The Witch of Calico Island

The Witch of Calico Island

There’s something unsettling about being on an island. Something unnatural. Claustrophobic. Let’s face it, creepy.

Think of it–vast stretches of water, no matter which direction you face. You’re severed from the mainland. From the world.

I'm definitely not an island person.

That's why three years passed before I visited Miranda and Darby at their island home. Miranda and I, best friends since childhood, were bridesmaids at each other's weddings. She had subsequently held my hand through my divorce. And although she often visited me on the mainland, I was reluctant to venture even once onto her isolated island.

I finally ran out of excuses. They now had weekly ferry service, and with a fax machine and internet link, I'd have no problem sending my columns to the paper.

On the ferry I parked in the middle of the deck, windows up, doors locked, the radio blaring so I wouldn't hear the chugging motor or the screeching sea birds. I tried to read but my gaze was pulled to the steady rise and fall of the dark ocean. It was huge, alive. A monster drawing breath. Up and down, in and out.

Calico Island, fourteen miles off the mainland, was to me as remote as the moon.

"It's quiet," Miranda had told me. "A great bunch of people here. The other full-timers are mostly artists like Darby and myself. Some New Agers. You know, modern-day hippies. Health food nuts, astrologers, and Twyla, a real honest-to-God witch."

Sure. A real witch. And hippies, probably practicing group sex and growing their own smoke. Beads and incense. Psychedelic art. Flower power. Peace, man.

Calico Island was undeniably pretty, lush and green in early summer. Rhododendrons grew everywhere, and red-barked arbutus trees strained toward the sun, their grotesque forms shedding bark like old skin. Fuchsias in containers hung from the four village light poles and decorated the exteriors of half a dozen businesses including a tavern, a vegetarian restaurant, a food store, and two local craft outlets. I refused to be impressed by the island's quaint charm. I was staying one week only, just until the next ferry came.

Darby and Miranda lived halfway across the island at the lonely end of a dusty gravel road. They had a comfortable-looking cottage built of native stone, made picturesque with wisteria climbing the roof and a trellised rose arbor.

There was not a single view of the ocean. I was pleased.

Darby answered the door to my knock. He looked stunned for some moments, then said, "Elsa! Jees, is it Monday already?" He seemed frazzled, lank black hair uncombed, chin sporting at least two days' growth, t-shirt so rumpled it looked like he hadn't taken it off in a week. A necklace of rough stone beads hung around his neck, proving Island life had gotten to him.

I fought an urge to wrinkle my nose. "Yeah, well it's nice to see you, too." I stuffed my sunglasses into my purse. "Miranda around?"

"Uh--no--not right now. Jees, I'm sorry. Come in. Come in. Don't mind the mess."

I stepped over a cardboard box full of empty beer cans into a big living room that seemed to double as a workshop for both Darby and Miranda. Shelves the length of the room held Miranda's pottery: cups, bowls, and plant pots with her trademark blue and green glazes. A worktable beside her potter's wheel was cluttered but looked organized enough. Darby's easels and canvases stood in a corner littered with more beer cans, potato chip bags, and open tins of spaghetti.

My opinion of Darby plunged. Gifted artist or not, he was truly a slob. Miranda had always been super neat. "What's going on?" I asked.

"Uh--well--been letting things go--you know how it is--" He made a half-hearted attempt to round up some cans, then gave up. "C'mon. I'll show you the spare bedroom."

I followed him to the room--at least it was clean--and dropped my overnight case on the bed. "When's Miranda coming back?"

"Oh--" He shrugged. "Whenever. You know Miranda."

I thought I knew Miranda. She was not flighty or forgetful or messy. She was dependable and serious. A photo of Miranda's wedding party sat on the bureau. She looked like an angel, her red-blonde hair a fluffy halo around her head. She was small and cute, while the four bridesmaids surrounding her were tall and dark-haired. But while we all sported big smiles, Miranda was straight-faced, as solemn as the minister had been.

Hours crept by, and Darby seemed to get more evasive. Morning became afternoon. We drank beer, ate chips, and had a strained conversation. When Darby went to take a shower and change, I stepped outside.

I strolled through a yard rampant with weeds and unkempt wild rhododendrons, then came to an abrupt stop at the edge of a large square of bricks where an enormous kiln squatted on four legs like an overgrown bulldog. The kiln was big enough to cremate a body. What if--

Moving backwards to the house, I heard Darby's voice through the screened window of his bedroom. And felt a vast relief. She was back!

"No, Miranda," he was saying. "You can beg all you want, you aren't going out there. Elsa is here and--" He clammed up as I entered the room.

I looked around. A ginger cat sat in the middle of the bed. "I heard you talking to Miranda. Where is she?"

"I was talking to the, uh, the cat," he stammered. "Cat's name is Miranda." His face fell. "Jees, Elsa. The cat is Miranda. I mean Miranda is the cat--"

I burst into laughter and backed away from him. "Yeah, sure. Now, tell me where Miranda is."

"I told you. The cat--"

"Darby, I want the truth. Now."

He slumped into a chair. "I know this doesn't make any sense but it's the truth and--oh, God--" He rubbed his cheeks with his fingertips. "It's all my fault. My fault..." He looked up with haunted eyes.

"Miranda placed an ad for her pottery in the local paper. Her first customer came, Twyla, that damn witch from the village. Said she was opening a tea shop and needed a hundred cups. You can't imagine how hard Miranda worked on those cups. But then Twyla came by, said they were cute, but she was ordering real cups from a company in Ireland. Cute–real–Miranda was so crushed she barely spoke for days. So I decided to call on Twyla and do what Miranda couldn't--tell her off."

He dragged his fingers through his hair, then clutched the stone beads around his neck. "I was rude. Well, maybe I was nastier than I needed to be, but I was furious. And Twyla was just quiet, but finally she looked at me with those cold eyes of hers and said, 'Don't ever, ever piss off a witch.' I was real sarcastic. 'What you gonna do, turn me into a frog?' She smiled then. 'Something much better. You'll never doubt my power again.' She told me to go home, as Miranda was waiting for me. I came home and Miranda wasn't here, but this kitten was."

Once again I burst out laughing. "Darby, this is too much! Get Miranda in here. It was a good joke, but it's time to end it."

Darby didn't share my laughter. "Elsa," he said quietly, as if I were the deranged one and he was sane. "It's no joke. I expected Miranda and Twyla to jump out, laughing about the trick they pulled on me. Two days went by. I took the cat to Twyla's and said, 'Here, take your cat back and tell Miranda to come home.' She only said 'Miranda is the cat, Darby. You'd better get used to the idea.' Then she slammed the door in my face. I looked at the cat. Really looked. See--Miranda's eyes. And she understands what I say. Miranda, let Elsa know you missed her."

The cat jumped in my lap, put her paws on my shoulders, and with her nose almost touching mine, stared into my eyes. For a moment I almost fell for it, thinking those china blue eyes were Miranda's.

I shook my head. "I'm tired of this sick joke. Enough is enough--"

"Elsa, you have to help me! Visit Twyla and beg her to return Miranda to me. There's a damn Tom cat prowling the yard--and Miranda's whining to go out--you have to help me--please! Go see Twyla. Now. Right now--she'd listen to you, I know she would-- And here--" He ripped the stone bead necklace from around his neck. "You have to wear this. It's a--a--spell-fender. Keeps the witch's spells from working on you."

He was crazy. I was convinced. On drugs. A psycho who had probably murdered my best friend. Or, it was all some kind of bizarre game!

I fingered the stone beads. "Gee, Darby, you sure you can spare this?"

"I got it from the old guy next door to Twyla. Go talk to him. You'll believe me. His name is Old Grog."

Old Grog? The Darby-as-deranged-psycho image flared through my mind again. Get a grip, I told myself. I'd go along with the stupid trick. For now.

Darby gave me directions to Old Grog's. He walked me to my car and waved me on. As I drove away, I saw him in the rearview mirror, standing in the middle of the road, shoulders slumped, hands in his jean pockets, while the dust raised by my tires settled around him.

In the village I parked in front of a weathered building that had two storefronts, Twyla's Tea Shoppe and Grog's Wood Carvings.

I went to Grog's first. The store was fragrant with wood scents, packed it seemed to the rafters with cedar animal carvings ranging from tiny mice to huge upright bears.

Grog came forward at the sound of the door opening. He was a lean little man possibly in his sixties, dressed in a grey work apron and holding a carver’s blade in his hand. His long white hair was tied at the back and he wore a rough stone necklace like the one Darby had given me. I said, "So, you have a witch fender, too, huh?"

He narrowed his eyes. Bright blue they were, and razor-sharp. "I'm the one makes 'em. These rocks are all blessed. That's why the witch's spells don't work."

"That's what I came to see you about--ah, Grog. You have to admit this witch business is pretty absurd."

"Hah! You think there's no truth in it, don't you?"


He pointed a thumb to a brass cage where a yellow canary sat on a post, watching us with what seemed tight little eyes. "See her? That's Enid." The bird chirped as if in agreement. "My wife. Twyla hated her on sight." He led me to a smaller cage where two hamsters spun about in wheels, running madly but going nowhere. "The Dix brothers. Owned this building. And here--" He showed me to a fish tank without water or fish where an iguana slept like an ugly long slug. "This was Harold. He was sweet on Twyla. For a while."

I didn't, simply couldn't, believe a word of it, but managed a polite good-bye. These people were all wackos. Had to be. And somehow Miranda had fallen in with them. I had to find her, save her, and get her off this lunatic island!

A gently-tinkling bell announced my arrival in the Tea Shoppe. A sign in the small front room indicated the Tea Room was through a doorway, and I walked on to find myself in a cozy room with white wicker tables and chairs, lots of ferns and potted palms, and to my dismay, a big window framing a view of the ocean. It glittered in late afternoon sunlight, foamy crests like spittle from the mouth of the monster. I turned my back to it.

"Don't like the view?" A smooth voice came from behind me. "It's mighty, that sea. Gives me all my power."

I spun about. Twyla looked nothing like any of the witches described in horror stories. Probably in her late thirties, she had neatly bobbed blonde hair and a sunny smile. She wore a tailored pantsuit and looked businesslike and sensible, unlike many islanders who dressed like flower children from a bygone era. She asked if I wanted a cup of tea--she had seventeen varieties--or was I here for another reason?

Her eyes were very dark, almost black, and uncannily probing. I had a sense that she knew my deepest secrets, and I felt a sudden chill. Was this what it was like to be trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea? My throat was dry; I cleared it and said, "Darby wants Miranda back."

She had a musical laugh. "Darby has Miranda."

"Darby thinks Miranda is a cat--"

"Does he believe that?"

Still uneasy, I played with the cuff of my sleeve. "Well, yes--"

"Do you believe?"

"Oh, sure--"

She nodded. "Go back to your friends." When I hesitated, she added with assurance, "I'll take care of it. Darby and Miranda will be together again."

I let myself into the house thinking the trick had been played out well by the four of them. I'd laugh along with them, we could all go to the vegetarian restaurant for supper, then the tavern for beer. And tomorrow morning I'd find a way to get the hell off this crazy island.

"Darby!" I called. "Miranda! I saw your friend, the weird witch Twyla--" I paused, for there was no answer to my words. Instead, Miranda-the-cat entered the room, trailed by a scrawny, fuzzy black cat.

"Hello," I said, leaning down to pet the new one. "And who are you?"

Realization was a harsh smack to the head. I backed away. The cat's watery green eyes were sadly reproachful. "Darby--" I whispered.

I drove back to Twyla's without regard to speed limits or ruts in the road, but the shop was locked and a big closed sign hung in the window. Twyla didn't open to my frantic knocking, so I headed next door to Grog's.

"Oh, yeah, she's gone all right," he said. "I bet she just got on her broom and flew away!"

I left Grog laughing to himself and drove to the harbor where I had seen a big sign Motor launch for rent.

The deeply-tanned man identified as Bert said, "The launch was rented 'bout an hour ago."

"When will it be back?"

He shrugged. "A week. A month. Six months. With Twyla you just never know."

"Twyla!" I was sputtering. "You rent out your only boat to a--a--"

"Yeah, well, Twyla's hard to say no to." He gestured at a dog sleeping in the sun. "See, Rufus there--"

"Oh. Right. Rufus was your partner until he got on the bad side of--"

Bert stared hard at me. "Well, guess you could call him my partner. Fact is I've had him since I was a kid. The old fella would've died last year if Twyla hadn't brought a vet friend of hers over to look at him. Yep, now when she wants to rent the old tub, it's all hers."

Defeated, I drove back to the cottage and my two pets, and every time I saw a seagull or a rat I wondered who it used to be.

The internet is an amazing tool. You’d be surprised at what you can learn, what you can become. It's even better when you swallow your apprehension and go to a secluded beach where you can commune with the sea. Some call it meditation; I see it as activating my powers.

I started small, turned flies into spiders, ants into bees. I succeeded in turning a squirrel into a chicken, and best of all, back into a squirrel. I have yet to try it on a human, but there’s this busybody neighbor just begging to be turned into a crow.

There are no less than 80,000 cat spells. I’m going to find the right one to reverse Twyla's spell, even if it takes years. I feel my magic growing, like the ocean swells I once feared, every day. Soon I'll have the strength of a tsunami. When Twyla returns she won’t know what hit her. She’ll be lucky to become a crow. I’m thinking of a bug, the kind you can step on. Or a mouse, the kind cats like.

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