by Ephiny Gale
“You're here because you think we're witches,” she says through the crack in the door. “We're not, but you had better come in.”
The door swings open. Inside, it's all natural light and pale wood and antique carpets. A ground covering with trumpet-shaped flowers spills over a hallway pot. The whole place looks spacious and well-maintained—not at all what I was expecting from an old house in the middle-of-nowhere woods.
I lift my camera, but the woman—she's said her name is Leona—places her hand on top of it. “No pictures, please, at least till the end. I'll make us some tea.”
She puts the kettle on and arranges some floral teacups which would not have looked out of place at my grandmother's. “You think we're witches,” she says again, “because we're a group of women in a spooky-looking Queen Anne away from the rest of the world. Correct?”
And the Queen Anne is completely black, I think. And because of the rumours of you howling at the moon and swimming naked and cavorting with foxes. “Correct,” I say.
She drops a teaspoon of sugar in my cup, and none in hers, though she does suck the last few grains from the spoon before placing it in the sink. Her curly, mostly-grey hair is tied back with a pink ribbon. I think she is early forties, but I'm unused to seeing women under sixty with their hair undyed.
Once our cups are steaming in front of us, she says, “We're just ordinary women, you know. All of us. There are some genuine satyrs about twenty minutes down the highway. Or some dryads near the northern edge of Hyacinth Lake. Those are actual stories.”
I mark some scribbles on my notepad. “I knew about the satyrs—not the dryads.”
“They've been more active lately due to global warming. They're very friendly. Don't think they'd mind the publicity.” The clear subtext here is: unlike us.
I wait for her to continue, and she sighs, clutching her teacup with both hands even though it's a warm day. “We're separatists. Not lesbian separatists, although I do have a wife.” She adjusts her hands slightly and the rose gold ring glints on her finger. “Plenty of the women here like men. We just choose not to associate with them anymore, where possible. And the rest of society in general. Basically, we want to be left alone.”
I should be taking notes, but I haven't been, and I notice my writing hand shaking slightly. “But...why?”
She smiles like I'm very young, but it's not unkind. “If you don't already know, I doubt I'll be able to explain it in the ten minutes it takes to finish your drink. The more important thing is, we try and keep our existence here as quiet as possible, so we receive a minimum of nasty letters and undesired company.”
“Like me?” I say.
“You're not so bad. We worry more about the people who yell, who want to set fire to the house or slash our tyres.”
My hands feel steadier again. “Have those things happened?” I ask, my pen poised.
But she doesn't answer me. Instead, she says: “Would you like a tour? No taking notes, no photos, but I'll take you around, introduce you. You can take your cup.”
In the sitting room, two girls who can't be older than twenty are indeed cavorting with foxes. Freya, Asian, with a leather strip woven through her braid, rubs the belly of a red fox. Camilla, with blonde pigtails and black nail polish, is stroking the white fox slung over her shoulder. “We rescued them when they were pups,” Freya says in response to my surprise. “Now they're our friends, and sleep in our beds and we sing them lullabies.”
Behind the house, three women in boots, dirt-streaked T-shirts, and expensive sunglasses tend to a fruit and vegetable garden larger than my apartment. One of them waves at us with a floral glove, but no introductions are made. Leona points out the solar panels on the roof, the skinny windmill, the water tanks: “We're seventy-five percent off grid right now. Could be more if we needed to.” She ushers me across the yard to where the back of the house has been interrupted by construction.
Inside the construction area, a beautiful woman a few years older than Leona is moving wooden planks. Leona introduces her as, “My wife, Alexis,” and Alexis adjusts her ponytail and tool belt, and shakes my hand.
“Every so often we run out of space here,” says Alexis, “so I build another bedroom.”
In the bedrooms upstairs I meet a black woman in a rainbow cardigan painting a mural, and a redhead hand-hemming an emerald-green sundress on the bed nearby. They point out a tree frog which has jumped onto their windowsill, and let me hold it for a minute. I watch its neck sac inflate and deflate above my palms.
Leona leads me back to the downstairs hallway, taking my empty teacup.
“Are you sure you're not witches?” I ask, a hint of laughter in my voice. “The foxes, the plants, the frogs…”
“Many groups of nonconforming women are quickly labelled as witches. But we don't have to be magical to be extraordinary.” She winks, like I'm now part of a private joke.
“So why did you show me all of that? If you don't want me to report on it?”
“Well,” she says, serious now, “If you liked us, perhaps you'd care enough to have people leave us alone.” She twists open the front door.
“But…If you don't advertise…If almost no one knows you're here…How do you get new women? Who is the back room for?”
“They tend to find their way,” Leona says. “Don't worry.” Her eyes sparkle with mirth. “Why? Are you hoping that the new room is yours?”
Ephiny Gale’s fiction has appeared in GigaNotoSaurus, Aurealis, and Daily Science Fiction. She is the author of several produced stage plays and musicals, including the sold-out How to Direct From Inside at La Mama and Shining Armour at The 1812 Theatre. Ephiny has a Masters in Arts Management, a red belt in taekwondo, an amazing wife, and six imaginary whippets.