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The Waltz of the Autumn Witch

The first morning of autumn galloped through the vale, rolled over the hills and tumbled onto the towns and villages that sat scattered in the valley. Dragging its chilly winds behind itself, the new season murdered any trace of summer that had been left upon the air. With a great gust, it flung the yellowing leaves over the vale, the crisp confetti finding even the almond orchard, hidden at the edge of the valley, and the witches dozing inside. Elsie woke first.

As she opened her eyes, the stale smell of dust and stillness struck her. It reminded her of death and decay, and she had long decided that she would always hate it. Elsie pushed back the quilt, let her feet fall to the floor and crossed to the old windows, stretching her shoulders as she went. She pulled back the curtains, twisted the brass handles and threw open the windows, letting cool, fresh air spill into the room. Elsie breathed it in. Beyond the sill, the almond trees waved softly at her as they stretched out over the orchard. The morning after the nine-month slumber had come again.

Somewhere in the darkened recesses of the cottage an alarm suddenly woke. Its muffled chiming rang, growing louder as it ran down the hallway, into her room, and smacked right into her. It was Agytha’s alarm; she and her elderly sisters would now slowly rise and scuttle about the house. It was this vision that ignited her memory like matchstick struck between the grates of a gas stove. In a burst of panic, Elsie realised: she had forgotten about the dead almond tree. At once, she leapt back from the windows. Hurrying to her chest of drawers, she tugged a cardigan from the mess of washing that was piled atop it. Elsie pulled it on. She scraped her black, corkscrew hair out of her eyes and shoved a clip over it. Without another thought, she threw open her door and ran down the hall, the kitchen, the living room, and opened the front door. Shoving gumboots over her bare feet, she took the axe from beside the door and made for the old, dead tree.

The almond tree was an ancient one, gnarled and hollowed in places with a great gaping chunk taken out of its trunk. Agytha had asked her, autumn after autumn, to finish cutting down the dead tree. Elsie had been so determined to remember that she promised Agytha that, before she woke this year, it would be gone.

As she found the tree, she realised she’d forgotten her wand. It was too late. The crones were surely awake by now and would notice if she ran back into the house. With two hands, Elsie slung the axe into the trunk. She hacked at it and hacked at it until a thin sheen of sweat appeared on her forehead and she hardly needed the cardigan anymore. She had quite forgotten all but the rhythmic thuds of the axe against the wood until Agytha’s voice leapt out of nowhere.

‘A bit late, is it not, Elsie?’

Elsie jumped. Mid-swing, she missed the tree and drove the axe right into the ground. She spun around at the crone, who stood before her, wrapped in a checked dressing gown.

‘Agytha!’ said Elsie, ‘You scared the life out of me. I’m sorry. I’m almost done. It’s just the blade is really blunt and it’s heavy and the–”

‘Elsie, are you a witch or a walrus?’

‘I … I’m a witch.’

‘Then act like it, dear!’ said Agytha, ‘Use your magic to cut the silly thing. A simple charm will do. I have been telling you, autumn after autumn…’ She took her long, gnarled wand out of her pocket and flicked it at the axe. It rose immediately and began to lay into the trunk. ‘There. This should have been done seasons ago.’

‘Sorry.’

Agytha sighed. ‘You are never going to get better unless you practise, Elsie,’ she said, ‘but, never mind. I am making spiced ginger and pumpkin oats for breakfast. Come inside and we will not say another word of the dead tree.’

*

That afternoon, Elsie found herself at the town market, tugging along three bags of food shopping and an enormous pumpkin. She held a long list that she had begrudgingly scribbled at the behest of Margorie, the second oldest of the three crones who lived in the cottage. Altogether, there were four of them: Agytha, Margorie, Jilly and herself. Elsie was remarkably younger than the crones, who all shuffled about the cottage as badly painted replicas of each other, all with the same thin, white hair, leathery skin and hunched shoulders that creaked and squeaked liked floorboards when trodden upon.

At the breakfast table, Marjorie had barked at her to go and fetch more jam. Theirs had spoiled during the nine-month slumber. Before Elsie had grabbed a pen, Marjorie and Jilly were rapidly calling out the shopping list. Only Agytha said nothing, hovering in the corner, stringing up tufts of camomile and lavender to dry for tea. The shopping list grew long. Each item agitated her more and more. When the paged was filled and the two crones showed no signs of slowing, Elsie said:

‘You know what—why don’t you both come and help this year?’

They looked up at her.

Help?’ asked Marjorie.

‘Yes,’ said Elsie, ‘Every year you and Jilly give me this list and never help. I’m the only one who goes outside, except for Agytha. When was the last time you left the house?’

‘Child, my work here is much too important–’

‘The sixties, if memory serves,’ said Jilly, ‘The most recent sixties, mind. I believe we took a trip to that island off the coast.’

‘Ah!’ said Marjorie, tossing a handful of beetles into the cauldron. ‘The one with the kangaroos.’

‘That is the one,’ said Jilly.

‘I don’t care where you went!’ said Elsie, ‘You haven’t left the house in over half a century. Do your own bloody shopping.’ She threw down the pen and stomped out of the room.

Later, Agytha came to apologise for Marjorie and Jilly, and asked, politely, for Elsie to fetch the shopping. It was a beautiful Saturday, after all, and the weekend market would hardly seem like a chore on such a day. And so, Elsie was out under the gumtrees of the main street, weaving through the weekend crowd holding their coffee and chewing their samples of free, organic fudge.

At last, Elsie found the jam stall. It sat in the far corner of the market, almost hidden by a coffee truck. The stand was small, with rugged wooden crates and orange bunting fluttering in the wind. On the counter sat a gleaming row of jam jars. A young man stood behind them, his eyes on his smartphone. He was the same age as her, in his early twenties, and wore his hair tied back.

‘Hi there!’ he said, quickly putting away his phone as she came to the counter, ‘What can I get you?’

‘Um,’ she said, suddenly nervous. ‘One jar of strawberry and another of marmalade, please.’

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘Six-fifty, please.’

She handed over the money.

‘Thanks’, he said, winking at her.

Elsie’s eyes dropped to the floor. She stared intently at the bark beneath her shoes until the young man placed both jars on the counter. She took them, shoved them into one of her bags, said ‘thank you’ and hurried away. Elsie fell into the crowd, wanting more than anything to be lost from view.

She wove through the bustle and ducked into a tuft of trees behind a coffee cart. There, she hid behind a large trunk and had a moment to herself. He was her age. He seemed nice enough—could she have not just talked to him?

Then, as she peered around the tree, Elsie saw a young woman walking up to the jam stall. She had chestnut coloured hair and smiled with the optimism of a spring morning. The young man chatted to her happily and their conversation looked astoundingly ordinary.

Disappointment struck Elsie. That was why she could not talk to him: she was the least ordinary one could be. For she was an autumn witch, and that meant the nine-month slumber paused her every year on the last evening of the season. She was bound to live and breathe by the autumn air only, and did not age a moment during the other seasons. That year, she would turn both twenty-one and eighty-four.

Anger grew in her chest as she watched the two of them. They would be dead of old age before she turned forty. Then her eyes were caught by a gaggle of teenagers laughing and giggling together; then a father and his daughter; then a woman and an old Labrador waddling on a leash. It all became too much. A lump rose in her throat. She would never have what any of them had.

Elsie took her shopping and stomped into the crowd.

*

That night, she crept out of the cottage. While the crones slept, she climbed silently from her bedroom window, crossed to the garden shed, took up her broomstick and flew into the night. Elsie cast herself invisible and swooped in and out of the trees and over the hills of the vale. She flew until the valley disappeared and the green pastures turned to urban sprawl and morphed into the metropolis of the small capital city. Still hidden from the eyes of mortals, she landed on a footbridge that hung over the river flowing along the CBD’s northern edge.

The city slept fitfully. The screeching tires, honking horns and thudding music hummed around her as she stared into the river. It was filthy, she realised. A chip packet floated along the skin of the water, which was murky green and thick with pollution. It drove her to fury.

At once, Elsie jumped off the footbridge and glided onto the cement riverbank. She paced back and forth, hands on her hips. The mortals ruined the river. They filled the air with smog. They littered. They threw cigarette butts into drains. They got to live and breathe and swim through time at the same rate as the earth, the trees, the animals, and they didn’t appreciate it. The injustice of it all screamed at her until it was the only thing she could hear.

Elsie whirled around and picked out the first thing she saw: a metal bin sitting next to the footbridge. With a slash of her wand, she pulled the bin out of the ground and flung it into the river.

There, she thought, ruin it. Make it dirtier. That and everything else they take for granted.

*

 

From there, Elsie descended quickly. She snuck out every night to fly all over the state and uproot trees, knock over bins and break things. Serves them all right, she told herself over and over. Elsie never hurt anyone—not directly—but as she let her anger fester and grow, she became reckless. One night, after checking that no one slept beneath it, Elsie collapsed a bridge in the northern suburbs.

The vision of it crashing down, drowning out the night-time silence with cacophony and throwing a plume of dust into the air, gave her intense joy. It filled her with unabashed delight, greater than any happiness she had experienced in years. She realised, then, that she had gone too far …

Screw the mortals, a small voice told her in spite of her regret, they deserve it.

And so, she continued.

*

It was almost autumn’s end when she finally stopped. The air had long turned chilly, and it burrowed through her as she rode her broomstick between the city and the vale, casting her wickedness down on the mortals. She had hardly slept in months. Elsie was exhausted. Yet, she relished the feeling of destruction. The week previous she tore apart a playground she visited as a child. She vandalised the local primary school she was never allowed to attend. Elsie let the destruction run away with itself like a semi-trailer with its brakes cut. That was, until, she saw the news: the night before, a jogger had been hospitalised after falling off a collapsed bridge.

Elsie stood atop the footbridge where she had been the first night. Her hands clenched the railing, the chilly air turning her knuckles pale. In spite of it all, she ached to destroy this one too—to cast the wrought iron railing into the river below and fly away on her broomstick, laughing. But she could not do it. She stood there, staring into the water, sickened at what she had done until Agytha’s voice struck her.

‘A bit late, is it not, Elsie?’

Elsie jumped. There stood the ancient crone, before her on the footbridge.

‘Agytha! Why are you here? I was just–’

‘About to destroy something else? This bridge, perhaps?’

Shame flooded her. ‘Agytha, I don’t know how to explain to you–’

‘I did not raise you to be this way!’ said Agytha. ‘Do you think they have not noticed? The people of this state think there is a gang war raging. They are scared to leave their homes. Are you proud of causing that?’

Elsie said nothing.

‘A woman almost died yesterday,’ said Agytha.

‘I know,’ said Elsie.

Agytha stared at her for a long time. Elsie stared at the ground.

‘Neither of us possess any clue as to why the winds of autumn brought you to our doorstep, Elsie, but this is not what was intended. Is this truly the mark you want to leave on the world?’

Elsie pictured the jogger from the news; she was a young woman, the same age as her, with chestnut brown hair and a body fragile, broken and covered in bandages, lying in a hospital bed. She laid there because of Elsie. After a while, Elsie said: ‘No. It’s not.’

‘I had hoped not. Now, let us go home. We are going to have a long talk on the way.’

*

In the following days, Elsie slept deeply and hardly left her room. Neither she nor Agytha told Marjorie or Jilly what had happened. On the last day of Autumn, Elsie was lying in bed. There she had been all day, playing solitaire on an ancient laptop, while a spell book laid open next to her. From outside, Agytha called her. Elsie ambled slowly out of bed. She exited the room, strolled through the house, opened the front door, pulled gumboots over her socks and followed the sounds of Agytha’s voice.

Elsie found the crone standing where the dead almond tree had been three months before. The stump was completely gone and in its place sat soft, damp soil. Agytha stood behind it, holding a sapling out to Elsie with her ancient hands.

This piece of writing was created in the Autumn of 2017.

 

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