Jan 15 2013 4:00pm
The Winter Witch (Excerpt)
In her small early nineteenth century Welsh town, there is no one quite like Morgana. She is small and quick and pretty enough to attract a suitor, but there are things that set her apart from other girls. Though her mind is sharp she has not spoken since she was a young girl. Her silence is a mystery, as well as her magic—the household objects that seem to move at her command, the bad luck that visits those who do her ill. Concerned for her safety, her mother is anxious to see Morgana married, and Cai Jenkins, the widowed drover from the far hills who knows nothing of the rumors that swirl around her, seems the best choice.
After her wedding, Morgana is heartbroken at leaving her mother, and wary of this man, whom she does not know, and who will take her away to begin a new life. But she soon falls in love with Cai’s farm and the wild mountains that surround it. Here, where frail humans are at the mercy of the elements, she thrives, her wild nature and her magic blossoming. Cai works to understand the beautiful, half-tamed creature he has chosen for a bride, and slowly, he begins to win Morgana’s affections. It’s not long, however, before her strangeness begins to be remarked upon in her new village. A dark force is at work there—a person who will stop at nothing to turn the townspeople against Morgana, even at the expense of those closest to her. Forced to defend her home, her man, and herself from all comers, Morgana must learn to harness her power, or she will lose everything in this beautifully written, enchanting novel.
Does the spider consider herself beautiful? When she gazes into a dewdrop, does her reflection please her? Her web is finer than the finest lace, her body a bobbin working her own whisper thread. It is the web people admire. Its delicacy, its fragile strength. But the spider, poor creature, is thought of as ugly. She repulses some. Sends others into fainting fits. And yet she is beautiful, or so it seems to me. So nimble. So deft. So perfectly fashioned for the life fate has chosen for her. Like this one, here, in my palm. See how she ponders her next step, testing the surface, this way and that, her tiny feet tickling my skin, the hairs on her body sweeping my hand as she moves. How can something so exactly suited to its surroundings, to its existence, not be deserving of our admiration? How can a form so elegant, so neat, so sleek, not be recognized as beautiful? Must everything be pretty to be adored? The ladybird has black legs and a beetle body, but girls exclaim over the gaiety of her red wings and the cheerfulness of her spots. Must we always bedeck ourselves in prettiness to be thought pleasing? It would appear so. A woman must look a certain way to be worthy of a man’s attentions. It is expected. So here I stand, in a borrowed white gown, with flowers in my hair and at my waist, gaudy as a maypole, looking how I never look, presenting an aspect of myself that does not exist. It is a lie. How much happier I would be to don the gossamer spider’s web as my veil. And to drape myself in my customary dark colors, the better to blend with the shadows, the better to observe, and not to be observed.
Mam is impatient. No, not impatient, a little afraid. Afraid that I might slip away, hide myself in one of my many secret places, and stay hidden until this moment has passed. This moment not of my asking. Not of my choosing.
Can she really wish me to go? To leave the only home I have ever known? To leave her? Surely a daughter’s place is at her mother’s side. Why must things change? Why will she not allow me to make my own choice, in this of all matters?
“Morgana, what are you doing?”
I am found. She peers in at me, stooping into the low entrance of my holly den. Blood hurries to her lowered head, flushing her face. Even in the dim light the prickly shelter allows I can see she is agitated. And that the rosiness of her cheeks is set against a worrying pallor.
“Morgana, your dress . . . you will make it filthy sitting in here. Come out.” She withdraws and I can put off the moment no longer. I ponder the spider in my hand. I could take her with me; pop her in my petticoat pocket. At least then I might have a friend as my witness this day. But no, she belongs here. Why should both of us be uprooted?
There, little spinner, back to your web.
I return her to her rightful place. I wish I could stay with her in this dark, close space, this earth womb. But my wishes count for nothing now. My fate has been decided. I squeeze out of the den.
Outside, the sun hurts my eyes. The brash light illuminates my silly dress and showy flowers. I feel most horribly bright. Most ridiculously colored. What nonsense we are all engaged in.
“Duw, child, you have enough mud on you to plant potatoes. What were you thinking? In your wedding gown.”
She tutts and huffs and frowns at me but I am unconvinced. I see fear in her eyes. She cannot hide it from me. She ceases beating at my skirts in an effort to remove the dirt and places her hands on my shoulders, holding my gaze as firmly as she grips me.
“You are a woman now,” she says, having just this second called me child. “It would serve you well to behave as one. Your husband will expect some . . . manners, at the very least.”
Now it is my turn to frown. Husband! Might as well say Owner! Master! Lord! I turn away. I do not wish to look at her while my heart is full of anger. I feel my bottled fury bubbling within me, and something shifts, something alters. Sounds become distant. Voices meaningless. There is such a pressure inside my skull, such a force fighting to be released. My eyelids droop. My movements become slow and leaden. The sensation of falling backward grows.
“Morgana!” The urgency in Mam’s voice reaches me. Calls me back. “Do not, Morgana! Not now.”
I open my eyes and see the dauntless determination in hers. We are, after all, alike in this way.
She turns me on my heel and all but marches me from the garden and along the lane to the chapel. With every hurried step the plain stone building comes closer. I will enter it as my own person and leave belonging to another. How can this be?
“Here.” At the gate to the graveyard Mam suspends our marching to fuss with my hair. “Let me look at you.” She looks, and I know she sees me. And I know that when I am away from her there will be no one to look at me in the way she does. And the thought brings with it such a weight of loneliness I have to steady myself to bear it. Mam touches my cheek. “All will be well, cariad,” she says.
I shake my head.
“I want only what is best for you,” she insists. “It is all I have ever wanted.” I feel her hesitate. A jay bobs past on its uneven flight and laughs at our pain. “He is a good man, Morgana. He will give you a home, a life. A future.” She sees that I do not care what he will give me; that I would rather stay with her and have none of these things. She has no answer to this.
A brisk trotting alerts us to the arrival of my betrothed. We both turn to watch the white pony stallion leaning into the collar of its harness boldly as it pulls the tub-trap up the hill, hastening the moment I have been in dread of all these months. The day is warm, and the little horse’s neck is slick with sweat but it is clear he, at least, is enjoying his outing. In the trap, which is mercifully free of flowers or ribbons, Cai Jenkins closes his hands on the reins and brings the pony to a halt. He is a tall man, lean, but strong, I think. His face is angular, almost severe, but softened by a full mouth, and light blue eyes. They are startling and bright—the color of forget-me-nots in sunshine. He ties the reins and steps down from the narrow wooden seat. His wool suit is loose on his bony frame. Mam never promised him I could cook. Will he remember that, later? It is a bad idea to make assumptions where people are concerned. When he climbs down from the trap he moves easily, a man clearly accustomed to a physical life. But the hint of shoulder blades beneath his jacket suggests he does not do well. No doubt he has felt the lack of a cook since his first wife died. Three years ago, that was. He loved her, he actually told us that. Came right out with the words.
“She was all and everything to me, see? I will not pretend otherwise,” said he, sitting in our parlor, Mam’s best china in his hand, tea growing cold while he filled the room with his unnecessary words. He had looked at me then, as if I were a colt given to biting and it would fall to him to devise the most effective manner of taming me. “I want to be honest with you both,” he said. “A drover must have a wife to qualify for his license. There is no one in my region . . . suitable.”
Why is that? I wondered then and I wonder now. Why is there no one nearer his home fit to be his bride? Why has he to travel to find someone suitable? How am I suitable?
“Well,” the teacup in Mam’s hand had rattled as she spoke, “there is a great deal said about love and not much understood, Mr. Jenkins. Respect and kindness have a lot to recommend them.”
He had nodded then, smiled, relieved that it was agreed. This was to be no love match. Now he takes off his hat and holds it, too tight, in his hands, his long fingers turning it restlessly. His sandy hair is unruly, beginning to fall into curls at his collar, and in need of cutting. His gaze cannot settle on anything nor anyone.
“A fine morning for it, Mrs. Pritchard,” he says. Mam agrees. Now he puts his eyes on me. “You look . . . very well, Morgana.”
Is that the best he can do?
“Shall we go in?” Mam is anxious to get this done before I take it into my mind to bolt. She still has a firm hold on my arm.
Inside, old Mrs. Roberts stands next to the pitifully small floral displays. Mam oohs and aahs and thanks her. Reverend Thomas is all welcomes and delighteds. Mam puts me where I am to stand and Cai Tomos Jenkins stands beside me. I will not look at him. I have nothing to say to him.
The reverend starts up his words and I go to another place. Somewhere wild and high and free, untroubled by the silliness of men and their plans. There is a piece of hill above Cwmdu so steep that even the sheep won’t tread there. The surface is neither grass nor rock, but shifting shale that defies the hold of foot or hoof. To climb to the top you have to lean sideways into the slope, let your feet slip down half a pace for each you ascend. No good will come of fighting the mountain. You have to work in harmony with it. Be patient, be accepting of its unsettling ways, and it will slowly bear you up to the summit. And at the summit you will be made anew. Such vistas! Such distances! Such air that has not been breathed by damp lungs, or sucked in by furnace or fire. Air that fills your soul as well as your body.
“And do you, Morgana Rhiannon Pritchard, take this man to be your husband . . . ?”
At the mention of my name I am pulled back into the chapel with a speed to make me dizzy.
“Morgana?” Mam puts her hand on my arm once more. Something is expected of me. She turns to Reverend Thomas, imploring.
He treats me to a smile so unsuited to being there I wonder it does not slip off his face.
“I know you cannot speak, child,” he says.
“Does not,” Mam corrects him. “She can, Reverend, or at least, she could when she was a very small child. At present, she does not.”
She omits to tell him to exactly how many years “at present” applies.
The smile falters a little, leaving his eyes and remaining only around his wet mouth.
“Quite so,” says he. Then, louder and slower, “Morgana, it is necessary that we know you consent to be Mr. Jenkins’s wife. Now, when I ask again, if you agree, just nod, as clearly as you are able.”
Why does he assume silent to be the same as simple? I feel all eyes upon me now. The reverend speaks a few lines more, and then leaves a gap for my response. There is a sound in my head like the waterfall up at Blaencwm when the river is in full spate. The heat of my mother’s short breath reaches me. It is not the breath of a well woman. I know this. And, knowing this, I nod.
I turn and look at my husband. He smiles down at me, a faltering gesture of friendliness as he slips the narrow band of gold onto my finger.
“Excellent!” cries Reverend Thomas, hastily declaring us man and wife and snapping his good book shut with a puff of dust to seal my fate.
I grind my teeth. The door of the chapel flies open with a bang as it hits the wall. The reverend exclaims at the suddenness of the wind, of how abruptly the weather can change this time of year. A fierce rush of air disturbs the interior, rattling the hymnals in the pews, and tearing petals from the more delicate flowers.
I turn my gaze from a startled Cai Jenkins. I feel my mother’s disapproval upon me.
She is younger than he recalls, somehow. Perhaps it is the white dress. At eighteen she is a woman, after all. The distance in age between them is but a few years, even if those years have been, for him, long and slow. Although not uncommon, twenty-five is young to be a widower. He thinks that she is smaller, too. Her frame almost frail. Her mother assured him she is strong, but she looks for all the world as if an October wind up at Ffynnon Las would blow her off her feet. Still, it is the start of summer now. She will have time to settle before winter comes to test her. To test them both.
After the uncomfortably brief ceremony the three ride in the trap to Morgana’s cottage. The journey is short and they complete it without a word beyond the directions her mother gives him. The little house sits on the end of a row of four farm laborers’ dwellings, each with a small garden to the front. Cai waits outside with the pony as the two women fetch his bride’s possessions. A bundle of clothing tied with string, a wooden crate, and a patchwork quilt make up the trousseau. Cai secures them in the well of the trap and stands tactfully back as mother and daughter say their farewells.
“Morgana, remember to dress warmly, and do not venture far from the farm. It will take time for you to become familiar with the land about your new home.”
Morgana nods dismissively.
“Treat the hills with respect, child.” She pulls the girl’s shawl tighter around her narrow shoulders. “There is not a person on God’s earth cannot be beaten by sudden weather or hidden bog. Not even you.” She shakes her head and ceases her admonitions. Placing a finger beneath her daughter’s chin she tilts her face toward her own. “Morgana, this is for the best.”
Still the girl will not meet her mother’s eye.
“If you are as good a wife as you have been a daughter, then Cai Jenkins is indeed a fortunate man, cariad.”
Now Morgana looks up, her eyes brimming with hot tears. Cai shuffles his feet, a reluctant witness to such a painful parting. Morgana throws her arms around her mother, holding her close and tight, sobbing silently onto her shoulder. Cai watches Mair close her eyes against her own tears. He sees clearly now, in the unforgiving clarity of the morning sun, and in the intensity of the woman’s sorrow, that there is a deathly shadow clouding her pinched features. He wonders at the love a parent has for her child that could cause her to give her up when her own need is so acute. He remembers Mair’s wariness of him when first he approached her concerning Morgana. It was understandable, the reputation of drovers being mixed at best. For the most part they are seen as wild, tough men, whose traveling sets them apart from others. Most have a name for being solitary, and even a little mysterious. After all, many living in farming communities will never venture farther than the horizon they can see from their window; who knows what mischief and shocking deeds the drovers become involved in on their journeys? And who would trust a man given to sleeping in the field with his cattle, or frequenting inns, night after night, no doubt meeting women who are charmed by the romance of their trade? It had been no easy task to persuade Mair that the head drover, porthmon, was different. That he was different. True, he is inexperienced, and this will be his first year in the role. But he has earned it. His father, and grandfather, were porthmon before him. It had always been accepted he would follow in their footsteps. It is not a given right, not an inheritance they could pass to him as a certainty, for there would be others who coveted the post. But tradition, habit, common sense, even, demand that the honor continues within the family. After all, if a man is left a good farm and he is known to be an able, trustworthy farmer, it is a fair foundation for the making of a porthmon. Ffynnon Las had built a reputation as a farm with a herd to be proud of, and had supplied cattle to feed the English hunger for roast beef for two generations. Cai assisted his father on many droves, working the herd, living the life of the traveling cattleman for several weeks every year since he was a teenager. He married Catrin, and on his father’s passing it was expected that he would take over. But then Catrin had died, and everything changed. For no man can be head drover unless he has a wife, a living wife, and a homestead to return to. The position of porthmon will put him in a position of great trust in the locality. Aside from the livestock, people will place in his hands deeds of sale, items of value, and important transactions for him to handle on their behalf when he reaches London at the end of the drove. Many living in such remote areas as Tregaron will never venture beyond the parish, let alone into another country. The drove provides an opportunity for commerce and communication with a different world. Marriages are arranged. Properties change hands. Heirlooms are sold. And all proceeds are given to the head drover, to the porthmon, for safekeeping and delivery. Such riches might prove a sore temptation for a rootless man, the reasoning behind the law lies, but a man with a wife and farm hostage, well, he will come home.
At last his new bride steps up into the trap. She has changed from her wedding gown into clothes the color of the dry mountain earth. She looks less delicate now, but no less small. Cai registers, and is surprised by, a minute thrill at the closeness of her as she settles beside him. He turns his attention to Mair, who has about her now an air of resolute determination.
“From this moment Morgana is in my care,” he assures her, “you need not be concerned.”
Mair nods, handing him a cloth-wrapped cheese and some bread.
“And you?” Cai asks. “How will you fare without your daughter?”
A flash of anger passes across Mair’s face. Cai knows the question is unfair, and that there is no satisfactory answer to it, and yet he could not stop himself asking. Why, he wonders. For whose benefit? To salve whose conscience?
At last Mair says, “I am content to know my daughter is settled.”
“She will be well regarded at Ffynnon Las,” he tells her. He sees that this gives her some comfort. He knows it is what she wishes to believe. During the months in which the match had been arranged he had made it his business to discover what he could about the pretty, silent girl who had caught his eye on the drove of the year before. He had been able to discover little, beyond that her father had upped and left when she was small, she worked with her mother at the large dairy farm in Cwmdu, and that Morgana has not spoken since she was a young child. His inquiries at the inn had yielded scant information; a few words regarding her affinity with horses, her willingness to work hard with her mother, her calming touch with the herd, and, of course, her wordlessness. But Cai had noticed something. Something telling in the responses he had gained. For each and every one of them had been preceded by a pause. No matter whom he questioned, there was always a slight but unmistakable hesitation before the speaker would deliver their opinion. As if they struggled to find the right words. As if there was something they were not saying. In these fleeting pauses, in these in-breaths, Cai is convinced, lies the truth about Morgana.
He picks up the reins, and with a click of his tongue the little horse sets off at a lively trot, seemingly unhampered by the extra weight he must pull. Morgana twists in her seat, waving at the lonely figure of her mother whose hand eventually falls to her side. Then the road turns a bend and she can be seen no more.
They are soon following the course of the Usk. The great river is to their left as they travel up the broad valley, the majestic mountains on either side of them. A buzzard circles, climbing on the warm, rising air of the cloudless day, its cry as sharp as its claws. Cai glances sideways. His new wife has dry eyes now, but her countenance appears stricken. He is aware there is nothing he can say that will lift the weight of her heart at this moment, and yet he falls to speaking.
“We will stop at Brecon overnight. We can reach Ffynnon Las by tomorrow afternoon easy with going like this,” he says, indicating the smooth, hard surface of the track. “It is a good road. People have drovers to thank for that, see? Not that they do. No, they’ll more likely enjoy complaining if it rains before the drove and the herd poach the wet ground to soup. Even that is only a temporary inconvenience, mind. Rest of the year the road is as you see it. For the benefit of all.” He is irritated by his own need to fill the silence with chatter. It is a habit he knows he must break free of if their life together is to be tolerable. After all, her silence was one of the things that drew him to her in the first place. He is still unsure why. When Catrin was alive they enjoyed stimulating conversation. She had been expert at teasing him and then laughing at his blustering. He wonders if he will ever hear Morgana laugh. It seems unlikely. He slips his hand into his jacket pocket and considers taking out the small gift he has for her. The cotton and ribbon in which it is wrapped is soft against his warm fingers. He had spent many happy hours carving the little wooden lovespoon for his new bride. Tradition would have had him give it to her upon their engagement, but the opportunity had not presented itself. He had thought to give it to her on their wedding day instead, but a shyness overcomes him, and the moment does not seem right.
Their route takes them up the precipitous climb over the last of the Black Mountains through the village of Bwlch, perched on its rocky summit. By the time they have scaled the hill the pony is laboring, its pace erratic, its head low as it leans into the collar. Cai knows the animal will not falter, but will convey them safely to the top. There is a spring-fed trough at the side of the road. He steadies the pony to a halt and jumps from the trap.
“We’ll let him rest awhile,” he tells Morgana.
She, too, steps down, turning at once so that she can take in the final view of Cwmdu, far in the valley below. The last of home. Cai leads the pony to the trough where it drinks in deep gulps, its ears moving in rhythm with each replenishing swallow of sparkling water. He takes a tin cup from the trap and fills it, passing it to Morgana, before unwrapping the food her mother supplied. The two eat and drink in silence. He finds himself watching her and notices that she does not once look at him. It is as if he is of no consequence to her whatsoever. How long, he wonders, will it take to change that? A whisper of a mountain breeze tugs at her night-black hair. She wore it upon her head for the wedding, but now it hangs loose down her back with the sides pinned up, like a girl. From behind the hedge comes the bleating of a lamb, momentarily separated from its mother, its protestations loud and panic filled. The ewe’s low reply summons it, and quiet descends once again. Cai is unaccustomed to remaining wordless in company, and yet he finds it curiously calming. Clearly Morgana does not require the near ceaseless chatter so many women of his acquaintance seem compelled to engage in. If he can only still his own mind, only learn to resist uttering the thoughts which speed through his head, perhaps he too can find peace in such quiet. Since he lost Catrin, since the body blow of grief at her passing, he has found only loneliness and lack in silence. Noticed only the absence of love and companionship. But it would be true to say, also, and this he has been all too aware of, that he has been equally bereft, equally lonely, equally alone even, when in the company of others. There is, hidden somewhere deep within him, a very small, fragile hope that with Morgana, things might be different.
Later that afternoon they arrive at the Drover’s Arms on the western side of the market town of Brecon. Dusk is already tingeing the whitewash of the modest building with pink. Cai passes a coin to the lad to stable the pony, and he and Morgana carry her luggage inside. The inn has a large room downstairs furnished simply with high-backed wooden settles by the fireplace and benches running along tables. There is a low bar at one end, formed by a trestle, with barrels, flagons, and tankards behind it. It is early in the evening, so that the room is empty save for a solitary snoozing farmer by the unlit fire. The innkeeper, a genial, round-faced man, greets Cai warmly.
“Jenkins, m’n!” He grasps his hand and pumps it vigorously. “’Tis early in the season to be having a visit from the likes of you.”
“Ah, Dafydd, I’m not come here as a drover this day.” He knows some further explanation is expected of him, but the look on Morgana’s face prevents him uttering such words as wedding or bride. He fancies she is relieved when he merely requests accommodation for the night and some supper, affecting ignorance of his friend’s obvious curiosity.
They are shown upstairs to a low-ceilinged room scarcely large enough to accommodate the bed within it. When they are alone Cai hastens to put Morgana’s mind at rest.
“I will spend some time with Dafydd,” he tells her. “He’s a keen talker who requires only to be listened to. I need not tell him of our . . . well, there we are. I will have some supper sent up to you.”
Morgana looks at him, her dark eyes wide and slightly fierce, and her question as plain as if she has spoken the words aloud.
“Be at ease,” Cai tells her. “I will stay late in the bar, see. I will not . . . disturb you.”
She nods and lowers her gaze. He nods, too, even though she is not watching him, but is busy lifting the lid on her crate. He peers over her shoulder and is surprised to see that the box contains books.
“Oh, you can read?” He colors at the expression his question draws from her. “Of course, why not? And English as well as Welsh, I see. Very good. Yes, that’s very good.” He backs away, relieved to be able to leave her, already anticipating the further relief a tankard of ale will bring him.
He closes the door behind him and at last I am alone again. His earnest good intentions tire me. Mam would say I should be grateful, should be pleased to have a considerate husband. But I am not pleased. I do my best to keep my inner turmoil from revealing itself to others through my countenance, but it must surely be discernable, at least to him. And here I stand, trapped in this room, a bride alone on her wedding night. He has assured me I will not be disturbed. For that much I am grateful. What does he expect of me? Tonight the company of men contents him. I cannot convince myself such restraint will continue once he has me installed in his own home.
I shall look at Dada’s books to distract myself from my situation. There are two candles, and still some light from the fading day. He was surprised to discover the contents of my crate. He draws the conclusion that I am able to read, and it surprises him. Indeed I can, though I am less able to write. Does he, too, consider me simple? Would he have married a simpleton? I must think not. He did appear pleased to learn I am not entirely without schooling. I was permitted to attend school for a while, and I have Mam to thank for that, as for all else. It was she who insisted I be given a place at our local elementary school.
“But, Mrs. Pritchard,” the weary schoolmaster, Mr. Rees-Jones, had attempted to dissuade her, “surely the girl cannot be expected to learn, given her . . . affliction.”
“Morgana is not afflicted, sir. Only silent.”
“My point exactly. If she cannot form the sounds of the letters, how can she learn them? If I cannot hear her read, how can I correct her? If she cannot answer questions, how can she learn?”
“She can listen, Mr. Rees-Jones. Is that not how Our Lord’s disciples learned?”
He had offered no response to this save a pursing of his thin, dry lips. I was given a place, in as much as I was permitted to attend. That was the extent of Mr. Rees-Jones’s willingness to accommodate me. My seat was at the back of the schoolroom. I was equipped with neither chalk nor slate and never instructed in the art of writing. I was, however, allowed to listen, and to let my eyes follow words on the page of any book not already taken. I listened and I watched, and slowly the patterns on the paper began to reveal their mystery to me. How I longed to know their secrets. Oh, what joy that would have been. To be able to enter the minds of others, to hear their thoughts as clearly as if they were whispering in my ear. Not minds formed from a lifetime of working the fields, nor dulled by the noise of the loom, but higher minds. Minds given to ideas and imaginings beyond my small world. Mr. Rees-Jones cared not what progress I did or did not make. He had, ’tis true, no satisfactory way of measuring it, after all. But Mam saw it. She watched me curl my feet beneath me on the rug in front of the fire and read by the light of the flames. She witnessed my quiet concentration as I followed what was written and turned each page with reverent care, even though I had to struggle to decipher what was there.
“Morgana,” she once said, “I declare the only time I ever see you still is when you have a book in your hand.” And she smiled, pleased at my modest achievement. Pleased at such a normal talent. Pleased, I suspect, that she had been proved right.
Alas my schooling did not continue long enough for me to complete my learning. The schoolmaster’s tolerance of me, it transpired, was a fragile thing. One dark winter’s day when the snow lay thick on the ground, shortly after my tenth birthday, a new boy joined the class. His family had come recently into the area, his father being a well-regarded cattleman brought into the employ of Spencer Blaencwm to tend his herd of Pembrokeshires. Ifor was his only child and had clearly been indulged in all manners possible every day of his life. His body was plump with these indulgences. Beneath his garish ginger hair his face was round and red, his expression permanently expectant, as if waiting to see in what ways people might please him next. Being new to our school he encountered what must have been unfamiliar hostility. The other children disliked his overfed appearance, his selfimportant bearing, his evident belief that the world existed for his advantage above all else. For all their showering him with gifts and pleasures, his parents had failed to furnish him with the ability to make friends. Adrift in the choppy waters of the schoolroom, bewildered by the lack of interest he was shown, Ifor resorted to selecting a target for abuse; a child who, in his opinion, would best serve to reveal himself in a good light. For his purposes this required someone more an outsider than he. Someone apart from the others. It was his misfortune, as much as my own, that his eye lighted upon me.
For a while I endured his jibes and sneers without response. It was not, let it be said, the first time I had encountered such treatment. People fear what they do not understand, and that fear can make brutes of them. Ifor, though, had not the wit to be frightened. Better for him if he had. Each day he prodded and poked and jested at my expense. Each day he won an inch more ground in his battle for position in the class. And each day my patience grew thinner.
On that winter morning, when a weak sun glowed dully in a colorless sky, Mr. Rees-Jones sent us outside for some air and exercise to quell our restlessness. Ifor seized the moment. He was seated on a low bench beneath the schoolroom window, a thick muffler making him look even fatter than usual, his plump backside spreading widely on the snow-dusted seat. He called out to me, a sneer already arranged on his face.
“Don’t make too much noise, Morgana. Mr. Rees-Jones doesn’t like noise, doesn’t like talking. Oh! I forgot—you can’t talk, can you? Too stupid to speak.”
One or two of the other children began to smile, pausing in their games to watch the fun. Fun made at my expense.
“Sshh, now, Morgana!” Ifor grew bolder. “You are disturbing everyone with your silly chattering. What’s that you say? It can’t be you because you are too dim to speak? Dim and dumb! Dim and dumb!” he chanted, his cheeks flushing. “Morgana Dim-and-Dumb, that’s what we should call you. Stupid Miss Morgana Dim-and-Dumb!”
On and on he went, the chant gathering strength as others joined in, relishing the cruel song so that the air was soon full of the sound of their mocking. And Ifor’s eyes grew brighter, his chest puffed up with pleasure at his own cleverness. It would not do. Really, it would not.
I wanted to be somewhere else. I might have chosen to let my eyelids fall, to let the voices grow distant, and to send my mind somewhere quiet and free. But I did not. Not on this occasion. This time my anger grew inside me, built into something hard and fierce and hot until it must come out or else I would be burned up by it, consumed by it completely. I breathed in, feeling the breath fuel the flames of my fury. I faced my tormentor, my eyes wide, holding his own gaze, a gaze which faltered as it glimpsed the anger within me. I did not once look away from him, not when the heavy snow on the roof above where he sat started to tremble, not when the other children noticed and fell silent, not even when, with a brief rumble and a swoosh, the snow slipped from the tiles, hurtled to the ground, and landed squarely upon Ifor, covering him entirely. Now the silence was broken by gleeful laughter, and the children pointed and chortled at the wretched boy—the snowboy, for such he was now. He struggled and with a wail emerged, snow clinging to his clothes and caking his eyelashes. The laughter increased. He looked wonderfully absurd, standing their wailing like an infant, the tables turned so that he was the object of ridicule. Now he could see what it felt like.
Of course, the noise brought Mr. Rees-Jones running. He threw wide the door, halting abruptly on the threshold, taking in the snow-encrusted boy. He looked first at the other boys and girls, who fought to stifle their hilarity, and then at me. He narrowed his eyes in a way I did not care for. Clearly, he did not care for the manner in which I regarded him either. He had been reluctant to admit me to his precious school in the first place. As the months had passed he had became increasingly intolerant of my presence, and my conflict with Ifor did nothing to improve matters.
Things came to a head a few weeks after the incident of the little avalanche. We had been set to work on some tedious mathematical equations, and the early spring sunshine on the tall windows was compounding our suffering, making the room unbearably hot and stuffy. One of the older girls made a plea for the window to be opened and Mr. Rees-Jones gave me the task of using the long, hooked pole to reach up and release the catch. As I crossed the room, however, Ifor stuck out his foot. I tripped and was sent sprawling onto the floor at the very feet of the schoolmaster. Again I endured mocking laughter. I snatched up the pole and, standing on tiptoe, used it to unfasten the latch. I was supposed to settle the window into the metal holding strap, which would allow but a few inches of air. However, it seemed to me this would barely be enough to sustain one of the soft grey pigeons in the yard outside, let alone a roomful of pupils. Or a roomful of pigeons, thought I. The image I conjured in my mind of a flock of the flapping birds swooping and unloading their droppings around the classroom, and particularly upon Ifor, was simply too glorious to resist. Of course, Mr. Rees-Jones blamed me for letting the window fall wide open. He held me responsible for letting the pigeons into the room. And he could not help but notice that I alone was free from the white and grey splodges the panicked birds deposited upon everyone else in the room, himself included. He was never able to say how their unusual behavior was my fault, but it didn’t stop him wanting rid of me. When Mam collected me from school that day she was told plainly that I was no longer welcome to attend.
The Winter Witch © Paula Brackston 2013