Bewitched by Danielle McLaughlin
Mrs Wilson and the library carpet matched perfectly in one of those rare triumphs of interior design. I could never look on that particular shade of olive green without her pale, wrinkled face bouncing out at me. It was no good reason, my mother said, for refusing to wear the almost pristine duffle coat that Sarah, my gangly younger sister, had just outgrown. But I stood my ground, stubborn as a mule. The duffle coat also itched about my neck and made me look even pudgier than usual.
On Saturday mornings, while other teenagers burrowed deeper under their duvets, I ran straight to the library. I cannot remember how my obsession with witches started but it blew like exotic tumbleweed though the ghost-town of my teenage life. I asked Mrs. Wilson, the librarian, where the books on witches were kept. I slouched along behind her to the bookshelves on Medieval History in the far corner. She motioned to a few stocky encyclopaedias and eyed me curiously before padding off across the carpet.
Mrs. Wilson, it turned out, was a woman with no concept of witches. The encyclopaedias carried a few scant paragraphs on sad, frumpish women of dubious competence. They were, it was strongly hinted, neurotic and unbalanced women, or at best, frauds. Refusing to be defeated, I trawled through every shelf. Dusty volumes of ancient mythologies, obscure pagan rites, even astrology, were fine-tooth combed, book by book, page by page.
Sometimes Mrs Wilson wandered past as I crouched on the carpet, books and roughly sketched Jezebels spread out all around me. She dusted and stacked shelves, climbing up and down her wooden library steps. ‘You were always a great reader when you were small. I remember you loved fairytales.’ I nodded vaguely. The last thing I needed was to get drawn into conversation with Mrs. Wilson. She turned on her tiny stepladder. Varicose veins poked out through her tan-coloured tights. ‘Wouldn’t you rather be going out with your friends? To clubs, and shopping centres and things?’ I sighed and gathered up my papers. It was time to go home.
In the evenings I painted in my bedroom. It was an airy, high-ceilinged room, with creaky wooden floorboards. Door securely locked, I would set up my easel and mix my colours. A huge floor-to-ceiling gilt-edged mirror eclipsed one wall. I set my easel in front of it so that the mirror caught me as I painted. A twenty watt bulb hung, shadeless, from the ceiling, giving the barest of light. Hulking shadows jumped from wall to wall as I moved about finding rags and brushes. As I worked in the semi-darkness, gorgeous wild creatures would begin to emerge in thick brush strokes of purple and gold and black and crimson.
I peeled off layers of clothes as I painted, throwing them willy-nilly about the floor. Stripped to my practical and greying underwear, I would work faster, free from the clingy bulk of sleeves and shirts and prickly tights. My eyes wandered from mirror to canvas, from the fleshy contours of my own white skin to the flowing passion of the glorious witches, all sleek and sassy and pouting. I would paint fiercely, the colours rushing together. Wild women screamed and glowered from the canvas, drawing me in, wrapping me in their dark and comforting cloaks, until the drab, wobbly form in the mirror melted away, washed away in a torrent of simmering colour.
One afternoon after school, as my classmates drifted in tight huddles towards the sports field, I sat by myself in the library. As I watched Mrs Wilson going about her stacking and dusting, I ripped a page from my copybook and drew a caricature in rough crayon. I drew her knobbly wool cardigan and sagging breasts; her pleated skirt with its garish orange and red check and her spinsterish glasses. Getting into my stride, I drew bony knees and ankles protruding from her spindly legs and the rivers and tributaries of her bulging, purple veins. A soft, grey pencil lined her gaunt face with cracks and shadows, dark hairs sprouting from the moles on her chin. Then, unable to resist, I added red talons and a black, flowing cloak, my crayons running crazy now, bewitching the frail, decrepit body of Mrs. Wilson.
Sketch finished, I returned to a book I had discovered on African medicine women. Suddenly, Mrs. Wilson was by my desk. ‘That’s really very good.’ She picked up the caricature and brought it closer to her face, scrutinising it in all its inglorious detail. I forgot how to breathe. What would she make of this ugly, scrawled woman, wearing her clothes, her glasses, her multitudinous flaws? ‘That’s quite a gift you’ve got there.’ I thought I noticed a small trace of a smile at the corner of her mouth. ‘I hope you make good use of it.’ She put the sketch back on my desk. Then she was gone, making her way across the library to impose order on a trolley of dictionaries. I grabbed the piece of paper, rolled it into a tight ball and shoved it deep in my pocket.
Mrs. Wilson died the following winter. A ruthless flu had sucked the life out of her and sent her to her bed for a few short, final weeks. Wind and driving rain lashed the windows of our house the day of the funeral. I stood in the hallway buttoning my raincoat right up to my chin, a woollen cap pulled down over my eyebrows. Sarah, my younger sister, came bounding downstairs, long skittish legs encased in a pair of tight blue leggings. She watched me curiously. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To the funeral.’ I pushed a wisp of mousy hair back under my cap. Sarah stared in disbelief. ‘But you didn’t even like Mrs Wilson!’
I closed the door behind me and walked the half-mile to the cemetery in the rain. The town had that hushed Sunday feeling. Mrs Wilson’s elderly cronies were hunched around the grave in a mass of heaving and shuffling age. I joined in the prayers, my voice rising fresh and clear over their mumblings. The coffin swung jerkily into the earth, little rivulets of mud rushing down the sides of the grave. The priest took a fistful of loose clay and threw it onto the roof of the coffin. A wheezy sob escaped from a grey-haired man who stood bent over a walking stick.
I took a battered piece of paper from my pocket, its wrinkles smoothed as best I could. I folded it into a neat square and dropped it into the grave. For a second it lifted in the wind and flapped lightly before the rain soaked through and it sank down onto the shiny wood of the coffin, its drenched colours melting together into a river of purple and grey and black and crimson. The grave diggers blessed themselves and got to work, heaping on the heavy, sticky mud. I heard the clink of their shovels and the dull thud of earth as I walked towards home.