You should have seen us soar!
High over the trees, high over the hills, up over the mountains, up through the clouds themselves, our hair acrackle with lightning sprites, swooping and swirling, dancing with the fairies of the upper air, chasing the thunder down the long sky!
Then down low to steal plump apples from Widow Tillney’s orchard, or to shit on Obedience Haskell’s roof. Or floating softly over the back meadow to spy on Mariot Tolle and her latest catch. And if he was well endowed, hopping down to join in the fun.
And the shapes we would take!
Slithering skinny and sly down rabbit holes, snatching those tasty little kits from under their mothers’ teats. Or shooting silver and sleek through the oceans, racing the tall ships as they cut through the water, leading sailors to their doom or saving them from drowning, as whim took us.
Rioting raucous as ravens, racketing as we fought in black heaps over the eyes of dead soldiers, or dropped great white streaks on the statues of famous men and the hats of churchgoers.
Or diving the dark depths with the great beasts of the ocean on their long loops through the abyss, booming out the slow wisdom of the deeps, none but us to understand it.
They always draw us in black capes and silly hats, but who would go so drab on such a fine night for mayhem? The poets tell of gowns spun from moonbeams and stardust but truth to tell, those were too scratchy to bear longer than it took to seduce a wide-eyed knight. No, when I rode out on the wild ride, I wanted nothing between the wind and my skin, glowing bright in the light of the moon, my hair streaming unbound behind. Though no surprise they don’t know how we dressed—if you saw us as fleeting shadows against the sky, your eyes were sharp indeed.
The stories say we made kings bark like dogs, scrabbling for scraps off the floors of their palace kitchens. But why do that? The kings of men are half mad already, and it takes no wit at all to addle their minds utterly.
What I remember is Harald Godwinson howling like a wolf between my legs. Now there was a Dane who knew how to rut! And he would have lived to a fine old age, the stamp of his dynasty firm on the land, but that Saxon lick-spigot turned his head, and his luck fled with the ebbing tide. Fair Aldith bawled her little doe eyes out, standing there swollen-bellied over the slashed wreckage of his body, while his cousins looted his shiny new kingdom.
They tell of us turning milk and laming cattle. Turning milk! Any lazy nonny can do that—leave the pail out in the sun for an hour or couple, the milk will sour all on its own, no bespelling or potions needed. And if some miser of a farmer won’t feed his cattle enough bonemeal, of course they’ll go lame.
Now Farmer Agthorpe, when he turned out little Emme, five moons gone with his own son’s child, we didn’t let his milk turn for two months. Nor would it go to butter, though they churned it all week. Nigh on broke his dairy, until Godsby Swale persuaded him it was a lesson from Saint Margaret on his callous ways. He settled Emme on his eldest son, the farm as dowry, even though the whole village knew it was his youngest who got her in the family way. But she got what she paid for, and we had what we wanted—that strapping young man needed much consoling after he watched his brother marry his sweetheart.
And that playwright—he could only get his quill out for the young men, and that was no safe thing in those days, so he never wanted anyone to know his real name. But we knew who he was, alright—when he wanted something from a woman, his lovely tongue could keep her singing all night! We made his silly puns famous through all the ages of the world to come, but his own name—that we took from history, a small price for such renown.
Or Seth Fulco—such a darling! We made his path twice as long coming back as going out, and his fields twice as long again when he tilled them. All that work made him as strong as a bull, and he was as mad as one, too, when he copped onto our little trick. But we let him tame us, and he rode us hard and long, till his anger was spent!
But no one calls on us now.
Who needs a healing salve, when antibiotic comes in a tube from the corner chemist? Why buy a talisman against harm when a Kevlar vest will stand you good stead against a shotgun blast? Why put a curse on your strayed husband when there are divorce lawyers a free phone call away to make his life a merry hell? Who needs a love charm when you can slip a few drops of rufie into their drink? Who wants a cure for the ague when their baby has been vaccinated against every childhood fever?
A Cessna Citation will take you to lands a broom can’t reach, and the engine won’t conk out if you fly over some forgotten churchyard—that’s how I got my limp, you know. And what use is a scrying stone when every child carries a bundle of wires and plastic that can answer all the questions their withered minds can conceive?
There are no more kings now. They have only presidents and prime ministers—nary a one of them has snatched a bloody crown off a severed head. No point in bedding any of those dry pen pushers! Even the ones who were generals and led men to die on battlefields—they are so old and spent, they shoot their meagre wad as soon as their shaking hands touch your titties. Or they’re so long married, their guilty willies give scant satisfaction to a randy scut.
And the last skinny bint we turned into a princess? When her prince adamantly stayed a frog after she kissed him, she didn’t have the wit to notice his dozen and more studly captains, all standing ready to do her service. What a sorry end she came to!
It’s like we told that pretty Greek girl those long years since—be careful what you wish for. All those people wished on us, and got what they wished for, too, and then they hated us for it. And now we have nothing they want.
They called us witches, oh yes, but what do they call us now?
Old aged pensioners, without the first inkling of what age means. I, who was already old beyond the reckoning of man when I watched the Romans burn the muddy villages along the Thames, I need no pension!
And senior citizens—what does seniority mean in this debased age? Free bus rides! I, who was saluted first when they raised the Great Altar at Stonehenge, my silver chariot drawn by a team of coal black geldings, four hundred maidens in my train, I get to ride on a bus!
Or they yell “Silly old moo!” at us, and lose their jobs for pilfering, back on the dole on Monday, when they would have had a raise and promotion, and wondering where they got that nasty rash when no girl has so much as looked at them in six months.
Or “Stupid git,” with no inkling that a kind word to a bent old woman would have led to a night they’d never forget, even if they couldn’t entirely remember it, and good luck running to their grandchildren’s children. Instead, they curse us, and we curse them in turn, squawling brats for progeny, abandoned with their drunken mothers, while they follow their own lonely paths to destruction.
But these wicked times will pass, just as all those wicked times past are but memories. Our curse is on this age, and it will be undone, just as surely as all those ages past were undone. It is a slow curse, to be sure—it takes time to undo what we put in place, and the web of spells in this world is tangled indeed. But what we gave, we will take back.
Now, dearie, if you could fluff up these pillows. And do leave the telly on—I want to watch the news, see who died.
Oh, and here’s something for you—sprinkle that in your old man’s tea, and he won’t be hitting you any more, nor anyone else, ever again. Oh, pish, dear, don’t look so surprised—your skin is not nearly so black my eyes can’t see the bruises.
And here, put this around your neck—that’ll get Doctor Patel to look at you the way you look at him. But you’d better brush up on your cooking—his mother is a foul-mouthed harridan, and you’ll be feeding her son like a prince if you don’t want to live out your days under the lash of her prattle.
Hush, now, that nice Jeremy Paxman is on.