Ben Nuttall-Smith taught Music, Theatre, Art, and Language until he retired in 1991. He now lives in Crescent Beach, near Vancouver B.C., where he writes, paints, makes music, and travels with his best friend and soulmate.
The following work is copyright © 2010. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
The Witch of Finchingfield
When I was four or five, we lived in Willets’ Cottage, in a picturesque village in England called Finchingfield. Across the road from Willets' Cottage, where my younger sister, Naomi, and I peered over the garden fence to an exciting world of beggars, gypsies, milkmaids, umbrella menders, sheepherders, horseback riders, and urchins with runny noses, there lived a spinster who, in our childish eyes, was truly a witch with a big, black cat named Satan. She was stooped over and very, very old. Her lips sucked into her mouth so that her nose and chin looked like the picture of Punch from the Punch and Judy show. Her nose had a wart at one side, and her hair hung in stringy white strands halfway down her skinny body. She walked with a knobby cane and smelled of incense, sweat, and pipe tobacco.
The witch lived in a wee house all alone. If ever she caught us, we knew she would eat us. It was a known fact among the children in the village that she had a big pot in her kitchen where she boiled all the little ones she could catch. Holding a basket of apples or a jar of licorice all-sorts, she sometimes called my sister and me. We ran shrieking into the back garden and hid behind the tool shed.
Our parents never asked us why we hid. Naomi and I never spoke of the old woman, even when she held out an empty bucket to my dad on his daily trip to and from the village water-pump. Dad would bring a whole bucket for her, then return for more for us.
Finchingfield also had a bully who loved tormenting smaller boys and girls. When grownups weren’t looking, he chased us with stones, horse-droppings, and stinging nettles. When he caught us, he twisted our arms behind our backs and made us repeat bad words.
Naomi and I picked mushrooms only when we were with our mother. She knew which ones were good and which ones were poisonous. The best ones grew in the cow pasture where the red-eyed bull stood guard. With permission, we could go by ourselves to pick blackberries along the edge of the cow field.
One lovely day, with three buckets full of juicy blackberries, our faces and fingers stained purple, we were suddenly interrupted by the sound of the red-eyed bull as he charged across the field. We tried to help each other over the stile. I went first.
Before I helped her up and over, I told my little sister to hand me the buckets of berries. I hadn’t yet learned "ladies first". Besides, it was my red cardigan that attracted the bull. By this time, Naomi was crying. As I climbed back up to urge her on, she climbed up too with two of the buckets. The bull stopped quite close. His eyes blazed and his nostrils bellowed steam as he stood his ground, stomping and snorting, preparing to charge.
Naomi had just passed me the first full bucket when a rough voice from behind me bellowed, "Oi! W'at you two doin' stealing moi berries? 'and 'em over."
Quickly, I put down the bucket of berries. Naomi stopped crying and picked up the other two buckets. "You can't have them." Just like the bull, she stood her ground. Then, as carefully as she could, she passed me the two buckets.
Suddenly, I felt stinging nettles on the backs of my legs. I dropped both buckets and turned around. The bully knocked me down and began to sting me all over my bare arms and legs. Naomi climbed over the stile, screaming, "Leave my brother alone!" So the bully chased her down the path with his nettles.
At that moment, the witch appeared, shouting and waving her stick in the middle of the path. My sister ran back to me. We were in a terrible state. We burned from the nettles. Our buckets lay on their sides beneath the stile. All the berries had fallen into the mud. But the bully was gone, running across the field, as fast as his chubby legs would take him.
By the time we gathered our senses, the witch was upon us. "That guttersnipe! I’ll be paying Mrs. Bates a visit, just you see. She'll give that Billy what for." My sister and I wanted to run, but we couldn't.
"Here, let's rub some of this on those wee legs of yours and on your arms." The witch took dock leaves growing by the stile, and rubbed my sister’s legs with them. I took some, too and soon the sting went away. "You'd better get home now before your mother finds out you're lost."
We took more dock leaves and rubbed our arms and legs with them. Then we ran home as fast as we could. Mother stripped us, washed us, and put us to bed.
The next morning, we found three buckets on our front door stoop, brimming with fresh blackberries.
My dad said, "The fairies picked them". I wasn't so sure. That afternoon, he took a blackberry pie across the road. As for us, at teatime we ate big slices of blackberry pie, slathered with fresh, thick cream.