As children we always raced past Mrs. Brant’s house. It was white, and we were sure that if we licked it, it would be sugary and spearmint and that Mrs. Brant would come out—dressed in black—and screech, “Nibble, nibble, little mouse. Who’s that nibbling on my house?”
All the children knew that Mrs. Brant was a witch. That was why we ran past her house. The story was that if you stepped on her grass, you would sink down into a dungeon.
No one ever visited her. Nobody ever went to her house, except maybe the mailman, on rare occasions. Not even trick-or-treaters. I had never even seen her until that one day, which is what this story is about. But I had heard what she looked like from reliable sources: Her hair was long and grey, and she wrapped it in snakes that made it look like a bun. Her eyes were black like a raven’s, and she had a wart on her chin and a wrinkled face. And she always wore black.
Grandma came on a Sunday. My big sister and I were walking home from church with her, and I told her, when we came into range of Mrs. Brant’s spearmint house, that we were going to run and she’d better, too.
“Why?” she asked.
“Grandma,” I said, in a slightly exasperated voice, “I know you’re never going to believe this, but a very mean lady lives there, and you just never know what’s going to happen.”
“It’s just a game,” my sister said, reddening.
“You were the one who told me she was a witch!” I whispered.
“Shhh!” she hissed.
Grandma, smiling just a little, asked who lived there.
“Mean old Mrs. Brant,” I stated.
“Mrs. Brant? I wonder if that could be Muriel Arnold Brant,” Grandma said.
I knew immediately what was on Grandma’s mind and eagerly assured her, “It’s not, Grandma. I’m sure it’s not. Let’s go. We don’t have to run.”
“No, girls. I think we need to pay a visit to Mrs. Brant.” Grandma was adamant. It was no good arguing.
She rang the doorbell, and after she had pressed it three times, the door creaked and opened slowly. A little old woman’s face peeked out at us, and the door opened more.
“Yes?” Her voice was high and feeble.
“Muriel?” Grandma said.
“Brant. Yes? Who are you?”
“It’s Jean, dear. Jean White Carbil.”
“Jean?” The name was barely breathed. “Good gracious—are these yours?”
Mrs. Brant was just as I had imagined her, but there were no snakes in her bun, and she was smaller than I had thought. She was tiny, in fact, and her raven-black eyes looked frightened.
“Oh, the years do fly,” Mrs. Brant said, her voice quivering slightly.
“How long have you lived here?” Grandma asked.
“Since Harold died. That was in ’55, so it’s been years.”
“It’s a lovely home, Muri.”
“Oh, I enjoy it. Harry was well-to-do, so when he died …” her voice trailed off.
“May we come in, dear?”
“Oh, certainly!” Mrs. Brant said. “How thoughtless of me! Come in! What am I thinking of? Come in!” I grimaced at the thought and looked anxiously at my sister.
“Your piano!” Grandma said as we entered. “Do you still play?”
The inside of Mrs. Brant’s house smelled like very old talcum powder.
“Me?” She laughed. “I’m too old for that. Too old. Haven’t played in years.”
The carpet was a flat, faded floral print, and the front room shelves were decorated with little china figurines. On the wall was a wedding picture.
“Muriel, your wedding portrait! I missed your wedding,” Grandma said.
“Did you? Well, there it is. I’ve got the dress in my cedar chest upstairs,” she said.
“Do you, Muri? Wouldn’t that be a treat for these girls to see your wedding dress! Do you think we could?”
“Oh?” She seemed startled. “I haven’t looked in there for years! I don’t know if I even have the key anymore.” She smiled quite suddenly and said, “Well, let’s just see.”
We went up the wooden steps (that creaked, as I knew they would) and entered a dingy, lacy, gorgeous room. The bedspread was crocheted and the curtains were lace. Framed needlepoint decorated the wall, and under an ornate, jeweled mirror was the cedar chest.
Mrs. Brant got the key from a desk drawer and opened the chest.
There, neatly folded, was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen. It was pink and chiffon, with a crocheted collar and lacy sleeves. Red, silk rosebuds were sewn on the bottom ruffle.
“Is that your wedding dress?” my sister asked.
“Oh, no,” she laughed. “Do you remember what this is, Jean?”
Grandma nodded. “Sister Brant was the May Queen back at the academy. Isn’t this the dress you wore, dear?”
Mrs. Brant nodded. “And they put a wreath of red roses in my hair that just matched these here.” She stroked a silk rose tenderly. “Do you remember, Jean?”
“She was one of the prettiest May Queens they ever had.”
“Oh, you!” She almost giggled.
She put the pink dress on the bed and pulled out a garish, yellow silk dress that glittered with sporadically placed sequins and rhinestones.
“This was for the dance where I met Harry. I went with Peter Miller—do you remember him, Jean? Died quite young. But I danced my fourth dance with Harry. And—well, you know the rest. This,” she pulled out a white dress, “is what I married him in.”
“Isn’t that lovely!” Grandma said. “Did you make it, dear?”
“Yes, I did. With Mother’s help. See?” She held it up. It was mid-length, chiffon with pearl buttons down the front and a velvet sash and bow around the hips. She held it in front of her and looked at herself in the mirror above the chest. “Course, I’ve aged some,” she said, and patted her hair lightly.
“Aren’t these simply beautiful!” Grandma exclaimed.
“Oh yes,” we replied, and watched Mrs. Brant fold the dresses gently and lock them back in the box.
We went downstairs, and Grandma asked, “Muri, did you have any children?”
“One,” she said, too quickly, “a boy. Died.”
“I’m sorry,” Grandma said. Mrs. Brant shrugged slightly. “I wish I could offer you good people some food, but I need to do my grocery shopping before I can really do that.”
“It’s quite all right, Muri,” said Grandma. “We need to be going.”
Grandma looked at Mrs. Brant for a moment and then took her in her arms and held her close for a long time. Mrs. Brant began crying and looked very limp as she sobbed, “Oh Jean … Jean …”
I whispered to my sister, “She’s not a witch, is she?”
“It was just a game,” she answered.
I heard some little kid outside yell, “Hey, don’t step on Brant’s grass,” and the china dolls on the shelf began to look very misty.