Roger Leibert stares at the computer screen in his home office as he listens to his wife, Dorothy, read to their granddaughter in the adjoining bedroom. The book Dorothy’s selected for Suzie’s overnight stay at Nana’s is Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a book that terrified Suzie when she was seven, but which seems to be a hoot now that she’s nine. Dorothy’s voice is high and inquisitive when she reads the part of the young protagonist and then falls into a lower register with a slight growl as she enacts the part of the cigar-smoking Grandmamma who’s explaining the world of witches to her grandson.
“No country in the world’s completely free of witches,” states Dorothy, presumably acting out the grandmother’s warning. Roger can see his wife in his mind’s eye raising her index finger in the air and arching her eyebrows to emphasize the threat. She goes on to relate the various ways that children have disappeared: one was turned into a chicken and another into a porpoise, and yet another turned to granite and placed near the front door of his home as an umbrella stand. Dorothy’s voice is sinister as she speaks of the members of the evil cult who wear long gloves to cover the claws they have in place of fingernails, wear wigs to cover their bald heads, and have no toes on their feet, while managing to be undetectable by those around them. “One may even be your teacher!” Dorothy warns.
Roger, who’s recently retired, enjoys hearing his wife’s voice as Grandmamma and Suzie’s mirth as she giggles at the naughty tale. He’s thankful for his wife’s normalcy, since he’s preoccupied by the many dangers of his own existence: growing older by the hour, losing hair, feeling a loss of purpose, the fear of COVID-19, and the unending war in Ukraine that saps his spirit.
As Dahl’s tale unfolds, his young protagonist looks for witches everywhere and Roger is drawn into it, combining a reverie of his own young years and a Milton quote, “time is the subtle thief of youth.”
Roger’s well aware that he’s lived a good and productive life and doesn’t feel robbed of anything. He’s just sad that time has slipped away so quickly, and that his own sense of wonder has been metaphorically turned to stone, like the young man actually was in the story. Roger grew up Episcopalian and believed in God, America and the concept of good triumphing over evil, but along with his youth those ideals have vanished. He thought by this time in his life, because of the world’s technical revolution, that war would be no more, a relic of the past. The pandemic’s proven that humans are far from having all the answers to life’s major questions, and as the world seems to be getting closer to finding one answer, another question pops up like a witch, with even more questions coming into view. Billions of dollars are spent to fight a war for no apparent purpose, while millions of people are homeless and hungry, and a comparative few live like emperors. The planet is losing its war with humanity and viruses are hiding more effectively than warlocks.
Roger recalls Aristotle’s adage from 350 BCE: “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” As he has aged he’s discovered that although the sphere of his knowledge may have expanded, the number of unknowns surrounding it have multiplied, leaving him unable to keep up and convincing him he’s learned nothing. Each day when he turns on the news and sees more innocent people dying in the neolithic war for land, power and whatever, any sense of wonder he has left turns to despair—for the world, for his family, for himself and for any future he could hope for past his lifespan.
Some years back, Roger took up plein air painting to avoid despair, and since it was new to him at that relatively late age, the act of painting outdoors rekindled his sense of accomplishment. As he grew proficient at the task and began to sell his canvases, it was like he was reborn. Whether a placebo or a cure, a bi-monthly dose of testosterone prescribed by his doctor also seemed to reinvigorate him, as did a low dose of Xanax that helped him reduce his mounting feeling of anxiety that had grown worse over time. Cholesterol medication reduced the growth of plaque in his arteries and other meds lowered his blood pressure, so that beyond some aches and pains that come with age, he’s physically healthy, for now.
When he closed down his business, he began to write, and once again it helped him conquer his self-imposed demons. Witches are everywhere! he knows. And they can disguise themselves as anything or anyone to consume us as age turns us first to stone and then to dust.
What of the future? he thinks, as he hears Dorothy telling Suzie that it’s time for bed, after which his wife clicks the light off, closes the door and pads quietly down the hall to the couple’s bedroom.
He loves and admires his wife. She’s so much stronger than he is. She doesn’t obsess over age or her imminent demise as does he. She seems more accepting of her fate.
What of the future? The idea again flashes before him as he types the words on his keyboard and they appear on the screen.
“Will we ever learn?” follows beneath the first set of words, and then another:
“There are witches everywhere!”
Roger begins to imagine a time some 50 years from now. He wonders if the human race will have learned to get along for the sake of its own existence, or will it have begun a slow, or perhaps not so slow, descent to extinction.
The darkness in his mind fades as he imagines that perhaps some good might come out of just writing about the world of tomorrow. But then he quickly realizes that he’s probably delusional, and that the best outcome might be to only save himself, from himself, as long as possible.
Under his last entry, he spaces down and types “Chapter One,” and below it he enters the phrase, “Goddammit! How much reality can we take?”
He then waits for the witches to arrive to wrap their clawing arms around his aging body and infuse him with, he hopes, inspiration.