The Scout Witch – a Halloween story
A story from The Witch Cord
That night brought something out of Henry Sampson, and there weren’t a one of us what wasn’t surprised. Though it were thirty-five years ago, and though I’m the only one to remember him now, it don’t change the fact he was the about the wisest, kindest Cub Scout Leader me and the other Cubs ever knew. He had a face same as wet bark and his back was bent as Wednesday but he were a mile and half out of anyone’s way kinder than the grown-ups who helped him out from week to week. Those people would watch us struggle over learning to sew or cook or knot and never so much as do nothing but tell us how we had it easy and how we’d never survive the autumn Cub camp.
Kind as he was though, Henry Sampson had little to say to us each week. We knew where he lived, how many kids he had, how his mam had not long passed and he missed her dearly. But it weren’t from him we learned these things, it were from each other. We shared what we heard when we heard it, or else we made up stories when we didn’t. Henry Sampson’s twisted fingers would show us how to snap wood for fires or thread cotton for fixing, but his words must have been in the pouch of tobacco he kept on his belt for every now and again he’d flap his lips around his pipe and mutter into the smoke. This were long before they said smoking were bad and shouldn’t be done around kids in case we died or copied it or something. Course none of us wanted to anyway, ‘cept maybe Frankie Sampson who figured on growing up afore his time. He weren’t a proper Cub but he was still coming with us on account of him being Henry’s grandson.
We was only going to camp for a night but it were still a proper camp. Not a wooden hut on the edge of a housing estate. We got to do the whole thing – put up the heavy tent poles, dress them with canvas and set a fire to cook on. By the time we’d finished, it were almost dark and the tents had all our sleeping bags unrolled and our comics and sweets hidden for after we was sent to bed. Henry Sampson did the inspection himself. He nodded at our work and then led us out to the campfire, whispering into his pipe as he walked. His pipe glowed and it were like it was saying it were ok for night to spread – which it did as quick as a rumour soon as we stepped out. None of us had been up so late away from our homes, and none of us so late with Henry Sampson so we reckoned he’d just sit there in silence like he always did. But like I told you, that night brought something out of him. He began to talk. Proper talk, like. Not the grunting of Cub promises we was used to from him.
One of the stories we had heard about Henry Sampson was how he was the son of a witch. There’s us what believed the story and them what didn’t but whatever the truth of it, something was changed in him as we sat around the fire. Something only the moon knew the length of. He spoke and he spoke. Words fell out of him. He spoke about ancient spirits roaming the forest and how we should stay in our tents in case they took us. He spoke of the way fire used to tell men strange, magical things – secrets like, secrets what no-one could remember in the morning. He spoke of Lancaster Castle and how there were still witches in there from the old days and how, if we went and pressed our ears to the manhole covers, we might hear them still. We mustn’t do this at night though, he warned. At night those covers came off and even the guards locked themselves away for fear of being taken into the under castle. At night magic was strong.
Then Henry Sampson told us about knots. We was all good at knots, having practised and practised them under the mean eyes of Henry Sampson’s helpers. We could tie us a round turn and two half hitches by poking our friends in the eye. We could tie us a sheet bend by following the snake’s tail. We’d learned us our lashings and whippings and overhands. We all wanted to tie a Hangman’s noose, course we did, though there weren’t a grown-up daft enough to teach us how. But what Henry Sampson said and did that night was worse than showing us a dozen Hangman’s nooses, cos he told us the truth about knots. He told us how knots were the oldest sort of magic.
It fell cold when he talked about the old magic. I know it did. I felt it then and I feel it still. Your mam knows the kind of chill I mean. She and I have spoken of it. You ask her when she comes to visit tonight.
In knots there’s binding spells what can keep mountains from moving or people from breathing. There’s knots what’ll pull down the moon and turn it red as a newborn’s fist. There was knots as could crumble and tear and torture, or bring the dead back to life. Henry Sampson talked and talked about knots, and we listened. Every last one of us listened. Even Frankie. And as Henry Sampson talked, his fingers moved. They held a piece of cord between them and he twisted it and turned it and threaded it and pulled it. Between his fingers yon rope became like taffy at a fairground, it grew as long as ever he seemed to need it to be.
Then something happened to the air around us. The cold I’d felt suddenly cracked, I heard it I did. Like ice splitting. I got hot all of a sudden, the kind of heat you sometimes feel in the deepest Winter when it makes no sense you should feel hot at all. I didn’t like it. I don’t mind admitting I was scared. I wished Henry Sampson would just shut up. I wished he’d stayed the same, quiet Henry Sampson he’d always been. I wished I’d never met him or heard about his dead witch mam, and I wished it were morning and we was all going home.
None of the others seemed to feel it though. They was all sat around the campfire staring into the flames and listening to the secrets like they was just gossip. But Frankie Sampson felt it. I could tell he did. I could see his face through the flames and he was looking high up above them. I looked up and I saw her. Frankie saw her and I saw her and Henry bloody Sampson saw her.
There were a girl floating in the air above the campfire.
I didn’t feel scared. I didn’t get up and run. I didn’t scream like the little boy I was. Maybe I should have done all these things. Maybe I should have. I sometimes wonder if things would have been different if I had. But I didn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t.
This is going to sound daft and maybe you’ll think I’m going soft. Me and your mam have had us our good times but I’ve never been one to buy flowers or praise when no praise is needed. I hope I’ve been kind but I’ll say now that girl above the fire looked to me like an angel. She were beautiful. She were about my age and scruffy as homework but she shone. I don’t know how long she floated in the air, don’t know how long the three of us looked at her, but I held on to every second. I’m still holding them, truth be told, because we fall in love with the past and if we’re lucky then the present won’t spoil it.
I only heard one more word that night and when I glanced around I saw it came from Henry Sampson. He was looking up at her, same as me. He looked confused though. Not scared or shocked at the sight of a girl floating over the fire, just confused. His fingers moved over the knots he’d tied, checking them maybe or maybe just feeling they was there like pennies in a pocket. Then I heard him say one final word. Just the one before the girl turned her attention on him and him alone.
She looked him in the eyes and the snip-snap-hiss of the campfire burning turned to a roar like the sound of trees falling or water pouring. I could hear screams and voices. I heard the sound of fighting and weeping. I heard the hammering of nails in wood and I heard the crack of guns. It were like I heard a whole life in the flames.
Then the forest went dark.
It took my eyes a moment or two to adjust but when they did I could see the fire had gone. Not gone out. Gone. The tents were all gone too. Even the other Cubs and the tents were gone. Freddie was gone and his grandad, Henry Sampson, was gone. Only I was still there. Me and the girl.
She was lying on the floor in front of me, in the dirty mulchy leaves where the fire used to be. She was looking at me like I was the devil himself and right then I thought maybe I was. Maybe I’d done all this by not brushing me teeth or cheeking me mam or some such thing. I told myself this were nonsense and kept me head, like us Cubs were trained to do. As I calmed she calmed, like we had some kind of bond between us and soon I’d convinced her I wasn’t the devil or one of his demons. I was just a Cub Scout. I was a friend.
She told me her name was Agnes and, not knowing what else to do, I took her back to my house. I got an awful beating for telling lies about running away but alls I said was that I’d been on Cub camp and that’s the truth. My folks didn’t believe me. They said I’d never been in Cubs and alls I was were a runaway, but they were kind enough to Agnes. They fed her up a bit and helped her talk to the police who found her a place to stay close by.
Agnes and I kept in touch. We talked and talked about that night. She didn’t know where she was or where she’d come from but I thought I did. I’d heard, you see. I’d heard what Henry Sampson said just before he disappeared. One word, a question and a name, was all, and I remembered.
It struck me as how she might have been Henry Sampson’s mam, weird as it sounds. Or meant to have been. He’d tried to bring her back but his knots had caught her from an earlier time, a time before he was born and before she’d led the life she was supposed to lead. I don’t know why I didn’t disappear though. Had she chosen me in that moment above the fire? Or would I have been a runaway, if the Cub Scouts and Henry Sampson hadn’t turned me about?
‘Course, all this is before she married me and became your mam. Before she began to fade back into the night again. It was her who wanted to call you Henry and I couldn’t have been prouder to honour my old Cub Scout leader. I’m proud of the way you’re growing wise and kind like him too. And I’m proud that you’re off to your first Cub camp, but be careful. Keep a clear head and don’t be tying none of them knots your mam teaches you.
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Illustration courtesy and copyright of Carl Pugh.