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Tilly’s pale green hair stands straight up in the air. Her hair stands up so high it’s as though she’s hung upside down and her hair got stuck that way. My hair is the one thing I wish I could change, Tilly thinks as she sits in the schoolyard balancing her lunch box on her knees. Her Great Aunt Mildred had the same green hair and magical sight but Tilly would swap them both to be the same as everyone else. Tilly sighs and tightens the pink bow in her upright ponytail. She never met her Great Aunt Mildred and would love to know why she’s different and if she had ever seen a real wood witch.
A white cabbage butterfly hovers around Tilly’s sandwich, trying to get her attention, while a leaf cricket climbs on her shoe and tap dances. The butterfly flutters in circles in front of Tilly to cheer her up, the wings flapping so fast they are almost invisible. Tilly chews on her delicious cheese and cucumber sandwich and holds out her finger for the butterfly land on. The butterfly tickles Tilly’s finger, making her smile.
A group of girls from her grade climb on the roped spider web, laughing and whispering secrets. The leader of the whispering girls is Summer. She wears her blonde hair in a bob and her nose glows bright pink and peels as if it’s sunburnt. The girls stroll over to Tilly with their chins high and hands on hips. They all have on matching skorts and polo tops. Tilly tucks her legs under her school dress.
‘Did you get a haircut?’ Summer says, with a pretend kind face.
Tilly, gulping her sandwich, touches her stand-up hair and stares at Summer’s sneakers. ‘No.’
‘Oh. Well … It looks shorter,’ Summer says. She covers her mouth and whispers to the girl next to her.
Tilly takes a deep breath and shuffles across the seat away from the girls. Her eyes tingle and lips tighten. Summer always comments on her green stand-up hair, how wiry it is and how it looks like a toilet brush, whenever a teacher is out of earshot. If Tilly could cut it she would but it’s so strong no scissors can snip through it. Her green hair grows and grows until it snaps off.
A smirk twitches at the sides of Summer’s mouth. She steps toward Tilly and leans down. Summer’s round face is close. Her breath squeaks in and out of her pink nose. Tilly’s heart beats as fast as blowfly wings: fump, foomp, fump, foomp. A dragonfly, with a tiny helmet, zooms close to Summer’s ear ready to attack. Summer shoos it away, knocking its silvery wings with her hand. Tilly cringes and squeezes her fingers into a ball. She needs to find the wood witch, soon, before she lets her temper out.
Summer continues, ‘or maybe that’s because it’s sticking out more sideways now, like an umbrella. I guess you don’t get wet when it rains.’ Summer laughs. ‘And … ha … now I know why your face is grubby too. No water can get past that awful, green, pineapple hair.’
Before Tilly can think, her hand shoots out and pinches Summer on the nose. Summer is tall and stocky and Tilly has to hold up her arm to keep it steady, while bracing her feet on the asphalt. Tilly squishes the pudgy pink nose tightly between her thumb and pointer fingers. Summer’s eyes pop wide and she stomps on Tilly’s foot.
‘Ouch.’ Tilly lets go in fright.
Summer’s nose is a bright red cherry on her pale face. Summer’s entourage stare, hands slapped over their mouths, gobsmacked.
Summer storms off to the classroom. ‘I’m dobbing on you, Tilly. You’re in major trouble.’
The principal sends Tilly home from school, because she’s been warned before about retaliating against Summer’s teasing. At the front door of their townhouse Tilly’s mum makes her not-in-trouble-again face and hugs her. Her apron smells like craft glue from the peg dolls she makes to sell at the craft market. They go into the kitchen and her mum gives Tilly her favourite snack of red grapes and yogurt ice cream.
Tilly pokes the ice cream with her spoon. ‘Green hair is awful. Summer always picks on me.’
‘I know. But you have to keep your hands to yourself. You’re the one ending up in trouble, not her.’ Her mum says, checking the clock on the oven. ‘I really need to finish these dolls for the weekend. Will you be all right?’
Tilly nods, but as soon as her mum returns to her office upstairs, she sneaks into the downstairs bathroom, leaving the yogurt ice cream to melt.
The bathroom smells of lavender and toothpaste. Tilly closes the door and clicks the push button lock. She climbs onto the stool and opens the mirror cabinet above the basin. Inside the cabinet is a packet of her mum’s black hair dye. Tilly has watched her mum colour her grey hair a million times.
Tilly has thought about dying her hair for a while now and she opens the packet carefully. With growing excitement, she squeezes the mixing cream into the bottle and shakes it. She undoes her favourite pink ribbon from her ponytail and shoves it in her pocket. The plastic gloves swim around her hands as she squeezes the thick, blobby, stinky hair dye onto her palm.
The chemical odour stings her eyes. She leans across the basin and opens the window to let in the garden breeze. A monarch butterfly lands on the windowsill and places its miniature hands over its mouth in surprise and shakes its head.
Tilly smiles and smears the cream all over her green stand-up hair.
‘Don’t worry, my friend. I know what I’m doing.’
Her chest flutters with anticipation. The woman on the packet has long shiny black hair that sits neatly across her shoulders. Tilly hums in excitement. She can hardly wait to rinse her hair out. There’s a knock on the door. Tilly freezes.
‘What are you doing, Tilly?’ her mum calls.
‘Open the door. I smell hair dye.’
‘Come on, sweetheart. Let me in,’ her mum pleads.
Tilly chews her lip and wraps a purple towel around her hair. She opens the bathroom door and smiles—sheepishly—at her mum. Her mum stands there, arms crossed and eyebrows scrunched, but then she sees the box of hair dye.
‘Oh, no. Your hair!’ her mums says, unwrapping the towel.
Tilly stomps a foot. ‘I hate it. I want new hair.’
‘Put your head over the basin. I need to rinse this out. Close your eyes and cover them with this towel. This was a bad idea, Tilly.’
‘But it might work,’ Tilly begs.
‘Your hair is one of a kind and something that only happens in our family and hair dye won’t change its colour. I should have told you, but I did try dying it once when you were little.’ Her mum frowned, emphatically. ‘Green hair is supposed to be good luck.’
‘Then why does it get me into trouble?’
‘I don’t think it’s your hair that’s getting you into trouble.’
Tilly’s mum pours warm water through her hair and kneads out all the cream. When she is finished, she wraps Tilly’s hair in a fresh towel and sits Tilly on the side of the bath.
‘Maybe you can’t see it yet but there is beauty in being different.’ Her mum sighs and gives Tilly a hug. ‘I know it’s difficult, but I love your unusual hair. It’s part of what makes you wonderful,’ her mum says.
Tilly’s mum takes off the towel and sits on the stool. ‘When I was your age I hated my black hair so much I squeezed lemons all over it. Can you imagine the smell? And it turned orange in patches too. I looked like a giraffe!’
Tilly smiles. ‘Maybe you could have asked Great Aunt Mildred’s wood witch for a wish.’
‘If there were such a thing, I’d be asking for a pot of gold.’ Her mum laughs and turns on the hair dryer.
When her hair is dry Tilly looks in the mirror, not knowing what to expect. She shrieks in horror. It is olive green, and stands up and out even worse than before! Tilly jumps off the stool, rips the towel from her shoulders and bolts straight into the back garden.
Tilly’s backyard is long, narrow and overgrown. There are flowers everywhere for the butterflies to feast on and miniature leaf homes for all her insect friends to shelter in. In the cool afternoon spring light, she perches on a smooth rock and waits for the butterflies to gather under the shady fig tree. Tilly is very good at noticing things people don’t normally see, and the butterfly dance always makes her happy.
When the sun reaches the fence, several cabbage butterflies and yellow and black monarch butterflies begin to swirl and flutter in unison. The butterflies dance above a hollowed out part of a tree covered in moss and small pink grass flowers. Her favourite monarch butterfly breaks away from the dance and lightly brushes her cheek. The soft wings tickle like feathery fairy kisses.
But even the butterflies can’t cheer Tilly up. She sighs and tugs at her stand-up green hair. It sticks out above her head like a grassy beach umbrella. Tears sprinkle her eyelashes and she slumps forward.
‘I will never have beautiful hair,’ she says in despair to the butterflies.
Then, out of nowhere, a strange magical jingling comes from behind the fig tree. Tilly spins around. A tiny emerald light flashes near the tree stump and the jingling gets louder. She looks around the backyard for anything else that could be making the strange sound. The butterflies have dispersed, the sky is pink and the leaves are as silent as a museum. Could this be a real wood witch?
Tilly quietly crawls towards the flickering form, keeping her hands on the stone pavers. The closer she gets, the clearer the floating form becomes until she can see it is a lady the size of her finger and the shape of a music box figurine. Tilly gets so close her face almost touches the figure’s tiny leaf skirt. Stunned, she accidently crawls off the pavers and onto a twig.
It snaps and scratches her finger. ‘Ouch.’
The tiny lady speaks, her voice full of mischief. ‘Well … well.’
Tilly gawks in amazement at the little creature, hovering above her nose. ‘What … are you?’
‘What? I am not a what! I am Wella the Wood Witch.’
‘Oh. I’ve heard about you from Mum’s bedtime story.’ Tilly is so excited she claps her hands. ‘Did you know Great Aunt Mildred?’
‘My mum’s auntie; she lived in another country and had green hair too … and a wood witch with wishes.’
‘Ah, no, there are a few of us.’ Wella’s teeny hand scoops across Tilly’s cheek. ‘You have water on your face.’
‘I’m sad,’ Tilly says, sitting back on her ankles, hugging herself.
‘I see. And what will make you happy?’
The butterflies come over to Tilly and land on her hair like a twinkling velvet crown. Tilly says, in a wistful voice, ‘I want beautiful hair.’
Wella tilts her head and smiles. ‘Wella has spells for lots of things.’
‘A spell, is that like a wish? Do you have a spell for me?’
‘One to make you happy?’
‘Yes, I want beautiful hair more than anything in the entire world.’
Tilly straightens, and beams with elation. Her favourite monarch butterfly brushes her cheek but Tilly sweeps it aside in anticipation. All the butterflies flitter away, deep into the garden.
‘If you say so,’ Wella says, and with a wry grin she spins around and creates a small whirly-whirly wind. Bits of twigs, petals and dried leaves get scooped up into the miniature tornado-like wind. A butterfly battles to fly against being pulled into it and Tilly quickly catches it in her hand and sets it free, away from the warm sparkly wind.
The leaves whoosh and branches creak. The sun drops behind the fence. Wella darts around Tilly’s head twisting and pulling strands of her frizzy green hair.
In a booming, crackly voice, she chants a powerful spell. ‘Pinkle pinkle what a wish. Pinkle pinkle with a swish. Wake in the morn with hair reborn. Pinkle pinkle …’
A shadow sweeps over the garden, Tilly shivers, and Wella lowers her voice. ‘Forever. Never. Forlorn.’
Tilly wakes in the morning, touches her hair and squeals ecstatically. She runs a hand along her silky blonde hair. It’s so long it goes all the way to her knees. Tilly bunches the lustrous strands and hugs them to her chest. She leaps out of bed and twirls like a ballerina to her dressing table. She brushes her hair until it glistens.
Her heart explodes with sunshine as she gets up and dances around her bedroom, laughing and singing. ‘Today the whispering girls will have nothing bad to say. Hey, hey. I have wonderful, fabulous, sunny hair. No more green hair. Yeahhhhhh.’
Tilly whizzes through her breakfast. Her mum’s jaw drops every time she tries to talk.
She eventually asks, ‘what happened to your hair?’
‘I meet Wella, an actual wood witch.’
‘But that’s just a story Gran used to tell me about Aunt Mildred. I never believed it was true.’
‘Well I guess being different is great after all and now I have my very own wood witch.’
Her mum pours herself a coffee and scrunches up the bridge of her nose. ‘Be careful, I also remember a troublesome story about Aunt Mildred’s wood witch.’
‘Everything is perfect. Don’t worry.’
‘It’s very long. Don’t trip over it.’
Tilly is so enthralled with her new hair; she ignores her mum and continues talking about her fabulous hair until she gets to school.
At school, Tilly leaves her hair hanging loose all morning. It gets stuck in her backpack and on her chair but Tilly can’t wipe the smile from her face. Her pink ribbon is in her pocket but she doesn’t want to use it.
At lunchtime Tilly sits in her usual spot on the bench, eating her cucumber and cheese sandwich. Sunlight glistens across her black shoes. She is busy admiring the reflection of her hair in the classroom window when Summer blocks her view.
Tilly grins at Summer and cheerfully asks, ‘Hey, do you like my hair?’
Summer smiles, shifting her weight from foot-to-foot. She rubs her bright pink nose as though it’s an annoying mosquito bite. The rest of the whispering girls stand behind Summer, with their hands on their hips.
‘What did you do? Your hair’s all Rapunzely and, wow, so shiny and, ha … now the sun has competition for being the brightest light in the galaxy.’ Summer crinkles her face in mock horror and holds her arm over her eyes. ‘Oh no, you’re blinding me.’
Tilly holds onto her sandwich and stands up. Her hair fans out behind her. With her free hand she rubs her elbow and steps away.
‘I don’t understand,’ Tilly says, stunned, and thinks, I was certain having beautiful hair would make Summer be nice to me.
Summer laughs and puts her arm around the girl closest to her and whispers something. The girl turns to the girl next to her and repeats the whispering. The whispering and snickering goes on until all five girls are laughing and pointing at Tilly’s long golden hair.
Tilly gathers her hair and swings it around her shoulder, protectively. Summer steps closer and closer, and when she is close enough for her nose to touch Tilly’s, she grabs a handful of Tilly’s hair. Summer holds the soft locks, rubbing her fingers across the satiny strands. After a moment, her eyes narrow in repulsion and she yanks Tilly’s hair, so hard Tilly’s head flops sideways and a pain shoots along her neck, pulling her off balance. Her sandwich flops onto the ground and lands in the dust. Summer stands on it. Tears spring from Tilly’s eyes.
‘You’re weird, Tilly. And your hair is … is … weird too,’ Summer says and lets go.
Tilly sniffs back tears and flicks her hair away from Summer. ‘You are a mean girl, Summer!’
Summer rolls her eyes and turns to walk away but Tilly grabs the back of her top. Summer spins around and glares at her. Tilly glares back. Summer’s top stretches and pulls but Tilly won’t let go. Then, quick as a frog’s tongue, Tilly pinches Summer’s nose, squeezing it as tight as she can.
The principal sends both girls home from school. A hot gusty wind blows dry leaves around Tilly’s feet as she trudges along the pavement. At the front door of their townhouse, Tilly’s mum waits with her arms crossed. Tilly pulls her hat down over her flyaway golden hair and climbs the steps towards her mum.
‘Tilly, this business over your hair has gone too far. I think it’s time we asked Gran for the truth about Aunt Mildred,’ her mum says.
Tilly walks inside and drops her school bag on the floor. She sighs. ‘Okay.’
In the kitchen Tilly’s mum gets the phone and dials Gran’s number. Gran lives in a faraway country and is very old.
While they wait for Gran to answer, her mum says, ‘She might not want to talk about it, or even remember for that matter, but we need answers.’ She pauses and sits on the stool by the bench. ‘Hello, mam? Yes. It’s me. We’re fine. I need to talk to you about something. It’s Tilly. She’s met a wood witch. I thought this whole wood witch thing was only a story.’
Her mum nods. ‘Well, I guess, I would never have believed it until I saw Tilly’s new hair this morning … Okay, okay, I’ll pop her on.’
Her mum puts the phone on speaker for both of them to hear.
Tilly climbs onto a kitchen stool and says, ‘Hi, Gran.’
‘Ah, Tilly, I’m delighted for you. You’re very own wood witch,’ Gran says in her feeble, faraway, voice.
‘My hair is blonde, Gran. But it’s a nuisance too.’
‘Blonde! How about that. Now, it’s time I told you about my eldest sister, your Great Aunt Mildred who was touched with the same green hair as you, dear. Now then, what happened? Yes, Millie was milking the cows and before she knew it a little wood witch appeared, prancing around her milk pale. Now this wood witch told her how lucky she was and promised her spells to make her dreams come true.’
Tilly’s mum leans over and speaks into the phone. ‘Mam, sorry, the phone bill’s going up by the minute. Is there a way to fix bad spells.’
‘Oh, no, there’s no fixing bad spells, as there are no bad spells. Now, where was I? All right, cutting a long story short. Now, dreams can come true Tilly, dear, but not always how you might want them to. Millie had to figure this one out also. Every generation or two in our family has faced the mischief and the dilemma of a wood witch …’
Tilly swings her feet against the stool. ‘Um, Gran. I just want Summer to stop picking on me and have hair like every else.’
Gran coughs and then continues. ‘Aye, now, what did Millie want? That’s right, she wanted a chestnut horse with silver bells on the bridle so she could trot to school everyday instead of walking in the mud. And, you know what Tilly, she got her fine gelding from the wood witch and trotted off to school, and without fail every morning she would slip off the horse and land in a puddle, soaking her dress. Now this went on for weeks til she finally gave up on the horse and sold it for a bicycle with a cart attached to the back for us younger ones to ride to school in.’
‘That’s nice, Gran. What happened to her hair though? Did it get her into trouble?’
‘Oh no, dear, her green hair was a lucky charm. People would come from all over the country to touch her hair and make a wish,’ Gran says, chuckling at distant memories.
Tilly’s mum pours an orange juice into a glass and asks, ‘Mam, Tilly struggled with having green hair, and now it’s blonde, it’s still causing trouble a school. Was Aunt Mildred really happy with her green hair?’
‘Aye, of course she was, meeting all those interesting folk and Tilly will be too, when she finds what makes her happy. Just be mindful of what Tilly asks the wood witch.’
Tilly’s mum hands the orange juice to Tilly and replies, ‘It sounds like these wood witches have odd ways of solving problems.’
‘Aye, but it’s all good in the end,’ Gran says, warmly.
Tilly knows what makes her the happiest in the world. She quickly finishes her orange juice and yells into the phone, ‘Thanks Gran. I’m going outside to find the butterflies.’
The sunlight filters through the overgrown yard, while a gusty wind rustles the leaves at the top of the tall trees. Beside the azaleas Tilly finds a gathering of yellow and black speckled butterflies and her heart melts with quiet joy. She creeps closer toward the butterflies and sits on a smooth stone near the fig tree.
Her hair falls over her face and she gently says, ‘Hello, my friends.’
The butterflies scoot away from her, frightened. The dragonfly with a tiny helmet shakes his fist at her in warning.
Tilly gasps in surprise. ‘My hair is too bright and they don’t recognise me!’
Quickly, Tilly retrieves her pink ribbon from her school dress pocket and attempts to tie her floppy hair into a ponytail. But her hair is too heavy and glossy and the ribbon keeps sliding off. Tilly messes her hair in frustration.
‘Shiny hair is a nuisance,’ Tilly says, and blows, dejectedly, at the silky strands covering her face. ‘How am I ever meant to be happy now?’
Tilly stomps around the fig tree and calls out, ‘Wella, Wella, WELLA!’
Tilly waits and waits and waits. She swings her arms and kicks leaves as she marches around the garden. The gusty air has died down and changed to a flat and warm breeze. A bee buzzes in the distance. Birds chirp in the neighbours’ yard. Tilly’s hair feels as heavy as a carpet glued to her head.
Then a teeny light shimmers near the fig tree. Tilly huffs, and hurries over to Wella. The petite emerald figure floats near Tilly’s face, grinning.
Tilly puts her hands on her hips and pleads, ‘I want my green stand-up hair back.’
Wella tisks and shrugs her shoulders. She flitters around Tilly’s hair, lifting it up in sections and nodding in approval.
‘What’s done cannot be undone,’ Wella says, in a stern, matter-of-fact way.
‘No. Take this hair back! I’m not happy. You said it would make me happy.’ Tilly screams. But Wella only laughs as she floats up high into the fig tree’s twisted branches and disappears.
Tilly storms into her bedroom. She slams the door and flops on her bed. She wails and kicks and messes her hair. She rolls onto her back and cries to the skylight in the ceiling.
‘The whispering girls will never stop picking on me … and now I’ve scared away my butterflies too!’
Tilly jumps off the bed and goes into the bathroom. She pulls her pink ribbon from her pocket and grabs the nail scissors from the drawer. She cuts the ribbon until hundreds of frayed pieces litter the tiles like pink snow.
Tilly peers in the mirror at her annoyingly long blonde hair. She glares at it, getting closer and closer, until her nose is pressed against the cold glass. Astonished, she parts her hair and studies her scalp. There is a miniscule amount of pale green hair growing from the root. Tilly looks again in disbelief.
She pumps the air with her fist and calls out, ‘Yes. It’s growing back!’
Tilly hurries downstairs. Her mum is peeling potatoes and placing them in the roasting tray.
‘Mum will you cut my hair, please? The butterflies won’t come near me with such shiny hair and it looks like my green hair is growing back.’
Her mum smiles and takes Tilly’s hand. ‘All right, lets go into the bathroom.’
Tilly sits on the edge of the bath, while her mum snips a strand of hair.
Her mum holds up the strand. ‘Are you sure about this, Tilly?’
Tilly nods. ‘The butterflies only recognise me with green hair. I miss seeing them dance.’
Tilly’s mum lets the strand of hair fall gently to the ground and continues to cut Tilly’s hair into a pixie style. The golden locks gather into a mountain around their feet and tickle their ankles. Tilly’s neck feels lighter and her hair is short and bouncy. She jumps up and down with glee. Her green stand-up hair will grow back.
Her mum looks at all the yellow hair swarming around Tilly’s feet and then into Tilly’s smiling face.
‘Is everything okay now, Tilly?’ she asks.
‘I think so.’
‘You know, I rang the principal while you were outside and she has warned Summer to only say nice things to you from now on.’
Tilly shrugs. ‘Summer will never like me but if she leaves me alone that’s good too.’
With her pixie cut, Tilly’s hair is short enough to hide under her fluffy green beanie and she returns to the garden. In the evening shade she sits, quietly, on the smooth stone and waits.
Soon the butterflies gather. They flutter and swirl in unison. The butterfly dance makes her happier than the silky hair ever did. Her favourite monarch butterfly breaks away from the dance and brushes a light feathery kiss against her cheek.
The wood witch was right. The spell made Tilly happy after all.