The 700 Year Itch
Marie awoke at first light to find out if the prehistoric gas cooker would let her boil enough water for coffee. If not … well, she wondered whether Starbucks delivered by helicopter. It was the only other option out here.
She had wanted to go on a normal holiday: the golden sands of Portugal, the South of France, even the Seychelles. But no. Thanks to her idealistic boyfriend James, she was destined to spend her summer holiday in this run-down cottage in the middle of the bleak North Yorkshire moors. What was wrong with James, anyway? Why would he want to spend a week here, miles from anywhere?
The cooker, to Marie’s amazement, produced a fierce circle of flame from the first of its rusty rings she tried, and the kettle was boiling nicely when James popped his head round the door. It opened with an alarming creak.
“I was just thinking about you,” she said, watching the steam hiss as she poured hot water into a cup.
“Who’s your friend?” he asked.
Marie turned and saw, sitting on the windowsill, a big, black cat.
She liked cats but wasn’t sure about this one. It had no collar, its hair was matted and filthy, and it was covered in fleas. There must have been hundreds of little white specks running all over its tangled fur.
“Poor little thing,” she said. “It must be a stray,”
“Wild more like, living out here,” James suggested and wandered out of the kitchen.
Marie tapped the window and told the cat to Shoo.
It stared at her for a moment then dropped off its perch and trotted out of sight.
Marie found James in the dining room studying some little fold-out tourist leaflets that had been left in the cottage.
“Don’t tell me there are actually places to visit round here,” she said.
“Too right. It says here that the cottage is built on the site of a village that was abandoned by its entire population in the early fourteenth century, and no one has ever been able to explain why. Wicked!”
“They probably went to live somewhere interesting.”
James ignored her. “When we’ve had breakfast I’m going to explore the grounds. Might find something valuable. What do you say?”
“See you at supper.”
Marie had only agreed to this holiday because she had hoped being away from other people and all the distractions of their ordinary life they could sit down and talk. Really talk, about their relationship, about how after five years of marriage they were both so bored with each other.
But now she thought about it, the idea of some quality time on her own seemed very attractive. She’d brought a couple of paperbacks, there was wine in a cooler box and it even looked like being a sunny day.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” she replied.
By lunchtime she was sitting in a deckchair in the garden enjoying a glass of chilled, delicious white wine and thinking she’d been wrong about the attractions of the cottage, when the black cat reappeared.
It sauntered out among from the waist high grass that surrounded the garden. Marie wasn’t frightened of it, she just didn’t want it, and its army of fleas, jumping up on her lap.
“Go away puss’,” she said.
The cat sat down in front of her, looked up and said, “We need your help.”
Marie dropped her glass of wine.
The cat dodged the shower of Chardonnay. “Please, you’re our only hope.”
Marie blinked and said, “You’re a cat.”
“Not always,” the cat replied. “Once I was like you.”
Marie got to her feet. “This can’t be happening. Cat’s can’t speak to people.”
The cat obviously didn’t realise this. “Not ordinary people,” it continued. “But we can speak to women whose ancestors were witches.”
There were rumours about her great aunt Jo, but Marie didn’t see how the cat could know that.
“Will you help us?” It asked.
Marie scratched her head. This was crazy, but she couldn’t think of any other reason why she shouldn’t help the cat.
“I guess so,” she said. “If I can.”
“Thank you.” The cat said and ran back into the grass.
A moment later it returned. And it wasn’t alone.
Marie watched as cat after cat walked into view. They were all shapes, sizes and colours, and all as sorry-looking as the black cat.
She counted twenty-four cats in all.
One, a big ginger Tom, carried something in its mouth. It approached Marie and dropped it on the ground
She was alarmed to see it appeared to be a finger bone.
A human finger bone.
“Now,” the black cat said. “Say, Sister, return to me.”
“Sister return to me. Is that all?” Marie asked. Spells in movies were always in rhyme.
Then she put her hand to her mouth and said, “Oh.”
Because the bone had been replaced by a dark-haired, naked woman. She looked dazed, not sure of where she was.
The only person who appeared more confused was James, who at that moment had arrived back at the cottage.
“What the hell!” he said.
The black cat ignored him and addressed the woman, “We have brought you back Rachel. Now we ask that you do the same for us.”
Its words snapped the woman, Rachel, out of her daze. “You tied me to a post and you burnt me alive, Thomas.” Her eyes were blazing in anger.
The cat flinched. “We were only doing what we thought was right.”
Rachel snorted in derision.
Cowering now, the cat said, “We were wrong. We’ve learnt that in the years of torment since, but please have mercy. Undo your spell, make us men and women again.”
Rachel shook her head. “If you had not seen me turning myself back from a cat into a woman you would not have known I was a witch, and so I found it amusing that my curse would leave you with whiskers and a tail. I found it amusing even as I was dying, and I find it more amusing now. You can be cats, forever. All of you.”
And Rachel waved her hand in the direction of Marie and James.
Realising what was happening, Marie shouted, “We’re not with them ...”
But she was too late.
And twenty-six small heads watched helplessly as Rachel clicked her fingers and disappeared in a puff of smoke.
The other cats left soon after the witch and did not return, and Marie and James had spent most of their time since lazing in the sun, sleeping, eating and making love.
Being turned into a cat could have been a good life, Marie thought.
But of course a witch - who had been able to turn herself into a cat - would have known that.
And she would have known what the real curse would be for the mob who had killed her seven hundred years ago.
You could catch a few with your paws, Marie had soon discovered, but there were always more to take their place.
Making you itch day and night.
Marie sighed, stretched out on the grass and looked at James.
“Scratch my back, honey,” she said. “And please stop licking yourself there.”
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