A lifetime passes in the blink of an eye. The old ways become curiosities, objects to regard and reject. A lifetime ago, I lived with my parents and brothers in an old house on an old street on the outskirts of Philadelphia. For generations, descendants of Daniel Falkner, who followed Kelpius to the caves above the Wissahickon Creek, have lived in the small mill town seven miles upstream from Mystics Cave.
Each time I rode my bike through town, someone greeted me with — You’re a Falkner. It’s all over your face. At such words, my cheeks burned scarlet and I traced the thin white scar on my upper lip. I rarely spoke, ashamed of my lisp.
Being the schoolyard laughingstock left me anxious and exhausted and desperate for solitude. Most days after school, while our mother started dinner and my little brothers sat in front of the TV, I headed outside for the woods and the Wissahickon Creek. A shortcut to the creek ran through the woods alongside a small stone cottage overgrown with ivy and surrounded by brush. Kids said the elderly woman who lived in the cottage was a witch. My parents forbade me to take the shortcut.
“What if something happened to you? How would we find you?” my mother would say.
“The old lady in the cottage would find me,” I said, but just one time.
That day, my mother’s face grew grey and she bit her lower lip. My father slapped his newspaper on the kitchen table and stomped into the living room.
“Enough of this,” he said.
“Stay away from the cottage, Betsy. That’s the end of it,” my mother said.
Still, each time I went to the creek, trembling with fear, I took the path. When I reached the edge of the creek, I skipped stones, watched ripples form and fade and wondered about the witch.
On a warm evening in September 1957, my brothers and I sat on our front porch eating salted pumpkin seeds. Henry Falkner, our doctor and my mother’s cousin, had come to visit. Quiet conversation drifted through the living room window. When I heard, old Elizabeth’s cottage, I shimmied closer and strained to hear.
“We should come to a decision, Liz,” Dr. Henry said. “The cottage is an eyesore.”
“I have mixed feelings, Henry. I hate to think I’d be responsible for tearing it down,” Mother said. “It’s been in the family since 1744, the year the first Elizabeth was born.”
“Well, think about it. Old Elizabeth won’t live forever,” Dr. Henry said.
A red welt, like a slap, burned across my face.
The next afternoon, while our mother bustled in the kitchen and my little brothers chased a ball in our fenced backyard, I rode my bike towards the Wissahickon Creek. Before I entered the narrow path through the woods, I stopped to contemplate the cottage’s granite cornerstone, etched with the year, 1744. I envisioned a boy chiseling the granite under his master’s steady gaze. If I ran my finger through the straight smooth numbers, I fancied the boy would feel my touch.
Along the path, I pushed my bike over tendrils of ivy that clutched my ankles like beggars. The dank reek of flowers in the last bloom of summer harked of ancient times when Indians crept along this very path to fish in the Wissahickon. A purple martin chortled from a pine tree high above. A wisp of smoke floated through the trees. From behind a hickory, its mottled bark rough on my cheek, I peeked towards the witch’s yard. A gaunt dark figure stood on a rock terrace, her skirt fluttering in the breeze. Rosemary, mint and lavender-scented smoke billowed from a fire pit in her yard where, I supposed, she cooked her victims. Although I hid behind the tree, when I snuck a look, the witch’s eyes locked on mine. After she stirred the ashes with a poker, she raised her hand and beckoned me. I dropped my bike and ran to the creek, afraid to look back.
My heart pounded. As I rested on the creek bank, I struggled to catch my breath. I lay back on the cool grass and gazed at the sky, where thick white clouds formed into ships sailing over roiling seas. Soon, my hands stopped shaking. I skipped stones in the creek and watched ripples disappear in the water’s flow. As I studied the veins of a red maple leaf, I wondered what sort of girl the witch had been. Did she long for quiet and solitude? Did she cringe when her parents argued? While her mother wept, did she nestle her little brothers in her arms, begging them to be quiet? Did she run through the woods to the creek and skip stones?
Towards the end of October, a few days before my thirteenth birthday, a virulent illness swept my neighborhood, as it did the world. Now, I know it as the Asian flu pandemic of 1957, but then I knew only that my mother and brothers’ cheeks burned red with fever and their eyes were glassy and frightened. My father’s eyes were glassy and frightened too, although like me, he had no symptoms. Before he flew to Chicago for a conference on surviving an atom bomb attack, my father called school to report the family was sick. When he packed his bags, he bade me take care of my sick family.
Coughs and moans kept me awake at night and I shook with fear my mother and brothers would die because I didn’t know how to care for them. The day after my father left, Dr. Henry stopped by. I followed him from room to room and watched him shake his head when he read the thermometer. My mother and brothers’ pajamas and sheets were soaked and although covered with blankets, they shivered. I must make sure they drank water, ginger ale, something every hour, Dr. Henry told me. They could try chicken soup. My mother should take Bayer aspirin and the boys, St. Joseph’s. Before Dr. Henry walked out the door, he told me to put cold washcloths on their foreheads.
After two days, my mother tried to get up but collapsed on the floor. Somehow, I dragged her back to bed. The boys had stopped crying by then and lay on their beds, limp. I went from one to the other, dripping water on their lips and begging them to drink.
Early the next morning, Dr. Henry came by again. When he pressed the stethoscope against my mother’s back and said, “Breathe,” he knit his eyebrows and squinted. Before he saw me in the doorway, Dr. Henry sighed and shook his head. He poured alcohol on a thick pad and dabbed my mother’s face, neck and arms. Then, he cradled my mother’s cheeks and kissed her forehead.
“Please get well, Liz,” Dr. Henry said.
“She’s going to die, isn’t she?” I said, “and my brothers, too. It’s my fault. I couldn’t make them drink.”
“Your mother and the boys are very ill, Betsy. There’s only so much we can do,” he said.
When I followed Dr. Henry downstairs, I felt broken and desperate.
“I can’t take care of them,” I wailed.
In the doorway, he paused and stared at the pasture across the road, as if the lowing cows held the answer. While he stood there, I read the headline on the newspaper folded under his arm — No Trick or Treat Tonight for Thousands Felled by Flu. No birthday cake for me, either, I thought. Dr. Henry touched my chin and leaned over, like he was telling me a secret.
“Run down to the cottage. Ask Elizabeth to come,” Dr. Henry said. His face was grim.
I made a quick round of the sick rooms and left glasses of water by my mother and brothers’ beds. In the kitchen, bowls of cold soup, every glass in the house and clumps of dried cereal littered the stove, table, countertop and sink. Damp smelly sheets and clothing lay piled on the back-kitchen floor. Still in pajamas and slippers, I pulled on a tattered sweater and ran to the witch’s cottage. Fear my mother and brothers would die overwhelmed my fear of the witch.
In the damp chilly dawn, I knocked, quietly, hoping the witch would be asleep. Shivers rattled my body and I wanted to lie down on the doorstep and sleep. But the images of my mother, her hair wet and matted across her forehead, my three-year-old brother limp in his crib, the seven-year-old twins, flailing their arms and coughing, stirred my fist and I pounded on the door, crying, “Miz Lithbeth, Miz Lithbeth.”
“Betsy James, come in. I’ve been waiting. Don’t worry, Child, I’ve known such great sickness before,” the witch said, leaning on her cane. A thin white scar ran down her upper lip.
Inside, the house smelled of old books and dried fruit. Lace doilies covered the arms of a gold-striped sofa and matching chair. In the arch of a stone fireplace, a black pot dangled. While the witch chose packets from a roll-top desk and dropped them in her leather bag, the furniture stared at me. From the backs of the sofa and chair, carved eagles with piercing eyes looked ready to pounce. Clawed feet flared from furniture legs and rose to winged arms.
Despite shaky hands, when I ran my fingers through grooves in the dark mahogany, I saw the room full of people, their heat and sweat mingling with the smell of meat stew and beer, their cheerful voices, welcoming me. My heartbeat slowed. When the witch draped a mustard-colored shawl across my shoulders, I felt at home.
“Come, Betsy James, there is no time to spare,” Miss Elizabeth said.
As we left the house, the witch, tall and thin, swung a forest-green cape over her woolen dress. Her thick-heeled black shoes crunched through the fallen leaves and I had to run to keep up, even though she leaned heavy on her cane. The head of the cane was a dragon, with eyes and mouth facing down. Inside the mouth, a ruby ball glistened. Carved scales ran along the shaft like a totem pole. I longed to hold the cane, to run my fingers over the scales.
After we crossed the front porch and entered our house, Miss Elizabeth hurried upstairs to tend my ailing family. Almost paralyzed by fatigue and hunger, I staggered into the living room and fell to my hands and knees. On the arm of a ladder-back chair, the witch had rested her cane. I reached for it. The handle had been rubbed smooth along the top but the dragon’s crystal eyes sparkled above flared nostrils. When I held the cane one way, the dragon leered like a wolf ready to strike, but when I turned it, the dragon seemed wise and kind. As I rubbed the cane between my hands, I forgot my sick family, my dirty house, my empty stomach and my absent father. I lost myself in the dragon.
“Betsy James,” the witch said, leaning over me.
I jumped to my feet. I had fallen asleep on the floor, clutching the dragon cane.
“I didn’t hurt it,” I said and handed the cane to her.
“Come here,” she said and motioned to the threadbare sofa. Miss Elizabeth smelled fresh, of lavender and mint, pine and parsley. I sat close and breathed it in.
“Sometimes, Child, the ancient cures work better than aspirin and other medicines my nephew and the modern doctors like to use. The Falkners have studied the healing arts for as long as there have been Falkners in the world,” she said.
“Are you a witch? Are you two hundred years old?” I asked.
My mortal fear had disappeared.
“I think you must be hungry, Betsy James,” was all she said.
The house smelled as fresh as the woods. In the kitchen, a bowl of mushroom soup and a slice of dark bread were set at my place with a cup of citrusy tea, sweet and fragrant, so different from the black tea my mother made. Dishes were neatly stacked in the drainer, the stovetop and counters were clear, the spills and splatters were gone. In the back kitchen, the washing machine swished and outside, white sheets flapped under a cold sun. At the table, Miss Elizabeth sat next to me. In a row, she placed four packets and put another packet on top of each. They smelled like strawberries and peppermint.
“In an hour, give your mother and brothers cups of this tea, not too hot for the boys, then another cup in the evening. They’ll be much better tomorrow,” the witch said. She took my hand, opened my fingers and dropped three tiny eggs in my palm. “These are for you, an All Hallows Eve treat. Let them melt in your mouth. I’ll let myself out.”
I watched the witch swing her cape over her shoulders, clutch her leather bag to her chest, open the door and leave. I ran upstairs to check my mother and brothers. All of them slept, their breaths soft, their foreheads cool. When I returned to the kitchen, I found the dragon cane swinging on the back of the chair she’d sat in. I picked it up and ran out the door.
“You forgot the…” I called, waving the cane like a flag.
But she was gone. Not a sign of her down the road. The thought I would have to visit Miss Elizabeth to return her cane made me happy.
After I finished the soup, I popped the egg-shaped candies into my mouth. They were sweet but not like sugar, not like fruit – a creamy sweet, soft and slippery, smooth and warm. The candies clicked against my teeth as I trudged upstairs, tears running down my cheeks, weight lifting off my shoulders like steam from a pot.
In her bedroom, my mother leaned against a pillow, wan but alert. Her hair was combed and the room smelled like strawberries and peppermint tea.
“How are the boys?” my mother said, “and how are you?”
Sounds of giggling came from the twins’ room and a moment later, they carried in little Jimmy, all three of them skinny but clean and happy. When they climbed into bed with my mother, I did too, inhaling the bleachy smell of clean sheets. By the time my father returned, all of us felt fine.
Snow and cold came early that year and the ground stayed snow-covered into spring. No one went out much, frightened of the Asian flu. On a sunny Saturday in March, after the weather warmed up and the days grew longer, I walked down the road to visit Miss Elizabeth and return the cane that had hung from my bedpost all the months since her help. The old stone cottage looked deserted, decrepit, dilapidated. I rapped hard on the front door with the cane. Mr. O’Neil, the mailman, stopped his truck when he saw me.
“Betsy James, what are you doing? No one lives in the old Falkner place,” he said.
“Miss Elizabeth’s gone? Where did she go?” I said.
“The flu took her,” Mr. O’Neil said, “the terrible flu.”
Outside the cottage, I sat on a crumbling step and ran my finger through the numbers on the cornerstone, thinking of long cold winters, pots of squash soup bubbling in the black pot and a tall, thin girl who sat by the Wissahickon Creek, skipping stones.
A lifetime ago, my brothers moved away, reluctant to return even to stand by me at our mother and father’s funerals. The old house we lived in no longer exists, replaced by a row of townhouses. Across the road, parents in lawn chairs watch children kick balls on a cow pasture covered with plastic grass. And I, with my old ways, have become a curiosity to regard and reject. Yet, when I lean on my cane and make my way through the woods alongside my cottage, I feel the earth under my feet. On the bank of Wissahickon Creek, I skip stones, watch ripples and wait for a girl with a scar on her lip to knock on my door and come in.
P.J. Devlin received the MFA in Fiction in 2011 from George Mason University where she studied under folklorist, Margaret Yocom, as well as fiction writers Susan Shreve, Alan Cheuse and others. A resident of Fairfax, VA, P.J. is a native of Philadelphia and much of her work is set there, along the Wissahickon Creek.
Devlin’s story, “The Decline and Fall,” was a runner-up for The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2013.
Georgia Bellas believes in the secret lives of inanimate objects. She co-directed/produced an award-winning short film about two bicycles falling in love, and her teddy bear is the co-host of a weekly Internet radio show called “The Secret Lives of Stuffed Animals.” She has artwork and/or poems published in Bop Dead City, PANK, and Zest Literary Journal.