Mrs. Harriet Turtlebridge did not particularly enjoy killing. In fact, she would avoid it altogether if at all possible. Even still, her dislike of the act didn’t prevent her from doing it once a week, usually on a Tuesday morning, just after finishing her daily biscuit. The roses felt no pain when she killed them, she liked to think as much, as she snipped two from the vine in her glasshouse. Always two, one for her and the other for her husband. She tucked the first into a fold at the front of her tea-gown and the other she held in her hand as she exited to the yard.
Her floral haven was immense. The glasshouse was twice, perhaps thrice the size of her tiny cottage, standing in the very back of the yard just on the precipice of the thick, dark forest brush beyond.
“It’s where she keeps all the bones and eyes and things for making her potions” said Lester.
“No, it’s where she keeps creatures who make the potions for her!” contested Willy.
Aubrey chimed in. “I hear she wears all black so she can sneak into the shadows.”
“She doesn’t wear black” said Lester. “Those are her feathers. She’s part crow, after all.” Finn nodded in agreement, proud for knowing as much.
“So you think she’s a naked witch?” asked Aubrey.
“Not actually! She just…looks like whatever she wants you to see.”
The school year for 2006 was coming to an end as the four young friends sat around a massive oak tree in a conversely tiny park at the west end of Jubilee Crescent. A long, fraying rope, doctored over the years with duct tape, hung from a top branch and was tied around a tire. Aubrey swayed ever so slightly, her body poking through the tire swing like a loose shoelace, while the boys were gathered around her. She was the only one who lived on Jubilee, while Finn and Lester lived one street over on DeLure. Willy didn’t live near at all, he was only visiting because it was the weekend. His folks had a cottage on the lake and were preparing it for summer.
“But you haven’t even seen her” Aubrey said.
“No one has” said Lester, Finn bobbing his head.
“Then how do you know she’s a crow?”
Lester was puzzled. “I’ve gotta go, it’s almost dinner time.”
He sprung up from the ground and took off across the park, Finn following close behind. Willy still sat under the tire swing, sifting through the grass hoping to spot a four leaf clover.
“I wonder if she’s friendly” said Aubrey.
“Oh, probably. All witches are friendly but they still eat people.”
. . .
Mrs. Harriet Turtlebridge wasn’t always Mrs. Harriet Turtlebridge. When she was a young girl, before marrying Mr. Turtlebridge, she was Hattie Winnifred. A slender girl of average height with thick, frizzy, auburn hair, which would be curly if she had kept at it, brushing and combing as her mother insisted, but Hattie rarely spent time worrying about appearances and such, so it became a messy bob. She enjoyed spending most of her time adventuring in the woods, the same woods where she walked now.
Her frizzy hair remained, only the auburn was diminished, replaced by a snowy white which seemed brighter against her black gown. The old lady strolled through her tall grass, passing the glasshouse and into the dense forest brush beyond. It was just passed 5pm in late May, so the sun beamed down fierce in the evening air, but after a few short paces into the woods the shadow canopy quickly blocked the daylight. One could mistake the day for night now, or indeed say it was night, while the daylight before was only a false veil.
Harriet continued on a roughly trimmed path, moving slowly and minding her step. Though she traveled the path many times, it was still dark and required careful judgement. A normal lady would have carried a lantern or flashlight to shine the way ahead, but Harriet had no need for such things. Besides, it wasn’t all that far to go.
The children had often spoke in hushed tales about the graveyard the witch kept behind her house, deep in the forest tucked out of sight. They said it’s where her ghouls slept. The truth of the matter was while technically a graveyard, it held only one grave, that of Mr. Ronald Turtlebridge.
Harriet approached the burial and bent down carefully, kneeling before the rather plain headstone, quite weather-damaged and faded over time.
“Hello dear”. She removed the dried, wilted rose from last week and replaced it with a fresh, budding new bloom. “I haven’t much new to say, I’m afraid. The weather has been awfully nice, though I wouldn’t mind a drop of rain for the blue gentians along the drive.” Yes, she thought to herself, smiling a delightful little smile, yes that would do just fine. “I don’t suppose you would fancy one of those? No, I’ll stick with the roses.” She drew herself up from the ground, brushing the dirt from the bottom of her tea-gown and placed her hand over her heart. “I love you and I miss you, darling.”
. . .
Lester was licking sticky caramel off his fingertips and mumbling with his mouth full.
“I just got mom and dad to buy the last four bars” he said. Finn was eating a bar himself, too preoccupied to nod.
“Lucky” said Willy. “When my school has fundraisers I have to go to every house on the street. My parents say I should learn to respect the school’s fundraising methods.”
“What about you, Aubrey?”
Today she sat on top of the tire, gripping the itchy, yellow rope with both hands.
“Sold half of them. Probably sell the other half tomorrow.”
“Are you going to sell any to the witch?” asked Willy.
“Witches don’t eat chocolate!” exclaimed Lester. Finn shook his head. “She might buy some though, just to get you inside while she fetches her purse, then wham!” he yelled, smacking a chocolaty fist into his palm, “she’ll curse you and keep you as a slave.”
“She will not! I bet she’ll buy some bars, even more than one.”
That evening after dinner, Aubrey asked her mother about the witch.
“You mean Mrs. Turtlebridge? She’s not a witch, just a strange, lonely woman.”
“But everyone says so.”
“She’s an odd woman,” her mother said, sternly. “And that’s that.”
The following day was covered in a blanket of grey gloom, with the rain beginning just before lunch and not letting up one bit. Aubrey pulled on her rubber boots.
“Where are you going dear?” her mother asked.
“I still have eleven bars left to sell” she said, slipping into her bright pink rain coat.
“Don’t forget an umbrella.”
Aubrey had sold her way down to just three bars by the time she reached the far end of the street in front of Mrs. Turtlebridge’s driveway. Mrs. Turtlebridge lived on Jubilee Crescent longer than anyone, so long that some said the street was built without knowing she was there and the town had to clear a narrow lane back to her property after the fact. Jubilee was the farthest street west in the whole town, with only woods beyond, making Mrs. Turtlebridge’s house the absolute farthest residence. Her driveway started on Jubilee but was long and windy back to her house, with thick trees on both sides. Aubrey was frightened, but she was much more curious.
The lane was old gravel and solid dirt and hardly saw any use, but still there were bumps and divots, holes and creases, all collecting enough rainwater to make murky puddles for Aubrey to splash in, taking her mind off the witch if only for an instant. After a short jaunt down the lane, she looked up from her mud-slicked boots to see the little cottage, looking shrunken next to its massive glasshouse towering from the backyard. She walked slowly to the earthy green door of the cottage house, half shielding her view with the brim of her umbrella.
Aubrey hardly waited a moment, deciding the witch must be out running errands before she remembered witches don’t run errands and she was probably brewing potions to talk to animals or make her young again, or worse.
She stepped off the porch in a hurry, determined to make her way quickly home, but was diverted by the glasshouse she spied from the corner of her eye. It was immense! Why, Aubrey wondered, would the witch want a glasshouse three times as big as her cottage?
Aubrey crept nearer to the warm, sweaty building, feeling slightly terrified but overall guilty, because she knew better than to trespass. But the door was open, maybe the witch was inside.
Aubrey walked in, furled away her umbrella and pulled back her rain hood. She discovered a stunning array of flora she only saw the likes of in magazines her mother always read about gardens and weddings. Petals of beautiful violets, fuchsias, vermilions; flowers with long, thick stems and others that were hardly budding; aromas Aubrey could somehow recognize but she could never say from where. And roses! Roses that seemed to permeate from nowhere and everywhere all at once, all more starkly crimson than the last.
Aubrey shrieked, leaping a foot into the air and dropping her umbrella in the process.
“Oh dear, I didn’t mean to frighten you! My apologies” said Mrs. Turtlebridge, standing in her typical black tea-gown, covered in a thin layer of plastic she fashioned into a poncho.
Aubrey managed to catch her breath as she studied the old woman in front of her. She was slender, as her friends often mentioned, but not spindly or frail; her hair was white like they said, but wasn’t crawling with spiders or ants. She had no warts or blemishes, in fact her face had a warm glow to it, as if she spent her entire life smiling, just as she was now.
“How do you know my name?”
“Well” chuckled Mrs. Turtlebridge, “you have lived on my street for nine years, you know. I’d be a poor neighbour if I didn’t know your name.” The old lady walked over to one of the far lanes of the glasshouse and began inspecting petals and buds.
Aubrey stuttered, then collected her thoughts a moment. She picked up her umbrella and walked over.
“But you’ve never seen me before.”
“That’s not quite true. I saw you a good many times when you were a wee, young thing still in a stroller, as well as running about with your friends in the park. And of course I’ve seen you many times on Hallowe’en.”
Aubrey tried to hide her shudder from thinking about what a witch does on Hallowe’en.
“But I’ve never come here for candy.”
“Oh no one does. It’s too far away, you see. It’s a shame, since I buy quite a lot of candy each year hoping for some children, but they never show. So I make my way out to get a good look at all the lovely costumes.”
“Are you a witch?”
Aubrey didn’t know who asked it, at first. It didn’t sound like her voice. Then she realized it was. She felt silly, then scared, then she thought the witch might get angry and cast a spell on her.
“A witch? Whatever gives you that idea?”
“Everyone says so.”
“And what does everyone say?”
“That you cast spells and make creatures.”
The witch chuckled again. “What kinds of spells?”
“Like making creatures or haunting people.”
The witch smiled. “Nothing of the sort. But you children have wonderful imaginations.”
For a while Aubrey was silent. She watched Mrs. Turtlebridge prune flowers, water others, tut-tut at those not growing to satisfaction. She enjoyed watching the old lady go about her work in the glasshouse.
“It seems like an awful lot to do” said Aubrey.
“Oh yes, very much so. Leaves very little energy for other chores.”
Which gave Mrs. Turtlebridge an idea.
“Would you like to help me, Aubrey?”
Aubrey was hesitant.
“I would pay you, of course.”
. . .
And that was how Aubrey spent her summer vacation. Initially, she only went so often, keeping it secret from her mother. She helped carry up odds and ends from Mrs. Turtlebridge’s basement, like queer bottles, faded parchments and walking canes.
“What are these papers and bottles?”
“Just old heirlooms” the witch laughed. “Makes me feel youthful.”
Soon Aubrey was venturing to the small cottage house every Monday and Thursday, just after noon hour. At first her friends wouldn’t believe her. Or at least didn’t want to.
“Nobody even lives back there” said Lester. “The witch is just some old myth.” Finn nodded, as usual. A few weeks later it was a different excuse.
“She’s got you under a spell, Aubrey.” Willy seemed concerned, but Aubrey paid her friends no mind. She now understood Mrs. Turtlebridge wasn’t a witch, just a lonely lady who needed some company and Aubrey enjoyed their afternoons together.
One cool, Monday afternoon, on the cusp of Autumn in early September, Aubrey left her friends at the park and arrived to find an empty cottage. She walked around back to the glasshouse and saw Mrs. Turtlebridge’s gloves and trimmers on the table but no sign of her. Aubrey rested on the massive boulder on the front lawn, looking like a lawn gnome on a golem’s knee. Puzzled, she returned home and heard her parents talking about the ambulance. She walked to the bus stop.
Aubrey arrived at the hospital shortly after suppertime, waiting patiently for visiting hours. After the doctor and orderlies left, Aubrey entered the room. Mrs. Turtlebridge whispered softly.
“Nothing serious, dear. Don’t worry about me, I have plenty of life left” she winked. “Now I know you don’t normally come down the lane on Tuesdays, but I have a special favour to ask of you.”
. . .
Aubrey walked down the lane, repeating the instructions over in her head. She did not want to make a mistake. After clipping the two roses (one for Mrs. Turtlebridge as well), Aubrey walked to the tall grass and found the path into the woods. It was tricky to spot and she would never have noticed it if Mrs. Turtlebridge didn’t specifically point it out. The woods were gloomy, but Aubrey felt she didn’t need to strain to see. When she came to the modest clearing for the headstone, she knelt down and placed the two ripe, crimson roses, then she read:
Mr. Ronald Turtlebridge
Beloved husband whose life was plain but important,
like the stem of a rose.
Eternally waiting for Hattie
b.1772 – d.1858
Aubrey blinked in confusion and read the dates again. She thought of today’s date, trying to do the math in her head. Then she realized it all at once.