Going back to the years when I was young, back to when an infant's imagination can generate worlds of innocent adventures, of fantastical creatures and impossible lands. Escaping reality and slipping into another. I return to one summer holiday during which our twin cousins, Thomas and April, were staying with us. My older brother Eric, myself and little sister Jessica, combined with the twins, made a great team.
Within the first week of the holiday, whilst we were all in the woods that surrounded our estate we met a girl named Beetle. She told us that she lived there in the woods alone and without family. Looking back now I imagine she were a little older than Eric, who then had just celebrated his eleventh birthday. In innocence we believed all that she said and allowed her to play our games.
She soon introduced us to a game of her own which neither one of us had heard of. It was called Fruit Bowl, and the general idea of which was this: As two teams of three we would each construct a camouflage base somewhere around the wood without the opposing team knowing of itís whereabouts. This housed a chipped fruit bowl that was placed in the centre. Both teams would then carry berries, toadstools, broken bark and the like, transferring the lot into the bowl of the opposition when the base was discovered.
Simple, granted, though we seemed never to tire of it.
Every morning the five of us would leave the table after breakfast and be out heading for the woods before Mum could scream for us to take care. As expected, Beetle would be somewhere around, either up a tree or sitting cross-legged at the base of one. Dressed in her familiar red dress, shiny black shoes, and dark hair bouncing on the wind.
One mid-summer morning, with a burning sun drenching sweet woody smells, we were playing Fruit Bowl. Two teams consisting of myself, Thomas and Beetle, and the other of Eric, Jessica and April.
We had built our base near the stream at the edge of my parentsí property, beyond this we never dared venture. Mum and Dad said that an elderly lady owned it, living in a hut somewhere amidst the trees. Eric had named it Witch Ground and this had fuelled our fears. Even the twins were cautious of it, and little Jessica simply took it as a bad place.
Whilst the three of us stood there, listening to the stream tickling the bank, we gazed at our base.
"Itís excellent." Said Thomas.
I nodded and said:
"Thatís because itís lower to the ground."
"And the roofís made of so much leaves and stuff, you can hardly see it." Added Beetle.
We were all proud of it.
"I suppose," Thomas thought aloud, "itís also near Witch Ground, and they wonít go near the stream. You know what Jessica and Aprilís like."
"Thatís true." I replied and noticed Beetle frowning.
"Witch Ground? Why do you call it that?" She asked.
Thomas turned to me and said:
"Because thatís what it is, isnít it Mark?"
"Yeah." I replied. "A witch lives somewhere behind those trees."
I pointed and Beetle followed my finger.
"Really?" She smiled.
"Over the stream and into those woods is all Witch Ground." I shrugged, "we never go over there."
"Itís not that scary over there!" Beetle giggled pleasantly.
"Have you been over there then?"
"Yes." She said, rather ominously.
"Oh." Thomas whispered.
"I donít believe you." I said to her, "no one can go there. The Witch will get you."
"Donít be silly," she snorted, "the Witch canít get you, sheís dead."
Thomas remained silent.
"The Witch is dead? How?" I asked, surely I had said the word ĎWitchí too many times!
"She ate some poisonous fruit." Beetle said, somewhat with pride. "We played a game of Fruit Bowl, and I found her base before she found mine. I filled her bowl up with a poisonous mixture I made, mixed it with the fruit and she ate it and died."
She said all this with such sincerity that both myself and Thomas remained silent a little while after.
Barely above a whisper Thomas clawed the silence:
"I buried her body and straight away a tree with big red apples grew!"
Thomasí eyes were wide.
I believed her although surely it couldnít be true? How can apple trees grow from where witches were buried?
"Is this tree as bad as the Witch?" I asked. Cringing at the realisation that I had said the word again.
"No," she replied, "the apples are the best Iíve ever eaten!"
I shivered and turned to Thomas.
He looked ill.
"Iíll show you where the tree is. Itís safe over there now and we can have some fun!"
Beetle grinned, gleefully clapping her hands.
I swallowed and Thomas visibly shook.
Silence fuelled our fears and my mind gave birth to thoughts so crazy I found it impossible to keep afloat with them. The Witch...
Whilst I chewed over my frightened thoughts, I became aware of sounds a little way down the stream. Involuntarily pulling myself from one fear to face another: There were splashes amid terrified screams.
It was Jessica.
I ran. Following the stream along and into a relatively darker part of the wood, I came to the source of commotion.
Everything escalated from there.
My initial discovery was of both Jessica and April knee deep in water, whilst Eric stood on...
...On Witch Ground!
"Eric!" I shouted over sudden frenzied splashing.
The girls appeared to be struggling with a huge mass of branches, whilst Eric stood silent, entranced by something at his feet.
He stood by the trunk of a fallen tree, and on the instant he glanced up, eyes focusing upon my own, he fell backwards in a slap of leaves, his body laying still...
A branch had stretched outwards from this tree and coiled itself around the two girls where they wrestled with it.
There was too much to take in.
I could see the soles of Ericís shoes, in front of which the ground heaved and tiny clods of earth clouded the air as if an angry mole surged beneath.
From behind me Thomas grunted and flew into my back, obviously losing his footing.
I landed blindly into the stream, cracking my forehead against Witch Ground. Through dripping hair I saw Thomas climbing up the opposite bank, glancing desperately and with utter disgust behind him, somewhere above my head.
With water pouring from my soaked clothes I staggered to my feet, turning to see Beetle.
She was standing hand in hand with the Witch.
I rubbed water from my eyes and stared in disbelief.
Where Beetle shone in her red dress, the Witch stood in dull rags. Clumps of earth and leaves attached to the torn garments. Her hair a mass of dirt, lank and tangled, obscuring wrinkled features. Her face as drawn as dying flowers, within which sat two sad yellow eyes, a small nose and a withered smile.
Fear rooting my limbs solid, I felt myself lifted out of the water, and up onto Witch Ground.
"Did you like my game?" Asked the Witch as she gently dropped me to my knees.
I stared up at them, dumb as mud.
"I donít think he understands." Said Beetle.
They both smiled simultaneously.
"Let us show you." Whispered the Witch as she took a side step towards Beetle.
In the next moment their bodies touched and slid over one another like two sheets of glass. Beetleís red dress becoming one with the Witchís tattered rags in a psychedelic twist, pretty features shifting across a haggard face. Churning colours like spiral rainbows of pink and red, black and brown. Such wonderfully interlacing palettes any artist would adore.
As swift as the transition began did it end, and left standing there was the Witch herself. Beetle no longer at her side. She was dressed in almost the adult equal of the childís dress, with hair as dark. A good many years had been taken away, and given any other situation she would have appeared as any regular Mother.
I found the strength in my legs to stand up.
"We are one and the same, Beetle and I." Said the Witch. "Being young again was the only way in which to fulfil my needs and to gain your trust in order to play Fruit Bowl."
I frowned, a question mark hanging from my lips.
"Every time we played, and both bowls were filled with earthen fruits my powers intensified. Finally restored after such a long and painful time. When Beetle told you that the Witch ate poisonous fruit, that was true. Iíve been ill for over a century now, slowly dying. This summer I completed the spell of childhood-regeneration. Casting it upon my withering body, Beetle was temporarily born."
As the Witch looked away from me I noticed that the others had congregated around us. Including Eric who appeared confused and thankfully unhurt.
"I hope I didnít scare you two." The Witch said to the girls. "I needed you to remain still whilst I fed from the earth."
They both stood in silence.
"I thank you all."
With that last she touched her lips to her palm and slowly clenched her fist. A second later she vanished, leaving us alone with nothing other than our thoughts.
And without further words we strode off towards home, never to see Beetle again.
Now, with my thoughts turning over that summer, I wonder if our imagination created that adventure. Although recent events may possibly prove otherwise.
Next weekend we are off to stay with Mum and Dad.
Earlier today our son, Simon, was talking to one of his cousins on the telephone. Apparently Eric arrived there last week, and was now relishing the countryside like any lost addiction.
It sounds like the children favour the woods.
Of course, I may have been mistaken as to what I overheard.
I cannot help feeling slightly concerned as to whether their game of Fruit Bowl shall be entirely innocent...