In a nearly empty train coach, there is a young family consisting of a woman and her two children. Her son, Johnny, is four years old, and she must constantly tend to his baby sister. Johnny, bored by the journey, maintains a running commentary on his environment and the passing scenery, but his mother pays little attention to him. Other passengers only annoy him with their condescending joviality towards him.
Johnny departs from the commentary to inform his mother that he sees a witch. Just then, an elderly man wearing a blue suit enters the coach. The boy greets him and tells the man about the witch as well. The man asks Johnny his age, to which Johnny lies extravagantly. Though the boy’s mother corrects him, the man entertains Johnny’s response and continues to converse with him, despite Johnny’s persistence in offering ludicrous responses. (When the man asks for his name, Johnny responds, “Mr. Jesus” (52).)
Johnny also lies about his sister’s age, and the man begins to tell Johnny about his own little sister. His description starts out innocuously, and Johnny’s mother, eavesdropping, approves of the conversation. Suddenly, the man tells Johnny that he murdered his sister and chopped her into small pieces. Johnny’s mother, horrified, cannot stop the man quickly enough because she must pay attention to her baby. The man continues to finish his story about how he decapitates his sister and feeds her head to a bear. Johnny, however, expresses little shock or horror at the story. He remains matter-of-fact and simply relays the information to his mother when she berates the man and orders him to leave.
As the man leaves, he and Johnny share a laugh. The mother attempts to impress upon Johnny that the man was only joking. Johnny is not wholly convinced, and he wonders aloud whether the man is a witch.
The protagonist, Johnny, on a more youthful and less extreme scale, demonstrates what happens to Jackson's middle-aged characters who are unhappy with their lives. Boredom leads to the concoction of fantasies, which can lead to real experiences with the sinister, the fantastic, or both.
Bored on the train coach, Johnny attempts to entertain himself by describing the reality of his environment as they cross over rivers, are on bridges, and so on. However, his mother pays little attention to him, so Johnny resorts to making up a witch, which has sinister connotations. "'A big old ugly witch and I told her to go away and she went away,' the little boy went on, in a quiet narrative to himself" (52). This parallels, on a smaller scale, the experience of the titular character in "Elizabeth": that young woman is bored and unhappy with her life, so she seeks solace in a fantasy of her potential future with James Harris. Likewise, Johnny's fantasies lead him to witches, then to the old man, who enters the train coach directly after Johnny mentions witches.
The old man, however, with his murderous story under a seemingly harmless exterior, is as evil as a witch. The old man knocks Johnny and his mother out of their complacency, which the mother finds horrific but Johnny finds entertaining. In many of Jackson's stories, children are much less ensconced in social conventions than are their parents or other surrounding adult figures (see "Afternoon in Linen" or "After You, My Dear Alphonse"). This is clear here in Johnny’s and his mother's diverging reactions to the old man's gruesome tale of murder. The mother is deeply upset, but Johnny is only entertained. Social values require that the mother react negatively to anyone's murder, let alone the murder of one's younger sister, but Johnny is not constrained by such values. Thus, he can derive amusement from the old man's depiction of how he murdered his own young sister.
Jackson characterizes Johnny's mother as a rather apathetic, if not outright lazy parent, up to that point. Her baby is not correctly strapped to her seat, which results in the baby constantly falling out of the seat and requiring attention. The mother does not pay much attention to Johnny and only becomes alert when she is grossly offended by the old man's conversation. Afterwards, she deals with the situation simply by offering Johnny a lollipop, telling him that the old man's story is untrue, and sending Johnny back to his seat.
Initially, all of Johnny's responses to the old man regarding his name and age are sarcastic, a form of verbal irony. However, when the man offers to tell Johnny about his own little sister, Johnny begins to take him more seriously. Here, however, the man's conversation departs from the normal or expected (everyday conversation inquiring into one's name and age) and becomes wildly unpredictable (describing in detail how he murdered his baby sister and fed her head to a bear). Whether the man's story is actually true or simply hyperbole is debatable, but Johnny's mother takes the man to heart.
Johnny's mother acts as a foil to the elderly man (presumably the witch or perhaps even James Harris, as he wears a blue suit like the phantom Harris of "The Daemon Lover"). Where Johnny's mother is inattentive to Johnny, the old man pays attention and connects to the little boy personally. While Johnny's mother interprets things literally and realistically, the old man adopts Johnny's fantasies and carries them further. The mother is an ordinary and seemingly respectable woman, but the old man's presence hints at the supernatural, even the devil.