As a child I spent many hours in the sandbox that my dad built beneath two large maple trees in our backyard. On summer mornings, a small gang of us–my red-headed, younger brother Charley, his chubby friend Mikey, my frizzy-haired friend Jan, and my older brother, Les—would meet there. We all looked up to Les.
At eleven Les was already six feet tall and would have been the star of the elementary basketball team if my mom could talk him into wearing his eyeglasses. He was terribly blind until third grade when Mrs. Vawter figured out the only reason he could not read was because he could not see. Maybe that is why he was not a stellar student in his early years. Maybe that is why he became a storyteller instead. A good one. In truth he could have won an Emmy for his stories about the life-sized crawdads that haunted our neighborhood sewers. By the time I arrived at Southport Elementary my brother’s stories had earned him an epic reputation.
One summer morning when our usual gang of five gathered around the sandbox, Mikey told us his well-loved cocker spaniel named Bounce was missing. Les shook his head like he knew exactly what had happened. “Probably that witch who lives across Banta Road again.”
“The green witch?” asked Mikey.
Les had a string of stories about an evil witch and her black cat who lived about a mile down the hill across Banta Road in an old, gray Victorian house with funny little towers that pointed into the sky and seemed to pierce the dark clouds that always hung over it. Beside this dilapidated house was an orchard with apple trees that were black and all twisted like you see in Halloween movies. But the place was so creepy we never trick-or-treated there. Besides, we weren’t allowed to cross Banta Road.
In the past Les had said he believed the witch was a rare breed—a green witch, and Mikey confirmed it. We always drove past that house on the way to school, and one day Mikey got all bug-eyed and later explained he had seen the “green” witch on the porch with a black cat, casting spells. He talked about it for weeks.
But that summer morning, Les explained that on his way to buy bubble gum the day before, he had heard a dog barking in the witch’s orchard. “Maybe Bounce,” he said. “I hate to tell you, Mikey, but I am pretty certain that green witches are known for kidnapping dogs, feeding them poisonous apples from twisted, sick trees, and then cooking the poor critters for dinner.”
“No!” screamed Mikey. “No!! What can we do?”
“We have to stop her!” cried Jan, her unruly hair bobbing in all directions.
The whole gang flittered about like a hive of angry bees. We wanted Bounce back. Now. Within minutes Les had corralled our motley gang of five and armed us with sticks that had fallen from the nearby maple trees. Following his lead, we marched down the hill, and crossed Banta Road. Adrenalin drove us past the orchard, through the gate, into the yard, and up the creaky steps of the porch of the old house. Waving our sticks in the air, it was clear we had a mission.
“We want Bounce!” shouted Mikey and as he did a furry black cat napping in a sunken porch chair, jumped in surprise and scurried into the house through a small doggie door. Emboldened, the whole gang of us tapped our sticks on the floor of the porch and cried out “Bounce! Bounce!!”
Without hesitation Les banged on the large wooden door, and we could hear the intense barking of a little dog. “It’s Bounce!” I cried.
In a moment the lock snapped, and a door opened. Mikey gasped at the sight. Instead of his cocker spaniel, he beheld a ferocious little chihuahua barking like a lion at us from the arms of a tiny little grandma with her hair pulled back in a loose bun, wearing a baggy blue dress, and Birkenstocks. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a voice that sounded more wise than evil.
“Have you seen-seen- my-my-my dog?” stuttered Mikey. And Les explained that we had lost a cocker spaniel and thought we might have heard Bounce in the orchard the day before.
“Hmm. The only dog around here is Clarke,” explained the sweet little lady. By now Clarke had calmed down. Even with our sticks we must have looked harmless.
“I thought you were a green witch,” I blurted, surprising myself, “and that you kidnapped dogs and fed them poison apples from your orchard.” The lady in the blue dress pulled back surprised and stared at us for a minute. Then she laughed, and it was a soft little ripple of noise that was followed by a big smile that lit up her round face. “I am Ishy,” she said. “What are your names?”
Shyly we answered—one by one. Then she eyed our towering leader, my brother Les. “I imagine you are the storyteller,” Ishy chuckled as she said this. Les rarely looked guilty, but in that minute he shrugged and smiled down at Ishy. He never minded being busted. “We need to find a missing dog,” he explained with his usual charm, and Ishy laughed again.
Before we left, Ishy had fed us sugar cookies. Enough to make up for all the Halloweens we had skipped this house. Then she gave each of us a small bag of her pink apples that had come from the arms of the weirdly twisted trees. Almost instantly we all started eating them as we began the trek back up the hill.
Of course, we all arrived home to the unspeakable anger of our moms. We had crossed Banta Road without a thought. While we tried sharing our apples as peace offerings, the moms weren’t buying any of it. Every one of us was grounded in our yards for a month. And Bounce found her way back to Mikey’s house later that same afternoon. But Les was legendary, and we all knew it. A genuine master of the story. We didn’t mind being grounded with him in the backyard sandbox.
Fifteen years ago, after seven painful surgeries for cancer and one devastating infection, I lost my storytelling brother. His death left a big hole in my heart—and the hearts of so many folks.
I have never been able to tell a story like my big brother, but it was his love of sharing stories and fully living in them that made me want to write them. I first tried to write about the green witch when I was nine. Pieces of that first story are captured here.
My brother taught me to share the stories that mattered in my heart. I remember holding Les’s hand when he was dying. I never wanted to let go. Often when I write a story I can feel him, and as I try to honor his love of the imagination, I visualize Les is still holding my hand and living in the story with me. It is a great comfort.