The Wicked Witch of Lime Tree Park

This Halloween, let’s try to show some compassion.

Photo by Alma Black on Unsplash

I’m not big on Halloween

In fact, I’m not a fan of holidays in general. I wouldn’t celebrate my birthday if my wife didn’t insist. I find Christmas downright horrifying.

And when I grew up in the UK, Halloween wasn’t really a thing. It was a holiday for young kids to dress up and go trick-or-treating. That was all. Something you outgrew by your early teens.

In the neighborhood I lived in, the houses were all the same age, and so were the families inside them. At Halloween, the streets were busy with ghosts and witches and vampires, all at laughably miniature scale with barely an adult in sight. We didn’t fear strangers back then as much as we do now.

When I moved to Canada, I experienced Halloween as the sluttish bacchanal it is in North America. And given that I was a straight man in his early 20s, I became a fan. My tastes — in art, in architecture, in literature, in women — have always tended toward the Baroque.

Maybe I appreciate the effort. Maybe I just love artifice. We live in a beautiful world, but let’s be honest: it’s often a pretty boring one. Dressing up and pretending to be something other than what you are is a way to escape for a night the dreary claims of the everyday.

I’m too old and too settled for that appeal to me anymore, of course. In fact, few things would horrify me more than finding myself at a bar on a busy night surrounded by women who, had I been far wilder as a teenager than I actually was, could almost be my daughters.

But there is something appealing about Halloween. There’s something attractive in the notion of a single night of the year when the invisible world erupts into this one. The idea that the rules that govern reality can be suspended temporarily. The idea that there are monsters out there that cannot be contained.

Because there are. Life is a monster, the devouring monster that shows above the temple door, forever trapped in the act of devouring itself. The tired tropes of Halloween, the zombies and vampires and skeletons, come from the world of the dead. But they explode into our world with an abundance of life.

It makes sense. Cancer is now one of the biggest killers in the developed world, and what is it if not the unchecked growth of cells? Too much life can kill you. It’s an abundance of life that tears our bodies apart.

Halloween is for the dead. At least, that’s how it used to be. When my Irish ancestors leaped through blazing fires on Samhain, the precursor to the Christianized Halloween, they were purifying themselves for a long and grueling winter ahead in which nothing grew. Death returns to the land in the form of driving rain, howling winds, and mute wet snow, breaking branches and caving in rotten roof beams. Every winter was a dance with death, and every village would lose someone before spring returned to make the rivers run again.

It can’t be helped. The short days and long light and crisp fallen leaves make you think of death. It is autumn, and my camouflage is dying. The cycles that govern the natural world are the same cycles that govern our lives, as much as we try to pretend it isn’t so. Spring and fall. Growth and decay. The entire universe moves right through you, bright water streaming heedlessly through a break in the dam, and no matter how aloof you try to be, you’re not immune to this.

Besides, we can afford to give the dead a night to walk the earth once again. They don’t have much else going for them.

The neighborhood was full of kids

And my first and best friends were all neighborhood kids. Sometimes, the people who will be part of your life from the cradle to the grave are determined purely by who happens to live in the house a few doors up from yours.

We all knew which houses to go to and which to avoid. Some families are more generous than others. Some insisted on giving out healthy or homemade treats instead of the prepackaged sugar-rich garbage we craved. We would plot our route through the neighborhood with the precision of a military campaign, and it was rare that we needed to deploy the trick side of the equation. Most of our neighbors surrendered their treats willingly.

But there was one house no one went to. The front yard was shaded by tall trees, casting it in a permanent gloom. The only occupant was an old woman. Beneath a permanent iron bun of dead white hair, her face was set in frozen scowl, her bulldog jowls pulling the wrinkles deeper with each passing year.

Some of my friends called her Granny Grumble. Others just called her The Witch. Because she looked the part, and she played the role, and communities are defined by their suspicion of anyone who doesn’t try to fit in. There needs to be an out so that we can all be in. We need the pressure, like jellyfish that explode when you pull them from the deep water. We rely on that weight to give us our shape.

There were rumors about her, the kind of childish rumors that circulate through a neighborhood full of kids. Once, someone’s cousin knocked on her door and was captured and dragged inside. Tied to a chair, they were teased with the promise of candy they never received and were lucky to escape before something even darker took place. These stories were told in the hushed tones of zealots, confident that nothing could be worse. And above and below and on every side of us, things far darker and far more enormous were moving.

A mile up the road from our neighborhood, a factory was building chemical weapons for Saddam Hussein. So that he could massacre Kurdish children no older than we were when we told ludicrous tales about real-life witches to one another.

The neighborhood witch was not a witch.

She was a lonely old woman with a face that did her no favors. I remember that she had an accent, which you could hear when she muttered at a world that so clearly despised her. She was old enough to have been a refugee fleeing the Nazis to one of the only European countries that managed to avoid invasion.

Who knows what she lost along the way? Maybe barked commands in a foreign language and the slamming of train doors echoed in her frosted skull every time she closed her eyes. Perhaps she once had a husband, and found the world too terrifying without him to show it a friendly face. Too old by then to leave a country that would never be fully home, maybe she found herself caught in the diaphanous net between this world and the next.

This is all conjecture. If this were a novel, a writer less horrified by cliché might tell the story of how some child broke the taboo and went to her house on Halloween and found an ocean of love waiting to well up from the first crack in the ice.

Perhaps there are worlds more equitable, more just, more kind than this one. But we will never know them. This is the world we live in, and in this world, these women are doomed.

Nobody ever knocked on her door

To this day, I know nothing about her. And now, when I return to the old neighborhood where my father still lives, where my old friends come on holidays to visit their old parents, I see that the tall trees that almost hid her house from the street are gone. The house has been renovated too, turned into a more convincing simulacrum of the things the TV househunting shows tell us we should want. Ding dong, The Witch is dead.

The children in the neighborhood where I grew up would have doubtless picked out a new figure of hatred. That’s what children do. We pretend they are purer and kinder than we are, and sometimes that’s true. But in other ways, they show us what we would be without society to reign in our crueler impulses.

But there are no children in that neighborhood anymore.

Very few, anyway. What was once a sparkling new suburb for young families to raise their children has become a ghost town of old people living in houses too large for them.

Because when you scrimp and save and claw your way to finally owning property, something your parents never achieved, you hold onto that until the end. My father has had the same neighbors for nearly forty years now. I grew up alongside their kids, and then we all dispersed like dandelion seeds at the first hint of wind.

This Halloween, I’ll turn out all the lights.

In the neighborhood I live in now, the kids are either too old or too young to be knocking on doors anyway. Last year, my wife filled bowls with candy and only received a single and suspiciously old trick or treater.

I love artifice, the cunning games we play with the way we look and the way we behave. The way we can play with the masks we wear, pandemic or not. No other holiday exposes the performance our regular life is quite the way Halloween does. Around here, no one puts in much effort anyway.

But there’s nothing wrong with devoting a day to the dead. The Witch of Lime Tree Park is as dead as Saddam Hussein, as dead as Vlad Dracul and Bela Lugosi, as Alice Nutter and Tituba.

For all I know, our childish intuitions were correct. For all I know, they were the mutated offspring of some sensible parental directive, like the wolves that haunt German fairytales to teach children that the world is full of harm.

But somehow, I doubt it. Looking back with the benefit of thirty years and thousands of miles, I suspect that what we saw as a witch was simply a woman who had been hurt enough by the world that all she wanted was to hide. And that desire not to be vulnerable only alienated her further. Creatures that grow hard shells are difficult to devour. But they are also nearly impossible to hug.

And as an armored and prickly creature myself, I incline toward sympathy for an old woman that never found a toehold in this slippery world. If her garden stayed dark, it was because she preferred it that way. The older I get, the more scars I accrue, the more I understand that impulse.

Halloween is for the living, not the dead.

It’s a night for us to flirt with our own extinction. To revel in the knowledge of the darkness that waits out there, under those tall trees. And though they may not realize it, the girls parading from bar to bar in skimpy costumes are still participating in the same sacred ritual. Flaunting the wild exuberance of life in the face of death. Embracing everything that lives while everything around them dies.

Most holidays are pointless. I recently heard someone describe tradition as peer pressure from the dead, and I find myself in agreement. But not every old idea is bad.

This Halloween, I’ll spare a thought for those who’ve vanished beyond the circles of the world. Good, bad, and indifferent. And in a dark house where I pretend not to be home so no one knocks on my door, maybe I’ll raise a glass to the memory of the Witch of Lime Tree Park.

© Ryan Frawley 2020.

All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.

Written by

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science.

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