Where the Rats Can’t Get Me
I’m writing about the witch in the woods for my social history project. Ms. Titian said to interview an elderly relative but mine all died before I was born, so I’m doing the witch. James Suggs laughed at me and said she’s just a mad old woman, but I know she’s a witch because she’s got a broomstick that she beats people away with. Plus James Suggs is too chicken to even go into the woods.
I’m not chicken though. My garden backs onto the woods, and I’ve always played there. I’ve watched that witch my whole life. I saw her catch a rabbit once and wring its neck with her bare hands, and I’ve seen her feasting on handfuls of blackberries, juice running down her chin like blood. When she saw me spying on her up the maggoty apple tree, she pelted me with hard unripe fruit, screaming at me to get away. I can never find where she lives even though I’ve searched the whole woods. I think I saw her flying once; she was definitely above me through the branches.
Anyway, I’m doing my project on her because she’s the oldest person I know and also because I’m interested in becoming a witch myself; not an ugly, shriveled one like her, but one that can fly and do magic.
I find her picking mushrooms. "You’re not supposed to do that," I tell her.
She swoops at me with her broomstick. "Shoo!"
I stand my ground. "You’ll get sick, Ms. Titian said."
"These are good ones." Her teeth are yellow and broken. "Go now." She points back to town with her claw finger.
"I can’t, I’m doing you as my school project."
"School, bloody waste of time."
I giggle and she joins in and doesn’t tell me to go away. She builds a fire and uses a weird box to light it.
"Magic," I say under my breath.
"Tinderbox," she replies.
It’s getting cold so I creep towards the fire.
"Get away! Germs."
"I’ve got to do my project," I tell her, equally angry.
She tuts and draws a line in the dirt with the end of her broomstick. "Don’t cross it."
I put a chocolate bar down on the line. "For you."
"Are you trying to poison me?"
"No, it’s a gift."
"That’s not a gift. This is." She spoons some of the fire-cooked mushrooms onto a sycamore leaf and lays it over the line, then steps back.
"Germs," I say looking at it.
"I’m clean," she says.
"You’re filthy." I start laughing but she looks very hurt, so I take the leaf and eat. It tastes amazing. "Are they magic?"
"No! What do you take me for? They’re dryad’s saddle."
"What can I bring you, as a gift? If you don’t want chocolate?"
The witch thinks for a moment. "Cheese. Cheese and books."
Her face softens. "Romances."
I choose five romance novels from the shelves. Mrs. Davidson, the librarian, looks at me strangely. "Are these for you, young lady?"
"They’re for my school project," I say in my best bossy voice.
I take the romances and some cheese I nick from the fridge into the woods. I find the witch at her fireplace. She makes me put my gifts down and step away before she picks them up carefully by their corners. I ask how to do spells and she explains about herbs and medicines and living off the land.
"Where do you sleep?" I ask.
She points upwards. "Where the rats can’t get me."
She melts the cheese onto our mushrooms and sprinkles green leaves on top. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. Better than chocolate.
When I leave, I don’t really leave. I hide and watch, like I’ve always watched her. I want to see if she sleeps on clouds or the moon. She reads the first romance, turning the pages greedily. When the light fades the witch stamps on the embers of the fire and, swift as you like, climbs into the maggoty apple tree. I tiptoe to the foot of it and look up. There are some planks of wood up there she must be on top of, perched like an old roosting crow.
I go home and write up my project. I leave out where the witch sleeps; that’s private. The next day I skip to the woods, and the witch is waiting for me.
"I’ve finished my project," I tell her.
"That’s a shame," she says, sweeping away the remains of last night’s fire. "I’ll miss you."
"I’ll still visit. I want to become a witch too."
"You’d miss books and cheese too much."
"I’d miss chocolate."
We both laugh. I try and make my laugh more cackley, like hers.
Then, out of the bushes, James Suggs appears. He must have followed me.
"Is that your gran?" he says.
The witch swipes at him with her broom. "Keep away!"
"Get off me, you old hag!" He spits at her and it lands on her arm. She screams and hurries away. He chases after her to the apple tree. The witch starts to climb it, but James Suggs grabs her ankle and pulls. She falls and lands in a heap. He spits at her again and she screams crazily.
"A curse on you," she says, pointing at James Suggs, "you will never be happy and always live in pain and fear.”
He backs away. She tries to get up but her leg collapses under her.
"What have you done?" I shout. I pick up maggoty apples and throw them at him. I get one right in his face and he runs away.
The witch looks at the spit on her, bursts into noisy tears and wipes her arm on the ground. She tries to get up again but winces and falls down. I go to help her.
"Don’t touch me!"
"We’ve got to go to a doctor." It’s as if my touch burns her, but I get her upright and give her the broomstick as a crutch. I support her other side despite her protests. When we reach the edge of the woods the witch insists on stopping to wind a dirty piece of cloth around her face and put on ancient yellow marigold gloves from her pockets. That’s how we hobble into the GPs.
I have to use my best bossy voice on the receptionist. "This is my gran and she’s hurt her foot and needs to see Doctor Khurana." Doctor Khurana is old and fat and kind; the best sort of doctor.
The receptionist narrows her eyes at the witch, in her mask and gloves. "What’s her name?"
"Umm, Mrs... Marigold..."
"Mary?" Dr. Khurana appears behind the receptionist. "As I live and breathe. Finally out of your tree?"
It appears the doctor knows my witch. I feel her wobble slightly next to me.
"Well it’s high time you had a check-up, come on through."
She stays where she is and croaks something I can’t make out.
"It’s good that you’ve got her here," he says to me, "you must be very persuasive. Could you help her to my consulting room?"
"Sanitizer," the witch says.
Dr. Khurana shakes his head at her. "You can watch me wash my hands, Mary. Come on."
In his room he’s as good as his word and goes over to the sink.
"One two three," The witch counts all the way to twenty under her breath, peering at the doctor’s hands while he washes. He sits down opposite us and she moves her chair back.
"Now, what can I do for you, Mary? Besides the malnutrition and neglect?"
The witch is silent, so I answer for her. "It’s her foot," I tell him.
"She won’t be able to get up to bed," I explain. I put my hand on hers but she swipes it away.
"You can hold your friend’s hand, Mary. You can even take those gloves off. It’s over. It’s been over for fifteen years; everyone’s vaccinated. I can vaccinate you now if you like. You can come home."
The witch stares at Dr. Khurana with round eyes.
"Do you understand, Mary? It’s over."
For the second time that day the witch starts crying. She pulls her mask down and heaves air in to sob.
"Why don’t you hug her," Dr. Khurana says to me, "I think she’d like that."
Winner of Canary Wharf's Short Story Writing Competition. The Competition was judged by Time Out’s Deputy Editor Chris Waywell and organised by Canary Wharf Arts + Events.