Her name was Roweinna Sinclair, a strange woman whose pale and freckled face always suggested a mixture of secrecy and suspicions. If I were to be honest with myself, she was rather pretty had she attempted to tame her wild mane of fiery red hair which always looked as if it had been deprived of the luxury of combing for centuries. Growing up as the only child of my parents who were both devout Protestant, I always relied on other people’s judgement to determine what was considered acceptable and not. There was this lady at our small church who would always greet my 6 years-old self with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks whenever we ran into her. I remember thinking how pretty she was as I got older. My brother Iain did not seem to share my unhealthy fixation with her. He found it repulsive for boys like ourselves to have the hots for a woman like her given how ancient she was. She was only in her mid thirties.
When I first saw Roweinna, I knew right away that there was something special and intriguing about her. I didn’t need anybody to tell me how pretty she was. She might look a little bit unhinged at times wandering the forest alone mumbling to herself while looking for wild mushrooms or any other plants whose strange sounding names she had either come up with herself or pronounced in such a way with her thick accent it sounded like gibberish. Unusual she might have been, but she was beautiful, no doubt about it. If only she had smiled a little bit more.
According to the rumours that had been circulated among nosey middle-aged women in our little town, Roweinna came from a small town named Tullycusheen in Ireland and she had decided to move here years before to run away from her abusive and alcoholic husband. She lived all by herself at a small serene-looking cottage up on a hill known locally as Wyrhmhill due north not too far from town and barely interacted with everyone. She kept to herself most of the time, spending hours tending to her garden full of curious looking plants. Occasionally she would descend the hill and walk into town to do her weekly shopping which involved the minimum of communication necessary. There were only a few people who were willing to engage her in a casual conversation. And elsewhere in town they all had chosen to avoid her altogether.
Most kids in our small town thought she was a little weird and eccentric, if not mad. Patrick Malone had once voiced his concern to anyone who was willing to hear about Roweinna being a malicious witch who spent most of her time reciting tricky magic spells or brewing curious potions that enabled her to transform herself into anything including an animal. Some kids stupid enough to fall for his nonsense started making up stories of their own about her which became more and more outlandish as they went on.
Harry Roston told us during recess that he had seen her walking on water in the middle of the night when he and his father were out fishing at the lake. Alexander Hudson swore that his older brother had once caught Roweinna in the middle of transforming herself into a pretty little red fox. I have to say most of these kids were gullible, a bunch of idiots. Or maybe they were just too scared of Patrick to call him out on his bullshit. I personally thought Patrick Malone was a stinkin’ little liar. He had always been one to come up with wild stories to impress everyone.
Nobody knew for sure what Roweinna was actually up to and what had brought her all the way from Far North to our town. But one thing for sure, Patrick Malone always seemed to enjoy inflicting as much pain as possible on other people. The other kids including me had always been on the receiving ends of his threats and intimidation for years. Each Sunday morning when they walked past Roweinna’s cottage on their way to the lake, they would throw rocks at her roof and call her a witch, as if challenging her to prove it. My mother always reminded me to be nice to everyone. Just because they’re different doesn’t mean you could mock or talk them down. So I never joined Patrick Malone and his underlings’ weekly spiteful parade to antagonize Roweinna, which gave him another excuse to treat me as one of his favourite personal punching bags at school. He always got away with it of course. His father was the richest and the fattest man in town. Nobody was stupid enough to attempt resistance or even sassing back.
One Thursday afternoon after school, I was hurrying my way home because I did not want to get caught in the storm when I heard somebody shouting my name.
A voice rose from behind an abandoned dilapidated barn I was running by. I halted and looked over my shoulder to find Patrick and his usual sidekicks staring at me with a nasty blood-thirsty grin on their stupid faces. He was carrying a baseball bat with which he prodded the wall he was leaning against menacingly.
“What do you want?” I chirped as they slowly made their way towards me.
“What do you want …,” he imitated me in a mocking baby-like voice. Both Alexander Hudson and Harry Roston burst out into a disgusting high-pitched pre-puberty laugh at his side.
“Seriously, what do you want, Patrick?” I repeated in a shaky voice, glimpsing the magnitude of what was about to come.
“You know what. I am in the mood for a little kicking your bony ass after what that old faggot did to me in class today,” he retorted. His thin lips curved into an ugly smile which did not compensate for his lack of attractive facial features. He was of course referring to what had happened today in math class when Mr. Faraday humiliated him in front of everyone for falling asleep. Everybody feared Mr. Faraday. He was a horrible and bitter man in his late 30s who would not hesitate to slap you hard across the face if you crossed him.
“And why was it my fault that he did that to you? You deserved it. You were snoring like a farty pregnant cow,” I said, glaring him down. The wind had picked up and the old gigantic oak tree looming over us was gently swaying from side to side.
“Well you weren’t saying anything to defend me. I stayed up late last night to help my little brother with his homeworks,” he snapped. “Now I need to kick your ass to feel good again. You deserve to be punished. Right, kids?”
Both Alexander and Harry nodded vigorously. I took a few steps away from them, still wondering how on earth kicking somebody’s ass would make him happy.
“Don’t get so worked up. Why don’t you just pop those pimples on your face and butt cheeks until your anger goes away?” I suggested half-heartedly, making that ugly grin on his face fade. I looked up to the dark grey sky and my heart fell as I realized I would not make it home in time before the storm arrived.
“Stay where you are!” Patrick yelled. “I’ll just break some of your ribs and I’ll be on my way.” They started sauntering towards me.
“I have to go home. Don’t want my parents to worry about me,” I stuttered, trying to keep my distance from them.
“I’ll give them something else to worry about then. Little Harold having his tiny little ass kicked in leaving him paralyzed and unable to walk straight for the rest of the week.” They all started laughing.
“You have to catch me.”
“Don’t you dare! I’ll beat you to a pulp myself!” He warned me, balling his tiny hands into a fist as if no longer unable to hold back the urge to lash out his anger at every part of my body.
“You’ll trip over your foot and fall rolling on your fat belly before you even touch me, Patrick. We know that. Your ass is too big for your non-existence personality.”
“Get him!” He shouted furiously and the other kids started to lunge at me.
I turned on my heels immediately and started to run as fast as my feet could carry me.
“Stop, you idiot!” I heard him yelling at me. “Stop or you’ll regret this!”
But I kept running towards the forest. I didn’t even stop to retrieve my hat from the ground when a gust of cold wind snatched it off my head. I ran and ran until I arrived at a small clearing where the wind was making weird wavy patterns on the grassy surface. I looked over my shoulder and watched them scurrying fast into the undergrowth, dragging their heavy feet, shouting their horrible threats and warnings at me. But they’re not fast enough for me. Huge droplets of cold freezing rain finally fell as I emerged from the treeline and started running towards the old bridge at the edge of the forest. The river was raging wildly beneath my feet as I ran kept running.
“Stop, Harold!” I heard Patrick’s muffled scream somewhere beyond the thick curtain of rain in the forest behind me.
I started running for the hills, hoping that something bad would happen to them. Telling myself that they would fall and break their necks or that the old bridge would collapse as they ran across it. I turned left for the tall hills that were shrouded in dense low-hanging fog, wishing to find the old dilapidated mine where I could hide until Patrick got tired of chasing me. But instead I stumbled across the rusty gate of an old cemetery where my brother and the other horny teenagers in our town usually spent hours making out at night until it got too cold and they were forced to call it a night. I was through the open gate and found myself running behind a slanted weather-beaten headstone at the farest end of the cemetery. My whole body was sodden as I knelt down and shivered vigorously. I thought of my mother who would not be too pleased to see me coming home in a wet school uniform, not that I didn’t have a good explanation to tell her. I waited patiently for a few more minutes to make sure that my pursuers had finally given up and decided to return to the comforts of their homes in this horrible weather. I was panting so hard as I narrowed my eyes at the gate warily but they were nowhere in sight.
I was about to get back to my feet when somebody suddenly grabbed my wrist and squeezed it tight. I gasped and reflexively cringed away only to have them tighten their grasp around my hand.
“Thought you could just run away easily, didn’t you?” said Alexander, a malicious wide grin plastered across his long pale face.
“Get your filthy hands off me!” I warned him.
“Or what? You’re gonna tell your stinkin’ old mommy?” He let out a chortle. “Patrick! Here! I got him! Here!” He started shouting at the top of his lungs.
I looked around in a panic but could not see through the heavy downpour and thickening fog blanketing the entire cemetery. Somewhere out there I could hear Patrick and Harry laughing gleefully as they waded closer.
“I said let me go!” I yelled, trying to pull myself off him. He tightened his grip on my wrist.
“Shut up!” he snapped. There was no doubt that when the other two finally found us, it would not end well for me. Just like before, they would make sure that I ended up going home with a limp or at least a black eye. I heaved as much air into my lungs as I could and stared at Alexander who was still shouting to lead his friends to us.
“Let me go, Alexander!” I said in a lower voice, inching my face closer to his. “Or I’ll make you regret this. I’ll make your worst nightmare come true!”
He stopped shouting and frowned at me, his lips pursed to make a mockery of concern.
“You’re just like your father, aren’t you?” I challenged him. “Didn’t he use to beat the shit out of yourself and your mother a lot when he’s drunk? Isn’t that why he ended up the way he did?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” He narrowed his eyes at me angrily, but flashes of unpleasant memories from his past were already reflected in his eyes.
“I bet you would never hang out with Patrick if your loser of a father were still around. He’d beat your ass up just like he used to.”
A moment of hesitation, he opened his mouth to speak but my words had triggered something in him, provoked him to relive his horrible childhood under the roof of his abusive father. I swung my wet fist at his face as hard as I could, making sure I hit him where it hurt the most without actually harming him. His grip loosened as he fell in heap and started to whimper like a wounded animal. I heaved myself up and away from him then started running in the opposite direction.
“Son of a bitch! I’m gonna kill you!” His anguished and demented cry cut through the air, which prompted me to run even faster towards the waist-high concrete fence that stretched along the steep riverbank south of the cemetery. I jumped over it and pushed myself through the thick growth. As the tall grass parted I came to a halt and stared in horror when I found myself standing at the edge of a deep crevice through which the river was narrowed even more by overgrowth and massive rock formations, its surface raging wildly from all the stormwater runoff.
“Well well. Nowhere to run now, idiot!” A voice called out from behind me. I turned around to see Patrick jumping off the top of the fence with a victorious evil smirk on his face. “You’re pretty fast for a little stinkin’ rodent. But not fast enough.”
He inched closer towards me with exaggerated slow gait as the other kids followed him. His oversized flannel shirt was untucked and flapping in the wind. He was right. It was either dying from drowning or getting my ass kicked by him. I felt my heart rate slowing down to a crawl.
“I’ll beat you up until your own mother can’t even recognize your face,” he continued, and as if in slow-motion I watched him raise his hand and swing the baseball bat at my head. I side-stepped it deftly and he instead ended up hitting Harry who was standing right next to him still laughing obliviously. There was a sickening thud as his neck broke and he was knocked aside. He fell flat and landed on his back. The other two stood there frozen for a few seconds as the realization of what had just happened dawned on them.
“Fuck … fuck. Look what you just made me do,” Patrick shrieked as he turned his gaze back at me angrily. “I’m gonna kill you now!”
I took a step back in anticipation as he raised his hand again but suddenly a blood-curdling shriek cut through the air. It was Alexander. A blackened rotting hand had emerged from the bush and was dragging him back to the cemetery as he trashed around wildly in a desperate attempt to free himself. It happened so fast. Through the decaying bony fingers clamping over his face, his pale complexion was bleached with terror and helplessness. The sound of his scream was cut short as the living corpse yanked him hard over the fence and both disappeared from view.
We stood there in shock, unable to comprehend what had just happened. For a split second I thought Patrick was going to attack me again. But he dropped the bat and started walking backward in terror, trying to keep his distance from whatever had just taken his friend. There was no reprieve from the horror that had just revealed itself to us.
His whole body was shaking violently. I could have warned him. But I remained silent as I watched him slip over the edge and down into the crevice. It was too late anyway. He didn’t even have time to scream. But I could feel my heart sink to my stomach when I heard a loud sickening thud as he landed hard on a huge rock below, cracking his skull open. I turned away, took a deep breath and shuddered.
“Hey, you alright?”
Tufts of fiery red hair appeared from behind the fence, followed by a pale freckled face that seemed to be emanating a faint bluish glow. Roweinna was beaming broadly. I noticed how tiny droplets of rain were floating around the outline of her slender figure like swarms of flies, as if afraid to touch her. Her voice sounded friendly yet fierce at the same time.
“I …” A lump closed my throat down.
“You should get a cup of hot tea when you get home. You don’t want to get sick, do you?” she continued, her accent melodious and exotic, as if words were dancing out of her lips when she opened her mouth to speak.
I nodded my head stiffly, still gazing at her, unable to break free from my trance. Tufts of her hair were floating around her head independently, unaffected by the wind and rain. She looked down at the lifeless body between us and shook her head.
“I’ve warned these children many times before. But they never listened.” She pursed her lips in a mockery of grief. “Maybe I should have just turned them into hares, yes. But it’s too late now. Nobody can undo magic that has been unleashed. The Storm always arrives on time. I could hear those wishes clearly as if they had been whispered in my ear. It was a matter of life and death,” she murmured to herself.
I was still too stunned to speak or to even move, hypnotized by her sudden appearance. From up close she looked even prettier than I remembered. There was something warm yet also dangerous about her as she heaved herself over the fence
“Very well, Harold. I’ve made all your wishes come true in exchange for the most essential ingredient to make my magic potion …” She pointed at Harry and lowered her voice “… bone powder … Now I have enough supply for the whole year. Thank You.” Her eyes were gleaming heartily as she bent down to check on Harry.
“W-wishes?” I asked incredulously.
She turned her gaze back at me and frowned for a few seconds. And then a smile spread across her face again, revealing a perfect set of pearly white teeth.
“Mouths are speaking, eyes are watching, and ears are listening everywhere,” she whispered mysteriously. “And with a simple magic spell, I …” She snapped her long fingers “… made those wishes come true.”
“Roweinna … ” I stammered, trying to hold back my fear.
“Ssshhhh. You better go now. I’ll take care of this. Nobody is going to remember these children. I won’t tell anybody, if you won’t. It’ll be our little secret.” She pressed a finger on her lips and winked.
She waved a hand in a repetitive gesture in front of her while uttering some weird words that sounded foreign to my ears. And just like that the storm suddenly ceased. The wind stopped howling as dark grey clouds parted and receded into the hillside. The afternoon sun was shining again, casting an eerie reddish glow across the land.
“Goodbye for now, Harold. Glad to help. Be a good boy. Always …” She waved at me as I broke free from whatever it was that had kept me in my place for the last few minutes. I nodded my head and started running as fast as I could. I did not stop until I arrived at the old bridge.
Later that night, a strange idea flashed across my mind when I was doing my math homework. There were still so many unanswered questions about Roweinna swimming around in my head and I was burning with curiosity. It was already past midnight when I decided to turn in after tearing my assignment sheet into several pieces, balled them up and threw them out of my open window. I went to bed with a huge grin plastered over my face that night, waiting for morning to arrive.
I hope there’s still plenty of room in Roweinna’s jar of bone powder for another wish.
Credit: Eoghan Ferguson
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