The Start, by Michelle Gruppetta - Insite's Short Story Competition

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“Open for Business.” Despite the bitter draught that endlessly haunted the communal corridor, Ailish couldn’t help but stop to stare at the sign. The sharp cry of a raven distracts her, and she hurries on home to dinner.


Ailish found a flyer the next time she checked the post. “Fortune telling and remedies available.” Underneath the text was a dated looking black and white print of a witch and a cauldron. Most of the them were wary of the new neighbour and few so far had braved her threshold. Only old Mrs Tobin and her daughter believe in such things, Ailish thought. She’s not going to earn a penny.


Ailish finally met the witch in her kitchen, as she stumbled in after school. Both the witch and her mother were hunched over something on the table. A teacup, one of the good ones saved for special guests. There was no tea in it, only the dregs of what had been. Ailish’s mother looked up guiltily when she noticed her. “We bumped into each other in the corridor,” she explained. “I invited her in for tea.”

“The tea’s gone,” Ailish said flatly. The witch smiled, amused and unhurried, dimpling at the cheeks. Her lips were barely a shade darker than her skin but her eyes burned only the way coal can. She continued smiling as Ailish grabbed a packet of biscuits and closed herself into her room. Ailish dreamt of fires and the heady smell of smoke that night.


Almost everyone had paid her a visit by the time October drifted in. “Wonderful stuff,” tittered hunched Mrs Walsh, who had dragged her lanky grandson to get his fortune told. Feeling vindicated about his apparent good fortune, she had taken to singing the witch’s praises. “Uncloaker, exposer, inciter, she called him. He’s going to be a journalist!” Timmy Walsh groaned, encumbered by a sudden and forced career choice. Stupid, Ailish thought. He’s in the bottom from last set in English.


Ailish knocked on the door, just below the sign. She stared hard at the welcome mat and gripped the letter tight. There was a black cat next to the Fáilte. The door opened, and there was the witch, smiling. “Hello,” she murmured. “Would you like some tea?” Ailish scuffed her shoes on the mat and she soon found herself inside the tiny standard kitchen. An overloaded spice rack was the first thing to catch her eye. Surprisingly, the crystal ball was second. It sat in the middle of the kitchen table like it was nobody’s business. It sat there, like every kitchen table was incomplete without a crystal ball to gaze into as you slopped your baked beans into your mouth.

The kitchen smelled wild and wet, but not of mold, as if a part of the moors was trapped in the cupboards. “Here,” Ailish thrusted the letter at the witch. “They must have put it in our mailbox by mistake.”

“No worries,” said the witch. “Our names our similar after all. Mine is Aisling.” Ailish didn’t smile. “Would you like some tea?” Aisling asked. Without meaning to, she nodded. A warm cup was soon placed into her unwilling hands. It smelled sweet and earthy. She tried to take a sip, but the flavour compelled her to keep drinking until she had drained the cup. Only the dregs were left. Aisling gently prised the cup away from her hands.

“Thrill,” she murmured. “Peril, untested, uncharted. Great ardor, great danger.”

“You should really use a thesaurus instead of tea leaves if you’re just going to prattle out adjectives.” The witch smiled, and offered her biscuits. “It’s a start.”


November ambled in next, and Ailish’s visits to the witch became as common as the sunrise. The witch began to set hours, so that their time together would go uninterrupted with the constant customers. They poured over tea leaves, and then books, books filled with charms and lore, jinxes and jiltings. Books about strange creatures and the wilder things. Books about love and vengeance. After came tarot cards and crystal balls, and hours where nothing was said.


Mrs Tobin stopped smiling at Ailish. Timmy Walsh began to give her long looks whenever they crossed paths in the corridors. So were the other neighbours. She could feel their glances as she passed from school to home and from home to her mother’s flat. She could feel her mother stare at the marks on her neck when she thought Ailish wouldn’t notice. She frowned deeply when Ailish turned her back. She frowned at the unkindness of Ravens that had started gathering since late September.


The weather turned frigid and unkind. Dangerous Dave had slipped down the stairs and a brick had been thrown through Sharon’s windscreen. The witch’s clients slowly decreased. They began to avoid both Aisling and Ailish. It’s just the cold, Ailish thought. No one wants to leave their flat in this weather.


She catches Dangerous Dave looking at her next, as she walked to Aisling’s flat. She catches him watching again and again. Until one day, he catches her. He has her up against the top of stairwell, trapped in a corner. “I’ll put you right,” he grunts, as Ailish struggles and kicks. He has a hand to her mouth, her foot connects, and then he doesn’t. Then, he’s at the bottom of the stairs, his neck angled unnaturally, frozen. His face looks surprised. His face looks the same way when he was awarded first place in geography at prize day last year. Ailish’s face doesn’t. Ailish can’t feel her face. She can’t feel her hands or her feet, not even her heart, almost shattering her ribs. She can’t hear the racket the Ravens are making.cacophanye can feel a hand on her shoulder. The hand guides her into a flat. The witch’s flat. The witch tells her to scrub under her nails, and that it will be ok.


The police couldn’t prove anything. They came and left without any real evidence but more than one accusation. The neighbours don’t care about evidence. They know who killed Dangerous Dave.


Ailish comes home from school again. The Ravens are silent because they are gone. The witch is also gone. Her door has been broken open. The contents of her spice rack are scattered on the floor, impossible to salvage. A pattern in the spilled powders reveals itself to be footprints and skid marks. Aisling was dragged out. In the distance, she hears a cry. She sees the Ravens fly towards the woods. She knows where to go.


The Ravens guide her until she reaches a small clearing within the woods. All the tenants are there: Mrs Tobin, Mrs Walsh, Dangerous Dave’s Dad, and even her own mother. They have Aisling in the middle, tied to a makeshift stake, surrounded by fagots and larger pieces of wood. Timmy Walsh is beside her, inciting the crowd. Aisling’s head is down, her hair long hair obscuring her face. Ailish doesn’t know what to do.

Ailish stands frozen, unseen by the mob, until she feels the cold press of iron against her leg. She looks down. A raven wields a blade in his mouth, offering it to her. In a daze she takes it, grips it tight and runs towards the centre. Most of the mob are slow to notice, and she’s already reached Aisling and has started hacking away at the ropes before they realize. Timmy Walsh tries to drag her back but she reaches around and slashes his leg. In a rush, Mrs Walsh’s hands fumble but she manages to start a flame. Th wood quickly catches, and Ailish’s hands shake and shake and shake as she tries to free her. The last of the ropes gives way as Timmy gets back up again.

Written by

Michelle Gruppetta

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