2023 runner up 1


by Melanie Barrow

"Beautiful descriptive language drew me in - and a lovely twist at the end."

It’s not long now. I smell their lust for the sacrificial hunt, see their faces contorted by their torches’ hungry flames, hear their plainsong, ‘Burn the Witch. Burn the Witch.’

They tried to stop me from crossing the bridge. Pretended I wasn’t there over the other side, in my cottage in the woods. Until they needed me. Then they readily made the journey, young and old, travelling from afar to seek the wise woman’s knowledge. Greedily drinking my love potions, demanding help birthing their babies, or curing their sick. 

So, I lived alone with only Quark, my pet toad, for company. I planted chamomile and cumin by the waxing of the moon and burdock and dandelion when it waned. By the orange light of the harvest moon, I gathered the tools of my trade. Infused them with the power of the yellowing moon and water from the clear running Erne. 

Seasons passed and still the townsfolk came, surreptitiously, afeared their neighbours would know. Henbane and hemlock I gave for tired joints, comfrey poultices for broken bones and crushed rue leaves to dispel headaches. With sage, I cleansed their bodies of venom and pestilence and advised valerian for those with a nervous disposition.

He came one day. His gold belt glinting in the sun’s rays, his surcoat the colour of oak leaves, his breeches, that of acorns. Striding across the humped-back bridge, he came to plead for his sick wife. Oh, I was allowed to leave then, for he was the lord, overseer of our fates. 

And yet my herbals failed me, weren’t strong enough to cure the lump I found deep in my lady’s womb. Nor indeed, the lump which grew in my heart as I stared into his grey-blue eyes misted with tears. I watched from afar whilst they buried her by the old yew tree. He turned, his eyes frozen by grief, and pointed at me. 

And so they are coming. Those big brave men marching towards me, their clogs drumming a wooden beat to chants of suspicion. I drink my potion and am ready. My corn-coloured locks tangle into twisted vines. The tiny hairs on my skin grow, sticking to the peeling porch. I splinter into a cluster of shiny heart-shaped leaves, my veins binding them.

They torch my cottage, those big brave men. Wisps of lavender, rosemary and mint rise to encircle them. I insinuate myself around their legs, dragging them beneath the fast-flowing river. My tendrils cling to the bridge, and I creep towards my love. My potions are gone, but I will entwine myself around him until he is mine forever. 

‘Time we cleared this old ivy off the bridge.’ 

‘Yeah, it’s got inside the stones. Causing cracks.’

My leaves crinkle with anticipation. It’s been centuries since someone tried. These men are new here, don’t know the legend of Hedera, the witch of Ivybridge. Every fibre curls, expectant.