‘Oh Sparky, what are we going to do?’ Alys wrung her hands as a sludgy yellow substance seeped from the bottom of her cauldron.
It had all been going so well. Business had been brisk following her success with the skin potion she’d made for Agatha of Aladore*. Agatha had been the subject of a beauty feature in the Weekly Witch, and Alys had also had a spot in the same publication, although the journalist who came to interview her hadn’t been best pleased when she’d inadvertently turned her photographer into a frog.
Alys sighed again and stared mournfully at the leaky cauldron. ‘How much is a new cauldron going to cost Sparky?’
The diminutive dragon quickly consulted Acme’s Catalogue for Practitioners of Potions. ‘A Number Five Cauldron is six hundred and twenty four witch-gilders.’
‘I don’t even have the twenty four witch-gilders after paying compensation to that journalist.’ A plump tear ran down her cheek.
Sparky hopped up on her shoulder and nuzzled her neck. He began to weep in sympathy, their tears mingling as they dripped into the leaky cauldron.
Psst-psst-psst! The cauldron hissed. Whooosh! A cloud of blue smoke issued forth from its depths. Ping-ping-ping! A shower of shiny silver objects rained down on the floor.
Sparky hopped down to investigate. ‘Look at this Alys,’ he exclaimed, releasing a cloud of excited steam.
Alys crouched down to look. ‘Coins! Oh Sparky, are they real?’
The diminutive dragon examined the nearest coin. ‘Sure they are!’ He gathered them up. ‘Six hundred and twenty-four witch-gilders!’
‘Exactly the amount we need… but how?’
The cauldron sputtered again and a thick piece of parchment flew out, flapped about and presented itself to Alys. It read: ‘Your cauldron is due for retirement and has bestowed a parting spell. Please treat her kindly in her old age and do not use her as an umbrella stand.’
The parchment promptly vanished.
Alys and Sparky looked at each other. The cauldron gurgled happily and showered them with tiny pink roses.
Alys stirred the copper cauldron. Three times widdershins and three times sunwise.
‘What’s next, Sparky?’ she glanced over at the diminutive dragon who was sitting on his purple haunches reading from the ‘Spell-book of Beauty for Witches’. Just out of her apprenticeship, Alys had been set to work on a particular potion for the Sisterhood.
‘Eye of newt and ear of bat…’
‘Stop messing, Sparky. Even I know that’s from Mr Shakespeare’s play.’ Alys laughed and flicked the long-handled spoon she was using to stir the pot at her tiny familiar. Small spatters landed on the pages of the spell-book where they sizzled ominously.
Sparky ran a tiny gleaming claw down the text. ‘Add five drops of crocodile tears and twelve drops of tincture of unicorn hair. Stir vigorously sunwise, then add tiny pinches of campfire dust until the mixture begins to glow.’
Alys added the ingredients and stirred.
‘I wonder if it’s supposed to look like that,’ said Alys, peering at the potion. ‘Oh well, it’ll have to do. Agatha of Aladore will be here any second.
Just then, Agatha materialized on the doormat. She grinned, holding out a small copper jug expectantly.
Alys filled the jug, wondering whether any potion could possibly work sufficient magic on Agatha’s gnarled and warty complexion. But Agatha cheerfully smeared the hot gloop over her face.
The potion began to fizz. ‘Oooh,’ exclaimed Agatha.
Her face puffed up like a poppadum. Then, with a loud hiss, the outer skin vapourised. Agatha’s hands flew to her cheeks.
There was a moment’s silence.
Agatha removed her hands. Her face was beautifully smooth. Her eyes shone wide and blue, clashing unfortunately with the colour of her skin which was… GREEN!
Agatha snapped her fingers; a small mirror hovered in front of her.
There was another moment’s silence.
Now I’m for it, Alys thought.
‘I LOVE IT!’ Agatha threw her arms around Alys. ‘Just the right tinge of witchery menace.’ She clapped her hands together. ‘I’ll tell all my friends!’ She tottered onto the doormat. ‘Vogue for Witches here I come!’ echoed her voice from the ether.
Alys held out her hand; Sparky sprang up and gave her a high five.
Alys balled her fists, digging her nails into the palms of her hands. She stepped into the stone circle. Moonlight shone on the cromlechs and lit up the faces of the members of the coven who stood in eager silence. This was the final test. Unless she could prove her mastery of the fourth element, she’d be banished from the sisterhood forever.
She raised her head and closed her eyes, centering herself. Palms back to back, she laced her fingers and took a deep breath. Muttering an incantation she opened her hands. A tongue of fire issued forth. She held her open palm aloft for all to see.
She had conjured fire.
Another word, and the fire was extinguished. Alys slowly folded her hands and clasped them gently to her chest before descending from the stone circle. ‘Thanks Sparky,’ she whispered, as the miniature dragon scurried back up her sleeve.
I was sent to the Valley in my fourteenth year. I was given a little attic room and assigned as apprentice to the Herbalist beyond the Green.
She set me to work in the Storeroom, where I organised the shelves, made labels and lists. She was impressed with my lettering. Gradually I started to learn Herb-Craft: where to gather the freshest ingredients, what to plant and when to harvest, recipes for teas and tinctures, poultices and potions.
A year later, following the midsummer feast, she put me to work on the Book. I copied out new recipes, made illustrations, noted where and when certain plants could be found. I began to assist in the Dispensing Room. She was pleased with me and with my work.
I learned that certain things displeased her. If she found me chatting too long whilst I was dispensing remedies, she would stand at the door, arms folded, tapping her foot. My friends soon took the hint. Or if she saw me spending time at a particular market stall, she would take me firmly by the elbow telling me to ‘come, leave that now’.
I worked with my pen and brush in the Storeroom at a little desk among the wooden shelves on which the flasks and jars were kept neatly in rows. Even on the hottest of days the Storeroom doors remained shut. No prying eyes were tolerated; the work was secret. I was sworn to keep those secrets.
One afternoon, I’d made myself a cup of herbal tea using leftovers from a poultice. She came in and sniffed my teacup. “What is this?” she asked. I explained. “Is it in the Book?” “No, it but was only a handful of leaves.” Her eyes flashed, “There must be no omissions from the Book.” She stabbed at the cover with fingers clenched and walked out.
Two years passed. My knowledge grew. I followed her rules; made sure she had no cause to admonish me. She taught me a little rudimentary Spell-Craft and the Storeroom prospered as never before.
One morning in late summer, when the dew was still fresh on the ground, I took my basket up to the head of the Valley to the source of a little stream I knew. There I found newly growing belladonna and wolfsbane. I picked a sprig of each and hurried to back to the Storeroom.
Later that afternoon, I settled down at the little desk with my brush and pen and my new specimens. I opened the Book and turned to the poison plants section. But it was missing. I checked again, carefully, page by page, but it was as if the pages had never existed.
I hurried over to her little house and called her. She followed me slowly and sat down at the desk. I showed her where the missing pages should have been; how they seemed to have disappeared into thin air. I thought she’d be cross and give me that look, so I prepared myself. But she looked up at me and said “Never mind now.” She laid her wrinkled hand on my arm: “Go home; I’ll see you in the morning.”
The Storeroom was unusually busy the next day and my morning was spent making up and dispensing remedies. It was only in the afternoon that I took the Book down. The moment I opened it, I could see something was wrong. Strange symbols had been written in the margins and there were untidy blots and crossings out. I didn’t understand.
I heard the Storeroom door open. She appeared in the doorway and came over to the desk. “Something’s happened to the Book,”’ I said, showing her.
“Only you use the Book. No one else has touched it.” She brought her face close to mine and I saw pure hatred on her face. “Why have you done this?”
“I haven’t done anything.” I felt myself starting to shake. I knew I hadn’t done anything. I stared up at her. “It wasn’t like this yesterday.” My stomach churned under her gaze. “We looked at it together, remember? The missing pages?”
“I know you did it.” Her voice was like gravel.
I stood up, facing her across the little desk. I held her stare; not this time, I thought. There was a burning smell. I looked down. Smoke was rising from the edges of the Book. The paper began to curl and suddenly the pages ignited. She slammed the Book shut.
“Go!” She pointed to the door. “Just go!”
I grabbed my basket and cloak and fled towards the Green. I looked back just once. There she stood, framed by the doorway. She glared back at me for a moment; then she slammed the Storeroom door shut.
I never went back. I avoided that part of the village and only went to the market during dispensing hours when I knew she’d be occupied. I could never rid myself of the memory of the expression of loathing on her face, or the power I’d felt that moment when the Book had ignited. I had been changed forever.
She’d taken a dislike to me, made that doll-thing with the pins stuck in it. I stole it from her house while she was out, but she saw me on the way back. She knew.
I tried to make one of her, as a precaution; sure she’d make another one of me. But I couldn’t get the likeness. She didn’t though. Those pains never returned; the ones from the pins. Just that sick feeling whenever something reminded me of it.
Folk in the village cottoned on; others had suffered too. I never said much; smiled, nodded and moved on.
The following spring, I was visited by a crow. He sat on my washing line and looked at me, his head on one side. He came every day. I fed him titbits; told him my troubles.
Other people had crows visit too; the ones who’d fallen out with her.
One spring day more arrived. First a couple; one alighted on the church spire, the other on the maypole – mine, I thought. More came, settling on her roof, on window ledges and door frames, covering the house in a black shroud.
Folk gathered on the village green. Windows cracked, wood splintered. No-one went to her aid. We drifted back to our houses.
In the morning, they’d gone. The little house had been stripped bare. The small, stooped skeleton pecked clean inside.
Some called it a murder of crows. I called it revenge.
I’d been watching her secretly for quite a while. I knew that she routinely went out at this time and would be gone for a while; that she kept a spare key under the flower pot by her back door.
I crept into the house and listened. But where to look? Where would she keep such a thing?
It was a small house: kitchen, sitting room, an alcove for a bedroom. There it was. I picked it up and examined it: a kind of doll crudely made from sail cloth. Wool defined the features; brown for the eyes, black for the hair. Just like mine.
Two thick pins stuck out of the knees. Gently I pulled one out. My right knee relaxed. Then the left; my pain had gone.
There was a pin cushion on the shelf as well. I knew exactly where those pins had been. I saw the pin holes in the soles of its feet; a nick in the fabric of its dress over the stomach. And there was a burn mark on its left arm. Like the one on mine.
I put it in my pinafore pocket; left the house, locking the back door and replacing the key.
Then I saw her; coming towards me across the village green. Walking it that quick, determined way she had. ‘I know you took it,’ she said, as she drew level with me. Her eyes flashed. ‘I can easily make another.”
She looked innocent. Of course she did. My aunty often told me that once a woman is over 50 she becomes invisible. So how much more invisible is a little bent over old lady pulling one of those tartan shopping bags on wheels. Nobody ever thought anything of her. Nobody ever imagined what she might do.
So there we were that Thursday afternoon after school, Billy and me, just hanging out like outside the library. Not because we’re into reading or anything, just because it’s a nice shady spot in summer and there are steps and a wall to sit on, and nobody bothers you so long as you don’t make too much noise. And sometimes you can chat to some girl from another school…well, you know how it is.
Anyway, as I said, we were just hanging out and this old lady, all bent and bundled up, even though it was summer, came around the corner of the library building pulling this thing behind her. It looked kind of heavy and like something was pushing out the sides of the bag at the bottom.
She was struggling with the door while holding onto her bag, so Billy jumped up to help her. She sort of grunted and nodded at him but he said he couldn’t see her face because her head was so far back in the hood she was wearing. He said she had a funny smell too, but that’s not unusual with old people is it?
Anyway, a few minutes later there was like ‘boom’ and all the glass in the library windows shattered and the doors blew open. Then there was a huge sound like wings flapping and page after page from the library books flew out of the windows and through the doors. Strings of words slid off the pages and landed in the street where they shrivelled up. Others landed in the library garden and burrowed into the ground like so many worms. And then all the blank pages just took off like so many birds with white wings. Up and up they went into the sky which was so bright with the sun that you could hardly look.
And then there was another sound: ‘whoosh’ and would you believe it? The little old lady flew out of the doors on a something like a broomstick, although it looked more like one of those old-fashioned mops. She threw back her head and her hood blew down, long wild wispy hair went crazy around her head. ‘Free them, free the words!’ she screamed, cackling as she circled once around the library building then headed off over the cars and taxis down Victoria Street.
The library’s been closed for two months now. We still hang out there, but now we’re watching for the word worms to come up.