Rumpus Original Fiction: The Witch House

By

I’m not saying polyamory can’t work after you have kids. I’m just saying it stopped working for me. I didn’t want another lover. I just wanted someone to help with the dishes.

Even in our hip little neighborhood in Austin, I got sucked into the toxicity of the idealized family. I met the other moms at storytelling hour at the central library and during “crafternoon,” but it was all yoga pants and lattes with them; all talk of charter schools and private schools and god-forbid the regular public schools. The other moms didn’t hang out at BookWoman. Don’t get me wrong; I sipped coffee in my cute burgundy leggings at the library café right next to them, but I had read Adrienne Rich! I just wanted to be that self-defined woman, worthy of their jealousy: “But can you imagine how some of them were envying you your freedom to work, to think, to travel, to enter a room as yourself, not as some child’s mother or some man’s wife? …we have no familiar, ready-made name for a woman who defines herself, by choice, neither in relation to children nor to men, who is self-identified, who has chosen herself.”

I had to get out. Even just for a couple of weeks. My husband was off in Thailand with one of his regular lovers. Couldn’t I have some change of scenery, too? As soon as the tax return landed in my account, I bought the tickets. Didn’t even tell him we were leaving town.

I’d been driving ride shares after work to keep Octavia in a private Montessori. If her teachers cared when I pulled her out for a second spring break, they didn’t let on. Turns out that’s one of the things you pay for in private American education: not having them call the cops on you for truancy.

Maybe someone should have called the cops on me: Identity crisis mother alert.

We packed just one little suitcase that would fit into the overhead compartment—two changes of clothes each and bathing suits—but I carried a lot with me on that trip: feminism and underconfidence. The question of my marriage. A sense that motherhood had been a terrible mistake. I loved Octavia with something raw and all-encompassing, but that animal bond only seemed to make the experience of motherhood that much more unbearable to me. I’d left home myself as soon as I turned thirteen; I had no template for anything other than my own experience of mild parental neglect and running away and this toxic American script for “family.”

I carried it all.

Austin-Atlanta.

The wall of cigarette cartons in the duty-free shop made me miss my youth—miss the nicotine, the heat on my lungs. I breathed in the smokeless airport air, bought us a big golden box of Godiva chocolates instead.

Atlanta-Rome.

At Fiumicino airport, Octavia wanted to climb on all the giant wooden wing sculptures that were some kind of tribute to Leonardo da Vinci.

“No, baby,” I whispered without explanation.

It was just after dawn in Rome when we climbed onto the train.

Octavia dozed off and woke up. “Is this Italy, Mama?”

The air smelled like black currants.

“It is. Italia.” I’d surprised myself, still able to buy tickets and ask basic directions in my rusty mash-up of the all the romance languages.

 

The ferry from Civitavecchia to the Sardinian port was painted with a giant blue whale. The other travelers ambled on board speaking pure Italian or Spanish or French. They were locals and quasi-locals. I guessed the overseas visitors wouldn’t descend until June.

We sat on a white plastic bench on the blue-painted deck. “This is the Mediterranean,” I whispered, but Octavia’s eyes glazed, like she didn’t seem to think it looked much different than the Gulf of Mexico.

I introduced myself to the few strangers who approached us, “Mi chimao Ayla,” but no one paused for long enough for me to introduce them to Octavia. Turns out a mother traveling with her tired first-grader doesn’t attract fast friends the same way vagabonding alone used to.

Octavia leaned into my rib cage.

I pulled her closer to me, but the cool wind on our faces only made me think of other days and other nights on other ferries when I only had myself to think of. I watched the blue water.

 

I’d only signed up for that first day tour because I was trying to be a good mother. No more hitchhiking or winging it for me. I had a kid now. I would be responsible. Even if I didn’t have a huge budget, we would have pre-booked hotels—some structure.

I’d cobbled together our itinerary from one of those travel review sites. All the pictures of sapphire waters on my computer made me feel like there were still magical days ahead of me in life. The strange stone tombs etched with images of horned cow heads mesmerized me—the engravings evidence of the old mother goddess cults. Yes, I thought, maybe Mediterranean waters and the mother goddess could save me.

But my fantasy of traveling with Octavia didn’t hold. She’d napped on the long ferry ride and couldn’t sleep that night at the hotel until the red numbers on the electric clock glowed 3 a.m. “Why can’t we eat the chocolates now?” she kept whining.

In the morning, she didn’t want to get out of bed, wouldn’t eat the free breakfast downstairs—not even the shiny pastry I promised her would be more delicate than the shiniest pastry in all of Texas.

I pulled her out onto the sun-basked street like a rag doll. The spring breeze from the sea made me feel alive and unchained, but Octavia just frowned and wriggled out of her green hoodie.

I slung it over my shoulder.

The minivan, painted with the tour company logo that pictured an ancient-looking horned cow head, picked us up from the wharf in front of the hotel just after nine a.m.

Octavia sighed as she buckled herself into her seat, like this trip was such a burden. I clenched my teeth, telling myself to be patient with her.

A few couples and a single man climbed into the van after us. All Europeans, as far as I could tell from their quiet exchanges. The single man kept quiet. He wore a black beret that was too big for him.

Octavia nodded off as the cute Italian tour guide revved the engine and we made our way out of the walled city and up a winding road, into green pastures. Classical music played softly on the car stereo.

I had a quick urge to flirt with that guide—he had this little goatee and said everything first in Italian, then in French, then in Spanish, then in awkward English that charmed me, but Octavia opened her eyes and leaned into me and wiped her snotty nose on the sleeve of my black T-shirt and I shook my head like, What was I thinking I could flirt with anyone, perpetual snot rag that I’d become.

When we finally pulled over near a stand of olive trees, I hoped Octavia might cheer up, but as we all climbed out of the van, she just started whining about the chocolate again.

I felt so embarrassed. I was that mother bringing that kid on a day tour with a bunch of childless European tourists. What had I been thinking?

The tour guide led us through the trees and pointed to the strange rock structures. “So, these are what we can call the houses of the Janas,” he was saying when he got to the English. He pointed to stone cottages in the field that looked like they were built for elves, or maybe to shelter sheep. A few had stone steps leading to their doorways, but most of the rectangular openings just gaped from a few feet above ground level. “Janas can be translate as fairy or also as witch. It is, uh, a kind of fairy-witch if you prefer. Janas is linguistically in Italian means Diana, if you are familiar with this Roman goddess. Originally these are tombs of five thousand years ago, and larger inside than they appear from outside. But then maybe the fairy-witches of Diana are something like squatters in later times.”

It made me smile to think about fairy-witches squatting, crawling into these little doorways and discovering palaces.

The guide shifted his weight in his cute leather loafers, continued. “Or something like legend. Sometimes Janas bring good luck like fairy. Sometimes bring what you wish for even if it is terrible. Maybe you have see already, in all the Catholic churches in Sardinia, the Black Madonna statues. Means migrants from Africa pass through here before Christians. So also the Isis cult. So this Janas is like Isis and Diana but also a little different. Sardinian. Naughty.” He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Sometimes the superstition say the witch-fairy will bring death.”

I glanced at Octavia to gauge whether she was spooked, but she just traced a spiral in the dirt with a stick.

I’d brought a water bottle and a flashlight, just like the tour confirmation email instructed, but I hadn’t brought a daypack so I shoved the flashlight in one pocket of my cargo pants and the water bottle in the other pocket and I felt like such a loser. I touched Octavia’s arm, pointed at the cool stone structures, said, “Look at the fairy houses, baby.” Of course she was just tired from traveling, but I’d spent more than eighty dollars on this one tour and she was getting on my last nerve not enjoying it. “C’mon, Octavia.” I pulled her away from the group, toward one of the square openings that looked like a tiny doorway without a door. I shone my flashlight inside, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the horned goddess etchings, but the interior of the place was empty—almost eerie in its emptiness—and my skin felt suddenly cold. I took Octavia’s sweaty little hand in mine, pulled her arm to hurry so we could catch up to the group, then let go—just for second. She was right next to me when I turned to see which way they’d all gone. The walking path curved into a cluster of cork trees and I could hear the guide ahead of us, speaking first in Italian, then in French, then in Spanish. Maybe I stepped out ahead of her. It was only a moment. The smell of pine. Maybe a full minute? A dusty sheep wandered by, unconcerned. And when I turned back to where she’d been, my daughter was gone.

“Octavia?”

Surely she’d just stepped behind one of the boulders of one of those fairy houses.

“Octavia?”

Was she hiding on purpose?

“Octavia?”

The others must have heard me calling my daughter’s name, my voice becoming shrill, because now here they all were, looking alarmed and judgmental. Like, The American can’t even keep track of her child.

The guide touched my arm, could see I was starting to panic. “Non ti preoccupare,” he tried to assure me. “There is nothing much danger here.”

He wasn’t even that cute. Why had I wanted to flirt with him?

“Octavia?”

What did he mean, Non ti preoccupare? My six-year-old daughter had just vanished and now she wasn’t answering me. My heart beat fast.

“Maybe she hides,” a French woman with short, blonde hair offered.

As if I hadn’t thought of that myself. “Yes, maybe she hides,” I snapped.

The French woman sipped water through a green plastic straw attached to a water bottle on her back.

I felt frantic, the island air cold on my lungs as I tried to breathe, my water bottle bulging out of my pocket.

“Octavia?”

The man who’d been quiet in the van stepped out from behind one of the witch houses. I stared at him. Had he even been with the others when they walked into the trees ahead of us?

“Where were you just now?” I demanded.

He stared back at me. “Non capisco.”

Was this guy completely creepy or was I just freaking out? His too-big beret tilted down, covering most of his forehead. The whites of his eyes seemed yellow. I tried to steady my breath.

The guide called everyone in the group into a huddle, instructed them each to search a different cluster of fairy houses.

Surely Octavia had just climbed through one of the open doors and found an ancient etching of the goddess. Surely she was right here somewhere, safe and inexplicably silent.

I wanted to stalk the quiet guy with his creepy beret, but what if my intuition boiled down to unfounded paranoia? Did I mistrust all white men? I kept an eye on him.

I certainly wasn’t the one to call the police.

The sound of the approaching siren ripped though my body. I scanned the trees and rock hills around me for some sign this was a nightmare. Scream, I told myself, and I opened my mouth and the scream that emanated from my belly echoed against the stone, startling the others, and this was all real: I stood in a field of ancient tombs and here come the polizia asking, Come lei? What does she look like? Cosa indossava? What was she wearing? How long did you turn away? Per quanto tempo? Per quanto tempo? Per quanto tempo?

I’d snapped a picture of her on my phone that morning as we waited for the minivan, pulled it up to show the officers now: her polka-dot leggings and blue T-shirt with the picture of the monster from Where the Wild Things Are. I pointed out the particular coffee-color of her skin, the dark of her sleepy eyes, the way her hair curled away from her forehead.

“Octavia?”

The cops spoke fast to the tour guide in Italian. I didn’t follow. They wore dark pants and light blue shirts, these stupid military caps.

“Octavia?”

All the witch houses had been searched, the tour guide was telling the cops, scratching his dumb beard. What was his name, anyway?

“Mattia,” he said.

When the third cop showed up with the dog, that’s when my memory goes into slow motion. The polizia have a search dog.

Mattia looked at me but didn’t say anything as he lifted Octavia’s hoodie from my shoulder and passed it to the cop, who let the dog sniff it.

I thought of my husband, but didn’t reach for my phone. What would he do but scold me, anyway? I could scold myself. What had I been thinking, coming here? Maybe there was a good reason the other moms stuck to yoga and “crafternoon.”

As the dog led the officer along the part of the trail we’d walked and toward the tomb-house we’d looked into, a bird circled in the distance, crying. Its silhouette crossed the darkening blue sky like paper-cut art. Why hadn’t I just stayed home and ordered a Nikki McClure calendar like a normal person? I closed my eyes, whispered an apology to Octavia, tried to psychically communicate to her that wherever she was, everything would be all right—but I wasn’t sure I believed it.

The creepy man in the beret approached Mattia and the first cop, spoke fast and quiet in Italian. They all stared at me like I was the worst kind of American, but then Mattia’s eyes softened. He lifted his phone to his ear, spoke fast to someone and then clicked it off, put it back in his pocket as he approached me. He said, “Ayla, my colleague will now come to collect the others and return them to hotel. I wait here with you.”

I gestured toward the guy in the beret. “What did he say?”

Mattia nodded slowly, like he wasn’t sure if he should tell me. He cleared his throat. “This man, Milanese, tells us he stopped to make a pee, and that is why he was not with the group. He tells us he did not see anything but he tells us he hears you angry tell your daughter you will leave her behind. He tells us he hears you walk away. He tells she stayed alone quite a few minutes before you returned to this clearing and began to call her name.”

I swallowed hard. My stomach felt heavy. I could taste the bile as it rose in my throat. I opened my mouth to deny it all—the part I wanted badly to forget, like some bad dream—but what that creepy asshole said was true. I stared at Mattia. Surely Octavia had known I didn’t mean it? That I was just frustrated? We had to keep up with the group. I’d paid eighty dollars. So, yeah, when she pulled away from me, I said, Fine, Octavia, if you don’t like this tour I’m leaving you here. I breathed the pine-scented air. I’d left her there alone much longer than a minute. “I thought that guy didn’t understand English,” is all I said.

“Please do not worry.” Mattia scratched his little beard. “We will find your daughter. There is no much danger here. In times past Sardinia was quite known for kidnapping, but not at this time anymore.”

I glanced up at the near cop who just stood there. He narrowed his brown eyes at me. What was I now? A witness? A victim? A mother? A suspect?

How long ago was this “times past?” I didn’t ask.

 

The officer with the dog continued to circle the area, calling Octavia’s name and occasionally yelling to the others.

I imagined that if we were back in Austin, we’d have a pack of dogs. We’d have helicopters. Local news if not national news. But when I glanced up at the same blue sky that tilted toward Austin in the late afternoons, I knew that we probably wouldn’t have all that there. It would be just like here. No helicopters. No reporters. Just me and some guy I’d once thought to flirt with and a dog and a few cops walking circles in the countryside as the sky began to darken. Not a news story until they found her body. I swallowed hard and held back the tears. Tried to shake the image of her lifeless corpse out of my mind.

“Ayla,” Mattia said softly, “please know this is sure the most terrible thing that has happen on a tour I lead, but I believe the conclusion will not be tragedy. I have not prior belief in Janas, but I have a strange calm in this time.”

I nodded slowly, but wasn’t sure if I was nodding quickly. I couldn’t tell if things were happening too fast or not fast enough. Had I conjured this nightmare myself? Surely my baby was about to emerge from that stand of cork trees, ask what all the fuss was about.

Someone called out again, “Octavia?”

 

The cops and the guide talked among themselves. Mattia’s colleague arrived in a white minivan with the same horned logo and all the other tourists piled in. Only the French woman said anything to me as they left: “Bonne chance et bon courage.”

Alone for a moment, I ducked into one of the tombs and sat down on the cold floor in the dark. You were never the mistake, I whispered to my daughter who wasn’t there. On the far wall, I could just make out a spiral etched in the stone. I closed my eyes, steadying my breath, and in the quiet dark, I thought I heard a faint voice whisper: Interpretare i pensieri come fossero sogni.

What did it mean?

Interpret your thoughts as if they are dreams?

 

As night fell on the tombs and the fairy houses, on the olive trees and the cork grove, I worried Octavia would be cold without her hoodie.

Mattia followed me down a path we’d been down before, our two flashlights uselessly illuminating the dirt and pine needles the cops had already stomped through, the moonlight above casting ghostly shadows. Would she be scared in the dark? I shone my flashlight onto an overgrown path that diverged from the main one. “Have we been this way yet?”

“Yes, I think so.” Mattia nodded, then shook his head. “I do not remember.”

We crunched through the overgrowth.

“Octavia?”

Mattia shone his flashlight toward a tiny doorway that peered out from a cluster of vine-covered boulders like an all-seeing eye.

I approached the opening cautiously. “Octavia?” I shone my flashlight inside. Nothing by the eerie emptiness. I shone it toward the ceiling, and there the patch of light illuminated a faint ochre-red etching of a horned cow. I shook my head. “Nothing.”

Mattia crouched down and crawled into the opening. “Niente,” he confirmed.

Maybe she had walked back to the road in those minutes after I’d told her I was leaving her. Maybe someone had picked her up before the police even got here. She could be anywhere by now. “I didn’t mean it,” I said softly.

Mattia nodded.

“What kinds of kidnappings used to happen here?” I finally asked. I would figure out how to pay a ransom.

But Mattia didn’t answer me.

I heard the bird cry again and I looked up as a falcon alit on a high rock above us. I moved my flashlight in the bird’s direction, and it took flight, but there, hidden by more overgrowth, another opening stared from the stones. I scrambled up the rock wall, scraping my knee through my cargo pants. I dropped my flashlight and listened helplessly as it fell against the rocks and into the bushes below. But moonlight angled in through the doorway as I pulled myself up and there, in the back corner of the witch’s house, I could just make out the dark profile of a small figure in a long, black dress standing at a sink.

I didn’t want to make a sound for fear of startling her. I gestured for Mattia to retrieve my flashlight, but he was making too much noise in the bushes.

“Hello?” I whispered to the figure. “Buena sera?”

The tiny, old woman looked up at me and smiled in the moonlight. “La ragazza dorme,” is all she said, and she motioned toward a darker corner.

I crawled into the cave, but he ceiling was too low for me to stand. “Octavia?”

My daughter sat up slowly on her stone bed, rubbed her eyes. “I fell asleep, Mama.”

I stood on my knees and wrapped my arms around her tiny body and finally wept, my whole body shaking.

“Shhhh.” The old woman whispered from behind me as she placed her hand on my back.

I turned and locked eyes with the Janas. Her face was etched with deep wrinkles, her eyes as dark as mine. “Thank you,” I whispered as I led Octavia out of the witch house and guided her down the rock wall.

Tears of relief and shame streamed down my face as we followed Mattia back down the paths and the dog rushed to us, wagging his tail in the moonlight like he’d found Octavia himself.

I just wanted to get back to the warmth of our hotel, but the cops in their dumb hats insisted on taking Octavia to the hospital, and I didn’t resist. I knew they knew what I’d said and done, that it was my own fault I’d lost her, that it was a small miracle we’d found her at all.

 

In a narrow bed with crisp white sheets, nurses took Octavia’s temperature and blood pressure, fed her pasta with Parmesan, said something in Italian I decided meant dehydrated as they slipped an IV into her thin arm.

When she finally dozed off, I stepped out onto a small balcony to call my husband.

I could see the reflection of the moon on the dark Mediterranean waters in the distance.

An unfamiliar voice answered my husband’s cell phone and maybe I was rude when I snapped, “Where’s my husband?”

The voice said, “excuse me?” in English with a sweet Thai lilt.

I figured it was my husband’s lover in Bangkok—the one I’d heard of but never spoken to. I said something to the effect of “sorry to bother you,” but I needed to reach my husband. “Our daughter’s in the hospital,” I said, matter-of-fact.

The voice sounded so sad when he asked, “Do you know who I am, Madam?”

And I did know who he was. I had a pretty good idea, anyway. I said, “You’re Lek, my husband’s lover in Thailand.”

He hesitated, like his breath was caught in his throat. “Madam, if you know who I am, why don’t I know who you are?”

I shook my head. I couldn’t take on Lek’s heartbreak. I said, “I don’t know about that, honey. I can’t help you with all that. Please just tell my husband he needs to contact me. Our daughter is in the hospital.”

“Yes, Madam.” His voice sounded crestfallen. “I will tell your husband right away.”

My heart hurt for him. “Lek?”

“Yes, Madam?”

I looked out over the moonlit sea. “Lek, do you think I should leave my husband?” I don’t know why I asked him. Did I think he could make that decision for me?

But Lek said, “No, Madam.” I could picture his face, all compassion. I could picture him shaking his head. “Think about your daughter, Madam. It’s best if she begins to feel better and she has a father.”

I thanked him and hung up, turned off my phone and looked up at the waxing moon. The voice of the Janas at the sink whispered now from the sky: Non é che non avrà un padre solo perché scegli te stessa. I thought about that. It’s not like she won’t have a father just because you choose yourself.

I crept back into Octavia’s room and watched the rise and fall of her chest for a long time. When she finally opened her eyes, she smiled. “What are we doing tomorrow, Mama?”

I shrugged. “We can just wing it, baby.”

She sighed with something like relief.

“Maybe we’ll eat that box of chocolates in our hotel room.”

***

Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.


Ariel Gore is a LAMBDA-Award winning editor and author of eleven books of fiction and nonfiction including The End of Eve (Hawthorne Books, 2014), We Were Witches (The Feminist Press, 2017), Hexing the Patriarchy (Seal Press, 2019), and Fuck Happiness (Microcosm, 2020). Her latest anthology, Santa Fe Noir (Akashic Books), drops March 3, 2020. She teaches noir fiction, experimental story structure, and The Summer Manuscript Workshop online at The Literary Kitchen. More from this author →