They say it all started with the boys. Two little boys dead in a barn fire, tucked into wooden coffins with beautiful, painted masks covering their burned faces. It’s quite an image – one account says they looked like dolls – and I can see why people remembered it.
I’ve been a descendant of Callie Belle Warner my whole life. Some people don’t believe me when I say that, because to them, the Green Witch of Highgarden is nothing but a fable. She’s the monster under the bed, the warning to naughty children. She’ll stalk you through the woods at night. She’ll trap you in a dark place, and you won’t come out the same. She’s a legend. She isn’t real.
I can promise you: She is.
See, that’s the thing about stories. They all start somewhere. Callie Belle Warner was just as real as you and me and Highgarden.
“And I think it’s about time we separate the woman from the witch.”
I’m standing at a podium in Highgarden’s Town Hall. I can tell by the faces in front of me, a combination of boredom and worry, that this speech of mine is not going well.
“Of course, to do that, we’ve got to accept that there was a woman named Callie Belle Warner, and that she lived at Green Hollow Farm, and that she had children who had children, and that eventually led to me.”
The mayor taps his pen to his yellow legal pad and gives the smallest shake of his head. This is, apparently, a hard sell.
“And I’m here tonight to ask that we, as a town, make an effort to tell her real story, my family’s story. Surely now, after what we’ve all been through these last few years, we can agree that a painful truth is better than a fancy lie. And that’s all I’m asking for tonight, that we tell the truth.”
I take a breath, and look down at my notes.
“She was just a woman, a young widow, and we’ve turned her into something awful. No one deserves that.”
I look back up. I trail my eyes down the line of Town Council members on the dais.
“And so, that’s what I came to say, and thank you for your time.”
Later, my mother drives me home.
“I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with this,” she says. “It makes absolutely no difference how people talk about this woman. She’s been dead for two centuries.”
“I’m just trying to be a good ancestor,” I say.
“You’re making our whole family look crazy,” my mother insists.
And maybe I am.
“I don’t understand why everyone always looks so worried and scared when I talk about this” I tell my mother.
“They’re not worried or scared,” she says. “They’re annoyed with you. You’re wasting their time.”
“The truth doesn’t feel like a waste,” I say back. “How long does this go on? How many more generations of us have to live with it?”
“You could just move,” she tells me. “You’re not stuck in Highgarden.”
“This is my home,” I say. “I shouldn’t have to move away to live in peace.”
“We do live in peace,” my mother snaps. “You’re the only one who can’t let this go.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s clear after tonight. I meant at peace with myself. I can’t live in peace with myself until I know I’ve cleared her name.”
My mother stays silent, and we leave it there.
The next day, I walk to the only café in town for coffee and breakfast. I sit down, and before I’ve even put down my bag, on the table next to me, I see it. The headline on today’s paper is big and bold and it reads: JUSTICE FOR THE GREEN WITCH.
“You did that,” May says, as she drops off my egg sandwich. “And here I thought no one cared.”
May’s family has lived in Highgarden as long as mine. No one knows quite how old she is, exactly, and I’m pretty sure she babysat me, my mother, and my grandmother. And maybe my grandmother’s grandmother.
“I don’t think they do,” I say.
I’ve scanned the article while she’s been standing beside me. It’s not friendly. People really do think I’m crazy.
May puts a firm hand on my shoulder and says, “Sometimes you have to fight harder.”
She starts to walk away, turns back and says, “And sometimes it’s best to know when to quit.”
“It just doesn’t sit right with me,” I say to her back, as it gets farther and father away from me.
May’s around the corner, out of hearing distance and doubtless already busy with some other task. Outside, it’s started to snow.
When, I wonder, did all of this start? When did I become obsessed, because truthfully, I think my mother’s right and that’s what I am, with Callie Belle Warner?
I know when it really started for Callie Belle. It wasn’t the boys, not that anyone cares, it seems. For her, it was before she even arrived in Highgarden, on a ship across an ocean, where she met James Warner. He brought her here, built a farm, and died before he turned forty. He left her alone with four boys and no help. And then two of their boys died in the fire, and she shouldered the blame. Only a villain, someone truly evil, would have allowed such a thing to happen to her own flesh and blood. And when two more children died, one of fever and one in the river, she was blamed for that, too. And it only got worse from there. Even after Callie Belle died, every little misfortune was somehow all her fault.
I know this, because I’ve done my research.
I don’t know how it happened that Callie Belle Warner, the real woman, became Callie Belle Warner, the legend. And I don’t know how to fix it. But at least I know the truth.
At this point, I feel like I know Callie Belle’s story better than my own.
And so, with nothing else to do, and no one willing to listen, I open my laptop, and I write.
My mother, I write, she named me Calliope Belle…
I’m sitting in a chair, and a woman who talks fast and moves faster is applying powder to my face.
“Just be yourself,” she tells me. “Everyone’s so obsessed with this book. You’ll do fine.”
And then I’m in front of a camera, and the lights are hot and bright. I don’t know quite where to look. It’s like a dream, but it’s real.
Someone beside me asks, “So, tell me where you got the idea for this story.”
And from somewhere far away, I hear myself answer, “Well, I was just trying to be a good ancestor.”
Thank you for reading! This is the eleventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore
Here are the first ten, if you’d like to read them:
The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil
The Tale of Beauregard the Brave
I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story, this year’s last, will be posted at the end of December.