The Witch of Drontenburg
©2020 by V M Karren, Fly-By-Night Press
Official Release: September 17, 2020 on Amazon.
‘The Witch of Drontenburg’ is a new short read set in the Netherlands. Read the excerpt below to get a feel for the book.
Chapter 1: An Outsider
For as long as he could remember, Jaap de Hollander had dreaded his annual visit to his grandmother’s house in the coastal village of Drontenburg. Each year at the end of April during the spring school holidays, his parents—unmoved by his tears and pleading to stay home with them—banished Jaap to the Dutch seaside for two weeks for the wholly adult reason of “learning to appreciate where the family comes from.” In the week preceding his yearly visits in Drontenburg, Jaap’s nights were filled with nightmares of raging windstorms, dark flood waters seeping into his bedroom, and the shrill cackle of The Witch of Drontenburg.
A wind battered, salt permeated fishing settlement, Drontenburg was not even the third largest town on the peninsula of Walcheren—one of the three long toes that make up the province of Zeeland that stretch, tepidly, from the Dutch mainland into the cold North Sea. Suspended between two endless horizons, the wide grasslands of the polder and the flat, gray sea, the town and its surrounding countryside lacked any topography of consequence. Any fun to be had in the town was man-made as the only hills high and steep enough to either roll or sled down, on the few days a year when it didn’t rain, were the sea dikes; but every child in Zeeland knew that these could not be fully trusted. On those dark foreboding days when the sky hangs low and black over the treetops, and the northerly winds push the high-tides even higher, the old-timers who remembered 1953 regularly warned the children to stay off the beach and away from the sea wall, and to sleep with their boots under their beds.
In Drontenburg Jaap was an outsider and was thought of by the local kids as an unwelcome “know-it-all” from the big city. Laughed at for his grating northern accent and singled out for his longer than average legs, he felt like a foreigner in his own country. Although his cousin Henry was only one year younger than him, this year Jaap quickly noticed that the difference between them, and Henry’s eleven-year old friends, was much more pronounced than just last year. At home, the boys in Jaap’s class had stopped believing in Sinter Klaas and the Easter Bunny, while in Drontenburg, in the spring of the new millennium the kids still believed in and were scared stiff of the local witch.
Made restless by nine months of rain and the heroic folk tales of Michiel de Ruyter—the locally born Dutch Admiral who had thwarted both the English and Spanish navies—the boys of the town ached for adventure away from the all too predictable low tides of Drontenburg and blamed Witch Wilhelmina for their constant setbacks and failures to sail away. Without more warning than the cranking sprocket of her bicycle, the old witch could appear anywhere, even in the foulest weather, to disrupt their most clandestine undertakings. Regardless of their tight-lipped secrecy, The Witch always appeared at the critical moments when the pod of eleven-year-old boys were on the verge of discovering new principles of maritime propulsion or perpetual motion. On seeing the boys preparing to launch a handmade craft, by air or by sea, or feeding lit firecrackers to pouting seagulls, she would swoop in on her bicycle to pronounce a curse on their most promising projects. Her incantations would manifest themselves quickly after her disappearance, usually in the injury of one of the boys, the unforeseen destruction of their latest invention, or hundreds of guilders worth of damage to public property. The children of Drontenburg, regardless of what they might be doing at any time, did their best to make themselves invisible, scattering and hiding, when they heard the unmistakable click and whir that preceded The Witch’s appearance.
Standing in the open skylight in his grandmother’s attic, Jaap looked out over the pitched red-tiled roofs of Drontenburg. From this familiar perch he had a bird’s eye view into the narrow, manicured gardens and bricked courtyards at the back of the skinny, white-washed houses that huddled together, shoulder to shoulder in the old town center. White linens and undershirts hung to dry in the bright spring sunshine from windows and balconies. On the Market Square, stalls for the children’s Flea Market, held on the Queen’s fast approaching birthday, were being set up with curious efficiency by clever workmen. One street over, the Dutch tricolor waved over the doorway of each home. Orange streamers and flags decorated the cafes and bars up and down the alleyways that flowed into the Market Square. Cars in the narrow, cobbled streets maneuvered cautiously around each other as they met head-on and yielded patiently to the cyclists. The cyclists yielded for nothing and no one.
To Jaap, Drontenburg looked to be the epitome of Dutch sobriety and orderliness, which contradicted the superstitious nature of its straight faced, reserved residents who not only believed in the existence of witches but allowed them to roam the town unchecked. A year older and wiser, Jaap was convinced, in his bones, that there was no such thing as The Witch of Drontenburg, despite the stories told by Henry and the other boys in the town, and was determined that before this spring vacation was over, he would prove it—whatever it took.
2. A Different Kind of Broom
Jaap and Henry each carried a bucket with garden tools inside while pulling a rusty wagon behind them over the round cobblestones of the old town. The wagon was filled with sacks of empty plastic bottles which represented at least three more guilders toward the price of old man Schipper’s racing dinghy, including the riggings and sails. With the sixteen days of a two week school vacation to work hard, coupled with their earnings from the children’s Flea Market on Queensday, the boys, together with Henry’s friends, Jan and Daan, hoped to earn just enough to buy the little sailboat. Between the odd jobs, bottle recycling and selling whatever donations of bric-a-brac they could glean from helping the old folks clear out garden sheds and attics, the boys were confident to be on the water by the last Saturday before school started—if the weather cooperated. April was simply unpredictable. It could snow or bring a heat wave depending on which side of the bed she woke up on.
Jaap sat cross-legged on the wet bricks of the narrow front patio, in front of house number thirteen on Scheldt Street, pulling soggy weeds and flipping them into a bucket, while Henry attempted to scrape moss from between them with a wire-scrub brush attached to the end of a long pole. The movements of Henry’s wiry body, pushing the tall pole looked more as if he was playing shuffleboard than performing any actual work.
“I just know she’s a witch,” Henry said bending over to pick up his shuffleboard stick for the sixth time in three minutes.
“Have you seen her fly on a broomstick past your window?” Jaap asked, twisting a dandelion by its roots.
“I’ve told you. She doesn’t fly on a broom. She rides a bicycle.”
“There’s nothing spooky about that,” Jaap argued.
“There is when she’s always riding during a massive windstorm and during high tide on top of the dike. It’s like she enjoys it! It’s like she knows she can’t fall in.” Henry planted his pole on the bricks, making an exclamation mark.
“Does she cook kids in a big pot and grind their bones for bread?” Jaap teased.
“No, but she casts spells on us all the time.”
“Like, the time Jan broke his arm. She said he would fall out of our paraglider, and ten seconds later he fell and broke it.”
“Did it fly?”
“No, because The Witch cursed it.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘That thing won’t fly. He’ll fall and break his arm.’”
“That’s just once.”
“What about when Daan fell through the ice?” Henry launched his moss scrubber again with a clumsy, stuttering arabesque.
“That happens all the time.” Jaap swatted the air in front of him.
“Not like this. We were skating all day on the Ring Canal and then she showed up all the sudden, on her bicycle even though the streets were icy, and told us to get off the ice or we would fall in. And then ten seconds later, Daan fell through.”
“What time of day was it?”
“Like I remember,” Henry quipped.
“Was it early or late?”
“Then maybe a warm front had moved through, or the tide was rising.”
“You think you know everything, but you don’t live here. Everybody knows she’s a witch.”
Jaap stood to empty his pail into the green rubbish container on the curb when both boys heard the click and whir of The Witch’s bicycle echoing through the street, approaching from around the blind curve in the street. Henry laid himself flat on the ground behind a cluster of potted plants, pressing his cheek into the moss he had yet to scrape away. “Jaap, hide!” he hissed.
Before Jaap could duck behind a parked car or the roll-container on the curb, The Witch spotted him. Their eyes locked as she coasted by. Jaap felt cold sweat on his forehead gather under his bangs, and his legs lost all feeling. The Witch grimaced at him as she zipped by without slowing, bouncing over the cobblestones. Paralyzed with fear, Jaap fell backwards against the iron fence unable to look away. As quickly as Witch Wilhelmina disappeared around the corner at the end of the street, Jaap let out a deep sigh of relief.
“Yeah, yeah,” Henry chirped slowly getting to his feet, drying his hands on his blue jeans. “Look who’s a big chicken now. Bwak, bwak.”
“She surprised me, that’s all.”
“Listen, everybody here knows when you hear her bicycle coming you have to hide, and fast!” Henry picked up his pole. “C’mon, let’s get out of here before she circles back for us. Once she sees you, it’s too risky to stay in one place. We have until tomorrow to finish this job anyway.”
The boys met up with Jan and Daan in front of the supermarket at noon. Henry told the others of their most recent sighting of The Witch. Jaap held his tongue and listened, rolling his eyes, yet thinking desperately of ways to rationalize his temporary paralysis during her passing presence.
Daan and Jan had also seen her earlier in town. “But she didn’t see us leaving Mrs. Schmitt’s house with all of the donations she gave us.” A second wagon pulled by Daan brimmed over with artifacts from the elderly lady’s home.
“If she sees us,” Henry warned, “she’ll curse us so we can’t sell any of this junk on Thursday.”
“C’mon, let’s get the bottles recycled and get home fast,” Daan said with fear and urgency in his eyes.
Daan and Henry dragged the sacks of plastic bottles into the grocery store hoping to claim the deposit money from the always terse but very pretty seventeen-year-old cashier with the blond curls. Jaap and Jan stood guard over the antiques piled high in Jan’s wagon.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jan asked.
“Nothing,” Jaap snapped back.
“The Witch was a little too close for comfort, eh?”
“Shut up. I don’t believe in witches.”
Jan stepped up into Jaap’s face. “You will if you stay here for the whole vacation. I know I do. She made me break my arm and she made Henry get sick and throw-up.”
“Bull-hunky.” Jaap sneered.
“You just wait. When she casts a spell on you, you’ll be dead before you can say ‘Scheveningen.’”
Daan and Henry emerged from the supermarket with big smiles on their faces and stars in their eyes.
“Was that really cute cashier working today?” Jan asked, trying to see into the store as the automatic doors closed behind the others.
“Yup. She sure was.” Henry’s smile turned to a sheepish grin with red ears.
“Did she say anything to you this time?” Jan asked.
“No, but she smiled at Daan when he bought his candy.”
While Henry counted the harvested coins reaped from the returned bottles, Daan handed out black, salty candies to the boys from a pointed, cellophane sack. Daan’s own cheek already bulged as if he was juicing a wad of tobacco.
“This better be from our own pocket money, Daan,” Jan warned.
“Ya, ya, ya! The money for the boat is safe in Henry’s pocket.”
Henry tugged on one of the wagons and signaled for Jaap to take the other. “C’mon guys, let’s go down to the marina and see if the price on our sailboat has dropped yet.”
“Are you kiddin’ me?” Jan mumbled. “Do you really think old man Schippers would lower his price? He’s so tight fisted. I heard he sent his own kid a bill the day after he joined the navy.”
“A bill for what?” Jaap asked.
“For food and clothes, for when he was in school.” Jan sneered.
“I don’t believe you. Parents don’t get to charge their kids for living,” Jaap said.
“Ha! You’ve never met old man Schippers, so just close your fat mouth, city boy.”
The boys loitered on the pier near old man Schippers’ driftwood-colored houseboat looking longingly at the single-masted dinghy with a ‘FOR SALE’ sign still hanging off the stern. Henry calculated how much they still needed to earn to pay the asking price.
“We are still thirty-five guilders short,” Henry reported, counting the money he kept in an old cigar box.
“We have two weeks of school vacation and the Flea Market still,” Daan reckoned, “If all of us can earn a guilder a day before Thursday then we only need to make fifteen more on Queensday.”
“That’s only four plastic bottles a day. That should be easy enough,” Jaap chirped.
“Do you know how long it took us to get those bottles? Three weeks!” Jan snapped. “People in Drontenburg don’t just throw money in the gutters.”
Daan pointed up the pier. “Here comes old man Schippers.”
The three boys swarmed around the scruffy old man’s legs like a school of hungry minnows, each of them speaking, bouncing, and nibbling on his ankles at once. Jaap kept his distance.
“Shut up! Shut up all of you and go away,” Schippers hollered, waving his hands. “Where do you think we are? Morocco? Turkey? This isn’t a bazaar and I’m not lowering my price. You come with cash in your hand or don’t come at all. Now get out of here and stop hanging around causing trouble or I’ll call the old Witch to come put a spell on you all.”
“There’s no such thing as witches,” Jaap blurted at old man Schippers. The other boys fell silent, gaping at Jaap.
“Oh yes there is.” Schippers’ eyebrows pressed heavy over his cold, ice-blue eyes. “Make no mistake about it, you little squirt. There is no witch more cunning and cruel than our own Witch of Drontenburg.”
“Prove it!” Jaap sneered.
“She can’t be killed. Can’t be broken. She can’t be blowed-up; can’t be drowned or poisoned or starved-out.” Schippers paused to draw a slow breath, “And she eats snot-nose kids like you for dinner!”
Jaap snorted. “How do you know?”
A four-fingered hand stroked Schippers’ bristly beard as he sized-up the boy who dared to challenge his wisdom gleaned from seventy-three uninterrupted years of idling in and around Drontenburg. The two stared menacingly at each other, both determined not to blink.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, boy, you see things.” Schippers’ long, crooked finger pointed menacingly at Jaap through the air between them.
“Like what?” Jaap gulped.
“With my own eyes, I’ve seen her walk through fire and not get burned. When the village was hungry after the war, she didn’t get scrawny and sick like the rest of us. I saw her neighbors get washed away in the flood of ‘53, but she showed up the next day dry as a bone. When the whole town was sick, she never had as much as a cough or a fever. She probably cursed the town, come to think of it. She’s the real thing and she’ll get you if you make her mad. Now scram!” Schippers blurted.
Three boys scattered like quail, sprinting to the end of the dock with their scrawny limbs flailing in the headwind of the offshore breeze. Jaap walked away cautiously, backwards, careful not to break eye contact with the old mariner until he was safely on terra firma.
“A word of warning to you, boy,” old man Schippers hollered after him. “Don’t ever turn your back on the old Witch either. It’s when you’re not lookin’, that’s when she’ll get you. And you won’t be the first to never be seen again, neither!”