Averyell A. Kessler
The tiny yellow house on St. Mary Street’s steep hill had always terrified me. To my eight-year-old eyes, it was an exact copy of a gingerbread house haunted by the frightening witch of Hansel and Gretel fame. It’s peaked front door was flanked by two miniature fan top windows and a pair of concrete columns that resembled licorice twists. The front yard was small and covered by patches of struggling St. Augustine. We avoided it at all costs, especially on Halloween night and cold winter days when smoke curled from the chimney and floated into a dark sky. Our parents had repeatedly assured us that the owner of the house was a nice lady who worked downtown and had no children. Her name was Fanny Middleton and we had nothing to fear. Martha and I didn’t believe it. We knew what we saw. Somehow a witch had escaped immolation in a German forest, slipped unnoticed into Belhaven, and was searching for hapless children to pop into her oven. Then the bottle tree appeared.
Martha noticed it first, a tall frame in Miss Middleton’s front yard that looked like a metal Christmas tree. Except for two blue bottles hanging from its lower branches, the frame was completely bare. We knew what it meant; Miss Middleton had plans. We ran home and told our mothers. Neither knew what was going on, but Martha’s grandmother Bobo knew. She’d just driven down from Tchula in her baby blue Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and was planning to stay all week.
“A bottletree is an old-time thing,” Bobo explained. “People believed you could trap evil spirits in the bottles.”
Martha and I stiffened. “Evil spirits?” we whispered.
“If evil spirits came roaming around at night, they’d be attracted by the bottles and drift inside,” Bobo sniffed. “It’s not true, of course.”
“Really?” Martha said. Her eyes were saucers. I froze and swallowed hard.
“The next morning, the spirits would die when the sun came up. It’s a fairy tale,” Bobo insisted. “There’s no such thing as an evil spirit.”
Martha and I weren’t so sure. We clearly remembered Rumpelstiltskin, the troll under the Billy Goat’s bridge, as well as every fairy tale witch from Sleeping Beauty to Snow White. Rapunzel too. We also knew that an authentic witch was alive and well and lurking across the street.
“Do you think evil spirits exist?” Martha asked. “Bobo says no.”
“I don’t know, but they talk about the serpent in Sunday School.” I answered. “He’s really bad!”
“I heard he had green eyes,” Martha whispered.
“Stripes too,” I added. “And fangs, big enough to bite your head off.”
“They’re all in it together,” Martha said. “I bet Miss Middleton has a passel of snakes in her back yard.”
I had a checkered past with superstition. More than once I had stepped on a crack and was certain my mother would break her back any day. I’d also dropped a tiny doll house mirror guaranteeing seven years bad luck and I’d be fourteen before my luck changed. I guess the fear of bad luck was in my genes, because my grandfather once backed his car out of a New Orleans cemetery when a black cat darted in front of his bumper. As a result, I was a prime candidate for the curse of the bottle tree.
Bobo’s story multiplied my terror and Miss Middleton changed into a fire-breathing monster with sharp claws, an elastic tongue, and a healthy appetite for children. When I was called home for supper, the danger across the street had increased ten-fold. I was certain Miss Middleton was whipping up a poison apple, polishing her wand, and looking up spells in a mysterious black book. Daddy had to leave my closet light on all night, so I’d fall asleep.
The next day, Martha and I saw Miss Middleton standing in her yard, busily slipping more bottles onto her tree. All were blue. She smiled and waved at us. “Hey, girls,” she called out. “Come over and see my bottle tree.” She didn’t look like a witch, but we knew the truth. The additional bottles meant evil spirits were gathering in Belhaven.
“I bet she knows all of’em,” I whispered.
We burst through Martha’s back door, and screamed, “The witch is outside. We saw her.”
Martha’s mother looked up from McCall’s Magazine and laughed. “There’s no such thing as a witch,” she said. “Go play in the back yard.”
However, Bobo had enough of our fairy tale fantasy. She disappeared into her bathroom and returned with an empty Milk of Magnesia bottle. It was bright blue. “Come on,” Bobo said. “We’re going across the street.” It was a command we could not refuse. Our fingers were icy as she gripped our hands and knocked on Miss Middleton’s front door.
“Do you need another one?” Bobo asked, offering her the bottle.
“Oh yes,” Miss Middleton replied, her eyes brightening. “I still have empty branches. Girls, would you like to help me hang the bottle on the tree?” she asked.
Bobo answered for us, “Yes they would.” Slowly, our terror faded. Miss Middleton was not wearing a black robe. Her nose wasn’t green. We saw no magic broom in the corner and no serpent hiding in her bushes.
“Some people think bottle trees attract spirits,” she explained. “Not me. I think they’re pretty, especially when the sun shines through the glass and the tree sparkles. My mother had one, so I want one too.”
In the end, Miss Middleton invited us inside for cokes and cookies. She became a steady pal, especially on Halloween when she welcomed us with lime punch and candy apples. We began saving bottles for her – even the brown Orange Crush ones – until the tree was full and shimmered like a stained glass. After a few weeks, our childish terror slipped into the bottles and vanished when the sun rose. Perhaps the tree did its job after all.