Her big black eyes reflected the light of the harvest moon as she stood barefoot, toenails curled back into their beds, soles permanently darkened by the constant dirt they were exposed to, playing ferociously while her hands danced conducting the creation of potions and incantations. I paused, my eyes pulled into her universe for just a moment, before pressing on the gas pedal of my car, reversing enough that I could turn around and pull into my driveway from the other direction, safely out of her line of sight.
She stood like that for many nights in a row, coming out under the night’s cape and standing in the middle of the asphalt road on Indiana Street. Physically she was present but it was obvious that she had become a visitor to another realm, knocking on doors that weren’t visible to anyone but her, hearing voices and talking to the cats that circled her feet.
Her name was Julia and she frequently commented on how much she liked that our names were so similar. She smiled strangely at me when I would walk by her house with my sisters, sometimes crossing the street, her long skirt flowing past her ankles, to pluck strands of hair from my head.
Julia’s introduction into our neighborhood was met with much speculation as she moved in with the neighborhood’s killer, a man who’s name I cannot remember, but whose face I can, wrinkled with small spectacles that precariously balanced on his nose, his ears asymmetrical so that his frames always looked crooked on his face. This man’s wife had died a few month’s earlier, something which he was openly giddy about when anyone asked how he was handling being a widow. The police ruled her death a suicide, but everyone that had even an inkling of intuition knew that he had poisoned her.
One time, as my mom picked me up from elementary school, we bumped into the couple. His wife was holding a plastic bag over her just-done hair as they walked back from the salon at Fair Plaza. I remember looking at his wife, the brown Smith’s bag crumpled over her curls, when he suddenly took the bag and pulled it over her head, sealing it at the bottom, his hands tightening around the opening at her neck. He looked directly at me so that I could see the devil behind his eyes. Startled, I grabbed my mom’s hand and he laughed, removing the bag and quickly escorting his wife down the block; my mom and I headed in the opposite direction.
It wasn’t long after his wife died that Julia began hanging around his home, eventually moving in and bringing dozens of cats and pigeons with her, not as pets, but more as decorations that constantly circled her home, something like a pagan carousel.
Julia quickly became the talk of the neighborhood. Mrs. Mitchell, the elderly gossip who to this day still feigns gardening in her front yard just to constantly be on the lookout, warned everyone that something wasn’t right about her and suggested that we all watch her closely. For my family, who lived just a few houses down from the couple, this direction wasn’t hard to follow as she was frequently climbing and sitting in the Redbud tree in our front yard, staring into the sky and peering into our windows.
Like my sisters I should have been frightened, but I found myself strangely drawn to her, unable to escape her magnetic eyes.
Reports circled around the neighborhood about the strange things she was up to. She dug through our trash cans early in the morning, pulling out bones from fried chicken and hair thrown out with the bathroom trash. One neighbor said she went to shake her hand only to discover that she didn’t have any nails; when she gasped at the sight of it, Julia hissed and disappeared. Another swore that she could talk to cats, as one night, upon hearing odd sounds, she found her backyard filled with cats, Julia in the center of a circle yowling louder than all of them.
Although my family kept our pet cat, Echo, many homes in our neighborhood quickly gave theirs up for adoption, fearful that they were feline spies with loyalty to Julia, now deemed the neighborhood witch.
Weeks and weeks passed and the man, the wife killer, she lived with was seen less and less until, suddenly, he wasn’t seen at all.
The nosiest and bravest of us asked about him, only to all hear the same story; he had gone away, left her the house and that she was grateful for it. Of course, speculation about what really happened occurred on every corner. But while the women talked, I noticed. I noticed the ax being hosed off regularly. I noticed the small pile of black rocks growing into a large pile of black rocks. I noticed the cats, guarding their friend’s secret, buried on the side of her house and chopped into small pieces.
Julia stayed another year and the talk of her husband’s disappearance began to fade into the noise. She still climbed the tree in our yard and hunted through the trash. She still would pull hair from my head and pick me flowers to leave at our doorstep. She continued to commune with the moon and her cats, singing loudly in the street or on the sidewalk as the sun came up.
One day she disappeared, her house boarded up. Only a few cats remained.
Several months later an older couple moved in, removing the statues and weeds. But the large pile of rocks remained, protecting the food for the cats that Julia left behind.
I often wonder what happened to her.
The story goes that she left her home, moving into a small cabin in the Manzano Mountains east of Albuquerque. There, I imagine, she spends her days climbing up the evergreen trees, scraping her knees against the rough bark and licking the blood, like one of her cats, before it has time to dry. The moon and the stars, seen more clearly without the glow of the city lights, offer her celestial guidance, telling her when it is safe to fly and when it is best for her to stay low, her feet tucked wildly into the brown earth below.
There are some days when I hear a voice whisper to me, singing the same songs she would sing at my window at night. That voice, while feral and fierce, is protective, directing my feet, which are often barefoot now, away from danger.
All those pieces of hair she collected from me are now on the head of a doll that sits high on her wooden shelf. Its skirt is adorned with fresh flowers that she picks each morning as the sun comes up, flooding her kitchen with light. So long as I pay attention to the moon, so long as I dirty my feet and chant to the goddess, she will keep me safe.