Authors: Nina Bawden
with drawings by
HE WITCH’S DAUGHTER
sat on a rock in the bay. It was a huge rock, with steep sides of black basalt, turreted like a castle and crowned with purple heather. On one side the sea
, throwing up spray like white lace. Inland, the wet sand of low tide stretched back to the dunes and the brown slopes of Ben Luin beyond. The bay was empty except for a few bullocks at the water’s edge and the gulls that swooped and cried like kittens over the shore and the hills of this Scottish island of Skua. The witch’s daughter closed her eyes and flew with the gulls in the air: she turned and dived and felt the wind cold on her face. She flew in her mind: her body sat still on the rock. Her name was Perdita, which means lost.
Her eyelids fluttered open. She looked out to sea and saw the red steamer from the mainland moving across the bay. Perdita stood up and turned inland. Once off the heathery cap of the rock, the way down was dangerous, but she was neat and
as a deer. Her feet were bare, her boots tied round her neck with string. She wore a woman’s dress, cut down but still too long for her, and a green scarf round her hair. The bullocks watched her with their black-lashed, mild eyes as she ran across the sand. She vanished among the spiky grass of the dunes and then re-appeared, climbing upwards across a patch of cropped turf to a dry-stone wall. Over the wall, she stopped to put on her boots. The peat bog squelched beneath her,
at her boots, but she trudged sturdily on, working her way round the side of Ben Luin towards one of its lower ridges. When she reached the top of this ridge, she paused for breath
and looked down at the town of Skuaphort, a small cluster of white houses round a harbour and a stone jetty. Small boats rocked at anchor on the land side of the jetty and, out in deeper water, the steamer was slowly rounding the point and coming into harbour.
Perdita ran down the stony side of the crag, scattering sheep and starting up a hare that loped a little way before it froze still, pretending to be invisible. She reached the stone road by the ruined cottage and jumped the stream, because the little bridge that had once crossed it, when the cottage was lived in, was ruined too. Once on the road, she went slower because the stones were loose and would roll under her feet if she were careless. The town was further than it looked. By the time she reached the harbour, the steamer was already tied up, and beginning to unload.
There were other children tumbling out of the white houses and racing towards the jetty. The witch’s daughter avoided them, hiding behind an angle of the school house wall until they had gone safely past her. Hugging the walls of the
, she kept her eyes on the ground as if she did not want to see, or be seen. She hopped off the road onto the shore and made her way over the rocks that were slippery with gingery seaweed, to a beached boat. She crouched behind the boat, to watch.
Besides the half dozen children, there were men on the jetty: John McAllister the postman, waiting with the mail van; Will Campbell with his box of lobsters for Oban; Mr Duncan from the shop, to fetch his supplies. These were being carried off now, down the swaying gangplank: crates of groceries, grey containers of Calor Gas. Perdita waited. She was not interested in Mr Duncan’s supplies. She was interested in people. New people. Was anyone going to land? It was not very likely, she knew—more people left Skua than ever came to it now—but all the same, she craned hopefully from the shelter of the boat,
her eyes fixed on the steamer. Then she gave a little sigh of satisfaction. Four people had appeared on deck, a man, a woman and two children: a fair-haired boy and a younger girl. The boy ran down off the boat but the girl, who had come with him to the head of the gangplank, hung back, waiting. As Perdita watched, the woman joined her and placed one of the girl’s hands on the rail. She said something and the child lifted her foot to place it on the gangplank, lifting it rather higher than was necessary. Then, with the woman guiding her, she came hesitantly down, seeming to feel the way with her feet, until she stood on the jetty. The woman left her there and returned to the deck to help the man carry suitcases off the steamer.
The girl had long, brown hair that blew in the wind. She put up a hand to hold back her hair and looked out from the jetty. Perdita thought she was looking straight at her.
Perdita looked round. No one else had noticed her.
, she came out from behind the boat and scrambled over the rocks towards the jetty until she was standing beneath it, out of sight of the other people, but in full view of the girl. She was about her own age, Perdita thought, which was ten years, seven months old. Perdita looked at her and then smiled shyly. The girl did not smile back, but bent her head sideways, as if listening. Puzzled, because she did not seem unfriendly or nervous of her, like the island children, Perdita stopped smiling. The girl took one tentative step towards the edge of the jetty, and then another …
….’ The woman’s voice was sharp, as if she were alarmed. She came up beside the girl. ‘You’re rather near the edge, my darling,’ she said, and took her hand.
The girl, Janey, stiffened impatiently, humping one shoulder higher than the other in a fretful gesture. ‘Don’t
,’ she said. ‘How can I see if you shout?’
Perdita thought this a strange thing to say. With the aid of a chain, she hoisted herself up over the edge of the jetty. Her head
and shoulders were in full view now, but she was suddenly too curious about this odd girl to be afraid someone might see her, and, indeed, for a little while she was safe enough: the weekly steamer was an event on Skua and absorbed everyone’s attention.
Clinging to the chain, she watched the newcomers being greeted by Mr Tarbutt, who kept the small hotel, the only hotel on Skua. He had put on his best suit for the occasion and was beaming all over his round face, which shone rosily, like a varnished apple. Since his hotel was often empty, even in the short, summer season, this was a red letter day for him: besides the family of four, there was another visitor, a fat man with short legs who carried a long, canvas bag with knobs sticking out one end. Since Perdita had never seen golf clubs, she did not recognise them. Mr Tarbutt had a trolley for the luggage and was loading suitcases on to it. The fair-haired boy was helping him. He was very eager and excited and talked all the time, but in such a quick, English voice, that Perdita could not
what he said. His sister, Janey, said and did nothing. She stood quite still while her mother talked to Mr Tarbutt. When her father came off the boat, carrying the last of the suitcases, he set them down by the trolley and put his hand on her shoulder. ‘Here we are, then. Think you’re going to like it, darling?’
Janey shook back her long, brown hair. ‘It smells like a lovely place,’ she said, and, suddenly, Perdita understood why she had not smiled back at her before. Understanding, she pursed her lips to make a soft, warbling cry, like a sleepy bird. Janey turned. Perdita warbled again, so low that only someone
really hard could have heard her, and this time Janey did smile back, a quick, delighted, friendly smile, before her father led her away to follow the trolley which was loaded now and being pulled by Mr Tarbutt, off the jetty and up the one stony street of Skuaphort, towards the hotel.
Perdita watched her go, too interested to remember that now
the bustle of the steamer landing was over, one of the island children would be bound to notice her.
As, of course, one of them did. Alistair Campbell, who had been helping his father bring down the lobsters, nudged the boy next to him. In the space of perhaps thirty seconds, all the children on the jetty fell silent. Perdita became conscious of the fixed gaze of six pairs of eyes. Her enemies were standing in a semi-circle, watching her.
At once, she ducked down, slipping her hand over the chain and grazing the palm. She made her way over the rocks
the road. The children ran off the jetty and round the harbour after her. They could have caught her up quite easily, since she had to go slowly over the slippery rocks, but they seemed to prefer to keep their distance. Once she was on the road and trudging uphill, out of the town, they followed her in a giggling group, stopping when she glanced back over her shoulder but moving on as soon as she turned round again, as if playing a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. Perdita lifted her chin and faced stubbornly into the wind. She intended to ignore them. She would have ignored them, if Alistair
had not thrown a stone. It was a small stone, no more than a pebble, and he threw it half-heartedly, so that it did no harm, only clattered on the ground behind Perdita’s heels, but it made her angry. She wheeled round to face them, her face set and fierce, her eyes glinting like chips of green glass. The island children stood still. For a long minute, none of them moved or spoke: they stood as if spell bound. Then one of the younger ones sniggered nervously, the sound cut off short as his big sister clapped her hand over his mouth, and Alistair Campbell, the oldest of them all, plucked up his courage and turned to run. They all gasped and followed him, stones scudding under their feet. The little boy who had sniggered slipped and fell, but his sister jerked him to his feet before he had time to wail and dragged him after her, looking fearfully over her shoulder.
Perdita watched them until they disappeared behind the school house. Her eyes were no longer angry. She was not frightened of them. They were frightened of her, and that was worse: a sad and lonely thing to know. She sighed a little and rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes, as if they were itching. Then she turned back to the road and began the long trudge home.
Home was a white house on the shore of an inland loch. The house was called Luinpool. There was a stone wall round it and a few trees, bent and flattened on the top with wind. There were no other houses and no other trees within sight, only the loch and the bare hills. There had once been a garden round the house but all that was left of it now was a line of the green glass balls that are used as floats for lobster pots, edging the path, and an old, wild fuchsia bush by the front door.
The front door did not open. Years of damp and disuse had jammed it solid. Perdita went in by the back door, straight into the big, dark kitchen. The last of the day’s light filtered through a small window, but it was pale beside the leaping, yellow glow of the fire in the range oven. Annie MacLaren was bending over the fire, riddling the ashes.
‘Late,’ she scolded, reaching up for the polished brass rail above the fire and pulling herself upright. She was
and old; her grey hair so thin that her pink scalp showed through.
Perdita said nothing. She sat on the settle, pulled off her boots and set them in the hearth to dry.
‘Porridge on the stove,’ Annie MacLaren said, and went to the table to trim the oil lamp.
‘Don’t light the lamp yet. It’s nice, just the fire,’ Perdita said.
Annie MacLaren hesitated. Then she turned to the fire and ladled porridge out of a black pot into a bowl. She took a spoon from the dresser. ‘There you are, lady.’
She sat in a sagging chair opposite Perdita and watched her eat. Her knobbly old hands were folded in her lap. The kettle murmured on the hob, droplets of water from its spout hissed into the fire. An unseen clock ticked in a dark corner of the room. There was wind in the chimney.
Perdita wriggled her cold feet deep into the rag rug and finished her porridge. ‘There’s new people come today,’ she said. ‘Two men and a woman and a boy. And a girl, who is blind.’
‘You’ve not been down to the harbour?’
Perdita shook her head.
Annie MacLaren’s voice was troubled. ‘You know what
said. I promised him.’
‘I’ve not been.’ Perdita stared into the fire. There was a little puff of gas, burning green.
‘You must have talked to someone, then. Else how would you know?’
‘About the new people?’ Perdita closed her eyes and smiled secretly. ‘I can see through walls and round corners,’ she said in a sing-song chant. ‘I can fly over the mountains and over the sea. I know who comes and who goes, and they never see me.’
Annie MacLaren gave an uneasy laugh. ‘Maybe he’ll not believe that, lady.’
Perdita peeped at Annie slyly, through lowered lashes. ‘You believe it though….’
Annie MacLaren stirred in her chair and the old springs creaked. ‘Well, you’ve got Powers,’ she said, half grudging, half respectful. ‘Though to my mind, seeing through walls is one thing, flying’s another….’ A piece of coal fell through the bars and blackened slowly on the hearth. Annie creaked
to push it under the grate and sank back in her chair with a grunt. ‘I know what I know, I’ll not deny it. But
thinks it—well—fanciful. So you’d better keep quiet, lady. Don’t go chattering to him about new people off the steamer. He might
think you’ve been down to the town, mixing and talking. He doesn’t want talk. I promised him there wouldn’t be any.’
Perdita sat hunched on the settle. ‘I don’t see why I shouldn’t go where I want. I’m not afraid of Mr Smith.’
‘No one’s asking you to be. Just quiet and respectful and doing what he says. Don’t mix, don’t talk. Then there’ll be no trouble.’ Annie MacLaren paused, and then mumbled, half to herself. ‘I don’t want trouble. Just a bit of peace and comfort in my old age.’ She leaned her head against the high back of the chair, and closed her eyes. She fell asleep very quickly, as old people do. Her mouth drooped open.
Chin on hand, the little girl watched the fire. The clock ticked, the kettle hissed, the coals settled in the grate. Suddenly, Perdita straightened up, listening. She jumped off the settle and tugged at Annie MacLaren’s skirt to waken her. ‘Mr Smith’s come,’ she said loudly. ‘Light the lamps, I’ll open the gate.’