The old lady frightened me.
Every neighborhood seems to have an old man or woman who lives on the block, inhabiting the deep confines of their yards, possibly boiling brews but just as likely concocting evil to visit on curious neighborhood children. There are stories about these people, passed in whispers at recess and on school buses, sometimes about quiet murders behind closed doors, other times of old secrets and mysterious pasts, but every story has the same foundation: they are dangerous and wicked and will not let you pass their house unharmed. We of the children of the neighborhood watch always know which house to stay away from.
We lived right next door to ours.
She was an old bat, quiet but somehow angry, like the world had let her down in some deeply unforgiveable way. She never shouted “get off my lawn” while angrily waving her trowel in the air, but then she didn’t need to. A deep green hedge, made up entirely of pine and nearly as tall as my house, enshrouded her yard in the same foreboding mystery that windows with always closed curtains do. On our side of the property a red fence stood sentry, splintered and falling apart, barely able to contain the needles and branches trying to break its hold.
Together they hid one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen. Full of deep colors, a muffled sense of privacy, it felt like walking into a secret. And I was lucky enough to discover it because of the goose.
The only inviting thing about her was her white, slickly feathered pet. It came up to my waist, a loud honking thing with a beak full of very small, very sharp teeth. I was always quietly sure, letting the goose nibble at my fingertips, that I was about to lose a finger. It scared me as much as it thrilled me, because knowing someone who owned a goose was a novelty, good for boasting about at school and worth the trip into her backyard. It wandered her garden, breaking the stillness with its unconcerned honking.
Somehow that made the old woman next door more real, more prone to saying “yes” when we asked to come over. My older sister was in charge of all requests back then, so I didn’t have to worry about talking to her, or making eye contact. She didn’t seem so bad once we’d made it past the hedge, more someone’s grandma and less Hansel-and-Gretel-who’s-that-nibbling-at-my-house witch. Outside of her backyard she reverted to a dark presence, hidden behind her hedge. But surrounded by her bursting flower bushes, she was just an old gardener. Visits felt like tea parties with a duchess, she dignified on her white patio furniture, my sister and I dressed in our summer dresses. We’d pet the slick feathers on the back of the goose’s neck, storing up details for our friends.
The goose died. The visits stopped.
I saw her a few times after that. Once, when she ventured onto our side of the property line to prune the hedge. Another time when I was helping Dad scrape the snow off our roof. I could see into her yard and I caught a glimpse of a figure in her window. Her severe voice sometimes broke the evening, cracking out at the yippy, unfriendly dogs she’d bought in place of the goose.
Somewhere along the line I grew up. There were no secrets, no gruesome murders, no Hansel and Gretel witches; just a woman in her garden. Her presence lost its power and her two shih tzus, though evil, could be counted on for a laugh, leaping out of gaps at the bottom of the hedge at unsuspecting passersby. On late summer evenings, after I was supposed to be in bed, I’d peak out of my bedroom curtains as soon as I heard someone about to walk by her house, because the nasty little things were always good for a jump-scare. I was too old to be afraid of the boogeyman.
Nearly ten years ago I came back to my old hometown for a visit, dragged along by my parents and wondering when the streets had gotten so small. Eventually we made it out to our old house, and I stood on the driveway feeling my heart break because it wasn’t ours anymore. The woman living there had ruined it. My house had lost its magic, my room was filled with junk, and the stories we’d told as children felt less real, more childish.
I walked along the hedge as my parents talked. The red fence was gone, replaced with cold chain link, and I trailed my fingers along the metal to see how it would feel.
Two dogs leapt out at me from the hedge, yapping wildly, and I jumped back, startled.
“Hush,” I heard her snap through the fence.
And I still didn’t dare come over.