My Mother Was a Witch
by William Tenn
I spent most of my boyhood utterly convinced that my mother was a witch. No psychological trauma was involved; instead, this belief made me feel like a thoroughly loved and protected child.
My memory begins in the ragged worst of Brooklyn’s Brownsville—also known as East New York—where I was surrounded by witches. Every adult woman I knew was one. Shawled conventions of them buzzed and glowered constantly at our games from nearby “stoops.” Whenever my playmates swirled too boisterously close, the air turned black with angry magic: immense and complicated curses were thrown.
“May you never live to grow up,” was one of the simpler, cheerier incantations. “But if you do grow up, may it be like a radish, with your head in the ground and your feet in the air.” Another went: “May you itch from head to foot with scabs that drive you crazy—but only after your fingernails have broken off so you can’t scratch.”
These remarks were not directed at me; my mother’s counter-magic was too widely feared, and I myself had been schooled in every block and parry applicable to little boys. At bedtime, my mother spat thrice, forcing the Powers with whom she was in constant familiar correspondence to reverse curses aimed at me that day back on their authors’ heads threefold, as many times as she had spit.
A witch in the family was indeed a rod and a staff of comfort.
My mother was a Yiddish witch, conducting her operations in that compote of German, Hebrew, and Slavic. This was a serious handicap: she had been born a Jewish cockney and spoke little Yiddish until she met my father, an ex-rabbinical student and fervent Socialist from Lithuania. Having bagged him in London’s East End on his way to America, she set herself with immediate, wifely devotion to unlearn her useless English in place of what seemed to be the prevailing tongue of the New World.
While my father trained her to speak Yiddish fluently, he cannot have been of much help to her and their first-born in that superstitious Brooklyn slum. He held science and sweet reason to be the hope of the world; her casual, workaday necromancy horrified him. Nary a spell would he teach her: idioms, literary phrases, and fine Yiddish poetry, by all means, but no spells, absolutely no spells.
She needed them. A small boy, she noted, was a prime target for malice and envy, and her new neighbors had at their disposal whole libraries of protective cantrips. Cantrips, at first, had she none. Her rank on the block was determined by the potency of her invocations and her ability—when invoked upon—to knock aside or deftly neutralize. But she sorely lacked a cursing tradition passed for generations from mother to daughter; she alone had brought no such village lore to the United States wrapped in the thick bedspreads and sewn into goosedown-stuffed pillows. My mother’s only weapons were imagination and ingenuity.
Fortunately her imagination and ingenuity never failed her—once she had gotten the hang of the thing. She was a quick study too, learning instruments of the occult as fast as she saw them used.
“Mach a feig!” she would whisper in the grocer’s as a beaming housewife commented on my health and good looks. Up came my fist, thumb protruding between forefinger and middle finger in the ancient male gesture against the female evil eye. Feigs were my reserve equipment when alone: I could make them at any cursers and continue playing in the serene confidence that all unpleasant wishes had been safely pasteurized. If an errand took me past threatening witch faces in tenement doorways, I shot feigs left and right, all the way down the street.
Still, my mother’s best would hardly have been worth its weight in used pentagrams if she had not stood up worthily to Old Mrs. Mokkeh. Mokkeh was the lady’s nickname (it is Yiddish for plague or pestilence) and suggested the blood-chilling imprecations she could toss off with spectacular fluency.
This woman made such an impression on me that I have never been able to read any of the fiercer fairy tales without thinking of her. A tiny, square female with four daughters, each as ugly and short as she, Mrs. Mokkeh walked as if every firmly planted step left desolated territory forever and contemptuously behind. The hairy wart on the right side of her nose was so large that behind her back—only behind her back; who knew what she’d wish on you if she heard you?—people giggled and said, “Her nose has a nose.”
But that was humor’s limit; everything else was sheer fright. She would squint at you, squeezing first one eye shut, then the other, her nose wart vibrating as she rooted about in her soul for an appropriately crippling curse. If you were sensible, you scuttled away before the plague that might darken your future could be fully fashioned and slung. Not only children ran, but brave and learned witches.
Old Mrs. Mokkeh was a kind of witch-in-chief. She knew curses and spells that went back to antiquity, to the crumbled ghettos of Babylon and Thebes, and she reconstructed them in the most novel and terrible forms.
When we moved into the apartment directly above her, my mother tried hard to avoid a clash. Balls must not be bounced in the kitchen; indoor running and jumping were strictly prohibited. My mother was still learning her trade at this time and had to be cautious. She would frequently scowl at the floor and bite her lips worriedly. “The mokkehs that woman can think up!” she would say.
There came a day when the two of us prepared to visit cousins in the farthest arctic regions of the Bronx. Washed and scrubbed until my skin smarted all over, I was dressed in the good blue serge suit bought for the High Holy Days recently celebrated. My feet were shod in glossy black leather, my neck encircled by a white collar that had been ultimately alloyed with starch. Under this collar ran a tie of brightest red, the intense shade our neighborhood favored for burning the sensitive retina of the Evil Eye.
As we emerged from the building entrance upon the stone stoop, Mrs. Mokkeh and her eldest, ugliest daughter, Pearl, began climbing it from the bottom. We passed them and stopped in a knot of women chatting on the sidewalk. While my mother sought advice from her friends on express stops and train changes, I sniffed like a fretful puppy at the bulging market bags of heavy oilcloth hanging from their wrists. There was onion reek, and garlic, and the fresh miscellany of “soup greens.”
The casual, barely noticing glances I drew did not surprise me; a prolonged stare at someone’s well-turned-out child invited rapid and murderous retaliation. Staring was like complimenting—it only attracted the attention of the Angel of Death to a choice specimen.
I grew bored; I yawned and wriggled in my mother’s grasp. Twisting around, I beheld the witch-in-chief examining me squintily from the top of the stoop. She smiled a rare and awesomely gentle smile.
“That little boy, Pearlie,” she muttered to her daughter. “A darling, a sweet one, a golden one. How nice he looks!”
My mother heard her and stiffened, but she failed to whirl, as everyone expected, and deliver a brutal riposte. She had no desire to tangle with Mrs. Mokkeh. Our whole group listened anxiously for the Yiddish phrase customarily added to such a compliment if good will had been at all behind it—a leben uff em, a long life upon him.
Once it was apparent that no such qualifying phrase was forthcoming, I showed I had been well-educated. I pointed my free right hand in a spell-nullifying feig at my admirer.
Old Mrs. Mokkeh studied the feig with her narrow little eyes. “May that hand drop off,” she intoned in the same warm, low voice. “May the fingers rot one by one and wither to the wrist. May the hand drop off, but the rot remain. May you wither to the elbow and then to the shoulder. May the whole arm rot with which you made a feig at me, and may it fall off and lie festering at your feet, so you will remember for the rest of your life not to make a feig at me.”
Every woman within range of her lilting Yiddish malediction gasped and gave a mighty head-shake. Then stepping back, they cleared a space in the center of which my mother stood alone.
She turned slowly to face Old Mrs. Mokkeh. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” she pleaded. “He’s only a little boy—not even five years old. Take it back.”
Mrs. Mokkeh spat calmly on the stoop. “May it happen ten times over. Ten and twenty and a hundred times over. May he wither, may he rot. His arms, his legs, his lungs, his belly. May he vomit green gall and no doctor should be able to save him.”
This was battle irrevocably joined. My mother dropped her eyes, estimating the resources of her arsenal. She must have found them painfully slender against such an opponent.
When she raised her eyes again, the women waiting for action leaned forward. My mother was known to be clever and had many well-wishers, but her youth made her a welterweight or at most a lightweight. Mrs. Mokkeh was an experienced heavy, a pro who had trained in the old country under famous champions. If these women had been in the habit of making book, the consensus would have been: even money she lasts one or two rounds; five to three she doesn’t go the distance.
“Your daughter, Pearlie—” my mother began at last.
“Oh, momma, no!” shrieked the girl, suddenly dragged from non-combatant status into the very eye of the fight.
“Shush! Be calm,” her mother commanded. After all, only green campaigners expected a frontal attack. My mother had been hit on her vulnerable flank—me—and was replying in kind. Pearl whimpered and stamped her feet, but her elders ignored this: matters of high professional moment were claiming their attention.
“Your daughter, Pearlie,” the chant developed. “Now she is fourteen—may she live to a hundred and fourteen! May she marry in five years a wonderful man, a brilliant man, a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, who will wait on her hand and foot and give her everything her heart desires.”
There was a stir of tremendous interest as the kind of curse my mother was kneading became recognizable. It is one of the most difficult forms in the entire Yiddish thaumaturgical repertoire, building the subject up and up and up and ending with an annihilating crash. A well-known buildup curse goes, “May you have a bank account in every bank, and a fortune in each bank account, and may you spend every penny of it going from doctor to doctor, and no doctor should know what’s the matter with you.” Or: “May you own a hundred mansions, and in each mansion a hundred richly furnished bedrooms, and may you spend your life tossing from bed to bed, unable to get a single night’s sleep on one of them.”
To reach a peak and then explode it into an avalanche—that is the buildup curse. It requires perfect detail and even more perfect timing.
“May you give your daughter Pearlie a wedding to this wonderful husband of hers, such a wedding that the whole world will talk about it for years.” Pearlie’s head began a slow submergence into the collar of her dress. Her mother grunted like a boxer who has been jabbed lightly and is now dancing away.
“This wedding, may it be in all the papers, may they write about it even in books, and may you enjoy yourself at it like never before in your whole life. And one year later, may Pearlie, Pearlie and her wonderful, her rich, her considerate husband—may they present you with your first grandchild. And, masel tov, may it be a boy.”
Old Mrs. Mokkeh shook unbelievingly and came down a step, her nose wart twitching and sensitive as an insect’s antenna.
“And this baby boy,” my mother sang, pausing to kiss her fingers before extending them to Mrs. Mokkeh, “what a glorious child may he be! Glorious? No. Magnificent! Such a wonderful baby boy no one will ever have seen before. The greatest rabbis coming from all over the world only to look upon him at the bris, so they’ll be able to say in later years they were among those present at his circumcision ceremony eight days after birth. So beautiful and clever he’ll be that people will expect him to say the prayers at his own bris. And this magnificent first grandson of yours, just one day afterward, when you are gathering happiness on every side, may he suddenly, in the middle of the night—”
“Hold!” Mrs. Mokkeh screamed, raising both her hands. “Stop!”
My mother took a deep breath. “And why should I stop?”
“Because I take it back! What I wished on the boy, let it be on my own head, everything I wished on him. Does that satisfy you?”
“That satisfies me,” my mother said. Then she pulled my left arm up and began dragging me down the street. She walked proudly, no longer a junior among seniors, but a full and accredited sorceress.
When, in the late nineteen sixties, Ballantine Books decided to do a five-volume simultaneous publication of my work (four short-story collections and one new novel) my then agent, Henry Morrison, told me that the head of the firm was troubled by something and wanted to hear from me.
I telephoned Ian Ballantine, who pointed out that we might be facing some length problems in the collections. “Could you give me another group of your short stories,” he asked, “stories of different lengths so that, if needed, I could pop this one or that one into a given collection to make certain that they were all of pretty uniform length?”
I told him I could, and forwarded such a group to him in a few days. The stories in that group—all, in my eyes, second-rate pieces—were chosen on the basis of only one characteristic: widely varying lengths. Well, to my horror, Ian called me shortly after he received them and told me he liked the whole bunch very much and wanted to publish them as a fifth collection.
“But, Ian,” I wailed, “those are some of my worst stories!”
“Fine!” he replied. “Then how about calling the collection The Worst of William Tenn?”
I regret to this very day not having had the guts to go along with his suggestion. I came up with another title, and Ian liked it. But to take what I regarded as the curse off the book, I insisted on inserting a couple of other stories of which I was rather fond.
One of them was “My Mother Was a Witch.”
Before I am condemned for wandering outside the genre with criminal malice and utterly vicious premeditation, let me say this:
I admit freely that this story is definitely not science fiction; it is certainly not fantasy; and it is hardly even good red herring. But. It does demonstrate to the reader how much the simple fantastic was a part of my rearing and childhood.
How could I not have turned out as I have?
Written 1964 / Published 1966