23. A witch’s treasure

Many many years ago, inside a stone shack, there were a miserable farm worker, a young penniless doctor and a feverish girl with no family nor name. The two young men were fighting over morals. The girl was fighting for her life. Blinded by a hunger as old as the world, the hunger for gold, the two boys had started something they didn’t know how to finish. A foreigner, a man with strange clothes and an even stranger accent, had told the doctor how to tame a witch, and he, who was a coward, had told his robust friend with not a second thought about consequences. But consequences had caught up with them, in the form of a young girl’s life.

“I told you, she’s not going to die.”

Barked Antonio, darker than ever, to his pale friend.

“And I told you that I don’t know if save her is in power. I don’t know if it is physiological or magical. Sincerely, I didn’t know she was going to suffer for losing her powers.”

“The gipsy didn’t tell you? Not a word? And how he thought we could take the treasure from her if she wasn’t going, at least, to be weaker, maybe to collapse?”

“Now you worry about it? It was you who did it!”

Antonio lowered his eyes. The other one could breathe a little.

“Listen, there’s no reason for you and me to fight over this. I neither want to see this poor girl die.”

“Daniele, the gipsy never told why he was explaining to you how to defeat the witch, instead of doing it by himself?”

“Again, he is not a gipsy…”

“I could not care less!”

Antonio shouted again, then he took a deep breath.

“Whatever he is, he wasn’t interested in the treasure, so, there has to be another reason. And, since this is the nice result – Antonio pointed to the trembling girl with his open hand – I think he wanted the witch dead, but he didn’t or couldn’t kill her himself.”

Daniele nodded.

“Ok, I see. But this does not tell me how to cure her. I still don’t know what is the cause of her fever.”

“I don’t care, Daniele! Just keep it down!”

“If you just could stop snarling at me like a dog, maybe I could get my thinking together, for Christ’s sake!”

The girl moaned and the two diverted their eyes from one another. Daniele went to the girl. Antonio paced the space from the table to the door, reaching the outside to get some fresh air. Some minutes after, his friend called upon him.

“Listen, Antonio. – He sighed – I could use some stronger medicine. Show me the treasure, so I can see what we’ve got and try to buy something under the table at the faculty hospital.”

Antonio walked to the opposite wall of his decrepit home and reached to an uneven rock.

“It is nothing like you thought.”

He removed a bundle of strangely whirling clothes from a hole in the wall but was hesitating to turn to his friend.

“What to do you mean?”

Antonio unrolled the bundle with a single turn of his wrist and a long, shiny, thick braid of black hair came out and twirled in the air, like if it had a life of its own. Daniele was astonished. Antonio was keeping it high in his hand but the more time the thing spent out in the air, the more it seemed to grow and acquire vitality. Finally, the doctor spoke.

“This is not the treasure at all.”

Antonio laughed harshly.

“Don’t you see the guy played us? There’s no treasure at all! Only this demonic thing!”

“But, can’t you really see it? Now it does all make sense! That thing is not our treasure, it is HIS treasure! – Daniele had a cruel light in his eyes. – When I asked him what it was going to be his reward for telling me everything, he answered that all he wanted were the leftovers.”

“Leftovers?”

Daniele nodded.

“He wanted leftovers of the witch, her source of power.”

Antonio was speechless, while the braid was still growing and snapping in his hands, like a boa constrictor who fights for its freedom.

“Where did you attack the witch?”

“I told you, I was in the woods not far from here.”

“You better run there, if you still want that treasure.”

Daniele had to grab his friend’s arm to release him from the odd fixity he had entered.

“What’s up with you?”

“Ah? What? – Antonio found difficult to focus and speak. – I think it’s the braid. Help me  with it. Help me envelop it again in the consecrated cloth.”

“Consecrated? How did you get it?”

Antonio did not answer, but the piece of altar vestment was so worn out and old that Daniele didn’t care to ask again. They managed to wrap the braid and push it again into the hole in the wall. Daniele noticed that stone used by Antonio as a lid had a tiny, wood cross placed on the inside. Placed the braid, Antonio had to leave the shack and venture again into the woods. Before leaving he took Daniele’s hands into his own and made him swear.

“You have to promise me two things.”

The other tried to interrupt him, but Antonio silenced him.

“Two things. The first thing is that you will help me keeping this girl safe, as long as she lives.”

Antonio paused, waiting for his friend’s answer, which was a reluctant: “I promise.”

“The second one is that you will help me and my descendants keeping this braid hidden from that man.”

“As long as I and my descendants live, I promise this.” Was Daniele’s firm answer.

The moon had left the sky too. It was pitch black outside and he didn’t have any candles or oil lamp. After a couple of uncertain steps, he felt something hairy and warm scratching and sniffing his hand. The thing scared him and Antonio fell on his butt. The thing came closer and pushed its horned head against his side. Antonio prolonged his arms in the dark to grab the witch’s goat. The animal answered to the gesture taking one of his hands in his mouth. Then it started to pull him. Antonio raised on his feet and tried to walk beside the beast, his back bent to avoid a deep bite.

Half walking, half crawling the goat dragged Antonio all the way back to the clarence in the woods where he had attacked the witch. He did not understand why the witch’s pet was helping him. Maybe he had mistaken him for its mistress because of the smell the braid had left on his hand. Antonio didn’t understand how far they were going or if the clearance was anywhere closer. His nose and his hearing weren’t of any help and he was too tired to understand the distance based on the steps taken. He hoped the goat was taking him to the right place and he thought he had to wait for the dawn to be able to see a single thing. But then they arrived and, again, he was surprised.

All the clearance grass was shimmering and glittering, especially around the witch’s zinc tub. Hundreds and hundreds of little lights were trembling in the dark in front of Antonio’s eyes. The goat left its grasp on the hand and Antonio crawled forward on his knees. All around the tub, the lights were shining in golden flashes, inside the tub, the water shimmered of blue and red. Near the path that brought to the shack, there were some iridescent blotches. Looking closer, Antonio saw that the blotches were, really, big birthstones. He collected them and moved towards the golden gems. As he reached them, he saw the golden glows turning into gold coins. Still convinced of what his eyes were telling him, Antonio collected a coin and felt that it had a wet surface and a salty smell.

“The tears of her eyes will turn into gold, the sweat of her skin into blue gems.”

He finally remembered the piece of legend Daniele told him weeks before. Suddenly, he turned to the tub. On the bottom covered in blue gems, some red ones shined brighter than their blue companions.

“That’s the blood of her veins.”

Whispered Antonio, feeling all the weight of what he had done that night descending upon him. Then, he removed his shirt and collected all the gems he could inside it, hiding the others in a hole in the ground.

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