Marianne

She was a real witch, that one.

In that she had a kind of magic about her, not part of her but something she had grasped, and used to grasp at other things, so that it twisted things around her, and the safety net of Right and Wrong trembled too violently to be trusted.

She knew of a couple - the wife was pregnant - and their unsatisfied minds; so, she knew a way they were vulnerable. At certain times, when the husband might be walking to the shops or the wife might be off to her night classes, a cover that hid a patch of the witch's garden might seem to slip and a certain kind of leaf would be revealed, brashly growing. It made them wonder. The wife wondered, resentfully, about the girl she'd never been and the things she'd never tried, and she swayed the husband, who wondered about adventure and whether it was fair enough to steal something from someone that they should never have had.

So one night he stole a couple of leaves, in the darkness, telling himself that the witch could not be watching from the high window, tracking him with contempt.

The wife took the leaf, and found there was nothing like it, and that she needed more. Even the husband grew to want it. On his sixth trip to the garden, the witch chose to catch him. "Come in," she said.

She gave him wine and she gave him a joint and he took both, and felt crazy almost immediately, but stayed dreamily watching the shadows in her old, wide, blue eyes. She told him he'd gone somewhere he shouldn't go and he wanted to agree but found it easier to listen. She told him the leaves were not for him. Back the conversation came to him, and his wife, and the child. The child, she told him, the child they had wronged. A pregnant woman should take care with the substances she put into her body. A husband should take care with what he brought to his wife. The child, she said, the child will show the world where you have been and what you have done... Back the conversation came to debt and payment. Do you know what you've done? She asked. He wasn't sure. Her eyes were sliding in and out of each other. He was reaching with his toes, furtively, for the ground.

The child, she said, the child, and he realised that the child was a guilt, a weight, a terrible shame because of how they might have endangered the child. They had a debt to the witch. Their coming baby stood in the way of their redemption. The debt and the redemption became attached to the child. She smiled at him slowly and gave him more leaves and knew that she had embedded shapes in the man's mind, and that in three months when their baby was born it would be passed into her arms, and the man and the woman would drift away, themselves like leaves fallen from their own sure tree and driven by the wind.

The child was a girl and she was perfect. Marianne, the mother had whispered to the witch before she was gone, and only when she was being most cruel did the witch call that daughter Mary-Jane. When Marianne was old enough to understand this she would look at her guardian with hopeless mute eyes and the witch, bored, would stop.

But Marianne was not mute; she spoke clearly, and the witch was not always cruel, except in the ways that mattered. Her cruelty lay under the surface of their lives the way the Midgard serpent coils around the Earth, across the ocean floor, impossible to lift above the waves, knowing it can break the world.

From the time that Marianne was very young, the witch built a tower in her mind.

The tower was all kinds of things. Its foundation was perfection. Its height produced distance, so that Marianne learned to look at things without needing to be close to them; soon enough, she was far away from everything. Eagle sight came with a glassy gaze, for the things that were under her nose came to seem unclear, or unimportant, or simply not there. She moved gracefully, because she learned she could not fall, because her tower could not fall. Or stumble, or crumble. Her walls were thick and solid. Her body was strong and enduring. She ran along the streets in the evening and felt the wind that blows in a lonely way on heights. She was a blank faced girl whose marble fa├žade was not etched with anything at all. A tower has windows but Marianne could turn even her stormy eyes to stone.

The witch built all this around Marianne with her hazardous power; and the witch made the girl alone, her guardian her only contact. Even the witch could be the same as solitude to Marianne, because the witch was not bound by a tower, and the witch had made it so that the tower was all Marianne knew.

Sometimes the witch could be in the same room of their house as Marianne and she would be doing something Marianne could not understand, and for the girl that might as well be the same as if the witch were not there at all. Marianne would watch her desperately and not see her, and not bother to speak, because she was not sure that her words could reach where she could not.

But the witch was clever, and when she made the tower in Marianne's mind, she made herself a way into it.

Every morning when Marianne lay waking in her bed, never curled on her side but like a statue, on her back, the witch would come in and plait her hair. The girl did not resist. But when the witch ran her hands through Marianne's hair there was nothing Marianne could keep secret, nothing that she could shut out, no way to disobey, no private part in her mind. With an old, antique comb of shell the witch might as well be untangling Marianne's thoughts, and when the witch ordered her, Marianne would speak - of anything, of the witch, of how her yesterday had gone at school, of what she ought to think. Marianne's mind was locked into the tower but the witch could grasp the long gold strands and visit her prisoner in the jail she had made, for as long as she wanted.

But Marianne could not leave her tower. She lived it.

She learned well, because applied intelligence was a form of perfection. She sang in the choir, because she had a beautiful voice. It unnerved her that when she sang she could see doors open in people's faces, see the way that her voice went where she could not go, out from the tower and into the world. She sang out, trying not to hear her own voice, which was the echo from the tower walls, which she could not endure. She ran in the school athletics team. She had no friends and a few acquaintances. From her tower she couldn't reach out to other people. She never tried to be herself; she only tried to be perfect, because without perfection she would swing from a window of the tower and fall.

The witch had done all of this. The witch gloated. She knew she was the only one who could manipulate this beautiful mind, this beautiful girl. She would stroke Marianne's long, long hair, the strings to this marionette, and by her caresses and care the girl's hair became almost too beautiful to describe. Never listless or fragile, its full length shone.

Her hands in Marianne's mane, in the quiet morning, the witch would say, "Sing, darling." And Marianne would sing. Arranging the girl's hair, the witch believed that Marianne sang for her, only.

But at school the girl was asked to sing descants, and solos, and she sang them with fiercely focused eyes, sending herself out as if she stood on her tower's window-ledge and kept herself from falling with only one hand. The thrill of this singing was addictive. She sang with her eyes on people's faces, using music to sound out the meanings of their expressions and the sideways flicks of their eyes.

She tried to sing her own words; it nearly ruined her - it left her shaking with terror that the witch nearly caught. Defeating fear was another kind of perfection, so Marianne tried again, with the song that was poetry. Interesting, abstract, unreal poetry about all that she knew inside, which was her tower, and distance, and alienation.

Some people admired her poetry, because it was powerful. Its power evoked all the distance and the exile that she felt: when people read it it was if they were slammed up against her tower's walls. The poetry was Marianne's invisible barriers made tangible; it didn't weaken those barriers or make them easier to scale.

A boy called Tim read her poetry, and saw the tower that she revealed, and stared up its incredible height to see the chink of a window. He was fascinated. His was a mind that could climb to enormous heights, and he watched her walking and running and singing and wondered about her.

One day she turned and the ends of her braided hair slashed across his face... Her apologies were gracious and flawless. Tim asked her, coolly, about her poetry, and saw her eyes shift from stone to open sky.

He found her later at lunch. Because she was gorgeous and this was something a lot of guys in school wanted to do, he reached out and touched her hair - lightly - and he saw fear on Marianne's face, which had been calm, always.

"Hey," he said, holding up his hands. "I'm sorry. You have beautiful hair..." and Marianne smiled, a little, just a little, and Tim twisted the single gold strand, that had been loose, around two of his fingers in a figure of eight...

She talked to him.

Her hair came loose and flew in a wild halo around her face, and when he replied to her, her bleak tower echoed with his visions of the world outside.

One morning the witch said, "How would you like me to arrange your hair?"

"Do it in a bun, the way Tim likes it," said the girl, open and pliant like her shining tresses, the golden locks that unlocked everything kept in her head.

With one sharp hiss the witch turned away, and returned, and with another sharp hiss, of metal this time, cut Marianne's hair away, and it fell on the floor like sunlight. Marianne's mouth fell open. All her words fell away.

The witch drove her from the house that morning with words that broke her tower down, sent every stone spinning away, tore away support. Marianne fled and found the world far too open to her. She was lost. She was silent that day. She did not speak to Tim or to her teachers and she tried to sing, but instead she fell to the ground.

While Marianne was taken to the school sickbay, Tim left school early and went to the witch's house alone.

He found Marianne's hair strewn across the floor and began to gather it up to give back to her, knowing it would mean something to her, but the witch found him.

She used witchery on him, the magic of terrible words; she knew something about everyone, this witch, knew their dark sides and everything they denied. She told Tim things he'd half-suspected and completely feared. She tore at him with half-lies and twisted names and the thorniest truths and when she threw him out at last he was blind.

Heart-blind; lies twisting the things his eyes could see.

These two people wandered, free and blind, alone, for some time.

Tim took the hair that he had gathered, and burned it.

Marianne had her head shaved and tattooed with birds and flowers, and learned to walk an earth where things were real and the only towers were ruined stone.

But one day they met each other face to face one day. Tim lashed out at Marianne with the witch's words. Marianne's eyes had not been stone eyes for a long time, and she saw Tim's blindness.

She cried for the first time in her life.

Tim recognised the Marianne he knew, underneath the lies with which the witch had darkened the world.

They are learning again, these two, Marianne and Tim. She has grown her hair again and it ripples like a lion's mane. He can see again and what is more, he looks for things that are true.

No one knows what has happened to the witch, but it is true in any case that she lost her power, because one day Tim went to see her, and he looked at her, and she knew that he knew that she wanted something that now, she could never have.