Raised in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania by her grandpap, Bobbi Lee Yandro has been seeing things that aren’t there for years. Afraid she’s going “all the way crazy” like her institutionalized mother, she receives an unexpected gift for her almost-sixteenth birthday: a box of her dead father’s journals. Wright Yandro was killed in Vietnam when Bobbi was a baby, but the poems he left behind stir something inside her, awakening visions of wild horses. When her grandfather buys her a black mustang with eyes of blue fire, she instinctively knows its name is Shane.
On the day the vet arrives to castrate Shane, Bobbi helps the horse escape. Soon she and Shane are fugitives on a journey that takes Bobbi far from Canadawa County to a village deep in the mountains. Here she meets Hazel Fenstermacher, also known as the Hex Witch of Seldom. Hazel introduces Bobbi to the Twelve of the Hidden Circle, who include a king, a sorceress, a poet, a trickster, and a dark hero. But one of them is out to steal Shane’s soul, for he is no ordinary horse. As Bobbi uncovers the secrets of the Circle, she must employ her special gifts to save Shane and shape her own future.
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The Hex Witch of Seldom
By Nancy Springer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Nancy Springer
All rights reserved.
"You're soon sixteen years old," said Grandpap. "You're almost a woman growed."
Bobbi looked back at him across the width of the cabin without replying. She did not feel like a woman grown. She had never dated, and did not much want to; there was something strange about her, and she knew it. Maybe it was the dim light of the 25-watt bulb overhead deceiving her, but she seemed to see something moving behind her grandfather: just a whisper, a hint, of a form that was Grandpap and yet not Grandpap, like heat haze in the air. She had seen it before and it did not scare her any more except to shiver her spine a tad, but for sure she wasn't going to say anything about it, not to anyone, and especially not to Grandpap. Nearly all her life she had lived with her grandfather, Grant Yandro, and she knew him. Pap was not unkind, but he had no patience for nonsense.
"What you want for your birthday?" he asked her. He was scraping supper's leftover brown beans into a plastic bowl for his hounds. The half-seen form behind him, form of—what? Something hard and jagged, like the gray rocks outcropping from the Pennsylvania mountain sides, but—she could not see it any longer. It faded and disappeared.
"I don't know," Bobbi said. She hadn't thought about her birthday.
Pap straightened and looked at her, his lean, clean-shaven jaw thrust forward as always. An old man with white hair and the body of somebody half his age—she knew he was every bit as tough as he liked to look. A man didn't try to farm these hills without getting tough as the stones. The first settlers had been Deutsch, Germans, known ever after in these parts as the "Dumb Dutch" for leaving the rich Susquehanna valley lowlands for these thin-soiled, acidy slopes. But they had stolidly persisted in clearing the land and building their big, womanly, wide-hipped, great-lofted barns. They lived here still, slow-moving egg-shaped people, and amid land going back to bramble and cedars the barns still stood, the hex signs fading on their peaks.
The Yandros had come later, and they were not "Dutch," but a mix of Scotch-Irish and Welsh and something else. Yandros were dark and wiry, hard-muscled and hard-minded, Bobbi had been taught. The neighbors could keep their superstitions and their stories of witchcraft. Grant Yandro would not have hex signs on his barn.
"You do those dishes," he said to his granddaughter, "and I'll get you something right now." He went out into the cluttered yard. The baying of the hounds greeted him.
Bobbi opened the draft of the woodstove a bit to rouse the fire—not for warmth, not now that spring was coming on, but to heat washing water. The water from the wooden cistern overhead ran cold through the kitchen tap. She half-filled the dishpan, added hot water from the kettle on the stove lid, then did the dishes. It was her turn anyway, as Pap knew well enough. He was always fair. Sometimes harsh, but always fair. She wondered what he could be bringing her.
The hounds had quieted. Bobbi heard Pap's holler echoing back from the wooded slope behind the house. He was calling in the horses to be fed.
It took them a while to come in from their pasture, as usual. Without looking out the window she could see them coming down the hillside step by slow, hesitant step. Horses always came to a calling human that way, as if they were suspicious of the person's motives. In her mind's eye she saw Grandpap impatiently waiting, grumbling to himself, and she smiled.
She was done with the dishes by the time Pap came back from the barn, carrying a dusty wooden box on one shoulder. He eased it down and got himself a dipperful of well water from the covered bucket by the sink, and she knew better than to ask him about the box before he was done drinking, though she eyed it curiously. Homemade, by the looks of it. Reminded her of the pine coffin Pap had once made for a child who had died, lost up on the mountain, a migrant's child. She had never seen this box, and she had thought she knew just about everything in the barn. This box had been well hidden up on the rafters somewhere.
"It's some of your father's things," Grandpap told her. "I figure it's time you had them."
Bobbi gave him one startled glance, then kneeled and worked at the clasp. It was corroded shut. She had to bang at it. And when she got the box open at last and saw all the yellowing papers, she got up and carried the heavy box into her cubbyhole of a room, under her studying light, which was bright enough to read by. Outside, night was falling, darker than the fir trees. She sat on her bed, her knees nearly against the beaverboard wall, and lifted the first ragged sheet in shaky fingers. That was Saturday night, a young springtime night when a girl her age should have been thinking of love, maybe going out with Travis Dodd, who lived up the mountainside from her. But Bobbi Yandro was thinking about Travis even less than ever, and for the dark hours she was as good as gone from Canadawa Mountain.
The yellowed papers did not take her too far away at first. Newspaper clippings. Graduating class of Silver Valley Area High School, and Wright Yandro's name on the list. Wright Yandro inducted into army. Wright Yandro weds Chantilly Lou Buige in Louisiana. She was the girl he had met on base in Georgia, and she had taken him home to marry him, but then he had brought her to his own home to live before he shipped out. Wright Yandro sent to Vietnam.
Bobbi gazed down into the stark newsprint face, hard-jawed under the military hat, as if it could tell her something she badly needed to know. It did not. The strong-boned face so much like her own, the grave gray smudges that were its eyes, might as well have belonged to a stranger. Bobbi had never met her father. Shortly after she was born he had died in Nam. There was a newspaper clipping for that, too. Local Man Killed In Combat.
And a single clipping of a different sort. A poem, signed Wright Yandro, published in the Silver City Clarion, Canadawa County, PA.
"The old gods live in hidden forms.
In the autumn nights the wild geese fly,
A cat roams under the bloated moon,
The gypsies ride the highways still,
Somewhere the horses run wild.
The cunning mustangs defy you on the mountains.
You have heard the dragon roar in the dark.
You have heard the hounds of hell in the sky.
The old gods chant to the crescent moon;
The mustangs toss their heads and shout,
The mustangs yet run wild on the western plains.
Bobbi raised her eyes and stared as if her sight could blaze through the cabin walls, leaving wood smoldering. She felt, she i—what? The words made little sense to her. She doubted that they had made much sense to the editor of the Clarion, either. He had probably printed them only to fill a hole in the local news page. They were probably pretty bad poetry.
But—this strangeness of hers, this feeling of being alone inside, this—this affliction of seeing things: all her life since she had been aware of it she had thought it was because her mother had gone crazy. Chantilly Lou Buige Yandro had been taken away to the psychiatric ward one day when Bobbi was three. After that Bobbi's mother had been shuttled like a lost soul from hospital to doctor to hospital, never really coming back, until her parents in Louisiana had placed her in a good private institution the other side of Pittsburgh. Chantilly was not dangerous, but her delusions did not let her cope with life in the real world, the doctors explained.
And the first time Bobbi had seen something that she knew wasn't really there, she had been scared half crazy that she would go all the way crazy, like her mother. The next day she had started to bleed between her legs, and even that hadn't scared her as much. She had told Pap about the bleeding, and he had explained it to her as best he could. But she had never told anyone about the things she saw. She was a Yandro, and Yandros didn't talk rot.
She had not known her father wrote poetry. Nobody had ever told her. Now she held his poem in her hand, and it was as if he had written it just for her, as if he spoke to her across the distance of years and death, reaching out to her through this bit of paper that smelled of dust, withering and crumbling and dry as the bones, his bones, lying six feet under the ground down in Silver Valley Cemetery. She could have wept without knowing why.
Carefully she laid the frail yellow clipping aside and turned to the other things in the box.
There were notebooks. Opening the first one, Bobbi felt a shock, a prickling sense of deja vu. It took her a moment to understand why. Wright Yandro's handwriting, the figure-eight g's, the airily looping tails of the y's, the fly-away capitals—like hers. Could have been hers. A strong, wild scrawl, even messier than Bobbi's, but very much like. She might be the only one in the world who could read it.
Until sometime long past midnight, sometime in the silent heart of night, when cats roam and distant dragons roar in the dreams of the uneasy, Bobbi pored over the notebooks. In them she read thoughts, struggling bits of poetry, the scribbled and much-scratched-out beginnings of stories. One such fragment she read again and again, until she could nearly have recited it, though it filled her with questions left unanswered.
"The staff bore a sword inside it," (Wright Yandro had written, years before, maybe when he was no older than she) "and scrying in the shining surface of the sword blade I could see the long history and the hard destiny of the staff. Its name meant 'the wise one.' It had been made of a wand of hazel cut from the living tree at sunrise, for all puissant things draw their strength from the sun. I saw the druid cutting it from the tree with a knife baptized in blood. I saw the staffmaster shaping it. I saw the priest chanting over it during the course of the shaping, to make it a force of good as well as of magic. The staff had a soul and a fate. It remembered the staffs of Moses and Aaron; it could bring up springs of water out of arid land, striking hard at the stony earth with its tip of steel. It scorned the sceptres of rulers, the swagger sticks of sergeants, the policeman's baton. It honored the caduceus, and would not strike an innocent person, no matter what hand wielded it. It knew the forces of evil, and knew that its own scruples would bring about its undoing, and hated and feared the death-wands made of cypress and yew. It had visionary power; it foresaw the manner of its death, and mine.
"I had a choice. I could take up the staff and sword, and the staff would speak to me of things beyond knowing, and lead me into dangers fit to make me a hero or a spirit. Or I could sheathe the sword once again in the staff, and place the staff back in the ground where I had found it, and go away, and be happy with my woman."
There the story broke off. Bobbi wondered: was her father speaking of himself, really? Was it possible he had really found such a staff? Or was he speaking of an inner self he showed to no one? Or was he telling someone else's story through his scrawling ball-point pen?
Bobbi got up and found the old, cloth-covered Webster's dictionary, and looked up "scrying." Seeing visions, it meant, in a shiny surface, a mirror or a crystal ball. Then she came back and read again and again the words her father had written, and listened to the way they made her dream.
She read on. She read of girls Wright Yandro had loved and girls who had scorned him. She read of his feeling alone, different, odd, hidden. Those feelings she understood, but often he wrote of things she did not understand.
"He goes by many names. I call him Shane.
"He is the outlaw the people love, the hero dressed in black.
"He is the desperado who robs banks during the dust-bowl years and gives the money to the dirt farmers. He is the lone gypsy wandering in his wagon across the W.W. II wastelands, who steals from Allies and Nazis alike and crosses borders by night, bringing Jews out of occupied land. He is the river-boat gambler who gets into a fight one night and kills a man, and gives his winnings to an orphanage. He is the master jewel thief who falls in love with a sad-eyed whore and dresses her in diamonds. He is the bandit who is the blood brother of a lawman and goes gunning to avenge his death. He is the gun for hire who gives away his heart to a wisp of a girl and gets himself killed.
"He is the scoundrel, the daredevil, 'Wanted' by the law, loved by those ground under the heel of the law. He is not quite real. Yet he is more real than life. Cold of eye and dark of garb, he joins the Hidden Circle with the others. He is vulnerable, more so than most, because he is great of heart. He is dangerous, more so than most, because he is vulnerable. His enemy is the trickster, who has no heart at all. And the trickster is a gypsy as well, and a thief, and a gambler. But the people, who know, do not love the trickster.
"They love and protect the dangerous stranger. He goes by many names. I call him Shane."
It was as good a name as any. Bobbi shrugged and read on. Her father wrote only once of the staff, only once of scrying, only once of the stranger named Shane. But again and again he wrote of horses, of the mustangs running on the western plains.
When at last she could not stay awake any longer, she lay back on the bed, still in her shirt and jeans, and went to sleep without even undoing her braid and brushing her dun-colored hair. Images formed behind her closed eyelids, and a snatch of poetry, her dead father's poetry, hovered in her mind.
"Horses, galloping horses,
Bay and gray and blood-black horses,
Bright and shadowy, canter by,
Pass before my inward eye.
They are the horses of a dream.
They are not what they seem."
She dreamed that a druid chanted the words to her as she slept. Then she dreamed that her father sat on the edge of the bed and spoke to her, and instructed her.
"You never told me my father was a poet," she said to her grandfather the next morning.
Grant Yandro looked at her over breakfast scrapple, hearing the blame in her voice. But he said only, "News to me."
"He had that poem published in the Clarion!"
The old man's granite-colored eyes opened slightly in a remembering look. He said, "I'd forgot."
He was more likely to remember when each of his boys had shot his first deer, Bobbi knew, or trained his first colt, than to remember a poem sent in to the newspaper. He wasn't likely to understand about a poem. But if he'd ever read his dead son's notebooks, he would have known Wright was a poet. She said, "You never read his papers you just gave me."
Grant Yandro said, "He always kept that stuff private." And then Bobbi understood that even after Wright's death his father had respected that privacy. But somehow it was all right for Bobbi, his daughter, to read Wright's secret books. Once she was old enough. Nearly a woman grown. Grandpap hadn't known Wright was a poet, but he knew some things well enough, Bobbi saw, and she let go of blame and gazed at him in a sort of wonder, ready to comprehend what the form was that she sometimes saw behind the man—but this time she did not see it.
Memories of a dream whispered in her mind. Her father had told her what he wanted her to do, and her daytime mind saw no reason not to obey him.
"Grandpap," she said, "I know now what I want for my birthday."
He nodded as if promising the gift before it had been spoken. Grandpap Yandro, king of the mountain.
She said, "I want a mustang. Is there a shipment coming in soon?"
He said, "I'll find out," and though he did not smile she could tell by the mellowing of his face that he was pleased she had asked for a horse. Yandros were part gypsy, way back, he claimed. Always messing with horses. He had kept horses all his life, even when Mam had argued with him about it at night, even when he had to take a job off the farm, working on the county roads to feed his family. He had taught Bobbi to ride before she could read, just as he had taught all his children to ride, in a big Western saddle. English-style riding was for aristocrats, and Yandros scorned aristocrats. Western riding, trail riding on the mountains, was for common people, country people, Yandros. So it seemed right and natural to Grant Yandro that his granddaughter had asked for a mustang. Once or twice before he had brought one home himself from the government center at Lewis-berry, a few hours away.
Excerpted from The Hex Witch of Seldom by Nancy Springer. Copyright © 1988 Nancy Springer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was an awsome book full of romance and adventure. I recomend it. I think there needs to be another one!
A GREAT BOOK!! A little too much lovey duvy stuff, but still and outstanding book!