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Sarah Jo always skipped when she accompanied her grandmother, Mama Avery, down the long oak-shaded hill between Indiana and Georgia Avenues. They never went that way unless they were going to see Miz Love, and whether she went with Mama Avery or with Aunt Mae, Sarah Jo delighted in those visits even more than in trips to Emory's Five & Dime.

Miz Love was more fun than old Miz Henry, who always kept a jar full of peppermints on the credenza, and she was more fun than Miz Aderholt, whose pug could put her paws together and pray. Miz Love was more fun than any of Mama Avery's other friends -- because Miz Love was a witch. Sarah Jo was certain of it.

Only a witch would live in such a dark, smelly house with seven cats. Only a witch would keep four fat goldfish in a pond out back or keep a neat row of little handmade pin-stuck dolls in a drawer. And only a witch would offer visiting children glasses of muscadine wine and keep a dead woman in the closet.

At the tail end of a long series of skips, the rumbling of a brand-new '46 Buick and loose shoelaces conspired to send Sarah Jo tumbling. Only the firm clasp of Mama Avery's hand about her own kept Sarah Jo's already scabby knees from hitting the sidewalk.

"I declare, child, between your laces and your gawking. . . ."

"Forgot to make a double knot."

"You're nigh as bad as your Aunt Mae."

Sarah Jo plopped down on the low wall edging the sidewalk. Being nigh as bad as Aunt Mae didn't seem like such a terrible thing. Of all her relatives, Aunt Mae was her favorite. She forgot things like taking the coffee pot off the stove and shutting cabinet doors, but she made cookies, told stories, and believed in rocket ships flying to the moon.

Sarah Jo had realized Aunt Mae was special even before she'd come to live with her and Mama Avery last fall. One fragrant evening during a long summer visit just after she'd turned five, she'd nestled beside Aunt Mae in the creaking front-porch swing, stared at the yellow moon, and whispered, "I'd like to build a rocket ship and fly to the moon." Aunt Mae had nodded her head and said, "I would, too." Once she'd tried to talk to her own mama about rocket ships, but Mama had only sniffed and said, "They're nothing but movie theater tales, and you're no Buck Rogers." No . . . it wasn't such a dreadful thing to be nigh as bad as Aunt Mae.

Bracing her foot against Mama Avery's knee to have the white laces re-tied, Sarah Jo wiped her nose with the back of her hand and grinned. She liked to watch Mama Avery do things with her hands. It didn't matter whether she was rolling out biscuit dough or threading a needle or tying shoelaces -- her hands were wondrous things. Blue veins tracked across them like highways on a roadmap, and her fingers were so thin that when she doubled the loopy ends of the laces and pulled them tight, her wedding band slid all the way down to her knobby knuckle.

"Let me see the other. Like as not, it's the same way."

Sarah Jo switched feet.

"You're not a bit like your mama. She never let her laces go untied. She was always acting the lady even when she was just learning to crawl."

Leaning back on her hands, Sarah Jo wondered aloud, "How could she have acted like a lady way back then?"

Mama Avery stood up straight. "She didn't crawl all scrabbling like most. Didn't like dirt and never let her knees touch the floor. No, when your mama was a crawling baby, she hiked up her bottom and followed her hands with her feet. She was a lady through and through."

"Not like me."

"Not a bit like you."

"What about Aunt Mae?"

Mama Avery's eyes, faded blue and framed by stubby gray lashes, glimmered in the early June sunlight. "Mae was always a mess. Just like you."

"Good." Sarah Jo straightened her skirt and held out her hand. Mama Avery took it firmly in her own.

Mama Avery was, just like Mama had been, a lady. She never left the house without making certain that her clothes were presentable and that her silver curls lay flat against her pink scalp. Her skin, paper thin and sagging in rippling folds beneath her jaw, was always coated with just the right amount of face powder, and her cheeks were bright with spots of rouge. She wore her pastel dresses neatly cinched about the waist, pressed her collars until they were crisp, and buttoned every button. There was only one flaw in her appearance -- one tiny scrap of lace peeked from below her hem. Sarah Jo almost told her grandmother about that disobedient slip. . . . But no, then they'd have to go back home, and she wanted to visit the witch.

Miz Love's house was set a ways back from the cracked sidewalk. There'd been a fence around the old place once, but now there were only a few pickets poking upright amidst a honeysuckle run wild. The two oaks out front were bigger than just about any Sarah Jo had ever seen. Their limbs looked to be strong enough to support a dozen rope swings, and the shade cast by their leafy branches left the whole yard in shadow even at noon.

The front porch was bare of furniture: no wooden swing, no glider, and not a single rocking chair, just an empty expanse of flooring, peeling and cracking from lack of paint.

The screen rattled when Mama Avery rapped on the door. When there was no answer, she pulled it wide, propped it open with her hip, and tapped on the glass panes. When there was still no answer, Mama Avery pushed the inner door then poked her head inside. "Miz Love, it's Miz Avery. I've come for a visit and brought little Sarah Jo."

A flash of yellow streaked through the doorway, darted across the porch to the shadowed yard, and vanished into the honeysuckle.

"Cats," Mama Avery muttered. "How anyone could let cats in the house. Nasty things. They jump on the tables and leave hair everywhere no matter what you do. I'd not have a cat in my house."

The door banged all the way open.

Miz Love stood in the center of the hallway, nearly filling its entire width. Her hair, still more black than gray, was short, oily, and held back from her forehead with a row of crinkle-edged bobby pins. Crepe-paper flesh draped her throat, and her belly stretched the shiny purple cotton of her dress 'til it was near to bursting. "Nobody's askin' you to have cats in your house, Emma Avery."

Mama Avery snorted. "Well, it's a good thing, because I wouldn't do it. Not for any amount of money. Aren't you going to ask us in to sit a spell?"

The parlor was crowded with claw-footed furniture covered in dingy brown velvet. The rug had flowers woven across it -- pink roses that had once been red and celery-colored leaves that had once been as bright as spring. Mister Love had ruined that carpet. He'd always wanted the curtains open to let in the sun. "But you can't keep a rug lookin' fit with the curtains always open," Miz Love had once told Sarah Jo, and it was clear that she'd been right.

Sarah Jo breathed in the delightful stink of Miz Love's home: cat poop, old grease, and witchery. Then, perching on the edge of a velvet chair, she poked her fingers between the fangs of Miz Love's lions. Even if Miz Love hadn't been a witch who kept a dead woman in the closet, Sarah Jo would have loved visiting just because of those lions. Carved at the end of each chair arm, their ridged manes flowed, their eyes squinched tight with fury, and their mouths gaped just wide enough for two of her fingers to slide through and touch their wooden tongues.

Zeke stared at Sarah Jo from beneath Miz Love's own chair. His white fur and green eyes were the only bright spots in the room. Moll lay stretched out across the back of the sofa. Her gray, tiger-striped belly rose and fell with each breath. Dickie was curled in a tight ball at the base of the oil heater. His fur was so dark Sarah Jo almost missed his shadowy form. Carlo had been the yellow blur streaking through the door for the shade of the honeysuckle. Of Enid, Frankie, and Jeb, there was no sign.

"Muscadine wine, Miz Avery?"

"Don't mind if I do," Mama Avery said from the chair near the door.

"And you, Sarah Jo?"

"Now you know the child's not old enough to take a sip of wine."

"I'm six and nearly a half," Sarah Jo said, hoping for her first taste.

"A sip of my wine would do her good, Miz Avery. The child's looked a mite wan since Ella Sue passed."

"Why she's as brown as a ginger cake. Sarah Jo doesn't need any wine."

As Miz Love scuffed to the dining room, her frayed house slippers and the flabby flesh of her upper arms flopped in a funny, off-beat rhythm. Swaying and shuffling, she returned, sloshing wine in two stemmed glasses with ivy leaves etched below the rims.

Miz Love settled into her own thickly padded chair then hoisted her feet onto a stool. Her big toes, long-nailed and dirty, stuck out the open ends of her slippers. "What's it to be today, Sarah Jo? You wanna go out back and see the goldfish, play with my dolls, or take a peek at Soapy Sally?"

"Soapy Sally, please."

"Well, go along with you, then. You know where she's at."

Sarah Jo slid off her chair then cast a quick glance at Mama Avery.

Her grandmother nodded permission, but added, "I do wish you'd get over that foolishness."

Soapy Sally lived -- if a dead woman could be said to live at all -- in the back of Miz Love's hall closet. Sarah Jo's heart skipped with delicious fear, and it took all her effort to walk down the hall and turn the corner at the back. Then came the hardest part: reaching for the doorknob, grasping the cool metal, twisting, and pulling. The first time she had visited Miz Love, the old woman had opened the closet door then stuck her fat hands between the woolen folds, separated them, and yelled "She's gonna get ya!"

Before that day Sarah Jo had always wondered what people meant when they said something had scared the bejeezus out of them; afterwards she had understood.

Reveling in the musty fragrance rising from the old clothes that hung in a tightly packed row, Sarah Jo started to squeeze her hands between Miz Love's thick gray coat and moldy green sweater then stopped. Always before, when she had peeked between the clothes and caught a glimpse of Soapy Sally's curving ribs, she'd gotten scared, drawn back, and slammed the door shut without getting a good look.

Maybe . . . just maybe . . . if she peeked over the iron rod instead of through the clothes. . . .

There were three boxes stacked in the front corner of the closet. Sarah Jo pushed the middle one back a little, then the top one, and created nice steps that were just the right height. Grasping the doorjamb with one hand and bracing herself against the wall with the other, she climbed. In position atop the third box, she reached for the shelf above her head. Her fingertips tapped the surface of something smooth -- canning jars most likely -- then clamped down on the edge of the shelf. Leaning forward to peer over the clothes rod, she caught a glimpse of a bare rib.

Then she heard a creak.

Sarah Jo squealed and teetered and scrambled to keep from falling, but fell anyway, dragging the front plank of the closet shelf and everything that had been balanced atop it with her. Bumping her head, banging her elbow, and bruising her rear, she hit the floor with a wail. There was a crack as something bounced off her head, and a clatter as something broke, then a splash as something horrible spilled across the floor. Stinking, stinging liquid ran beneath her hands, under her skirt, and into her shoes.

Before she could even begin to catch her breath, there were noises down the hall: Mama Avery's firm steps followed by Miz Love's scuffling ones.

"Sarah Jo! Child, what have you done? I declare, if you're not hurt, you'll wish you were."

"I didn't mean to. I swear, I didn't mean to."

"You never mean to." As Mama Avery glared at the disaster, the two spots of rouge on her crinkled cheeks grew redder and redder, and her skin grew ever more pale beneath the fine layer of powder. Jerking her gaze away, she propped both hands on her bony hips and turned to Miz Love. "Do you mean to tell me you keep them?"

"Emma Avery, I didn't mean to tell anyone anythin'."

"But you have. You've kept them." Mama Avery shook her head then reached down, grabbed both Sarah Jo's hands, and pulled her to her feet. "What a mess. You've bits of glass all in your clothes, and I don't believe that smell will ever come out."

It was only then, with the strength of Mama Avery's hands giving her courage, that Sarah Jo looked down at the damage she'd caused. The foul-smelling liquid formed puddles on the floor. Splinters of glass, shards with jagged edges, and nearly intact jar bottoms glistened in the shadows. One piece, bigger than the others, still proudly proclaimed the maker's name -- Ball -- in rounded letters. And there was something else.


Pale, peach colored blobs.

Squished, misshapen clumps no bigger than her fist.

Clumps that looked like little baby pigs or tiny, melted Kewpie dolls or tadpoles hexed to grow ten times their normal size then bleached.

Mama Avery pulled her away from the mess and shoved her toward the door. "We're marching you right home and into the bathtub. Now, go on. Out on the porch and wait for me there."

"But I didn't get to see Soapy Sally."

Mama Avery gave her a firm swat. "I don't want to hear anymore of that nonsense. There is no Soapy Sally. Those so-called bones are no more than the ribs of an old heating grate. Not even bones at all, just metal. Nothing's in that closet but clothing and a grate."

"And blobs," Sarah Jo muttered under her breath.

As she trudged down the hall, her eyes stung, and the skin on the back of her knees began to burn. She banged the screen door open then grabbed it before it banged shut behind her. Mama Avery didn't approve of slamming doors. But her elbow ached, and her bottom smarted from both the fall and Mama Avery's swat, and there wasn't really any such thing as Soapy Sally. With a flare of temper, she let go of the screen door. It banged against the doorjamb, bounced back, and banged again.

Sarah Jo, boosted by a Sears catalog to almost adult height, sat at the dining room table and frowned at her plate. It didn't matter that there were creamed potatoes, fresh corn, and roast beef with brown gravy, nor did it matter that Aunt Mae had made those special rolls just because she liked them. Nothing mattered except the harsh scrubbing and the even harsher scolding she'd received. Occupied by drawing sad faces in her potatoes with the tines of her fork, she paid little attention to what Mama Avery and Aunt Mae were saying until the name Love caught her ear.

"And that Miz Love," Mama Avery said as she dipped a piece of celery in her salt, "you know what all she does, don't you, Mae?"

Aunt Mae set her fork aside then folded her hands in her lap. "Yes, Mama. At least, I've heard that--"

"Well, don't tell me what you've heard, not with the child sitting here. Though I'll admit, as much as I hate to, there's a need for such as that. Still I can't believe. . . ." Mama Avery shook her head then patted her lips with a linen napkin. "Well, I'd never have thought she'd have kept them afterwards."

Aunt Mae's eyes, pond green and usually quite placid, widened. She straightened her shoulders a bit, even though Mama Avery hadn't said a word about her slouching, and cleared her throat. "She keeps them?"

"In the closet. In canning jars, no less. All stacked up on a shelf. That's what Sarah Jo spilled all over the hallway, and now I've a cleaning bill to cover, though I doubt even the dry cleaner will be able to get the smell out of woolens."

"Dear God."

"Mae Avery, I'll not have you taking the Lord's name in vain under my roof."

Aunt Mae mumbled a low apology and took a long sip of iced tea.

Sarah Jo winked at her aunt. They always shared a wink after one of Mama Avery's scolds, but this time Aunt Mae didn't even look up. Wondering what could be wrong, Sarah Jo studied her aunt. She wasn't pretty, not like Mama Avery was supposed to have been as a girl or like Sarah Jo's own mama had been, but her plainness only made her more loveable. Sarah Jo's mama had once called Aunt Mae fat, but she wasn't really; instead, she was plump in a nice sort of way, rather like a comfortable chair or a brooding hen. Her hair, a soft shade of brown with just a hint of gray, was cut short, and when she was rushed or upset, it ruffled around her face like a feather duster. It was ruffling now.

When the table had been cleared and the dishes had been washed and put away, Sarah Jo followed Aunt Mae out to the front porch swing. It was her favorite place to sit in the evening, all tucked in next to Aunt Mae's warmth, listening to the cicadas thrum in the trees and watching the lightning bugs flit across the darkening yard. But something seemed different tonight, something about Aunt Mae. She didn't ask about the disaster at Miz Love's or even ask Sarah Jo how she felt.

Later, when they gathered in the parlor to listen to the radio, Aunt Mae stitched quietly in her corner rocker and never so much as cracked a smile at the antics of George and Gracie. Something was wrong with Aunt Mae; something was very wrong.

It wasn't until after Aunt Mae had tucked her into bed and turned out the light that Sarah Jo began to wonder about those blobs, and the more she wondered about them, the more she wondered about Aunt Mae.

She pushed the quilt back and slid from between her sheets, then tiptoed down the hall to her aunt's room.

A thin strip of golden light shone from beneath the closed door. Sarah Jo turned the knob and peeked in. The drapes had been pulled tight, and though the white spread had been turned back, the heavy rice-carved bed was empty. Sarah Jo pushed the door wide.

Aunt Mae, garbed in a pink robe and curled up in the broad seat of an overstuffed chair, set the book she had been reading aside then patted her comfy lap. Sarah Jo skipped across the room and nestled into the crook of her arm.

"Are you fretful this evening, Sarah Jo?"


"Do you want to tell me about it?"

She slipped her hand into Aunt Mae's waiting clasp. "What were those blobs at Miz Love's?" The hand holding hers twitched ever so slightly.

"Blobs? Is that what they looked like?"

Sarah Jo nodded, pressed even closer, and waited for Aunt Mae's reply. The mournful wail of a passing train sounded in the distance. Cicadas thrummed outside the window. The overhead fan clicked in slow circles, and Aunt Mae's breaths grew so shallow Sarah Jo could scarcely feel them.

"Those were changelings," Aunt Mae said at last.

Sarah Jo leaned her head back against her aunt's shoulder and stared up at her well-loved face. "Fairy children?"

"That's right."

"Tell me about them."

Aunt Mae pulled her closer. "Fairy folk live in the hollows, atop the balds, and in the depths of the darkest woodlands. Sometimes they are kind, but sometimes they are cruel. When they're cruel, they steal from the shadows and leave changelings with young girls. But you see, the little mites can't live in our world, so whenever a girl finds herself with a fairy child, she visits Miz Love and leaves it with her in the hope that the changeling's fairy kin will come once more to claim it. That's what you saw today. Changelings waiting for their folk to take them home."

"Did you ever find a fairy child when you were young?"

Though Aunt Mae stroked her hair and squeezed her tight, she didn't answer.

After a while, Sarah Jo asked, "What do the fairy folk do when they aren't being cruel?"

Aunt Mae straightened, settled Sarah Jo down beside her, and smiled a little sadly. "When the fairy folk are kind, they help the girls who've returned their changelings by giving them new children to raise, ones who can live in this world, and grow big and strong, and dream about flying rocket ships to the moon."

"Like me?"

"Yes, Sarah Jo. Exactly like you."

Sarah Jo sat in the front porch swing, kicking the heels of her shoes against the floor, humming a little song, and waiting. The postman always delivered the mail just after dinner. Mama Avery said that was a dreadful inconvenience and that he had to know they were busy then, what with washing up the dishes and all. But since Sarah Jo had come to live with them, that inconvenience had vanished. Though she wasn't much help in the kitchen yet, she could watch for the mail.

Mister Robb sauntered down the walk, whistling between his teeth and swinging his heavy mailbag back and forth. He stopped at each house along Indiana Avenue, slipped letters and bills into each and every letter box, then headed on to the next. When he disappeared behind the huge crepe myrtle marking the boundary between the Bramley's yard and Mama Avery's, Sarah Jo bounced off the swing then skipped across the porch and down the walk to meet him.

Mister Robb tipped his hat just as if she were a grown-up. "And how are you this fine summer day?"

"Very well, thank you. And yourself?"

"Can't complain." He shuffled through his mailbag, pulled out a white envelope and double-checked the address. "Why look here. Your grandmama's got a letter what's come all the way from San Diego."

"From the Navy?"

"Well, indeed it is. Reckon your daddy's getting his discharge?"


When Sarah Jo took the mail in, Mama Avery perched her spectacles on the end of her nose, slit the envelope with the San Diego mark, and read. Once finished, she pulled her spectacles off and let them dangle from the dainty silver chain around her neck. "I declare, Mae, will you just listen to this. Sarah Jo's papa's getting his discharge and coming to fetch the child."

Aunt Mae wiped her hands down the front of her apron. "Coming for Sarah Jo?" She pulled one chair out from the half-cleared table and sat on the very edge. "He can't. With Ella Sue gone, he can't look after Sarah Jo. He'll have to work day in and day out. He can't raise a child."

"He says here in this letter that he's met a war widow with a little girl of her own. They plan to marry in August. Here," Mama Avery said, handing the letter to Aunt Mae, "look for yourself."

Aunt Mae read the letter through then murmured, "It won't have been a year since Ella Sue. . . ."

"With the war and all, folks look at things a mite different than they did before. Let's see . . . that'll make it eleven months; not quite a year, but considering everything, what else can the poor man do?"

"He can leave Sarah Jo with us. She belongs with her kin, not some widow-woman she doesn't even know."

Sarah Jo patted her aunt's plump shoulder and cast a pleading look at Mama Avery. "I don't even remember my papa."

"Well, child, that's not his fault. He couldn't help that he had to go off and fight the war. Most likely he'll settle back in Atlanta, and you can ride the train up for visits just like you used to do with your mama."

Sarah Jo squeezed Aunt Mae's shoulder and whispered, "I want to stay with you."

Aunt Mae's hand slid up to press against Sarah Jo's. Her touch was soft and gentle, but when she spoke, her voice sounded odd. "I won't let him take you, Sarah Jo. Don't you fret."

Then Aunt Mae rose from her chair, slipped the letter with the San Diego postmark into her pocket, and untied her apron. Fanning her flushed cheeks, she said, "Mama, I'm in need of a bit of air. If you don't mind, I think I'll take Sarah Jo for a walk down the hill."

Sarah Jo always skipped when she accompanied her grandmother, Mama Avery, down the long oak-shaded hill between Indiana and Georgia Avenues. They never went that way unless they were going to see Miz Love, and whether she went with Mama Avery or with Aunt Mae, Sarah Jo delighted in those visits even more than in trips to Emory's Five & Dime.

Miz Love was more fun than old Miz Henry, who always kept a jar full of peppermints on the credenza, and she was more fun than Miz Aderholt, whose pug could put her paws together and pray. Miz Love was more fun than any of Mama Avery's other friends -- because Miz Love was a witch. Sarah Jo was certain of it.

Only a witch would live in such a dark, smelly house with seven cats, or keep four fat goldfish in a pond out back. Only a witch would have known how to make a little doll out of scraps of navy-blue muslin and a crumpled letter from San Diego. And only a witch would have smiled and said, "It works every time," when word had come at the end of July that Papa was dead.


Copyright © 2000 Nancy Proctor

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Nancy Proctor lives in East Tennessee with two dogs -- Bailey, a sweet-natured Sheltie, and Chester, the Pomeranian from Hell. She's a member of the soon-to-be-infamous Sporks writing group and is currently working on a fantasy novel and a series of short stories set in Appalachia.

Bio to come.
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