Witch's Knots by Charlotte Gross

             Now that Davie was eight years old—well, eight and a half, really— he was old enough to go up to North Wales with his brother and visit their grandparents there. Rhys had already got to visit Betws y Wrach before, all by himself. He was four years older, though, and could do everything first. Their parents would take the week and a half to go on a much-needed holiday to Majorca. Granda came down in his rusted red car to get them. He said he didn’t mind the almost-five hours there and almost-five hours back it took to drive. It was always good to get away from his farm, he told Davie’s dad, just to see the rest of Britain and relearn how his own land was best.

             Mum helped Davie and Rhys load their bags into the car while Dad talked on with Granda. She made sure both boys had their toothbrushes and plenty of warm clothes. The chill of autumn was creeping into their own home in Hertfordshire, and it would only be colder in the mountain country. Davie nearly forgot his stuffed dog. He had to leap out of the car after his parents had already kissed him goodbye to run back inside.

             “Do you really have to be such a baby?” Rhys asked from the front seat. Their mum quickly hushed him.

             “Be kind to your little brother,” she said and tried to brush his long hair from his eyes. “Look out for him and don’t let him get into anything he shouldn’t.” She gave Rhys a meaningful look through the open car window. “And Davie,” she said, peering into the back, “Don’t antagonize Rhys, please?” She paused, sensing his uncertainty. “You’ll be alright, dear. You won’t even miss me and Dad.” She reached a hand back to squeeze his. He fought the tremble in his lip. This was an adventure, a quest even. Just like in books.

             Davie’s mum stepped back from the car. She and Dad waved as the car started with a hearty rumble. It rolled out the drive and Davie turned in his seat to wave to his parents. Rhys rummaged in his rucksack for a book. The neat rows of houses and yards grew to crowded, industrial parks as they left the town. Granda did not try to bring Davie or Rhys into conversation. He mumbled deep in his throat as he navigated from hedgerow-lined residential streets and onto the roaring M1. Davie couldn’t quite catch the words, but wondered if they were Welsh. A blur of other vehicles whistled past the old red car once they were on the motorway. Davie looked out the window where the occasional warehouse poked from the flat land around. Thin stands of trees stood guard along the roadside.

             It was with unusual stillness that Davie sat in the back seat. Sure, he had traveled with his parents this way, as far as Birmingham, and probably farther. There was something about a long drive, though, that kept him watching the passing world beyond the smeared window. The motorway skirted past the centers of cities on its march north and west. Davie could still see their towers crowding the sky. Outside Birmingham, other branches of the motorway split and wound beneath them. Dizzying lanes of even more cars circled beneath. Their own path shot them back out beyond the reaches of the city. Grey buildings faded from thick clusters of concrete to the occasional landmark. More and more, agricultural land squared off into cropland and grazing pastures stretched flatly away. Sunlight diffused from behind overcast clouds lit the fields with even light. The car’s rhythm sent Davie to sleep with his head against the glass.

             He awoke to a darker sky. Yellowing birch trees grew along the road and the flatland rolled into a suggestion of hills. The rush of traffic had slowed, and only one line of cars passed in the opposite direction. It took Davie until several minutes from the awareness of waking that he could murmur, “Where are we, Granda?”

             “Wha’s that?” His grandfather raised his head to peer back at him in the rearview mirror.

             “Davie’s asking if we’re there yet,” Rhys said, eyes still fixed to his book.

             “Did not!” Davie’s voice rose. “I asked where are we. I know we’re not there yet because Wales would look much, much different. Wouldn’t it, Granda?”

             The creases around his grandfather’s eyes sharpened. He pulled at his cap. “Well now, I suppose it will look a bit hillier, at least once we get up near to where Gran and I live.” He gestured at the pastureland outside. “More sheep in Wales, that’s for sure. Here they’re all content to stay where the farmers put them. Up in the north, though, well, you boys will see how they get just about everywhere.”

             “Are we almost to the border?” Davie asked. He wondered if there’d be guards, and if they’d have guns.

             “Almost, yes,” Granda said. “No doubt those are Welsh hills up there ahead.”

             Davie craned his neck to see beyond the front dash. The land before them did not look much different from what lay all around. Maybe, once they reached Wales itself, it would feel different, and Davie would know that he was in another place.

             It was only another twenty minutes or so before they reached the dividing line. There were no guards, no checkpoint, not even a fence. Just a sign that read, “Croeso y Cymru.” A red dragon and English words in smaller letters sat below. 

             “Is that Welsh?” Davie asked.

             “Course it is.” Rhys was not who Davie was looking to get an answer from. “Does it look like English to you?”

             “Right then, Rhys, Davie,” Granda cut in right as Davie was about to say something hurtful back at Rhys. “None of that now. Why don’t we stop and have those sandwiches your mum packed? I know I could use a bite to eat.” He pulled off to the side of the road and ushered the boys out to sit on the cold stonewall a few steps beyond. Wind plucked at their hair and the edges of their clothes. They did not linger.

             Back in the red car, they drove onward into the north. Signs pointed to towns whose names Davie could never hope to pronounce—towns like Bwlch-y-cibau, Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, and Cefn-ddwysarn. He asked his grandfather how to say them, and tried to imitate the easy way he breathed out each mouthful of consonants. Rhys laughed at him, and even tried to say some himself. He managed with only slightly more skill. Even normal roadsides that should say “slow,” or “yield,” or “hospital” were written in Welsh, though with English beneath.

             The day darkened towards early evening as they drove ever deeper into land that grew ever more wild.  The comfortably wide A-road, lined with hedgerows, had narrowed into a single-lane track that tumbled through bracken and hillocks. Great piles of slate rose suddenly from the earth in dark heaps amid green grass. Sheep wandered everywhere, just like Granda said. A lake glinted pewter off to the left. Davie wondered if a dragon lay trapped beneath the still waters.

             They passed by villages and farmsteads. Crumbling stonework scarred the countryside between the lived-in places. Half-repaired walls led from empty barns to churches whose only choirs were wandering sheep and rain-damp wind. The country felt old. All of England was old, Davie knew that. There was a church near his house that was hundreds of hundreds of years old. Most churches in Hertfordshire, it seemed, were from Middle Ages. Here, though, here it was different. There were not so many new buildings to hide the old. The layers of time were more visible.

             “Do you boys know the legends of Mount Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa?” Granda asked. “I know Rhys does from his visits here before.” Beyond the windows, the hills had grown rockier and the pastureland often thinned into scrub and heather.

             Rhys looked up from beneath the curtain of hair that fell over his eyes. “I read real history books now, Granda. Ianto’s stories don’t quite match up.”

             “Well. Young master Rhys, all grown up and too big for tales.”

             “Who’s Ianto?” Davie asked.

             “Ianto’s our young farm hand. Not so young anymore though, I suppose. He’s helped with the sheep since before your da’ was born.”

             “What sort of stories does he tell?”

             “Oh Ianto’s full of all manner of the old things. Worse than your Gran, he is. But look,” Gran leaned over the steering wheel to point. “There’s Snowdon and the mountains.”

             “Just really big hills,” Rhys said, but Davie saw how his pale eyes left the book in his hands to wander the ridges and crags of the peaks. Granda’s rough, lined face made sense to Davie, now. He could remember that Gran was wrinkled, too, like all old people, but Davie could tell Granda was made from the same stone as the mountain tops.

             “Right beneath the biggest of those big hills, Gran and I have our house, and all our animals, too. We’re nearly there.”

             “Can I ride the horse, Granda? Please?” Davie had seen pictures of wild-maned Eira and wanted nothing more than to pretend at being a noble knight from her broad back.

             “Well I suppose so,” Granda rumbled, “Just as soon as we get you boys settled and some of Gran’s food in you.”

             It wasn’t long before the car bounced off the narrow pavement and onto a dirt road winding through the village of Betws y Wrach. In the gathering dusk Davie caught an impression of rows of stone houses packed close together. A church quarried from the hills above dominated the head of the square. Its staple framed a great, silent bell. They crossed a bridge and were once more between hedgerows that mostly hid forest and sheep pasture from Davie’s view. The car crested a rise and descended to a pocket of green beneath the mountain. A white-sided farm house lay nestled below.

             “Here we are at long last. You boys were well good and quiet this whole time. What little gentlemen we have,” Granda awarded them a craggy smile. Rhys ignored him. With a crunch of tires on small stones, the car approached the farmhouse. Davie felt he must have seen it before, but whether in dreams, or pictures, or at some unremembered time, he could not say.

             Davie leapt from the car as soon as it heaved to a stop. Gran was already waiting in the driveway.

             “Davie! Rhys!” She called to them. “Just look at you boys, all big and grown-up now.” She folded them both into an embrace that smelled like baking bread and some herbs Davie could not quite name. She gave them great, smacking kisses on their cheeks and foreheads. Davie and Rhys exchanged disgusted faces. They had forgotten how grandmothers could be. Gwyn the collie came gamboling over to lick their faces as soon as Gran had released them. Davie paused just enough to scratch the dog behind the ears before running off towards the barn.

             “Can’t catch me, Rhys!” he shouted behind. Rhys and Gwyn both gave chase. Rhys turned back to the house far sooner than Davie would have liked.

             The hours of sitting quietly had taken their toll on the younger boy and there was much to explore. Chickens roamed free across the yard and drive, and he could see white dots of sheep as far up the hillsides as clouds descended. The slate-roofed barn looked like it must be full of mysterious old things like rusty farm tools and small animal skeletons and maybe even an ancient sword or a mysterious manuscript. The books Davie’s parents had read aloud led him to have nothing but the highest expectations of what the Welsh kept hidden.

              Granda wouldn’t let Davie ride Eira, not when Gran was about to set dinner on the table. “Come, help me bring the old girl into the barn,” he relented, when the boy’s face fell. “She’ll need a good grooming and some dinner of her own, too.” He showed Davie the curry comb and bristle brushes before setting out a flake of hay and bucket of grain. Gwyn padded along after him.

             “Why did you try to braid Eira’s mane, Granda?” Davie asked after they had brought the horse into her stall. “It doesn’t look like you did a very good job.” He gave the tangled hair a critical eye. Most of it was twisted into distinct chunks, with strands from one interweaving into another.
            “Oh that wasn’t me, Davie boy.” Granda patted the horse’s hindquarters as he made his way around her. “Those are witch’s knots and they’re a nightmare to untangle. Maybe you can lend me your young fingers and comb them out tomorrow. I haven’t bothered to myself for far too long and poor Eira looks a mess.”

             Witch’s knots! Wales was even more thrilling and strange than Davie had imagined.

             Davie followed his grandfather inside to the farmhouse kitchen where they found Rhys grudgingly helping Gran set the table for dinner. Great helpings of warm food and Gran’s pudding drove all other thoughts from his head, but as bedtime drew near and the clouds closed in with the fading light, the witch’s knots made their way back to Davie’s mind. “Rhys,” he asked, after Gran had come to say goodnight and make sure both boys were tucked into the spare room’s narrow beds, “Did you ever see the witch’s knots in Eira’s mane when you came to visit before?”

             “Which what?” Rhys didn’t even look up from his book.

             “Knots! Witch’s knots! Granda says they come and tie up horse manes and it’s really hard to get them out.” Rhys put his book down. He gave a look that asked how Davie could be so stupid. It had only been within the last year or so that Davie had noticed this expression on his brother’s face, but it seemed to be appearing more and more frequently.

             “Don’t be a baby. Witch’s knots are just what they call it when horses’ manes get all tangled like that. Did you actually think there are witches running around here messing around with farm animals?” Rhys snorted. “Anyway, I’m going to sleep. Careful the witches don’t get yoooou.” He wiggled his fingers in Davie’s direction, then snapped off the lamplight. Davie made a face in the darkness, but of course Rhys couldn’t see it.

             Davie lay back against the thin pillow and hugged his stuffed dog. He wished his mother had been there to kiss him goodnight, rather than Gran. She gave nice enough hugs, but she didn’t sing him the songs his mum would. And he would never ask her to—not in front of Rhys. He sang his mother’s songs silently to himself and watched tree shadows wave on the room’s far wall. It was a long time before he fell asleep.

             Clouds that had hung heavy above the mountaintops the day before swallowed the landscape completely by the time Davie woke up the next morning. Rhys was still a pile of blankets. Through the window, Davie could see his grandparents at work just within the reaches of the fog. Gran was feeding chickens and Granda led Eira out to pasture. Gwyn trotted along in a zigzagging line behind, sniffing left and right. The figures slipped just out of reach, disappearing into the cloak of grey. Whether the sheep were out to pasture or still gathered in the pen behind the barn, Davie could not tell Davie shivered a little in the chill, and pulled on a wool jumper before heading down to breakfast. He could smell sausage and toast already.

            The fog stayed low for the rest of the day. Granda said he’d let Davie ride around the farmyard paddock. First, though, Davie would help untangle Eira’s mane. Armed with thick-toothed comb, he set to it. “Granda, do witches really tie horse hair all up in knots like this?” he blurted when he couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. “Rhys says they don’t, that witches don’t exist… but is that true?” He gave the horse’s mane a particularly fierce tug with the comb. He felt silly for even asking. There was something, though, something about the fog and the hulking mountains here that made him think maybe, just maybe, a witch or two might still be left.

            Granda looked up from his manure-shoveling. A slight smile softened his lined face. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Davie-boy.” He gave the name a Welsh lilt. “But no, that’s just an old expression we use, though someone like Ianto might try and tell you otherwise. If, though, witches did still roam about, tying up horse manes, I’d draw a knot myself”— Davie stopped combing and watched as his grandfather crouched, with difficulty, and with one movement drew a symbol in the dirt.                                  

             “Like so.” He straightened, a hand at the small of his back. “But since there are no witches,” his voice was brusque now, “We won’t be needing old scribblings to keep them away.” Davie felt a bite of loss when Granda scuffed the drawing out with the toe of his boot. “Now, let’s see how you’re doing with that mess of a horse.”

             After dinner that night, Davie pleaded with Rhys to help him look through the books in their grandparents’ library. Though he could read well enough for his age, all of those big books with cramped writing were best tackled with the help of a seasoned reader like Rhys. The older boy agreed, mostly because Gran had given him a look that threatened no pudding when he first refused.

            “Well then, what are you looking for?” Rhys asked when they stepped into the dark room. It had been a bedroom, once, but now a maze of shelves crowded the space between similarly shelf-lined walls. More stacks of books teetered on the floor.

             “Oh I dunno, whatever’s interesting.”

             Rhys gave his customary eye roll. “A lot of things are interesting, Dave. I’ll need more specifics. Let’s see.” He pulled a book off the shelf by the door. “The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas?” He asked. “Or,” he selected one next to it, “Something… incomprehensible in Welsh? Looks like a mystery novel, maybe. There’s a whole row of these, actually. Hmm…” he turned to the shelf behind him and reached for another volume. “Ah, here’s a guide to Majorca, where Mum and Dad are right now, and one for South France, too. And a book about Owain Glyndwr—that looks cool.” He actually smiled at Davie. “Looks like there’s plenty to choose from, then. Did you ever say what you wanted me to find?” Davie was already picking at the books himself. The colorful travel guides caught his attention at first, but they didn’t seem to have much in the way of stories, as far as he could tell.

             “Do you think Gran and Granda have loads of books on King Arthur?” Davie asked.

             “Course they would. What do you think this is, the Dark Ages? Though, I guess they had King Arthur stories then, too.” Rhys’s tone gave away his excitement as he squeezed his way through to a new shelf. Davie knew the way to Rhys’s heart was through his books, and he was keen not to do anything to upset his brother back into the upper-school Rhys shell he’d been hiding away in. Davie followed after at a safe distance.