Blackthorn

Blackthorn
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Estimated reading time — 33 minutes

That first night, I knelt in the soil and said the words aloud.

“This is my wish. This is my want”. Elewyn had nodded, in approval of the words. I knew what I wanted. I knew what I was saying. Somehow though, even then, it felt wrong.

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I first went to the woods in September. I first said those words that night.

“This is my wish.This is my want.” I’d met Elywn in the May and she’d told me, that if I was to have my desire – my wish and my want- then it needed to be set by end October.

“Readily laid by Samhain” She had said.

In honesty, that first night in the woods, I hadn’t wanted to part with the picture. It was Robin’s photo. I had stolen it at the end of last year. After he’d been made a Sixth Form prefect. It had been tacked to a noticeboard in the corridor beside the headshots of all the other prefects. An acknowledgement of sorts, of the office and to make them recognisable to the younger students. I recognised him, by his eyes.

Amongst all the other photos, the heads and shoulders of nameless dross, pale acne scarred skin and long hair spilling onto the shoulders of their maroon blazers, those eyes blazed. Even from across the corridor, amongst the tones of flesh and uniforms that colour stood out like a sapphire on a butcher’s slab. I waited until after most of the student’s left and with one swift swipe I ripped it from the board and shoved it into my bag.

Once home, I placed the photo carefully between the leaves of a heavy book. The violence with which I’d torn it from the wall seemed somehow disrespectful and this reverential way of pressing and preserving it, felt almost like an apology.  Like the first soft gesture of touch toward a lover after a fight.That first trip to the woods, the first time I said the words,  I’d struggled with the idea of removing it from its place.

The photograph itself was a 4×8. Robin in three quarters. His head and shoulders filled the image like some beautiful bust by Bernini.

In it, Robin’s thick raven hair fell in a silken swoop, left to right and cascaded in a stream down over his forehead to the bones of his brow. A small sfumato kiss touched the corners of his smiling lips and there was a true ingenuous warmth to his gaze.

Only the very top of the prefect’s badge, pinned to his chest, was visible, the rest clipped by the bottom of the page, but he knew it was there and though it might not have been cool to admit it, you could tell he was proud.

I’d tried photocopying it. Even, with some limited success, drawing a copy of it, but it wasn’t the same. The xerox was black and white, grainy and blurred. The strong, defined lines of his jaw, visible in the photo bled into the shadow beneath his chin, robbing the face of its perfect shape. Plus the colour was gone. His eyes, muted to gray.

My drawing was a faithful rendering, one of the best portraits I’d ever done, but somehow, knowing it came from my hand, that it bore a stamp from me, not him, robbed it of its life and vitality. It was an image of him, but it wasn’t him in the way that the photograph was. I didn’t want to part with that 4×8, but part with it I did. I had to, to show ‘them’, my wish and my want.

I’d never expected to feel afraid. The first time I stepped from the gravel path, away from the familiar light of the streetlamps, and away from the houses on Cross Street, into the dark barrier of trees, into the woods, I thought I’d feel no fear.

My thoughts were on the year, my eighteenth,  trickling away. Summer’s light dimming into autumn, before going out in winter. The days were growing shorter, as if the darkness were feeding, fattening up each day on the carcass of the light. I thought all of this as I stepped into the woods, I also thought, I’d be okay. 

My choice to be, for the want of a better term ‘a witch’ I believed, would make my impervious to fear. How could I fear the darkness if I was a part of it?  I thought, in my naivety, that by folding myself in black, embracing the night, I would scare away all terrors that the night could contain. I thought, I could be of the night, part of it.  I thought this that first night. I thought about it and I was wrong.

Stepping into the woods that first night, out of the light and into the shadows between the trees, I was not a part of the darkness, I was alone in it.

Passing from the lights of the street I seemed to cross the divide, to leave something behind. Only then, was I was truly wrapped in black and it didn’t feel like home. I didn’t feel the ‘kiss of the earth’, that feeling I’d read about in the books I’d collected.

‘To a witch’, the books had said, ‘the woods hold no fear. Treading to sabbat, barefoot in the dark, she feels not fear, but the cool hardness of the earth, the fresh aroma of the soil, and the night close around her with the protection of a womb. The goddess, The Mother’. That’s not what I felt.I felt, scared.

As I crept, barefoot as commanded, through the woods, the whispers in the trees spoke a different story. Only I broke the silence, the hush of things in hiding. The soft crisp to sludge of autumnal leaves spoke, beneath my feet, of fragility and with every crackle and every snap, it told me, in a low bass lined voice, quivering over instinct,  that I was alone and I was exposed. To what, I didn’t know, but I couldn’t help thinking that someone or something was watching.

With each step, I felt – the soles of the feet knowing long before my ears- the rustle or slap that the step would create. My body knew the sound to expect, but now, there were other sounds. Sounds that didnt come from me.

The prowling, whispered shift of a bush nearby, as something brushed, barely, against its leaves. The delayed crunch of weight on foliage under foot, that I knew was not my own. A foot?  A talon? A hoof? Images and words leaked into my mind, escaping from pages I’d read in the daytime. In the light.

Then, I’d happily ignored the woodcuts of horrors, of hard angled things, horned and deformed that lurked in the hedgerows and hunched in fallows. Now, they seemed much clearer, their smudged bleeds of deep black ink so much more like the night. As I hurried through the woods I remembered them. I didn’t feel protected or bold. I didn’t feel at home, in a womb of protection. I felt, like prey.

Finally, I made it to the blackthorn tree. Elewyn was already waiting.

The next day, it was colour and a voice, that pulled me from my work. The other half of Robin’s badge, the half not in the photo, caught the corner of my eye and dragged me back to reality. Until then, I had been totally immersed.

It was the morning after my first trip to the woods and sitting at my desk, my sketchbook spread, I swam through the ink. Over a double period of two hours in which our teacher drawled and droned, I had  drawn.

In a gorgeous black, I had traced an overlap of branches in patterns and stars. It was a strange mix of botanics and signs. I’d been reading about the symbols for almost a year, book after book on sacred geometries, occult symbolism and celtic folklore, but now it was different.

Now, after my night in the woods, these sigils and icons were no longer lines. I saw them afresh, organic, alive. Intertwined with the foliage and fear of the previous evening. The symbols’ lines and inscriptions, their shifting meanings, fluid over time, spun in my head and I had to get them out, put onto the page. 

In my sketch, magical diagrams grew from the soil. I traced out pentagrams wound up in ivy, Wotan’s cross tangled with rowan, Hecate’s wheel  wound up with hemlock as branches of sloe curled tenebrous paths round a seax of wica. When I saw them now, it was different. Or perhaps, I was.

Suddenly, that new sign. The crude, shield shaped metallic badge, maroon like his blazer, caught my eye and I looked up.

“That’s really cool” he said, peering down at my drawing. He was standing at the end of my desk, his satchel slung nonchalantly over one shoulder and was watching me draw. 

I froze. How long had he been there? How had I not noticed? The class had ended. Other students jostled and shoved past, moving on to the cafeteria for lunch. Robin, remained.

“You’re talented.” He went on. Had it really worked, so quickly? What about the other visits, the rituals, the offerings? Elewyn said they all needed to happen, she had insisted. It was still a month to Samhain.

“Ah…uh..thanks.” I managed to stutter and looked into his eyes. Then it was his turn to stutter.

“ Is…that…supposed to be me?” he said. He was looking at a pile of papers beside my sketchbook. Drawings on loose leaves that I had hurriedly shoved between the pages, just as I had with his photo. Atop of all of them, was the drawing I’d done of Robin.

I felt like my heart had stopped. A feeling of cold in the pit of the stomach, as if someone had poured ice water over it, the coppery metallic taste of adrenaline, fear. I looked up at him, him looking at this drawing of himself and I panicked.

I stuffed the drawing, along with the others, into the sketchbook. Slammed it shut and shoved it into my bag. As quickly as I could I rose from my seat and, without saying a word dashed into the corridor, leaving Robin standing, confused and alone. I wished I hadn’t done that.

I sat on the benches outside, in a hunched curl as my body attempted to cringe itself inside out. “Christ, Anna, you’re eighteen not eight”. I muttered to myself. “What the hell was that?” Though really I knew. It had been a lot of things. Nerves, embarrassment, fear of rejection, panic.

What if he’d hated it? He was never even meant to see it. How could I have been so stupid? I let him see it, and then, then, I ran away. Why? Wasn’t this what I wanted. Hadn’t I said that he, this was my wish?

I knew that I had and somewhere behind my fear and regret, behind the usual teenage awkwardness I knew there was a deeper concern. A fear and excitement that somehow, what I’d done, might have worked.

I had met with Elewyn that night by the blackthorn tree. This seemed appropriate. Called ‘straif’ in the ogham language, I‘d read that pointing a wand or ‘stang’ of blackthorn at a pregnant woman would make her miscarry, whilst  pointing it at crops could make them shrink and whither. Witches’ poppets were pierced with blackthorn and it was used by the devil to prick his follower’s fingers. It was also, where we’d first met.

This particular tree had flowered earlier that year, which according to tradition, meant we’d have a blackthorn winter, one that would be particularly harsh.  When I arrived, she was already waiting. I had stepped off from East Path and headed westward through the wood. It was the only path I knew of,  so I had no  idea how she’d gotten there, nor how long she waited.

In the feeble moonlight that broke through the trees, she looked as if she’d grown there. As if, beneath the folds of her dress, mossy roots extended down, grounding, stabalising. She wasn’t scared and once I saw her, neither was I.

“Before the glass” she said  “there was water”.  I understood this to be a reference to reflection, to the ritual we were about to perform. She led me to a small brook, little more than a spring and had me place my hands into it. The water was icy, but somehow the sensation was pleasant and free, the flow refreshing and oddly, unifying. At first, I thought this was a cleansing ritual, but it was more than that. It was one of Elewyn’s lessons. The best I ever learnt.

Elewyn told me to watch as the water spilt and warped around my hands. Magic, she had said was about exerting power. About bending reality to the force of your will, like changing the course of water.

If you’re altering the course of stream you can do it with your hands, you can watch the water change direction, trace a new and different path depending on your movements, time and fate are like this. But once you remove your hands, it will revert back to its natural course. She held my hands under the water, caressing them tenderly, maternally and washing them gently.

“Some lines of fate aren’t trickles or streams” she said “They are rivers. Tides. To divert them will take more than your hands. To change a river’s course, you need to use a dam. To leave something strong and permanent behind, something that will stay and alter the flow. Forever. The stronger the stream of fate, the bigger the dam, the more you leave behind to divert the flow”. She fixed her eyes on mine. Her red hair tumbled over her face as she knelt and after a few seconds, a mischievous smile danced upon her lips.

“Show me the boy” she said.

Elewyn took the photo and together we walked back to the grove, the clearing where we had first met. She had lit a candle, which, despite being a small single flame, threw out a brilliant light and helped guide the way. I presumed she’d chosen this over a battery powered torch to add to the atmosphere and I have to admit, the effect was enchanting.

Before the tree, Elewyn lit more candles, then,  she dug a small, but deep, hole. Around the edges she placed twigs of various varieties, including blackthorn and willow that she had bundled together with twine. This, in effect, created a small fence around the hole, so that in the megre light, it looked somewhat like a grave that a child might dig for a pet.

She held out her hands and gestured  toward me, which I took to mean that I should I give her the items she had requested. I knelt beside her, my knees becoming damp in the soft mud, the sweet tangy scent of autumn leaves and damp vegetation filling the air.

From my satchel,  I carefully took the fragments of glass. Elewyn had told me to shatter  a mirror as I peered into it and to bring along the pieces. I had always been led to believe that this brought seven years bad luck and this she confirmed.

“You have created a stream going one way, now, you divert it”. She carefully placed the photograph of Robin at the bottom of the hole in a gesture that, I must confess made me feel a little uneasy.

Into the soil, she then had me insert the fragments of mirror so that the pieces protruded like small jagged teeth from the mouth of the hole. Following her directions, I carefully angled each fragment so that it reflected the image of Robin.

“Make sure they see his face in all of them. These will be their eyes.”

She explained that the breaking created a stream of  bad luck. By burying, I was diverting that course, just as my hands  had in the stream. I was exerting my will, changing the flow and direction from bad luck to good. Each fragment, was an eye for ‘them’ to see my wish. I didn’t know who ‘they’ were. I wish that I still didn’t.

Over the hole, I pronounced the words she had told me and around the small pit I scratched symbols into the earth with my finger so that they formed a ring around the fence of twigs. I looked down into the hole. At the fragments of mirror and the splintered image of Robin.

“This is my wish” I declared over the hole.

In the tiny shards I saw images of Robin, shattered and altered as if this  were a kaleidoscope made up of only him. I saw myself too,  though, oddly it seemed, through a trick of the light, that instead of the black I was wearing in the image I wore red. The dress I’d been wearing when I shattered the mirror. My hair too, in the image, was plaited and down, not fastened up, like like it should’ve been, like it was.

The reflection I was seeing, was two days old. As if the mirror had taken its final image and was holding onto it forever. ‘They’ can see me too, I thought. I hardened my resolve and threw soil into the pit covering up the image.

“This” I said “Is my wish.”

For the second time in less than an hour I was dragged from my thoughts back to the real world by a voice. For the second time that day it was Robin’s.

“Hey” he said, apprehensive it seemed. This time, I managed to reply more coherently.

“Hey”, I muttered without raising my eyes from the ground “Sorry about that, it’s just, I get a weird about people seeing my work”.I finished weakly.

“Even if they’re in it?” he half said, half laughed. He’s not angry I thought. He’s smiling, laughing even. I allowed myself to look up. To gaze in wonder at at his gorgeous eyes. Robin rubbed the back of his neck with one hand nervously, as if he was building up to something. I felt the panic again, that same icy feeling in my stomach. I didn’t have butterflies, I had birds, whole murmurations diving  dancing in unified patterns, welling and receding as my heart began to race.

“Anyway,”  he said, “I just came to tell you that you forgot your pen” he held out a fineliner that I had been using to ink my piece, I took it from him his and for the slightest of seconds my fingers brushed his with a crackle of electricity. I tried to steady my breathing.

“Also…” he went on. It was strange, he seemed nervous talking to me, as if he were struggling somehow to find the right words. “I’m not sure how to say this but…you might not want to sit there.” his mouth lifted into a smile, though not of humour. This was apology, embarrassment. I turned to look behind me. “Wet Paint” the sign read.

I leapt to my feet, but I knew it was already too late. As I’d risen I had felt the tacky stick of the paint tugging at my dress as if it didn’t want me to stand, I turned my back to Robin and looking back over my shoulder I examined the damage. There,  across my ample behind, which I had packed that morning into a clinging black dress, were three bright red lines. I looked like I’d been seared. 

Robin hadn’t wanted to talk. This was his prefect duty. He was being a good student and making me aware, the pen was just a coincidence, manners, also part of his nature.

I glanced from the stain back to Robin, and watched as his eyes surveyed me. He was looking at the marks, but also, also, something else. I felt his eyes upon me.  The lines of paint  ran from one hip to the other right across my ass. The dress was ruined. He didn’t seem concerned and his look seemed to last for an awfully long time.

I smiled, despite myself “ Ahem…” I said loudly. Interrupting his gaze. He looked up,as if startled, raising his hands in a pleading gesture, half unsure whether to apologise for being quite so ‘appreciative’ of the view.

“I…ahm…” he stumbled “ Looks good!” he finished and we both laughed. I picked up my things from the floor before the bench. “Thanks for the pen.” I said “And for the rescue. Albeit too late.” I smiled and he flicked his prefect’s  badge with his fingers and made a ‘ping’ sound.

“All in a day’s work,” he said with exaggerated importance.

“Bye.” I said turning to leave.

“See you” he called. I walked away, biting my lip nervously so as not to smile too widely. I wondered as I did, if he was ‘seeing me’ as I walked away.

I washed the dress when I got home. The paint didn’t budge. The next day, I wore it anyway.

A week later, I went back to the woods. Elewyn was already waiting. I’d first met her in May. Our dog, Toby had been killed the previous year, hit by a driver who hadn’t even bothered to stop. Until that point, I had walked him, in the woods every night. After he died I kept up the habit, only now, without Toby.  My Mother always worked ‘till late and every evening, whatever the weather, I’d step off Cross Street, into the woods, I’d find East path and follow it through.

When I started to read up on witchcraft, the walk took on a new meaning. Now I could pick out types of trees, herbs and shrubs and note their uses, the myths and lore around them. In my daydreams I communed with the woods, felt myself becoming attuned to an older pagan history, that was rural, pastoral. I spread my arms as I walked, caressing plants and bark, feeling like I was part of some benevolent  nature. Until I met Elewyn I had never been there at night.

It was dusk when I’d first met her. She was kneeling before the blackthorn tree and wearing a dress that made her look like an extra from some tv drama of an Arthurian legend. Her hair, a vibrant, brilliant, copper hung in ringlets, down to her shoulders. She was using a piece of bone to scratch symbols in the dirt. I watched, fascinated. I recognised the symbols.

At first, she spoke without turning to look at me and apropos of nothing began to explain what she was doing and the significance of the signs she had scrawled, as if I had wandered into a lecture she was always planning to give. At first, I didn’t know what to do, whether to politely keep on walking, reply, or ask questions. Somehow though I was compelled to go closer, and without really thinking about it I simply sat down, cross legged on the bare earth and listened, watching as she performed her ritual.

When she had finished the rite, something that involved a crow’s feather, some needles and a handful of salt, she turned and addressed me directly. Had I never met Robin, I would say that she had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. They were of a deep magnificent green, a glittering emerald that might even have been no colour, but rather a mirror that reflected the wood itself, drinking with the juicy verdant tone of the leaves.

She told me her name, asked me mine and explained that she’d been coming here for a very long time. Over the next few months we met, almost every night. She enthralled me. The things she knew and willingly explained, she’d dazzle me with bottomless wells of folklore and tales of history and magic. I had been reading on wicca, but she said she wasn’t, she was something older, that didn’t have a name.

Now and again she’d do a trick, like breaking a branch then healing it before my very eyes. Whenever I asked how she did it, she’d simply smile. ‘When you cut yourself, it heals. It isn’t magic, it just happens. If I left the branch alone eventually it would heal. The flow is already going that way,I just push it along. Yield to the will that’s already there. That kind of magic is easy. It’s going the other way that’s hard. “

She was endlessly generous with her knowledge on all subjects but herself. In all of these conversations she gave nothing of her away. She would question me about myself, and I unused to and a little flattered by the attention, would answer with fullness and truth. When I asked of her, where she lived, what she did, she would cringe and recoil,  physically flinching and looking away, like some animals  I’d approached with a branding iron.  The thought was clearly painful, a door best kept locked. I didn’t want to hurt her. Eventually, I just stopped asking.

The second time I went at night to the woods, I took with me rotting meat. I’d kept it at the bottom of our garden for a week and despite the autumnal chill in the air, it had still begun to fester, the last of the flies, lethargic with cold, circling heavily above.  Still, it was what she’d asked for.

Since  last I had held it,  its firmness had gone. Now it seemed to be putrefying, sliding slowly from solid to liquid. It reeked within the bag and though I knew there were no bears or wolves in these English woods, I still felt the stench might be attracting something and this time I did not tread carefully, but ran to the blackthorn tree. Where Elewyn was already waiting.

She had me lay the meat before the hole I had made, after I moved the few leaves and detritus that had fallen into it. Again I felt unsettled. Moving an amber leaf to reveal Robin’s eyes, reflected in the mirrors, was like wiping debris from the occupant of a grave, acorpse without a coffin, staring, unblinking, upward.

“This is my wish” I again intoned, knowing, feeling, how much I meant it, how much I, wanted, needed him.

Elewyn stood beside me and when I’d finished the rites, she spoke, as if to the air. She wasn’t speaking only to me, but rather was broadly announcing.

“To change the flow, divert the direction, you must dam the river. You must leave something behind”. Then, she turned and and with a  sweet, almost motherly gesture, twirled a lock of my hair in her fingers. “Your hair is gorgeous.” She said  “That beautiful, chestnut brown”. I smiled broadly, swaddled in the warmth of her compliment. It was a smile that drained from my face, the moment I saw the scissors.

I suppose I knew before I went. That sacrifices had to be made. But still I didn’t understand. How could Robin love me, looking…looking like that? I knew I had to do it. But as I crashed through the brush, stumbling and fighting my way back toward Cross street, I pulled my hat down over my head and felt the tears in my eyes.

She’d said it was a matter of faith. Showing your trust and leaving something behind, something of personal value. As I swept the freshly cut locks of hair into the hole, watching each fall in turn, I felt my faith being tested. So tested, that I almost screamed when she got close,  so close I could feel her breath, and with a pair of smaller scissors, cut away my eyelashes.Then, I doubted.

As the blades hovered close, so perilously close,to my eyes.I stiffened. Willing myself to trust, not to doubt. Not to question, or ask, who is this person?  This someone that  I have allowed to come so intimately, dangerously close? What if, I questioned, for a flickering instant, she meant me harm? What if she wasn’t to be trusted. I held my breath as I felt the tug of the closing jaws on the lashes, heard the snip and felt them fall, softly brushing my cheeks.This I thought, is trust. This is an act of faith. As I emerged from the woods back to the street, I saw my faith rewarded.

Even as a silhouette, I knew it was him.

“Hey” he called, his outline the only moving thing on the lonely path that separated the houses from the woods. As he came closer, into the glow of the streetlight. I felt my breath catch.

He was on his bike. Standing on the pedals, upright so that the seat was redundant, slowly shifting his weight from one side to the other to make the bike inch further toward me. Once his face was visible, I knew that mine was too. His face in an instant changed from mirth to concern.

“You okay?” He asked hesitantly.

He was wearing lose blue jeans and a grey pullover I assumed used to belong to his father with the words ‘Staffing Agencies Seattle’ printed on it in large red letters.

“Were you…” he paused as if reluctant to go on, scared that the obvious might imply more than he intended. “In the woods?” He glanced quickly to his right, to the uniform wall of black formed by the tangle of trees.

“Yeah” I replied, noncommittally, wishing I could tell him why, why I had gone to that place in the dark and why I had done what I’d done. Tell him that it was all for him, for the spider web of tingles his glances made upon my neck, the heat that burned in my cheeks when he spoke, for his eyes, those beautiful blue eyes. I longed to tell him, “You, are my wish. You, are my want”.

Instead, I simply stood, my arms folded across my chest like a barrier and a wall and shyly dropped my gaze.  Oh god, of all times, of all times for him to see me, I thought. My mind in alarm, buzzed and fizzed, as if there were an insect trapped inside the skull. Something, it screamed,  say something,

” I, uh, I just went for a walk” I added feebly.

“In there?” Robin gestured with a nod of his head toward the woods. There was something in the emphasis he put on that last word, coupled with the speed at which his eyebrows rose that spoke less of surprise than concern, but soon it was gone. Replaced by a toothy grin.

“You’re braver than me, I’ll tell you that much. I usually rush past this bit and I’m on my bike. Them woods give me the creeps”. He let his feet drop so that the bike stilled and he stood astride the crossbar like some blue jeaned colossus.

“Hey” he began nervously, “I, er, I only live round the corner, You must be freezin’, you wanna, come in for a brew? ” My heart leapt and my throat went dry so that I couldn’t find the words. Instead I simply nodded.

“Great. Jump on” he said and spun the bike around to allow me to mount it. I climbed onto the seat like I were mounting some steed in a girlhood dream, a princess ready to be whisked away in one of those too sweet tales I hated. How, I thought, is this happening? As he eased the thing into life and, as the wheels jerked forward, I felt I had to hold on and rested my hands on his hips. As the momentum shifted with a slow, yielding, yawn and the weight barrelled in the right direction, I glanced furtively backward, to the line of trees that huddled conspiratorially at the edge of the woods and more carefully at the spaces between them.

“You alright?” Robin called without turning. I was more alright than he’d know, I’d diverted the stream and though I couldn’t see his face, I knew that Robin was smiling.

That night, Robin gave me hot chocolate. I folded my hands around the mug, pleased by its solidity and warmth. I watched as Robin drank from his mug, saw for an instant the moisture on his lips and knew that if kissed, the ghost of the chocolate would make those lips taste sweet. How I longed to kiss him. To feel his arms around me. I pictured us entwined, our bare chests pressed together, breathing slowly in unison so that our hearts beat the same rhythm, I imagined us, melting into one.

Robin’s kitchen was spacious and well lit. I knew as soon as I walked in and caught sight of myself in the mirror, wearing the red woolen hat, curls of hair like pencil shavings still resting on the shoulders of my jacket, that I must look awful to him.

Yet, there was something. Something new in his eyes. A spark behind the blue, like a whale watching a boat from below the surface, looking through the blue. Robin no longer looked at me. Now, Robin saw me.

After a few seconds, he screwed up his face and tilted his head to one side quizzically in a gesture that reminded of something Toby would do when we called his name. He seemed to be puzzling something and then he asked, shyly,

“Did you cut off your eyelashes?”

Robin was polite that night. He washed up our mugs and chatted about school. Teachers he didn’t like, subjects that he did. He talked about uni and his plans for next summer. Eventually, he came round to his more immediate plans.

“What have you got planned for Halloween?” he asked, rubbing his mug  with a tea towel, though it was already long dry. I shrugged.

“Nothing much” I lied. Knowing that Samhain would be the final meeting. The last part of the ritual, a gorgeous fault line in time, between the years past and to come, between what I was and what I wished to be.

“Well” he began, looking down at the mug with exaggerated concentration, as if it was imperative that all trace of moisture be removed. “There’s a night on, I mean, a fancy dress party thing in town if, you know, if you want to go. If, yeah, if…” he stumbled over the words, deliberately looking away.

It was strange, but at that moment I felt a sort of shift. Suddenly, the pendulum had swung toward me, the power balance altered. This was Robin, vulnerable, this was the soft underbelly of his ego and his esteem. Now he was exposed, willingly. Before he’d even asked, the act of asking was an invitation, an opening of the armour  a submission to another.

“If you, like, want to go.With me?”

Finally, he looked up,  I swam in blue as his eyes met mine.

“I’d like that”. I said aloud, as in my head I recited, “Readily laid by samhain”.

That night I went home and using my brothers hair clippers, shaved off what remained of my hair.   

The next day, I mused. Wringing the thoughts like wet linen in taut, sinewed hands, mulling and turning them over and over. Robin had given me an invite, clearly Elewyn was right. The things I was doing, with her in the woods, those things were right.They were right because they worked.

But then, how could I finish the ritual and be with him as well? Even a witch can’t be in two places at once. It seemed to me that I’d go to the woods to claim a prize I already had.Robin had asked, he had shown his hand, his interest. Perhaps. But then, perhaps not. Perhaps, I thought, this is halfway. If I don’t go, if I don’t complete the final part, then Robin wont show up. The invite and all it represents will wither and disintegrate between my grasping hands, roses turned to ashes, spilling into the wind through my fingers.

The sincerity with which he’s asked me to go, would evaporate, wash away like a thin veneer, revealing beneath the sting of cruelty. A joke, a lure, meant to embarrass, to lead me on to thinking this could be real. And yet, I knew, it was real. I’d seen it  in his eyes. He’d meant what he said. I knew that he wanted it. Wanted me with him, on that night, wanted me to him at the party. Wanted, me.

The party started at eight I said, nobody would be there till nine at the earliest.  I would meet him I said at the same point we had met that night. On Cross Street near East Path, on the street by the woods. I said I would meet him at nine, knowing that the light would have faded by five. He had asked, joking, whether I was going for another stroll in the woods. He’d laughed at the idea. “You wouldn’t catch me in there at night. Especially not on Halloween” and yet, I thought privately, I will catch you in the woods. I’ll catch you and I’ll keep you. The thought gave me a thrill of excitement but the words sounded wrong.

The sun didn’t wait ‘till five. This was Britain in autumn and the sun, weary of its battle, sank beneath the horizon at a little after 4. I didn’t wait ‘till dark.

As soon as I awoke that day, I could feel it was something different. This, I knew, was my samhain. To say that the liminality of the day was tangible, sounds trite, but it is also the truth. There was a thickness to the air, as if the final breath of the year past were being exhaled, hanging momentarily in the air, to be replaced by the cool freshness of the new one.

I got to the edge of the woods around two. Sat for hours on the Cross Street bench, watching the line where later, I would step from the street into the woods. From the turgid streetlight, into the dark. I watched the gold and amber of the autumn leaves, yellow and orange, aglow with colour as if the tree were burning in slow motion, their flaming leaves lapping at the sky. I shivered against the chill and thought about boundaries, transitions and change.

That night would be a crossroads. At 18, I would soon cross from adolescence to adulthood, I was to step, physically from light into dark, modernity and concrete to darkness and vegetation, I would cross boundaries with Robin, pass from separate beings to unity. The year would end and begin anew and I would no longer be simply a girl, but both a woman and a witch.

I didn’t know why I went so early, but I knew I was compelled to be there. Yet, I wasn’t pulled or drawn toward the woods. Rather, I was pushed. Forced from behind by the weight of the dying year, urged forward and onward, led rather than dragged onto a course already laid. I watched the sky and waited for dark.

When Elewyn had first mentioned love, I had shrunk from the word. All my teenage anxiety rising up to build walls of protection around exposed emotions. I hadn’t just mentioned Robin, I realised, I had enthused. That was a mistake, it revealed too much. Still, the question, “Do you love him? Do you want him?”

  Eventually, I responded to her question with a nod

“Yes, I love him” I affirmed softly.

She had taken my hands in hers then, and looking at me earnestly with those deep green eyes said

“And want him. You want him, don’t you?” she stressed theses words in a way that made her sentence seem  more like a declaration than a question. Again, I had nodded.

Elewyn lifted a stone from the ground and rolled it with a flick of her hand. When she opened it, there, in her palm was a small green gem of a similar shade to her eyes. She often did this kind of close quarter magic trick to amuse me and in typical Elewyn fashion, never revealed how she achieved the effect. She lifted the gem in the fingers of her other hand and held it up to the light. “If he is your wish and your want, then you should have him. For a witch, nothing is beyond reach as long as she is happy to trade. If you want him, your offerings must be readily laid by samhain”. Her voice had a sweet, sonorous timber to it, like wind dancing gently through leaves.

She  then explained the process. Three visits, here, at night. Each time leaving something and letting ‘them’ see the offering, culminating at Samhain. At this point she hadn’t explained about diverting the stream of fate, leaving something to dam its course. She also hadn’t mentioned that each time, the offering would be greater, or who ‘they’ were.

Sitting on that bench, watching the final embers of the year lose their glow, I consider how big an offering Samhain would require. What I’d need to leave this time. I considered and decided. He was my wish and my want, I’d do what needed to be done and leave what needed to be left for ‘them’.

I watched the sun set on the year’s final day. Waited for the black to bleed into the sky like ink and then, when I was sure that night had deposed the day, I rose from my seat and stepped across that boundary from what was, to what would be, from the dark to the light and from street into the woods.

Knowing that I was to meet Robin afterward, I had already assembled my costume. I had laughed in the mirror at the irony. A long black, figure hugging, dress, heavy streaks of makeup around the eyes, my absent lashes replaced by a line of charcoal. By the edge of the woods, for retrieval later, I had left a wooden broomstick and even a pointy hat, the cultural markers of the archetype ‘witch’.  I’d go to the party as a witch but, I smiled, it would be no costume.

Again I entered barefoot. Now though, the cold moisture of the earth no longer pinched at the soles. Rather it leached into flesh as if trying to bond and merge. The feeling was cool and invigorating, like on that first day when I’d placed my hands in the water. I walked slowly, feeling each deliberate step, consciously, meditatively dwelling on the sumptuous communion between the flesh and the ground.

I stepped on that soil with purpose. Knowing and reveling in the fact that every step would leave a mark, my mark, upon the land. I would be part of the wood. I reached out my hands and touched as I passed, textures delighting the fingertips, trying, through this dance of touch and smell, taste and vision to be embraced and enveloped by the wood.

I slowed my steps further. What need had I to rush? I glanced about me, into the darkness and felt no trace of fear, instead, I felt belonging. Jutting my chin at an imperious upward angle I then sped up my steps. Not through any need for haste, but instead as a celebration, a sense of my own becoming. I owned here, I belonged here and with a smile, I started, to stride.

It was still in this revelry at the beauty of the night, that I stepped into the clearing, where Elewyn was waiting. She had lit in a circle, a number of candles, allowing through their yellow glow, glimpses of the wood, streaks of celadon and jade, to be revealed in flashes. She stood before the blackthorn tree, her arms open in a welcoming gesture, looming over the small hole that we had made.

Then, there was silence. Neither she, nor I, nor the wood around, made a single sound. The trees, melded like a wall of black,closed in around, forming on  four sides a curtain of night, shielding and enclosing, for privacy, in secret, us, here, within. Standing in the tiny glow of our stage, ready to perform the final act.

I began to speak, to ask what came next, but Elewyn hushed me. Raising a finger to her lips as if to say, that this would happen in silence. I moved toward the hole and even in the dark, saw the fractured blue of Robin’s reflected eyes staring out. The 4×8 of his innocent smile. I wondered for a moment, how he’d feel if he knew. The lengths I’d gone to to make him mine.

Into my hand she placed a long dark stick. The end, which I held was smooth, but above the space cleared for a grip, savage thorns of formidable thickness protruded out in vicious looking spikes. Each one the length and thickness of a good sized nail. The word ‘stang’ repeated in my mind as I held this blackthorn wand, which seemed to me more designed to hurt than help.

Elewyn obviously saw my reservation for she smiled pleasantly and caressed the back of my hand, closing my grip around the wood. As she did, I noticed, or thought that I noticed, the look and temperature of her hands.

Before, whenever she reached out to touch, her hands had held a comforting warmth. Now though, the touch was the same as the ground. The cold of the earth I’d enjoyed as I walked. I wondered how long she’d been waiting in the wood and looked down at her hand on mine.

How, I wondered, had I never noticed the extraordinary length of her fingers? The almost deformed length of the hands. Each knuckley finger stretched, it seemed, beyond its physical size, grasping and extending further than it should. The nails, which again I had never noticed, were crusted with dirt like a crescent of soil, each sharp point extending like a talon. I thought to ask, to mention this change. Was it, as I hoped, a trick of the light?

Before I could speak, Elewyn had released me and turned away. When she turned back around  she was holding the sack.

It seemed to be made of sackcloth, the kind of thing one might imagine potatoes were stored in years ago. It evidently had some weight, for initially she lifted it with two hands, hands that I again noticed, seemed unnaturally massive.

She slowly lowered herself so that she squatted before the hole and for the first time I noticed that before her on the ground, there was a small strip of leather, something like a chamoix leather or a pencil roll, unraveled.

Upon it, again, like a group of nails, were a dozen or so jet black thorns, each of around seven inches long, perfectly straight and sporting a needle like point. Shifting the sack into the crook of one arm, supporting its weight as one might lift a cat or an infant, she selected one and rose again to standing. Looking directly at me, never once glancing at her hands or the sack, she held the thorn between her thumb and middle finger and with a slow deliberate push inserted it through the fabric.

The point pierced the cloth easily, but then evidently met something harder within, as it stalled and instead of gliding in had to be pushed and eased into the object, as one might insert a wooden skewer into a vegetable, the pressure meeting a small recalcitrant push from inside. I watched in wonder as she did this, inserting the blackthorn  into the sack and then felt a wave of panic, as the sack began to move.

Even in the candle’s meagre light I could see that around the point where the thorn had entered a red stain was forming and growing. The sack, jerked and twitched in her arms, but she never flinched. Instead, she smiled and gesturing to me said

“Put your hands” Then she passed me the bundle and I felt that it was warm.

The sack was heavy, and yet, I knew that the weight within was being supported by the animation of whatever kicked and writhed inside. The tiny spurts of movement made the package difficult to hold and I struggled not to drop the length of  blackthorn branch she had given me.

More than that, I thought and wondered. What was huddled inside?

“Break a thorn and slide it through” Elewyn said, in a voice that held of the more command than guidance. I peered down at the bundle in my arms and hesitated. The sack moved again. I felt the twist within my arms, of something that didn’t flap like a bird, but wriggled.

I looked up at Elewyn. Somehow, now, seeing her anew. Framed against that wall of black, her skin took on a strange translucence, like you might see in the forehead of a newborn, the veins and arteries visible through the thin film of flesh. In this light the web of capillaries looked green. Her smile too, had altered somehow.

The grin with which she met my gaze changed from its usual motherly aspect to something predatory, something that spoke of want and hunger. Beneath the line of her vermilion lips, stretched straight by the width of her smile, white teeth seemed to hang in points, sharper and more pointed than I had ever noticed.

“Go on” she implored “Push it through”.

I looked again, down at the load in my arms and froze.

“What’s in the sack?” I asked, flatly. Elewyn’s smile disappeared.

“You have said,” she hissed, her voice carrying with it a trace of anger “To me and to them, that this is your wish. This is your want. If that is true, then you must do as I ask. Finish the ritual and change the course, make fate run the way you wish, by damming the flow forever.” I again looked up at her face, felt the sacking move and wondered if the flow would be all that was damned forever. From the branch, I snapped a thorn.

Shifting the weight, as Elewyn had to one arm I felt it move, struggle against my chest. I wondered why there was no sound, no call from within. How do you silence a fowl I wondered, gag a rabbit or rodent? Still the bag, kicked and squirmed. I dropped the branch, holding between my thumb and forefinger one needle of blackthorn. Was this what I wanted, I thought? Was this how it should be?

I thought again of the stream, flowing unimpeded. How when I’d plunged my hand it had flowed to the side, changed its course and altered its flow. How, if only my hand had remained, it still would have flowed, only slightly altered, how if I wanted to divert it completely, I would have needed to block it, two hands a whole arm, perhaps my whole body across its path.

“This you need to do, if you hope to alter the flow. The current is running one way. Still unchanged. Change it with your will” she urged. I thought of Robin. Of the way he’d chosen to let me in, not just into his home but into himself. Chosen to make himself vulnerable, take the risk to ask me and show something of his feelings. The sack, like my mind, danced and squirmed. I knew, with every second I hesitated, refused to stab and skewer whatever moved inside that I was angereing Elewyn, that Robin, my want, was slipping away. But then…

“The flow hasn’t altered?” I asked, looking again at Elewyn, whose posture now, seemed to have changed. Instead of her usual, upright stance she now leaned in a forward arching hunch.

“I mean…” I went on “It hasn’t changed at all? It hasn’t begun to switch its course?”

Elewyn pointed toward me, with a finger that somehow was longer, even than it had seemed, extending out in a thin tenebrous length. She pointed to the sack, to the needle thorn in my fingers.

“Until you do what they desire, nothing, not a thing, will change.” I felt myself, stiffen. In contrast to her, I had straightened, my muscles taut and rigid, hardened I thought, perhaps, by resolve. It was then, in that moment, that doubt began to feed.

If nothing had changed, if my efforts so far hadn’t switched the course, built within that flow of fate a new bend, a new path, then why? Why had those things happen? Why had Robin looked at me the way he had, why had he finally seen me, asked me, why did Robin, want me?

What, I wondered, if the flow was already going my way? What if fate was flowing in that direction and rather than a stream, this flow was a river, a river that would day join the sea and become a tide? I don’t want to do this and perhaps I don’t need to.

I looked down, not at the sack but into the hole. At the small shrine of my wish and my want and for the first time I saw, instead of a picture, the trick. The twist of words that would ensnare, saw for what I had really wished.

In the hole, for ‘them’ to see, was only Robin’s head.

In the photo, the photo I had proclaimed as ‘my wish and my want’ it was severed from his body, just below the shoulder, cleaved from the rest and cut clean through his badge. If I got my wish, what would I find, resting, tomorrow in this pit? The enduring love of my desire or just what I had shown them. Just my love’s head, a bloody remnant, cut from the whole, by things that ask too much. Ask you to cross lines and step over boundaries that you don’t want to cross, to submit yourself to them completely. Suddenly I saw the twist, the cruel turn of my own words back to hurt me. All I’d placed in the pit, all I had asked and wished, all I had shown to them, was his head. I knew then exactl what ‘they’ would give me, laughing as they did.

I looked back at Elewyn. At the black behind her, that now, she seemed to be part of and felt sick. In that black I saw, in a strange tangible way, what is truly meant by ‘the dark’. I saw played out stories of the fae, who on Samhain, walk abroad. Walk for the night, here in our world and reach out to take the things they desire. I thought of women, naked and fleshy, praying in the forest to terrible things, older and darker than what most think of as God. I saw that thing that some will call ‘witch’ that isn’t someone attuned to the earth, someone who is of a tradition or a faith, but is instead, a thing lesser or further than human, attuned to the darkness that lies behind, someone or something who chooses to give, themselves and others over to ‘them’.

I let the thorn fall from my hand and heard myself screaming aloud,

“This will never be my wish. This will never be my want!”

Next I knew, I was running, thrashing blindly, through branch and bush, hurtling forward searching for light. In my arms, the bundle writhed, warm and weighted against my breast. With every stride I felt the woods clambour after me, snag on my dress and catch on my arms. I felt Elewyns branch like fingers reaching out toward me.

Yet as I ran I felt again, something that didn’t pull but pushed, urging me forward, onward, out.

As I began, in the distance to see the light, I felt the sack begin to lighten, as if inside something was melting. The weight began to leave and diminish, the sack, it seemed was emptying and to my disbelief with every stride, it lightened, until as I spilt into the streetlight of Cross Street over the boundary, from dark to light, I held in my hands an empty bag.

I clambered to my feet. Tears forging dark streaks in lines on my face. I rose and looked, back at the woods. I knew what I’d done, or failed to do. And perhaps, I had not altered the flow. Maybe I wouldn’t have my wants, but if he was safe, if I had managed to not be deceived, to wish for something I never would want, then I suppose it would be okay.

“Okay?” I heard the word behind me. As if from my head it had somehow been pulled, plucked from a thought to an actual sound. I turned, slowly, to where Robin was standing. He was wearing all black and had a ‘Scream’ mask in one hand.

“Are you okay?” He repeated, clearly concerned. I swiped at my eyes with the back of my hand, only succeeded in worsening the smears. I looked back at the woods, knowing I’d never go there again.

“Yeah.” I said breathlessly “Yeah, I’m fine. I just. Yeah. ” Robin raised an eyebrow.

“Okaaay…” he repeated. “Look, I meant to say, When I asked the other day if you wanted to come tonight and, yeah, to come with me…” he faltered.

Here it comes I thought, the change and the switch. The price to pay here for the price I was unwilling to pay. I knew it was coming. The bitter, cruel retraction, and yet it didn’t matter. As  long as he’s safe I thought. As long as he’s safe. Robin went on.

“Well, when I said ‘come with me’ I meant, with me. Together. Like, ‘together’ together.

I stood. Silent. ‘He meant it’ I thought. Meant the invite, meant what he’d said. He wanted me to go. He. Wanted. Me.“Yeah” I managed “Together”. Robin smiled and handing me my broom and the pointy hat, moved to stand beside me.

“Can you carry those in one hand?” he asked. I smiled and threw the sack into the woods. Where it belonged.

Robin, grinned again and looking at me, seeing me with his gorgeous blue, took my other hand in his and we walked. Walked to the end of Cross Street, leaving the woods behind. Walked out of the shadow and together, into the light.

“So” he began looking me up and down. “You’re a witch.” I squeezed his hand in mine. “Only tonight” I said. “It’s Samhain, tomorrow is a brand new start”

“What’s sow wayne?” he asked.  That evening I got my wish. That evening I got my want. That night, ‘they’ got theres’.

Robin’s body was found by the woods. I doubt I have to tell you what was missing. The news reports said that ‘The head had yet to be found’. I knew where they’d find it, where it had been left.

‘Readily laid, by Samhain’.

 

CREDIT : Eleanor Sciolistein


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