The website of David F Porteous
Another quick excerpt from the book I'm currently writing. This exchange takes place between Isobel Greenhill and her granddaughter Caprice Howard in the back garden of the house owned by Judith Howard (Isobel's daughter and Caprice's mother).
“Why isn’t my mum a witch?” Caprice asked her grandmother. Isobel Greenhill was sitting on a chair in the back garden with her feet propped up on another chair. She had her eyes closed and her face titled to an afternoon sun that was still high above the tall trees beyond the well-tended and substantially decorative vegetable patch. It looked almost as if Isobel were sunbathing, apart from her green coat, which she wore buttoned all the way up to her chin.
The garden at the back of the house was enclosed by high hedges and the only signs of neighbouring buildings were a few roofs and frosted bathroom windows. The village was a place of strictly observed rules, boundaries and privacy. If there were other girls and other grandmothers in adjacent gardens they were as far removed from Caprice as the Martians.
Isobel did not open her eyes when she replied.
“Your mother is a witch.”
“But she never does any spells,” Caprice said.
“Ah. Is that what you think being a witch is?” Isobel asked. “Spells? Broomsticks too, I imagine? And cats that speak to you in Latin?”
“And it isn’t?”
“Oh, yes,” Isobel replied with a puff of derision that clearly indicated the truth was the opposite of that. “If you can be bothered teaching a cat how to speak Latin. And if you don’t mind carrying around a broomstick everywhere. Being a witch can be like that. But those are distractions. The first thing a witch should learn is that there is nothing a witch should learn.”
“I don’t understand,” Caprice said.
It had been dry for several days and she sat on the grass a little away from her grandmother. Bees scoured the lawn for the daisies that grew everywhere else, but which Judith Howard had the gardener regularly excise. The hum of the bees was like the sound of distant mowing and Caprice – who had never been stung and had no fear of it – was not disturbed by the infrequent fly-bys.
“How did you learn to speak?” Isobel asked.
“I don’t remember. Probably from my mum and dad.”
“And how did you learn to hold a knife and fork?”
“The same way.”
“And if you had been born in China and your parents were Chinese, how would you be different?”
“I would speak Chinese and use chopsticks.”
“Most likely,” Isobel replied, her eyes still closed. A bee seemed about to land on the old woman’s nose, hovering in the air above her face for a frozen moment until she frowned and the insect sped off like a black and yellow firework.
“So,” Isobel continued, “how would you learn to be a witch?”
Caprice was sure this was a trick question, but she couldn’t think of any way to answer it than by saying, “I would watch other witches and do what they did.”
“Then you would fail,” Isobel said, though there was no expression of surprise or disappointment in the way she said it.
“There is magic that you can learn from books or from instruction, but witchcraft is not like that at all. I could teach you how to spin straw from gold and turn wine into water. I could show you how to fold up space to change a great hall into a cupboard. I could give you the secret of eternal age and ugliness. Under my instruction you might hold a bottle with a bolt of lightning and dance on a dragon’s wing. But having learned all these things you still would not be a witch.
“Witchcraft is the magic we learn from ourselves, by understanding who we are, who we will become and what we want. As we become wiser, we understand ourselves more, and through understanding ourselves we understand everything. All the things you think of as magic are tricks. Useful, yes, but if you understand yourself you can do anything. Or you can do nothing. That is the power of witchcraft.”
Caprice thought about this and replied, “But why doesn’t my mum do spells?”
“A long time ago she fell in love with a boy, who fell in love with someone she wasn’t. Do you know the story of Narcissus?”
Caprice shook her head, and was about to speak – since her grandmother could not see her – but Isobel spoke anyway.
“Narcissus was a beautiful boy—”
“Shouldn’t you say handsome?” Caprice interrupted. “Because he was a boy. Boys are handsome and girls are beautiful.”
“Nonsense,” Isobel said with another snort. “Handsome is a word for horses and hounds. Only a mother should ever call a boy handsome, and only if the boy is her son, and her son is ugly. Narcissus was beautiful. One day he saw his reflection in a pond, fell in love with it, then committed suicide. What does that teach us?”
“Don’t look into ponds?” Caprice replied. “I feel like there should be more to that story if it’s supposed to have a moral.”
“I see. Well.” Isobel cleared her throat. “A long time ago, at the edge of a wood lived a hunter whose family were all passed away. He had a house and a bow and such things as young men of that age of the world were accustomed to; and he was neither poor nor rich, and what he hunted in the forest he ate, and the pelts he sold for coin to meet all his other needs.
“The hunter was tall and lithe and his hair was black as a midnight hurricane. He took lovers when he wished, both men and women – in those days that was more common than not. But never for more than a night and though they loved him, he felt no emotion that survived the dawn of the new day.”
“Shush. It so happened that while in the woods a young witch saw the hunter. She was strong and determined and she decided that she would take the hunter to her bed, and perhaps make him her husband.”
“Oh that’s how witches have always done things. You’ll do the same in your time. Now stop interrupting.
“The hunter did not see the witch as she was, he saw a plain girl of the forest, far less impressive to his eye than the people of the town whom he could seduce as he wished. He did not scorn her, but he did not want her either, and if the witch had as much sense as determination that would have been the end of it.
“It was not.
“The witch followed the hunter and watched him when he bent to a pool of water to drink. The hunter saw his reflection and realised that he was what he desired most in the world. And the witch, who was very powerful indeed, realised that in all the world the hunter was what she most desired. Using her great magic, the witch put aside all that she had learned about herself, all that she had ever been and could ever be, and she became the hunter’s reflection. She rose up from the pool and the hunter loved her as he loved himself.”
“The hunter doesn’t kill himself in that story,” Caprice said.
“No,” Isobel replied. “In that story it is the witch who kills herself; the moral is the same. Neither witch nor hunter had imagined how the years would pass, yet such passage is always predictable. Their beauty faded. Each year they looked the same and each year they liked it less, until their reflection served only as a reminder of those regrets which a lifetime piles up. They died on the same day. At the end, neither could recall who had been the beautiful boy and who had been only his reflection.
“There aren’t a dozen witches in the world who could cast a spell like that, even if they were foolish enough to want to.”
Caprice considered that for a long time. She hadn’t thought of her mum and dad ever being in love. They just were. They ate dinner. They went to church. On birthdays and at Christmas they gave each other small gifts. If that was love, it wasn’t as interesting or exciting as books and films made it seem.
Caprice asked, “Is this why you and dad don’t get on?”
“I don’t get on with most everyone, my dove,” Isobel said. “Don’t let that worry you.”
“Will I be a powerful witch?”
Isobel opened her eyes and looked at Caprice for the first time in half an hour. She smiled, and Caprice thought it was a sad smile.
“Yes,” Isobel said, in her style of answering questions simply and directly, while giving as little information as possible.
“Will I be a greater witch than my mum?”
“We must hope so.”
“Will I be a greater witch than you?”
The question made Isobel’s Greenhill’s eyes bulge, and she made an attempt to smother a laugh with a throaty cough.
“Who knows?” the old woman asked after recovering her composure and she shrugged dramatically. “Let’s begin, and then we’ll see.”