The Crow Bag
Mr Minton brought the crow. He was wont to leave such gifts despite the fact that Lesley was not his rightful owner. She suspected that no one was rightfully his owner, rather, he bestowed his presence on his pitiful subjects. Mr Minton was a large grey jaguar of a cat who had first prowled into the garden some seven months ago. Lesley had googled him on first sighting, uncertain whether or not she ought to call the zoo. It transpired he was not a fireside lynx but a Maine Coon cat and he had enjoyed several of her summertime lunches. The salmon en croute, where he had devoured the salmon and left the croute. The Hake which had vanished with no trace of cream and caper sauce. A roast poussin with duck fat potatoes which Lesley had left on a willow pattern serving dish on the patio.
In return for this bounty he had taken to leaving his offerings, a selection of mice and rats at first but more recent leavings had been an Abyssinian guinea pig from next door, a smaller tabby cat now looking out from a Wanted poster all over Town, and that odd looking and rather grumpy Muscovy duck from the Park Pond.
The crow was something on a different scale, Mr Minton placing it’s elegant carcass on the doormat just at the moment that she most had need.
She had no real idea why the coven had picked her out for their especial bad intentions. She hadn’t known there was a community of witches in Grayburn, let alone a coven. If, six months ago, someone had asked her what she thought of when she thought of ‘witches’ she would have laughed and said ‘Witches? The pointy hat brigade from fairy tales?’
She knew better now. Witchcraft was a fact and, the way that the coven in Grayburn used it, it was a creature, a cold, dark, unloved thing.
That evening, Lesley had been taking a short cut through the graveyard as she often did on her way home from yoga. The plot was old, older than the church if the historians had cared to dig. The Victorians had slapped up the stonework and remodelled the tombs with flights of angels and marbled drapery but it made no difference. It mattered not how many porcine cherubs flitted about the doorways of the three mausolea, last resting place for the old families of Grayburn, the ones with the manor houses and mills, their pockets stuffed with money; the Brights, the Wintermans and the Alstons. What the Victorians had failed to appreciate was that the boneyard was ancient and only the top layer could be fashioned anew. Even as they knocked in the railings around the family plots they had no concept of the ghosts already residing there. This place was a place of bones and skulls, of concentrated otherness. This was the reason it had not been built on with any other kind of building. The church occupied a small, cruciform footprint, one that had been pressed into the ground many thousands of moons ago.
Or so Lesley had discovered in the intervening months. It had been quite a learning curve since that night, something of a ski slope in fact, for an Olympian.
She had never been afraid of the cemetery, it was a scenic short cut, away from the blare and rumble of the road and it was a path she’d used often with her dad as a child. He had brought her up not to believe in ghosts or the supernatural or Tory politicians.
Ghosts. Dismissed in stories and films, her dad always keen to point out the ‘piss poor special effects’ employed by the filmakers and so, she was heedless that night. Her pockets empty of salt or iron, her fist not clenched around a handy hawthorn branch.
She had chanced upon them, about their bit of business, she suspected necromancy. Her sudden blundering in with a torchbeam from the flashlight app on her phone, had botched it for them. She’d broken the ritual or the spell or the mood possibly, the night time graveyard equivalent of holding hands at a séance. They had not simply brushed themselves off and started again, most likely it was not as simple a process as that. Instead, they had been after her. She recalled how they had chased her through the graveyard without actually appearing to run, moving like chesspieces to block and checkmate her. They didn’t have her name but, on making her skin of the teeth getaway through the far gates, one of them had torn off a piece of her jacket. It was enough, Lesley knew that now.
Lesley’s small, rented house was a new build and like so many others in the town it was bare and unprotected. Do not smirk, dear reader, and think ‘oh, was it built on an old Indian Burial Ground?’ Far worse, it was built on empty ground, dirt that had been starved and scraped, the trees cut down. Whilst the residents might have forgotten the powers of elder and bramble, these trees themselves, had not. It was simply the case that they were not there to do their job. In cutting out the trees the contractors had lowered the supernatural shields on the life of Grayburn.
The coven’s first line of attack was effective. Sleep. The dreams had been bad and grasping, holding Lesley inside them, unable to awake from the wild and tiring pursuits that left her wasted and weary.
Her mother suggested she move bedrooms or turn her bed to a different direction but there was only one direction in the tiny master and the miniature ‘guest’ room was big enough only for a doll to visit. One bone rattling nightmare they had made a mistake, sending, not shadows, but themselves. One coven member had cloaked herself in a whirling black mist that was impressive but the curly haired woman had been careless and shown her face. The need to protect herself broke apart the dream and Lesley was jolted awake.
Eating muesli in the kitchen, she saw the shadow lengthen where there ought to be light. It was an effect like seeing through a crack in the door, knowing, by the hairs on your neck that someone was there but visually unable to grasp them. In the middle of the night doors slammed, doors opened. Lights flickered, like eyes blinking.
Her mother asked the priest, Father Crichton to pay a visit.
“I don’t believe.” Lesley complained.
“Doesn’t matter. He does.” was her mother’s spiritual logic. Father Crichton, keen to engage with her mother as a matriarch of the community, showed up with a well-thumbed Bible.
He could not touch whatever the coven had sent to visit. This creature was something as old and gnarled as the yew tree in the churchyard. Lesley could see where it watched him, mouthing his holy words that fluttered, useless as dead leaves.
The shadow had long fingers of night, reaching for her heels.
They poisoned work, she had found the pigeons foot under her windscreen wiper, a preternatural tracking device, signalling her whereabouts. There was little she could do as her hands became loose cannons breaking and crashing things. The coven’s magic was out and wild in her world. Cars almost ran her over as she crossed the road. She did not dare walk beneath a ladder.
The coven in the churchyard numbered five and she knew none of them by name. She thought the dark haired woman who had been kneeling before the monument worked on the till in the linens shop in the Windmill Centre. She was stern, selling polycotton duvet covers and tiger printed fleece throws. The window was festooned with voile panels for french windows.
The tall one, standing at the far side of the circle was the woman at the Town Hall Arts Centre. She had some sort of project management role in the refurbishment. They must be struggling because, on Thursdays, the woman also manned the till in the tiny craft shop.
Another of the coven, the one crouched to the left of the monument, was an artist. Her exhibition at the Town Hall Arts Centre had been really good. Lesley had visited on her lunch hour, happy to wander in the vast and moody landscapes, all marked with a signature, small labels explaining the work and printed with the woman’s name.
Lesley had been careful of late to wear her lanyard pass tucked into her jacket, her name obscured. It was a silly precaution, because, to judge by various items going bump in the night, they most probably already had her name.
It was harder and harder to sleep. Whatever was in the house was clever, tugging her awake, remaining in the shadows, picking at the edges of her. It was nothing so flashy and rowdy as a poltergeist. It stalked her, rousing her from sleep with a cold breath on her cheek, a colder bony hand on her brow.
If she broke, if she fell down with tiredness, the shadow would step into her. It was patient and it could outrun her, it had All Time in its frayed pocket.
She had considered staying with a friend but it occurred to her that such action might draw them into the conflict. The shadow might follow her, the coven could discover a new means of attack. She would not risk it and so spent the night at the new Premier Inn by the cinema, to see what would happen.
She slept for the first time in weeks and at the Breakfast Buffet she ate scrambled eggs and sausage and as she finished a jam smudged croissant she thought about everything.
The fourth woman, the one beneath the spreading boughs of the yew had curly hair, Lesley recalled the hair from the revelatory dream where the other invader had cloaked themselves. She had not seen the woman with curly hair anywhere in town until, on her way to the gym, she passed through the Farmers Market and glimpsed the hair through the uprights and striped awnings.
Curly Hair made goats cheese from her smallholding at the edge of Bowden, a village on the eastern side of the town. Her name was not stickered over the truckles and pats of butter but it was a short drive to roll past the pretty property, the goats all staring through the slatted fencing, the proprietors names neatly painted on the rustic hoarding.
The fifth woman ran the furnishing fabric shop in Old Town which accounted for the prickling pins she felt stabbing into her left foot, the dream that scissors were cutting off her toes.
Lesley wiped the crumbs from her fingers, drank the rest of her coffee and worked out she would need a week off work. As for now, well, she could have kissed Mr Minton for his bounty and so, once she had put the crow safely into a cloth bag she used for her trainers, she headed to the fish counter at the supermarket and bought him a sizeable chunk of silver hake. Half way home she thought better of it and stopped off at ‘Furry Friends’ the pet shop, to buy a black rabbit.
After all, an offering must be made.
Home was under attack and possibly watched so Lesley rented a holiday lodge at Stokers Wood, one sitting far back in the trees, forgotten and a bit fowsty smelling. It smelt slightly more when she had skinned and boiled the crow to its bones in a broth of her own devising. She had let the garden and hedgerows guide her. It was a rich herbal brew and as the scents of it, bitter and sharp, breathed into her, she felt clear headed, stronger.
She took the broth and poured it around the monument in the churchyard at midnight. From the crow skin she made a small pouch and into this she put the bones and the feathers. Skull, beak and claws she placed last, pulling the bag shut with a length of linen thread.
She headed home so as not to arouse suspicion and Shadow greeted her with a crack in the glass in the back door.
She thought of covering the mirrors but that would give her away. Pots dropped from the dresser, some old cracked things she ought to have cleared out years before. They were not hurled across the room, they were tipped and pushed and smashed.
The power cut out, black inking out every last familiar thing as Lesley’s hand reached into her pocket for the Crow bag. She opened it, letting it drink in all the deep darkness, the shadows, the sent and the charged, everything, swallowed down into the drawstring mouth of the Crow bag until the green light on the cooker clock winked and the streetlight shed its moonlight onto the kitchen tiles. She knotted the bag shut.
This night, she found herself barefoot at the crossroads with a handful of graveyard dirt in one pocket and a fistful of seasalt in the other, her fingers tight around the looped mouth of the Crow bag.
There were other crossroads in the area, the showiest out at the Marham end of town by Towpers Farm. The most tangled the one by the new retail park, twisted and sprawling. She drove around them all.
It must be this crossroads. Small, off the main road, on the way to Eastwood. It was, Lesley knew, at least as old as the cemetery. This crossroads had a shrine at the western corner which most drivers whizzed by without a second glance. Lesley had always liked this fourway junction and the odd little mossed over statue of a woman placed there under the hawthorn hedge.
Where some people shot past leaving the speed limit behind, there were others who left offerings, rags tied into the branches, small tealights, whisky miniatures. Dolls. Lesley was uncertain which goddess this was but, as her mother might say, the goddess knew who she was and that was the important point.
Clouds covered the moon, but they had done so at Lesley’s bidding. She did not need the great white lunar searchlight to give her away. Not just yet.
She lit her tealight in its neat pot and waited. Traffic was at a minimum, one lone car trundling homeward to the village beyond. Posh people lived in Eastwood, the kind who shopped at Prothero’s Butchers in Old Town and had children at the Holton Academy. House prices in Eastwood were huge for tiny cottages.
The red brake lights flared and turned the distant bend. Lesley breathed deep and as she did so the tealight blinked out. She stepped out into the roadway. The tarmac bit at her feet and gave her greater resolve. Three steps. Five steps. At the heart of the crossroads the moon drew back her cloak of clouds and Lesley opened the Crow bag.
It bulged. It twitched and flapped. The bones rattled together and broke free, the birds, she was uncertain how many, launching themselves into the night air. Wing on wing, beak on claw, the skulls cracking onto new necks, feathers ruffled and fanned. A vast, black blue crow cloud, rising, breathing with the power of the hexes and curses, the magic trickery that the coven had unwisely thrown her way.
Recycling. That had been key.
The crows wheeled, their cawing scratchy and raw and making her feel stronger. The wing beats thrashed at the night, mastering the air as they flew in five directions.
Lesley held tight to the bag, felt the graveyard dirt choke in her left pocket, the salt cough in her right, but the coven could not reach her. On the birds raged, cut from the shadows. A sound of rushing wind, spinning the weathercock on St Wilfred’s Church so that it whirred like clockwork. The flag at County Hall torn to tatters, a chorus of car horns and sirens across town before the crow returned, alone. Lesley, seeing her own reflection in its jet bead eye as it alighted on the edge of the bag and with a flap and a preen, folded itself inside.
At home, the shadows were where they ought to be, finding comfort in the corners, softening the edges. Lesley put the kettle on and opened the back door.
Mr Minton arrived, just before midnight, to take up the cushion by the woodburner and await further instruction.
I’ve been thinking a lot about witchcraft lately. That’s what happens when you spend your days wandering around Havoc Wood with the Witch Ways. You read up and read around and your head is full of spells and incantations and mugwort. Turns out I’m not alone in this passion. The recent tv viewing in our house has included Salem and A Discovery of Witches and now, we’ve got Sabrina. It seems it is indeed the Season of the Witch.
I’ve always loved witchcraft and the supernatural. I say that in a measured tone. I’m from Lancashire and therefore have seen the historical sharp end of what witchcraft has meant to people. I don’t look at it with rose tinted glasses, at all. I use a scrying dish and try to look at all the layers, the darkness and the light. Forewarned as they say.
Initially my source material was bedtime stories. I was always interested more in the fairy godmother than in Cinderella, because she was practical and had skill. Aside from the rich illustrations of the Ladybird story books, pumpkins did not feature too heavily in my childhood. They were not on the menu in 70s Britain. When, in my mid twenties, I travelled to the east coast of America and it happened to be October, the place was rolling in pumpkins. Big. Small. Some roughly the size of a stagecoach. It was as if someone had cast a spell. I never got over the goosebumps. It was, in the literal, old sense of the word, wonderful.
I visited Salem too. The east coast is my favourite, erm, haunt.
So I’m a sucker for anything that is supernatural and witchcraft based. I will draw my chalk lines here, so that you know which side of the pentagram I’m standing on; I don’t like horror per se and I don’t like zombies at all. Vampires and werewolves; lovely thank you, full moon and garlic. Witches; Yes please. But, there’s a coda. I am very particular about my witchcraft. I like things to be dark. I’ll use the word ‘Gothic’ I think. Penny Dreadful is my Star Wars shall we say.
Bewitched was good fun back in the day and I can actually wiggle my nose, but by far my favourite Bewitched character was Samantha’s deliciously wicked mother, Endora. Elegant, classy, clever, skilled. And dark.
Then of course I stumbled into Discworld and Nanny and Granny set the bench mark higher. It’s a measure of Terry Pratchett that he, a MAN, wrote two of the finest women characters in the history of literature. That’s not my humble opinion, it is a factual fact. What I love about Nanny and Granny is that they get on with it. They take no prisoners. They appreciate the idea of power and they have access to magic but the real skill is understanding how dangerous it is and how best not to use it until absolutely necessary.
In the dim and distant past, when my children were school age and I was supposed to be cooking the tea or encouraging them to learn their times tables, I watched Sabrina; the Teenage Witch with them. I liked Salem the talking cat, the feline equivalent of Endora with his wit and sass. So, it is with some interest that I started watching Sabrina, the netflix reboot. Sabrina, for all her blonde, All American styling, seems to embrace the Granny and Nanny ethos of ‘this is dangerous, be careful’ and in refusing her Dark Baptism simultaneously strikes a blow for feminism and free speech. I am only a few episodes in but already I love the American Gothic style of the show, the deep jewel colours and the darkness. Greendale, haunted by its own past, has that edge of danger that is missing from more brightly lit dramas. I like the fact that the witches themselves hid the tragic past in order to continue with their future. There are no patchouli scented witch shops for the citizens of Greendale. This is what I crave from my witches. I don’t really like sparkle, I want shadows. I like my witchy dramas to be old and battered and Bohemian. I like the idea of the magic butting up against the edge of the everyday, that notion of danger or the ‘Other’ being just behind you. When I’m writing The Witch Ways series I like the idea of life going on in Woodcastle as if nothing is happening in Havoc Wood. You are on the edge Woodcastle and you don’t know it. Look behind you!
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much care for wand type magic. I prefer the sort of supernatural shenanigans that are reflected in a crow’s eye. I love the fact that Sabrina is tied into the wood, that the place she takes Harvey to show him her special talents (?!*) is the wood. There are woods in all of my books, not just the supernatural ones. From my home you could wander to the wilds of Healey Dell, a sylvan spot in a post industrial area. It hinted at the past, at another space and time existing alongside everyday life. There are hints of the wild and the Other in these places, that reach out for you, its easy to get lost amongst the trees with no landmarks and the sky broken up above you. Of course, there was the long shadow of Pendle Hill.
Aunts featured in my other fave bit of witchery, Practical Magic. What I love about these characters is the sense of knowledge and wisdom and don’t give a damn what people think. These women are really powerful and on their own terms. They are, who they are. In the netflix Sabrina, the Aunts pull me in again. I love the banter ‘She was annoying me, so I killed her and buried her in the yard.’ Yep. That’s sisters for you. For me there’s a freedom in witchcraft stories.
I’m currently typing up my first draft of the third Witch Ways book. The sisters, Anna, Charlie and Emz have been brought up by their grandmother to think of their Strength as similar to breathing. It’s a part of them. Over the years, growing up, they’ve been out in the ordinary world and life has shifted away from this part of themselves. Only since inheriting the wood have they begun to rediscover this aspect of their lives. The world outside Havoc Wood, the town of Woodcastle and modern life, doesn’t make much room for something as ancient as witchcraft.
When the Witch Ways walked into my head, they walked in through a path in the wood. Mentally, I was looking at Pike Lake and wondering, where is this? I could see the castle just above the trees. You have to have a wood for a witch story, not the built up, bricked in places that we construct but the wild spaces, some of which might not have changed for hundreds of years. I read recently that there is such a thing as a screaming wood, one where the timber was clear felled in WWII and then the site was replanted. There are many across Britain, including the one nearest to me. These woods are considered to have a different sense to them, the old wood has become a ghost, lingering. They are unsettled places, wrenched from their past. If you’re willing to walk through a wood with your senses turned to 11, you might feel this edge. Who hasn’t walked through a regimented conifer plantation and felt the dark, quiet energy of it? A wood is the edge of somewhere, a movement from open to sheltered, from exposed to hidden. Tree lore tells of the different powers inherent in different trees. Did you know that blackthorns are bad tempered? Next time you walk in a wood, take a step off the path. It will be a different wood, I promise.
I think the current thirst for all things witchy; Sabrina, Salem, a Discovery of Witches, shows us all that we’re all looking for something other, something more, something, connected. We need magic. We need, more importantly, the Divine Feminine, an acknowledgement of the place of women in the world, the balance has been skewed. Witch hunts, through history, were as much about destroying feminine power as religious fervour. But that, probably, is for another blog.
So. I’m here, typing, in my Gothic green workroom at the back of the house. It looks out onto the rambling wilderness of my garden. My reading light casts a golden circle of light but as I look up, I notice that beyond the pool of the lamp, the room has gone very dark. I’m hoping that it’s because the clocks went back, but you never can tell. I mean, should that shadow be just there? Aunt Zelda? Is that you?
Long long ago, in a primary school far far away, I attempted to sell balloons for cash. The cause was a good one, we wanted to buy stuff for the school, an institution fighting against budget cuts even back then. Our little PTA pulled out the stops at regular intervals through the school year and ran Tea Parties (not political, only involving cake) and Fairs of varying sorts; Harvest/Christmas/Summer. This one was Christmas. I remember because we were inside and did not have to suddenly muster 20 tables in through the assembly hall doors whilst dodging the lightning.
I was not, shall we say, the best at selling. I was too shy, too timid and too aware that many people didn’t have the cash for school uniform never mind an idiotic balloon. My husband suggested that I suck up some of the helium in an amusing sales drive which ended badly when I inhaled too much and sailed, like a human balloon, into the rafters. The fire brigade were called. It was very messy.
My sales skills were honed a little better at the library where I slaved and toiled for many a long hour. Hours are much longer in the library due to all that L-space (see Pratchett:Discworld) Time bends and distorts. While I was standing at the desk, Mrs Hopemore had travelled back to Victorian times in the middle pages of a Wilkie Collins and, in the childrens library, young Conrad was currently orbiting Jupiter with Little Bear.
I had time, and space (pun intended) to overcome some of my shyness here.
The process began during a Creative Writing event I did to celebrate the new library. I had come with a ‘Poet Tree’ idea that involved me, armed with a stack of handwritten cards, persuading people to write poems to stick on the aforementioned tree. I had constructed this aboreal effort with tubes and paper and branches. It was, erm, rustic, shall we say?
There I was, under the gothic tree and it became clear that I had to be a bit more Del Boy and take my wares to the punters. If I didn’t I’d sit alone under the tree all day, like a human mushroom.
Off I went. I learned, very swiftly that some people DO NOT wish to be approached. Others were happy to smile and say hello but were too shy to write a poem in public so in the end I altered it slightly. I asked a family to pick a word each from the many flashcards I’d written up. Instead of getting them to make the whole poem I put the chosen words on the table and shuffled them around like a magician and we picked the words together. Pretty soon other people/families wanted to shuffle them around too and we ended up with a few poems. People don’t like to be tried or tested or feel they’re sitting an exam.
In my role as a relief library assistant my shyness dissolved even more and I was more than happy to approach everyone, although I still had respect for the DO NOT APPROACH faces. The joy of the library was not the assassin of a trolley loaded with books ready to kill me or at least graze my ankle, the delight was the people, helping the people.
So what’s all this waffle and baloney about then?
MY BOOK IS OUT. Saints preserve us. Slow Poison, has been released into the wild. It is the second book in The Witch Ways series and, in the manner of the muffin man or whoever Jack Horner nicked that pie off, I have to hawk my wares. Needs must and I must a pedlar be. Sales, is not what a writer is gifted at, if it was I’d be a billionaire owner of a shopping channel. What writers are good at is words. We are wordsmiths, wordmongers. I can’t choose, I love both those titles. So here goes. You sit there and pretend you are Sir Alan Sugar or Deborah Meaden.
Wordmonger. Get your lovely book here, this is my book, hand made and crafted in lovely binary for the old laptop gadget or black and white print and paper for the old school geezers. Get it on Amazon! Lovely book for a bit of cash. Tale that lasts a lifetime. Lifetime guarantee. Reuse and recycle whenever you’re stuck for a story. Get your words here, mate. Free commas and question marks! Get your luvverly words right here.
No. I can’t. Wrong style. Not me. Deep breath. Have another crack.
Wordsmith; I have forged this book from the iron of my head folks. Sparks have flown. The pages have, hopefully, caught alight and this digital witchery of a story will fill your head. Slow Poison, if you buy it and let it, can work magic. It can take you to a place that is in my head, this place is Havoc Wood and, as Laurie Anderson once said ‘It’s a place, about seventy miles east of here’. Everyone who buys this book and reads it, gets that ticket to travel to Havoc Wood whenever they choose. That time might be on the bus, on the train, although probably not in your car if you are driving. You can read it at night when the monsters bite, this book will take you away from them, it will send you to the safe haven of Cob Cottage in company with the Way Sisters. They’ll be able to help you. That is the magic of pages and story. They are the exit strategy for us all.
Who knows if this link will work, I work with ink, I am not a techie. Fingers crossed. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Slow-Poison-Witch-Ways-Book-ebook/dp/B07FKLPDGJ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535463525&sr=8-1&keywords=Helen+Slavin+Slow+Poison