- Five Autobiographical Fragments, or She May Have Been a Witch
1. She May Have Been a Witch
I was playing outside my house in Brooklyn on a summer day, under the big oak tree that seemed to symbolize time: it must have been there forever and it must be there forever; it was so old and impossibly rooted, so fixed. A very old woman walked past me, and looked at me with what I thought was evil power, the power to hold me or hurt me. She was dressed in tatters, hunched, stock figured for nursery-rhyme caricature for a little boy, or some little boys. To other little boys she was probably the woman next door, or Aunt Agnes. Of course, she may have been a witch. I thought she was a witch, but didn’t want to think she was a witch. She walked down the street and I felt transfixed by her power. She didn’t turn around. But I said to myself, if she turns around when she gets to the corner and looks at me, she’s a witch. She knows what I’m thinking. I had projected such extraordinary power onto her, because she seemed so different from the world of my day, or the day of my world, or perhaps because I was terribly upset about something, a broken toy, a misdemeanor, a wayward thought that couldn’t be corralled or corrected, and so I projected the trouble, the problem, the powerful feelings onto this hunched, beleaguered-looking figure who, [End Page 19] after all, probably had cast a sidelong glance at me and thought painfully how rotten age was, how little respite from pain and responsibility, as she trudged down the street, and still after all these years never any money. Of course, she may have been a witch.
I stood in the middle of a square of concrete, and it felt as though I couldn’t breathe. She was halfway, now two-thirds of the way down to the end of the next block, where she must cross the avenue, Avenue Z, the alphabetical land’s end, where she would cross the divide to, well, another series of marked streets, headed towards the ocean a few blocks down. Would she stop and turn and prove herself a witch? And if she did, what would that mean for me, what was I to do? She came to the curb and stopped, since the light was against her, as I felt everything was against me. I felt, in my body, a heaviness, as though I had lost control, as though I were a witness seeing out of a vessel I were occupying, rather than being that vessel, which I had been only moments before. And then, very slowly, as though foreordained, and moving with a desperately smooth and slow fluidity, she turned around. She stared at me from a block away. And then she turned back and walked on.
I was doomed, then. What I feared was what I foresaw, and that’s just what happened. Even as a child, I realized it was no sense to tell an adult I had seen a witch and was drawn into her power. Though I did anyway. I was not much consoled. My instincts were correct for the second time in a day, once based on the irrational and evil forces of the world, and once based on logic and experience. I shivered my way through the coming months and have thought of her now for many decades, this old witch that not even the benign spirit of my timeless tree could protect me from. I still wait for her to do me harm.
2. Insomnia 101
Some sadist told me this story when I was about ten or eleven:
There was a boy and one night he dreamed he was going to be stabbed, but he woke up. The next night he had the dream again, except that the knife drew closer. [End Page 20] Well, he had the dream over and over again, and each time the knife would get just a little closer. The boy would wake up in...