by Stephen C. Paden
Clara Sims grabbed a few logs from the stack between the iron posts she erected last spring and walked through the unkempt yard and to the porch. She leaned down, trying not to grab her back from the pain, and set the logs on the second step. She took off her work gloves. Her hands were coarse and weathered by the seasons she had spent in the woods gathering morels when the time was right, chopping wood, carrying rocks from a creek that babbled about a mile away, and doing yardwork. Her hair, mostly gray with streaks of auburn, flowed gently down her back in a makeshift hair-tie. The cool wind gently blew threw her hair. She closed her eyes and let it sift through her.
Fall was coming; she could smell it in the air. She wouldn’t light the chimney just yet, but the time would come very soon where a pillar of smoke would erupt gently in the night starting at eight ‘o clock every night. If she could see another house from where she lived, she would notice that they too would have similar stacks of smoke. It was simply too early to light a fire. But, it was a habit she had developed when she caught the scent of the changing season—a change that brought with it cold remembrance.
A cold breeze snapped her out of her thoughts; she walked inside. Her house, simple and without a modern thumbprint (save for a toaster, a first-generation microwave, a blender, and a few lamps scattered around the house), was dark with the coming dusk, but occasionally, the light flickered in through the west window and drew shadowy lines on the wall with the bookcase.
What would she read, tonight?
It was always a crap-shoot; some nights she spent more time looking through the books she’d read so many times before than she actually spent reading them. But that was fine. It was the simple yet mechanical motions like this that plagued her, her whole life, and grew from a minor annoyance to a rigid line across a turbulent river that she once knew and swore that she would never again try to cross.
She’d read it in a magazine or a book (she couldn’t remember) that Hell was nothing more than that: repetition. Or a winter’s day when the furnace stopped working. It didn’t matter. She knew it wasn’t true. She knew that some things were meant to be and that was the way it was, and that somehow a solid routine was all a woman could muster to silence the voices of boredom and long, lonely days. And sometimes, it was the only thing that could keep the darker things out of reach—back to the fires which gave them life.
It wouldn’t be a tough decision, tonight. She dropped the logs on the porch next to the wood box and walked to the small bookshelf full of old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books and knelt down. Absentmindedly, she pulled one from the row and looked at the cover: The Witch Tree Symbol by Carolyn Keene. She stuffed the paperback into the pocket of her flannel jacket. She smiled and almost laughed, but not because she was relieved to straighten her sore back, but because this particular book was her favorite. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, isn’t that what she was? A witch? The kids from the town to the north seemed to think so, although she noted the decline in nightly trespasses over the years and started realizing that she missed it. She’d had little contact with any human being outside of those visits, and the woman who brought her food now and then from town. But it wasn’t the moniker that made her love the book. She just loved reading it. And that was fine. In fact, she’d read it numerous times, and at one point she kept a scratch piece of paper on her nightstand marking off each time she did so, but she threw it away after the page was all but filled.
It was a night for Nancy Drew. She decided that after she filled the wood box with enough wood to last a few days and save her back as much as she could, she would boil some water for her tea, take the book outside where the late summer sun would be at the perfect angle behind her rocking chair, and sip her tea as she read.
Someone else’s Hell.
Clara went back outside, filled the wood box to the top after a few more trips, brushed the wood chips from her sweater and walked up to the porch. She sat down on the first step for a moment and pulled her knees together and pulled her skirt over them. The sun peaked through the trees to the west and warmed her face.
If this was Hell, she was fine with it. But she knew better. It wasn’t a feeling like the people in her books often described. It wasn’t a situation that you couldn’t get out of or a lack of money or a cheating husband. No, it wasn’t any of these things.
She knew what it was. She knew where it was. And she knew the devil himself; the creature had taken everything from her.
Clara pushed herself up carefully. She went to open the door, but she hesitated and turned her face to the sun.
“I’ll be right with you,” she said, and went inside.