The Witch's Hat

 

Chapter 1

The ground was hard and cool where he sat, crouching under the bush. His bush. His magic door to a secret land. He looked out through the open pattern of branches and leaves. Something was going to happen. At any moment an elf could skip by, off to collect mushrooms. Or a bird could land on a branch of this very viburnum bush, cock his head, and ask Nico to join him on a flight through the tree tops. He stretched his legs and continued gazing through the softly shifting leaves. Ahead all he could see was the same green grass that needed mowing, sprinkled with buttercups and ox eyes. The same wildly growing shrubs and tangle of weeds and wild flowers in the border.

Nico had one problem. In books, magical lands could only be found by accident. Anyone deliberately trying to get to Narnia would only find the back of a wardrobe. Nico had tried many times to find a magical entrance to another world, not Narnia but a world of his own. A special place full of wondrous, magical excitement. He did not want to fight dragons or to go on a quest; he wanted to enter a mystical realm and experience the wonder of it. It was hard to accidentally search for a place without really thinking about it. Under this viburnum, enclosed in its cavern of branches, was the perfect spot. Unfortunately he couldn't crouch under the branches without thinking about where he wanted to go. He tried to pretend he was bird watching, or hiding from his mother. It never worked. There was one thing, though, that Nico knew. One day he would find a special land, because he wanted it so much.

The kitchen was bright and cheerful, the glow from its windows lighting up the cloudy summer evening. Nico was shaping cookies with his mother. Stars, diamonds, hearts, and birds. They all reminded Nico of his secret magical world. His special place.

"Mom, did you ever want to find an entrance to another world?"

His mother smiled. "When I was your age, my sisters and I used to like to pretend that we could get to special lands. There was a hall stand in the entrance way. It had hooks for coats on either side of a tall mirror. We would hide behind the coats and pretend that we had gone through the mirror to a beautiful countryside full of fairies and flowers."

"You couldn't really go through the mirror. I would like to really go through the mirror." Nico rolled out some more dough.

His mother continued, "One summer a robin flew through our living room window, breaking it. My sisters and I decided that it made a wonderful entrance to our imaginary land. We went from the couch to the windowsill, and as we jumped through to the front garden it was just as if we had really entered a magical place. We felt a special thrill as if we were in a fairy land. The whole garden looked different, trees sparkled, flowers shone. We became the queens of spring, summer and Winter. It was almost as if it had really happened."

"But you were still in your front garden."

"That's true, but it was still a very special feeling, a very special place."

"I would like to find a place like that, but I don't want it to be pretend." Nico shaped two more stars and the dough was finished. "I want it to be real."

His mother opened the oven door and he helped her put the trays in. She looked at him, "If you want it to happen, if you feel that strongly about it, you will find your special land. It will be real for you." She drew him close and gave him a kiss.

The summer was warm and mellow. Nico hunted for frogs in the ditches, went swimming at the beach, and went for long walks down the neighborhood trails, but he never lost the urge to accidentally discover an entranceway. A portal to a mystical kingdom. Doing it accidentally was the hardest part. He spent hours reading and daydreaming in his viburnum cave, but whenever he looked out the world was the same. He tried to pretend as his mother had done. To run out and feel that he was in a magical garden. But the feeling never came. He was always in his own backyard. The flowers didn't brighten, the trees didn't glisten, the fragrances didn't overwhelm him. In fact, over the sweet smell of roses and honeysuckle, he could still dimly make out the musty smell of the compost box. This certainly wasn't his special land.

He watched the house finches and black-headed juncos at the bird feeder. None of them looked his way or came over to have a talk. The cat wandered over and snuggled up to Nico, purring. Nico absently patted him. It was a warm afternoon, even under the shade of the sprawling bush. Nico's eyes started to close. The cat curled up on his lap, purring even louder. Rhythmically. In a few moments both were sleeping in the dappled shade.

A rustling of branches woke Nico. The cat had left. Wisps of sleep still clung to Nico, swirling before his eyes. He looked up and on the wattled branches, sunlight lighting fire on his wings, was a butterfly. A monarch. Nico had never seen a monarch in his garden before. He had seen the pale cabbage butterflies, and the brighter yellow and black ones, but never the monarch with wings like a stained glass window at sunset.

The butterfly lifted off as Nico shook the last traces of sleep from his head. This was the moment he had been waiting for. With a thrill of excitement running through him, Nico emerged from his cavern of branches into the blinding sunlight. Everything seemed brighter and more real than it ever had been. He looked about and caught a flash of orange from a nearby rosebush. The monarch was waiting for him. It was the biggest butterfly he had ever seen. It fluttered from the rose to a trellis of honeysuckle, pausing on one flower, then another. He knew it wanted him to follow.

Nico tiptoed softly over the long grass on his bare feet. The butterfly led him through the garden, from the honeysuckle, to a tall spike of scarlet gladiola, to the creamy pungent blossoms of the mock orange. The monarch's wings sparkled as he flitted through the sunlight, never letting himself get out of Nico's sight. The monarch rose over the mock orange as it headed deeper into the tangled garden. Nico pushed his way through the large bush as the fragrant blossoms showered down upon him. He wondered why he had never noticed their heady fragrance. He felt that he had truly entered an enchantment. Nico hurried to keep pace with the butterfly, resting on a shrub close by. Waiting. As Nico caught up, it rose in a sweeping arc over a high stone wall at the end of the garden, lingered for a moment on an apple tree, and disappeared completely into the depths of the orchard beyond.

With the departure of the monarch, the spell broke. Nico found himself leaning up against the stone wall. He had almost bridged the gap between this world and another. He turned towards his house, a little saddened and yet elated.
When Nico arrived back to his house, his mother had supper waiting for him.

"How was your afternoon little one?"

"Mom, it almost happened! A butterfly was taking me. The biggest butterfly I've ever seen. A monarch. We never have them. It took me all the way back to the garden wall, and then it disappeared."

"It disappeared?"

"It flew into the orchard and I lost it. But I know it was taking me somewhere!"

"Well Nico, do you know what I think? A butterfly, a beautiful, gigantic monarch butterfly could probably do it."

"I hope he comes to our garden again tomorrow."

"Nico, something interesting happened to me today too. On my walk I met the couple who live behind us. In the walled garden. They were very sweet and invited you to come and play in their garden any time you want. You don't need to ask. You can run on in by the side gate. Their children are all grown and they say that they have a lovely old swing in their orchard going to waste. They say that it needs to have a child playing on it again."

"Mom, that's the garden the butterfly was leading me to today."

"That's what I thought was so interesting."

 

Chapter 2

The morning was bright and fresh. Nico woke early, too excited to sleep. He went to his window, opened it, and breathed in the clean morning air. He could see the walled orchard, the sun glinting on the topmost leaves of the apple trees. The faint smell of mock orange drifted up. A feeling of anticipation overwhelmed him. Something was going to happen today.

He rushed into his clothes, slipped out the back door, and ran through the garden. He reached the garden wall and lay against the cool stones. It was too high for him to climb, but today he would be going in there.

Later he was on his way to the side gate in the stone wall. The waiting had been hard, but after breakfast he had done his chores and gone shopping with his mother. It had taken forever. When they arrived home, it was already lunchtime. And now, after making a sandwich to eat on the way, he was almost at the gate. His sandwich was almost finished.

The stiff gate opened with a rasping creak. The grass was long and full of clover, and the apple trees were overgrown. Clusters of small green apples showed among the leaves. They would not be ready for some time, so it was easy to resist the temptation of tasting one. He kept an eye out for the butterfly, at the same time searching among the thickly grown trees for the swing that was supposed to be there. He pushed his way through meshing branches and unexpectedly found himself in a clearing, glowing greenly in the strong midday sun. What he found there was even more unexpected.

It was a witch's hat. That was the first thought that came to his mind. It was a witch's hat. He had been looking for a swing. He had been expecting a rope swing tied to a high branch, maybe with a splitting wooden seat, or an old tire tied to the end of the rope. But this . . . he had never known a swing like this existed. It was more like a merry-go-round than a swing. Ten metal cables extended downwards, raying out from the center post, supporting a platform of ten wooden seats some two feet off the ground. It was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. All other thoughts left his head. He had to try it out.

He expected the swing to be stiff, as the gate had been, but it moved silently at the slightest touch. For all the wildness of the orchard this swing had been lovingly cared for. There was no rust, no rotten boards. It was just waiting for a child to use it. Nico looked at the grass and suddenly noticed that it was weed free and cropped like a thick green carpet. This swing must have been a special part of these people's lives. If it was a witch's hat, then it must have been a good witch.

Nico held a cable in one hand and placed his other hand on a seat. He pushed the swing, running, and when it had picked up some speed he swung himself aboard. He spun around in the sunshine, watching the tops of the trees and listening to the birds sing. The swing not only twirled but it tilted. Nico leaned out and looked up at the sky, then sat and dragged his feet on the ground, slowing the swing. He hopped off and set to running again. As the swing gained momentum he jumped on, this time standing as he twirled.

He looked up and suddenly there it was, dancing in the sky. The butterfly. The monarch, his rich orange and brown shimmering in the sun. Nico had just barely taken in the sight of the butterfly when a strong gust of wind seemed to propel the swing faster. As it spun around blindingly, the trees blurred. Nico lost hold of the cable, flew tumbling across the grass and through a thick shrubby hedge.

A moment before he had been spinning madly, hurtling through time and space. Now he opened his eyes to a place so beautiful it was like nothing he had ever seen before. Colour was everywhere, shimmering, shining, blinding him. Nico sat up in awe. He was in a hanging garden. Flowers dripped from a sky of blossoms. His eyes adjusted to the brilliance. He had done it! The swing was the door!

He felt that magical feeling his mother had talked about. He wandered in the hanging garden. A flower dropped. He watched it float downwards, the moment stretching endlessly. Nico felt he was, and always would be, a part of the garden. It was inside of him. The flower landed; the moment broke. Nico turned, and there on the flower strewn lawn was a boy a little older than himself.

He was dressed as any boy would dress in summer. T-shirt, shorts, and runners. He should have looked like any boy, but there was a magical quality to his face, the way his mouth and eyes turned up in the corners. He knelt down, picked up a blossom, and gently placed it on his open palm. He held it up to his face, reverently. It reflected in his eyes. Nico softly came over beside the boy.

"What are you doing?" he asked gently.

"I am gathering Jewels, look."

He held the flower out to Nico, petals glowing translucently. The flower sparkled with tiny dew drops. And reflected in every dew drop was the monarch butterfly. Nico looked up quickly, but the butterfly was nowhere in sight. There were only himself and the boy, and the flowers hanging from the sky and spilling to the grass.

"Can I help you?" Nico asked.

In silence and wonder the two boys gathered the fallen gems, holding each one up to gaze upon before placing it in a wide basket.

"Come," said the boy. "Let's go to the pond. This is the best part."

They carried the basket between them to a pond of still water, reflecting the sky. The boy knelt on the grass at the water's edge, dipped in his hands, and gently stirred the water. Ripples started spreading outwards across the pond.

The boy took a glistening blossom, held it up, and then placed it softly on the water. The flow of the ripples carried the flower out towards the center of the pond. Nico knelt beside the boy. He took a flower from the basket and held it up to the sun. It was indeed a jewel. The sun's rays danced on the many tiny drops of dew, the coral petals glowed. Nico placed the shimmering blossom on the gently flowing water. He watched it bob upon the ripples, further and further out into the pond.

One after another, the two boys sent the blossoms afloat. Soon the pond was a sparkling garden of glistening, glinting blossoms, gently floating. The fragrance of lotus wafted sweetly across the water. Golden koi broke the surface, to feed on lazy insects. Brilliant blue dragonflies hovered, here, there. Nico felt joy welling, bursting.

He looked up and there was the monarch butterfly, its wings like softly glowing embers. It dipped towards the water, swooping from flower to flower, coming closer with every dive.

"It's the butterfly!" Nico cried, turning towards the boy.

The boy was not there. He had left as silently as he had come. Nico turned back to the pond. The butterfly made two graceful swoops and then spiralled up, brilliant sunset wings taking to the sky. And then he could no longer see it. The soft smell of lotus seemed to fade. Distantly, Nico could hear the sound of children playing. He took one last long look at the glimmering pond and then turned in the direction of the voices. Thickly growing shrubs crowded close around the pond. Nico pushed his way through tangled branches, searching for a path. The children's voices, now muffled, now lifting with excitement, led him deeper. Leaves brushed his face and tiny flowers tangled in his hair. The whispering branches almost pushed him forwards. Deeper.

The voices grew fuller, richer, more real. The leaves and branches bigger, more thickly growing, more close knit. Nico wondered how he could get through, but the branches sifted him onward. And suddenly, when they seemed their thickest, he was free of them.

Nico found himself again in the warm green clearing, and here, in the dappled sunlight, was the witch's hat. It was in motion. Alive. Three children were aboard, swinging, soaring. Their voices rang full and clear.

As he watched the swing sway and tip, Nico held back, hesitated. He backed against the shrubs. The branches meshed and twined tightly, solid as a stone wall. The leaves tickled his back, pushing him forward. The voices rose and fell, warmly tempting.

Nico took a tentative step forward, and then two. He paused, watching the children twirling, legs flying, and then he ran forward to join them. The children slowed the swing. Nico hopped on and they set it in motion again, swooping, arcing, laughing. And overhead, circling high in the brilliant clear blue, the monarch danced.

 

THE END

 

 

2002 Copyright held by the author.

 

 

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