Under the winter night sky, the city was bright and glittering and glowed with happiness and good cheer. The shops and restaurants were warm and welcoming, the main streets filled with traffic, and the public buildings decorated with chains of red and green blinking lights.
Down in the dark alley behind the old movie theatre, however, there was neither light nor glitter, neither happiness nor good cheer. There was only the wet and the cold.
The boy and the girl were both wet and shivering. They were very young, probably still in their mid teens, and very thin, their eyes looking enormous in their emaciated faces. The boy, who had put his jacket over the girl’s shoulders, shivered uncontrollably in a thin T shirt. The girl, who was obviously very heavily pregnant, wore a tattered skirt and no shoes.
The boy peeked round the corner of the old theatre, ready to duck back in an instant.
“Can you see anything?” the girl whispered behind him. “Is it safe?”
The boy cocked his head and raised a hand. “Wait.”
There was a sound overhead. Low over the roofs, a santaclaus whirred by, pulled by its chain of flying slaves. The boy caught a momentary glimpse of the creature itself, the white of snow and the red of blood, glaring down from its vehicle, searching. Behind its seat, a huge bundle squirmed and whimpered and begged for mercy.
The boy felt his heart thudding in his chest even after the santaclaus had flown by, and clenched his fists to stop himself from shuddering. It did no good. The girl, touching his shoulder, felt it at once.
“You’re freezing,” she said. “Take the jacket.”
“No, you keep it on,” he told her. “It’s all right, really. We’re almost there.”
There was no sign of the santaclaus returning, so after waiting a minute or two longer the two crept out past the old movie theatre and across the street. A couple of more alleys, and they were at the witch’s house.
The witch lived on the top floor of a building which was crumbling slowly away, a little every year. The ground floor had wholesale shops which were, of course, closed on this night. In between was a floor occupied by tenants whom nobody ever saw. And the witch had the uppermost floor.
She opened the door as though she’d been waiting for them, and clicked her tongue when she saw them. “Well,” she said, “come on it, or you’ll die of cold there on the landing. From the looks of you it won’t take long.”
The girl and the boy looked back at the witch. She was middle aged and plump, with a round brown face and deep set eyes. Only a single band of white, like a frozen river, in her loose black hair marked her for a witch.
“Come in,” the witch repeated impatiently.
They entered. The witch’s house was smoky, lit only by candles, and cluttered with things, most of which only the witch knew the names of. The skulls of three magi were lined up side by side on a shelf across the room. The creatures’ empty eye sockets, pools of darkness, seemed to drink up all the light there was.
“She’s about to go into labour,” the boy said apologetically. “That’s why we came.”
The witch snorted. “Do you think I can’t see that? You’ve taken a hell of a chance, though, haven’t you, leaving it till the last moment? Did anyone see you coming here?”
“No,” the boy said.
“A santaclaus flew over,” the girl added. “But it didn’t come after us, so it can’t have seen us,” she added quickly.
“So you were lucky.” The witch led them to a low couch against the wall. “Take your skirt off and lie down,” she said to the girl, “and I’ll get something ready to warm you up.”
By the time she returned with two steaming mugs, the girl was moaning and clutching her midsection, and between her thighs the couch had become wet with fluid. “Drink up,” the witch said, when the contraction had subsided, and threw a light blanket over the girl. “It’ll still take a while.”
“We didn’t know where else to go,” the boy explained, sipping at the bitter steaming liquid. “Nowhere else was safe.”
“We couldn’t go to a hospital, of course,” the girl said. She sounded by far the more mature of the two. “You know what they’d do to us in there as soon as they saw us.”
“That’s right,” the boy agreed. “And we didn’t...” he hesitated.
“He means,” the girl smiled wanly, her thin fingers wrapped round her mug for warmth, “that we didn’t have any way to pay you. We still don’t.”
The witch nodded. “That’s all right,” she said. “You’ll pay later. Don’t worry.”
The girl shivered and put down the mug. “I didn’t...we didn’t...want it to happen now, so soon. It just. You know.”
“Yes.” The witch thought for a moment and went to fetch one of the skulls on the shelf. She held it over the girl’s splayed thighs and looked into one of the sockets. In the bottomless dark of the socket, there was a single spark of light, as though in the infinite far distance.
“Yes,” the witch repeated unemotionally, and put the skull back on the shelf. “I see.”
“If they find us...” the boy began. “The santaclaus had a sack, like they do, and –” he stopped abruptly.
“We heard the stories,” the girl said. “Last year they broke into a house and dragged them all away, the mother and the father and the baby too. It hadn’t even been fully born yet.”
There was a brief silence.
“So they mustn’t find you.” The witch looked at the girl and back at the boy. “What are your names anyway?”
They told her their names. The witch smiled. “Appropriate, don’t you think?”
“I think it’s starting again,” the girl said, her hands tightening on the blanket. Her face was very pale.
There were sounds in the lane, as of singing. The witch walked quickly over to the window and flicked back the curtain a moment. “A carol pack,” she said.
“A carol pack!” the boy repeated. His face was as pale as the girl’s.
“Don’t worry,” the witch said. “It hasn’t got your scent.” As though in confirmation, the singing slowly died away in the distance.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” the girl said, gasping.
The witch looked up at the big old clock on one wall. “It’s only nine,” she said. “There’s still a long time to go.”
The clock’s hands were precisely at three minutes to midnight when the girl gave a despairing cry. “I’m being torn apart,” she whimpered. “It’s ripping me from inside.”
“”Not at all,” the witch said. “It’s coming.” She got the skull again. In the socket the spark was now a great blazing star, its light blinding bright.
“I think I can see the head,” the boy said. He sounded very scared.
“It’s all right,” the witch said. “It’s all right.”
Carefully, making sure of its exact place, she put back the skull on the shelf, and came back to help the latest saviour of humanity into the cold, hard, dazzling bright, cruel world.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015