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Watch for the Greenwitch

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Jane plucked her feet up out of the claggy china-clay, looked around her at the high white mounds. Mr and Mrs Stanton had gone on ahead, talking to the pottery owner about moisture content and kiln temperatures. Her lips tasted bitter as aspirin, as if the clay was clouding her skin. Ahead of her, a pool of water showed between the mounds, green and soft with fine algae.

She fished a boiled sweet out of her pocket, popped it out of its crinkly clear red wrappings. Let it rest in the middle of her tongue, a weight of sharp sweetness.

Will Stanton came up behind her, his footsteps sucking in the wet clay as he walked.

“It was good of you to come, Jane,” he said. “Visiting clay pits isn’t everybody’s idea of a fun trip.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” said Jane, twisting her sweet-wrapper between her fingers. She didn’t like to say that she’d only felt bound to come after being too politely enthusiastic about pottery with Mrs Stanton. It was so hard to say no to Americans.

Will stood beside her, looked sideways at her under his fringe.

“Spooky sort of place,” he said vaguely.

Jane nodded. She wasn’t even sure why Will himself had come along: he could have stayed in Trewissick with the others. He’d just been in the car waiting when she’d come down, smiling his goofy smile.

“Rather like the Greenwitch making, I suppose,” said Will. “In a very different way, of course.”

Seagulls cried, somewhere overhead. You couldn’t smell the sea here; the air was full of clay, of slippery white wetness.

“A future-y sort of way,” said Jane. “Like in stories about a nuclear winter. Or about a new ice age.”

She offered Will a sweet; he shook his head.

“Or like the tapes of the moon landings,” said Will. He looked at her sharply. “You are still going to see them make the Greenwitch, then?”

“Of course I am,” said Jane. “If Mrs Penhallow still says it’s all right, of course.” She turned to Will, a little defensive. “What’s it to you, anyway?”

“Oh,” said Will. “Just curious, I suppose. Though,” he said, “I did come across one thing that might be useful."

“In your book about Cornwall?”

Will nodded. “It just mentioned not to eat anything while you’re there. Anything you don’t bring with you, that is.” He grinned at Jane. “I don’t think anyone would expect you to spend the night on a cliff-top without a thermos of something hot, after all.”

Jane shook her head. “That sounds a bit silly.”

Voices were coming closer, sounding flatly off the mounds. The older Stantons came round the corner, their hands white to the cuffs with fine china-clay.

“Well, kids,” said Mrs Stanton, “ready to head back?”

Will and Jane followed them back through the clay to where the car waited, its sides thumbed with long streaks of white, alone in a Saturday car-park marked off from the weedy edges of the clay with chicken wire, the fence bowed down with bindweed, wide white flowers and tight twisted buds. Behind them, Jane’s sweet-wrapper scudded with the wind, red on the green water.

 

 

“Ah, Jane,” said Merriman, his white hair still wild from a cliff walk. “Still going out tonight?”

Jane nodded. “It’s a pity it’s just women and girls,” she said. “I’ll tell you what happens.”

Merriman smiled. “To each thing its season, Jane,” he said. “I’ll be glad to hear about it from you.”

Jane nodded, turned to watch Will, making his way up the narrow street in the low clear evening light.

“Will told me not to eat anything I didn’t bring myself, Gumery,” she said. “He read it in that book of his, apparently.

“Did he, indeed,” said Merriman. He looked out at Will, his face sharp and beaky and almost young, from the side. Will, a good hundred yards away still, paused, walked on a little tentatively, as if, thought Jane, he had felt a stone in his shoe.

She shook her head, smiled. “I was going to take some hot chocolate, anyway.”

She went back inside the cottage. Through the front window, though, she could see Merriman and Will, standing side by side facing down to the harbour. Merriman’s hand was on Will’s shoulder, and Will’s head was bowed.

 

Up on the headland, the wind was fierce and the talk, Jane discovered, was dirty. Mrs Penhallow sat her back on the rocks, away from the red-faced village girls weaving the Greenwitch, wrestling with sappy green boughs and whippy twigs, but she could still hear their voices, snatched back by the wind.

They were talking about fucking, holes and spread legs and fishermen with familiar names. One of them used the word ‘cunt.’ Jane sat and sipped her hot chocolate, feeling like a ghost in the dark. A little thrilled, a little left out. A world of women who worked with their hands and married their cousins.

She remembered the other name for the Greenwitch, said it softly, under her breath. “King Mark’s Bride.”

In the light from the bonfire the Greenwitch rose up, tall and ragged against the sky, like something from long ago. Not the fine past of the grail, of long spears and iron, thorny, intricate poetry and patterns. Not even the past, thought Jane, of neat sharp flints laid out on red velvet under museum lights, axes and arrowheads. Something older, like rough rock, the rings of yellow lichen spreading out through the years like ripples from a stone thrown into still water.


The air smelt of smoke and salt, and the women with their high branches looked at Jane and laughed.

“Come on over, London,” called one of them, and Jane unfolded herself from her blanket and put down her thermos. She picked her way over the rocks, her mouth full of sea salt and milky chocolate.

“Have a bob at this, love,” said one of the women, levering out a branch from the flank of the Greenwitch, her smile wide and her eyes dark in the dancing red light. “Come on, girlie. Everyone’s having a try.”

And they were, smiling women bundled in their anoraks, teasing each others with sprays of berries held high, snapping at them with white teeth. The berries looked black in the firelight; Jane thought they were probably hawthorn.

“I’d rather not,” she said, but no-one heard, and the branch whispered over her head. The women laughed.

 

She jumped up despite herself, mouth open, teeth jamming shut on cold leaves and wet berries. They slid down her throat, tasting mostly of salt.

 

Mrs Penhallow came up behind her, tutting. The other locals, Jane noted absently, had calmed down, backed away. You could hear the fire, the waves far below.

“That’s done, then,” said Mrs Penhallow, quietly. “Best be letting them get their work over with, now, Jane.”

She led Jane back over the rocks. The sky was already paling a little in the east, morning coming up in soft gleaming layers like sand on a beach, showing the tidemarks in silky long lines.

 

When the time came for Jane to come and take her wish from the Greenwitch, she tongued the rags of berry, still caught in her teeth, and said nothing.

 

The villagers surged around her, wheeling the Greenwitch to the sea, a tall strange mass heaving against the dawn sky. Their shouting came small and high, against the sea, the creak and thump of wood on rock. Her lips felt dry and swollen all at once, as if rubbed with salt, and she tasted blood in her mouth like a penny.

 

“Well,” said Will to Merriman, standing by the harbour slipway, salt-crusted lobster pots piled neat and high beside them, “is this really how it was always going to be?”

“Will,” said Merriman, “You should know better than to ask that.” His voice was low and level

Jane had come up behind them, her footsteps light over the sand-scratched stone. “Ask what?”

“Oh, silly questions,” said Will, looking her over. “Maybes and might-have-beens.”

Jane nodded. “Alternate realities,” she said. “Other dimensions. Like in Doctor Who.” She smiled, looking out over the boats, keeled over in the sandy mud, seagulls pecking round their mooring ropes, thick as her forearm and bearded with seaweed. The tide was out and everything smelt of fish and salt. Pools of water winked in the bed of the harbour, beaded with pursed red sea anemones and bladderwrack. “Rubber monsters,” she said.

“And very long scarves,” said Merriman, gravely. Jane and Will looked at him. “What?” he said. “I am still capable of watching television, you know.”

“Of course, Gumery,” said Jane. She giggled. The sea air was getting to her, she could feel it. Her heart moving within her, in and out with the waves. She could almost swear her hair was getting longer, crunchy and knotted with salt every evening, stiff against her fingers.

 

 

“Are you all right, Jane?” asked Simon, over supper. Mrs Penhallow appeared at his shoulder, laden with a tray of baked apples, steaming cinnamon and honey out over the table. He reached up: “I’ll get that.” Mrs Penhallow bobbed her thanks, went back out to the kitchen. She did not look towards Jane.

“You do look a bit peaky, Jane,” said Barney. “I think."

“Not peaky, though,” said Simon. “Not exactly. Just different, somehow.”

Will spooned out the baked apples, each one wrinkled and warm yellow on their plates, bubbled with fine dark blisters, oozing gold juice and white, sugary foam.

“I am here, you know,” said Jane, crossly.

 

 

She had cut her fingernails three times that afternoon; something was pressing deep inside her, although it was not her time of the month for a good fortnight yet. Perhaps, she thought, she had eaten something which had gone off. She thought of her unspoken wish, her words for the Greenwitch. They had pushed it into the sea, wheeling through the air off the cliff, pale with broken boughs, split wood and white blossom. Hawthorn, blackthorn. Blossom, thought Jane. Of course, the lanes were heady with cow parsley, the high banks picked out with cowslips and primroses, fuzzy with pollen. It was not the time of year for berries.

 

 

She stood up, pushed her chair back from the table.

“I think I’ll be off now,” she said. “Simon can have my apple.”

“I don’t eat that much, Jane,” said Simon, already reaching for her plate. He looked up at her, his face a little pinched. “Don’t come down with anything, all right? I’ll come up in a bit."

“He’ll take your temperature, I know he will,” said Barney, mumbling through a mouthful of pulpy apple and fat raisins.

Jane smiled and closed the door behind her.

 

 

She felt it, that evening, as she was combing out her hair. Not scratchy and stiff with salt, but wet, heavy and smooth as fat brown kelp fronds.

She squeezed her hair out over the basin. Merriam and Wilberforce, said the trademark on the porcelain. Merriman, Merriman and Will. She looked up, her face dim and green in the spotted mirror, the whitewash peeling and budding around it with damp. She touched her cheek, cool and soft, like spring flowers. Her fingers came away wet.

Jane slipped downstairs, Merriman’s door dark and empty, the boys in their room arguing over some seaside artist who’d upset Barney. Their voices were low and urgent, as if they were talking of last summer, of the grail and the Dark. Merriman was here, after all. But he was not here for them.

She walked into the chilly dining room, tried the connecting door between the two houses. It was stiff, on the Stanton’s side, as if locked. “Greenwitch,” said Jane, under her breath, and it opened. Her nails, she saw, had grown again.

Will’s room was neat and empty, as she had expected. She almost sat to wait, but she saw her hair waving and tangled in the mirror, felt movement under her breastbone, at the pit of her stomach. She left through the front door, her footprints wet behind her.

 

 

Tressawick at night was all glowing warm windows in low humped cottages, cracks of hot orange showing round curtains, the sea air dense and twitchy with spring. High tide slapped up against the harbour wall, fishing boats creaking and tilting before her, the wind whistling through their masts.

The moon was up, somewhere, lighting the pale underbellies of the clouds, laying out the roofs and white walls of the village in drifting lines and layers, like a photo negative, coming up out of solution, quivering with damp.

Jane lifted her fingers and the light came through her nails like water, she opened her mouth and the sea came out in slow dribbles, seeping down from the corners like spit from a sleeper. Tight white hawthorn blossoms filled the back of her throat, and her skin was soft and greasy and straining with wet as she turned to Will and Merriman, standing together at the mouth of the slipway.

 

Her voice was clear, though, a girl’s voice. “King Mark’s Bride,” she said.

Will nodded.

He looked wretched, Jane thought, distantly. “Are you going to say ‘I told you so’?” she asked.

Merriman looked down at her, tall and grim and steady. “He did, you know,” he said.

Jane laughed. “Oh, Gumery,” she said.


Her hair came out with the sound, thick clammy strands, cold as white mud and dense as deep water. She had something to say to them, something to say to Simon and Barney, but her throat was full of soft petals, butting black thorns. She shook her head, walked to the top of the slipway.

“Jane,” said Will. “You must promise. Promise to listen to us, when we ask. It’s very important.” He turned to Merriman. “Tethys will allow us that much, at least, for what we’ve let them give her?"

Merriman was still. “That,” he said, “depends on the Greenwitch. It is rare, for her to take replenishment so easily.”

She stood at the head of the slipway, sand rilling away from her feet with the water, her mouth clogged with blossom. The smell came up past her teeth, dizzy with growth, rich as rot. The sea tugged at her feet, soaking through the skin, thin and white, slippery over the growth underneath. Already rubbing away, peeling in patches with the salt and the wet.

 

She turned back, a look over one shoulder like a movie star, like a woman. Her voice was hoarse.

 

“Well,” she said. “Do either of you have a wish for me, before I go?”