There will be more monsters blogs in the coming days, but we always like to do a free tale or two for you over Christmas itself, and this one has just the slightest whiff of gingerbread, so I thought it matched the mood nicely. Thanks to Alex for letting us put this up.
The Gargoyle and the Witch
by Alex MacFadyen
Despite all signs to the contrary, Eileen was not a witch. She had come to the conclusion long ago that if magic did exist in the world it was not hers to wield, but she knew how she looked. Her spine had curved over time and her eyes had never been the same color, the left one the peat green of moss and the right a pale cloudy grey. She wore sensible black boots and a black cape with a pointy hood. At her age she always needed to keep out the cold, the sun, or the rain, and she’d found nothing could beat a good hooded cape.
She lived in a slightly disreputable cottage in the woods that had the distinct air of gingerbread about it. Crackly brown shingles extended halfway down the sides, where they collided with a wall of colorful stones haphazardly grouted together. The peaked roof was trimmed with frothy white gables, and the dark brown shutters were patterned like squares of chocolate. Smoke spiraled endlessly out of the crooked chimney from the old wood burning stove that she stoked year-round to keep out the chill.
Children often passed her house, their whispers filled with a mix of fear, awe, and anticipation. Every so often, a very brave or foolish one would dare to creep across the round paving stones to the peeling candy apple red door and knock tentatively before bolting back to join their friends in the bushes. Eileen always rewarded them with a performance, throwing on her signature cape and opening the door to peer around slowly, frowning as if perplexed by the absence of a caller on her doorstep. She knew if she invited them in they would spend the whole time eyeing her old stove, which she found more distressing than funny, so she chose to play this little game with them instead.
Adults often went out of their way to avoid her, their whispers also laced with fear. She recognized it as the fear of being asked for more than they wanted to give to someone they found strange, but underneath it was a current of something less rational, not so different from the children’s fairy tale fears. It had hurt her, once upon a time, but now they all seemed so young that she found herself thinking of it as just another game they might grow out of someday. For them, she smiled her crooked smile and waved from the window of her crooked cottage, blissfully unaware that they might be onto something.
The crooked little cottage lay in a dark hollow among the pines, smoke curling around it like a cat’s tail. Inside, an old woman twitched in her sleep as she sank down into something halfway between a memory and a dream. She was standing in a clearing at night under the stars, young again, and for a moment she simply spun in circles with the pure joy of being able to move so fast and free. She turned to smile at the girl next to her but stopped at the harsh seriousness of her expression. The girl looked familiar and she had the sense that there was something she was supposed to say or do, but she couldn’t remember what it was. The girl spread her arms as if she was going to fly away, but instead she hunched forward and opened her mouth in a silent scream. Her dark hair curled around her shoulders like wings and her eyes looked almost black as she reached out her hands. The moment their fingers touched, the girl began to crumble into dust and drift away on the wind.
The old woman’s breathing caught, then slowed until anyone watching might have wondered if she was still alive. The air around her shimmered with dust motes suspended in the shafts of moonlight that filtered through the shutters, and the roof creaked in rhythm with the wind. The embers in the stove flickered, then swirled upwards in a sudden gust, drifting out of the chimney and into the night.
If someone had been watching then, they would have seen something wondrous and strange. Rather than flickering out as they floated up through the branches, the embers began to glow and dim like fireflies, swooping erratically above the pines before setting off towards the town. They streamed past the fire station and around the spire of the clock tower, unseen except by a few curious ravens and one startled owl, before descending on the old stone gargoyle in the centre of the town square. Their light glinted off the dark surface as they orbited around it, casting moving shadows of its wings and jaws and claws on the cobblestones. One by one they dove into the pools of darkness at the base of the statue and vanished into the cracks with a tiny burst of flame, until all that was left of them was a slight smell of smoke on the night breeze.
‘It’s high time, if you ask me! I mean, really Anjali, who wants to have their picture taken in front of a creepy, crumbling gargoyle statue?’
Eileen pulled back the hood of her cape to listen as the owner of the local inn made the traditional annual pitch for a new town statue to the mayor. She used to make an effort to be discreet until she’d discovered that eavesdropping was easy when people were already busy trying to pretend they didn’t see you. She spent every afternoon sitting on a bench in the main square and it was remarkable how much she knew about her neighbours’ lives.
‘Yes, yes, you have a point, Victor, but the Historical Society doesn’t agree. That statue has been standing for over sixty years, and there’s such a unique story behind it. You know how this conversation goes as well as I do.’
Eileen remembered the day the statue had appeared in the town square. In fact, it would be exactly sixty-two years tomorrow. Sixty-two years since Asha had asked Eileen to run away with her and she had said no. Sixty-two years since Asha had left without a trace, or even a letter. The whole town had gathered in the square the next morning to puzzle over the mysterious stone carving and Eileen had searched the crowd, then the whole town, and finally the woods, before allowing herself to believe that Asha had truly left without her. She had returned to the deserted square at twilight, thrown herself to the ground in front of the gargoyle and wept. Through the many years that had passed since then she had come to think of it as a kind of monument to her loss.
‘It was probably meant to be some kind of practical joke and here we are, sixty years later, still preserving it like a pack of fools…’
As they wandered out of range, Eileen levered herself up off the bench and went to examine the statue up close. She ran her hands over the rough surface and was surprised again at how warm it felt. Even in the middle of winter it was never as cold as she expected it to be. The mouth looked as though it should have water pouring out of it, although there was no sign that it had ever been a fountain. It was chipped in places and she supposed the cracks in the base were getting bigger every year, but she could relate to that. She leaned against it to rest and the curve of its wing fit perfectly around her shoulders.
She could have sworn she’d only closed her eyes for a second, but when she opened them again the sun was sinking below the points of the trees and the whole square was awash in golden light. It must have been a full hour that she’d been standing there, dozing in the gargoyle’s stone embrace. She spared a brief thought for what this latest oddity would add to her reputation, but the complaints her back and legs made as she disengaged herself pushed everything else out of her head. As she worked the kinks out of her muscles, Eileen wheezed with laughter at the thought of the Brookbridge Historical Society making the case that the statue must be preserved as a nesting site for elderly witches.
As she turned to head home, she cast a glance over her shoulder and was struck by how the spidery cracks in the statue’s surface seemed to glow in the sunset, almost as if the creature was trapped in a fiery net. The shadows in its eye sockets and its gaping mouth gave it an expression that was fierce and pleading at the same time. Unsettled by her own imagery, she picked her way across the cobbles and hurried along the familiar winding path to the comfort of her cottage.
There was a story about the gargoyle statue in Brookbridge that parents used to tell their children to keep them from sneaking out of the house after dark. It began as a simple tale of a cursed statue that would come to life and chase any youngsters who were supposed to be in bed, but like most stories of its kind, it had taken on a life of its own. No one seemed to remember how it had started, and there was much argument within the Brookbridge Historical Society about both the origins of the story and the origins of the statue itself. One thing that everyone could agree on was that the gargoyle had simply appeared in the town square one morning and that no one had ever successfully proven who was responsible.
Every year the Business Improvement Association would clash swords with the BHS over replacing the statue but when it was put to a vote in the town council, the gargoyle always remained. It wasn’t so much that people loved the statue as that they disliked change, but perhaps underneath it was also a current of something less rational, not so different from the reason they had stayed tucked up tight in bed at night as kids. Even now, the mayor always went out the side door of the town hall and took the long way home down Chestnut Street at the end of the day rather than crossing the square. She told herself it was because she loved the way the trees arched over the road like a tunnel, but she walked that way in all seasons, in part because when she crossed the square she could never quite shake the feeling that the statue was watching her.
On this particular night though, Anjali had spent too long reviewing petitions to council and she was already late for dinner. She grabbed her coat and headed out the front doors, her gaze firmly fixed on the welcoming lights of the houses that lined the far side of the square. She had no intention of indulging her childish fears by looking at the statue, but she found she couldn’t help it. She glanced sideways and stopped dead in her tracks, mouth open and dinner forgotten. The gargoyle was gone. Anjali looked around helplessly, hoping that perhaps when she looked again it would turn out to be her imagination and she could chalk it up to overwork, but it was definitely missing.
For a moment she stood frozen with panic, absurdly certain that it was lurking somewhere in the shadows waiting to tear her to pieces for all the nights she’d climbed out her bedroom window in high school. Of course that was just silly so she laughed, too loudly, and it echoed weirdly across the cobblestones, coming back to her sounding shrill and unnatural. She took a deep breath and when that didn’t really help, she took another. The obvious answer hit her and she felt even sillier. Victor had finally lost it and decided to take matters into his own hands! She laughed again as she imagined the BIA committee dressed in balaclavas, hauling a two-ton stone gargoyle out of town in the middle of the night, and this time the echo sounded more like herself. She supposed she’d have a ruckus on her hands in the morning, but at least it would be more entertaining than usual. She pulled her coat tighter around her shoulders and set off briskly with only a slight backwards glance.
At the edge of town, a tiny trail of broken stones led into the forest. Somewhere deeper in, something crashed through the underbrush, its progress marked by sudden flights of birds rising above the treetops. It moved as if it was just learning to walk, staggering and tripping over its own limbs. Once in awhile there was a sound like cracking stone and the creature stopped and howled with an almost human voice. It seemed to shrink as it went, shedding stones behind it like breadcrumbs marking the path home.
At the edge of a clearing, it raised blind stone eyes to the moon and paused to sniff the air. The scent of pine sap and wildflowers filled its lungs as it fell to its knees in the tall grass and remembered. It remembered a night just like this, long ago, when its heart had been as broken as its body was now. It recalled a lovely girl with two different colored eyes who looked so sad as she turned away, and the madness that had seized it as she did. Tears ran down its crumbling cheeks, carving canyons in the surface, until its eyes shone almost black and its vision began to clear. Slowly, a girl emerged from the rubble, excavating herself stone by stone.
The knock at the cottage door made Eileen jump. It was much too late for the children to be out in the woods, and it had been years since anyone came to call on her in the evening. She debated whether to put on her cape and decided it made her feel a little braver, then grabbed the fire poker as well, which was much more practical. She slid the safety chain on and opened the door a crack to peek out. The poker slipped from her hand with a loud clang where she stood, unable to believe her eyes. Asha sat huddled on her doorstep, naked under her long waves of black hair. Asha, as she had looked all those years ago, which Eileen knew was impossible and yet her heart soared with impossible hope. If this was a dream then she would take what she could from it, and if it was a ghost then she would gladly allow herself to be haunted.
Eileen flung the door open as fast as her fingers could move and Asha rose to meet her. They stood locked in an embrace, and Eileen marvelled at how real it all felt. Asha shivered, and Eileen was glad she’d decided to put on her cloak. She wrapped it around Asha’s shoulders, which appeared to be covered in what looked like a layer of grey dust, and led her inside to warm herself by the stove. As Eileen sat and held Asha’s smooth hands in her own wrinkled ones, Asha looked into her mismatched eyes for the first time in sixty-two years and told her the secret story of their lives.
She told Eileen how she had fled from the field that night, desperate for some way to change Eileen’s mind. How in her grief and madness, she had torn a page from the book of spells they had found in her grandmother’s attic the summer before and gathered all the supplies, even the eye of toad, which was disgusting. She’d taken it all to the center of the town square at midnight and performed the ritual to bind them together until death, not really expecting anything to happen. She didn’t actually believe in magic, she was just desperate to feel like there was something she could do to make everything right again. Maybe it was the lack of belief that made the spell go wrong, or maybe it didn’t go wrong and she only got what she deserved for trying to bind another person to her against their will. Maybe she’d just caught the wrong type of toad. Whatever it was though, the next thing she knew she was stuck there in the middle of the square, encased in stone.
Eileen sank to her knees on the floor and listened with a mix of horror and wonder as Asha described the years she had spent trapped inside the gargoyle statue. She had been there when Eileen threw herself on the ground and wept, unable to comfort her or beg for her forgiveness. She had watched as Eileen grew older and been filled with joy and longing every time Eileen ran her fingers across the statue’s stone surface or leaned into the curve of its wings. She had enjoyed the companionable hours spent with Eileen across from her on the park bench, and as the years passed and her sorrow faded to resignation, she had realized that in some twisted way the spell had kept its promise.
Asha had no idea what had broken the spell, and what lay unspoken between them was that neither of them had any idea what would happen to her now. What she did know was that she was so tired she could hardly keep her eyes open, but she was terrified that if she fell asleep she might never wake up, or that this was all a dream and she would wake up back inside her stone prison. Eileen stroked Asha’s hair back from her face and wiped the stone dust away with a cloth, then tucked her into bed with a promise to keep watch over her while she slept. It was a promise that Eileen truly meant to keep, but her body often betrayed her these days and soon she slumped back in her rocking chair and began to snore.
Beside her in the bed, Asha’s black hair slowly began to fade to salt and pepper, then grey. Wrinkles creased her smooth skin, and her muscles shrank and tightened as she slept. By the time the fire had dwindled to embers in the stove and Eileen awoke, Asha had aged sixty-two years in a single night. When Eileen touched her cheek, Asha opened her eyes and smiled.
It was a common joke in Brookbridge that the two old ladies who lived in the crooked little cottage in the woods were witches. They knew how it looked, and frankly, they didn’t care. They knew very well that magic existed in the world, but they were old enough to know that it was knowledge they should keep to themselves. They both wore sensible black boots and capes with pointy hoods, although thanks to Asha’s influence they now had them in several very un-sensible colors. The neighborhood children loved to come inside and eat the sweet treats that Eileen baked for them, and she always sent some home for their parents as well. At the end of the day, the two of them curled up together next to the old wood burning stove and held each other tight to keep out the chill.