My grandmother had a great huge map of Norway spread out on the dining room table. On it, she'd drawn a red circle around where we were and a red X at where The Grand High Witch's Castle was located. She squinted at it, trying to figure out the best way to get there. "Oh, drat this tiny print," she said. "Can you make out the name of this town?"
I scampered across the map to where she was pointing with her cigar. A smattering of ash dropped down onto the paper, and I hoped she didn't accidentally set the map on fire. "That's Hamar, Grandmamma."
"Hm. So if we take the E6 — that road is the E6, right?"
"Right. Grandmamma, are you sure you don't need glasses?"
"Nonsense, it's just this light. It's too dim, and this print is so dratted small. Besides, I've got you to be my trusty map reader."
She puffed away at her cigar, frowning at the E6, then looked over at the west side of the map. "Maybe it would be better if we take the ferry to Leikange. That is Leikange there, isn't it?"
“Now where did I put that ferry schedule?” she mused aloud, digging through a box full of train and ferry schedules that she'd pulled out from under her bed.
“Yes, my darling?”
“When you were younger, before you retired as a witchophile, did you have to do all this planning, too? With the maps and schedules and everything?”
“Being a witchophile is more exciting than just looking at ferry schedules, isn't it?” I asked. Looking at maps was fine, but I wanted to get going.
“Well, of course it is. After all, you do get to eventually ride the ferry. That's terribly exciting.”
“Grandmamma!” I exclaimed, sensing she was teasing me. “Surely you had all sorts of adventures when you were younger.”
“I don't know that I would call them adventures,” she said. “Being a witchophile is quite dangerous, you must understand.”
“Oh, I know,” I said.
“Ah, of course you do, my darling,” she said. After all, my second encounter with witches had finished with me as a mouse. “And,” she continued, “it isn't always as spectacularly successful as one might wish.”
“But you were always successful as a witchophile, right, Grandmamma?”
She paused, then said, “Not always.”She pulled a chair out from the table and sat down.
“When I was very young,” my grandmother said, “my own grandmother on my mother's side would tell me stories about the trolls and elves, the huldra and the witches. And she warned me about the witches, same as I've warned you. But I was careless, and didn't take any heed. Not until my friend Ranghild disappeared. We had been the best of friends, completely inseparable and forever found together at one or another's house. She was like a sister to me, and then one day she went off with a lady wearing long, white gloves and was never seen again.”
“But you've told you me about Ranghild before,” I protested.
“What I didn't tell you was that the very next day, I became determined to learn all I could about witches, so that I could put a stop to their foul evil. I became a witchophile, though I didn't know the term yet.
“Now, I was still a child, and to be a witchophile as a child can be a blessing and a curse. It helps to keep you safe, since you know better than anyone what to look for, and I always made sure to share with my friends and playmates what I knew. However, since I was a child, that meant that I was still fair game for any witch in town, and my curiosity about witches could prove deadly. I couldn't spy on a witch myself because she'd smell me out in a thrice. Most witchophiles for this reason are adults, although they are almost always adults who have had a narrow escape as children. I myself had a very narrow escape indeed.” She looked down at where her thumb used to be, and I followed her gaze.
“Well, never mind that,” she said. She then looked at the enormous grandfather clock that stood in the corner. “Will you look at the time! I think it's well past when both of us should be in bed, don't you agree?”
“But I'm not sleepy,” I protested.
“Well, I am starting to get a bit tired,” she said. “A woman my age needs her beauty sleep, after all,” she continued with a wink. “Come on, off with you now, brush your teeth and wash up for bed. I'll finish the story when you're done.”
After I was tucked into bed, my grandmother sat down on the bed with a creak from the springs and continued her story. “As I got older,” she said, “I found out about other witchophiles. There were a few who lived right near me. Mr. Jansen, who owned the bakery, was one. So was my neighbor across the street, Mrs. Halvorsen, although her husband disapproved.
“I would go over to her house sometimes, where she would show me correspondence she'd received from witchophiles all over the world. She had letters from Finland, England, Germany, Italy, Russia — she even kept in touch with a witchophile in India! They all traded information on the witches of their own countries, the tricks and traps that would be laid for children. Most importantly, they tracked the witches' Secret Societies and tried to find out as much as they could about The Grand High Witch.
“Of course, no two reports about The Grand High Witch would be alike. The witchophile in Finland might pass on that she was a petite woman with short, blonde hair and freckles. Then the Italian would say, 'No, I heard that she's dark-haired with olive skin,' And the Russian would say, 'You're both wrong. A witchophile in my country saw her, and she has long, light brown hair.'”
“Was she changing wigs then?” I asked.
“Most likely she was changing her entire disguise,” my grandmother said. “She could have changed faces as easily as you or I change clothes.”
Going back to her story, my grandmother continued, “When I was nineteen, Mrs. Halvorsen received a letter from a witchophile in Austria. He had managed to track down the name of the hotel where the Austrian Secret Society of Witches was to have their Annual Meeting.”
“How did he do it?” I asked.
“He lived next door to a woman he strongly suspsected was a witch. One day, the postman accidentally delivered her letters to his mailbox, and in amongst the catalogs and bills for the electric and phone was an invitation to the Annual Meeting.”
“Did he open it?”
“He did, of course. But he couldn't go to the meeting himself. His witch neighbor found out that he had opened the invitation and told him that if he showed up at the hotel, she would turn him into a housefly and feed him to her toad.”
“I thought witches only went after children,” I said.
“They will just as gladly squelch an adult as they will a child, if they think the adult will be able to reveal all their secrets.,” my grandmother told me. “Mrs. Halvorsen never heard from that Austrian man again.”
“What happened to him?”
“Who knows? Perhaps he was turned into a housefly after all. Returning to my story, the Austrian asked in his letter if anyone else, someone the Austrian witches wouldn't recognize, would go in his place.
“Now, I had never been on a real witch hunt abroad before, despite having been a witchophile for many years. However, I had recently inherited a tidy sum from my late great-uncle, which enabled me to travel on my own for the first time.”
“So you went to the Annual Meeting?”
“Yes, I volunteered. It was in Salzburg, in a very ritzy hotel whose name I never could pronounce correctly. The hotel was right on the river, just across from the Old Town. I arrived early and spent my time learning my way around the city and keeping a sharp eye on any ladies I saw wearing gloves or wrinkling their noses at the smell of children.
“Then the weekend of the Annual Meeting arrived and to my surprise, there were two groups having conferences at that very hotel that very weekend. There was a Mozart Appreciation Society and The Sound of Music Fanclub.”
“What did you do, Grandmamma?”
“I came up with a very clever plan. Since I couldn't be at both meetings at once, I purchased a tape recorder and hid it in a potted plant in the room where the Mozart Appreciation Society would be meeting. That way, I would be able to hear all their dastardly plans if they were indeed the witches. As for The Sound of Music Fanclub, they were meeting in a room with a raised stage, which had a curtain hanging around it all the way down to the floor so that I could lie underneath it without being seen. Before the meeting started, that is where I hid.”
“So who were the witches? Did you see their meeting?”
“Well, The Sound of Music Fanclub came in, a speaker made some jokes about lonely goatherds, and they had a mass sing-along of “Do-Re-Mi” before leaving to catch a tour of landmarks from the film.”
“So it was the Mozart Appreciation Society then.”
“Now see, this is where it got interesting. I retrieved the tape recorder, brought it back to my room, and all that was on it was a performance by a string quartet, followed by a flute solo, and then an excited discussion about some new sonata that had been found in someone's attic.
“You can imagine how I felt. Here I was, a witchophile on her first real witch hunt, and I'd not run into a single witch. I was feeling very sorry for myself and went across the bridge into the old town, thinking I'd go to a coffeehouse I had visited earlier and quite liked. It was then that I saw it. There was a giant banner saying in German, “Chocolate-Makers Fair: Free Samples!” Underneath it was a tent where women were handing out sweets to dozens upon dozens of children. There was something slightly off about all the women, and I strongly suspected that I had found the Annual Meeting, but too late.
“One woman, with curly blond hair and rosy cheeks walked up to me with a tray and asked me, 'Vould you like to trrry some of our chocolate?' She then looked up at me — she only came up to my shoulder — and grinned. I will never forget that grin as long as I live. It was like a tiger baring its fangs, all malice, straight to the bone.”
She paused, and I asked, “Do you think it was The Grand High Witch?”
“I'll never know for certain, but I do think it was.
“Later that evening, as I was returning to my hotel, I ran into one of the ladies from The Sound of Music Fanclub. 'Did you see it?' she asked.
“'See what?' I replied.
“'Oh, when we went to Mirabell Gardens today, it was absolutely infested with these slimy salamanders. They were all over the fountain, crawling across the paths — our tour guide slipped on one and fell right on his bottom!'
“As she said this, a couple walked up to us and asked, 'Excuse me, but have you seen a little boy, about so tall? Black hair, blue eyes, wearing a red sweater? His name's Harry, and we've been looking all over town for him.'
“I resisted the urge to tell them that their son was in all likelihood at Mirabell Gardens.
“So that was my first time out as a real witchophile. You, my darling, have already done ever so much better than I did, and together we will give those witches a blow like they've never seen!” She then kissed me goodnight, and I snuggled under the covers, eager to see what tomorrow would bring.