An (edited) excerpt from this year's NaNovel.
(c) Amy Townsend.
It was almost midnight.
Mel had been waiting on the end of the street for twenty minutes, the chill of the ground slowly seeping through her cherry-red Doc Martens, her breath trailing from her lips in a sparkling white haze. The latticework of the tree branches above her cast her thin pale face in starlight and shadow, like a lace tablecloth. The cold star-bright night smelt of bonfire smoke and dying fireworks, wet leaf-mulch and frostbitten grass.
She squeezed the hagstone that hung on its ragged red string around her neck, tracing its worn surface with the pads of her fingertips. The hagstone wasn’t magic. If anything, it was antimagic, a piece of nature so ancient, so stolid, that it couldn’t be charmed, cursed, tricked or fooled. Hagstones were for breaking glamours, finding things. Mel figured the only thing you couldn’t find, by looking the hole worn through its centre, was normality.
Mel had brought a backpack, heavy with an assortment of oddities. Mostly they were gifts. A more correct word, perhaps, would have been ‘offerings’, but Mel rejected the terminology of outdated deities and hippy-dippy wannabe priestesses.
In the backpack there were two perfume bottles (both green, thick vintage glass that sparkled like cats’ eyes) and two jam jars carefully washed and filled with dirt and moss and secrets on tiny torn up bits of notepaper. Witches liked secrets. For your everyday run-of-the-mill magical workings and/or application to the Wyrd, such a collection would probably have been perfectly acceptable payment.
Mel was well aware that what she was going to ask for tonight was far beyond run-of-the-mill.
So in addition to the four bottles and jars, she had also packed her diary from when she was thirteen; a ball of indigo wool with purple lurex sparkles, a suicide note she wrote in the back of a trashy paperback when she was seventeen, a handful of snail shells wrapped carefully in bubble wrap, a magpie feather that was not quite black and not quite green, and a small jar of lime marmalade.
There were other things in the backpack as well, but Mel was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.
“You’re early,” said a voice from behind her left shoulder. It was a thin voice, a wind voice, like the skittering of dead leaves across tarmac.
“No, I’m not,” Mel said. She was pleased to note that she sounded calmer than she felt. “You’re half an hour late.”
A silence. Not an absent silence, but a weighty, broody silence.
Mel rolled her eyes and turned around. There was no one there.
“I’m not falling for that, either,” she said, looking very hard at a slant of shadow between the thick trunk of the old tree and the wall of the last house. In the sickly streetlight shine, the jagged shadow might well have been a shoulder, an elbow, a long narrow hand with bony fingers. Or it might not. “What’s the matter? You can call up a storm and read the bones of the earth but you can’t tell the time?”
The witch stepped out from behind the tree.
What actually happened was that shadows on tree bark and dead leaves and dust and starlight shifted and congealed into the shape of a person. Mel saw this briefly, and then forced herself to unsee it. Even in Elbury, where magic walked the streets and sang in the air and sludged through the sewers like blood and piss, where you were brought up knowing – not believing but knowing – that there were faeries at the bottom of the garden, it didn’t pay to let yourself see things that your mind couldn’t possibly be expected to make sense of.
Mel had tried to use that excuse for her algebra homework one time. Hadn’t worked.
The witch took a step towards her. A car came around the corner behind them, its headlights flickering across the trunks of the slender trees lining the road and casting zoetrope shadows across the witch’s face. Mel held the witch’s gaze.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” said the witch. She had a tapestry bag slung over her arm, its colours faded with age. She stroked it absently with the other hand as she walked towards Mel, as though the bag were a restless animal she needed to comfort. Her footsteps made no sound on the brittle golden carpet of frost and leaf.
“My name’s Mel,” Mel offered awkwardly.
The witch cocked her head to one side, birdlike. “I know,” she said. Her voice was reedy and distant, like a night bird calling across a mountain lake, a thin and haunting note that made the hairs on the back of Mel’s neck stand on end.
“What do I call you?” Mel prompted. Witches were naturally curious; sometimes she wondered if they agreed to do any of the things they did just so that they could look at you, watch you, study you. It wasn’t unusual, in Elbury, to see a witch standing in the street, hypnotised by the falling rain or the steam off your coffee or dust motes dancing in a sunbeam. It made it difficult to convince them to get to the point.
The other trouble with witches was their erratic behaviour. Don’t talk to strangers was good advice on the whole, but it took on particular resonance in this town. Consorting with witches was not something that one generally did. Especially if you liked all your fingers and toes where they were and preferred not being a frog - or in an oven.
“You can call me Bijou,” said the witch. “It’s not my name. But it’ll do.”
The witch had dusky brown skin and a grey pea coat that was rather too big for her, so that she appeared to nestle in its folds like a bat wrapped in its own wings. Her hair was a cascade of dreadlocks, once dyed blue, now a faded greyish-teal. She wore a very long scarf, green and black striped, that moved with the wind, although not always in the direction it should have done. Her fingers were thin, clutching, bent like twigs.
Mel unzipped the bag, the sound unusually loud in the still night air, and took out the jars one by one, handing them over. The witch took each without word or expression, her long pointed fingers gliding over the glass. She held them close to her face, sniffed them, shook them, peered at them intently. Each one vanished into the depths of her pea coat, and she looked at Mel expectantly, waiting for more. Mel’s nerves thrummed with tension. The price for what she was asking was high. She knew that. She wouldn’t let it stop her, not now.
They took my sister, she thought, but she cut that line of thinking dead before any more words could form. Not now, not here. It was too dangerous, too raw.
The witch lifted her head abruptly in a sharp, jerky motion and sniffed at the air, her nostrils flaring. “Angry thoughts,” she whispered. “Desperation. And fear… a bitter brew. Delicious. Delicious.” She leaned towards Mel, angling herself downwards like a heron pecking at weeds, her face all angles.
Mel breathed slowly and deeply and tried not to make any sudden movements. She was suddenly far too hot in her winter coat. “You know what I’m asking?" she said softly. "You know why I came?”
Bijou looked down at her. The lines of her face now seemed predatory, and her mouth was pulled into a thin white line. “I know why you came.” The words were an exhalation, almost a sigh. “I can help you. Of course I can. But… far safer for you to simply… forget.”
“No. I can’t forget. I won’t forget.” Impatient, Mel offered up the lime marmalade next, breaking the tension, and Bijou hummed and nodded in what might have been approval.
Then the snail shells. Bijou accepted them carefully, her sharp fingernails pricking the pustules of the bubble wrap as she transferred them gingerly to an inside pocket of her voluminous coat. The diary, its pink cover sickly orange under the streetlights, a year’s worth of pre-teen secrets and outpourings, lipstick kisses and bad poetry. The suicide note, which the witch pressed to her face; inhaled deeply. The feather. The wool.
The wool went into the tapestry bag. Mel was careful to look away when the bag was opened and she kept her gaze averted until it was closed.
There were all sorts of witches. They did mostly the same thing, to be fair, but they went about it in different ways. There were cyber witches, who drew their magic from the clacking of keys and the sizzle of circuit boards. There were city witches, who walked widdershins down alleyways and drew sigils in spray paint. There were not many kinds of witch who carried their power in a tapestry bag, which wriggled, like a kitten, when it thought Mel wasn’t looking.
Mel thought about asking what sort of witch she was hiring, but she didn’t know how to phrase the question without giving offense and she had a feeling she’d be happiest not knowing. She wanted three things, three very simple things, really – an answer, a map, and a key.