The Witch of Clatteringshaws

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Authors: Joan Aiken
Something-or-other. Here she was, still in her red dress, still clutching her golf club.
    “What song was that? I don’t remember.”
    “Oh, don’t,
don’t
tell me you’ve forgotten!”
    The girl—no, she was a woman, really—looked so utterly distraught that Dido racked her brain.
    “You say the train was stopping—oh, yes, I remember, the station announcer was saying something … and what she said reminded me of one of my pa’s tunes … it went like this—”
    And Dido sang:
    “
I love you in the springtime and I love you in the fall
,
    To love you is my fate
.
    But shall we ever meet?
    For here my train will terminate.…
    “Is that the song you mean?”
    The woman’s face was that of a person who has just been saved from falling over a cliff.
    “That’s it! That is it! That’s the one!”
    She tapped it out with her fingers as if the sand they were sitting on was a keyboard.
    “Sing it just once again and I’ll have it noted down in my mind. But not too loud. We don’t want Phemie McClan out here after you.”
    After she had sung the verse a second time, Dido asked: “Why is it so important to you?”
    “I have been trying to remember that tune for twenty-five years.”
    “But why? I know it’s a very teasing tune—all Pa’s tunes are like that—but why’s it so tarnally important to you?”
    “Once I undertook a job—a task—it was necessary to stay in one place and listen—to hear—something that somebody was going to say. But I heard this tune being played on a barrel-organ in the street outside the window. I’m mad for tunes. They haunt me, specially when they are only half remembered. And this was one I’d heard before and half forgotten—it was driving me crazy.”
    Dido nodded. “I know. I’ve felt like that with tunes. Specially Pa’s tunes, they are so catchy, but not at all simple—”
    “That’s it exactly!” said the woman. “So I ran out, leaving my post, and the organ and the street singer had gone already—I never heard the tune again—and when I got back it was too late—the words I should have heard had been said—or not said. It was too late,” she repeated. And she went on, half to herself, “Nothing so silent as the mouth of one just dead. There were these three saints, you see, Saint Arfish, Saint Ardust, and Saint Arling. They left instructions that their dying words were to be written down. And kept secret for a period of time. The first for three years, the second for nine years, the third for twenty-one years.”
    “Why?”
    “Oh, how should I know why? The first saint died cursing, the second died laughing.”
    “Why?”
    “The curse of Saint Arfish was tremendous. ‘May you fall so ill that if the sea were made of ink, it would not be enough for your doctor to write you a prescription!’ ”
    “Croopus! Who did he curse like that?”
    “That was why Saint Ardust died laughing. Saint Arfish forgot to fill in the name of whoever he was cursing, so the curse failed to go off. And who it was meant for, we shall never know. That was why Saint Ardust died laughing.”
    “What were
his
dying words?”
    “He never had time for them.”
    “What about the third saint? Saint Arling?”
    “That is what we don’t know. And never shall! Because of my wicked negligence, running out into the street to try to catch that tune.”
    “Oh,” said Dido. “I see. Well, I guess you just have to learn to live with that.” And after a minute she added, “Did you know that Mrs. McClan’s husband just died?”
    “I guessed that might be so. Since the old man, not Angus McClan, was digging the graves. Usually Angus would be doing the digging. What about Desmond?”
    “Recovering from tonsillitis.”
    “Humph! More likely phizectomy!”
    “What in the world’s that?”
    “Angus McClan had a talent for changing people’s faces.”
    “Unh?”
    “He could give you a new face so your mother wouldn’t know you—and somebody else’s mother

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