Christmas time in the West Farms section of the Bronx. The year nineteen forty five. Three teenage friends ran down 177th street playfully firing snowballs at each other, only stopping to mold new white weapons. Laughter echoed under the old New York & Boston railroad bridge, but once out on the other side the teens became quiet.
Stopping in front of the old chestnut Victorian house on the corner of 177th and Wyatt street, the teens tried to imagine what sinisterness went on behind the closed gate and the front door beyond it. Trees stripped bare of leaves from winter’s windy push and pull with the last of fall helped give the front yard of the house a sense of foreboding.
“I bet you a quarter, Nate, you wouldn’t go up to the witch’s door and knock on it,” said Tony Aponte, a stout boy wearing John’s Bargain Store black high top sneakers, blue jeans, and a navy pea coat covering layers of sweaters. A Yankee’s cap helped Tony retain his body heat. Wet wool gloves helped him mold a new snow ball with a rock hidden in the center.
“Show me the quarter and I’ll do it. Don’t make me no mind,” countered Nate Duncan the tallest of the trio. Brown skinned in a lumber jack hat and coat, jeans and dark boots, Nate was fearless but knew of the stories about the old and out-of-place house. “In fact give the quarter to Herbie to hold ‘cause I don’t trust you Tony,” said Nate.
“Guys I don’t think this is such a good idea ya think?” asked Herbie Smoltz. Surplus army olive green parka, dark pants, black Converse sneakers, his lumberjack hat sporting flaps, an inch or two shorter than Nate, Herbie was a mild-mannered teen who tended to think things out much to Tony’s “I’m a teenager this is part of my job title’s” annoyance.
“One time Johnny Fitzpatrick swore he saw the witch turn into an alligator, one day, honest. He was peeking in the window,” said Tony. The three of them were now standing in front of an iron and paint chipped horizon-blue gate, and the front yard had patches of icy snow. Beyond that a porch and a thick evil-looking front door. The house was dark with no signs of anyone home. Tony fished a quarter out of his jeans pocket with one wet-gloved hand.
“Hey. Why don’t we take the quarter and go over to Southern Boulevard and get a few pickles from Meyer’s delicatessen,” Herbie wanted to get away from the house. His mother said the house dated back to when Starlight Amusement Park still operated across 177th street back in the 1920’s.
“You’re scared to do it, ain’t you, Nate. Aw you just think she’s going to grab you put you in a frying pan cook you up and eat you. And Herbie, if the wind blows or the sun rises you get scared.”
“I don’t see you making any moves Tony.” Nate shot back.
“Don’t have to, I got the quarter, and if you two won’t I’ll…” Tony was about to deliver his snow ball like Vic Raschi and break a window when a gray leather glove grabbed his arm. Tony dropped the snow ball.
“And if you two won’t you’ll do what young man?” A cheerful voice laced with a Florida accent rang out from behind them. Startled the boys turned around and came face-to-face with an attractive older woman, skin like smooth caramel candy. Large but quiet eyes, soft mouth, her aquiline nose gave her a regal look. “What are you young men doing?” the woman asked. Dressed in gray like the over cast afternoon, the mysterious woman was impeccably fashioned from the halo hat to her high heels. A gray fox wrap covered her shoulders and in her hand was a gray clutch bag. One long jet black braid of hair ran from under her halo hat half way down her back. “You know I live here.”
“Sorry Ma’am, we mean no harm. We were just joshing around. You know goofing it. Our friends said a witch lives here,” whenever they got in trouble Herbie was the one to talk their way outta it.
“Well my name’s Miss Cordelia. Do I look like a witch to you?” Miss Cordelia moved past the boys to unhitch her gate in a fashion model like strut as if to prove the rumors false. Nate was feeling the first pangs of teenage infatuation just from looking at her.
“No.” they answered in unison.
“I tell you boys what. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, how about coming over for some hot chocolate with marshmallows on top or maybe some Ovaltine? Nate you like biscuits covered in Karo syrup right?” Miss Cordelia offered.
“Yes ma’am.” Nate was bedazzled.
“So it’s a date then. How about six in the evening you gentlemen; is that good?”
“Cheewhiz I don’t know about that,” Herbie said.
“Herbie’s scared again Nate,” Tony taunted.
”No I’m not scared. Alright I’ll be there Miss Cordelia.” Herbie surrendered to Tony’s peer pressure.
“Six in the evening then it is. I’ll see all of you then.” The boys waved goodbye and resumed their running snow ball fight up Wyatt street then back onto 177th., where they turned and waved one more time at Miss Cordelia. Facing them she waved back while out of their view Miss Cordelia’s braid stretched itself, reached into her gray clutch bag, took out her house key, and unlocked the thick evil looking front door.
The boys met up at a quarter to six. Even though it was Christmas Eve none of them had a problem getting out the house. Tony’s family was so big he would not be missed, plus his lush of a dad didn’t have any gifts for him and his seven siblings anyway. Nate’s father, a Pullman porter, most of the time got paid late so Nate and his mother didn’t see any gifts until the 26th. And as a domestic, his mother spent the holiday in a bone-tired sleep. Christmas was never the same for Herbie and his mother after his father died during the invasion of Normandy. After just one year of staring at the vacant place-setting for his father at Christmas dinner; Herbie preferred to be outside.
The next night found them opening the gate to Miss Cordelia’s front yard path as if they were regular visitors. All of them had on the same play clothes from yesterday, except Tony’s gloves were dry and he had a few drops of Vitalis in his dark hair.
“Hey Nate how she know you like Karo syrup loaded on your biscuits?” wondered Herbie.
“I don’t rightly know,” said Nate rapping on the evil looking door. From front window an opened less than an inch the scent of Strawberry incense met the boys.
“Come to thing of it how she know our names?” Herbie was getting uneasy and nervous.
“She probably heard our moms yelling our names in the neighborhood,” said Tony.
“How she gonna to hear my mama holler at me from way over on Southern Boulevard Tony?!” said Nate turning away from the door and what could be a wrong idea about having hot chocolate with Miss Cordelia. Suddenly the evil looking door opened as if pushed by a gust of winter air. Standing before them was Miss Cordelia, barefooted, and in what only could be described as a Santa Claus-red and metallic green dress, Gibson-girl in its style. The long jet black braid had loosened; Miss Cordelia’s hair cascaded down around her shoulders, and her quiet brown eyes had been replaced by glowing intense ruby-red ones.
”Come in my little loves, come in.” Before they could dash off her porch Miss Cordelia made a movement at the boys with her arms that was reminiscent of a belly dancer, and it levitated them off their feet and into the house. The boys could see that the house seemed larger in dimensions inside than outside, as Miss Cordelia’s hand motions moved them toward a door flung open under a stairway, and she guided them, floating head over heels, down into the basement, with Tony screaming while Herbie and Nate struggled in silence.
”Now my loves I have to tend to the oven, but trust me I WILL BE BACK,” laughed Miss Cordelia as her bare feet scratching against the wooden steps took her up to the kitchen.
Each young man had been hexed into speechlessness and frozen; they could only move their eyes, and each was stationed in a corner of the dimly lighted basement. Herbie in his corner, powerless to escape, saw something that brought hopeless tears to his eyes. Along the wall near him were gaudy painted advertisements dating back to 1901, the kind one sees in circus sideshows, at amusement parks, or carnivals: Cordelia The Belly Dancing Wonder from the East! Cordelia The Fortune Telling Sorceress! Cordelia The Alligator Woman! Each featured a different incarnation of Cordelia from the beautiful to the hideous. In Nate’s corner a crone hat, conical, black, rested on a wooden stool. Tony just stared at a brick basement wall. The terror pounding in Herbie’s head increased when it was joined by the footfalls of Miss Cordelia coming back down the stairs.
”You first, Tony my little mischief maker.” She guided Tony, who was hiccupping silent tears, up the stairs. Minutes later the sound of an oven opening and closing could be heard. Herbie tried to talk to Nate but words couldn’t form in his mouth. Footfalls came downstairs again, and beyond the footfalls the aroma of spiced meat cooking floated down from top of the stairs.
”Nate your such a strong-built young man. I wish I had a daughter for you to date. But alas,” and blubbering Nate was floated upstairs. Herbie tried to calm himself and think of a way out of this. He was the one who always talked them out of jams. Maybe he could do it now, although Herbie also figured that Nate and Tony were pretty much in the oven by now. Down came the footfalls, one last time.
”Herbie you seem like the smartest one of the group,” said Miss Cordelia floating Herbie across the basement and up the stairs before he knew it, as his tears drops spun upward with him.
As his body reached the top of the stairs Herbie found himself gaining his balance and freewill. He started to swing at Miss Cordelia and run for his life, but the sight in the kitchen stopped him. Sitting at an oaken kitchen table, his lower face stained with cherry pie, was Tony, intent on nothing more than finishing his pie slice, half-emptied plate of holiday dinner at his elbow as was a warm mug of hot chocolate. At the other end of the table sat Nate engrossed in his plate of baked ham with all the trimmings and a side plate of hot biscuits drenched in Karo syrup.
“I… Tony… Nate…Miss Cordelia please let us go!” pleaded Herbie.
“I won’t harm you loves,” said Miss Cordelia eyes still glowing a ruby red. “Here sit down.” Pointing to a middle chair at the table the strange woman beckoned Herbie to sit. Herbie sat down only to jump back up when Miss Cordelia paced a cup of Ovaltine in front of him.
”Sorry that I frighted you boys but I had to make an example of you three. It has been a rather trying time with you neighborhood children and your misconceptions about me. Maybe now the three of you can be sort of public relations for me in the neighborhood,” Miss Cordelia was fixing a holiday plate for Herbie which was so filled and succulent that once she placed it on the table he couldn’t resist sitting back down and digging into it.
“What’s public relations?” asked Tony wiping his face.
”Just letting people know I’m not some evil witch. But you guys have to got keep my secret. Do not mention what you’ve seen this evening,” Miss Cordelia said, her eyes glowing up a notch in intensity when she looked at the boys, then cooling back down.
”Are you? asked Herbie. The trio stopped eating and drinking and looked up at Miss Cordelia’s glowing eyes.
“You have to ask Love? Really? I tell you guys what I am: of the light not the darkness. For the rest, you figure it out; now do we have a deal?” Miss Cordelia was checking a capon in a pan on her stove while waiting for an answer.
They all nodded an affirmative.
“Great! You guys have brains and vitality! Now finish up your holiday dinner; I have gifts for all of you and gifts to take home to your families, then next Saturday I’ve conjured…I mean I’ve got tickets for a New York Rens basketball game. Don’t know much about the game but it should be fun,” said Miss Cordelia.
“What’s does conjure mean?” asked Tony.
”Don’t ask love.” Miss Cordelia waved her hand at him and then, like a person who’d forgotten to turn off her house lights, she shook her eyes from glowing red back to quiet brown, and joined the boys at the table.