Wee Georgie McPhee, known as Dodie to everyone except his teacher, was a disagreeable child. “No”, “Will Not” and “Don’t hold yer breath” were often heard. His favourite though, which he saved for when he wanted to be particularly rude, was “Speak to ma Grannie’s ear”, meaning she couldn’t hear, and neither would he.
People would say things like “That Dodie McPhee will come a terrible cropper one day” and “Yon little know-it-all is too big for his breeks” and “One day he’ll go too far and there’ll be no coming back”.
He’d say “Speak to ma Grannie’s ear”.
It was tea-time on the last day of October. The nights were drawing in, the rowan berries were full on the trees and cool evening mists hung over the river. Dodie wanted to collect fallen branches for bonfire night, the following week.
“There a pile of wood over the river by old Mother Meg’s bothy. After tea I’m going to cross over the stepping stones and get it.”
“Not tonight Dodie, his mother said, It’s not safe to cross the river at night but especially not on Halloween, and extra especially mind, not on a full moon. They say strange things happen to children in old Megs’s field on Halloween.”
“Speak to ma Grannie’s ear. You told me that last year but I’m a big boy now, ken, so you can save the scary stories for the wee ones.” His mother, not pleased with his cheek, sent him straight to bed instead of letting him go guising with his friends.
Later, though, when the house was quiet, he crept downstairs to the porch where he took his bonnet and lamp, and set off. “Grannie’s ear”, he said under his breath.
Around the bend in the river, out of sight of the house, he stood on the bank looking at the moon-bright stepping-stones in the swift flow. He listened to the bubbling water as it pushed between the stones, and fancied he saw the swirl of a salmon in the pool on the far side. It was a bonny night. The bright moon cast strange shadows in the trees on the far side and the stillness made the skin on his neck prickle. He suddenly felt cold but said to himself “I’m no feart”. He turned up his collar and, whistling a reassuring tune all the same, stepped out.
About half way across Dodie thought the river sounded like it was chattering or giggling, rather than bubbling, and he had the strangest feeling of being watched. He stopped to look back, but the mist had closed in behind him and he could see nothing. He looked forward and the far end of his path had also disappeared into the mist. Using his lamp, though, Dodie could still just make out the stepping-stones and got to the other bank alright but, as he reached the far side, he slipped and had to grab at an overhanging branch, to haul himself up. It seemed, ever so briefly, that though he let go of the branch it did not want to let go of him. It was only his imagination, of course, but in the struggle to free himself he lost his grip on the lamp, and it fell into the river.
The mist hung close to the river like a wall but, even without his lamp, Dodie could see Old Meg’s bothy and his goal, the pile of firewood beyond it, clearly lit by the moon. The walking across Meg’s field was slow. True, the grass and brambles snagged at his legs but, even after a while, it seemed he got no nearer. He tried to walk faster, but it seemed to make no difference: he got no nearer. Then, while he stopped to get his breath, he saw a flickering candle in a window and a figure there beckoning to him. Suddenly Dodie seemed to be flying towards the bothy and, in an instant, he was standing beside the door, which swung open with a creak. An old bent woman in a shawl and apron stood before him holding a long cromach: It was Old Meg, and he found he was afraid after all.
“Ah”, said Meg, “Young George MccPhee. At last. I’ve been expecting you. You’ll be wanting some wood for your bonfire; let’s see what we have.” Meg took Dodie’s hand in hers, her long fingernails digging slightly in his plump flesh, and walked him to the woodpile. With the cromach in her free hand she reached up and pulled down a log, passing it to Dodie. “Will this one do?”
Dodie looked at the log. It was strange, all twisted and gnarled, not like the logs in the fireside basket at his house. It didn’t look or feel like wood at all. “I don’t know, I suppose so,” said Dodie, his voice a little trembly. “Are you sure? Look more closely, George” Meg insisted. Dodie looked again and saw, to his horror, that the log appeared to have a face, a child’s face, a pleading face formed in the bark. Dodie dropped the log at his feet and whimpered. “Don’t you like it, my dear” said Meg, “perhaps this one will suit you better?” She handed him another. It was the same, only with a different pleading face, and Dodie dropped it too. And another, and another, and another; faster, and faster, Meg handed him logs that had faces, some he knew and some he didn’t, all pleading to be set free. “These are my naughty children, but they are all well behaved in here. They don’t run away, they don’t talk back.” Then, finally, she showed him the last. “I think this is the one for you, it will do very nicely”. It had no face.
Dodie struggled to escape, but he was already up to his waist in the log children, becoming part of the woodpile himself. He wriggled and pulled and then, with one mighty effort, broke free and ran. He ran across the field, without looking back once, knowing that Meg was right behind him, ran back to the river, ran back across the stepping stones, ran crying out all the way “Leave me be, I don’t want to be a log, I don’t want to go in the fire!” He cried out all the way back to his home and right under his bed.
He was still crying when his mother woke up and came in. “George McPhee, what is all this commotion. Come out from under there this instant. Is this because I sent you to bed early?”
Dodie explained everything in a rush, the words tumbling like the water in the river. “It was Old Meg. I went out over the river to get wood, and she came out of her house and caught me and tried to make me into a log. She’s a witch!”
Dodie’s mother laughed. “What a tale, Dodie! You must have been having a nightmare That’ll teach you to go to bed upset.”
“Ma grannie’s ear! Not a chance! It wasn’t a dream. I saw her, touched her, she held my hand!”
“Are you still arguing, Dodie? Will you never learn? Old Meg has been gone these 100 years, and the bothy a ruin for nearly as long. Now, stop your nonsense and come down by the stove. You’ll have some hot milk, and a biscuit, to settle your mind, and then back to bed you go.
Later, in his room warm and safe, Dodie drifted off to sleep mumbling “Witches? Ma Grannie’s ear”, while Mrs McPhee made up the stove downstairs. She took a piece of wood from the top of the basket, but something about it made her stop. “Well, look at that! It looks just like Dodie’s face. I’ll keep it back and show it to him tomorrow, he’ll like that.”
© Andrew Gold September 2012