I was twelve when the sisters came to town: the sisters Ivanov. They had straight black hair that reached to their waist and pale blue eyes. They were witches. At least, that’s what Mrs. Templeton said.
Constance Templeton was head of the church’s Welcoming Committee, but Annushka and Lana Ivanov were not welcomed. The traditional red wagon filled with homemade preserves, burnished apples, and stuffed sandwiches was not left on their doorstep and no one invited the sisters to the Harvest Festival.
“There is something not right over there.” Mrs. Templeton waggled her finger in the direction of the Ivanov cottage. “Something is just not right.”
At first, I thought she meant about the cottage, and I nodded with the rest of the Lady’s Group. Great dead vines strangled the front of the shack and only peeps of window and siding were visible. The front door never quite closed right and a whole scraggle of cats lived half in and half out of the place. The tough grass from the sidewalk to the sagging porch was about waist high and Tommy Morten swore that seven-foot long snakes lived in there.
“They are witches,” Mrs. Templeton hissed, squinting her eyes hideously toward the cottage. “They are witches indeed and they’ll curse our whole town, you mark my words. Stay away from the sisters Ivanov.”
Well, that’s exactly what the whole Lady’s Group did, and by the next Sunday, not one welcome gift had been left at the Ivanov cottage. Mrs. Templeton was very proud of this and in the middle of Pastor Wimpey’s message, she updated the Lady’s Group as to what the witches had done through the week. I had to strain to hear, for Mama wasn’t keen on talking during the message.
“…and Mrs. Nichols said that her husband said that the tall one was wearing pants in the hardware store. Men’s pants! Can you even believe it? Had them tied around her waist with an old, dirty rope, and didn’t even look ashamed! Walked straight up to Hank and expected to be served. Like she was the Queen of Sheba. If the Queen of Sheba ever spat in the face of God, maybe.”
The ladies in the rows ahead of me nodded and hummed their disbelief and I did too, but very quietly. Mama’s eyes were straight ahead on Pastor Wimpey, but I knew she could hear Mrs. Templeton. Everyone heard Mrs. Templeton.
As we left the morning service, I squinted my eyes in the direction of the Ivanov cottage. My heart jumped when I saw the tall one, wearing her pants on the front lawn. With both hands, she was trying to rip down the vines that tangled and knotted across the front of the house.
“Mama, Mama!” I whispered loudly, pulling her long, knit sweater. “Look at her—in men’s pants! In front of God and everybody.” I felt very old using the same words as Mrs. Templeton and bringing God into the matter. After all, the Ivanov sisters were witches. God ought to know.
“You hush, Zadie Grace. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I do too know what I’m talking about, Mama. Don’t you see her?”.
“I see her,” Mama stated slowly, “but you sure don’t. You hush up right this minute.”
I knew that if God or Mrs. Templeton had heard me, they would have agreed with me. The whole way back to our vine- free house, I mumbled and grumbled about “who on earth would wear men’s pants in front of God and everyone.”
Autumn had come early that year, and the red apples in our back orchard were dropping by the bushels. Our family had always provided the apples for the Harvest Festival, and that was something the McKinney family name stood behind proudly. That year, I was to decorate the cider booth, but when we got to the church, Mama pushed the last bushel of apples into my arms.
“There,” She stated, dusting her hands on her skirt.
“Where’s this one going, Mama?”
“The Ivanov sisters.”
I looked up with a start. Mrs. Templeton had announced that the Lady’s Group “ought not encourage the sisters to stay” and that if “we all ignore them, maybe the witches will leave.” It was such a reasonable plan and here Mama was about to ruin it all.
“Mama—” I protested, but her flashing blue eyes cut me off.
“No. You, Miss Zadie Grace, are going to take those apples right over to the Ivanov sisters, and I don’t care what Constance Templeton is going to say, but you are going to do as I say. Now say ‘Yes ma’am’.”
“Yes, ma’am” squeaked out of my lips as I faced the foreboding Ivanov cottage. Some of the vines were gone now and the weeds in the front yard had been hacked shorter, but not evenly. Before I stepped into the grass, I stopped, staring hard for the snakes Tommy Morten swore were there.
The soft voice scared me and I jumped higher than I meant to. The tall witch stood half hidden behind the door and laughed gently.
“I did not mean to scare you.”
“I didn’t mean to be scared.” My voice sounded harsher, meaner than hers, but she didn’t seem to notice.
She just stood, eyes wide, quietly watching me.
Awkwardly, I lifted the bushel so she could see it. “I brought you these.”
Her smile lit up her eyes. “Apples.” She breathed, almost to herself. Swinging the door all the way open, she invited, “Come.”
She left the doorway and glided into the house. Unnerved, I stood on the edge of the grass and the sidewalk, unable to move my feet. A moment later, her face appeared at the window. She almost seemed to laugh at me, waving me toward her. A second face appeared in the window above: her sister. She did not smile. She did not laugh. She only stared for a few hard moments, then turned away.
Emboldened by this, I marched to the house, hauling my basket in tow.
No witch was going to scare me, I thought.
The walls inside the tiny, Ivanov cottage were bare but clean. Thin, fall light poured in from every window, where pale yellow curtains were tied up with white ribbons. Squat, lumpy arm chairs rested in the living room, facing a scrubbed out stone fireplace. The tall witch was barefoot on the bare floor but didn’t seem to notice the cold. She padded from the window and reached for the bushel. She ducked her head in thanks, making eye contact and smiling.
“You’re welcome,” I replied hesitantly, letting the bushel go.
Nodding her head to me, the tall witch started for the kitchen.
“I’m Zadie Grace McKinney,” I stated, following from a safe distance.
“Annushka.” She pointed to herself, smiling again.
The kitchen was warmer than the rest of the house, and I cautiously took off my gloves.
“My Mama is Adelaide McKinney. You might have seen her about town. She wears her hair real long and helps out at the library sometimes.”
The tall witch just nodded, nodded. With nimble hands, she sorted through half a dozen apples or so, shining them on her lumpy gray sweater before lining them along the counter. At her pointing, I sat at the kitchen table and watched quietly. With quick movements, Annushka carved the core out of each red apple, tossing the cores into a tin pale on the floor and the apples into a pot on the stove. A mountainous handful of dark sugar was piled on top, followed by pinches from various small jars lining the wall. Every few moments, Annushka would turn back to me and smile and nod. I would smile and nod in return, then look to the front door.
Surely Mama would come soon. Or Mrs. Templeton. Or God.
When I looked back to Annushka, she was ladling dark liquid from a different pot into two short, yellow mugs. Smiling, she padded to where I sat and gently set the mug in front of me.
She lifted her own mug, nodding toward me. I hesitated.
Well, I thought, if it is poisonous, it smells awfully good.
As if knowing my thoughts, she drank first, watching me over the rim of her mug.
“We are not witches.” My head snapped up toward the voice. Standing in the doorway was the smaller witch.
“Lana…” The taller one chided quietly, lowering her mug, but Lana paid no mind.
“We are not witches. We hear and feel too. We do not sound like you, but inside,” she patted her chest, “we are same.”
Annushka stood quickly and moved to the stove and Lana followed close behind. A tight string of words passed between the two, words I couldn’t understand. Frightened by the intensity of their speech, I stared at them. Lana began to point to me, and after a moment, Annushka nodded.
“Come,” Lana commanded, beckoning me to follow her. Unable to swallow, I left the mug at the table and followed. She marched to the bookcase against the far wall.
“Books,” She announced, pulling one off the shelf and flicking through it. Around the room, she pointed, “Books. Books. Books.” She thrust the copy at me, and surprised, I took it.
“Stories,” She explained, pointing to the pictures inside. Running her fingers across dark bound volumes, she stated, “Medicine. Science. Books. No magic.” She rushed to the chest underneath the stairs and heaved it open. Dragging out the gray folds inside, she announced, “Blankets. See? No magic.”
The cabinets in the bathroom had brown bottles from Tipper’s General Store and the back garden had new potatoes and nothing else.
“No magic,” Lana repeated, leading me back to the bare living room. Spreading out her arms, she confessed, “Just books and Annushka and me.” Her eyes shone in the cooling fall light, and helplessly, she wrapped her arms around her thin body.
Annushka leaned against the cold doorway. She was wiping her hands on a rag and looked at us with something like sadness on her face.
“Then why do they call you witches?” I asked, looking about their tiny, charmless cottage.
“We are different.” Annushka shrugged, her smile very small. “People… they don’t know what to do with different. So, we are witches.”
The church bell began to toll, announcing the beginning of the Harvest Festival. Lana and I turned to the window in empty silence as people began to crowd toward the church. Annushka reappeared at my side and placed a warm jar in my hands: spiced apples.
“For them.” Annushka pointed to the women congregating outside the church.
“Why?” I asked, ashamed as I looked between the lady’s group and the sisters. Looking down at the scuffed floor, I clutched the still warm apples to my chest and whispered, “We called you witches.” The word felt scandalous, ugly, now.
Annushka smiled softly out the window. “Not her.”
She pointed to the fringe of the lady’s group, where my mother stood. Mrs. Templeton gestured broadly to the cottage, her face screwed up in disgust, but my mother stood away from them. She stood away from Mrs. Templeton. She was quiet, still, and she was stronger and more beautiful than I’ve ever seen her in my life. My mother nodded once and smiled back at us.
“She,” Annushka stated confidently, “knows we are not witches.”
Lana stepped up to the window beside me and for the first time in my memory, smiled.
“She knows. And to her,” Lana laughed softly, “we are just the sisters Ivanov.”