On the edge of Hobart, near a popular hiking trail going past several waterfalls, Marcie cycled laboriously up the steep hill. She wasn’t the only person out cycling this morning, but still she felt out of place. As not dressed for hiking as she was, she didn’t blend in with the few other people at all.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead. This heatwave was hitting her hard. She wobbled to the side of the road and stopped to take a breath. What was she even doing? She should go back, go back home and sit in front of the air-conditioning until she had frostbite.
But as she looked ahead, where the road vanished behind the apex of the hill, her curiosity got the best of her. There were rumours that a witch lived here. Where the tree-lined path merged with the forest. Rumour had it that this witch would help you out if you asked nicely. Well- her co-workers had said it with a bit more scorn in their voices, but ever since she overheard she hadn’t been able to put it out of her mind.
She turned up the brightness of her phone to check her directions. Just in time, a few minutes later and she’d have missed her turn. She climbed back on her bike with renewed vigour. She was almost there.
With what felt like a momentous amount of effort, she finally reached the top of the hill. She stopped pedalling as the bike rolled down on its own. What would normally have been a warm humid wind became a refreshing rush of air as she raced down. Right as she reached terminal velocity, she saw her turn. Grinning, she shifted her weight to prepare. Then, without using the breaks, she tore into the unpaved lane, nearly launching right off her bike in the process.
With a delighted laugh she righted herself from the near fall. Her bike gradually slowed to normal speed now she wasn’t going down a slope. The road she turned in had taller trees, older. A mix of rugged deciduous trees and tall pine trees with curving branches. Looming in the distance was the forest. Maybe not endless, but it certainly seemed that way as she entered the shadows cast by the still rising sun.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust. First just enough not to ram into any trees, and then enough to see the difference between the path and the leaf litter next to it. Before long, she was admiring the mosses growing on the gnarled trees, the brightly coloured berries standing out against the dark leaves of their bushes, movement in the canopy above her. She heard a bird sing.
Her bike rattled on the unpaved road. The sound felt at once far reaching and stifled. In what forest does only a single bird sing?
She neatly swerved around a deeper hole in the dirt, then looked up to see a building emerge from between the trees. Sunlight cut through the canopy above to light up a quaint garden filled with flowers and herbs. The house itself was overgrown by vines and roses, only a few bricks and roof-tiles visible.
Marcie slowed as she reached what could be called a driveway. She hopped from her bike, crushing a layer of dry leaves. The garden didn’t have a fence, yet she felt like there was a barrier there she shouldn’t cross. Maybe she should leave her bike? It didn’t look like the owner — witch — had a car, so she probably had a place for bikes somewhere.
Bike in hand, and uncomfortably aware of every crunching footstep, she entered the garden. She couldn’t see over the top of the overgrown plants. Some of them must have been herbs, or vegetables, but if they were she didn’t recognise them. Something flashed in the corner of her eye, but when she looked there were only plants, and nothing made a sound.
A bit of tension left her when she reached the cottage. There was a bike rack with place for three, one of which was occupied. At least bringing her bike hadn’t been some sort of faux-pas the witch would curse her for.
After parking her bike, during which she jealously noted the already parked bike was an electric one, she stood in front of the door for a moment. Made of heavy solid wood, it wasn’t inviting. As if visiting some random stranger wasn’t bad enough, the whole witch thing made her tense and on edge. But it was too late to go back now. She rung the bell.
An elaborate tinkling filtered through the door. It was oddly calming. A moment later she heard light footsteps, and then the door opened to a woman who looked nothing like Marcie expected.
She was young. She couldn’t be more than a few years older than Marcie. She wore simple blue shorts and a white t-shirt, not witch-like at all. Her eyes were warm and kind, not a trace of annoyance at the unannounced visit from a stranger, and this reassured Marcie enough to talk.
“Hi! Eh… I heard a witch lived here?” She cringed at the question, she felt ridiculous.
The woman smiled. “You heard right,” she said. Her voice was strong, pleasant. It resonated in the quiet air, so filling it was hard to imagine what it was like before she talked. With her voice she suddenly looked the witch she was rumoured to be. A presence as much part of the cottage as the walls or the roof. “Do you want to come in? It’s much cooler.”
“Yes please.” Wide eyed, she trailed after the woman. She wasn’t wearing shoes or socks, allowing Marcie to notice how her dark skin matched the floorboards, like they ware hewn from the same tree.
The door didn’t open into a hall, instead opening directly into the living room. The room was a clutter of plants, papers, vases both filled and empty, jars of botanicals and herbs, a box with branches, and somewhere under all that was a set of worn couches around a table that Marcie only noticed when they sat down, so overfilled was it.
“I’m Jess by the way.”
She felt the blood rush to her face. “Marcie! My name, I mean.”
“It’s alright,” Jess said with a chuckle. “What brings you out here?”
Marcie fiddled with the hem of her tank-top. There was an oil stain there she hadn’t noticed when she put it on this morning. “It’s a little embarrassing…” she muttered.
Jess looked at Marcie intently. “It’s usually a bit embarrassing if you go to the reclusive witch for advice. I’m not here to judge.”
“Oh, I suppose that’s true.” She worried her bottom lip, then sighed. “I’m lonely,” she said, “do you have a potion for making friends?”
“Sure,” Jess said. She stood up, walked to a kitchen counter Marcie hadn’t noticed before, and grabbed a flowery cup with steaming liquid. “Drink this.” There was a mysterious glint in her smile.
Marcie took the offered cup, stomach fluttering with nerves. She hadn’t expected something this fast, she didn’t think it would be that easy. Without even pausing to smell, she took a big gulp. There was a moment of stillness as she processed the liquid going down her throat, a little too hot for such a big gulp, but still… the taste on her tongue was distinctly familiar. “Tea?”
“Yep,” Jess said, amusement dancing in her eyes. She took a sip of a cup of her own. “What’s on your mind?”
And so they talked. Marcie telling her all about her job, the classic engine she got to work on recently, her colleagues. And Jess listened, and asked questions, and then countered with stories of her own, telling Marcie all about the old tree she’d met last week, about the electric bike she’d settled for because she couldn’t find a Solex she wouldn’t have to ship from overseas. The sun was long past it’s peak by the time Marcie was even considering going back home.
“Do I just- come back some time?” She hated how hesitant she sounded, but even after this wonderful day she knew that she’d feel just as weird coming by unannounced as this morning. It would probably be worse because now she cared about Jess’ opinion of her.
But Jess seemed to understand, because she said, “Would next week work for you?”
Marcie quickly fumbled her phone out from her pocket to check. “Uh… Saturday would be better.”
“Works for me.” Jess said quickly. She didn’t even take out her phone. “Maybe come a little earlier so you get here before the heat gets too much.”
Marcie grinned. “Alright!”
This story was inspired by this post by @ASmallFiction on Twitter: