By Rachel Ida Buff
The year Ginger was three years old I started dressing witch-ugly instead of witch-sexy. I painted my face green and blacked a tooth.
My kids don’t need me anymore, not like they did when they were little and wanted to dress up as my familiars on Halloween. Of course, they still depend on me for some things: who else is going to stockpile the discount candy, order the pizza, and plunge the toilet?
Witches too are useless in a way, beyond the demands of husbands, children, town or civic associations. Maybe this is why they are scary: they soar defiantly through the night sky, glorious in their freedom. Sometimes they are seen together, in the dreaded covens. But they are more often outsiders — alone.
I am not exactly alone tonight. My house is full of enough to delight even that cranky, child-luring, deep woods creature made notorious in the story of Hansel and Gretel. My husband is out of town and both of my daughters are getting ready for the evening with their own covens of friends.
The archetypical witch rides a broomstick, converting that modest implement of domestic order into a vehicle for nocturnal flight. Her hands are free to clutch the broomstick while she is riding it, even when she dismounts, she is often seen holding the thing. When the girls were small, I barely swept, let alone drag a cleaning utensil around for show.
Instead of taking off on a broom tonight, I ply the plunger. This is urgent: some indignity cannot be swallowed by our toilet, and we have eight of us, in and out of the house. Dressed in my long, black witch dress, wearing the green-face I have carefully applied, I confront a familiar adversary — the toilet in the second floor bathroom. I have a complicated relationship to plungers, more fraught than the question of order or flight provoked by the broom.
For one thing, there is my father-in-law’s house, where they don’t stock the regular rubber bulb with the stick coming out, the kind that waits unassumingly behind the toilet, to be mustered into service when the time comes. Instead, when the need arises, a request must be made from the master of the house. The plunger, a tripartite device the likes of which I have never seen before or since, is retrieved with great fanfare from my father-in-law’s workshop in the garage. A big deal is made of the inconvenience. The plunger is then paraded through the house, before being deployed in the bathroom. Only the master of the house can use it; the rest of us are forced to stand by.
This happened on two successive visits, before I realized I had to conjure an alternative. I now make a habit of driving to a nearby gas station once or twice a day during visits to that household. That solved that problem.
But somehow, our toilet at home also backs up frequently. Thinking it might have to do with the ancient plumbing in our house, we eventually sprang for a new toilet. The handyman who installed it left the house grinning, assuring us, “you could get a bowling ball down that thing.” But plunging is still a routine task, something that just has to happen. And somehow it often seems to fall to me.
Plunging takes skill as well as courage. First, when the water refuses to go down, there is the grudging realization that something will have to be done. The shit lurks towards the bottom, silently threatening to ride a swirl of water back up, even out. So I try again, flushing and jiggling the handle, hoping for a miracle. I panic as the water swirls up and threatens to surge over the top of the rim. Then I am antic with the plunger, relentless, until that sound I have learned to wait for–the unmistakable suck, the still second before the water swirls and goes back down, this time.
What would a real witch do? I hitch the long black dress up and deal with the situation, emerging victorious from the bathroom. There is riotous teen laughter on the front porch, where Celeste and her friends are handing out candy and waxing nostalgic about the costumes they used to wear. Ginger and her friends are roving the neighborhood, dressed as pirates and hippies; they are almost too old for costumes, but still flushed with the excitement of the cold, dark night.
My current long black witch dress was once a pregnancy shift. The label announces it: “Full Moon.” I first wore the dress trick-or-treating with Celeste on a warm and misty Ohio Halloween evening over a decade ago. That night, the dress caught moisture from the air, from the ground and from puddles. It lengthened, trailing behind me as we made the rounds of our neighborhood. I was a few months out from giving birth to Ginger then, that elasticity a welcome reminder of what the dress and I could be capable of.
Growing up, I never thought that witches were ugly. I knew that the Wicked Witch of the West was supposed to be dark and ugly in contrast to the simpering good witch of the North. But Margaret Hamilton looked a lot more like the women in my family than Glenda ever did. I am far more scared of simpering blonde locks than scolding dark tresses.
Since my twenties, the opportunity to dress as a witch on Halloween has seemed like a relief and a party rolled into one. “Type casting,” I cackle to myself. (A cackle does not ask for or require an audience.) And dressing up as a witch is a popular costume: you can easily go witch-sexy by tossing on your favorite little black dress, a pair of heels and a pointy hat.
The year Ginger was three years old I started dressing witch-ugly instead of witch-sexy. I painted my face green and blacked a tooth. Ginger cried until I convinced her it was really me. “Mama Witch!” she finally said, happily. After that she always recognized me, waiting impatiently for Halloween and planning ever more non-traditional familiar outfits.
The witch archetype reaches back, through wicked Hollywood witches west and east, to Salem, to the medieval European archetype and her troubles with the law. Witches are scary because they are powerful outsiders. And because of that cackle. When The Wizard of Oz was first screened, Margaret Hamilton’s laugh was considered by many to be over the top. Small children had to be escorted out of an early screening.
Having cleared the toilet, I rove the house. Most of the candy has been given out; I locate a bag of Snickers my husband has hidden for himself, pour it into our black plastic cauldron, and hand it out to the last tiny stragglers. Ginger and her friends go up to the attic to engage in elaborate candy trades. Two of Celeste’s friends go home, and she and her best friend, Serena, shut themselves in her room to pour over their iPods together.
It is cold and I am almost ready to shut off the porch light on the evening’s trick or treating. Just then, a boy of around 6 in a rainbow afro wig rings the door. I have seen him already and given him candy. “Back again?” I ask him.
He shakes his head and gestures to a tiny, barely-walking girl dressed as a pumpkin. She is almost completely hidden behind him. I crouch down and address her. “Want candy?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “Pee!” she says, wide-eyed. Her brother nods vigorously. I prop the screen door open, looking beyond the porch to the sidewalk. A woman bundled up in a wheelchair waves and nods emphatically. I take the pumpkin girl’s hand and lead her inside, and up the stairs to our fully functional toilet. Her brother stays on the porch. Halfway up the stairs, I realize that this tiny pumpkin girl, her brother and her mother in the wheelchair have to put their faith in me: a strange white woman in a pointy hat, black dress and greenface.
Pumpkin girl is small enough that she needs me to help her get her pants down and sit on the toilet. I wonder if I could have let tiny Celeste climb the stairs with a stranger who would have had to help her in this way. I don’t think so.
Pumpkin girl slides off the toilet; I help her with her pants. She pauses at the top of the stairs, and I pick her up and slide her onto my hip, carrying her down to where her brother waits. She grins at me and snatches a Snickers bar from the cauldron. Her brother takes her hand and they run down the stairs to where their mom waits for them.
I take off my hat and close the door. Sitting on the couch, I sort through the cauldron to see whether there is one Almond Joy left for me.
For several years, off and on, I have had the feeling of flying. It comes at odd times, like when I am driving Ginger and Celeste to the dentist and we are all singing songs we remember from the Shrek soundtrack; or when I am walking the dog in the morning after we have all eaten breakfast and the girls have gone off to school and I am thinking about what to do with a couple of hours of writing time. It occurs to me to google this, just to see if I am suffering from some identifiable syndrome: “feeling of flying in middle age.” And then I remember the witch, soaring off on her broomstick into the night sky. I turn on the computer and get to work.
Rachel Ida Buff is a mother, a writer and a history professor who has already stocked both greenface and tooth blacking makeup for Halloween. She is a writer of essays and short stories as well as academic articles and books. Currently, she is completing a novel, Into Velvet.