- 25 Mar - 31 Mar, 2023
My sister Ita was born in the summer holidays a month before I was due to move up to the big school. I never thought I would have a sister, or a brother either, because I thought you had to have both a mother and a father if you wanted babies, and we hadn’t seen my father for years. I couldn’t even remember what he looked like, and my mother said she was glad he had gone and that sometimes she had nightmares about him coming back. So I was surprised when my mother told me she was going to have another baby. I thought maybe it was a changeling, one of those babies the fairies leave you when they take away a real child, or maybe the Devil’s child, the kind of baby witches have. Not that my mother was a witch. But there was one living just outside the town.
Everybody in our gang knew the woman in Raven Cottage was a witch. Her name was Nellie Brooks. Sometimes you could catch a glimpse of her through the grass and the weeds that choked her front garden and grew up to where the thatch began.
Everybody in the town knew that she ate little boys if they got too close to the cottage. Boiled them up in a big black cauldron that she had dangling on a chain over the fireplace was known to be her very famous trick. Sometimes when you passed by you could also smell them boiling. It was all you could do to keep from being sick.
We didn’t know a lot about her except that she was about two hundred years old and she had a one-eyed black cat that was nearly as old as she was. That was her familiar. You would see it sometimes sitting on the gatepost, watching people go by on the lane with its good eye. Keeping a lookout in case, any boys got too close.
On summer nights you could see her flying past the full moon on her broomstick, on her way to visit the Devil with a big sack over her shoulder, full of the souls of all the boys she had boiled and eaten. I never actually saw her myself but Billy Slevin saw her lots of times and told us all about it. He could sit up later than us because his mother was dead and his dad was usually drunk. He was lucky; he got to do a lot of good things because of that.
Of course, the best time to see her was on a Saturday afternoon because that was when she took the bus in to Drumalea to do her shopping at Biddy Conlon’s post office shop next to the green. We used to wait for her to get off the bus and taunt her a bit, maybe throw some earth at her, and then run off.
“Aul’ Nellie Brooks! Can’t catch me!” Billy would run between her and the shop and fling a handful of clay at her, “Aul’ Nellie Brooks! Drinks ‘er own pee!” Then I would run past from the other direction and fling some more at her as she turned around. It was a sort of a dare, to see if she would try to catch us for the pot. She never even tried.
Nellie was known as the ugliest woman in the whole world. Her hair was long and thin and grey and she combed it straight back off her face. Her nose was sort of rough, like the surface of the moon, and there were hairs growing out of it. She had a fork-shaped red mark on the side of her chin. Billy said that was the Devil’s mark, most likely where his forked tongue had touched her.
She always wore the same thin black dress down to her ankles and a black lace scarf over her head, with her hair poking out the back of it. And even though she was eating all those boys there wasn’t a pick of meat on her - you could see her skeleton underneath her skin. All the lumpy bits on her spine stuck out and you could see that it had a bend in it, like the letter “S”.
But the thing about Nellie was that even though she looked like a little gust of wind would blow her away, everybody knew that she had magic powers she’d got from the Devil, and she could put the evil eye on you if she wanted to.
It's safe to say I was terrified when I pushed my way through the large weeds to Nelly Brooks' front door. My mother had to put her hand under my arm and hold me so I wouldn't run away. I thought she was going to do something crazy when I approached the door of a woman who was cooking the kids for dinner and giving her soul to the devil. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I couldn't stop.
Then Mum had the weak baby. I thought it might be my fault, for taunting Nellie Brooks. There didn’t seem to be any life in the little thing. It just lay there and hardly moved at all. If we’d had the money, I think my mother would have taken it to the doctor.
Anyway, somebody told my mother that I had been taunting Nellie, and she was waiting for me when I got inside the door after school. Her eyes were red like she’d been crying.
“That’s all I need! A son that attacks poor old women! Don’t you think I have enough to contend with? Don’t you think there are enough people in that town bad-mouthing us? What in God’s name did you think you were doing?”
She went on like that for ages. Most likely she thought Nellie had done something to the baby for revenge. I told her I never touched the old bat but she wouldn’t hear a word of it. She wrapped Ita in a woollen shawl and told me that we were going to go and see Nellie, and if I had tried not to come she would have had me by the ear, so I shut up and tagged along.
I don’t mind telling you I was scared, pushing through those big weeds up the path to Nellie Brooks’ front door. My mother had to put her hand under my arm and hold on to me to keep me from bolting. I thought she was doing a crazy thing, walking up to the door of a woman that boiled children for her dinner and gave their souls to the Devil. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
But there wasn’t a lot I could do. The smell from that black cauldron over the fire was terrible. I tried to pull back but I couldn’t get free of my mother’s grip under my arm.
Nellie came to the door and opened the top half, and smiled out at us. I’d never been that close to her before. She only had a few teeth left and that smile scared me something wicked. She seemed to be smiling at the baby. My mother didn’t understand the reason she was doing it.
“Mrs Brooks,” my mother said, calm as you like, “I’ve brought my boy to apologise to you for what he did at the bus stop outside Biddy Conlon’s shop.”
“We were all young once, Mrs Grant” she said in a voice like one of the nuns at school. Not the kind of voice I would ever have expected of a witch. “Is that your new daughter?”
“It is, Mrs Brooks. Her name’s Ita.”
“A good Irish name. I’ve got a great granddaughter named Ita. Will you come in and have a drop of tea? I’m sorry about the smell; I’m boiling up a few lights from the butcher for the cat. I can’t smell anything anymore so it doesn’t worry me.”
Lights from the butcher? My mother seemed to believe her. We came in and took a seat at the far side of the fire. It was a clean little cottage, and inside the smell wasn’t so strong, because it was going up the chimney from the pot. She started to make the tea. I wondered what we would turn into if we drank it.
“Mrs Conlon told me that your baby isn’t thriving,” she said as she measured out the spoonful of tea leaves into the pot. I looked at my mother and I could have sworn she had a tear in the corner of her eye. Nellie stopped what she was doing and came over to sit beside my mother. “May I look at your hands, dear?”
My mother held them out. She looked first at the palms, then the backs. She put her hand up to my mother’s face and pulled down the skin under one of her eyes.
“What did you have for your dinner today?”
“Well... just potatoes and a drop of tea. We can’t eat the way we used to, before... before Liam went off.”
She questioned my mother about everything we ate in the week. About whether we ever had an orange, or a bit of spinach, or how much milk we drank in the day. I suppose she just wanted to make a conversation. She held Ita for a while and looked at her hands too, and her eyes. She was a mad old woman all right. She made my mother promise that she would pick some blackberries for the two of us, and have them boiled up with sugar and buttermilk, and buy oranges in Biddy Conlon’s shop, and take a few eggs from Nellie’s hen’s home with us, and come back for more.
You could tell she was casting a spell of some kind. I thought she was probably trying to turn the two of us into a pair of toads. And that was why I wouldn’t eat any of those queer new things that my mother started to cook up. At least, not at first. But when I saw that she hadn’t started to turn into anything after a couple of days I thought I may as well give it a try.
Now I don’t know whether it was the eggs that were magic or the tea that she gave us, or the blackberries boiled up with the sugar and the buttermilk or what, but Ita started to get a lot livelier after that, and she got bigger and fatter and started to act more like a regular baby. My mother started to go over to Nellie’s place once or twice a week and before you knew it she was going in to Drumalea to do Nellie’s shopping for her and earning a little bit of money by cutting Nellie’s grass and feeding her hens and such like.
She questioned my mother about everything we ate that week. Whether she's ever eaten an orange or spinach, or how much milk she drank in a day. I think she just wanted to have a chat. She hugged Ita for a while and also looked at her hands and eyes. She really was a crazy old lady. She told my mother to pick blackberries for both of us, boil them in sugar and buttermilk, buy oranges from Bidi Conlon's store, bring some eggs from Nelly's chicken coop, I made him promise to come back again.
don't know if it was the magic egg, the tea she gave us, the blackberries boiled in sugar and buttermilk, or what, but Ita has been fine ever since. He got bigger, fatter and started to behave more like a normal baby. Her mother started going to Nelly's house once or twice a week, and before she knew it, she was going to Dramarea to shop for Nelly, mow Nelly's grass, and feed the chickens. I was making money doing it.
And my mother seemed to get stronger as well, just like Ita, so that when my father showed up again, a couple of months after I moved up to the big school, she was able to chase him out of the house with the broom handle. My mother said he would never be coming back again and that would be soon enough as far as she was concerned.
So, don’t let anybody tell you that witches only do bad spells. They can make sick babies better and they can make your mum strong enough to kick your dead loss dad out of the house for ever. So just think what a witch could do if she wanted to get mean! We don’t taunt her any more if we see her in Drumalea, and I wouldn’t advise you to either. If she needs to eat a little boy every now and again to keep up her strength, that’s okay with me. She wouldn’t do it unless they deserved it.