Three children sat in their secret place, hidden from the world under the old bridge. Bamboo grew tall on either side of them, further filtering the weak sunlight – a small stream flowed here during the winter but the rain hadn’t been heavy enough to flood it. They were surrounded by mud, soggy weeds and the occasional frog. The children sat like a council of elders with Pawlu (who was in fact the eldest) at the head and Katya, his cousin, to his right. One other boy completed their number. They were the only children in the village between the sprawling white mess of Mosta and the fields further north, up to the sea.
“Of course she’s a witch,” Pawlu said. “That’s what my father says.”
Katya rolled her eyes and thought back on all the things she’d heard her uncle say. She remembered the wine bottles he broke in the kitchen last Easter, and the bruises on both her aunt’s arms. Stifling a yawn Katya swung back and forth on a loose rock, snapping several supple bamboo shoots. Peering through, she took stock of the endless twists and turns where the stream would eventually flow.
Tumas, the younger boy, was picking his nose. “But she doesn’t even do magic, not really.”
He was hungry and their meeting had dragged on longer than usual. Pawlu said there was something important he would show them, but so far they’d done nothing but play a game of marbles (and as usual Pawlu won and took two of his best) and talk about the fireworks at last week’s festival.
“She wasn’t at the festa,” Tumas said. Pawlu sat back and pursed his lips as though this were indisputable evidence of some evil inclination.
Katya said, “She’s so old miskina she can barely cross the road. Why should she go to the festa?”
Pawlu dismissed his cousin with a wave of his hand.
“She’s a witch and I’ll tell you why. Don’t you ever look at her roof? Every month she’s got something up there. My father works in the fields all day and we don’t always have something but that old woman, who cant even walk to the church for the festa, makes food grow without any effort. It’s magic.”
“Maybe she cursed your family,” said Tumas, his fingers now busy tying knots in a blade of grass.
Walking along the bridge, the old woman’s house was plainly visible across a series of unkempt fields and indeed, her roof was crammed with vegetables. Other farmhouses displayed pumpkins, marrows or vines heavy with grapes depending on the season and that year’s rainfall. But no matter the season or how favourable (or not) the weather, her roof was always full of produce. When other roofs went bare, hers burst with life and her trees were heavy with delicious things. Jealousy found fertile soil where crops had failed.
“So what are we going to do?” said Tumas.
Pawlu smiled and reached into his back pocket. Out came a scuffled book, its front cover missing.
“It’s in the Bible,” he said triumphantly. “It must be true.”
“What must be true?” said Katya.
“Read there, that line,” and his fat little finger smeared one page in particular.
Katya read the words slowly and carefully. “He must pay the bride-price for virgins…you shall not suffer a witch to live.”
Pawlu’s face darkened with purpose and Tumas visibly shuddered. Katya stood up and raised her voice, suddenly angry. “Have you gone crazy Pawlu? She’s just an old woman, that’s all.”
“But she does have that strange bird,” said Tumas.
“Strange bird? It’s a seagull, an old seagull. She found near the beach a couple of years ago, when she could still walk that far. If I ever catch you two throwing stones at it I’ll kill you myself.”
Katya gave the boys a look of contempt (the first of such looks they had ever received, which every boy must get used to sooner or later) and walked through the bamboo cage out of their hidey-hole. She resolved never to speak to either of them again.
“Girls,” said Pawlu and he spat in the mud. “She’ll probably become a witch herself one day.”
Tumas nodded and they leaned together. The sun set while Pawlu laid out his secret plan, a plot to be rid of the witch and thus prove to the world (especially Katya) that they’d been right all along.
“Good always wins!” said Pawlu with a smile, patting the book like a pet dog. Tumas reached out to place his hand on the book, and they both laughed.
…to be continued (and this time, I mean it)…