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Authors: Marita Conlon-Mckenna

In Deep Dark Wood

BOOK: In Deep Dark Wood
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‘An enchanting story with a magical touch’ Southside People

 

‘An absorbing tale of magic and dragons by one of our most popular children’s writers’ Sunday Independent

 

‘You will have to read this enchanting book. And as you read, you will find yourself falling under the spell of Conlon-McKenna’s wonderful writing and vivid imagination’ Dublin Echo

In deep dark wood the old woman stirred. All day long the noise had continued, the buzzing of huge saws, the rolling thunder of heavy yellow machines, and the ominous creak and roar as tree after tree fell – oak, chestnut and ash, all crashing to the torn earth below.

Hiding herself amongst the leaves she watched the men working. The time had come. She must care for and protect her treasures, move them. Her old bones ached and her head was addled thinking of it, but even she knew that it was century’s end and soon she must be gone …

In Deep Dark Wood

Marita Conlon-McKenna

For Fiona and James – my heroes

T
he wild west wind gathered its strength out over the
Atlantic
Ocean, churning up huge waves and crashing against the rocks along the Irish coastline, before gusting across the rich, green countryside. The fierce wind roared its way through city and village streets. In the small town of Glenkilty it lifted the tiles and slates off the roofs, rattled the window panes and gates, set the dogs to howling and the cats to
hissing
, and made the babies and children stir, restless and
uneasy
, in their sleep.

Mia Murphy snuggled up in bed, pulling the quilt about her, too scared to sleep.

‘Are you all right, pet?’ asked her grandmother, getting up and checking the window-catch one more time before pulling the curtains firmly closed.

‘’Tis only a storm. It will blow itself out in a few hours and be gone by morning, I promise.’ Granny Rose stood listening
to the wind and muttered thoughtfully, ‘Although storm winds do bring change.’

She turned back to Mia. ‘Will I sit with you for a while longer and finish reading the story?’

Mia nodded. She was glad of her Granny Rose’s voice as she read from the book of fairytales. It comforted her and distracted from the wailing of the wind.

Tired, Mia tried to concentrate on the words of the story. In the woods behind their house, the huge trees tossed and bowed all night, groaning as the wind caught their heavy branches. She closed her eyes, listening to the wind whistling through the tree tops until she eventually fell asleep. Granny

Rose slowly closed the book and crept from the room. She could sense the change in the air already. Rory Murphy was woken by all the hullabaloo, and peered out his bedroom window in the grey, early morning light. What a storm!

Light shone from the windows of the house next door and he could hear the crunch of gravel in the driveway. He ran into his sister’s bedroom at the front of the house and pulled the curtains apart.

‘Mia, wake up! Quick!’

Mia opened her eyes and saw her brother standing at the foot of the bed, his brown hair standing on end.

‘Look! There’s somebody moving in next door,’ Rory whispered.

Mia jumped out of bed and joined him at the window. Months ago, after poor old Mr Hackett had died, a large,
square ‘For Sale’ sign had been put up outside the house. Then, just a few days ago, a red banner was pasted across it with the word: ‘Sold.’ Then nothing. Until now.

Curious, they peeped from the window, trying to get a glimpse of the comings and goings down below. In the half light, they watched as two small, bulky looking men carried furniture and packing crates from the van, up the driveway and into the house next door. The wind seemed to catch the men and lift them off their feet and deposit them on the doorstep.

‘How strange!’ thought Mia.

They stared open-mouthed as a procession of rather ramshackle-looking household goods seemed to fly up the driveway by themselves. The removal men seemed to be almost running after them! A lampstand, a small round table, a comfortable-looking chair, a dozen fat, red cushions.

Mia jumped up and down with excitement.

‘Crazy!’ said Rory.

A black jalopy of a bicycle, with a wicker basket and bell on its front, seemed to pedal itself up the driveway. Now, who could own that? No kid would be seen dead on such an ancient bike. Still, what a marvellous contraption! It was followed by a hatstand, an enormous vase, a bright, multicoloured patchwork quilt, a mop and a sweeping brush, each one in turn caught by the wind, swooping and twirling as it was lifted up and carried towards the house.

‘How did they do that?’ murmured Mia, crouching up on the window seat.

By now, they were both really curious about who was moving in next door. Rory could almost read his sister’s mind – she was hoping for a family of girls. He, of course, wanted it to be a boy his own age, so that they could play football together, or go exploring in the back woods. Judging by the assortment of ancient clutter being carried into The Elms, neither of them was in luck. Rory shrugged his shoulders. Sensing Mia’s disappointment, he gave her a clumsy hug.

‘You’ve still got me!’

She barely nodded. He guessed having a twelve-year-old brother wasn’t much fun for a eleven-year-old girl.

The removal men stepped back into the van and emerged from its shadows with what seemed like a metal box or cage, covered by a black blanket. An old lady suddenly appeared from nowhere, darting in and out beside them. Caught in the wind, she flew around the men, giving orders, directing them up the driveway. She was small and dainty and clad from top to toe in black, the wind catching her long skirt and wraparound jacket. Her face was hidden by a wide-brimmed, black hat which was tied firmly to her head like a bonnet. Her tiny legs and feet, though encased in clumpy black boots, fought to stay on the ground as she was tossed about and lifted into the air.

‘She looks like she’s about to blow away,’ murmured Mia.

Rory gazed at her too, and wondered what on earth she had in that big, black covered box of hers. Whatever it was, the men were handling it very carefully, as if it was precious glass.

The two children watched as the men struggled to manoeuvre the black box, trying not to let it fly away in the
wind or get bumped as they trundled up the uneven gravel of the driveway. The old woman jumped in and out between them, shouting at them and checking the load.

Suddenly she stopped. Her head spun around and tilted upwards. Rory and Mia could see her face clearly.

‘She’s ancient!’ gasped Rory, shocked by the strange, withered face and piercing, grey eyes that looked in their direction.

Mia stood transfixed. The old woman was staring right up at the window, right up at her. Her gaze was unflinching, as if she had expected to find Mia there, waiting and watching.

Rory pulled at his sister’s sleeve, dragging her away from the window. Something in the old woman’s gaze had unsettled him, too.

‘She’s just weird.’

‘She’s like a witch, Rory!’ said Mia, anxiously. ‘A witch in a story, in a book. She was staring at me. I could feel her eyes right on me.’

They stood hidden behind the blue-and-white gingham curtains as the old woman seemed to sniff the air, almost like a bloodhound. Then, with what looked like a smile, she turned away and set about the rest of her moving, the wind lifting her on to the doorstep.

By the time bright shafts of early morning sunshine lit the sky, the mysterious wind had softened to a gentle breeze. It was breakfast time in the Murphy household, and time to get ready for school. The brown van had disappeared along the lake road, back towards Glenkilty and their new neighbour
had moved in, shutting her hall door firmly.

‘She’s a witch,’ thought Mia to herself, sitting at the table in her school uniform, eating her breakfast, ‘and she’s come to live next door!’

‘T
he old woman next door’s a bit odd!’ sighed the children’s mother, Helen Murphy, sitting at the dinner table that
evening
, a worried frown creasing her forehead. ‘I called around
today
, just to be neighbourly, with an apple tart and some of Granny’s home-made jam and a few flowers from the garden, and she wouldn’t even open the door. I could see her inside, moving around. But she didn’t bother to come to the door. Isn’t that strange?’

‘What about the apple tart, Mum?’ asked Rory, hoping they’d have it for dinner.

‘Oh, I left the welcome presents on the front step for her, but it just seems strange to move all the way out here to the country and not want to get to know your neighbours.’

‘She’s probably a very private kind of person who just wants to keep herself to herself,’ suggested Matthew, the children’s father.

Rory and Mia glanced at each other.

‘So you two keep out of her way, do you hear me!’ he added.

They didn’t need telling twice. Both of them had already made up their minds that the eccentric old woman was best avoided.

‘I don’t like her, anyway!’ said Mia softly.

‘How can you not like someone when you don’t even know them? Don’t be silly, Mia,’ said her mother.

‘I just don’t!’ Mia insisted stubbornly.

Granny Rose handed Mia the big bowl of mashed potato. ‘Why, Mia?’

Mia hesitated. She could never hide anything from Granny Rose and was about to say how she knew the old woman was really a witch when Rory winked at her and gave a sudden belch, loud and huge. Mia burst out laughing. Granny covered her mouth trying to disguise her own smiles, while Rory got a long lecture on good manners from his parents.

Jackie’s barking woke Rory early on Sunday morning. Their small Jack Russell terrier was going crazy, racing up and down the back garden in a frenzy. She was trying to jump up into the trees, hurtling her small body up in the air, and barking wildly at an amazing assortment of birds flying across the garden, that swooped down and skimmed the hedge before landing on next door’s lawn.

Magpies, crows, rooks, starlings, plump wood pigeons, sleek blackbirds, brown speckled thrushes and chubby little robins –
Rory had never seen the like of it. Almost every piece of grass or earth was covered by some kind of feathered creature, and as Rory looked down from his bedroom window, he saw their new neighbour standing there in the middle of them all.

The old woman wore a loose, blue dressing gown, and her white hair streamed over her shoulders. The birds made soft cooing noises and throaty caws as she stepped daintily amongst them. She talked continuously to them and touched their smooth black, grey and blue heads. Their darting eyes were fixed on her as she spoke. Even the huge, grey heron that lived on the lake stood to attention, listening. Like a group of soldiers taking orders from a commanding officer, they waited patiently until, with a clap of her hands, she dismissed them. Then the flapping of hundreds of wings filled the air as they all lifted into the sky.

Rory watched in amazement as they flew off in different directions, in towards Glenkilty, out across the lake, up to the busy motorway and the city itself beyond, and back into the darkness of the wood. Jackie tried to launch herself after them like a small, white fur bomb, stopping only when the old woman was left standing alone in her garden. Rory sat on his bed wondering at the strange phenomenon he had witnessed. He decided not to mention it to Mia as she already had enough weird notions about their next-door neighbour, and was already frightened of her.

The grass began to grow long and wild in the old woman’s garden. Weeds pushed up through the earth and through every crack and crevice in the gravel driveway. The tall, sprawling
hedge which formed a barrier between the two houses was left unchecked. The Murphys longed for the familiar sound of Mr Hackett’s lawnmower or clipping shears rather than the silence that enveloped the house next door for most of the day.

The flocking of birds early in the morning had become a regular occurrence – the Murphys now referred to their strange neighbour as the Bird Woman.

Mia worried about the Bird Woman all the time, and took the utmost care not to see, or be seen by the old lady.

‘Why did she have to come and live beside us!’ she said again and again. ‘Why did she have to go and choose a house in Glenkilty, next door to us?’

Sometimes Mia shut her eyes as she walked by the house so she wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the dark figure staring out at her from the upstairs window.

One Saturday afternoon, Dad had taken over the sitting room and was rehearsing his latest magic trick for the hundredth time – how to make a bunch of silk flowers change into Snowy, their rabbit. Snowy was being difficult and kept popping out ahead of time, showing a twitching nose or fluffy tail where it was not meant to be. Rory and Mia had to sit, squashed alongside Mum and Granny on the couch, pretending to be the audience – and trying not to notice Snowy’s bad timing. Rory sighed to himself. Why did his father have to have such a stupid hobby? Why couldn’t Matthew Murphy join a golf club
or play tennis, or even go jogging around the lanes of Glenkilty like other boys’ fathers, instead of being a member of the Celtic Amateur Magicians’ Association? It was dead embarrassing.

‘If you two are going to keep giggling and putting your Dad off his stride you should go outside and play,’ warned Granny, who often boasted proudly of having bought Dad his very first magic set.

Not waiting to be told again, Mia and Rory jumped up, glad to leave the rehearsal. Grabbing the football from the understairs cupboard, they raced outside to the back garden, into the fresh air and sunshine.

‘Kick it hard!’ Rory yelled at Mia. ‘Try and score a goal past me.’

The two of them kicked the ball back and forth to each other. Mia was good at football. Living so far out of town, she usually ended up playing with Rory, and she could play football and rounders and cricket as well as most boys her age. Rory tried to tackle her now as she dribbled the ball past him. Mia gave the ball a mighty kick, sending it flying across the garden, high over his head. He stared, disgusted, as the heavy ball soared over the thick, green hedge and straight into the jungle of grass and weeds next door.

‘What did you do that for?’ Rory yelled.

‘I didn’t mean to! It just went high and…’

‘You get it!’ he shouted at her.

Mia stood shaking her head vehemently, her long, wavy tossing hair from side to side.

‘I’m not going into the witch’s garden!’ she said fiercely.
‘You go!’

‘You kicked it in!’

They argued back and forth, neither of them wanting to go through the narrow gap in the hedge.

But Rory loved that leather ball and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

‘Come on, then!’ he said, ‘we’ll both go!’

Time had worn a hole in the hedge, leaving a gap which the children had used regularly to visit Mr Hackett. They could still just about squeeze through it. The garden was in a mess and wildly overgrown. They searched through the weeds and nettles and thistles, but there was no sign of their ball. It must have rolled up near the house. Holding their breaths and treading quietly, they began to search nearer and nearer to the house. They could see the drawing room and the kitchen, and the round glasshouse which clung giddily to the back of the house. Mr Hackett had loved cacti and rare plants, and he had practically lived in his glasshouse. Heavy blinds covered the glass today.

There was no sign of the football and they were just about to give up and leave when they heard a voice.

‘The children! The children from next door!’

The old woman stood in front of them. Neither of them had heard her come into the garden. Mia gasped and jumped behind Rory, trying to hide.

Rory held his ground. He stared at the old woman. She looked different today, ordinary almost. Up close, she was just like anyone’s granny or favourite old aunt, in her pale blue tweed suit, hushpuppy shoes like their own Granny Rose
wore, her white hair pulled back in a soft bun, her face powdered slightly, and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses.

‘Welcome, my dears! You’re both very welcome. I knew there were children next door, and it’s so nice to meet you at last. I must thank your good mother for the gifts she left on my doorstep. It was kind of her.’

Mia smiled shyly. Rory felt uneasy.

The Bird Woman laughed, a soft, tinkling kind of laugh. ‘Oh, goodness, I must introduce myself. I’m Mrs Blackwell. Bella Blackwell.’

‘And I’m Mia, Mia Murphy. I’m eleven,’ volunteered Mia, much to Rory’s amazement. She stepped forward. ‘And this is Rory, my brother, and he’s twelve.’

‘We were just looking for our football,’ stammered Rory, anxious to get out of the place and wondering what on earth had come over Mia.

‘I’m sure we’ll find it,’ smiled Mrs Blackwell. ‘But why don’t you come inside first and have some blackcurrant juice and one of my oatmeal cookies?’

Before Rory had a chance to say anything, Mia was already ahead of him, following the woman inside the house. He had no option but to go after them.

They had been in this house many times before, but without Mr Hackett’s furniture and old ornaments it looked different and felt strange. Rory sat on the edge of a lumpy, red couch in the sitting room. Mia had gone off into the kitchen to help Mrs Blackwell. Rory wondered why there were no photos of Mr Blackwell, or any family members on top of the bureau
or sideboard. Old people usually liked to have photos around them.

Mia was chatting away happily when she reappeared carrying a plate of cookies, the old woman following her with a jug and three glasses.

‘I feel I know your family already,’ said Mrs Blackwell, looking quizzically at Rory as she poured out a glass of purplish juice for him. ‘Mia has told me so much about you all.’

Rory glared at his sister, wishing that she would keep that big mouth of hers shut. Mia smirked and wrinkled her nose to show that she didn’t care what he thought, before nibbling her cookie. Rory decided that he wasn’t hungry, and he found the drink too sickly sweet for his liking. He sipped unenthusiastically.

‘Just imagine, a magician living next door!’ the old lady exclaimed. ‘Mia told me your father is a magician, Rory. How wonderful!’

Rory stared at the patterned rug on the floor. How could Mia be so stupid!

‘Actually, Dad’s a bank manager, Mrs Blackwell. He works in town. The magic stuff he does is just a sort of hobby,’ he corrected her.

The old woman smiled knowingly. ‘A hobby,’ she laughed, leaning forward towards him. ‘Is that what he calls it?’

‘Honestly,’ protested Rory, ‘it’s just party tricks and stuff like that. He’s just an amateur.’

‘I think Daddy’s quite good at magic,’ interrupted Mia, ‘and
he’s getting better.’

The old woman and the girl smiled at each other as if they shared a secret, leaving Rory feeling left out and jealous. He remembered the football.

‘If you don’t mind, Mrs Blackwell,’ he said, ‘I want to try and find my ball.’ He stood up, putting his glass on the wobbly-looking side-table. ‘Thank you for the drink. Are you coming, Mia?’

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