through some small animal traps and rat poison. She’s wearing a red-colored shirt and khakis, her grey-black hair tucked awkwardly into the neck of her shirt, and she smells like ash. She catches my eye briefly and begins following me around the store as if I’ve stolen something and I leave without the mouthguards or the prescription I was supposed to pick up for my wife.
The next morning, as I’m shuffling to get the children into the car for school, I spot an owl carcass on the roof of our home. My children don’t notice it, and I don’t say anything, but as I’m backing the van out of the driveway, I look at the bird, bigger than I’d have guessed, crumpled among common debris from the overhanging trees. I catch myself talking under my breath and refocus on driving, it’s nothing, and we continue up the street, back on task, but turning the corner we approach and pass a dark-haired woman walking in front of us on the sidewalk—the witch—and I look steadily ahead to avoid the chance of eye contact. The drive progresses poorly, for me, unable to shake another appearance of the witch, while the children struggle and gnaw at their seatbelts. Preoccupied, as I’m dropping off the second child, Goodbye, I love you, the witch enters the backseat of the car from the opposite side. She sits silently behind me and I hesitate before I begin driving again, but I begin driving again, because there are parents dropping off children behind me and I need to keep the line of cars moving.
I don’t say anything and the witch doesn’t say anything. The car is thick with the smell of mud and burning. It’s a few minutes before I pull into a gas station and abandon the car with the witch inside. It’s cold and I haven’t dressed for the weather, but I trek back, past a shopping district and through our neighborhood, my knuckles red as I finally arrive at our home. The owl remains taunt me from the rooftop. I find my wife, she’s just had a bath, and I tell her that I’m being stalked by a witch. She tells me to get over myself, leave the witch alone, everyone’s seeing witches these days, and they’re probably not even witches. I consider this possibility for a moment and feel a little guilty for calling the charcoal woman a witch.
Did you see the torso in the backyard? I counter.
No, she says, is it still out there?
I don’t think so, I concede.
Eventually, later that afternoon, I bundle up and walk back to the gas station, where I find my car. The woman, possibly a witch, is no longer in the back seat. I fill up the car with gas and pickup my children from their respective schools.
The children bite each other and the furniture in the house less frequently. I encounter various dead animals in the yard, but not enough to cause alarm. The dog is muddy, but manageably so. I go to the Target to pick up cheap fruit, prescriptions, and various plastic items. There’s a wooded area near the Target, just beyond the parking lot, and as I’m returning to my car I think I’ve seen something moving in the woods. I enter my car and slowly drive the perimeter of the lot, before exiting, and glimpse again, I think, a woman dragging something heavy through the trees. She leans, shuffling backwards as she pulls. Could it be the witch? Is it a body she’s dragging?
I’m idling in the car at the edge of the parking lot, well after she’s out of view, I’m not sure why, until I make a decision that I can’t explain: Slowly I roll up over the curb and into the forested area in my car. I proceed gingerly atop the soft earth and yellowed grass, navigating between the trees, sideways across a small hill, and then slowly down into a gulley. The heater’s running and I can hear the grass fold under the car. It’s cloudy grey outside, that off-dark period just before nightfall, and I find myself unable to proceed through the trees any further. It doesn’t matter. There’s no one out here. It’s been a hard year, I think to myself, what does it matter? I really am tired and I don’t care anymore, how did I ever care this much in the first place? I lean my face against the window and wish for sleep.
Nick Francis Potter is the author of New Animals (Subito Press) and Big Gorgeous Jazz Machine (Driftwood Press). He teaches writing, comics, and video games courses at The University of Missouri.