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15 minute read.
It wasn’t Con’s fault, not really. His mother had been a witch, they’d all said so, even his Da. A witch who swept into the village with the snow that came down from the mountain one spring, far too late in the year for snow. Flowers stood like weary scarlet maidens in a bed of white, and lambs shivered in the darkness under their round woolly mothers. She had lived alone in the mountains all winter, she told them. But even witches need a bit of warmth sometimes.
That was why Con’s Da took her in, to wait out the snow. He had the place to himself after his own Ma and Da were carried off by fever. Just him and the dog and a smoky fire. Da shared his warmth with the witch, and she with him. No one said anything while they hid away indoors, but when the snows melted and she emerged round as a full moon, with Con holed up inside her, that’s when the gossip started.
Enchanted one of the strongest young men she did, could be she wanted to take him away with her back to the mountain. How do we know she didn’t bring the snow with her? Could be her fault the lambs are sickly, growing like stringy weeds if they grow at all, while she waxes full.
Da stood by her, but he was under her spell, and she had his babe inside her besides. But how did he know it was his? they asked him. How did he know she carried a human child at all?
Lucky for Con, he was born with his Da’s raven-black hair; if it had been fire-red like hers, likely they’d have left him out somewhere on the mountain to die. They made her go back to the mountain, though she bled all the way. Shepherds found her body later, picked by crows. Why didn’t Da stop them? Could be, part of him believed they were right.
The women raised Con as Da’s son, though Da refused to marry any of them. He was wed to the witch in his heart, maybe, whether he admitted it or not. The baby was a good sleeper, they said, though he sucked teats dry like nobody’s business. Grew big and strong, he did. Just like his Da.
They should have known he had his mother in him too, they said later. A witch’s bastard, but they were too kindly to see it. They were taken in by his big smiling face, his dark hair. But they never forgot where he came from, not really.
Not his fault, Da said, the first time it happened. Old Daisy was giving birth, and she’d calved fine many times before. Con only went to look. He didn’t mean for her to die, torn and bleeding, just as his mother had. Not your fault, Da said, but keep away next time.
Then there was Biddy Joe cooking up a big stew. She’d promised Con some ‘cus he’d fetched her greens from Da’s garden, and he was hungry. Smelt so rich and good, mutton stew it was. Made the air taste like gravy. He was tasting it from outside her window, watching when she slipped and burnt her arm right up to the elbow. Not your fault, Da said, but keep away from Biddy Joe in future.
Con started walking about with his eyes cast down, watching nothing but his own feet. Not his fault, Da said, but they blamed him anyway. The other boys were told to keep clear of him, and they ran and hid whenever he appeared. Girls shrieked when they saw him, afraid he’d put a curse on them. Folks said he shouldn’t even play with the dog, in case his gaze fell on it in the wrong way.
Da had never been scared of curses, though. Da was so brave, he’d bedded a witch. And didn’t I get the best deal out of that? Da used to say. Fine strong boy I got out of it. He hadn’t said that for a while though. Da hadn’t taken Con fishing, or hunting, or anything for ages.
So when his Da said they’d go up the mountain to see what they could find, Con was as pleased as could be. He’d been so bored in the village. He was still a strong boy, and could be a help. He was still Da’s son.
They took packs with them, in case they had to bed up there in the night. It was cold on the mountain, even in summer, and it wasn’t quite summer yet. The mountain path was broken and crumbling, so every step sent stones skittering down the mountainside. That’s why they had to leave the dog behind, Da said. They had to walk carefully, their eyes searching the ground for sharp rocks or loose ones, that might send them tumbling down too.
The path was steep; though it meandered up the mountain and wasn’t cut straight, they gained height quickly. The air was fresh and cold up there, so clear Con felt like the world had crystallised around him. His skin could feel every soft breeze and sharp gust, it was like the mountain was talking to him.
What are we hunting, Da? he asked, but Da was ahead of him, his breath coming in great puffs and gasps, and didn’t hear.
They paused to eat some lunch on a big rock where they could hang their legs over and see the village far below. It looked so small, Con could put a hand out and cover it all. Smoke from the fires streaked up into the white sky and disappeared. It looked like his fingers were smoking.
So clean up here, he said, but Da said nothing. They had cheese and bread, and when Con dusted off his crumbs he saw them spiral away in the wind.
What’ll we be hunting up here? he asked again.
Goats, said Da. Wild goats. There’s herbs grow up here too, if we look carefully. I’ll show you how.
They walked on up the path, that wasn’t really a path for people anymore. It was too narrow, just a track for those goats Da had said about.
Are we going all the way to the top, Da? he asked, but Da didn’t answer.
Dusk seemed to come quickly, the sky was greyer than the mountain and they still hadn’t hunted anything. Seen nothing of the goats but the little brown pellets they’d left behind. Da had shown him some herbs that grew in tufts alongside the path. Herbs that looked like grass, but smelt strong and bitter when he sniffed them.
When they came upon the rundown hut, Con did not have to ask. He knew this wooden boil on the side of the mountain must have been the home of the witch, once. It was a warped triangle of mossy old wood, so close to the path visitors could have rapped on the door without leaving it. Not that there was much of a door. A bit of old tree bark was all it looked like, that didn’t sit properly between the two leaning planks. They were bound together at the top with a bit of frayed rope, with a hat of moss looking something like a roof.
We can shelter here overnight, Da said.
They did not knock, they did not have to. They both knew the witch was long gone. Da pulled away the door and they crouched to get inside.
The darkness smelt like damp wood and rot. Da lit a lamp he must have brought knowing they would stay there. There was hardly room for the two of them crouched inside, and the air was stale, but they were sheltered from the wind at least. Da raised the lamp, and Con saw that there was a larger space behind, a cave in the mountainside. They walked into it, this cave, and it was bigger than he would have thought possible. There were herbs hanging from outcrops on the walls, so dry they turned to ash when he touched them, and drifted to the floor.
People used to come here for her herbs, Da said. But they never got past the door. Everyone thought she lived in a shack no bigger than a privy. I was the only one knew different.
There was burnt wood in a pit in the ground, and the ceiling was blackened from old fires. Even Con, tall as he was, did not have to crouch here. He reached up and touched the sooty ceiling. It stained his fingers.
Must have been lonely here, he said.
Da said nothing. He’d found a pile of blankets and furs at the back of the cave, and spread their own blankets over them.
Come sit, Da said. Let’s eat and rest now, it’s getting dark.
Con did not ask Da what they were doing there. He was afraid of the answer. But he was sort of glad too, to be there. Now he knew his mother was not just a story.
They settled together on the blankets. They were out of the wind and it was dry, but it was still cold. Da did not make a fire and Con did not ask for one. He didn’t want Da to go out looking for wood and leave him here alone in the witch’s cave, and he was too tired to go himself.
He was tired from all the walking up the mountain. His legs ached, even though they were strong. Da must be hurting, he knew. And a woman who’d just birthed a child would never make it up there afterwards.
He fell asleep with the image of the village in his mind, just as it looked below the mountain, small enough to hold in his hand. But then he dreamt of being trapped in dark places, and woke sweating in the dark.
The lamp was out. He couldn’t see anything at all, but he could sense someone moving in the cave. He couldn’t hear them exactly, just felt a sort of disturbance in the air.
A flash of starry sky; someone had opened the door and closed it again. The darkness felt thicker then, he felt underwater. He lay awake listening, his own breathing hot and loud and his head ringing still with the fear of his dream, and the thought of an intruder.
It couldn’t have been the witch, she was long gone. Con was damp and cold suddenly, his body shaking with it, and he realised the warmth of his Da beside him was fading.
He reached out, and there was no Da there. He sat up, and scrabbled around in the blankets. He found his pack by feel, but there was no other. His Da had gone and left him here, to live lonely like his mother, the witch.
He crawled across the floor of the cave, towards where he had seen the stars bright for a moment. His hands felt soft ash and wood under them and he crawled on through the pit, smelt the rotten wood of the hut, and knocked his head against the bark door. He pushed to open it but it caught, and he tried to get a grip on the rough wood. He scraped his hand trying desperately to push it away and let in light. Heaving his shoulder against it, he finally shifted it, and it fell and slid off down the mountainside.
The sky was bright with stars, and a full-moon shone so white he could almost see colour around him. He scrambled to his feet, cradling the hand he now saw was bleeding, and set off down the path.
It was quicker, going down, but no less difficult. He was afraid to fall, but he was more afraid of letting Da away without him. He hurried on as best he could, until he saw the pack on Da’s broad back, on the path ahead and below him.
Da! he called. Da, don’t leave me!
Da did not look back. Da carried on, and Con hurried after him, and shouted and shouted so he knew Da must have heard him, but Da did not stop.
So when his voice was hoarse from shouting and he had nearly caught up, and Da finally looked round to face him, Con forgot to lower his eyes.
And Da stumbled and fell, and, dragged backward by his heavy pack, tumbled heels over head down the mountain.
Da went rolling over and over, but didn’t go far. He came to a stop at the next curl of the path where it coiled round the rock they’d sat on. Da went skidding right up against that rock, and there was a wet crack that Con hoped was something in his pack breaking under him. Da’s head came to rest against that rock like he was using it as a pillow. Only, he didn’t get up after.
Con climbed down to his Da, and found his breath had already left him. His body lay still. A trickle of blood that looked black in the moonlight stretched across his forehead.
It wasn’t his fault, Da would have said, but Da was gone and no longer there to say it. Con lifted Da into his lap and held him. His eyes hurt, like they wanted to cry, but they didn’t.
I’m sorry Da, he said, but it was no good. Da couldn’t hear him.
Con held tightly on to his Da, but knew he was gone. Con could already feel Da’s body going cold, the night breeze whipping the warmth away from him. Con had to take him back to the village. He would want to be buried with his own Ma and Da, under the big old yew tree.
Con took off Da’s pack, that only made him heavier, and left it on the path. Da’s body was still soft, but seemed somehow heavier than he’d been when his life was in him. Con crouched on the path and hauled his body up over his shoulders. Just as well he was such a big strong lad. At least he could get his Da home.
Staggering down a narrow mountain path with Da’s body hanging off his back was the hardest thing he’d ever done, and Con’s eyes found their tears as the sweat poured out of him. His nose streamed too, but he had to keep a grip on Da or he’d slide off, and he couldn’t do a thing to wipe it. Trying to balance with all that was almost too much for him, his legs burned with the effort and his hands, slick with sweat and blood, ached so much he thought they’d break.
Con went on down the mountain, and when he reached the village his face was hot and his chest was burning and it was all he could do to drop Da there on the grass. The moonlight was gone and it was the weak light of a cold dawn that lit the village, but there were people up already, there was always someone up early.
Biddy Joe shrieked when she saw him, and she set the others going.
He murdered his own Da! Biddy Joe shouted. Look, there’s blood on his hands!
No, Con said, he fell!
But they did not hear him, Biddy Joe was too loud. His Da would have told them that it wasn’t his fault, but Da couldn’t say it anymore.
Soon they were all out, men, women and children, all throwing rocks at him like he was a stray they were seeing off, and not the Con they’d praised, scolded, and played with. The Con who’d shared their food and their labours too.
Con left his Da where he lay and ran back to the mountain path, rocks and stones thrown at his back. Some hit and rolled away, but he hardly felt them. He hardly felt the rocks under his feet either, as he ran up that path like a wild goat himself.
They didn’t follow him far. When he reached the rock where they’d had lunch the day before, where Da had hit his head when he fell, where Con could see the village so small below him, he stopped. There was a dark patch on the rock that might have been his Da’s blood, or it might have been there for years. He couldn’t remember if he’d seen it before.
Con climbed over it and onto the rock and stood as close to the edge as he dared. He drew himself tall and looked down at the village that had been his home forever.
I hate you all, he whispered, and he stared down at that village and he wished, he wished, that something bad would happen to them.
It was the first time in his life that he had ever wished any harm on anyone, and maybe that’s why it worked. Or maybe, it was because he was the son of a witch, and they’d been right to fear him all along.
The smoke that came from the village fires got bigger, and blacker, and then he could see orange flames like little demons dancing about among the houses, red hair flicking behind them in the wind.
And then Con thought of Biddy Joe and all the women who had raised him between them, and the men who had worked with Da, and the children he’d played with and missed when he wasn’t allowed to be with them any more, and Da’s dog, and the cows, and the sheep, and everyone who lived together down there. And he realised he didn’t want them to burn, not really. Even if they never let him come back, he wanted them to live on just as they always had.
But I don’t know how to stop it, Con said, though there was only the wind and the mountain to hear him. The wind was cold, so cold Con sat down on the rock for fear he’d shake too much and fall. He clutched his arms around his body for warmth, but the sky was growing thick with grey clouds that hid the sun and it seemed there was no warmth left. He spotted the moon then, hanging defiant and white and round over the village, in a circle of faint blue sky.
Then there was rain falling on his head and shoulders, soft but fast, slipping like ice down his neck so he was colder than ever and began to shiver so hard his bones hurt. No, it wasn’t rain at all.
It was snow, big fat snowflakes landing on his head, his face, his back. He was wet through before he knew it but he couldn’t move, his eyes were still fixed on the tiny village and its smoky fires and the red flames. A blizzard of snow swept around the village and the flames shrank and died, and soon there was nothing but little plumes of black smoke and white building up on everything. It was building up around Con too, and he knew he had to move.
He had to seek shelter in the witch’s cave, or he would die of cold.
Con did not want to live in the witch’s cave, even though the witch was his mother, and that must have been what Da had wanted. That was why they’d been there, after all.
Still he didn’t move. He couldn’t see the village anymore for all the snow, and the sky was thick with it. White on white on white and it was beautiful and clean and he couldn’t look away. Con stared into the snow and thought that if he died now, it would be a fine last thing to see.
Come into the warm.
He heard the voice behind his ear and turned his head, but saw nothing but snow. He couldn’t see the hut either, but there was a glimmer of light, like a lamp burning, and Con couldn’t resist the light. He clambered back off the rock and onto the path, and it would have been easy to get turned around and walk right off the mountain but his eyes were drawn to that light like a moth to a candle, and he walked with wet and heavy legs through the snowstorm.
The light led him on and on and Con was bewildered how it was, that with every step his feet took they found the path beneath them. There was nothing around him but white, it muffled his ears and numbed his hands and all he could see was that light shining through the storm, and all he could feel was the solid ground sloping under his boots. He walked on and on, until he reached a dark space and two planks of wood still standing, and knew he’d found the hut. The door was gone, and snow was building up in the gap between the planks of wood but Con could see a glimmer of light beyond the dark and he pushed his way through.
There was a fire in the pit, crackling and spitting and throwing red light around the jagged cavern walls, but there was no one there who could have lit it. The air was warm and close and smelt of smoke, and Con breathed it in and knew it had saved him. And he was glad.
Con shed his wet clothes at once and grabbed his blanket to wrap his shivering body up. His pack was there, and his Da’s too, though he was sure he’d left it on the path. There was food inside, and he found a flask in his Da’s pack that Con hadn’t known he had. Cider rich in his mouth, warmed him from the inside out.
Thank you, Con whispered, though whether he thanked his Da or the witch he wasn’t sure. He knew it must have been her that sent the snow to quench the village fires. Snow in late spring, like the snow that had brought her to the village in the first place.
They had all thought she’d gone, but maybe she hadn’t ever, not really. And Con couldn’t be afraid of her, or her cave, anymore. Not now she’d saved the village. So he didn’t mind staying there, after all. It could be home for him as it had been for her, as he was her son.
Might be, he wouldn’t even be lonely.