The Norfolk town that I live in is very small, however we’re surrounded by a lot of countryside that’s mainly farmland and forests. Amongst the scenery there are lots of odd things dotted around… Like there’s a meadow, for example, that’s a mass of overgrown grass and wildflowers. In the middle of the meadow is a ring of stones that encircle a large rock which stands at 5 foot high. Legend has it that the larger rock is a witch that was turned to stone after she milked a cow until it ran dry.
When I was a child, I always thought that seemed really extreme. Why would you turn someone to stone because they drank too much milk? Perhaps the ‘witch’ had a calcium deficiency, or just a bit of a hankering for a nice glass of creamy goodness here and there. My mum always tutted and shook her head when I suggested this, and would remind me that before the Fens were drained they all had very little contact with the outside world. One greedy woman could result in the death of many others, she said. So basically, the witch had been turned to stone for good reason.
One of our weird local rituals was that if a woman conceived in our town then she had to go to the ring of stones at some point in the third trimester of her pregnancy. There, she had to leave a chalice of milk for the witch as an offering. If the women didn’t do this it was said that their breast milk would be ever rotten and cause their babies to starve to death.
It’s hard to explain, but we have always taken these practices very seriously… even when they no longer seem relevant. In more modern days when formula became the more done thing, the women of the town would still take a chalice of milk up to the meadow during their third trimester. Over time it had just become a way of the town, even if there was little sense in it.
When I was 7 I was deemed old enough to start playing out alone. As an adult, I now look back at this as quite reckless of my mother. I am autistic and as a child I was very easily led, which was how I found myself in trouble one autumn morning. I’d bumped into a local lad called Freddie Smith, hanging around on his own at Marsh Park. The other kids didn’t usually play with me, but that day Freddie didn’t exactly have a choice. There had been a nasty case of the flu going around and most the children were being kept indoors, either because they were already ill or because their parents wanted to avoid them catching it. Apparently, mine and Freddie’s mother’s didn’t mind that much if we were at risk.
We had fun at first, playing in the park together happily. But Freddie had always been a bit of a rascal and before long he suggested something to me that made me feel a little uncomfortable.
“My sister’s having a baby soon. She took her chalice up to the ring of stones last night! Shall we go and see it, Mikey?”
I swallowed nervously. It wasn’t that the ring of stones was out of bounds or anything. I’d never been told not to go there, but it’d also never been suggested that I should, either. The lack of clear lines to follow made me uneasy, and the mischievous glint in Freddie’s eyes made me panic.
“I’m not sure, Freddie. I think it’s girls only, or something…”
He rolled his eyes at me. “Well, I’m going anyway. You can stay here if you want. Or you can come with me…”
Of course, I followed him. I felt like Freddie and I might actually become friends after the fun we had had that morning. I didn’t want to mess it up.
We trekked the mile or two out of the centre, towards the edge of the forest where the meadow lay. When we got there I looked up at the centre rock in awe. It felt huge, compared to Freddie and I. The jagged rocks that surrounded it were much smaller, no higher than my knees, their sharp edges all pointing directly at ‘the stone witch’. There were hundreds of old metal chalices littered around the meadow, with one full one sat on one of the surrounding stones.
“That must be Cassandra’s offering,” Freddie said, eyeing it up. “Do you believe in the witch, Mikey?”
I shrugged, reluctant to admit that I certainly did. I believed most things my mother told me. I settled on telling Freddie that if the witch was real, then I thought it was nasty of the town’s elders to turn her into stone just because she wanted some milk. “That is pretty mean,” Freddie said, thoughtfully.
So started a glorious game of ‘free the thirsty witch’. As little boys do, we beat the stone with sticks to try and break her free. Then we tried to kick it over. Truth be told, I was never really into rough and tumble play, but the way Freddie laughed as we messed about made my heart soar with hope. Maybe I’d finally found a friend. When Freddie started throwing rocks at the chalice to see if he could knock it down, I held back a little, throwing them half hardheartedly and feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the direction this was going.
What Freddie suggested next I couldn’t agree to even in my desperation to impress. “I’m thirsty.” He declared. “I’m going to drink the milk.”
“No!” I gasped. “You can’t drink it, Freddie… It’s the witch’s! She needs it!”
“If she needed it that much she would have come out and got it already, stupid. I need it. I’m going to have some…”
Freddie darted towards the milk eagerly and I yanked him back by his arm. He hissed with pain and scowled at me. I felt tears filling me eyes because I was so upset that I had made him angry.
“Cry-baby! Cry-baby! Cry-baby Mikey doesn’t want the witchy’s milkies to get drank, blub blub blub!” Freddie laughed cruelly and I dropped his arm, stung and confused by the sudden change of atmosphere between the two of us.
Of course, he darted right up to the chalice and, looking me dead in the eye, he lifted it to his lips and took a deep swig. I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen, and I’m not sure what he was expecting, but his face crumpled in disgust as he spat it out on the ground. “Eurgh!” He moaned, doubling over and clutching his stomach. His cheeks bloated out and his face paled. Fear clutched my stomach. I was worried that he had been poisoned for taking the witch’s milk. Was he about to drop dead in front of me?
He looked as if he had just been slapped around the face. I darted towards him. I wanted to help. Then he stood up, waving me away angrily. “It’s gone sour!” He cried before throwing the chalice down to the ground.
I winced, a memory of accidently drinking rotten milk from the bottle a few months ago still fresh on my taste buds. “Are you alright, Freddie? Shall we go and get some squash and a snack at my house?”
Freddie scowled at me again. As an adult, I think he was probably embarrassed about what had happened, but at the time I just blamed myself for the entire situation. “I’m not going anywhere with you, cry-baby! Leave me alone.”
Freddie headed off in the direction of town without me. I hung around at the ring of stones for a while, feeling terribly sorry for myself about yet another taste of rejection. It was a taste I would become used to eventually, but at the age of 8 it still cut deep.
I picked up the chalice that Freddie had thrown on the floor. Most of the milk had sunk into the soil, but still I placed what remained of the offering on the rock that faced the stone witch. I whispered a quick apology, then wandered back home slowly.
I didn’t tell my mum what had happened. The women of the town took the tradition very seriously and I knew she would be livid by what had happened in the meadow. There was no way she wouldn’t tell Freddie’s mother and I was already in his bad books – the last thing I wanted to do was wind him up further by grassing him in. I didn’t really think about his sister, Cassandra, and how she might feel if she found out her offering had been stolen. I just didn’t want anybody to get in trouble… myself included.
The next day, my mother told me we were both on lockdown. Neither of us were to leave the house. At first I was horrified that I had been found out, that it was a punishment for my part in the day before. But when I asked why she explained that the flu that was going around the town seemed to be a bit more serious than they’d first thought.
“Little Freddie Smith is ever so ill,” She told me. “Apparently he’s been throwing up thick white mucus every half hour since lunchtime yesterday! Aunty Helen tried to go round this morning, to do his mum’s hair. Well, Carol sent her straight away! She said his vomit stinks just like rotten eggs and his tummy is as bloated as his sisters. She won’t be held responsible for spreading this round town. Well, it’s already all round, I bet. I don’t mind a touch of flu but I won’t have any stinking sick in this house – you’re not to step foot out of this house, until I say so.”
Freddie’s ‘sickness’ never did spread, though. The flu around town soon wore off, and Freddie was the only one who ever had the reeking white vomit and the bloated stomach. And it didn’t go within a few weeks, like the typical flu did. Freddie was bed bound for three months with that illness, and it had long lasting effects after, too. To this day, he’s still lactose intolerant… but he’d never had a problem with dairy before that day at ring of stones. And he still always looks like he’s just had a slap around the face (or a face like a smacked arse, as my mother always said). I’ve heard from people my age that it’s because every time he tries to eat or drink something, all he can taste is rotten milk.
I suppose you could just put all of that down to a weird coincidence. It gets weirder, though. A few months after Freddie got sick with the witch’s flu his sister – Cassandra – gave birth to her baby. Now, as I’ve said, legend has it that those women who didn’t offer the witch a chalice of milk would be cursed with rotten breast milk. Well, Cassandra had a bit of a worse experience than that. Her baby was born detrimentally deformed… Where its mouth should have been, there was nothing but smooth skin. No lips, no hole… Nothing.
I know, it sounds unreal. They whisked him away the moment he was born and they operated. They operated over and over again. But every single time they created something that could function as a mouth, the skin would just grow right back over it within a day or two.
He survived, you might be surprised to hear. He’s been tube fed through his nose since birth. They keep operating, they keep trying to ‘fix’ him. He’s had a great number of experimental operations in our little hospital. None of them worked, but he gets by.
Believe it or not, I know the kid well. His life has been a little rough, what with having no mouth… People can be cruel. But, for the most part, people got used to it. He’s just another part of the scenery, nowadays. I taught him sign language not long after I learnt it, after my horrible experience in Marsh Park. He’s a teenager now and from what I can tell he’s a nice enough lad. Much nicer than his Uncle Freddie ever was, anyway.
Sometimes I wonder if I am reading too much into all this business with the stone witch. Maybe Freddie really did have a rare, unusual version of the flu. Maybe he was dairy intolerant all along. Maybe Cassandra’s boy’s deformity wasn’t a punishment for her offering being spat on the ground. When my wife had our baby, though… Well, I wondered if I was being praised, in some weird way. You see, she had a huge oversupply of breast milk, and though it was uncomfortable and often painful for her, she was able to express and donate endless bottles for premature babies in NICU units up and down the country. Maybe that was the witch’s way of thanking me, for trying to be respectful of her?
Well, that’s just one of many strange things that went on in our town. I thought you might like to hear it.