The witch lived nestled at the foot of a forest, in a house shaped like a growing cornucopia. Ivy and creeping myrtle knit curves of wicker together, and sapling trees knelt on the house’s foundations. In the warm season there were roses of all colours, tulips, poppies, chrysanthemums and bluebells; in the cold season there was white jasmine, and the trees lent fallen leaves for the witch’s bonfires. All winter long she dreamed of photosynthesis.
The witch lived with a white rat named Gladioli, a black kettle named Mouse, and three hoot owls, who were nameless, but who brought the witch gifts of herbs, stones, moss, bloody feathers. She thanked each one graciously. She wove the gifts into her hair.
The witch had many visitors. Customers came to her for her good advice, and for bundles of dried herbs, plant clippings, bead necklaces, recipes, cloth pockets of stones and good wishes. Sometimes customers came and asked for love or respect or revenge. The witch sat them down, gave them chamomile tea and oat cookies, and told them to stop being so self-centred.
Other visitors came. Children with broken arms and cigarette burns. Women whose faces were maps of bad tempers. The sick and the grieving. And other visitors, still. Sometimes men walked out of the woods and into the witch’s house with moss still clinging to their feet, and bright birds came to stand guard while the witch cooked dinner for the kings of the forest. Sometimes the West Wind stalked down from the mountains in a fine black suit, to drink the witch’s tea and listen to her calm advice. The witch was not always a good host. Now and again she wandered the forest for days without speaking to anyone, and lived off mushrooms and strawberry tea. She dreamed of setting her bed on fire, her house on fire, every tree in the forest on fire, and woke up screaming, and ran to the wild, and shouted I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry. The forest wrapped her up like a cradle. It forgave her every time.
I am not the witch’s familiar. I am not a spell or a ritual or a holy stone. The witch had this dream: she was walking through the forest in the middle of the night, in her bare feet and her grey nightgown, until she came across a skinny tree wearing a feathered cap. “Hello,” she said. “This isn’t the forest I know. All the signs are wrong. I must be dreaming. Are you a guide? Is there something you want to tell me?”
“No,” the tree said, grumpily. “I was asleep. You woke me up.”
“I like your hat,” said the witch. The tree muttered something under his breath.
The witch was not used to being sworn at by trees, but she had an open mind and a soft spot for the forest. She offered the tree a sip of whiskey from her hip flask. The tree had a soft spot for whiskey; and they spent all night talking like old friends, until the witch woke up, and the tree went back to sleep.
When I first met the witch she told me this dream. “How interesting,” I said. I tipped my feathered cap.
We had been friends for a long time, the witch and I. I came and went like a cat. She left out loaves of bread at the forest border so I could find my way back to her. On her long disappearances into the woods she always kept a lookout for a skinny tree in a hat, although I told her that you can’t look for things like that. You just have to find them, lost, or in a dream.
A girl came to the witch’s house. It was the edge of winter, a corner to turn. She craved the kind of cold that punished the lungs. Her name, she said, was Bowl. She said, “I want to be your apprentice.”
The witch and I had been in the middle of afternoon tea. The witch studied the girl. “I don’t take on apprentices,” she said, “but you have an interesting heart. Sit down and have some tea.”
Bowl sat. We drank. She came from the city, and had taken three trains to get here. Her father worked as a schoolteacher and her mother as a copyeditor. She could not look me in the eye, but smiled at the witch once around her teacup, and her smile was a seashell. “Why do you want to be my apprentice?” the witch asked gently.
Bowl stared into her tea. “I want to learn,” she said. “I didn’t know where you lived, but I found you. On my first try. I thought maybe that meant something, that maybe I’m meant to be here, but I could be wrong.” She lifted her head, looked straight at the witch. “Something has to change,” she said.
The witch nodded. She brought the dishes to the kitchen sink and began to sing, very high-pitched and out of tune. “Are you the witch’s husband?” Bowl asked me. I just laughed. Bowl ducked her head and drew a spiral on the floorboards with her fingernail.
The witch gave Bowl a little room at the back of the house, where ivy wound up the bed-frame and onto the pillows, and an avocado stone caught light growing shoots on the windowsill. She sent Bowl to bed early. “You’ve had a long day,” she said. “Sleep now. We’ll talk more in the morning.”
The witch and I rolled cigarettes in the garden, hunching our shoulders to hide our hands: my lungs were tough and brown, but the forest did not approve of the witch smoking. “What do you think of her?” the witch asked me.
“Quiet,” I said. “She can sit still. She would make a good tree, but I doubt she’s ready to be a witch.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” the witch said impatiently. “Most things happen when people aren’t ready for them. They learn and adapt. I’m not interested in whether or not you think she’s ready. I want to know what you’ve noticed about her heart.”
I thought. “Nothing,” I said. “I didn’t notice anything.”
The witch didn’t answer, but she breathed smoke like a steam train, thoughtful.
I have had my fair share of dreams too. I dreamed I was three people; father, son, and grandfather, and my house burned like London when I looked in the mirror. I dreamed about a boat race across the Arctic. My aunt gave me a raincoat and a bone from my uncle’s finger. My boat swam down deep beneath the sea, where labyrinth fish built labyrinthine cities in the black salt water.
I dreamed about Bowl once.
In the morning the witch had Bowl strip herbs for drying out in the garden, the forest a tall shadow at her shoulder. Bowl learned quickly. She hummed to herself as she worked, until the garden resonated with a sound like bees in a cathedral organ.”This is chicory,” the witch said, “this is rosemary, for remembering. Lemongrass. Lavender. Sorrel. White sage for spells, and for cleansing. Thyme. Mint. Will you remember all this?”
“Yes,” Bowl said.
The witch had never had an apprentice. Women came to stay with her now and again, but they had no desire to learn spells, and the witch had no desire to teach them. She adopted a little boy for one summer, but shooed him out when autumn brought the last of the apples off the trees. The witch left Bowl outside, playing with the white rat Gladioli, and went to make tea.
We sat cross-legged on the floor. “Do you trust her?” the witch asked, watching me.
“Yes,” I said.
The witch nodded. “I do, too.”
We lit candles and rested our hands in our laps. Our breath changed and settled. Behind closed eyes I saw my body as a wide red room, where the ceiling reached up like a steeple into the clasped hands of my ribs, and a drum beat and beat and beat. The witch saw her fingers twist and spread out shoots. Her skin bloomed, blossom and runner. She grew forever: out, through loaves of rock in the wall towards cold air and light, and under, into silt and stone and the thunder of below-ground rivers, until she buzzed in the earth like a snug green bee. The witch turned to the garden with her eyes closed and saw Bowl there, both hands on her chest, facing the forest; and Bowl’s heart was a litmus test, a seed patch, a petri dish.
The witch and I were not always friends. There have been times when I came to her house with bread and sage and she slammed the door in my face, and sent the three hoot owls out to chase me away. There have been times when I’ve slammed out of her house of my own accord. Once, when I stayed away too long, she sent me a message by way of Gladioli: a sack of dead tadpoles from her pond, and a three-word note, don’t come back. I came back. I brought her a flute carved from a dead tree branch and a three-word apology. You started it.
The witch and I inhabited one another’s minds like a Venn diagram. It was not quite comfortable, sometimes, and sometimes we stepped back, needing the space of the forest between us, but we loved each other. An unfortunate and wonderful thing. We needed and wanted no one else in the world, until Bowl came.
Bowl sat with me in the garden. I smoked, and she cupped Gladioli close to her heart, letting the rat nibble her fingers. “Are you a witch too?” she asked me.
“No,” I said. “I come from the forest. Herbs and bonfires are all very well, but I’m not too skilled at helping people.”
“Oh,” she said.
I turned to study Bowl, trying to figure out what the witch had meant about her heart, but could see nothing at all underneath her bulky black coat. She shifted away from me, uneasy. “What? What are you looking at?”
“Why did you really come here?”
Bowl brought Gladioli up to her face. “I needed help,” she said.
“Most people who come here do.”
She pushed back the sleeve of her jacket and held out her wrist to me. “Look,” she said. “This is only a little bit. A little part of it. Look.”
The skin of her wrist was clear as glass, and underneath: a pool of water like rain gathered in a leaf, washing the carpal and metacarpal bones, a small wishing well.
Later I cooked food in the witch’s kitchen and took it out to the forest, to share with the moss and the wild birds that flew for meat at night. The forest has known me longer even than the witch. Its only loyalty is to the salts and minerals in the ground, to winds and rains, the seasons that kill and resurrect. It does not favour its own; but it offers them protection and a kind and open eye.
Once the witch and I ate mushrooms and believed we had found something vital when we discovered our fingerprints matched the grain of a fallen tree. A past life, a kindred spirit. We lay down along the tree’s trunk. Our skin dripped love into the wood, and we knew that one day the tree would be chopped and carved into a chair or a table, and our love would be there, would live inside it, and one day an unsuspecting stranger would catch it and cup it, invisible, in the palm of his hand, warm and strong, a new kind of electricity.
That night the witch’s hoot owls flew and swooped in the bracken. They brought her a yellow rose shaped like a bowl, a flat pebble, a mouse’s skull. The witch examined each gift carefully. “She is hiding a secret,” the witch said.
I shrugged. “She’s lying about something.”
“No.” The witch cradled the mouse skull in one hand. “She’s not lying. She barely knows herself, and she’s afraid, as any girl would be. Strange things happen.” The witch glanced at me. “Do you think she’s pretty?” she asked. “Could you fall in love with her?”
“No, I couldn’t,” I said.
“You couldn’t.” She sighed to herself, and kissed the mouse bone. She wove the bone in her long black hair.
In the summer months Bowl had taken a lover. He did not love her. Neither of them was in love, but Bowl had felt the need for something: sex, smoke, saltwater. They met by a waterfall and drank spray. They met for coffee and drank each other. They never once met eye to eye.
Bowl’s lover had a constellation on his skin, Pisces. He tasted like water. Bowl was not a wanderer dying of thirst in the desert; her lover was not a cool oasis. This was just what he tasted like.
The witch taught Bowl to mix herbs in a clay pot, strike flint and tinder, and cultivate the small fire that grew and shed blue smoke. The two of them stood side by side at the window: the witch, in her skirt and her scarf and her bare red feet, and Bowl, hair pulled back, sleeves of her big sweater rolled up, smoke in her eyes. I thought Bowl would make a good witch. She would spend her life with hands outstretched. I thought Bowl would have made a good tree, a strong tree, to spread roots, to lean towards sun, to drop fruit.
I took her out to the forest. The roots and vines seemed to stretch out in a question mark. Animals sniffed the air she left behind. Beside a thin tree Bowl stopped, grabbed my hand, lifted her sweater.
Her belly was swollen and transparent and filled with water. Her ribs were coral in the ceiling. In the boneless cup of her, a blue baby floated. It had long hands like feathers, quiet lidless eyes, snowglobes, or crystal balls. I could see its heartbeat. “How did this happen?” I asked.
“Unprotected sex,” said Bowl.
The witch was waiting for us calmly in her garden when we returned. Bowl told her about her lover, his name and his job and his ashtrays full of cigarette butts, the names he liked to call her in the middle of the night, how he never called her his darling, or his marine biologist, or his sweet aquarium. The witch laid her hands on Bowl’s stomach and felt the baby stir, felt its small veins swell with saltwater. We went inside. We drank tea. The forest kissed the night.
The dream I had about Bowl went like this.
She stays with the witch, learning about plants and dreams and intentions. She wears a long skirt and sings to the creature that breathes her air. Dirt stains her fingernails. The forest learns to love her. We learn to love her, and take her to the caves where glittering stalactites hang like gifts, and tell her stories about the things we did when we were younger. I come and go. The witch has nightmares and wakes up screaming. Nine months after the summer, Bowl gives birth to a baby that can breathe water.
I build a cradle from sapling shoots. I am no carpenter, and I slash myself across the palm with the knife, so the baby sleeps on a stain of my blood. I don’t know what kind of dreams this gives her. The witch sews a doll full of sweet herbs, to guard the baby while she sleeps. The months pass. The years pass. Bowl’s daughter grows up bit by bit, piecemeal, pebbledash. Her hair grows long and green and wild. Bowl tells the little girl stories about her father: sometimes he is a wizard who lives in the mountains, sometimes he is a business man wearing a grey suit, sometimes he is a labyrinth fish in a garden pond. Bowl’s daughter calls the witch Aunt Chicory. She calls me Thorn. For her tenth birthday the witch and I travel to the city and buy her an expensive guitar. She never plays it, not once; but she grows an avocado tree from a swollen stone inside the guitar’s body, and the witch is delighted, impressed, proud. I would have liked to teach the little girl chords and songs. I grumble. I am proud too.
One day, the witch tells me it is time to leave the trees in the forest. It is time to go to the water. We pack our bags, the witch and Bowl and the little girl and I, and we walk and camp and walk, until we come to a black and green lake with a tall tower leaning over it. Bowl’s daughter drops her bags. She steps out of her clothes, and then she is in the water, her hair seaweed, her lungs waterwheels, breathing, breathing, a glint in the current, a glint in our eyes as she swims away.
My dreams have never been prophecies.
“Have you thought of a name?” the witch asked.
Bowl folded her hands cautiously over her stomach, as though it was still a novelty, as though she was used to hiding it. “Miracle,” she said.
The witch smiled. “No.”
Bowl laughed. She said, “Nora.”
The witch and I took our cigarettes out to the garden. I thought that Bowl did not need and should not have someone to call her darling, or sweet aquarium, my marine biologist. The witch’s hands shook as she smoked. She was not mine, either. There was so much we didn’t know, and all I had was a dream, and all I could tell her as I took her hand was that next time she would be born as a fish: fin in sun, swift in the water and wide-mouthed, and vine-green, bright-eyed, light caught swimming.