Whistlestop October 1929
The Honorable Clayton Silver was sitting on his porch, smoking his pipe one autumn evening, watching the Moonbeams press down wraiths of fog rising from the creek bed in a heavy handed yet amiable way. The ghosts drifted lazily – the weight of the moonlight prevented them rising too high off the ground. They lit up silver, realized the moon was watching them, then slunk back down to the bank and swam away before trying again.
Judge Silver’s wife had died five years ago and he didn’t know why he still felt compelled to come outside to smoke, no matter the weather. There was no one but himself to please now and he didn’t mind the smell of stale smoke. Habit he supposed. He did like a routine. Tonight his warm jacket and the moonlight had nearly made him think he was content for a moment. He alternately whistled a tune and smoked his pipe. And then he heard it.
At first it was just a low murmur from behind the copse of scrub trees by the road. His house was set back off the way a little, and the driveway curved so he couldn’t quite see the lane. The low rumble seemed friendly, like the sound of a farm truck from a distance or waves on a beach. There was a little ebb and swell to it. A rippling sort of rhythm. But as it approached he started to feel the drumbeat under it, a throbbing and pounding. The roar contained sharper sounds…voices. The friendly rumble of the distance became prickly with detail.
Judge Silver stood up and moved to the edge of the porch still holding his pipe in one hand, puzzled and waiting. In a few more moments he saw the crowd, a blur moving toward him through the drifting fog. A few piercing beams of light stabbed out of the amorphous shape and then bounced back off the lazy fog. The ever expanding and pulsating mass came toward him rapidly.
“What in the bloody hell?” he asked the chilly autumn night. The autumn night didn’t answer, being busy as it was making ghosts out of moonlight and fog. He squinted. It was no use. His glasses were sitting inside on his desk.
The dream of fog was finally torn apart by a single figure sprinting in front of the crowd. Judge Silver was normally a man of action but then again he normally had some idea what in the hell was going on. So he stood there, immobile, as he tried to comprehend the scene in front of him and find some precedent for such a thing buried in his memory. Before his brain could react the swarm was upon him and the lone figure in front had made a desperate leap. His pipe fell to the porch, tobacco scattering in the light wind and he found his arms full of…Ida Fox May. The poor woman was trembling against him, breathing hard. She buried her face in his woolen shoulder. He caught her up against him and felt her sink, melting with exhaustion.
For a few moments, the mob seemed sporting. Their prey had been cornered and they could bide their time. The murmur settled a bit while Ida struggled to catch her breath. The judge faced them still holding Ida up from the waist. It looked like half the town was here. He forced his eyes to cut into the darkness and he took a deep breath of the chilly air. They were beginning to stir, pulsing forward a little again. Ida drew as far up against him as she could. Her raven black hair curled wildly around her head and her black eyes were as wide as saucers in her face.
“Lord help us all,” he said firmly and loudly so the crowd could hear him. “What on God’s green earth are you people up to?” He spoke slowly and solemnly, using his most judicial voice, not because he had any idea how to drive this train nor where it was going…he was just buying time.
Right out front he could see Bill Cuthbert, that pasty faced ass, and his wife Myrna. Both were puffing hard. It was no surprise to see Bill there. If there was a lawsuit, Bill was involved. If someone called to notify the constable that some teenagers were petting behind the cemetery, nine times out of ten it was Bill. It was Bill that had caused that ruckus at the church over the new pews in the sanctuary. Whenever there was someone making accusations or getting upset over something that made not a speck of difference to anyone…there was Bill. And here was Bill.
The warm porch light fell close to the house and the moonlight backlit the crowd so he couldn’t make out many faces. The dark knot melted into anonymity back toward the bird bath. The villagers murmured amongst themselves. The judge stood up straight, still holding Ida.
“I don’t know what this about,” he said sternly, “But Bill, how about if you and Myrna start by stepping back off my damn chrysanthemums. Annie planted those the year before she died. Back right up off ‘em.” He didn’t like to swear before ladies, but Good Lord if Bill Cuthbert didn’t make a man lose his head.
Bill looked confused and angry and he gasped out, “There’s something more important goin’ on here than Annie’s mums.” He hesitated, sucking in a big breath, and added, petulantly “Your honor.”
“Bill,” said the judge evenly, “There is nothing in heaven and earth that you could say to me right now that couldn’t be said from off top of Annie’s mums. And so help me I will not hear another word until you move your big feet two steps back.”
Bill looked around at the crowd but no one seemed to disagree with the judge on this point. Hunting down a slight, middle aged woman in the darkness of the night was one thing, but crushing Annie’s mums was a step too far. Bill took Myrna’s elbow and they moved back. He stood up straight and threw his shoulders back, trying to regain his dignity. His belly popped out over his belt a little.
The judge strained his eyes toward the back of the shadowy crowd. “You back there by the bird bath,” he said loudly. “There had better be no one standing on the pansies either.” He could feel rather than see the people in the back shuffling off the pansies, or in all likelihood onto them since most of the damn fools had come running out for this nonsense with no flashlights or lanterns. Despite the poor visibility he could count at least three of the attendees in house slippers and pajama pants.
He noticed that Ida was still trembling and he patted her shoulder. He looked into the crowd. “You there,” he said firmly to a silhouette he thought belonged to Janice Hopkins, the Mayor’s wife, “Go right inside and get that old green afghan off the armchair and bring it here. And get my glasses off my desk. Scoot!”
He frowned and the shadow scooted and indeed resolved into Janice Hopkins as she came into the circle of light on the porch. The judge was used to telling people what to do and they were used to doing it. That, he figured, was the only advantage he had as he tried to sort this mess.
When Janice had returned with the afghan, he put it around Ida’s shoulders, plopped her in a chair and slid his glasses up over his ears and looked into the crowd. He thought he might have seen old Allie McCall hobbling her way to the front; her malevolent curiosity always gave her a strange energy. And was that Charlie Johnson looking like a fox in the henhouse, long nose almost meeting pointy chin in his smirk, arms folded over his chest? A few ladies – he thought they were from the Home Circle at the church - were standing close to the front of the crowd with their husbands, whispering to each other and shaking their heads.
“Where’s the young Reverend Dingle?” asked the judge, “What about Constable Patrick?” His eyes strained the crowd for a friend or two.
Janice Hopkins raised her hand, as if she were in second grade. “Janice?” asked the judge.
“They’ve gone on a fishing trip together,” she chirped.
“I see,” said Judge Silver.
He turned to look at Ida. She had the afghan wrapped tight around herself. No coat and wearing a nightgown and a pair of flat black leather slippers. She was still shivering a little from the chill night air. The sudden impulse of the mob had apparently taken her by surprise, he supposed, just as it had him.
The judge faced Bill and Myrna. Myrna was clinging to Bill’s arm still breathing loudly. “What’s the problem Bill?” he asked.
Bill Cuthbert removed himself from Myrna’s grasp and cleared his throat.
“That woman right there…” he paused and turned in a full circle (nearly crushing Myrna) to give the crowd the benefit of seeing him swing around and stop with his pale stubby finger pointed at Ida. “…is a witch!”
Ida sat mute in her chair, as the crowd began to clamor. The judge saw a sudden darting black shadow streak up the side of the porch and land in her lap. It was her old black cat. Ida rubbed his scruffy head, fondling the torn left ear and the cat looked out into the crowd through his sharp yellow eyes. Calmly, he started to clean his paws.
Ida hugged him close to her, “Mister Wilkerson,” she said weakly to the cat. “You shouldn’t be here.” She put her face in the back of his big furry head and the judge heard her whisper, “But I sure am glad to see you.” Then she sat there. Quiet.
“Alright Bill,” said the judge, loud enough to suppress the noise of the crowd somewhat. “I’ll tell you what. Let me fill my pipe and then we’ll hash this out.” He picked up the pipe from the porch floor and felt around his coat pockets for his tobacco and a match. He assessed the crowd. The majority were probably there to be entertained by the rabble-rousers. Neither group was any help to him. Of course, anyone with the sense God gave a potted geranium was at home right now in front of the fire. Lord he hated his job sometimes. It was always the idiots. He took his time lighting his pipe.
After the smoke was rolling comfortably out of the bowl, he said, “Let’s have it then Bill.” He leaned against one of the porch columns. He didn’t want to give the weight of formality to this bedlam.
“Now then Bill, what makes you think Ida is a witch?” He blew out a puff of smoke and let it settle on the chrysanthemums.
"That woman that you see before you, Ida Fox May…at 3:55 this afternoon…turned Howard William Campbell into a mouse,” Bill panted. “I saw it happen.”
The crowd sucked in the night air and expelled it in one great gasp.
The judge was a little taken aback as he had expected something somewhat less specific. He looked at Ida. “That woman right there…turned Howard, the grocery delivery boy, into a mouse?” He blew out a puff of smoke. He didn’t know how to respond, “Today? At exactly 3:55?”
“That is exactly what happened, your honor. Although, my watch may be just a minute or two slow.” Bill said and patted his watch pocket and folded his arms across his chest.
The crowd clucked and murmured in response. Judge Silver thought he heard a few people laughing.
Bill cleared his throat, preparing to go on when someone yelled, “Wait! Wait! Here he is!”
People were turning around and shuffling, forming a path, and then he saw Howard and Ronnie Smith, the owner of the Barton and Smith Market, making their way through the crowd.
“Here I am! Here I am!” gasped Howard.
The judge sighed. “Bill…here’s Howard.” he said. “Can we drop this now?”
“I see him!” huffed Bill. “I never said he didn’t get better. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a mouse. I was getting to that part.”
Exasperated, the judge turned from Bill back to Howard.
“Lord Bill, you’re a sap!” someone called out.
“Ask him! Ask him!” Bill called out, pointing at Howard. “He can tell you better than I can.”
“All right!” said the judge. “Howard can we just clear this up? Did Ida turn you into…I can’t believe I’m asking this…into a mouse?”
Howard looked nervous. He looked down at his shoes and shuffled his feet. Howard was notoriously shy.
“It’s okay Howard,” Ronnie patted him on the back. “Tell the judge what happened.”
“Well,” Howard said, after clearing his throat a few times and pushing his glasses back up his nose, “Ida May,” here he stopped and smiled at Ida, she smiled back encouragingly, “Ida had ordered some milk and flour and I think maybe some vinegar and oh…cat food…I can’t remember if she ordered coffee or not….”
“Howard,” said the judge, “Can you skip ahead to the part where Ida did or did not turn you into a mouse?”
“Okay,” said Howard. “I got to her house and knocked at the door. She didn’t answer so I figure she’s in the garden like usual. So I set the delivery on the porch and Mr. Wilkerson there,” he stopped to point at the cat and wave, “Hello Mr. Wilkerson, hello, ol" buddy! The cat walks back to the garden gate to show me Ida’s there. He’s really smart.”
“The cat is probably her familiar!” Bill said loudly.
“Yes,” said Myrna, she turned to the crowd. “That means her little helper from the Devil. Bill looked it up.” She patted Bill’s arm in pride.
There were a number of “Good Lords!” and “Oh dears” from the church ladies and some guffaws from the back.
“Now, now!” the judge said. “For goodness sakes!”
Something suddenly occurred to him. He looked quizzically at Howard. “Howard, you’re not stuttering.”
Ronnie held up his hand, “He’s getting to that your Honor.” He patted Howard on the back to get him going again. A good hard thump or two and Howard sputtered back to a start.
“So, anyway, I follow Mr. Wilkerson to the back yard,” said Howard, “And Ida is standing there and she says ‘Howard, you remember how you told me that the boys make fun of you for that stutter?’ and I say yes…because I did remember it. And she says, ‘Howard I think I can help you. I really feel like I can. Do you trust me?” And I say yes. Because I do,” Howard smiled at Ida again.
“And?” said the judge. “Then what?”
“Well,” said Howard, “She just puts some powder on my tongue and puts out her hand like this.” Howard curved his hand toward himself and then flung it out dramatically ending with his fingers splayed. He held it this way for a moment until Ronnie helped him ease it down.
“After that,” Howard said, “I felt myself pulling inside and shutting up small. I really did. Smaller and smaller, my skin was shrinking and wrapping up the rest of me really tight. It was kind of uncomfortable.”
There were gasps from the Home Circle.
Howard waited for them to die down and he went on, “And then I was falling down and I remember looking up with Ida over me and she looked like a giant and I was so small and then she took me in her hand and kissed me…and then it was over. I unfolded right back out into myself. No stuttering after that! I was a little scared and tired, but it was all just to make me better. That’s what I think. I think it was just to make me better.”
Howard paused for breath, “She said, ‘It’s never happened like that before. But it never happens the same.’ Then she gave me some tea and I went back to the store.”
This crowd drew in another breath and exhaled loudly. And then he could hear the chorus of “Oh lords!” and “Lord Help”s coming from close to the porch. From the crowd of wags toward the back he heard more laughter.
“Awww…for goodness sakes!” someone called out. “C’mon Bill! Did you put Howard up to this?”
Bill was yelling, “I told you I saw it! I didn’t tell Howard what to say!”
“Bill, you’re an ass!” said a tall man from the back.
“He’s a pompous fool!” came a woman’s voice.
“He’s got a point!” yelled old Charlie Jenkins, “I’ve seen her out late in the moonlight a’pickin’ herbs!”
“I’ve seen her with a raven on her shoulder, feeding it bread,” warbled out Allie McCall.
“She gave that Edelson girl a love charm,” someone else called out.
“She healed Emily Jo Baker’s back with one word!” someone else yelled.
The judge was silent for a moment. He bit his upper lip with his bottom teeth, the way he did when he was thinking. He wiped his glasses.
“Howard,” he finally asked, waving the crowd quiet. “Are you really telling me that Ida Fox May, this woman here, turned you into,” here the judge hesitated with distaste at his own question, “this woman turned you into a mouse?”
“Maybe,” said Howard earnestly. “Honestly it was so quick and I was so small and all…it could have been a newt or a bird or something too…but I think I felt furry. I’d say a mouse.” He squinted and attempted to look thoughtful as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, if I had to guess, I would say it was a mouse.”
“Did anyone ask you to say this Howard?” the judge asked.
“No!” Howard said. “No!”
“Did she charge you anything for curing your stutter Howard?” asked the judge kindly.
Howard became flustered. “No. No. Of course not. Ida is my friend. She even still gave me a tip afterwards.”
There was a ripple throughout the crowd and they moved back ever so slightly from the porch where Ida was sitting calmly stroking the cat.
“Ha!” said Bill. “I told you what I saw. She turned him into a mouse. I saw the whole thing from the knot hole in my back yard fence.”
“That’s creepy Bill!” someone yelled.
“Better watch out, she’ll turn you into a newt!” someone else laughed.
Bill stood sputtering, unable to formulate a response.
The judge stared at the scene before him. The moonlight glinted off Howard’s bent wire glasses, and fell mildly on Charlie Johnson’s tattered old dressing gown, lit up the bit of white apron that Janet Hopkins still had on as it peeked out from under her coat, and it shone off the top of Bill Cuthbert’s balding head, making his comb over look like spiderwebs. Judge Silver felt like he was waking into some sort of strange nightmare where dream logic was required. He turned to Ida. The porch light behind her formed a sort of halo on her wild hair and her deep golden skin glowed. The shadow cat, visible only because he lay across her white gown like an ink stain, lay perfectly still on her thighs.
“Bill,” he said, “I don’t know how I can help you. Even if Ida did turn Howard into a mouse, which for the record, I can’t find it in myself to believe, there’s no law against it. Howard seems fine. And his stutter is cured to boot. She’s not committing fraud or taking anyone’s money. Constable Patrick couldn’t find anything to charge Ida with if he wanted to.”
He turned to Allie and Charlie, “And there’s certainly no law against being out in the moonlight or feeding birds.”
“She’s a witch!” Bill insisted. “That ought to be enough! Nobody can do that sort of thing if they aren’t paired up with the Devil! It ought to be enough that she’s a witch.” He crossed his arms on his chest with an air of finality.
“Well, it isn’t,” said the judge. “There’s no law against being a witch…or, as far as I know, turning someone into a mouse and back again. Or finding a cure for stuttering. These are modern times Bill. We don’t hound women over witchcraft anymore. Not that I believe any of this mess anyway. I’m half inclined to think you’re all drunk. Or I’m dreaming. Maybe Howard thought he was turned into a mouse. I don’t know. But there is absolutely no crime involved that I can think of.”
“Now,” he said, “Since no one has been hurt and everyone is accounted for…why don’t we all just go home.”
The crowd was uncertain for a moment whether the entertainment was over. Even the church people had to admit that Howard was certainly accounted for. A few people in the back started to drift away.
“Ask her,” said Bill. “Ask Ida May and see what she says! You at least have to ask her.”
The judge was having none of it. “Now,” he said loudly, “This is getting ridiculous. And I won’t have it. Go home. Everyone.”
But Ida Fox May had stood up. Mr. Wilkerson slid to her feet, vanishing into the darkness at the edges of her gown.
“It’s all right, Clayton,” she said; she laid her hand softly on the judge’s arm and he felt a tingle shoot from where her fingers touched him right up to the back of his neck. For just a split second he believed Ida could do anything. Even turn someone into a mouse. He shook his head to clear it.
She looked at the judge and said quietly, calmly, “Clayton, I did turn Howard into a mouse. I know you can’t believe me but I did it.”
“Tell them. Tell all of them.” Bill demanded. “Tell them what you did.”
She was a slight woman but in her white gown, hair blossoming around her head, cloaked in the green afghan with the glow of the warm light falling from behind her on her golden skin, the judge thought she looked like a queen. The crowd had to quiet down to hear her spare, light voice as she spoke to the judge.
“I just wanted to help him,” she said. “All the boys made fun of him. I didn’t know exactly how the magic would work. I never do. I’ve never known it to transform someone before. It just happened.” She shook her head. “It was an accident Clayton, you have to believe me.”
"I can't believe you Ida," said the judge, "But whatever happened, I believe you believe it. And you meant no harm."
“She admits it!” Bill pointed at her. “She’s a witch!”
“It didn’t last!” Howard protested. “I’m okay.”
“For goodness sakes, shut up Bill! He’s fine now,” said Ronnie Smith. “Whatever happened - Howard is fine. Better even. I don’t care whether it was some sort of hypnosis or even if she is a witch, which for the record I can’t swallow any more than the judge. What are you going to do burn her? Nonsense! Let’s go home.”
There was a moment of quiet. Ronnie took Howard by the arm and started to lead him away. The judge took a long, calm draw on his pipe. The villagers were beginning to realize the fun was coming to an end. The old people and the ladies from the Home Circle hovered nervously – surely an outright admission of witchcraft ought to provoke some sort of response. But the rest of the assembly began to melt away at the edges.
“She’s a witch! She’s dangerous! You have to believe me!” Bill was calling out to the retreating villagers. “I saw it! She has to be stopped.”
But the judge was telling Ida that she could bring back his afghan in the morning and that maybe it would be safer to wait until the crowd had cleared to go home.
“Somebody has to do something!” Bill shrieked. He heaved himself up to the low porch. He pushed the judge backwards, away from Ida May. Clayton Silver felt Bill’s pudgy fist bounce off his chest and in his surprise he fell to the porch floor, losing both his glasses and his pipe.
The judge was scrambling to his feet, trying to prevent Bill from reaching Ida when her slender golden arm shot out and she said something…a word the judge couldn’t ever remember.
Bill stopped as if something invisible had struck him in the stomach. His mouth opened into a round ‘O.’ Then he was pushed backwards, knocked off his feet by an invisible hand. Bill became darker and smaller, the ends of his arms and legs flattening and stretching out and then coiling themselves around his body. It was as if a snake were eating him, but that snake was himself. His eyes were wide and frightened until they shrunk suddenly into little glittering beads. At the very last moment there was a small pop and he dropped, stunned, onto the floor of the porch. The judge blinked. There was nothing there except a small, black snake, blinking and flicking its tongue.
Ida looked shocked. Her hands flew to her mouth. She leaned over the little snake, apparently trying to steel herself to take him in her hands…to set him free from the enchantment.
But just as she was going to close her fingers on the tiny snake, Mr. Wilkerson darted out like a shadow from the silken sweep of her gown. One paw caught the tail and the shining fangs sank into the middle of the coils. One shake, two shakes, three. The snake went limp. Mr. Wilkerson did not release it.
There was silence, except for Myrna’s moaning, which wafted around the night like the fog. “Oh Bill! Oh Bill! Oh Laws she’s killed Bill! She and that devil cat have killed my Bill!””
Ida picked up the afghan from the porch floor and wrapped it around herself. She picked up the cat, snake still dangling limp from its mouth and held him to her chest, protectively. A drop of blood had fallen on her clean, white gown.
“Oh Mr. Wilkerson,” the judge heard her say softly, “Oh, naughty, naughty, Mr. Wilkerson.”
Then…where Ida and Mr. Wilkerson and the snake had been, there was nothing. A wisp of moonlit fog swept through on the wind and left a few curling ghosts dissolving in the night air. Neither Bill nor Ida was ever seen again.
Ever after the villagers swore that high, high up on the ridge, under the ancient and twisted oak that looks down on the village of Whistlestop, where the ruins of an ancient settlement linger, there is sometimes a light and sometimes smoke curling, as if from a chimney. And sometimes they say, if you walk up the path that leads to the old oak for a good piece, you’ll think you see big black cat hunting in the shadows before it disappears like a ghost. Some of the townsfolk say that until he died, Judge Silver sometimes walked up that path in the moonlight, though no one knows how far he followed it, as there was no one in the village brave enough to tag on behind him. The judge died at the ripe old age of eighty, but on occasion the villagers still smell the fragrance of pipe smoke and hear the thin sound of whistling drifting down from the ridge.