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14 min 
Fiction & Issue Four

One in the Coven

By Samantha Byres

 

‘How old was she?’

‘Twenty, twenty-one… thereabouts. She came here when she was twenty-five.’

It’s Saturday morning. Early though, because he’s  not one to sleep in. I’d like a morning to just lie quiet, curled into his warm back thinking  about all my old lovers. But he wakes up early, wants to chat then make me breakfast. This morning’s topic is war. Some war movie we watched the night before. All men. Where were the women? I’m telling him about Gran, who worked for the RAF. To his credit, he’s interested: he doesn’t think it’s silly.

‘Isn’t it strange to think of your Granny that way? All those lovers?’ he asks.

‘She loved them all,’ I say. ‘One after the other. One would die and she’d feel like she would never feel that way again, then whoop! She’d meet some handsome, doomed airman. She was engaged to one, but he disappeared in the North Atlantic. They named a bomber after her. The Josephine.

‘And she was a witch?’

‘No. She had her feet firmly on the ground.’ Earthly things was what Granny Jo was all about by the time I knew her. English Gran. Fruit cakes, seasonal gardens, old towels ripped into rags. Things that could be stored, re-used. She used to dab my teenage acne with lemon juice. Durability, practicality. A family motto. ‘But she told me about the witches.’

We can barely move under the weight of the blankets and me under the weight of myself, but still. The warm soupy smell of ourselves, the cave we make with our bodies. His hands have begun a slow  journey across my body, circling like hawks in the sky. Searching for places to give me pleasure: he finds many. I take a deep breath, flood myself and the baby with air, before I lose my breath completely.

 

He’s like this good man. Good with his hands. He goes to work to  and enforces and upholds the law. He comes home, takes off his uniform and fixes whatever’s broken. Lights a fire that I’ve suffocated, goes out into the garden I’ve half-heartedly planted and does the real work: staking, weeding, watering. The ground is near frozen. He doesn’t think too much or too volubly except when I tell him something, and he slowly puts it all together. It’s nice to have someone treat you as their only reputable news source.

He likes the mechanisms of war though: I fill in the human element.

 

Love was like he was stopping traffic, putting one hand up in front of me and saying, ‘Stop your wandering.’ What a relief, for a little bit, to stay in one place, to have my decisions made for me.

I never thought I’d live in a place this small. Towns like this are the lifeblood of this country, they say, and I’m sure that was once true. Now they’re like an old relative you have some nice memories of but you don’t want to spend time with anymore. They’re trying to entice people to move here. Cheap houses, beautiful scenery. Once you get here, then what? Cycle yourself through the three decent restaurants and get used to milky coffee. My hands crack from the cold. I sleep in paraffin soaked cotton gloves. Little mummy, he calls me. My breasts feel frozen hard. I can’t see how anything will ever flow through them, even though when the baby comes it will be summer.

Today I get the sheets off the line and can almost crack them in half. I set them on the clothes hoist in front of the fire so they dry out properly. The place looks like a Bedouin tent. He finds me under the sheets when he gets home, curled up with a blanket and a book.

‘As bomb shelters go, it’s not very sturdy,’ he says.

‘Ah, but it’s cosy. Come and join me.’ And he does, his work boots sticking out the ‘door’, his pants around his ankles. Eventually we bring the whole thing down on top of us. I enjoy the ridiculousness of it all.

 

Mornings I check the news and the weather. The news for the rest of the world because that’s where everything happens and a couple of madmen are pulling us to the brink of annihilation, but the weather for here. How cold can it get? Cold enough to snow, he says. We are getting married in the spring, something that’s important to him. I say we’ll do it when I can fit and find a decent dress, but then I just imagine my tits leaking out as we say our vows. How does this baby stuff even work, anyway?

He keeps saying, ‘buy a dress, choose a dress,’ because there are some nice shops in this town, for the old money that hangs around in pockets, carrying the place into its old age. Today I walk past one that says, ‘Debutante dresses 20% off’, which makes me want to hightail it to the nearest city for a stiff drink, some incomprehensible modern art.

The nearest city is 5 hours away.

It doesn’t matter, anyway. I already know I want to get married in a yellow mini-dress and they don’t have that here.

 

I see my barista. He likes to spend a few minutes with me behind the shop, which backs onto the bus station. In the front people clamour for coffees and the poor girl has to flit between the till and the machine, dripping coins and hot milk.

Ender. Some Lebanese-Italian hot-blooded babe who shaves his head and wears Chicago Bulls knit beanies in winter. How’d he end up here?

He pulls at my coat lapels. ‘I just need five minutes to make you feel good.’

I shake my head. His hand slips inside my bra. He’s blindly feeling, as if just touching any flesh was enough. He puts his other hand in his pocket and starts rubbing himself, his eyes going glazed. I’ve never known anyone this aggressively sexual, this quick off the mark. We do this, maybe, twice a week.

‘The world is ending,’ I tell him.

‘That’s why you’ve got to let me take you somewhere, let me lay down with you. Make you feel good until we’ve had enough of each other.’

‘When will that be?’

‘When we’ve had enough. Let me come to your place, after my shift.’

But no, I don’t want him in my house or my pussy. Enough to let him cover my mouth with his, pull on my bottom lip with his teeth as he comes. He goes inside to make my coffee. My nose is red and watering from the cold. The girl, the blonde barista, gives me a dirty look as I go.

 

At home, I vigorously learn how to make bread. I got a sourdough starter from the woman next door. She used to write a column for The Age, but her and her partner moved here when they had kids. Now she’s a mother who makes the best sourdough. Just a really good, sturdy crust. Sometimes I see her byline in the local articles about effluent run-off from local farms. If I asked, she’d tell me it’s all about choices.

 

‘So the girls were just local English girls?’ he asks.

‘Two worked in a hat shop, one was a sweeper in a hair salon and the other was someone’s little sister.’

‘And they were witches.’

‘They wanted to be. They had to be quiet about it though. It was still a dangerous thing, woman’s power.’

‘Still is,’ he says.

‘Still is.’

He eats the ratatouille I made, drinks his wine, listens to me talk.

‘They were all young and pretty. English roses. Cool blondes with smooth pink cheeks, tiny waists and big bums. Somewhere along the line, after children, they’d be buxom, generous. Right then, they were lovely. With lovers and brothers away at war.’

‘And this is in World War Two?’

‘This is in World War Two, when airmen named their bombers after my Granny.’

I’m making up the finer details, but it’s a good story, as it goes.

 

One cold afternoon they’re microchipping kittens in a tent in the central park. I’m trying to distract myself from visions of shock waves rippling through the ocean, cities crumbling like movie sets. I go down there and hold the kittens after they’ve been chipped. A small patch on their chests is slick with watery blood. Their claws curl into my skin. The top of their heads are damp from where they lick and gnaw at each other. I stay until some woman tells me a horror story about how her cousins unborn baby has Down syndrome from kitten claws.

‘Because they’re disgusting, you know. Kittens can’t clean themselves so they’ve got all this poop on their claws. My cousin was fine, and then she gets this infection from her new kitten, and then at her next scan, the doctor was like, “Oh, by the way, your baby’s retarded.”’

 

So I go and wait in a patch of sun out the back of Ender’s café. A few teenagers hang around the bus station.

He comes out eventually, with a bag of empty milk bottles.

‘Hey, beautiful.’

I stay against the wall and he comes close, his back shielding me from the buses waiting in the station.

I show him my hand. ‘I got clawed.’

He puts my hand to his mouth, sucks on the skin below my thumb. The heat spreads through me, momentarily softening my limbs. He moves my hand to his pocket and I can feel him, hot and hard.

‘Tell me what you want me to do to you, when I’ve got you in bed.’

I shake my head. ‘I just want you to do what I tell you.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘Tell me now.’

My hand’s moving faster. I can’t tell if it’s him or me doing it.

‘I want you to put your hands on me,’ I say.  ‘I don’t want you to be soft with me.’

He puts his thumb in my mouth. Coffee. I suck on it.

‘If I come in your mouth,’ he says, ‘will you swallow it? Will you do that?’

I nod, close my eyes against the piercing sun. When I open them I see him shudder, something in his face collapse and then pull itself together again.

‘I have to have you,’ he says. ‘I have to.’

At home I get in the shower and stand there until the rest of me is as warm as the clenched fist between my thighs.

 

‘So they had a personal stake in this?’

He’s straddling my thighs, rubbing lotion into my stomach. Little fault lines have begun to appear in my skin, around my hips and lower belly. He pays special attention to those white streaks.

‘They had a personal stake. One of them had a father she never met, because he never came home from the first war. They’d all grown up poor. Good girls, working girls. The war was another thing in the way of the lives they knew they should have. Husbands, children and holidays by the sea.’

‘How’d they learn to be witches?’

His hands travel up my sides, lightly tapping, as if he was rapping a little message to the baby.

‘One had an aunt who was a witch, who used to tell her love spells and read tea leaves and bury knives by the light of the moon. They learned from books. They knew you had to keep a piece of him close to you. They all wore locks of their lovers’ hairs wrapped in cloth and tucked in their brassieres.’

‘Like a charm.’

‘Yes. They knew it would take more than luck and guns to keep their men safe. One of their fiancés was  an airman and every time he wrote there was someone else he wouldn’t talk about. Eventually he stopped telling her names, started saying “my friend”, “one of the lads”, so she’d never know if he was talking about the same person.’

‘Did this airman know your Nanny Jo?’

‘He did. So, the women knew it would take something special. They weren’t powerful conjurers but they were women and they knew that was powerful, in its own way. The power of want and desire. One of them had found a grey hair and knew she was getting old before her time. They needed their men returned home.’

‘War was a desperate time,’ he says.

‘It was, and people did things that they might never dream of in their regular lives. Like having an affair with a WAAF, when you’ve got a nice true girl waiting for you back home.’

‘So, how did they do it?’

‘One night, they all pretended that they were going to the movies. They put on lipstick, warm dark coats. They each waited by their letterbox for the others to collect them. Then they went down to the park and sat in a quiet place, joined hands. They made a circle.’

‘When was this?’

‘When their men were on the beach, waiting to die.’

He curls up beside me, pushes his face into the damp space between my breast and armpit. Condensation slides down the window. It’s warm in here and outside the sun shines a cutting yellow.

‘They didn’t know if it would work. They had a spell, which seemed like it couldn’t be enough. They knew what the men were facing. Well, they thought they knew. Dreamed about it at night, imagined rushing to their sides and reviving them with home cooked meals. They joined hands and said the words that one of them had copied from a book.  It was cold. They said the words over and over again, their bare hands growing so cold they barely remembered they were holding onto anything at all. Long after their lips had grown too stiff to speak, they sat there, hoping.’

‘What happened? Did it work?’

‘Well, the men on the beach were considered doomed. No ship could get near enough to get them out. They were running out of supplies and fresh water. Groups of them drifted through the town, getting picked off by snipers. Every day, bombers swooped and killed more of them. You know the story.’

I feel his head move, his hair tickling me as he nods.

‘The part of the story you know is that they sent a slew of ships to save the men. But the miracle is that the Germans didn’t bomb them into the sea. The weather that had been clear and bright, perfect killing weather, turned. A thick and heavy cloud settled over the sea. The men waiting on the beach, and the tiny boats racing to get them, were invisible from above. The bombers moved through the soupy grey, looking for holes in the cloud, but they couldn’t find a gap. They returned to base, looking to save their petrol for the next battle.’

‘A miracle.’

‘Some people thought so.’

We lie there, thinking about that cloud of want settling over the men. The power of all that desire for the small things, a safe and settled life, rising like smoke from a cauldron and gathering over the sea.

‘And did the men return home?’

‘They did.’

‘Was your grandmother sad?’

‘She had already said goodbye to so many men,’ I say, ‘she was glad just to say goodbye to one alive.’ This must have been true, though I never heard it from her.

‘And were they happy?’

‘I don’t know about that part.’

‘They married witches,’ he says.

‘Good witches.’

‘You’re my good witch. Cast a spell on me.’

 

Oh, but he’s angry now. Says some terrible things. ‘I know all about you,’ he says. Clenches his big policeman hands, goes through all the male clichés of grief: ragged breathing, screwed up face, turning his anger inward, and making a clown of his own body.

‘I can’t believe I’d let you in my house,’ he says.

‘I’ll die of boredom here,’ I say.

‘It might be too late for that,’ he says.

He turns on the TV and what we understand is that all of us are closer to death than ever before. War prep. Big talk. An imaginary finger hovering above an imaginary button. Experts earnestly tell us to worry, to prepare, on another channel they just as earnestly tell us things will likely blow over. We watch together but I stay up a long time after he goes to bed, the sound on mute, watching their ugly faces decide on our whole lives.

 

Needless to say, I don’t see Ender. Or, I try very hard not to see him.

 

Our house is sad. He goes to work every morning and I am swollen, untouched. His own desire spun into hurt, he gets his pleasure that way, I think. You can hide behind pain the way you’d duck behind a bush.

These are our own lives but all across the world is a held breath, a raw nerve.

 

Disaster, somewhere. Some far off place, some political symbol. A pity for those poor people who were happy to go about their lives being wholly unsymbolic of anything. We walk around like spooked animals. In the main street someone drops a pallet and we all collectively pale and jump.

Every morning I check the sky is a clear, pale blue but each night the news gets worse.

 

I understand that the circle must be my own body. Mine, and the baby flipping like a fish inside me. I turn off the lights and sit against the cold wall and feel our hearts fluttering in the dark.

He comes in and I hear him take off his work shoes. He doesn’t turn on a light but finds me anyway, slides down the wall next to me.

‘Is it a wish, or a spell?’

‘It’s both.’

And then there’s three of us in the room, breathing in ghostly white puffs and wanting with all of our hearts.

 

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