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CRY WITCH!

She was young and enchanting, and the heart of that
village boy was lost to her—yet what was it about her
that made the peasants shudder, the old women to cross
themselves, and the villagers to bar their doors at night
?

By FRITZ LEIBER

THE GIRL was very beautiful and she came into the cafe on the arm of a young writer whose fearless idealism has made him one of the most talked of figures of today. Still, it seemed odd to me that old Nemecek should ignore my question in order to eye her. Old Nemecek loves to argue better than to eat or drink, or, I had thought, to love, and in any case he is very old.

Indeed, old Nemecek is almost incredibly old. Fie came to New York when the homeland of the Czechs was still called Bohemia, and he was old then. Now his face is like a richly tooled brown leather mask and his hands are those of a dapperly gloved skeleton and his voice, though mellow, is whispery. His figure is crooked and small and limping, and I sometimes feel that he came from a land of ancient myth. Yet there are times when a certain fiery youthfulness flashes from his eyes.

The girl looked our way and her glance stopped at Nemecek. For a moment I thought they had recognized each other., A cryptic look passed between them, a guardedly smiling, coolly curious, rapid, reminiscent look, as if they had been lovers long ago, incredible as that might be. Then the girl, and her escort went on to the bar and old Nemecek turned back to me.

"Idealism?" he queried, showing that at least he had not forgotten my question. "It is strange you should ask that now. Yes, I certainly am an idealist and have always been one, though I have been deserted and betrayed by my ideals often enough, and seen them exploited in the market place and turned to swords and instruments of torture in the hands of my enemies."

The tone of his voice, at once bitter and tender, was the same as a man might use in talking of a woman he had known and lost long ago and still loved deeply.

"Ideals," he said softly and fingered the glass of brandy before him and looked at me through the eyeholes of his Spanish leather mask. "I will tell you a story about them. It happened to a very close friend of mine in old Bohemia. It is a very old story, and like all the best old stories, a love story."

SHE WAS NOT like the other village girls, this girl my friend fell in love with (said Nemecek). With the other village girls he was awkward, shy, and too inclined to nurse impossible desires. He walked past their houses late at night, hoping they would be looking out of a darkened window, warm white ghosts in their cotton gowns. Or wandering along the forest path he imagined that they would be waiting alone for him just around the next turn, the sunlight dappling their gay skirts and their smiles. But they never were.

With her it worked out more happily. Sometimes it seemed that my friend had always known her, back even to that time when a jolly Old Man in Black had made noises at him in his crib and tickled his ribs; and always their meetings had the same magical conformity to his moods. He would be trudging up the lane, where the trees bend close and the ivy clings to the cool gray wall, thinking of nothing, when suddenly he would feel a hand at his elbow and turn and see her grave, mysterious, sweet face, a little ruffled from having run to overtake him.

When there was dancing in the square and the fiddles squealed and the boards thundered and the bonfires splashed ruddy gilt, she would slip out of the weaving crowd and they would whirl and stamp together. And at night he would hear her scratching softly at his bedroom window like a cat almost...

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