An Unexpected Fairy Tale: Start Reading The Witch

A brilliant new collection of stories that put a modern twist on classic fairy tales from New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award finalist Jean Thompson.

In this captivating new collection, critically acclaimed author Jean Thompson takes the classic fairy tale and brings it into the modern age with stories that capture the magic and horror in everyday life.

The downtrodden prevail, appearances deceive, and humility and virtue triumph in The Witch, as lost children try to find their way home, adults cursed by past unspeakable acts are fated to experience their own horror in the present, and true love—or is it enchantment?—conquers all.
 
The Witch

My brother and I were given over to the Department of Children and Family Services after our father and his girlfriend left us alone in the car one too many times. The reason we were put in the car had to do with some trouble when we were younger, in some of the different places that we lived, when we were left home by ourselves. Neighbors had made calls and DCFS had come around, turning our father into a concerned and head-nodding parent, at least while the interview lasted. Once the investigator left, he had things to say about people who tried to tell you what to do with your own goddamn kids. They should just shut their faces. “Let’s go,” he said. “In the car, now. Vamoose.” He wasn’t bad-tempered, at least not as a rule, but people who thought they were better than us, by way of criticism or interference, brought out the angry side of him.

At the time when everything changed for us, my brother Kerry was seven and I was five. We knew the rules, the chief one being: Stay in the car! We accepted that there were complicated, unexplained adult things that we were not a part of, in places where we were not allowed. But sometimes we were scooped up, Kerry and me, and brought inside to a room with people and noise and the wonderful colored lights of cigarette machines and jukeboxes, encouraged to tell people our names, wear somebody’s baseball cap, and drink the Cokes prepared for us with straws and maraschino cherries.

And sometimes Monica, our father’s girlfriend, drove. Then she’d stay in the car with us and keep the engine running while our father went inside some unfamiliar restaurant or house. These errands made Monica nervous, made her speak sharply to us and turn around in her seat to keep watch, some worry in the air that filled Kerry and me with the uncomprehending anxiety of dogs. And when our father finally returned, we were all so glad to see him!

But mostly it was just me and Kerry, left on our own to wait. We were fine with being in the car, a maroon Chevy, not new, that drove like a boat. We knew its territories of front and back, its resources, its smells and textures. We always had something given to us to eat, like cheese popcorn, two bags, so that there would be no fighting. We had a portable radio, only one of those, so that we did fight over it, but the fighting was also a way of keeping busy.

Most often we fell asleep and woke up when our father and Monica returned, carrying on whatever conversation or argument was in progress, telling us to go back to sleep. The car started and we were borne away, watching streetlights through a bit of window, this one and this one and this one, all left behind by our motion, and this was a comfort.

Normal is whatever you grow up with. Sometimes Monica made us French toast with syrup for breakfast, and so we whined for French toast whenever we thought it might pay off. We had television to watch, and our intense, competitive friendships with kids we saw in the hallways and stairwells. All of this to say, we didn’t think anything was so bad. We knew bad right away when it showed up.

Kerry was a crybaby. Our father said so. Kerry was a candy ass. This was said in a spirit of encouragement and exhortation, since it was a worrisome thing for a boy to be soft, not stand up to teasing or hardship. People would keep coming at you. When Kerry tried not to cry, it was just as pitiful as the crying itself. He had a round chin and a full lower lip that quavered, or, as our father used to say, “You could ride that lower lip home!”

The expectations were different for girls, and anyway, I didn’t need the same advice about standing up for myself. Our father’s name for me was Little Big Mouth. I didn’t have a portion of Kerry’s fair good looks either; everything about me was browner and sharper. I don’t know why we were so different, why I couldn’t have been more sweet-tempered, why Kerry didn’t have more fight in him. Throughout my life I’ve struggled with the notion of things that were someone’s fault, of things that were done on purpose, and it was a relief when I finally came to understand that one thing we are not to blame for is our own natures.

Monica hadn’t always been with us. I knew that from having it told to me, and Kerry claimed he could remember the very day we met her. I said I did too, even though I didn’t. My baby memories were too confused, and how were you supposed to remember somebody not being there? Or maybe she had been around us but not yet living with us as she did now. I think she was a little slow, with a ceiling on her comprehension. She had a round, pop-eyed face and limp black hair that she wore long, and she favored purplish lipstick that coated the ends of her cigarettes. If Kerry or I did something we weren’t supposed to, she waved her hands and said, “You kids! Why you don’t behave? I’m telling your dad on you!” We never paid attention. Monica wasn’t entirely an adult, we sensed, and could be disregarded without consequences.

Our father didn’t like to sit home. He’d done something that involved driving—a truck? a bus?—until he hurt his back and couldn’t work regular hours. His back still pained him and we learned to walk wide of him when it put him in a mood. But if he was feeling good enough, or even borderline, he needed to get out and blow the stink off, as he called it, see and be seen, claim his old place among other men of the world. And since Monica wasn’t going to be left behind, and since now we could not be left behind either, we all went.

One problem with staying in the car was when we had to go to the bathroom. Sometimes either Monica or our father came to check on us and carry us to some back entrance or passageway where there was a toilet. At other times they didn’t come and didn’t come, and we tried not to wet ourselves, or sometimes we did and were shamed.
 
Excerpted from The Witch by Jean Thompson. Copyright © 2014 by Jean Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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