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Witches of Woodlawn

Submitted to Reedsy Contest #190: Set your story in New York, where someone’s been waiting for your character.

[Pronunciation help: Dáithí - DAH-hee; Siobhán - Shi-VAWN]

Nora entered the spacious pub on a corner of Katonah Avenue at midday on Monday, an hour before the bar opened. A guy about her age, mid-twenties, with a button down shirt and neatly combed hair was waiting for her at a booth next to the bar. Seeing Nora, he climbed out of the seat and shook her hand.


“That’s me. It’s nice to meet you. Joe, right?”

“Yep.” Joe gestured to the booth and Nora sat in it. She was holding a folder with her resume and some references from other bars she worked at.

Joe examined the resume and references. “So, you have a lot of pub experience it looks like. I see you worked at the Crown & Jockey, Harry Smith’s, Begun’s.”

“I did,” Nora replied brightly. “I’ve worked at bars and pubs ever since my first year of college.”

Nora had heard that it was notoriously difficult to get hired at this pub, which was the liveliest in a neighborhood full of lively pubs in a tiny quarter of the Bronx, nestled next to the cemetery that gives the neighborhood its name, Woodlawn. And she wanted the extra money, which was, as rumor had it, excellent.

“Pretty typical setup here,” Joe began. “So all that should be easy. What we really need is the right personality. We have a lot of loyal patrons, a lot of events, a lot of private parties. We need someone fun. Someone who can remember the regulars’ names. Sound like you can do that?”

Nora tucked her hair behind her ear. “Definitely. I always get to know the regulars and the local VIPs.”

“That’s perfect,” Joe replied. “We can also get pretty busy. In your experience, what does a typical night look like for you?”

Nora pointed to a few of the bars on her resume. “These are the ones where I worked four hours of Friday and Saturday night alone at the bar. I can handle a big crowd. When I was waitressing, I was often doing three four-tops, a six and a large party.”

Joe’s eyebrows raised. “That’s a lot. How did you pull that off?”

“Magic.” Nora smiled.

Joe laughed. “Okay. Let me go talk to the owner, see if she has time to meet with you.”


Nora stole a look at her phone and tucked it back in her purse. She looked around the bar; polished mahogany and green-backed booths. There was a stone hearth in a back corner and, over her shoulder, the entrance to a larger dining room.

“Nora?” Joe peeped his head out of the dining room. “The owner will see you.”

Nora followed him through the dining room, back into a party room, back further into a tucked-away cocktail bar, down a short staircase, and into a small stone cellar.

“This pub is huge. Is this a wine cellar?”

Joe looked around. “Yeah, might have started that way. We use it for storage now.”

He led her out of the stone room and into a well-appointed office. An arresting woman sat behind a desk. Her hair was an enormous halo of red curls, streaked with white. She was wearing a hunter green dress and her large, round eyes were two different colors; one blue, one honey brown.

She stood and offered a thin, white hand. “Siobhán Brennan. They tell me I run this place.” She had an Irish accent.

Nora shook her hand. “Nora Meredith, thanks for seeing me.”

Siobhán looked at the door. “I’ll send her up in a minute, Joe.”

He slipped out.

“Joe’s one of the managers,” Siobhán said. “Also my son.”

Nora smiled. “A family enterprise. That’s great.”

Siobhán settled back into her chair and looked at Nora over the tips of her fingers. Nora thought she saw tiny strings of dancing light moving among the strands of Siobhán’s hair.

“Another thing we need here at the pub, Nora, is discretion. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course.” In Nora’s experience, most bars were doing a thing or two that wasn’t entirely above board.

Siobhán retrieved a crystal goblet from the sideboard behind her and filled it with wine from a decanter. She swirled the wine around the glass three times and ran her hand over the top of the glass. The liquid inside churned into a thick, glowing green, and then, before Nora could even register what had happened, returned to red wine.

Siobhán lifted the wine to her mouth, smiled and said, “It’s good to have you on board Nora.”

Nora spent a few, sleepless nights trying to rationalize what she saw in Siobhán’s office, which was miles away from what she thought Siobhán meant when asking for ‘discretion.' But, eventually, the pace of work at the pub pushed it out of her head. In addition to her day job, she worked Friday and Saturday nights at the pub, adding party shifts on Sundays and, not infrequently, weeknight shifts. She was too exhausted to think about much of anything. And besides, she loved the pub. The money was incredible. The staff worked together seamlessly. Pints and bottles slid down the bar top. A second cocktail appeared almost instantly with the flip of the mixologist’s arm. She laughed and gossiped with the patrons, and laughed and gossiped with her coworkers. The entire place seemed bathed in twinkling lights, like every night was a blend of the best parts of Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day.

In fact, it was two days before St. Patrick’s Day that Nora called out of her day job to help set the pub up for the weekend’s festivities, when a man came in, his face obscured by a thick, wiry beard and a flat cap. Frigid air followed him into the bar.

“Siobhán. Now.”

“Excuse me, sir?” Nora asked, setting down the string of plastic shamrock lights she was unboxing behind the bar. She had trouble understanding his heavy Irish accent.

“I. need. Sio-bhán. Right now.”

“She’s not here right now, can I take a message?”

The man slammed one fist so hard on the bar the glasses in the overhead rack rattled, and with his other pulled Nora toward him. Nora yelped, but before she could say anything, Siobhán emerged from the kitchens.

“Hands off, Dáithí.”

Dáithí stomped toward Siobhán menacingly, but she held up a hand. “Now, Dáithí. You’ll be wanting to stop right there.”

Dáithí halted instantly, but continued to grimace.

“You tricked me, Siobhán. Make it right.”

“Nora here doesn’t need to know all the world’s business, Dáithí. Come to my office.”

Nora, whose heart was pounding furiously, watched as the pair disappeared behind the dining room. She knew it wasn’t wise, surely there must be cameras all over, still she followed behind them through the dining room, then the party room, then the cocktail garden, and down the short staircase into the room of stone arches.

Loudly from Siobhán’s closed office, Nora heard, “Damn you, Siobhán. This was a trick, it was. And a rotten one.”

Siobhán’s icy voice responded, “Greedy, greedy, Dáithí. You thought you could cheat the system; thought you could cheat me. Don’t you think I noticed the deliveries were padded? And I was going to let it go, I was; find a new butcher and move on. But then you came in asking for my special help so you can go cheating even more. You got what you got. Don’t be crying about it.”

“You’re a demonic woman, Siobhán, and I’ll tell everyone what you are!”

Nora heard feet thundering down the steps and she retreated beneath a shadowy arch. It was Joe. He stormed into the office.

“Everything ok in here, Mom?”

“Show your man Dáithí the door, Joe. He’s finished.”

Dáithí sized Joe up. “I know my way out.”

Nora pressed her back to the wall, tripping on something sticking out of the floor. She caught herself before she made a noise.

“He going to be a problem?” Joe asked.

“Not for long. Check on Nora, though. He scared her pretty good.”

“I didn’t see her up there.”

Siobhán nodded. “She probably went to go clear her head. Have a talk with her when she’s back, yeah?”

Joe and Siobhán ascended the stairs out of the basement. Nora, panting from adrenaline, slinked to the ground. She felt around her feet, trying to determine what she tripped on. It was a wooden trap door, slightly open. She crouched down to examine it, and through the opening could see an illuminated space beneath. Nora paused a moment to listen for anyone who might be coming back downstairs. Satisfied that she’d be left alone, she prised the door open, revealing a ladder down to a tunnel whose walls were lit with hanging light bulbs.

This is a mistake, Nora thought, but she climbed down the ladder anyway.

“Good god,” Nora whispered when she saw that the light bulbs were actually free-floating flames, dangling at even intervals along the walls of the tunnel. She continued on, terrified that she’d be caught, that she’d get trapped, and yet unable to turn around. At one point, she heard the roar of cars, trucks and buses above her and worked out that, given the position of the pub and how long she’d been walking, she was under 233rd street. This must lead to the cemetery.

Nora continued along the tunnel as the stone path turned to dirt and the walls narrowed. She was ready to turn back when she reached another ladder. She climbed part of the way up toward a cold light at the top. Nora heard a chant of echoing voices. She paused on the rung trying to make out what the voices were saying, but she couldn’t understand. Curiosity pulled her a up a few rungs more, until she could see the bottom halves of three people gathered around a table. Based on all the marble, Nora realized this must be the interior of one of the cemetery’s grand mausoleums. Something on the table was hissing and bubbling. The voices grew louder, crescendoing until a small bang emitted from the cauldron. The commotion was followed by a sweet mewling. Two of the women sat on the ground playing with a tiny, russet kitten. Nora could just make out that one was Lisa, Siobhán’s daughter. She also worked at the bar. The other woman Nora recognized as Reina, who owned a bodega on Webster Avenue.

“See, Dáithí,” Lisa said to the kitten. “Things are easier when you’re a nice boy.”

Nora gasped. The women in the mausoleum froze. Reina came over to the opening to inspect, her long braids falling just over Nora’s face. Nora tried to climb back down the ladder as fast as she could, but her foot landed on Siobhán, who was on her way up.

“Back up you go, Nora.”

Nora, sweating and shivering, forced herself up the ladder and into the mausoleum. The three woman stood in front of the table, arms crossed. Nora did not recognize the third woman, who was white-haired and of indeterminate age. The kitten nestled itself on to Reina’s shoulder and closed its eyes. Siobhán gracefully emerged from the opening in the floor and guided Nora by the elbow over to a chair. Nora sat, looking up at the women.

Siobhán picked up the cat from Reina’s shoulder. “Curiosity killed the cat, didn’t it Nora?”

Eyes wide, Nora squeaked, “Please don’t kill him.”

Siobhán laughed. “Dáithí? Oh, he’ll turn up right as rain in a few days having learned a good lesson. Won’t you, Dáithí?” The kitten rubbed its face hungrily along Siobhán’s hand.

Tears brimmed in Nora’s eyes. “What are you?”

The women laughed. Siobhán said, “Of course you know, Nora. You’ve known all along. I’m not just a publican. Reina isn’t just a purveyor of delicious Jamaican food. Mary isn’t just a lady in the Altar Rosary Society. We all have other gifts, so to speak. Sometimes, people seek those gifts. We help them when we can. But, they’re not always happy with the help they get. Like with our friend, Dáithí: he was cheating me, and other customers. Then had the gall to ask for a spell to grow his ‘business.’ Well, I gave him one; earned him a trip to the hospital. Furious, weren’t you Dáithí?” Siobhán stopped to a moment to allow the kitten to amble up her chest. “You’re a good girl, Nora. You won’t tell, will you?”

“No one would believe me,” Nora whispered.

“That’s true,” laughed Reina.

Mary limped over to the door of the mausoleum and opened it. “Go on. Time to go.”

Afraid to break eye contact with them, Nora walked backwards toward the door and stumbled down the marble steps. She broke into a run; pumping her legs as fast as they could take her until she had to stop, gasping for breath and covered in sweat. She leaned over a headstone to nurse a stitch in her side. She glanced down at the name on the headstone and jumped back, yelling when she saw it read ‘DOLAN, Dáithí.’ She read the dates etched into the stone four times just to be sure it wasn’t the same Dáithí from the pub. Her first impression of the man was bad, but she didn’t want him dead.

Nora told herself not to go back to the pub; go home, take a shower, and find a job somewhere normal. And she did go home and take a shower, but then she dried her hair and got ready for work and headed back to the pub, ineluctably drawn there, unable to stay away.

“Nora!” Joe greeted her at the door, concern on his face. “Everything ok? My mom told me Dáithí got aggressive.”

Siobhán and Lisa stood in the corner of the pub, watching her. Nora made eye contact with them and looked backed to Joe.

“Yep, just clearing my head. Thanks for checking.”

The rest of the weekend whirred past. The bar was near-capacity all day on Friday and Saturday, and was mostly full on Sunday. Nora worked thirteen hour shifts each day, but never felt tired. It was like she was moving to a inborn choreography: step this way to avoid a waiter with a tray of food; keep this tab open and this one closed, even though the patrons never specified; bring this table a plate of nachos after their third round. When she had time to recognize it, she understood that so much of how the place operated must be part of Siobhán’s ‘gift,’. Everything always worked. Drinks just materialized. Taps never ran out or tasted off. Even on their busiest and most packed nights, no one ever fought, no one ever got too drunk. They hired a bouncer who slept in a booth next to the entrance; he had nothing to do. She’d worked in a dozen or so bars and restaurants and never experienced anything like it.

The following Tuesday, Nora went to the pub to get her tips cashed out from the weekend. Joe told her to head down to Siobhán’s office to retrieve them, so she followed the familiar path down and knocked twice on the heavy wooden door.

“Come in!”

Siobhán was seated behind her desk, Lisa, Reina and Mary behind her. Nora stopped in the doorway, unsure if she should continue.

“You’re ok, girl. Get in.” Mary commanded.

Nora came in, less nervous than the last time she was in their company. Siobhán handed over an envelope with the tips.

“It’s $2,500. A very good haul.” Lisa said.

Nora opened her mouth, but was too shocked to speak. One St. Patrick’s day she made $700 working the bar. Nothing close to this.

“Please sit.” Siobhán gestured to the chair across from her desk. Nora obeyed. “What if I told you, Nora, that these extra gifts we have, we can share them with other people?”

“You mean like doing spells or something?”

Reina grinned. “We mean showing you how to do them.” She extended her arm, her brown fist closed. “Go on. Look inside.”

Nora looked at all of them, and then gently peeled back Reina’s fingers. In her palm was a tiny, golden morsel. She understood that these women could just as easily be killing her with this, or turning her into a cat, but still she took the morsel and ate it. Something electric coursed through her veins. Once she was used to the feeling, she stood up. Things around her seemed more possible than they had before, like the world around her was something she could control.

“I feel…” Nora searched for the word. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

Siobhán held an empty glass bowl in front of Nora. Remembering her first encounter with Siobhán, Nora put her hand over it and it filled with water. She inhaled sharply.

“Did you see that?” Nora looked to the other women.

Lisa smirked. “We did.”

“What you feel,” Siobhán said, gently guiding Nora out of the office and toward the secret passageway to the mausoleum, “is power.”

In time, Nora found that there were many more people in Woodlawn with the gift. They met in the cemetery, at the full moon, to discuss the goings-on of the neighborhood, to set limits on the use of power, and to decided how to handle threats. Nora soon learned to recognize when someone else had the gift, wondering how she ever missed the signs of it before. Joe left the pub for law school, and Siobhán promoted Nora to manager. She quit her day job. One morning at dawn, she headed to the pub to accept an early shipment and she walked passed Dáithí, who was opening the grates on ‘Dave’s Irish Butcher and Supply.’ They locked eyes and, after hesitating, Dáithí tipped his hat. Nora smiled. That’s a good kitty.

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