When Berta was a child with wrinkled socks, and shoes with a strap and a buckle that never shone bright enough, the other children made fun of her. They made up rhymes and songs about how useless and stupid she was and chanted them while playing games she was never otherwise a part of.
One day, when Berta was swinging on the back door of her grandmother’s house, scuffing her not-shiny shoes against the dirt, she asked the question out loud that had been chiming round her head for months.
“Grana, why do the other children hate me?”
Berta’s grandmother looked up from the fish she was boning. In the memory her eyes were like tiny jet beads, hard and penetrating. In reality her eyes were blue, soft like butterfly wings and flecked with gold. Those eyes weren’t right for that moment. The Knowing changes what your mind’s eye sees. So Berta remembered black.
“They don’t hate you. They’re afraid of you.”
“Same difference.” Berta jumped up, grabbed hold of the top of the door and clung on for as long as she could… two and three and four and five and seven and-
“Why do you care what they think of you?”
She let her fingers slip from the rough wood and dropped. “Don’t care. Just wonderin’.”
“You wouldn’t wonder if you didn’t care.”
“I’m not upset.” Berta pushed the sleeves of her cardigan up, raising her arms to keep them there because it was her brother’s cardigan, two sizes too big for her, forever falling off her shoulders and getting in soup. She jumped up again. One, two, three, four, five, seven, eight-
“Well that’s good, because there’s nothing to be upset about,” said her blue-eyed grandmother, and picked up her tweezers.
– nine, ten, eleven, eleventy-two.
Berta went and stood by her grandmother at the kitchen counter and watched her pick out bones. The guts of the fish were in a bloody pile in a dish. They were so small, compared with human guts. Or she supposed so. She hadn’t seen human guts. Only mouse guts, once, after the cat brought one in and ate the outside, leaving the inside perfect, all in order like the diagrams in her brother’s biology books.
“Grana, am I normal?”
Another of those beady-black looks.
“I certainly hope not. Pass me that saucer.”
Her grandmother worked swiftly, plucking out bones tiny as hairs, tweezers snapping, twitch twitch twitch.
“They say I’m not normal.”
“These children you’re so busy not caring about?”
‘They say I’m a witch.”
“What-sorry-pardon? What d’you mean?”
What came next was important, and Berta knew it was because Grana put down her tweezers, rested her fishy hands on Berta’s shoulders, scrunching up wrinkles of cardigan, and caught Berta with her blue-gold eyes.
“Witch is a word of power, child. Witch is when you have power and freedom they can barely imagine, and they know it. Witch is when you’re ten times the woman they’ll ever be, and they hate you for it, because they’re too small-minded to let you help them.”
“I don’t understand.” Tears pricked at Berta’s eyes. This felt important and she wanted to get it, she really did. “I’m just a kid. I have to do what everyone tells me. I can’t be a witch. I’m just like them! Why can’t I be just like them?”
Grana gave her shoulders a little love-shake. “Believe me, child. You never, ever want to be like them. Now, dry your eyes, wash your hands and get an egg out of the larder for me.”
Grana turned back to the fish, and Berta looked around her. It was a new moment, a now-moment, a getting-egg moment. It felt better, getting eggs, like a warm blanket, like the coze of Grana’s bed in winter. Berta washed off door-dirt and ink from her hands, then dawdled into the larder. She breathed in the cold-fat smell of the ham hanging from the ceiling, the sweet musk of last autumn’s apples, reminding her of cinnamon and cloves and sweet, sticky syrup. She picked the biggest, brownest egg from the basket on the second shelf. She rubbed bits of feather off it as she dawdled back.
“Break it into that bowl. And don’t you go getting any shell in it.”
Berta rolled her eyes. She always broke an egg clean, always-
– Well. Nearly always.
“Use a teaspoon, not your fingers.”
Berta dragged gritty shell-bits up the side of the bowl, fighting the slimy cling of the egg white all the way.
“Season it,” said Grana.
Salt, pepper, tarragon, parsley. Sniff it to check if it’s okay, don’t taste ’cause you can’t eat raw egg.
Grana handed her the whisk and she beat the egg, putting her back into it, elbow grease, because she could feel those eyes glance at her from time to time, checking on technique. Technique is very important in the kitchen, and in life.
“Good,” said Grana. “Dip or coat?”
“Make sure you cover it all.”
Grana had cut the perfectly boneless, gutless fish into nice chunks – fillets – to bake in the oven. Berta dipped each one carefully in eggy-goo and passed it to Grana, who flopped it back-front in the breadcrumbs before laying it on the tray.
When they were all done – one for Grappa, one for Grana, one for Berta, one for Henry, one to warm up for Mamra when she comes home – Grana made this funny finger-flicking gesture over the tray. A sprinkle of love-magic, she called it. Because everything you make should be for love.
Berta slouched against the larder door and watched Grana put the fish in the oven, close the door, set the timer and finally step back with a satisfied little chest-noise. Grana wiped her hands on her apron, and nodded.
“Now, listen to me, child,” said Grana. “I want you to do something for me. Next time one of those little tykes does or says something that makes your chest hurt inside, or your hands go all fisty and your eyes all wet, you tell them that yes, you are a witch. You are the strongest bloody witch in the whole of the land, and if they don’t start acting nice you’ll curse them all to hell.”
Berta licked her lips, eyes wide with shock because that word, Grana, that word, and nodded her head so fast the world blurred.
Grana smiled. “There’s a good girl. Now, what shall we have with that fish, d’you think? Peas or carrots?”
© Helen Kenwright 2016