Woven out of eels.
|Blaise always called her Aunty Clementine, to her face. Any other time she was Aunty Calamitous. Not that she was an actual relative, none of the village Aunties were actual relatives. It was just what the wrinklies were called. Aunty. Or Granny. But you were always polite to the old women. They ran the village. Aunty Mabel in the shop. Aunty Violet in the post office. Granny Mabh, Chairperson of the parish council with Aunty Cynthia as the Village Clerk. Then there were Aunties Joan and Dafne running the Garden Centre, on the north end of the High Street, selling gardening supplies, plants and sheds. Aunty Prynn guarded the southern exit of the High Street with her small holding and herd of goats. In the centre of Wytchford, two lanes met, and crossed, the High Street. Shuck Alley going westwards and Pound Drove leading to the east and Kosy Krafts, the quilting workshop where Aunty Siobhan and Granny Sian sewed their blazing masterpieces. Only Shuck Alley was free of ancient crones. The story was that Old Shuck, the monstrous Devil Dog who had haunted the marshy fens for time immemorial, kept strangers out and villagers in.
It was total rubbish, of course. That old story of a big, black dog with glowing red eyes and a howl to freeze your bones was a superstitious folk tale. And as for the village being run by a coven - well, you needed thirteen for a coven. Even if you counted Granny Malwhinna, bless her addled brain, there was only eleven. Blaise's ruminations drifted to a stop as she came to the gate to Moon Cottage, where Aunty Calamitous watched the comings and goings on the village green. Boring. No wonder she was such a miserable old bat.
'Well, come in girl,' Aunty Clementine presented an unnaturally smooth cheek for a dutiful peck, 'don't dilly dally. I have fairy cakes in the oven.' Blaise swallowed. Fairy cakes were supposed to be light, fluffy sponges, iced with pink or yellow or white. The ones dehydrating in the Moon Cottage kitchen would be little, round bricks with all the flavour that pellets of chicken feed could offer.
'Mum asked me to pick up the quilt she ordered from Kosy Krafts.' Blaise stepped into the peculiar odours of the parlour. Dusty, musty with a faint, acrid overtone. On a big desk, under the window a new parchment was held in place by four iron paperweights, each one a grinning monstrosity that would be more at home pinned to the church cornices. A row of glass inkwells held crimson, sable and verdant ink, each with its own dip pen. Rainbow colours, spread from the suncatcher in the window, danced across the blank sheet.
'Come on in to the kitchen.' Aunty Clementine strode through the parlour, tall and thin, not boney, more like a lissom reed, curving her way past heavy pieces of furniture. 'Come!' A long finger curled and straightened. Blaise clamped her jaw and followed. More, intense, smells crept up her nostrils. Upside down bunches of drying herbs hung from a ceiling rack. A huge, black, pot held a boiling liquid, it's steamy tendrils tickling a sneeze.
'Bless you.' An absent minded throwaway as Aunty Clementine fished a tray of hot cakes out of the oven and dumped them on a worktop. They looked overcooked. 'Tea?' Without waiting for an answer, she filled the kettle, plugged it in and banged a couple of mugs down beside it. Tea bags in each and a splash of milk. Blaise stifled a sigh. It was stinky goat's milk. 'Sit!' The once beckoning finger stabbed at a stool. Blaise obeyed. The mug of tea, with the bag still flopping around in it, and a scalding hot fairy cake appeared in front of her. Thankfully, she realised that it was dark brown because it was a chocolate cake. 'Wait here. The quilt's upstairs.' Blaise sneezed again.
The tea was too strong and tasted of muddy goat. The cake was crunchy, hard on the teeth and as bitter as regret. The choice was to make the tongue curl with a sip of tea and then to nearly break the teeth with a nibble of 'cake '. Or to dip the cake into the tea and try to get it down her throat without gagging. Blaise chose the third option. The tea went down the sink and the remains of the cake into her pocket. Aunty Clementine reappeared with a shopping bag stuffed full of squishy fabric.
'You must have been thirsty.' The empty mug gathered a suspicious stare. 'Have another.' Blaise knew that she knew where the previous beverage had gone. Another tea. Another cake. This time under the watchful gaze of the old bat. Now Blaise forced them down as fast as she could, mumbled a thanks, swallowed down the nausea and lurched her way into the open air.
How long had she been in that horrendous kitchen? It was dark. The moon was already high. Moon? Or moons? Everything was swinging and swooping. The world had become a big dipper. Who was laughing like a crazy? Why was her throat sore? What had happened to all the colours? When did it get so cold? Where was that quilt? How did it become shredded?
Blaise wrapped the mass of quilted ribbons around her body. She screamed as they writhed and tightened. Snakes. Silent. Twisting. Cold. Wet. With fins. And gills. Not snakes. Eels. Fenland eels. The one around her neck stoppered the whimpers. The ones around her legs forced her to stagger, to walk, trot, run. Her eel arms windmilled, balancing and rebalancing her gait. Through eyes that saw everything and nothing in flashes of non-existent colours she recognised Shuck Alley. Eely legs propelled her down it. Ahead a shadow waited.
A dog. But not a dog. Black as fen mud. Big as a bull. But not a bull. Eyes that glowed. Red. Green. Blue. Mesmerising. Orange. Violet. Yellow. Spinning. Below them a cavern of a mouth, wider than the tunnel down to hell. Its entrance ringed with stalactites and stalagmites. But not pure white crystals. Oh no. Nor clean black spikes of coal. Oh no. These were the slime encrusted bones of the drowned. They were going to shatter her body and send it spinning down into the depths of that maw.
Blaise raised her arms, the quilt ribbons floating in front of her, still writhing. Multi-coloured eels slithered in and out, criss-crossing, weaving a new pattern, a new shape. It became a huge, glowing net, the colours of the seasons, alive. Flinging her arms wide, she cast it, up and away. For a moment, it hovered, a cloud. Then it dropped, smothering the Shuck.
They found her at the end of Shuck Alley, just on the parish boundary. She was wrapped against the cold dawn air in a quilt that had been robbed of its colour, grey and dull. They gathered in a loose circle, twelve of them. Some old, the Grannies, some younger, the Aunties.
'You wove well, sisters Siobhan and Sian.' Clementine spoke softly.
'Your herbs were potent, sisters Joan and Dafne.' Mabel nodded gravely.
'Sister Prynn's goats made good milk and gave good hair.' Mabh spoke crisply.
'Wytchford is protected for another generation.' Violet sighed softly. Malwhinna made a little gesture at the young girl, wrapped like a mummy, curled on a bed of grass. She tried to speak but only a giggle came out. Cynthia laid a comforting arm around the ancient lady.
'Waken your daughter, Amber.' Cynthia spoke for them all. 'Waken her and be the first to welcome Aunty Blaise as the thirteenth of our community.'
'As was, as is and as will be.' The Old Wise Ones of Wytchford spoke as they always had. Together.