Witch's Knots by Charlotte Gross

     When Davie awoke the next morning, the wind was still. Instead the clouds hung low and the day was grey with rain. No hint of the mountain peaks showed above the fields and woods. Davie looked out to the yard beyond the window. Granda had just left the house and was opening the door to the barn. Davie watched as Gwyn shot out from the inside as she always did after the long night cooped up. This morning, though, her ears were flat against her head and her tail between her legs. Davie couldn’t hear her through the window glass, but it looked like she was whimpering as she darted behind Granda’s legs instead of dashing free around the yard. Granda bent to sooth her ears. He peered into the barn, but did not show any reaction visible from afar. Davie felt a thrill in his chest. He thrashed his way out from the tangle of bed sheets and hurriedly pulled on warm clothes to investigate the barn.

    By the time Davie managed to get outside, Granda had already discovered the source of Gwyn’s discontent—or at least evidence of it. The chicken coop sat on the side of the barn, opened to the interior. There, safe within the wire mesh, Gran’s only rooster lay, dead. Davie stood rooted as he watched Granda scoop up the broken body without emotion and stuff it into a bag.

     “Did… did Gwyn do that?” Davie asked in a small voice. His grandfather turned to him, eyes unreadable as ever.

     “No, I don’t believe she did.” He gave the bag a shake. “This rooster was strangled. The neck’s broken, there’s no blood. Now, that doesn’t mean Gwyn’s not a smart enough dog to have done such a thing, but there’re feathers all around the animal, and none on Gwyn’s mouth.” Granda turned and nearly tripped over the dog tangled in his feet. “See how scared she is? Not trembling anymore like she was when I first opened the door, but I’d still bet this dog didn’t—and wouldn’t—kill Gran’s rooster.”

     Davie’s eyes went to the back corner where he had drawn the knot, and then to Eira’s stall where he had left the iron nails.

     “What did then, Granda?” The old man put his hand on Davie’s shoulder.

     “I don’t rightly know, Davie. But we’re not going to worry too much about it just now, alright? Why don’t you run in and break the news to Gran, gently, and I’ll take care of the body. She shouldn’t be too upset, I hope. Old Man Rooster here was getting on in years.”

     Davie was glad enough to run away from the barn, but he did not know how he would tell Gran about her rooster. When he reached the kitchen door, he opened it slowly, still unsure of what to do.

     “Davie?” Gran called from the stove. “Is that you at the door? Do come all the way in.”

     Davie quickly stepped inside and shut the door behind him. He looked down at his feet.

     “Eggs, dear? And toast?” She shuffled between stove and dish cabinet, back to Davie.

     “Um, Gran?” He said softly. She did not seem to hear. He stepped forward, boots still on. “Gran?” He tugged at her sleeve. She turned and nearly tripped over him.

     “Oh, Davie, whatever are you doing? Here, I have your breakfast. Take it to the table, will you?” She stuck out a heaping plate of food, then saw his wet boots. “But first take off those boots! You’re tracking mud everywhere.”

     “Gran, your rooster’s dead,” Davie blurted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to just say it like that.” He felt tears sneaking into his voice. He tried to push them down. “Granda told me to break it to you gently.”

     “Davie, Davie, don’t worry about me,” Gran said and kneeled to his level. She took his hands. “I’ll be just fine. That rooster was so old, he was bound to keel over any day now.” She drew him in for a hug. “Thank you for telling me. Now, why don’t you go and get some food in you before it gets cold.”

     Davie did not venture back out to the barn the whole rest of the day, not even when Granda offered to let him help doctor Eira’s leg and lead her around the yard.

     That evening, darkness fell with scarcely any difference from the gloom of day. The wind whirled what had been an even shower through the day into a driving rage of water that hurled itself against the farmhouse, and it was easy enough for Davie to face what had been growing in his mind all day. His grandfather and Rhys’s reassurances had not been enough. Huddled beneath his blankets, arms wrapped around his stuffed dog, Davie felt certain that there was a witch here, roaming the land beyond Betws y Wrach. Maybe Eira was capable of tangling her mane into those braid-like twists, and maybe she had gone lame in that one leg without any sign of cuts or stones, but what would have killed the rooster without bothering to eat the body? Davie squeezed his stuffed dog tighter. Whatever it was had scared Gwyn, and Gwyn was a smart dog. Davie figured that if she was frightened by something, he probably should be as well. As sure as he was that a witch must be responsible, Davie wanted to prove himself was right. He would see the witch for himself. If what Ianto said was true, and the witch in question was particularly ferocious and angered by his interference—well, Davie wasn’t going to think through just yet. He would just have to be all the braver. Davie slipped into sleep with the promise to himself to watch for the witch later, at an hour when she was sure to be out at her dark work.

     Deep in the night, long after the rest of the house was asleep, Davie was able to rouse himself without alarm or aid. Davie came quite suddenly to consciousness, as if he had plunged himself into a cold stream. The wind had blown the rainclouds onward. All was still. Rhys snored faintly from across the room. Davie lay still beneath the blankets, eyes wide, body unwilling to move. The moon, grown full the past few nights, spread patches of silver across the floor. With a great heave of effort, Davie pushed himself onto one arm. He turned to the window, unsure if he really wanted to see whatever might wait beyond. Shadows from the barn lay long and dark over the ground. Davie pressed his face against the glass. He thought he could see a stirring among the shades… but it could just be the wind in the grasses. If he wanted to know whether a witch wandered the night, well, he would have to go outside and see.

     He could not. Instead, he dove back beneath the shelter of his covers and prayed that whatever witch was out there wouldn’t decide to leave the barn and come haunt his closet instead. Davie could not have said how long he remained there, hidden beneath the blankets. It was hours, he thought. He did not remember falling asleep, but there he was the next morning, awake, head above the sheets, and unharmed.

     Davie spent all of the day waiting for night. A confusion of dread and excitement stirred through him, warring for dominance. When evening fell and the shadows crept down from the mountains to stretch with long fingers across the fields, dread settled most heavily in his stomach. It drove any other feeling away.

     It will be fine, he tried to convince himself. He would simply see the witch. He wouldn’t do anything so brave, or stupid, as try to scare her off. If he could just be sure, if he could just prove that she was real, then maybe he could convince his grandparents and get them to make her go away.

     Davie did not fall asleep, not for many hours. He clutched his stuffed dog and told himself stories while he waited for the late hours of night. No matter how he started each story, they all ended in witches. Davie turned to singing silently instead. He must have drifted off, for when he next looked across the room, the shadows had shifted. It was time to find the witch. He did not let himself look out the window this time. In fact, he shut his eyes. He would not lose his nerve this time. In one great motion, he kicked off the blankets and launched out of bed. There was a resounding, thumping clatter. The pile of books on the bedside table crashed to the floor. Davie froze, horrified. He opened his eyes.

     “Wh-wh’s going on?” Rhys emerged from his corner, hair sticking flat to his head in patches. Davie didn’t even think to tell him anything but the truth.

     “I’m going to see the witch,” he whispered.

     “You’re not serious.” Rhys flopped back down on his bed.

     “Am too! I’m going out there now and I’m proving that she’s real.”

     “You are such a baby.” Davie could hear the eye-roll in Rhys’s voice.

     “Fine. If you don’t think there’s a witch, then you’ll come outside with me.”

     “Absolutely not. I’m sleeping!” Rhys protested. “Or, at least I was until you so rudely woke me.”

     “I dare you.” Davie was already pulling on his outside clothes. He grabbed his brother’s sweater and shoved it at the other boy’s face.

     “Pffft. Stop that!” Rhys swatted Davie away, but held on to the sweater. “Fine. I’ll go. But not because you dare me too. Just because I want to prove once and for all that you are being ridiculous.”

     Davie felt a greater warmth of relief than he had expected. Nighttime could be scary enough in the darkness of a house, never mind in the wide world outside. Anything could come creeping out of the woods or down the empty road. That there was a very real possibility that a witch was about, well, it didn’t get much more frightening than that.

     The two boys eased their way down the stairs as softly as they could. Rhys huffed dramatically every so often, as if he was still annoyed with Davie, but the younger boy could see he was tense with the thrill of sneaking around so late at night. A floorboard creaked. Both paused. No angry grandparent emerged. They slid onward towards the door. Rhys fumbled with the lock. It turned with a resounding clunk. Still no sign of Gran or Grandad. Hurriedly they opened the door, nearly falling out of it in their haste, and shut it behind them. Their breath steamed in the moonlight. Davie tipped his head back to see the sky. Only the brightest stars could show themselves in the full-moon brightness. He looked back down to earth to see Rhys running across the yard towards the barn. Without daring to call out, Davie gave chase.

     With a start, Davie realized that he could hear the sheep. Normally, their scattered complaints echoed across the mountain slopes, and Davie could often hear some hint of them in evening after Ianto had led them back to the night paddock, but never were they so loud as it was when he approached now. He wondered if Ianto was out there with them, and not at home in his cottage over the rise. There was a panicked note in the sheep’s cries. Rhys’s slight form disappeared around the corner of the barn and was swallowed into shadow. Davie slowed. He knew the sheep must sense the witch. Still, he followed after his brother.

     When Davie rounded the corner of the barn, he clearly saw the sheep paddock. Dark heads tossed above moonlit backs. Higher-pitched bleats from the lambs cut through their mothers’ distress. A tall figure stood outlined in front of the milling sea of animals. Was it Ianto? Or Rhys? Another figure emerged from the gloom. Davie could tell that both were large—larger than Rhys. Davie crawled across the grass to the rowan tree. He hoped Ianto was right, that he’d be safe there. Something glinted in the light. Davie watched without breathing as yet another shape, smaller this time, raised itself from the grass—that was Rhys. He knew it. The older boy lunged forward, making a grab at one of the tall shapes. Davie shut his eyes. He couldn’t watch. His brother was dead, surely.

     “Davie!” Rhys shouted in a whisper. Davie’s eyes opened immediately. His older brother ran towards him.

     “I saw her! I nearly touched her!”

     “The witch!?”

     “Well,” Rhys looked superior. “I’m still not going to say they were witches, but yes, one of the intruders.”

     “And then what? Why aren’t you dead?”

     “Well, not all intruders are murderers, you know. The one I grabbed at just hissed at me—actually hissed at me— and then she ran away. The other one ran off too, and another shot out from nowhere and went off into the woods.”

     “How’d you know it was a she?”

     Rhys shrugged. “I dunno. I couldn’t see any of their faces, but they just moved like an old woman would—or a girl; they ran away pretty quick.”

     “None of them were Ianto?”

     Rhys shook his head. “Why would he be here at this time of night?”

     “Well, why then would anyone be out with Gran and Granda’s sheep right now? I think it sounds like witches. C’mon, Rhys, I wanna go back inside now.” Davie dashed back to the safety of the house. His brother chased after, not even attempting to assume his usual air of nonchalance.

     Davie woke the next morning to a light tapping on the spare-room door. “Davie? Rhys?” His grandmother’s voice called from beyond. “Are you boys awake? It’s well past breakfast time.” Davie opened his eyes one at a time. The sun was hidden in cloud, but he could still tell that it had crested the eastern hills.

     “Rhys?” He looked across the room. His brother was still a lump in the corner. “Coming, Gran!” Davie told the door. He padded across the room. “Rhys?” he asked again. Still no answer. “It’s time to get up, Gran says!” With a single finger, he prodded the sleeping form. Nothing, not even a grumble. Rhys’s face was to the wall. Gently, Davie grabbed his brother’s shoulder and pulled it. Rhys flopped towards him, face up. Davie immediately noticed how pale the older boy’s normally red cheeks were. “Rhys, wake up! Please wake up.” He shook the limp body. “Gran!” he cried, voice rising to a whine. “Gran!”

     The door flew open. “Well then, what’s wrong in here?”

     “Rhys won’t wake up.” Davie could feel his lips, then his whole lower face trembling. Gran swept across the room. She put a hand to Rhys’s brow, then over his open mouth. She took a moment to compose herself before she spoke. Even still, her voice was strained.

     “Rhys is sick, dear. His breath is very faint. Go downstairs and tell Granda to call on Doctor Jones.”

     The doctor came, and left. Rhys awoke under his prodding, but was barely alert enough to speak. Gran would not let Davie stay by his brother’s side during the visit, but afterward told him that the doctor had left medicine and instructions to bring Rhys to the hospital should his condition worsen. Gran took Davie into an embrace. He could feel her chest tremble as if with barely-contained sobs. “Rhys will be just fine,” she assured him, though she did not sound convinced of it herself. “He has a fever, a bad one, but he’s a strong boy and it will pass.” Davie nodded, wanting to believe her. He didn’t dare mention the witch. “Will Mum and Dad come pick us up early?” he asked. Gran squeezed him extra tightly.

     “I don’t think they can, Davie. You’ll be back with them as soon as you know it, though, you’ll see.”

     The next day, Rhys was no better. He could open his eyes, at least, but was too weak and dazed to say much beyond an indistinct murmur. His face was no longer pale, but flushed blazing red, as if with sunburn. Davie tried to hand him books, but Rhys showed no sign of interest. Even when Davie propped them in front of him, his eyes would not even scan the pages. Davie tried reading to Rhys. He picked up at a book-marked page in one of his brother’s big grown-up books, and soldiered through the difficult words. Maybe Rhys would prefer a funny story, he thought to himself. Since none of the books in their room seemed to fit that description, Davie ventured down the hall to the library. It was difficult to tell where the funny books might be. He wandered aimlessly through the piles and shelves.

     It was only a matter of time before Davie found himself by the pile topped by Witches of the British Isles. He had avoided that particular volume these past few days. Maybe, though, it would have something about people falling ill after touching witches. Davie crouched down, and opened the book.

     As Davie flipped through the pages, searching for something, anything to help his brother, his eyes lingered on the illustrations as they always did—gruesome woodcuts, photographs of historic sites, sketched diagrams. One, in particular, caught his attention. There, drawn on the page, was a strand of rope with bones, feathers, and hair knotted in. It looked remarkably like Gran’s nighttime craftwork. A drawing below showed a series of figures with tortured faces, each suffering a different, horrible malady. Davie scanned the page, searching for explanation, but the Welsh was as incomprehensible as ever. Granda would no doubt refuse to translate for him, but Ianto… perhaps Ianto could.

     Davie slipped the book beneath his sweater. The bulk showed through even more obviously than if he were to just carry it. He pulled it back out again and slipped out, as silently as he could, desperately hoping Gran wouldn’t spot him.

     Davie found Ianto at the sheep’s night paddock. The fence was in disrepair again.

     “Ianto!” he cried.

     “Davie! Has your granda sent you to help me?”

     Davie shook his head. He shoved the book forward, open to the page with the picture in question. “What is this?” he tried to keep his voice from trembling. “And what does it say about it?”

     “Davie, are you alright? I know you must be upset by your brother’s sickness…”

     “Please. Read me the page.”

     “Very well, that I can do.” Ianto cleared his throat and began,

     “A witch’s ladder, or ‘rope and feathers,’ is an object-based magic in which a spell is woven into the knots. The number of knots and items included depends on the intention of the spell. A witch might bind a person’s life into the knots. By chanting particular charms over the completed ladder, the spell is cast. Untying the knots releases the spell, perhaps causing the subject to fall ill or suffer injury. Only by burning the ladder can the spell be undone.”

     He looked up when he finished. “But you know, Davie, a witch’s knot is just another old superstition. You don’t think this has anything to do with young Rhys, do you?”

     Davie made no answer. He left Ianto with the book and ran as fast as he could for the farmhouse. Ianto called after him, but Davie ignored his shouts. Tears were nearly chocking him. He burst through the kitchen door.

     “Davie?” Gran looked up from the dishes with a start. Her voice was almost as shaky as his. He ran to her, but stopped himself from launching into her arms. With tear-red eyes, he started at her. “Gran,” he said slowly. “You would never hurt Rhys, would you?” Gran lowered herself to Davie’s level.

     “Of course not, Davie. Of course not.” The lines around her eyes seemed deeper than ever. “Now, give your Gran a hug and it will all be better. Your parents will be here soon.”

     Davie stared at her, arms clamped to his side. Without a word he turned back to the door and ran and ran and ran.