Willow, the Green Witch of Gloucester
by Shannon Chapel
Willow lifted the cauldron's lid and peeked over the brim. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Mmm-mmm, she thought, giving the contents two quick counter-clockwise stirs followed by a slurpy sip from the wooden spoon before replacing the lid. "Come on in, Penney!" she yelled as she rinsed her hands and dried them on her apron. "I'm in the kitchen!"
"You creep me out when you do that, Will," Penney said, slipping onto a kitchen stool. Her beautiful copper-colored hair sparkled in the afternoon sun, and Willow wondered how Penney's mother had known exactly what to name her. "I hadn't even knocked yet."
"You'd think you'd be used to it by now," Willow smiled, reaching for a ladle. "Eventually we'll be able to communicate without uttering a word."
"Seriously?" Penney asked, wide-eyed. Willow glared at her over the top of her black glasses, and Penney, embarrassed, quickly changed the subject. "So what're you brewing? Some kind of hex or curse or something?"
"Close--Sea Hag Clam Chowder with potentilla leaves and a steaming hot infusion of life-everlasting. Shall we dine on the porch?"
The dense forest surrounding Willow's cottage provided shade from the moderate Massachusetts sun as well as the privacy she needed to grow her backyard herb garden far from the prying eyes of passersby. The soup was delicious; Penney finished every drop and was considering seconds when she asked, "What's all that stuff you've got scattered across the counter in there?"
"Have you ever met Stephanie James?" Willow asked, sipping her tea.
"Stephanie James ... isn't she the Sunday school teacher? The one who miscarried, right?"
"Twin boys. She and her husband tried for over a year to get pregnant. The babies died unexpectedly in the third trimester ... some kind of weird recessive-slash-autoimmune-slash-hereditary something or other. Anyway, she's thirty-six and Roland, her husband, is forty-two. Even if they got pregnant today, he'd be sixty by the time the kid graduated high school. And Stephanie's not getting any younger. She's concerned about Down's Syndrome and other birth defects. They've given themselves a deadline of six months to conceive."
Penney pushed her bowl away and leaned back in her wicker chair, her long, slender fingers laced together around her steaming mug. "So you're making something for them?"
"Made something for them. A fertility charm, actually. Roland came by last night on his way home from work. I think he's at his wit's end. He feels helpless, you know? His wife is broken and he wants to fix her."
Willow thought about Roland's unexpected visit and how he'd scanned the ingredients spread out on the coffee table between them: a red spell bag, green candle, silver ribbon, a horseshoe charm, corn kernels, pomegranate seeds, a hazelnut. He'd looked nervous, scared even. Willow didn't think he was the type to ask a witch for help, even if she was a green witch.
"That's what men do," Penney said, rolling her cup back and forth between her palms. "But some things can't be fixed."
* * *
A tree, a tire swing, perpetual motion and a sense of weightlessness. No fear, no danger, no reason for her to wake, but the dream always ended the same way: someone was calling her name.
“Ugh, six fifteen?" Willow groaned, squinting at the digital clock on her bedside table. "So much for sleeping in. And what the hell is that mewing?"
Willow tossed her quilt aside and scooched to the edge of the bed. What am I missing? she wondered, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. What are you trying to tell me?
Shrugging into her robe, Willow padded to the kitchen in her stocking feet, the distressed oak planks protesting her every step. "Good morning to you, too," she said with a smile. "Just you and me this morning, you grumpy old house. You, me, and a pot of tea."
Willow set the kettle to boil, twisted her long charcoal hair into a ponytail, and followed the mewing sound into the foggy Massachusetts morning. "Here, kitty, kitty. Where are you? You can come out. I won't hurt you."
The smallest black kitten Willow had ever seen rounded the corner of the house, tentatively inching toward her, and she smiled. "Aw, come here, precious. Come on," she said, scooping up the pathetic creature, and it shivered against her breast. "Well, aren't you the cutest thing ever. We're gonna have to go shopping later ... buy you a litter box and some food. Are you hungry? You want some warm milk?"
Then she noticed the box. Someone had placed it under the picture window, its flaps askew. There was a note attached, and Willow read it aloud: "I noticed you were missing something when I came by yesterday. I hope you don't mind me bringing him over. He's the runt, but he was the only black one left. Just my way of saying thank you. Roland James."
The kitten sat on the counter lapping up the warm milk. Willow stroked his back with the tips of her fingers and contemplated what to name him. "What do you think, huh? You have a preference? What do you want to be called?" She looked at him, incredulous. "Really? Isn't that a little predictable?" The kitten purred and licked her hand. "Okay, okay. Tarot it is. Come in, Penney!"
"There you go again with that witchy-witch-know-before-you-should crap. So what was in the box?" Penney asked, placing a glass casserole dish on the stovetop. “I brought breakfast--broccoli, ham, bacon, and cheese quiche. Oh my goodness!" She squealed, picking up the kitten and nuzzling his nose. "Well, it's about time! What'd you name him?"
"Really, it's Tarot," Willow said again, a little embarrassed. "He insisted!"
Penney rolled her eyes and sighed. "Tarot, huh? It's appropriate, if nothing else."
"Let's eat while it's still hot."
"So how long have you been having this nightmare?" Penney asked, pouring herself a cup of tea.
“Two months, give or take. It's not a nightmare really, it's just ... unsettling." Willow said, picking up a chunk of ham that had fallen off her fork and poking it into her mouth with one slender finger. "And thank you for bringing breakfast. You know how much I love your quiche."
"It's the one thing I can actually cook without burning down the house," Penney said, shoveling a generous biteful into her mouth. "What do you think it means?"
"What do I think what means?"
"The dream, dork."
Willow sighed, setting the kitten down on the kitchen floor. "I'm not sure. It could mean any number of things. The swing could represent cycles and movement, a desire for sexual variety, a longing for the simplicity of childhood. The back-and-forth motion could indicate that I need to make up my mind about something--"
"Isn't some sex a prerequisite to a variety of sex?" Penney asked, a smile curling the corners of her mouth.
Tarot frolicked through the kitchen and living room, exploring every nook and cranny, but never wandering too far for too long.
"Willow?" Penney asked. "You okay? What's wrong?"
Willow disappeared into her bedroom and materialized moments later, her arms laden with supplies. "I need to make a Witch Bottle," she said.
"A Witch Bottle--Witch Jar, Bellarmine Jug, whatever you want to call it." Willow said. "To protect a witch from jealous rivals and general ill-wishers."
Penney stared, and Willow sighed.
"They date back to the sixteenth century," she said, lighting a black candle. "They used to bury them under the hearth or doorstep. Sometimes they were built right into the walls." Willow reached into her cupboard and pulled out a small earthenware jug. She pulled the cork from the neck and dropped in three prickly pear cactus spines, some red wine, a few sprigs of dried Nightshade, a turquoise-colored stone, and a pinch of sea salt. "Nowadays they're usually buried in the yard somewhere," she said, replacing the cork and tipping the lighted candle sideways. "A little black candle wax to seal the bottle," she said, drizzling it over the cork and down the sides, "and voilą! We're all set."
"Okay, who are you afraid of?" Penney asked.
"It's not for me. It's for Paisley."
"Who the hell is Paisley?" Penney asked. "Should I be worried?"
"I don't know who Paisley is. Not yet, anyway. And no, I don't think you need to be afraid. I just--Roland's about to knock on the door."
"What the heck is he doing here this early in the morning?" Penney whispered.
"I have no idea," Willow mouthed, wrapping her robe a little tighter around herself before opening the door.
"Good morning, Miss Bartholomew. I hope I didn't wake you," Roland said, shifting his weight and looking genuinely uncomfortable.
"No, no. We just finished eating breakfast," Willow said, gesturing toward Penney who'd come out of the kitchen and was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, listening.
"Is the cat okay? I figured no self-respecting witch goes without a black cat," he said nervously. "I hope you don't mind."
Willow smiled. "The cat is more than okay. And thank you. I've already named him and everything."
Roland beamed at this, obviously pleased. "I've got one more thing I'd like to do for you, if that's okay," he said, removing his ball cap and worrying it with his oversized, calloused hands. "I know you spend a lot of time in your garden. I thought it might be nice for you to have something to sit on ... something that would bring you up close and personal with nature, so to speak. It'll only take a few minutes."
"Well I ... what is it, if you don't mind my asking?"
"It's a swing. A tire swing, actually. That great big Elm in the middle of your back yard would be the perfect spot for it."
The puzzle pieces clicked into place in a matter of seconds, and Willow was finally able to see the big picture. "I would love that, Roland," she giggled. "And I have something for you as well," she said, skittering away to get the Witch Bottle off the kitchen counter.
"What is it?" he asked, turning it over in his hands.
"It's a Bellarmine Jug. It's for protection. When you build that nursery addition, just plaster it right-side up into one of the walls and it'll keep the baby safe from harm."
"Are you ... is Steph....?" he stuttered, understanding dawning on his handsome face. "Are we gonna have a baby?"
Willow nodded. "What will you name it?" she asked, suddenly giddy.
"Ezra if it's a boy. That was my father's name. Grandfather's too, come to think of it. And if it's a girl ... Stephanie's hung up on Paisley for some reason. I have no idea where she got it from, but I'm sure it'll grow on me."
Penney and Willow stood side by side, watching Roland through the back patio's sliding glass doors.
"I thought you said the Witch Bottle was 'to protect a witch from jealous rivals and general ill-wishers.'"
Willow remained silent, a slow, steady hint of a smile gracing her full lips.
"You know," Penney said, slipping her arm around her best friend's shoulders. "With all your mystical mumbo-jumbo-candle-lighting-tarot-card-reading-spell-casting-fancy-dream-interpretation B.S., sometimes a swing is just a swing."
They looked into each other's eyes and laughed.
Word count minus title (according to Microsoft Word)--1,896
Written for October 2010