He'd walk to it just as he always did and stand waiting. The first time it opened, he'd run away in panic and found himself back in his dark prison, left with just a glimpse of a blurred shadow standing alone in the half opened doorway. He wondered who the shadow was...who lived behind all the strange, grinning faces painted on the luminescent wood.
The next time, he decided, he'd stand his ground and
not be afraid.
But the pictures in his head refused to come back, as
if his one-time timidity had exposed a stain of unworthiness
deep inside him. The bright, colorful hall faded from his
grasp, leaving his waking hours longer and bleaker as the
pain of not knowing the secret behind the door
became worse than the hunger gnawing at his belly. He hated
himself for being frightened, knowing somehow that behind
the door was something he needed, something protective and
And now it was lost forever.
Deep inside, he wanted to fall asleep and never have to wake up - to the pain and the hunger and the fear. Somehow, he knew the world beyond the shining door lay far beyond his misery and suffering. If he could just find the way back. Each night he struggled not to fall asleep, recreating the scene in his mind as best he remembered: the hall; the door - everything as vivid as his memory would allow. He tried to make the pictures real, to wrap himself in their
smell and look and feel. But every attempt to force his way back to the mysterious door ended in failure. He lay in the dark, tears trickling hot down his face, salty in the corners of his mouth. He tasted his own emptiness in them, the bitter darkness eating away at his life. And then, just as he'd given up all hope, the path and its mysterious door forgave his weakness and returned. This time, he waited a careful distance until the door swung back once again. This time, he stood still and watched the vaguely familiar old woman call to him from a warm, comfortable glow promising a full stomach. He timidly approached, finally accepting the invitation when the smell from the oven overcame his fear.
The old woman fed him cake and hot chocolate before a crackling fireplace in a large, colorful room filled with little statues of birds. And although his stomach still hurt after visiting her, the memory of how the food and drink tasted stayed with him until the next time.
He followed the glowing path back to her door again and again, wishing he could stay with the old woman and never come back to all the things he hated: the incessant crying of his baby sister; the reek of rotting food and shit; the scratching in the stained, peeling walls and the dirty brown things that scurried across the piles of garbage scattered everywhere. Most of all, he never wanted to come back to the feeling of hunger...and to the Witch.
That was what the old woman called her - The Witch. And she always warned him to watch what he said and not to make her upset...for she was dangerous and very deceitful. "You must be careful," the old woman cautioned, "for she is twisted up inside with pain and capable of anything. Wait! Your chance to break her spell will come!" Each time he asked if it was the time yet, the old woman would answer the same: "In a little while...be patient!!!
But the little food the Witch brought them was not enough, just occasional scraps from greasy, white paper bags. Most went to his sister - the Witch didn't like him and told him so whenever her body hurt for the medicine she cooked over the candle. If he complained about his hunger, she screamed and beat him with her fists till he lay quiet. Then she'd go out for awhile and return with the little pieces of paper that made her sleepy and quiet. Sometimes she'd return with someone and push him and his sister into the closet, ordering them to stay there till she was finished. They'd huddle together in the darkness, feeling the brown things move over their skin.
When it was quiet, they would creep out and sometimes the Witch was crying and sometimes she was asleep and sometimes she was bleeding from what the other one had done to her. Those times made him feel strong inside, as if the hurt in his chest was taken away by the bruised body lying on the dirty mattress. Just for a moment, he was free of pain.
The next time he found himself with the old woman, he begged her to let him stay in the bright, warm room behind the shining door. She frowned and explained that as long as the Witch lived that could never be. "She will find you and take you back...you need to be strong to escape her spell," she warned. "You need to be stronger than you've ever been, for she intends to kill both you and your sister the first chance she gets." The old woman's words struck him hard and without mercy. Seeing the fear in his eyes, she stroked his hair and spoke in a soft voice. "I guess now is the right time to tell you how to destroy the Witch," she said, drawing him into her long, spindly arms. "but you must not be afraid and do everything I say....~
The next night, he heard the scrape and rattle of the front door being unlocked. Both he and his sister moved back into a far corner and tried not to upset the Witch as she came in and began worrying over the flickering candle. In minutes, the Witch lay asleep on the dirty mattress and he quickly set about doing everything the old woman told him to do. First, he carefully approached the sleeping form and moved the candle where she couldn't reach it. Then he went about the apartment, grabbing armfuls of empty food boxes
and soiled clothes, quietly laying it around the dirty mattress where the Witch slept. He ordered his sister to stand by the door and be ready. Taking the candle, he tipped the fire into the cardboard and paper, holding his breath till the flame caught. The fire slowly spread in glowing circle around the Witch, surrounding her in smoke and flame. She lay still for a long time, not feeling the fire lapping at her arms and legs.
As the mattress began to smoke and turn black, her arm twitched, then jumped. Suddenly, her hair burst into a yellow halo and she began screaming and screaming, bouncing back and forth on the burning mattress to escape the pain. Running to his sister's side, he pulled at the door to escape, but the door stayed shut and wouldn't yield. He shook it again and again, not understanding - the old woman said she would wait by the door and help him. Turning around, he saw the Witch on her feet now, clothes crawling with fire, shrieking and spinning in blind circles, setting fire to all the cardboard boxes and empty food sacks and piles of clothing scattered around the room. Everything was on fire, waves of flame shooting across rotting walls. He heard his sister screaming and felt the heat burning his face and arms. He heard shouting outside and the muffled pounding of shoes up the dark stairway just outside the door. Tears stinging his eyes, he cried for the old woman to come and help them, choking on the words as acrid smoke filled his chest.
A hot wave of pain rolled over his skin and he fell to the floor, pressing his face into the hard wood, trying to dig down into the unyielding floorboards to escape the searing agony. He felt a terrible weight on his body...a loud buzzing in his head turning into a roar of cold blue light filling the blackness in his head.... Above him, a towering black shape now reached down with long, spidery arms. A faceless shape, made of smoke and wind and ice. He felt hard fingers digging into his flesh as his body was lifted violently into the air and dragged helpless into the waiting darkness just beyond the shining door.
Copyright Alan Poe
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