Phantoms, Witches, Apostrophes
We didn’t shout, “Trick or treat!” Our cry was, “Halloween apples!”—a mournful, drawn-out wail specific to Winnipeg and other Manitoba towns. As jack-o’-lanterns grimaced from stoops and window sills, my sister Darchia and I trudged from door to door, princesses in paper masks and foil crowns, clutching old pillowcases to fill with treats; while our mother trailed behind in the shadows, ready to protect us from witches on broomsticks and ghosts in white sheets, or the neighbor’s belligerent dog. We always brought home more fruit than sweets, until someone found a razor blade in a Macintosh apple—then, candy became suspect too, and the following year we only rang doorbells of people our parents knew.
If I’d met a ghost on the street, I would have run away. But at home, evil spirits locked the doors and surprised you in the closet or under your bed; if you woke up from a bad dream crying for your mother, and she came to your bedside to comfort you, they’d loom up behind her in the doorframe and charge into the room and holler and shake the night.
Darchia went to live with an uncle, and I moved with my parents to Germany, where people celebrated All Hallows with prayers at the graves of loved ones, and wore costumes only for carnival in the spring. In Munich, I was invited to a dress-up party, and my mother helped me make cat’s ears from gray construction paper; she drew whiskers on my face with an eyebrow pencil, and gave me a sweater to wear over my tights. I felt self-conscious without a skirt or trousers, and the other children mistook me for a mouse; I didn’t have much fun.
Almost every night, a witch appeared at the side of my bed, wrapped her bony arms around me and dug her sharp nails into my back. I writhed and screamed, and cried even after my mother roused me. She stroked my head and whispered, “It’s only a dream.”
My parents told me Darchia was my cousin and not my real sister, but didn’t explain why she’d been left behind. When we returned to Canada, she was allowed to live with us again. My father rented a house with a big garden, surrounded by ancient elms whose dead foliage blanketed the ground every fall. Darchia and I helped him rake the leaves into a heap. Yelling, “Geronimo!” we’d jump in and roll around; dry bits would stick to our clothes and hair, and get into our mouths; we’d tidy the pile, and jump in again. All over the neighborhood, people lit bonfires in their backyards and the air smelled of smoke for days. Darchia and I stood in front of our own huge fire, as close as we dared to its orange flames and, breathing in soot and heat, roasted wieners and marshmallows on long, pointy sticks.
My father bought a larger house, with a smaller garden and fewer trees; he played tennis every weekend, and no longer ignited bonfires in the fall. On Halloween, Darchia and I stayed at home with my mother, watched scary movies on TV, and took turns doling out treats to the younger children who came to our door. We ate as many sweets as we gave out.
Soon, Darchia would leave for boarding school. I’d start chasing boys, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, going to parties at strangers’ houses, and lying about where I’d been.
As children, we were taught to write “Hallowe’en” with an apostrophe, and I’d won a spelling bee on the strength of knowing where it belonged—I’d pictured the “v” it replaced, and where it had once been. Like the letter it supplanted, the apostrophe disappeared; it joined my other ghosts: the sibling who went missing and returned as someone else; the boys in high school who had chased me, and the men that I outran; the nightmares my parents hoped would one day fade away; and the witches and the phantoms who had haunted me at night.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.
"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.