The witch lived in one of the houses facing the field where we played and every now and then, she would emerge in a faded kameez that reached her ankles, a book under her arm, puffing furiously at a cigarette.
We were warned not to talk to the witch, who was, our parents told us, a divorcee, of all things, but we couldn’t help staring at her. She was shapeless under her kameez, but her face was all slants and angles. Her large eyes looked boiled.
One day, spurred on by the fleeting joviality of a friend who usually had no time for me, I paused by her as I ran to retrieve the ball and screamed, “Spastic!” This word was one usually leveled at me for my clumsiness.
She looked at me for a moment, mouth open. Then she looked away again.
For the next few days, she did not make an appearance, and we assumed that she had gone off to haunt some other complex, like one of those chudails our maids told us about as they prepared our teas. And then she was back again, sucking at her cigarette like her life depended upon it.
Robin’s cousin, Michael, was visiting and one day he joined us at play. I was drawn to him. He was a Peter Pan grown to burly stature on the ground. His eyes twinkled. And so I showboated for him in the English my Hindi-speaking friends, proud denizens of New Delhi, disdained, until they yelled at me to shut up and he smiled sympathetically at me.
We eschewed cricket for the brand new frisbee Robin’s father had bought him and I resolved to field well, so that I could impress Robin’s cousin.
“Look out!” said someone as I stared at Michael, and then I saw the frisbee heading straight for me. Before I could catch it, it had veered against my forehead. My head felt wet and sticky.
“It’s ok,” I said, grinning foolishly as the others clustered around me.
“Come here,” said someone and we turned around to see the witch gesturing at us with a cigarette.
We gaped at her and then Michael pushed me towards her and she took me by the hand and I was surprised to find her hand was soft. She actually smelt pleasant, a mixture of sweat and talcum.
She dragged me inside her house and I registered in its darkness books spilling over cupboards and sofas and dresser tables.
She led me to the kitchen sink and bathed my forehead in hot water.
“There,” she said with childlike satisfaction and I understood my forehead had stopped bleeding. Then she wound her dupatta around it as a bandage.
The others stammered their thanks and she shook her head violently.
“It’s ok,” she said, hugging her slender chest.
She saw me looking at the books.
“Take, take,” she said, “as many as you like.”
She looked anxiously at me.
And so I took the first book that came to hand, The Turn of the Screw as it turned out, and to my surprise, I liked it.
And every now and then, when my friends weren’t looking, I would dive into her house, though these encounters seemed to give her as much pain as pleasure, for she would perch on the edge of a sofa and stare at me with large, frightened eyes as I sipped at the tea she made me and scanned her Aladdin’s Cave of books.
She seemed breakable and this filled me with both curiosity and tenderness and I always took my leave as soon as I could politely do so, a book under each of my arms.
She left the building my first semester at boarding school. But boarding school had filled me with strange dissatisfaction and I had decided to eschew all I thought made me a sissy, my habit of reading, my ability to listen. I gathered edges and attempted to knock them against my old friends, who were unimpressed and all too ready to hurl me down to what they pleased to call my level. And so it was much later that I inquired after her and by then, of course, she was gone.
Adreyo Sen is a PhD student at the University at Albany. He combines an interest in social realism with an interest in fantasy.