“I’ve got a secret,” Jessica whispered proudly to her cousin Leah. “You’ll find out later.”
Leah, who was staying for the weekend for the first time at Jessica’s new house, pouted a little, but really only because Jessica would expect it. “Tell me, tell me now!” she said.
“Not here,” Jessica said. “Bring your bag and come up to my room.” Leah dutifully picked up her backpack and followed Jessica up the stairs.
“So this is it,” said Jessica as they entered the pink and floral room. “You get to sleep on this,” she said, pulling out the low trundle bed from beneath her own. “It’s not bad, I tried it out last night.”
Leah looked around. Even at eight years old she knew enough to be a little disgusted by the pink frilliness of Jessica’s room, with its soft toys and posters of unicorns. Her own bedroom was filled with a haphazard mess of construction toys and electronics, decorated in bright primary colors with posters of rock bands that her mother regularly demanded she take down.
“Very nice,” she said insincerely. “Now, come on, tell me your secret!”
Jessica smirked. “It’s the old lady next door. She’s a witch!”
“Oh, really?” Leah said sceptically. “How do you know?”
“I’ve been watching her ever since we moved in here. She lives all by herself in that run-down house, see?” Jessica pointed out the window at the house next door, which did indeed look in need of repair. It looked as if it had been there for a very long time. Maybe it was the original farmhouse, before all the land around it had been sold and new houses put up?
“So what?” Leah said, unwilling to show Jessica any excitement. “So she lives by herself.”
“And she always dresses in black, never anything else. And she talks in a funny language, to herself. I heard her one day in the street. I think she’s reciting spells. And she has a black cat. Well, two, actually, and one of them is just grey, but the other one is really black. See, there it is!”
Leah nodded. “OK, sounds interesting. Anything else?”
“I’m coming to the best bit. I sneaked in her back yard one day when she was out. And I saw… no. I’m not going to tell you, you’ll just have to see. Tomorrow morning. She goes out nearly every morning.”
And no matter how hard Leah pressed her, Jessica wouldn’t say any more about the witch that day. They had dinner and watched a scary movie. Well, Jessica screamed a lot, so Leah figured that it must be scary, but she herself saw most of the frights coming ages before they happened.
In the morning, Jessica bounced out of bed at eight o’clock. Leah was only half awake, as the girls had talked late into the night, despite being repeatedly shushed by Jessica’s mother.
Jessica’s parents had gone off shopping for the morning, leaving the girls to their own devices. They had a quick breakfast and then Jessica said, “We’ll have to put on our exploring clothes. Did you bring some, like I said?”
Leah had. An old pair of jeans and a camouflage T-Shirt.
Together the girls changed and then looked out of the window at the old house next door. “See, there she goes.”
Leah saw an old woman with an impressively wrinkled face, dressed all in black, hobbling down the path to the street, leaning on a stick. “See, that’s her wand, I’ll bet,” Jessica said. “Come on, you’ve really got to see this!”
They left Jessica’s house, and Jessica led Leah to the far end of the yard, which fronted onto a creek. By squirming around the last fence-post without slipping into the creek – not so easy, Leah got her feet wet – they found themselves in the old woman’s yard.
In the yard, close to the house, was a rustic shed, all put together with roughly cut pieces of wood. Jessica was about to run up the yard towards it, but Leah stopped her. “Let’s crawl along like commandos,” she said. “So as not to be seen.” Jessica looked dubious, but dutifully squirmed along the grass on her elbows with Leah. It was a bit silly, really, Leah admitted to herself, since no one was home but the two cats. But it was fun.
They reached the old shed. There wasn’t even a door, just an opening. Jessica stood up and beckoned Leah inside. “Ta-DAH!” she said, waving at the wall.
There was a rack of honest-to-goodness broomsticks of various shapes and sizes, all made of twigs and knobbly bits of bamboo. Oh, and a modern-looking bamboo garden rake.
Leah was really impressed. “Wow,” she said. And a moment later, “Do you think they work? Does she fly around on them?”
“Of course she does, every time there’s a full moon!”
“Really? Have you seen her?”
Jessica looked abashed. “Well, no, but it stands to reason, doesn’t it?”
“And why does she need more than one?”
“Well, maybe she just likes trying out different ones. My dad always wants to try out different cars.”
“Hmmm…” said Leah, and then, with a wicked grin, “We could try them out!”
Jessica went pale. Leah was fascinated, she had never see someone actually do that before. “Oh no,” she said. “We… I mean, what if it worked ?”
“Well, duh, that would be the whole point. Come on!” And Leah pulled down one of the broomsticks, gave it to Jessica, and then took another for herself.
Despite her initial hesitation, Jessica soon got into the spirit of the thing. The girls ran around the yard for quite some time, straddling the old broomsticks and shouting out whatever magical words they could think of. They didn’t get a centimetre off the ground, but wore themselves out laughing.
Jessica had become quite excited, red in the face. “I know,” she said, “we need to get a bit of a start. Look!”
At the other side of the yard was a rusty old oil drum, lying on its side. Jessica picked up a flat board from nearby and rested it on the top of the drum. Then she mounted the broomstick and started to run towards the board, bristles dragging over the grass.
Leah suddenly had a bad feeling. “Jessica, don’t…”
Jessica ran onto the board, but instead of it acting as a ramp and letting her fly off into space, it broke under her weight, and twisted as she fell. Jessica came down sideways onto the drum, then rolled over it head first.
Leah ran over as Jessica began to scream. It was mostly fright, Leah thought as she checked out the other girl, but Jessica howled and held onto her ankle, which was grazed and had twisted as she had fallen. It was already starting to swell.
Just as Leah was wondering what to do, there was a noise from the house, and she looked up in alarm. The old woman was coming out of the back door of her house. The girls must have been playing with the broomsticks for a lot longer than they thought and she’d come back home.
Seeing the old lady, Jessica began to scream in fright and tried to get to her feet to run away, but it was impossible. “The witch, the witch,” she moaned as she sank down again.
Leah stood up and faced the woman, who was hobbling nearer. Despite herself, Leah found that her knees were trembling. “I’m really, really sorry,” she said, “I know we shouldn’t have been here.”
But instead of yelling (or turning them into frogs), the old lady just smiled and shook her head. “Non fa niente, non importa,” she said. She bent down to Jessica, who tried to squirm away, but the old lady rested her hand on Jessica’s leg and made soothing noises. “Ah, poverina ragazza. Devo chiamare un’ambulanza?” She had a kind voice that calmed Jessica down.
Leah understood the last word the old lady had said. Ambulance. Did Jessica need an ambulance? Well, no, thought Leah. She probably just needed to get back home and have a bandage put on. She tried to explain to the old lady that Jessica’s parents weren’t home, but that she would probably be OK without an ambulance.
“Si, si. Aiutami,” she said, gesturing at Jessica, who had finally stopped sobbing. “’elp me, inside la casa. The… the ’ouse.”
Leah understood and helped Jessica up and supported her as she hopped towards the old lady’s house. As they went, Jessica whispered “Leah? Is it OK? She’s not going to hurt us?”
“No, I’m sure it’s fine. She’s not really a witch, you know, that was just a game we were playing.”
Jessica nodded, but looked unconvinced. Inside the house, though, the old lady sat them down at her wooden kitchen table, whose surface was worn into soft shallows and grooves by long scrubbing. The old lady went to a cupboard and brought out an ancient looking pot with a lime-green paste in it, which she started to spread over Jessica’s ankle. Jessica looked across at Leah as if to say “See – magic potion!”. But then the old lady went back to the same cupboard and brought out a thoroughly modern-looking first aid box and wrapped a bandage around Jessica’s ankle, finishing off with a small safety pin. “Tutto fatto!” she said with a smile.
“Um, thank you,” said Jessica hesitantly.
“E ora…,” the old woman said, and went to a different cupboard, bringing back a large tin. She set it down on the table and opened it up. It was full of lots of different kinds of biscuits. Jessica again flashed a dubious look at Leah.
“Don’t worry,” said Leah, by now really enjoying herself, and taking a spiky-looking brown biscuit, “we can always shove her into her oven.”
Jessica laughed, and took a biscuit herself. Leah bit into hers. It was delicious. “What is this called?” she asked the old woman.
The old lady laughed. “Brutto ma buono, ’ow you say, ah ‘ugly but good’.”
After several biscuits and a large glass of milk each, Jessica helped Leah up to take her home. Just as they went out the front door, they saw Jessica’s parents drive up in their car. Surprised, the grown-ups stopped outside the old lady’s house and got out to fuss over Jessica’s injury. Many explanations and expressions of gratitude followed.
But as Jessica’s parents were helping her back to their house, though, the old lady leaned over to Leah and whispered in her ear:
“About the ah… il manico di scopa… ’ow you say,” she made a sweeping motion.
“The broomsticks? Yes, I’m sorry…”
“No. I tell you…” The old lady concentrated hard on saying what she meant in English. “When you ride ’im, you wrong. Wrong way round. Le setole… the bristles? They go at the front, OK?” And she winked.
“OK,” said Leah faintly as the old lady turned back into the house. “Um, thanks, I’ll remember.”
by David R Grigg
© Copyright David R Grigg 2012. All rights reserved.