An Cailleach Agus A Ri Gypsy – The Witch And Her Gypsy King

“Yer can’t go down in there,”, Margot whispered harshly to her friend, grabbing her by the skirt. “Everyone knows that’s where the witch lives!” “Don’tcha think I know that? I just want a peek. Everyone says you know her house when you see it, because it’s blue,” said Colleen, pushing further through the thicket. “I don’t believe in witches anyway. That’s for babies.” Margot stood on the spot for a minute, torn between her curiosity and her terror. “Are you coming?” hissed Colleen. “Awwww, wait for me then!” and Margot was off after her friend, plunging into the dark, brambly woods.

…………….

“I jest wanta place ‘er me own, that’s all.” Blossom lay on her belly in the grass, head propped on one hand, chewing on a grass stalk.

“Hmmm, so yer say,” said the man sitting opposite her without looking up. “Because you jest love cleanin’ and things being put aright.” He smirked and went on whittling.

“Argh, that idn’t fair Andy, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a place to belong.”

“Little poet that didn’t know it,” said Andy in that little sing song way he used to tease her. “Oh you!” She picked an egg out of the basket and threw it at him. He caught it perfectly of course. Blossom flew at him, and together they fell backwards over the log, she on top of him, where she deftly grabbed the egg and smashed it right on his forehead.

They’d been days on the road this time, through the town with no good work going, by a few cottages and shanties. For half a day they’d seen not a soul, just thickets, brambles and stands of old trees. Andy turned at a fork in the road and suddenly were driving through woods. The road was rough, and the wagon clattered over the rocks and stones; the poor chickens flapped around in their little basket-cage strapped to the back. Andy paused the horse for a moment and leant forward, one arm resting on his knee. “Let’s rest,” he said, and Blossom didn’t protest. She knew when he said “rest”, Andy meant stopping for a while. Making and breaking camp every day was exhausting, and she was glad for the respite; a chance to make a fire that didn’t need to be put out in the morning, to get some washing done, to practice her tarot. She lifted the crates from the wagon, imagining a day when she could unpack for good. As much as she loved being a traveller with her gypsy king, she felt the pull to nesting. She wanted her bed on a floor, instead of a box in the wagon. She longed to be holding her own páiste – a wee babe for her empty arms. But children need a house. They need to nestle with mama and papa at the days end, knowing things will be tomorrow just as they are today, that wherever mama or papa go, and wherever they wander, all return to the áras an teaghlaigh – their family home.

Blossom cracked four eggs into the pan and sat on her heels to watch them cook. Andy would be back any minute, having gone to the stream to wash the egg from his face and see if he could catch a fish for dinner. She couldn’t wait for fish. She was hungry now. Just as she was wolfing the last of the eggs, Andy came strolling out of the woods swinging a brace of two brown trout. One for each of them, although Andy would say one between them, and the other to be smoked and stored for later. She eyed the fish greedily and smiled up at Andy as he stood over her, grinning. “I’ve got something to show you,” he said.

They walked through the wood to the stream where Andy laid his traps and rabbit snares. Jumping across to the other side, Andy started up the slope on the other side. He grasped her playfully by the wrist. “I don’t like hills,” she grumbled. “Tis’nt a hill, you lazy old witch,” Andy mocked. “You’re going to like this, I promise. Come on!”

Not far from the stream, the woods opened out into a clearing. “Well, that’s more like it!” she exclaimed, straightening up and putting her hands on her hips. “Not there yet,” said Andy. They went across the clearing and down a track on the other side. “C’m ere, then. Stand up straight, now close your eyes.” He led her blind a few more steps until the branches no longer brushed her face and snagged her hair. “All right, open them now.” Blossom let out a little squeal. Right in the middle of the clearning stood a little old barn, or at least what was left of one.

It was a queer little structure. Stones laid upon each each other up to dado height, then lumber, milled into planks to act as cladding, nailed lengthwise up to roof height, some running almost the whole length of the barn without a join. “What manner of trees grow that tall, Andy, my goodness!” The roof was thatch, and it was a good roof; it needed tending in places, but good thatch laid properly lasts a long time. The tall windows, one in each wall, lacked their shutters, and the sills were crusted with bird droppings. The front doors were still hanging on their leather hinges but were quite awry, making it look as if the barn had a bad case of palsy. And it was blue, not whitewashed like barns are customarily. Even the stones were painted blue. Only the front doors were left unpainted, and Blossom lifted one and shuffled it open until she could squeeze inside.

It was a barn all right. The rafters were open, and, like the windowsills, whitewashed with bird droppings. The dirt floor was strewn with rotten straw, and the animal stalls were broken and falling apart. It was not as spacious as barns she’d seen before; in fact, if they brought Sheila in with the wagon, they would take up half the space. Blossom turned on the spot, taking it all in. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling the woody, earthy smells of animals and hay. When she opened her eyes, Andy was standing in front of her, his eyes twinkling. “Well, my little witch, what do ye r think?” Then it dawned on her. He wasn’t showing her a barn – he was thinking about a home.

“A house! A beautiful blue house! Oh, Andy, yes!”

“The streams but a stonesthrow. And I’ve looked all around – I think this was the barn for a cottage in the clearing back along the track. It was burned to the ground, all that’s left are stone foundations.” He tipped his head back, and took off his hat. “The roof is high, but this is a small barn as barns go. I reckon we could make do with this. If nobody is living in that cottage, then nobody knows about this barn.”

“Can we bring the camp here today?”

“It will take a bit of effort to get the wagon across the stream, but if you’re happy to sleep rough a little longer, and maybe share a roof with Sheila, we can get started soon as you like.”

It took a whole day to bring the wagon to the barn, but with everything they owned already packed into it, it meant just one trip. It was late afternoon when they drew Sheila up to the lopsided doors, and dark once everything was unpacked and a fire lit. “I’ll get a fireplace built first, and fix the front doors.” said Andy, as Blossom made the evening meal of trout and nettles. “I’ll put up some cloth over the windows for now,” she said. After supper, she helped Andy bring the bedding indoors with the straw mattress – not clean, but fresher than the straw in the barn. It would be wonderful to sleep between walls for a change, even if they couldn’t have a fire until Andy built the fireplace. They brought Sheila in and stalled her close to their sleeping place. After staying up quite late, smoking their pipes and chatting excitedly, they tucked themselves under their quilts and went to sleep.

Andy spent his days working on the house and hunting, whilst Blossom busied herself homemaking, and digging a small plot for the garden she planned. She was finding it harder to get up in the mornings. Two moons waxed and waned since her bleeding – she was with child, she was sure of it. Andy dropped the water he was carrying when she told him, but didn’t complain when they realised he’d need to go back to the stream for more. Blossom felt fate was smiling on her, and she felt a proper woman now – a good man, a good home, and now, a child growing inside her womb.

They were returning from town when the pains began. Andy doubled their pace, helping Blossom from the cart and taking her inside. She lay on the bed, but moved to the chair near the fireplace as the contractions grew stronger. After setting everything right outside, Andy arrived by her side sweaty and breathless. She was perched on the edge of the chair, her shoulders back, grasping the armrests, her knees wide. All at once, a gush of water came forth, and Andy caught the babe just in time. He was tiny, and perfect. They wrapped him and settled him in their bed against Blossoms breast. “There is no heaven when we die,” she thought to herself, “surely, I am already visited by angels.”

He was just four months old. The little grave was dug beside his Papa’s, within sight of the Blue Barn. When Andy became ill and Blossom went to fetch the doctor, they could not have know he would bring the typhoid with him. It was so quick, and the blessing of her not becoming sick was tempered with the grief of losing both her lover and her son. Blossom took to her divination to try and reach them, wandering under the night sky, looking for their souls, calling to them in the dark. Her visits to the village became less frequent; she brought her eggs and told fortunes in the tavern. The townspeople called her a witch and didn’t speak to her, cautioning their children not to meander near the blue house in the woods. In this way years went by, Blossom’s days a rote repetition of the one before, puncutated only by bringing eggs to town, and wandering to the flower-covered mounds at the edge of the clearing.

Margot broke out of the woods a few steps behind Colleen. There it was – the witch’s blue house. They grasped hands, and, looking at each other, gave a silent nod. They’d come this far. Colleen took the lead. They stared at the two crosses planted in the earth side by side, the wildflowers growing in thick, sweetly scented circles there. As they approached the corner of the vegetable garden, they stopped suddenly. There she was. But she did not turn to look right away, instead finishing bundling her kindling before standing up straight and stretching, her hand on her hip. It was then she turned around to look at the two girls, their eyes wide as saucers. “Well, are you going ter jist stand there? The tea is made.” Colleen and Margot glanced at each other, and with their hands still clasped between them, followed the old woman into the strange blue barn. It was time for tea.

(c) Jo Hilder 2021