Witch's Knots by Charlotte Gross

             Most of the books on the shelves in front of him were cloth-bound, no pictures on the cover and definitely not any inside. One from the pile at his feet caught his eye, though. Like the others around it, the outside was not particularly thrilling. Faded gold lettering spelled out strange Welsh words. In smaller writing beneath it said, “Witches of the British Isles.” Davie stooped for a closer look. Black and white photographs and a sprinkling of old woodcuts broke up the text inside. All was in Welsh. He leafed through, finding chapters that he guessed from the pictures were about witch trials, magical sites, plant medicine, perhaps, and superstitions. There were drawings of intertwining knots, too, including the same one Granda had drawn in the dirt. Surreptitiously, he tore a blank piece of paper from a flimsy paperback next to him. No one would notice. On it he copied down the knot as best he could. It seemed like a good idea to know it, and the snaking pattern looked cool, anyway. He was staring at a drawing of a man summoning a fearsome-looking demon when Gran came in to send them off to bed.

             “You’d best leave that one, Davie dear,” she said when he picked up Witches of the British Isles to bring with him. “It’s an old book, and we don’t want anything happening to it, hm? Now, how about this one about Paddington? That’s a nice story to take to bed.”
            “I’m not a little kid anymore Gran,” Davie muttered, but when she tucked him into bed he let her leave it on his bedside table. He didn’t pick it up to read, though. His head was too full of hunched figures huddled ‘round a bubbling cauldron, medieval witches stretched out on torture racks, and curse victims covered in boils to be able to be able to give his attention to something as harmless as a story of a stuffed bear. Like the night before, it felt like a long time before he fell asleep. His last vision was of the moon peeking through a break in the fog to mark black bars across Rhys’s sleeping form.

             Despite his difficulty in falling asleep, Davie still managed to rouse himself early the next morning to help his grandfather with the animals. The sheep were already out in the high pastures, but Eira needed her morning grain before she could be turned loose. As soon as Davie saw the horse, his face fell. Her mane was twisted into knots once more. True, they were not quite as clumped together as they had been before he’d worked them through with the comb, but still. The witches must have been at work again, he could not help but think. Davie said nothing, but lingered at the barn instead of following when his grandfather led Eira out to pasture. He picked up a stone from outside the barn, and took out the drawing of a witch knot he’d copied the night before. In the farthest back corner of the barn, where he didn’t think Granda would notice, Davie scratched the symbol into the wooden wall—just in case.

             He stood back to give his knot a critical eye when he heard the crunch of a boot behind him. The stone slipped from Davie’s fingers and he jumped. The face he stared up into was not his grandfathers, as he had thought it would be. It was another man, dressed like Granda in thick clothes and work boots. His hair was mixed white and grey beneath his cap, but there was less stoop to his shoulders than Granda had and though his face was weather-worn there were fewer lines to it than were in Gran’s.

             “I, um,” Davie began. He shrank back towards the barn wall.

             “You must be young Davie.” The man’s voice had the same breathy quality as his grandparents’. “Tha’s a fine knot you’ve drawn there. Who taught you?”

             “My Granda.”

             “Oh did he? I’m surprised at that. Your granda’s not much of one for the old ways. I should introduce myself, though— Ianto. I do my dealings with a’ the sheep you see running about here.”

             “Granda told me about you. He says you have stories about the mountains.” Davie dared to shuffle a step forward.

             “That I do. That I do. I’ll have tales for you another day—and other guards against witches if that’s what you’re after.” He gestured at Davie’s knot. “But now I’m after some of your granda’s tools—there’s a gap in the paddock fence needs fixing.” The man saluted Davie, gave a wink, and turned to the barn’s other room.

             Davie walked back to the farmhouse from the barn. He wondered at what Ianto had said about more protections against witches. Were there witches about after all? He kicked at a pebble and watched it skip over the wet ground. Did Ianto think they needed to be guarded against? Davie looked up at the banks of mist that hid the mountains. The clouds seemed to close in more threateningly than before. He ran the rest of the way back to the house.

             Davie opened the kitchen door to find Gran standing at the sink dressed in a hat and nice coat, trying her best to slick Rhys’s hair out of his face with a wet comb. He struggled away from her.

             “My hair’s fine, Gran, I swear.”

             “Oh but Rhys, it would look so much better—you would look so much better—if we could see your face! How can you even see with all that in your way?” She turned towards Davie when he entered. “Don’t you think, Davie dear?”

             Davie shrugged. He made to edge away in case Gran thought his appearance needed improving, too.

             “Why don’t you put on a nice jumper, Davie. I have tea with my lady friends in the village and thought it would be just lovely if they could meet my sweet grandsons.

             “Must we go with you?” Davie asked weakly.

             “It will be great fun! Just you see. I’ll tell you what. You and Rhys can both have a sweet from the café. And, I’ll let you boys run off and have a look ‘round the village if you sit still long enough. Hm?”

             Davie knew he had no choice in the matter. Getting to explore all those old stone streets could be interesting, he supposed.

             Gran ushered them into the car and drove out from the valley to the village above. The fog had lifted from the lower slopes of the mountains to wreath the peaks like pipe smoke. Gran pointed out the Afon Brwynog that ran through the town and spilled out to feed into the lake beyond the farmhouse. She parked near where the river slipped beneath a gray stone bridge within the village limits.

             Gran led them to the little café that, she told them, was once the home of some vaguely important member of in the court of the first Queen Elizabeth—perhaps her steward, or her goldsmith, or maybe even her cook. Davie couldn’t quite remember who. The boys took seats inside and managed to sit patiently with their pastries. They only wriggled ever so slightly when Gran’s friends arrived, first one, then another, a pair, another three, and then the rest in a chattering herd. Davie noticed that they all wore hats with the same flourish of black feathers that Gran had pinned to hers. He wasn’t sure if that was maybe what all old Welshwomen wore. He had just turned his attention to the plate in front of him, hoping to nibble up the last crumbs from his chocolate tart when a woman in a particularly elaborate hat sat herself on a chair next to his own and pulled it uncomfortably close.

             “Oh, well aren’t you the very image of Georgie!” she exclaimed. “Those same red cheeks—you and your brother both. I could swear your father was just your age yesterday.” She cupped Davie’s chin. “Doesn’t he look like Georgie, Alys?” She addressed another woman who had appeared over her shoulder. With her bony hand still clamped firmly around Davie’s jaw, she peered into his eyes. The other woman leaned in and seemed to inspect his face with her. Davie willed himself not to shake himself free. “Well,” they broke eye contact and the first woman whispered, “Time does pass us all by, doesn’t it?” They turned to separate conversation with the other women at their table. Davie looked pleadingly at his grandmother, begging to not have to spend another minute with these strange old ladies. Gran didn’t seem to notice. After what felt like ages, though, she sent the two boys off to explore the stone-walled village on their own. “Just stay together, and be back before dark!” She called to their backs as they galloped out of the café.

             The village was every bit as labyrinthine as books had led Davie and Rhys to imagine a Welsh village should be. The boys stood a long time tossing pebbles off the stone bridge that crossed the roiling river, and watched as tourists tried to squeeze their cars between the crowding rows of shops and houses. Unreadable Welsh marked every street and storefront. “Glandwr Inn,” Rhys tried to read off a sign overhead. “How are you even supposed to say that? There’re like, four consonants in a row and none of them work together! The Welsh.” He shook his head, “They’re all bonkers, every one.”

             “Not Gran and Granda!” protested Davie.

             “Especially Gran and Granda. Come on, the sun’s gone. Gran and her witch friends will be wondering where we are.”

             “What do you mean, her witch friends? You were the one who said witches don’t exist!” Davie couldn’t argue though— the women did seem just a little bit witch-like. He danced out of the way when Rhys took a mock swing at him.

             “Of course, silly. They’re just a bunch of old Welsh ladies, so I said they’re witches. But careful!” He pounced on Davie and swung him around. “Better put up the iron horseshoes or they’ll come get you in your sleep!”

             “Stop it, Rhys! It’s not funny.” Davie shoved him away, hard. He knew his brother was teasing, but the creeping twilight was turning the stone village to a world of shadows and dark corners. He wanted to go back to the farm. Really, he still missed his parents, too, but he’d never tell Rhys that.

             “Come on,” Davie said. “I hear Gran calling us.”

             Together the boys raced back through the winding streets in the murky light.  Bright flares of yellow lamplight marked the main street where the café stood. The same warm glow filtered out from windows of shops and homes. A creaking wood sign overhead announced the Saracen’s Head pub. Rhys slowed and peered into the grimy windows.

             “Come on Rhys,” Davie urged him. Rhys made to open the door and slip into the haze within. Gran’s call from up the street pulled him away.

             “I’ll beat you back to Gran!” He shouted and sprinted off. More terrified to be left alone than concerned with his pride, Davie followed fast behind.

             Later that evening, rain drizzled down on the valley. After dinner, Davie and Rhys returned to the library. Davie picked up a different book than the Welsh Witches of the British Isles. He’d had enough of them for one day. Even though Paddington was the last thing he read before falling asleep, the pattering of rain drops became the footsteps of many tiny witches that ran through Davie’s dreams. He woke at least three times during the night. Each waking made him wish his mum was there to send him back to peaceful sleep.

              When morning came it arrived in as sunny at dawn as you could ask for in North Wales, according to Granda. He let Davie accompany him to the barn again. Water droplets left from the night showers shone from every twig and dazzled from the edges of leaves. Davie followed his grandfather, stretching his much shorter legs so his footprints would fit the wetly green imprints of Granda’s boots in the grass.

             As soon as Granda had fitted the halter over Eira’s fuzzy head and tugged the lead to move her forward, he saw that something was wrong. Instead of plodding forward as usual, Eira merely stretched her head forward. Granda gave an extra tug on the rope, but the horse remained with hooves firmly planted. He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Come on, girl, get on now!” Granda urged her. Davie stood in silence. His grandfather gave another pull before turning back to the horse. “This isn’t like you, is it?” he addressed her. “Something must be the matter…”
            “It looks like she’s got the weight off one of her back legs,” Davie offered.
            “Well now look at that. She does indeed. Good eyes, Davie-boy.” Granda slung the lead over Eira’s neck and bent to feel down her leg from hock to pastern. It was fever-warm to the touch. He gave a squeeze and another of his tongue-clicks. She lifted the leg. “Hand me the hoof pick, Davie. Hm….” He dug lightly at the sole of her foot. “Nothing lodged in the shoe, and no sign of injury, either. That’s odd.” Granda set down the horse’s leg. “Well, we’ll just have to keep you in for the day, won’t we?” Davie thought he could see the horse’s head droop just a little.

             Granda sent Davie to the sheep’s night paddock to find Ianto.

             “He’ll know where to find the salts and hoof dressing,” he told Davie. “I’ll have to go into town to get more, though.”

              Davie returned with the farm hand. Granda had already filled a bucket with cool water for Eira to soak her hoof. Ianto added salts and let Davie held the lead rope. “What are Eira’s shoes made of?” Davie asked. “Are they iron?”

             “No, it’s been a long while since we shod our horses with iron. These ones are good steel. Why?” He turned to Davie with a curious half-smile. “Why do you ask?”

             “My brother Rhys said something about iron horse shoes, something about them protecting against witches.” Davie hoped Ianto wouldn’t laugh at him. The man nodded seriously and tugged at his cap.

             “Your brother’s right, he is. Have you heard about lucky horse shoes at all?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, that superstition comes down from the fact that iron’s what keeps devilish creatures away—witches, troublesome fairies, goblins, all the like. When horseshoes were made of iron, well, they were a pretty easy thing to hang over your door to keep the witches out. ”

             Davie remembered seeing a pile of nails rusting in the tack room. Maybe those, strategically placed, would help protect Eira. Before now, he’d been willing to accept Rhys and Granda’s reassurances that witches no long roamed the hills of Wales. But if even Granda didn’t know why his horse had suddenly gone lame… well, it seemed to Davie that it was at least a little bit possible something was out there causing trouble.

             “What else can protect against witches and other bad things?” Davie asked. He absently stroked Eira’s fuzzy flanks.

             “Oh there are all manner of charms.” Ianto raised his brows conspiratorially. “The rowan tree is particularly powerful. You can carry a cross made from the twigs, or a sprig of red berries when they’re in season. Even just standing beneath one should keep you from harm.” He pointed towards the barn’s back wall. “Out there by the sheep’s night paddock there’s an old, old rowan tree growing. Your granda’s wanted to cut it down for years now, thinks it gets in the way.” He leaned down to touch along the horse’s cannon bone, feeling if the swelling had gone down at all. “But I’ve convinced him over and again to let it stand.”

             Eira turned her head to nuzzle at Davie for treats. He scratched her soft nose. “What if…” He paused. “What if the protections against witches don’t work? What do you do?”
             Ianto chuckled. “Well, your granda would have me tell you that witches don’t actually exist, not anymore at least. All these protections I’m telling you—they’re just old folk superstitions, you could call them. We hold onto them out of habit. And why not?” He clucked at Eira and helped her remove her leg from the bucket where it soaked.

             Davie stepped quickly out of reach of Eira’s hooves. “What did they used to do, then, when the superstitions didn’t work?”

“Ah, you’re a fast learner.” Ianto smiled at him. “I suppose there was a belief that if you had a very powerful witch, or a gathering of witches was about, then a simple charm might not be enough. And then,” he leaned close, his voice low “you’d be in trouble. Witches don’t like to be charmed against.”

             After they had put Eira back in her stall and Ianto had returned to the sheep, Davie dashed to the barn’s side room to grab a handful of the iron nails, then back to Eira’s stall. He carefully stuck the nails in between the wooden slats, down low so that his grandfather wouldn’t notice. Davie did not return to the corner of the barn where he had scratched the witch’s knot symbol the day before. He did not see that a great, gaping gash lay over the wood where the drawing had been. It was as if some beast had taken a single claw and gouged it through the boards.

             That night, Davie drifted off to uneasy sleep with the wind sighing down from the mountains, blowing patchy clouds across the light of the growing moon.

             The wind rose through the night. It sent branches tapping against the window, waking Davie. He thought someone was at the door. As he lay beneath the covers, willing himself back to sleep, Davie realized he needed to use the bathroom—and badly. The urge won out over his unwillingness to brave the cold floors and unlit stairs. He pulled on a pair of socks, and slid soundlessly over the wooden boards.

             Upon leaving the bathroom, Davie realized that there was a light coming from the kitchen. Curious, he peaked around the corner. Someone was there. His heart gave a small jolt before he realized it was just Gran, her back turned towards him. She was bent over something on the table, something she was working on, perhaps. Davie slid forward on his sock-covered feet, unsure if he should say something for fear she’d scold him for leaving his bed.

             He could see feathers scattered around her on the table. What could Gran be doing with all those feathers? And, were those little bones? A length of knotted rope, twisted from smaller strands, hung off the side of the table. Davie stepped closer to see more clearly. The floorboard beneath his feet gave a loud groan. Gran leapt up and whirled around. It was the fastest Davie had ever seen her move. Her features were harsh in the dim light. “Oh, Davie, it’s you.” She seemed to relax. “Good Lord, child, you gave me a fright. What on earth are you doing out of bed?” She blocked the table with her bulk.
            “I… I was just going to the bathroom.” Davie paused, then blurted, “I saw a light in the kitchen and wanted to see what it was. What were you doing, Gran?”

             She turned and swept up feathers, rope, and all into a bag. “Oh, don’t you worry about it, Davie.” She smiled. “Just some old crafts, some old-woman foolishness, you might say. Best not tell your grandfather—he doesn’t exactly understand or, ah, approve such things.” She reached out and touched his cheek. The harshness he had seen in her face before was gone.

             Davie nodded. Granda did seem to want the old things to stay old. He let his grandmother kiss him good night, and went back up to bed. He did not see another figure move in the deeper shadows of the kitchen corner. Another woman, one with a black-feathered hat, stepped forward and returned to the table where Gran stood.