The Witch wore a yellow suit. They gathered around him in his front yard and he told them that they were to take off their shoes before they went inside his mansion, that they weren’t to touch anything. The yellow of his suit against the emerald green of his lawn made him look like a discarded gold bar.
They trooped in, their shoes a motley pile of brown and grey, obscene on his white tile. There were about a dozen all together. He led them to a grand banquet table where the seats were draped with painting drop cloths, and the food was presented on china but served on white paper plates that immediately became grey in their hands.
One by one, as they ate, The Witch took them away and brought them back in crisp suits and bejeweled dresses. When there was only one polished person, they were quiet. When there were two, they interacted with each other and not with the unwashed. Only when everyone had metamorphosed into their sleeker forms did the staff remove the drop cloths. The suits fit like second skins, the dresses clung like water. The paper plates were gone for dessert. They ate carefully, not sure if the beautiful clothes were supposed to be returned.
“This is the life,” The Witch said. He ate a bite of his creme brulee and took a sip of fizzing champagne as if to demonstrate what he meant. His voice carried a casual expansiveness, like it was used to filling rooms. “And I’m going to give it to you. All you have to do is build something for me.” Each of the twelve of them felt their scrubbed callouses, blushes burning from being recognized. It’s the offer every job is secretly implying, but The Witch put it right there on the table amidst porcelain maple leaves filled with custard and burned sugar.
All but two signed up. They didn’t even know what it was they would build, they just knew that it held answers. A catered breakfast, lunch, and a dinner, in the mansion every night. They’d live within its walls. They would be given beautiful clothes. An uncomplicated equivalency. They worked, and The Witch promised he would take care of them.
There was no expiration date on the job. It took as long as it took.
The two that quietly refused seemed as though they already regretted saying no as they had to give back their clothes and put their filthy shoes back on feet that had been clean – really clean – for the first time in ages. The door closing on them sounded like booming punctuation.
The first days were spent digging. The Witch only gave the workers steps, like a manual that he kept ripping pages out of. It was monotonous work; underground and quiet, except for the shifting of dirt and the clank of the machinery they used to cart debris out of the hole.
It was a week before they started talking to each other. Even after all that silence, the workers didn’t waste words. They winnowed language down to a utilitarian essence, nearly its own dialect. At night, in 10 identical four-poster twin beds, they didn’t need language at all. They found comfort with each other amongst The Witch’s resplendent luxury, they rediscovered touch as they lost touch with the outside.
The simplicity was seductive.
Each morning, there was a gorgeous breakfast, clean clothes that seemed brand new every day and a single sheet of brilliant white paper that stated the day’s task. They worked, they dug, they mixed cement, they painted, they cut slate. When they first started work, most tried hard to keep their clothes spotless, until that realized that it didn’t matter. New clothes always came. At 2pm each day, The Witch’s staff served lunch, and only then did they take stock of what they were building. They were 10 workers brightly lit, shadowcasting on clean white walls, sitting on separate steps, descending into their handmade void.
At 7pm, they climbed out of the shaft and changed for evening dinner. The Witch joined sometimes, but not every night. The nights he did were the best. He always had something good to say.
Like peeling comfort foam from an office chair, each of them forgot everything that came before. It started in little chunks and then got larger and larger, the gaps in their minds. Sometimes they had trouble remembering their names from above.
For all that happened at night, most of the daytime was spent in a relaxed silence. They sang sometimes. Old pop songs. They did a nice rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” They did a terrible version of Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop.”
A worker thought he knew what they were building, but no one listened to him. He seemed like a troublemaker. It’s to get to his private subway. He lost the original entrance. Or It’s his bomb shelter. The world is ending. One evening, just before seven, he started yelling. It’s for nothing, he cried. It’s to see if he can. He sobbed at the base of the structure until the lunch staff removed him. He never came back.
The Witch visited them often. He would say encouraging things. They liked when he was around. They worked harder, faster. Sometimes they finished before 7pm just because he was around to watch them succeed. He would pat them each on the back, give hugs one by one, whispering his approval in their ears.
One day they weren’t hoisted out of the shaft. They were bewildered, but the answer was there: just work. Keep on building. They figured they knew what The Witch wanted. The plans hadn’t changed for weeks. They slept in the shaft and started fresh in the morning. No food was sent down at lunch, but they couldn’t stop building, not now. Not when they were so close. It became very important to believe in something.