By Donna Greenwood
A witch cannot lie. That is her misfortune. A witch cannot hurt another human being. That is also her misfortune. All witches have enormous feet. That is of little consequence.
She remembered when they used to call her Grandmother but now she is buried beneath the bridge amongst the smells of rotten fruit and dead kittens. Her people, those mangled creepers who peep at her from under tarpaulin and scowl from their newspapered beds, have grown mean and their curses, dripping with the smell of alcohol and sweet weed, coil around her as she walks a stoop past their prone bodies.
The first blood-shed had been a mere trickle. A rock was thrown and it glanced against her forehead. The perpetrator had been Deaf Samuel and two years previously she had set his broken leg straight.
And then she had been punched in the face. It had always been the case that Grandmother had enjoyed a flagon of the hard stuff just before she settled into her mould-infested sleeping bag and passed out for the night. But on this one night, her presence had agitated the other drinkers so much that Billy Baglight had thrown a punch. She had seen his beautiful clear skin just before the world turned black; skin that she herself had cured of the pox.
Now she drank alone in the furthest corner of the dark underbelly of the bridge, listening to the laughter of those whom she had once called friends.
Her bones began to poke through her ancient skin – a diet of leaves and bin debris had shrivelled her flesh. Nobody came to her asking for a cure for bad breath or a potion to invigorate a fat and lazy lover. Gifts of bread and cake and ale were no longer left for her. She simply starved quietly as this hardier breed of wanderers stared into the cold screens of their Samsungs for warmth. Some mornings she found herself covered in human faeces. This did not cause her distress. Muck was her business. Shit, spit, semen and blood were just by-products of the body that could be used for magic.
Aggie-no-teeth came to see her one night.
“Grandmother, I’ve got this whoresome pain in my heart. I want him so badly but he doesn’t want me. Please can you take away the pain?”
Grandmother was comforted by the sound of her own name on the lips of one of her people but she had nothing left to give. Her herbs had been eaten and her songs had been sung.
“Draw a picture of his heart on your heart, Aggie, and sleep. In the morning, he will be yours.”
It was school-girl magic, but it was all that she had. That night Grandmother ate a candle, she was so hungry.
The next morning Aggie-no-teeth was discovered in a pool of her own blood. She had carved a heart-shaped hole into her chest and had bled to death in the cold. All eyes saw Grandmother and knew.
Her trail was quick.
“Did you kill Aggie-No-Teeth?” a long-haired, pock-marked stranger asked.
Beside Grandmother stood two women, Aisha and Ikra, twins she herself had delivered in the nineties. She stared at the two women, who in turn stared at the long-haired stranger.
A witch cannot lie whispered the wind.
“Yes, I did kill Aggie-no-teeth. I knew she was suffering from a yearning for the silver needle but I had no passionflower to give her and so I let her sleep in madness.”
The dark underground growled in disapproval.
The stranger said,
“You will be tried as a witch and be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
She heard many cans of cheap cider being shook in approval. A woman who had once been her friend yelled, ‘Burn the witch’ and others laughed uproariously. Someone put their phone on speaker and she could hear the distant tinkle of ‘Ring of Fire’.
As she sat awaiting her fate, a drunken man- another stranger- urinated on her. She kept some of his liquid in her hands. Old women’s habits die hard. She had once been told of a spell that involved the mixing of the piss of your enemy with ash and candle wax. With the right words and some conjured fire the potion could paralyse men – some of them permanently, depending upon the nature of their insult.
A witch cannot harm another human being screamed the city foxes in the cold and bleak darkness.
She let the drunken stranger’s urine trickle out of her hands onto the muddy earth beneath her. There would be no paralysing of limbs tonight.
Her hanging was well attended. She recognised many faces in the crowd and her heart grew sad. Aisha and Ikra pushed her roughly through the crowd of baying human debris. She looked up at Aisha who steadfastly ignored her glances. Aisha’s birth had nearly killed her mother but Grandmother had known how to twist her around whilst she was still in the womb and how to draw her gently from her mother, causing no rips and very little blood. She had watched Aisha and Ikra grow from tiny tots to the leggy executioners they’d become today. They stopped abruptly before a makeshift gallows – a rope slung casually over the bones of abandoned scaffolding.
Aisha placed the noose around Grandmother’s neck and pulled it with such force that a little yelp erupted from Grandmother’s mouth. The noise seemed to ignite the crowd who began to shout and boo. They threw food at her and, despite being acutely aware of her fatal situation, she found herself salivating at the crusts that were strewn around her. When she heard the words hang the witch… hang the witch it wasn’t fear that she felt but irritation – she had helped each and every one of the yawping hounds in the crowd and now they were lobbing bread at her and screaming for her blood. Grandmother shook her head in disbelief, causing the noose to chafe slightly.
The long-haired stranger read out a list of her witchy crimes and then rolled up his paper and nodded at Aisha who in turn nodded at Ikra. Like her sister, Ikra was a wall of muscle with arms like trees. She stepped over to the part of the rope snaking on the platform of the gallows and grabbed it with both of her hands. She waited for Longhair to raise his hand and then she pulled. The rope gathered and tightened and Grandmother jerked as it yanked her up off the ground. The rope felt like a punch in the throat and Grandmother’s air was sucked from her lungs.
All witches have enormous feet – a familiar and loving voice whispered in her ear.
Usually this was of little consequence but not today. Oh today!
As her body twitched and kicked, Grandmother’s feet began to unfurl. They grew and grew until they touched the ground and saved her neck. She whipped back her head and ducked from the noose. She jumped from the platform and landed on her huge feet. She turned around and kicked down the scaffolding; then she kicked Aisha and Ikra into the sky and they landed on the moon and were sorrowful for their actions and saw the error of their ways. She kicked all the slack-jawed onlookers out of the mud and into the fragrant, fresh air outside. She kicked the long, greasy hair clean off her accuser’s head and he became a gazelle and ran for the forest, happy for the first time in his life. She laughed and jumped into the air, both feet flying before her, and she kicked down the ugly bridge and freed all those tethered beneath it. A hundred lost and lonely human souls flew upwards from the rubble and became a million jewel-eyed butterflies.
And then she ran and she ran; her enormous feet carrying her for miles within moments and soon all the meanness in human hearts melted away and all angry men dissolved into nothing and the hunger ceased and her bones stopped aching and the wind was in her long, grey hair and she smelled the sweetness of the grass and felt the warmth of the sun and she knew with absolute certainty that the world was good and the universe within her soul caught fire and she was consumed by its unutterable beauty.