Beneath the sun, deep in the fall,
The Witch of Bosco comes to call,
Conducting music in the woods,
And raising roads from dirt and mud.
The sweetest fruits grow from the bush,
Along the path that she once brushed.
The weeping willow shelters her,
You’ll find The Witch of Bosco there.
The legend of The Witch of Bosco would spread like wildfire across Brunel, reaching its neighbouring sectors, such that travellers would come to seek her famous haunts. Some days, bewitched believers fight for a space beneath the famous willow.
In the shade, a girl hummed along to her music, the player set by the mouth of the waterfall. She liked how it echoed through the caves, the drops dancing to the rhythm, beating the rocks in applause, then flowing downstream.
Bosco was one of three forests in Brunel – the forest of the river. In Autumn, it became a forest of fire, rich oaks ablaze until the last embers fell. Then the ash skeletons glittered with frost. Suddenly, death could be wonderous. It was no longer the end – a prelude to a new beginning when, come spring, it blossomed into life again. Now, under the summer sun, it was her forest, her fortress, her kind of magic.
In the old world, they believed in magic. Under a sky alive with dragon fire, gods created civilisations with a wave of a hand, demons and monsters stirring in the shadows. But any curiosity beyond the realms of the ordinary was quashed by her father. Even her peers derided their ancestors as gullible.
Now there was no magic. This forest was the closest she could get.
“Where are we now?”
“I…I don’t know, okay!”
She stilled. With the clatter of the waterfall and music blaring too, to hear them this clearly, they must be nearby.
“You said you knew the way home!”
“Shut up! I need to think!”
Two boys emerged from the trees, continuing to argue. The younger boy coughed, struggling to catch his breath, “Don’t be mean! Words have consequences, you know!”
“How do you know what, ‘consequences,’ means?” The older boy asked incredulously.
“Mum says consequences all the time around me.”
“Really? That makes sense. This is why Mum said you shouldn’t be out here! I shouldn’t have let you talk me into it!”
“I – just – wanted – to – play!”
As the older of the brothers turned his face away from the child’s hacking coughs, he locked eyes with her, both startled deer at the sight of a gun. He was a few years younger than her, but it gave her no advantage. Other children thought her strange, and they were not always kind to her.
The small boy’s choking, however, compelled her to speak. “Do you need water?”
He looked thirstily at the bottle she offered, then at his brother, who was eyeing her distrustfully. Nevertheless, the elder nodded impatiently, and the boy rushed forward, drips falling from the corners of his mouth as he gulped.
As he placed the cap back on the neck, he asked, “Are you a witch?”
“Why would you think that?” she asked curiously.
Bluntly, the way only a child can, he replied, “Because you’re old.”
She was fourteen. But, she supposed, that was old for a boy this young. Though he had asked the question cautiously, his eyes were bright with the appeal of adventure. She humoured him, “I guess I can’t fool you.”
The older boy rolled his eyes, though he moved to stand protectively over his brother.
“What’s your name?” she asked the younger boy.
“Oscar, and this is Griffin,” he said brightly, his brother gasping exasperatedly, becoming even more annoyed when he informed her, “We’re lost. We’re trying to get back home.”
“Where do you live?”
Again, Griffin lost his bid to silence his brother, a surly expression on his face. Some of her contemporaries would sneer at the ‘poor part’ of Brunel. She never saw much point in judging people by how rich they were. Her grandfather took her to the bakery in Bryngarth once – she shared her roll with a beggar, and he told her how he used to fly planes in the old world.
“I can help you get home,” she said.
Griffin appeared reluctant to accept. She understood; she was stubborn too. But Oscar gave another thick cough, a disconcerting noise to come from such a small body, and, thus, Griffin relented.
This forest was familiar – she led them without a map. Or at least she tried to lead. Griffin kept straying from her chosen path.
“Wait,” she stopped Griffin from wandering in the wrong direction. Not every tree was just another tree; the notches clenched like knuckles, their fingers spread, pointing the way to some path or another. Her fingers rubbed the bark of a familiar sycamore until she found the groove, an arrow she and her grandfather had carved. She pointed, “That’s north. If we want to get to Bryngarth, we need to go southeast.”
There were many like it. It was oddly painful to think about those days; her grandfather no longer remembered them.
“Do the trees talk to you?” Oscar exclaimed in wonder.
“The trees talk to everyone.” She smiled in spite of herself, covertly showing Griffin the arrow, though he showed little interest in engaging with her. “I just know how to listen.”
“How did you do that before?” Oscar quizzed.
“Make the river sing.”
She felt the device in her pocket and could have told the truth. But she saw a zeal in this small boy that she had always been mocked for. “I’m a witch, remember?” she grinned mischievously, “Want me to make the trees sing too?”
She was enjoying being a witch. Her slapdash chicanery, however shoddy, seemed to make Oscar forget about the stitch in his side and his heaving chest. It was a shame he was so sickly. It was as if his frail body made a poor cage for a spirit so big.
Griffin was clearly not impressed, huffing as he stalked ahead.
“Is he always grumpy?” she asked.
Griffin grunted over Oscar’s giggling, “I’m not grumpy.”
“He used to make songs for me. He wrote songs about my teddy, my dolls –” Oscar told her.
“Stop it, Oz!”
“Remember, ‘Old Toad’?”
Griffin acted as though he had not heard him, though his jaw was clenched. She supposed pastimes she once enjoyed now felt childish. Nonetheless, he wished he would humour his brother.
Plainly not content to be ignored, Oscar drew a breath too big for his tiny chest and sang, “Old Toad went to the wishbone stream…”The effort was too much, Oscar wheezing, his lungs protesting.
It was in vain. Griffin refused to sing.
“Let’s take a break,” she stopped by a rock, guiding Oscar to sit.
Oscar was not to be silenced, however, shouting at Griffin, “I hate that you’ve changed!”
“I haven’t changed!”
“You have! You never smile anymore! It’s my fault!”
“No, it isn’t.”
“It is! I got sick – and now you won’t play with me!”
At this, Oscar dissolved into his harshest cough yet. Griffin, meanwhile, was as stunned as he had been upon first discovering her.
Riffling through her bag for her water bottle, she was relieved when her fingers closed around it, only to be plunged back into panic when it was empty. Oscar was crying hard, and she looked desperately around for something, anything she could do to help. Why was there no real magic in this world?
“Old Toad went to the wishbone stream, he was big and bold and bottle green…”
Griffin’s voice was mournfully melodic.
Oscar hiccupped, his croaky voice raised, “Rest in the sun as time goes past.”
“Oh, what a life the Old Toad has,” they ended the tune together.
She caught Griffin’s eye, but he sheepishly looked away. “Griffin, help me. He needs more water. Oscar, stay here. We won’t be long.”
He tried to follow them, as young children do.
“I’ll curse you,” she threatened.
His eyes widened in fear, “A curse?”
“What’s his favourite food?” She looked to Griffin who, she realised with a jolt, was glossy-eyed.
He muttered in a would-be casual way, “Strawberries.”
“If you move from this rock, you will never eat strawberries again,” she adopted a commanding tone, waving her palms, to the effect that Oscar made a yelp of horror, grasping onto the rock obediently.
They took a short walk to the river. When she arrived at the bank, she dug through the rest of her bag. To break the uncomfortable silence, she explained, “I just need to collect water, and then we can filter it.”
He nodded noncommittally, lost in his own dark wood.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked.
Griffin sighed, “Mum won’t tell us exactly, just that his lungs don’t work properly, and the doctors can’t fix it. I shouldn’t have brought him out here, he’s already close to –”
He fought against the overwhelming sorrow. She squeezed her eyes shut to prevent the same, thoughts of her ailing grandfather, a shell, waiting to expire, locked in his room. It was no wonder Oscar wanted to escape his deathbed, and she could not blame Griffin for abetting him.
“I’m sorry,” she said, finally, “He’s not going to remember that you fought. He’s going to remember the fun he had with you.”
She could speak with confidence. Oscar was a remarkable boy. He thought she had powers, but never once asked her to cure his illness. He just wanted the trees to sing.
Griffin wiped his face on his sleeve, his tone gentler, “I’m not stupid – I know you’re not a witch.”
“I’m not?” She feigned surprise.
“Oscar believes you are, but I know you don’t believe it.” He was laughing, and suddenly looked like a child, not an old man, woes weighing him down.
“Maybe all that matters is that he believes it,” she rose from the bank, “It must be nice to have something to believe in.”
Upon their return – and after removing the ‘curse’ – the walk became a light stroll through the woods, new friends swapping stories. Finally, when she reached a rowan, she felt the arrow pointing north and directed Oscar to the left. “This way.”
“You said we had to go southeast,” Griffin reminded her.
“You’ll see,” she smiled.
She had been wrong to assume there was no magic left in the world. This forest was enchanting to her because her grandfather had made it so. Now, it was her turn.
Oscar gasped, yelling with glee as he walked into the circle of brambles, ruby-encrusted leaves bragging sweet, plump jewels. He inspected a particularly juicy offering, twirling it between his fingers, twisting it off the stem. “How did these get here?”
“Magic, obviously,” Griffin joined his brother at the brush, tugging one free for himself, “She’s a witch.”
She gave him a small smile, which he returned, before turning as red as the surrounding strawberries.
“You see this path?” she pointed to the part of worn ground, snaking away towards the mouth of the woods, “If you follow that for a few minutes, it’ll lead you out of the forest and straight to Bryngarth.”
“Where are you going?” asked Oscar.
She thought of her grandfather and how much he would enjoy this story, even if he forgot it seconds later. “I’m going home.”
Once she left the boys, Griffin took a notebook from his pocket, scrawling furiously in his lap.
“What are you doing?” asked Oscar, shoving another fistful of strawberries into his mouth.
“Writing my new song,” he beamed, “Want to hear it?”
Oscar squealed with joy, nodding fervently, warming Griffin’s soul as he began to sing.
“Beneath the sun, deep in the fall…”
© Billie-Leigh Burns