Sydney E. Low
Meet Atop the Hill at Midnight
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
It’s afternoon when I notice the girl walking down the short alley between Mrs. Franks’ and John’s houses. I don’t think I’ve seen her in town before. I’m sure I would remember if I saw someone like her.
She reminds me more of a sapling or a vine growing up the side of a tree than a girl. Maybe long grass blowing in the wind. Her skirt is the colour of wet soil and tattered at the bottom, revealing pieces of worn, boots. Her shirt – its sleeves pushed up to her elbows – reminds me of a pine bough; a molted patchwork of bark and evergreen needles. Her hair is long, needle straight, and could be made of raven feathers. As she walks, she reaches one delicate hand up towards the sun, the light making her fingers look like small flames in the otherwise shaded alley.
She murmurs to herself in a sing-song way as she walks. “Maiden, mother, crone meet atop the hill at midnight. The maiden from the forest, the mother from the river, and the crone from the mountains.
“‘It has been some time,’ says the crone, in her mountain-grey shawl with her hair pulled low.
“‘It has,’ says the mother, in her river-blue dress with her hair tied high.
“‘It will be spring soon,’ says the maiden, in her forest-green shirt with her hair flowing free.”
Maybe it’s all the recent talk of witches, but I follow her down the alley out of town – away from the spattering of log houses, dirt roads and thin stacks of smoke from the chimneys – and up a grassy hill dotted with white and lavender flowers.
Maybe I just want to postpone returning to sewing alone in my house. Solitary. Ignored. Unwanted. Not too different from the witches, at least until people started hunting them down. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt a strange kinship with them, even though my breath catches in my throat whenever they’re mentioned.
She takes a place on the crest of the hill, facing away from me. I stand several paces back from her, where I’m lower on the hill and can’t see what’s on the other side.
Taking a breath and looking over my shoulders, I say, “You shouldn’t come so far out of town on your own. I’ve heard there are witches around.”
She takes off her boots, placing them on the ground beside her. “Is that so?”
“Not that I’m a busybody, I don’t want you to think that. It’s just that I haven’t seen you before and I thought you might be new and you wouldn’t know such things. You are new to town, aren’t you? Where are you from?”
“I live in the forest.”
“Oh… What’s that like?”
She doesn’t answer my question but for some reason I imagine her smiling.
“I think I was a bird once.”
I shift on my feet, really wondering if I should leave now. “What on Earth do you mean by that?”
“When I feel the wind…” She closes her eyes and holds her arms out to the side like she’s flying, fingers splayed. “I wish it would lift me up off the ground and carry me away.” Tilting her head to the side – the wind picking up her hair and tossing it about – she twists her hands slowly back and forth. “I can almost feel what I would need to do once I was in the air. Which way to angle my wings to catch the current.” She drops her arms – clasping them behind her back – and opens her eyes, turning around to face me. “Have you ever felt like that?”
Having her river-rock eyes focusing on me makes my heart pound. Maybe I should turn and run back to town, keep working on the quilt for Mrs. O’lyle. Pretend I never saw the girl. Yet, I can’t help but sag a little as I answer, “No.”
She smiles, just one corner of her mouth turning up. “Not a bird then. A field mouse, perhaps.”
I look over my shoulder again. I wonder if I’m still close enough to town someone would hear if I cried for help. I force a short laugh. “If you keep talking like that, people will start think you’re a witch.” I can’t help but think of the two girls that were burned alive a few towns away.
The wind comes up behind her. It wraps her skirt around her legs and obscures her face under strands of hair. “If you’re scared of witches, you should avoid the forest.” Most of her face is hidden but I see her smile widen. “The forest is dark for those who don’t know the way.” Through her hair, she watches me like a crow in a tree. “You’d be easy for a witch to catch if you got lost, little field mouse.”
I take a small step away and cross my arms. “Didn’t you say you lived in the forest?”
She laughs. A stream bubbling over pebbles. “Witches don’t scare me.”
I set my shoulders and straighten my back. “Well. If that’s the case, then I’m going back to town.”
At the bottom of the hill, I can still feel eyes watching me. But when I look back, she’s turned her face into the wind again. In fact, she looks almost unnoteworthy. As I walk away, I hear her sing-song murmuring again. “‘We must make ready for the forest to awake in full,’ says the crone, starting down the hill.
“‘We must keep an eye out for useful plants on the way back,’ says the mother, following down the hill.
“‘We must be careful,’ says the maiden, falling in behind. “I’ve heard there’s witches about.’
The crone laughs. The mother smiles. And the maiden grins.”
That night, I find myself comparing my dress to the girl’s when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror hanging over my dresser. A washed-out grey, one of many just like it sold by the tailor. Not quite the right measurements but I’ve never cared enough to take it in. And my boots, sitting by the door. Well-made by the town’s cobbler, but the colour of dried firewood stacked neatly along the edges of houses, ready to be burned. I shake my head, hoping it will shake away the bitterness in the back of my throat. A field mouse indeed…
When I blow out the candle on my windowsill, I see three figures standing on the hill where I talked to the girl. I forget the candle, darting across the room and dashing out my front door, not brothering with a cloak or my boots.
Pebbles and sticks bite my bare feet. I tear through town, barely noticing the windows – lit and darkened – I run past. The night air is near-stinging cold on my face. Down the alley, I can more clearly make out the figures silhouetted in the moonlight. Enough to tell they’re all women – skirts or dresses and long hair – but not enough to tell their ages.
I try to find enough air to call out to them but I can’t. By the time I reach the top of hill, they’re across the river and heading into the forest. The grass brushes against my skirts making a soft hush as I run after them. By the time I reach the bank of the river, they’re gone, disappeared into the dark forest.
I stand there, panting, long enough to gather up my skirts before wading into the river. The water is biting cold. Soon my legs go numb from my knees down. Skirts clinging to my wet legs, I make my way into the forest after them.
Under the canopy, the moonlight makes the river look like a silver ribbon through the trees. The air itself seems alive. Lightning bugs flit about; embers dancing in the air. Slowing, I reach out a hand towards a cluster of the small lights. The bugs scatter away from my fingers.
I turn, taking in the glowing forest again. It’s not so dark after all.
Hidden among the underbrush is the girl; watching me, seeing me. She grins at me, one unseen to another. Then vanishes into the bushes.