Momma told me not to come here. I went anyway.
At the entrance, I froze. The crude hut was cluttered. Reeking, shriveled herbs hung from the beams of the smoke-blackened ceiling. Sharp bones protruded from a fish on the table. The room smelt of fish guts and foul things dredged up from marshes.
The hag looked up. Her grey hair hung in a tangled mass and her face was as craggy as the rocks beyond the village.
“Come closer,” she called in a creaking voice.
I stepped forward. The earthen floor was strewn with rotting hay.
She sat on the floor, greyish clothes hanging off her, a wood frame in her lap. With claw-like fingers, she wove string with surprising speed.
“Give me your hand,” she demanded.
I reached out, trembling. She clutched my smooth, plump hand in her own. Her grip bit like iron on a frosty December morning. I saw the flash of a pin and felt a prick as she stabbed my finger.
She picked up a length of string and squeezed until a drop of blood landed on it.
“Blood strengthens it,” she said.
I jerked my hand back and sucked at the sore fingertip.
She lifted her harsh face towards me, her skin mottled and drooping and as creased as wadded-up paper. She stared at me. “You want to stop the nightmares, don’t you?”
“Spit here.” She held out a stone bowl.
She dropped in coal from the hearth. From the ceiling, she plucked something crispy, and withdrew a bone from a pouch at her belt. She pounded them vehemently. Then she dumped the whole mass into a jar.
My heart raced.
She stood up, wheezing, and shuffled to the counter. It was lined with glass bottles filled with liquids of every shade. She uncorked a tiny bottle and poured in dark syrup. To this she added moss-green liquid, stopped the bottle with a finger and shook. Concoction complete, she corked the jar.
“Hand me those feathers,” she croaked.
I followed her crooked finger to the beams of the ceiling, where a bird’s wing was suspended. As I lifted it free, a cloud of dust rained down on me and I sneezed, nearly toppling, but her wiry, strong hand was beside me and I grasped it.
She plucked three white feathers and wrapped them in string. She attached them to a round wooden frame, took the string and began to weave, in a swift intricate pattern that I could not follow. As she worked, she hummed a tune, strange and haunting.
I sucked on my finger.
She stood slowly and held the object by its string. The tightly woven net was studded with a blue stone, the three feathers dangling. A dreamcatcher.
“Here,” she said, pressing it into my hands. “Hang it above your bed and it will catch those spirits that have been troubling you. And before sleeping, drink this.” She handed me the bottle.
I dropped a clatter of coins from my palm.
I tried to sneak back in and avoid Momma, but she was too quick. She threw open the door and stalked up to me, mouth tight and eyes glaring. Her feet pounded the hard packed earth.
“Where have you been? Cow’s been lowing all morning. Full of milk, she was, had to milk her myself.”
I didn’t try to explain myself, not after last time. My back twinged at the memory. I hid the bottle and the dreamcatcher in the folds of my skirt.
“What have you got there?”
“Nothing,” I said, avoiding her gaze.
She pried the objects out of my hands. Tilted the bottle up and squinted at it. Glared at the dreamcatcher.
“What is this rot? You’ve been to see old Maggie, haven’t you?”
I bit my lip and looked down, silent as a stone.
“Now, get inside and churn the butter, before I give you a lashing!”
That night, they came back. Those reed-thin voices wouldn’t leave me alone till I got out of bed and stepped out into the hard, silver night.
Outside, the cold ground bit at my feet. Mud had hardened in ridges. Stars glittered. The moon was bright and pale as bleached bone. It was as if they had some hold on me. I followed the cooing voices and flickering orbs to a dark line of trees. A distant realm of shadow that by night-time was forbidden.
Momma found me floating in the river in the blue-black light of dawn.
She’d pounded my back until I coughed up water and wheezed. Then she’d hefted me over her shoulder, stripped off my clothes, and put me in bed.
Back at the house, I told her about the spirits.
She shook her head and made a tutting sound with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. Same sound she makes as when my father comes home drunk.
But undeterred, I retrieved the dreamcatcher from the top of the compost heap and hung it above my bed directly opposite the window. And finally I gulped down drops from the bottle she’d left lying in the yard.
This time, she didn’t stop me.