“Gallowberries” was one of the stories I wrote while writing other stories for MA. It has all the same kinds of fairy tale themes but it’s not one of the re-written/re-imagined tales that went into Black-Winged Angels. In fact, I think it’s the first story I wrote that was an extension of all that I was learning about while studying, both in terms of theory and writing craft; it’s a synthesis, something I can look at and say ‘That’s where it began, that’s where I jumped off the cliff to see if I could fly.’
Mind you, it wasn’t easy – the story took four years to finish, for me to know what I needed to do with it, and for me to realise I’d been writing towards the Sourdough collection for quite some time. But that first image I had of the fruits growing beneath a gallows, thinking about what they might be able to do, fertilised by death, that was definitely the start.
I love Patience Sykes, she is without doubt one of my favourite characters – that’s why I wrote a novella about her for Tor.com (Of Sorrow and Such, out in October 2015). “Gallowberries” shows her beginning, “Sister, Sister” (one of the last stories in Sourdough) shows her in her old age, and Of Sorrow and Such shows her middle life. I’ve never killed her off and don’t know if I want to – I’m tidying up The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales at the moment and wondering if I might possibly put in another story about her, though by this point she’d be tremendously old even in the Sourdough world where, as a matter of course, folk live well beyond a normal span.
There were too many apples.
Far too many for the age of the trees, the time of year and the brevity of my stay. The orchard was small, but every branch fair drooped with fat fruits, boughs hung low and heavy. I, perched atop a rickety ladder, my apron filled with fragrant balls of red, sang loudly. What I harvested would not, could not have been there but for my magic. I was entirely pleased with myself.
‘Good day, mistress.’
His voice startled me.
Tall, olive-skinned and handsome, his expression was too dour and weary for his youth. His clothes, I noticed in the moment before I tried to climb down too fast, were sombre and travel-stained. I got tangled in my skirts and twisted a foot on one of the rungs and fell. Apples flew like hard rain.
Instead of crashing to the ground I was caught mid-flight. I felt muscles and the rub of rough fabric; the smell of man and horse was strong. He held me a moment longer than he needed to then put me carefully on my feet. I tried to stand but my ankle gave way and I found myself scooped up again.
‘May I?’ he asked belatedly and I nodded assent, fluttering my eyelashes. I wrapped my arms around him. The stiff white collar of his shirt was bright against the black of his jacket. Gently I touched the dark curls at the nape of his neck. He pretended not to notice, but from beneath lowered lids I could spy him stealing glances at me.
We rounded the corner to see Dowsabel feeding carrots to a long-legged ebony horse. She gave a cry and hurried forward.
‘Bring her inside. What have you done, Gideon Cotton? Patience, are you all right?’
I nodded, surprised that she knew him and addressed him so familiarly. I had not seen many visitors in the time I’d been with her, mainly tinkers and travelling salesmen. Then again, a lack of callers did not mean a lack of acquaintances. Dowsabel may well have lived on the fringe of Bitterwood, but it stood to reason that the townspeople knew of her and she of them.
She led him into the parlour and he put me gently on a long couch. He lifted both of my legs onto the worn padding, then pushed my skirts up to my knees. The right ankle seemed to swell even as we watched, the flesh hot and ruddy. His hands touched the heated skin and I shivered, as much from excitement as from the coolness of his palms. Dowsabel made a disapproving sound and bustled him aside. He blushed and stood awkwardly. His chin was raised as if to distance himself from the proceedings. I swallowed a smile.
‘What happened, Patience? Did he hurt you?’ Her words were harsh but her gaze told me it was more a joke than anything else; that she wanted to see how much leverage she might get out of his discomfort.
‘No, Dowsabel. He startled me, but I fell through my own clumsiness.’ I gave him the full force of my green eyes and he blushed ever darker. She had her back to him and shot me a grin he could not see. She put her slim hands around my ankle and I gasped for dramatic effect, all out of proportion to the pain I actually felt. The young man started guiltily.
Dowsabel rose and gazed at him. ‘Are you satisfied? I told you before you charged off into the orchard there is only myself and my young cousin, come to help while my husband is away.’
The lies sweetly rolled off her tongue. I noticed his eyebrows raised at the word “husband”, but otherwise he had the conscience to look ashamed.
‘My apologies, goodwife. I have become – obsessive in my pursuit and now I have caused injury.’ His shoulders sagged.
‘What do you seek?’ I asked, although I thought I knew the answer.
‘Someone who fled Bitterwood three months ago.’
‘Man, woman, girl, boy? Many pass through the town, Gideon, so you need to be more specific.’ She laughed and annoyance at the thought that this woman did not take him seriously flew over his handsome face.
‘How can you be ignorant of what happened, goodwife?’
‘You know very well, Gideon Cotton. Who comes to exchange news, good or bad, with the likes of me?’ she asked sternly, and he flinched. ‘So, I ask again: who do you seek?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t even know if the person exists. My father and the town council hanged – or tried to hang – a witch. Ever since that day our families have been afflicted – wells were poisoned. My parents and younger brother died. Cows were made barren and the fields are rotten with dead crops. I suspect she had an accomplice or a familiar, someone left behind to take revenge on us.’
‘What happened to the woman?’ I asked quietly.
‘She disappeared. One moment she was there, the next gone. Some devilry.’
‘So, why do you not think it was she who cursed you and yours? Why some invisible familiar?’ Dowsabel’s face had lost its customary gentleness but I couldn’t tell if she disapproved of him or the possible escapee.
‘I … we …’ It seemed this had not occurred to him. She touched his arm and his face cleared. Apparently Dowsabel was not without her own magic. I had not suspected.
‘Let me set your mind at ease, Gideon.’ She touched his forehead, speaking low. ‘We have seen none such as you have described, neither man nor woman, maid nor lad.’
He stood for a moment, enchanted. I was as transfixed by her as he was. Dowsabel smiled once more and said, ‘There is only we two.’
He stared at me and even though I knew he could not identify me, could not possibly know anything, I held my breath and felt sweat prickle my palms. At last he shook his head and tried a limp smile, which Dowsabel returned, hers brilliant and designed to dazzle. ‘Would you like refreshment before you continue on your way?’
‘No. No, I thank you, goodwife. I have been hunting rumour for so long I no longer know how to behave civilly. You are wise – it must have been the witch and there will be no finding a woman who can disappear at will.’
The fruits grow lush and glossy, uniformly round and enticing, but they have no smell, which may make you suspect something is wrong. When you bite into them, you know. Perhaps they are so foul because they contain the essence of transformation, of ultimate change. The gallowberries taste, without exception, of rotting flesh and spent seed – their garden lies at a crossroads, under the gallows where criminals are hung. The lives of such men shudder to a halt, their last breath and last pleasure simultaneous. With time the bodies rot, wind, rain, sun, air taking their toll on ephemeral flesh.
They break down, these gallowscrows, to all component parts – some of them are more useful this way. That is why my mother spent one of her evenings sixteen years ago lying beneath a gibbet, skirts about her waist, muttering words that made sense to few, but would have earned her a noose all of her own. The dead ones, she told me when I was old enough to understand, cause you far less trouble and seldom want anything in return. She was not beautiful, Wynne Sykes, and I think perhaps she found robbing the deceased easier than risking rejection. My looks, I was assured, came from a dead man; not his only gift.
‘Crossroads, Patience,’ my mother said one day as she gathered bright berries, ‘are funny things. Gateways to all sorts of places and not just north, south, east, or west.’ She held up one of the gallowberries with a grin. ‘And these can help unlock all manner of gates.’
So, when she was finally caught, some months later, cutting the hand from a hanged man, she was able to escape the rope and the salivating burghers who wanted to see her last choking moments. I watched from my roost in a tree. She stepped carefully out of the cart they’d brought her in, keeping her eyes on the road, looking for a shift in the air, for an almost imperceptible line that would tell her a crossing space was there.
I knew by her face when she’d found it, the half-smile twitching her lips, and the toss of her thin, pale hair. She popped one of the gallowberries she habitually carried into her mouth. As she moved forward, she spoke a word or two, bit down hard and blinked out of existence. Gone just like that, leaving seven confused and terrified men milling about, and me lying along a branch, with a sense of satisfaction and loss.
Take that, you bastards, I thought viciously. I was angry, but not so angry that I came down before they had all gone back to their cosy homes and their warm, ample wives and their smug, self-righteous town. I stood on the spot where she’d disappeared then sat in the dirt, searching for the path she had taken. It was beyond my pitiful abilities, though. She never taught me how to find those doorways, never taught me the words that acted as keys to other places.
Eventually I knew it was time to move on, that the ache of being left behind would work against me were I to give in to it. To be found where the witch had last been seen – who knew what the fearful, tiny-minded clowns of Bitterwood might make of that?
In the velvet darkness I visited the houses of those seven foremost men, the members of the town council, who’d judged my mother and brought her to the crossroads. The night before her hanging, I sneaked to the back window of the place where they’d held her. Her jailer, she’d whispered to me out of the bars of the cell, had been kind, as had his wife. I was instructed not to touch them. The seven, though, those fine upstanding citizens, were to be taken care of – whether I punished them or their families was irrelevant. Those left untouched would live in guilt and fear of what might visit them in times to come; any future misfortune would be viewed as something resulting from this day’s work. My mother had a fine mind for revenge.
I moved through the blackness like a fish through water, my eyes accustomed, pupils widening to swallow all the white. Perhaps this is the result of my strange conception, perhaps this is my father’s dead gift to me: the ability to see like a cat or a creature of under-earth, and other things besides. I poisoned wells at three of the houses. At the next two homes, I spoke lovingly to the cows as I rubbed their udders with an oil to curdle the milk therein and I fed them a mix of grasses and herbs to render them barren. At the last two residences, I stood at one end of the fields, held a powder of salt and sulphur, breathed malignant words across my palm and blew. Caught by eldritch winds, the particles drifted across the earth to settle into the soil, to kill the crops and prevent any fresh ones.
I was exhausted. Unlike white magic, which rewards its maker as well as its object, malign magic sucks the strength out of you. I knew I had to find somewhere to hide, to lie low before the sun rose and my deeds were discovered. If I tried to run, drained as I was, they would hunt me down as surely as day follows night; but if I stayed in close, hid in plain sight, I would have a good chance of surviving. No one had seen me, no one knew about me but if I were discovered walking determinedly away from the town with its ill-water and ruined livestock then questions would be asked. I did not want to return to the hut in which my mother and I had spent our last two nights together. I did not want to meet the memories that would surely wait for me there.
Once anger, grief and vigilance were dulled by time and fear, then I might again take to the roads.
I found a barn on the outskirts of town. It was rundown and inhabited by a few scrawny cows and ancient chickens, but the straw in the hayloft was fresh and soft. It would give me a relatively safe haven for the days I needed. I slept the sleep of the just – or the vengeful, depending on your viewpoint – and woke feeling refreshed and hungry.
In the darkness I hadn’t really taken in the state of the house to which the barn belonged, but I wasn’t entirely surprised to see it was equally depleted. A two-storied manor with grubby windows and shingles missing from the roof. The overgrown garden was beautiful though, filled with roses and jasmine, magnolias and the like. It was not close to its neighbours and was mostly shielded from view by tall hedges and large trees. I watched the yard between the cracks in the walls. The only activity was that of a single woman, perhaps in her thirties, with the bump of a child beginning to show. No sign of a husband or children, no sign of servants. I observed until the growling of my stomach got too loud to ignore. If nothing else I could beg stale bread; better though if I stole it, if no one saw me.
I waited until the woman headed to the small orchard set behind the house.
The cool of the stone-flagged kitchen welcomed me. I could smell fresh bread, just out of the oven. My nose led me to it, cooling on the bench. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness I saw the room was clean and tidy. A vase with bright yellow flowers sat in the middle of a rough table. Pots and pans, dented with age but scrubbed bright, hung from nails on beams above my head, and a tidy sideboard housed a collection of unmatched crockery. Pieces of coloured glass sat along the window sill eating the sunlight and throwing brilliantly tinted shafts around the room. A fireplace was cut deep into the wall and an iron cauldron hung over the cold remains of a fire.
I was reaching for the warm loaf when there was a small scream and the sound of something shattering.
Turning, I saw the woman silhouetted in the doorway. I stepped into the patch of light coming through the window so she would see me fully and know me to be no threat. I looked like a starveling cat, huge eyes, hollow cheeks and dark hair; no danger at all.
She gave a sigh, not angry but surprised. ‘Oh, you did give me a start!’
I took heart and spoke. ‘I’m sorry.’ I bent down to help scoop up the pieces of broken plate. ‘I’m so hungry,’ I said as I carefully put the smaller shards onto the biggest one, trying not to cut myself.
‘You had only to ask.’ Her tone was reproving but she smiled and I could see she was older than I first thought. Her hair shone, a mix of gold and silver and grey. She must have been over forty. She put a hand to the small of her back and rubbed ruefully. ‘You’ll be wanting something to drink with that, I’d imagine.’
I told her I was alone in the world, travelling to the cathedral-city of Lodellan to look for work. She said her name was Dowsabel and she did not question me too closely. Just a few days, I begged of her, and she readily agreed. I think she was glad of company.