The family lived at the top of a long stepladder – a kind of tree-house in the sky. It had been built by their father, with the help of Paul, the eldest son; but Father was dead now, and Paul was the man of the house. Besides Paul, there was Kevin, the second son, and then the two girls.
Melanie was the elder: blonde, lissom, straight-limbed – a golden girl. The youngest was Gillian, darker, somewhat inclined to dumpiness, and always lacking her sister’s grace (and, in consequence, her brothers’ favour). They were never very nice to Jill.
One evening, when the whole family, mother included, had been getting at Jill for her moodiness, lazy ways, and general inability to learn, she burst into tears (this was nothing unusual), rushed out of the room (nor was this), and then started to climb down the ladder to the forest floor (this was going a little far, however – heaven alone knew what might be roaring about down there at this hour of the night).
Paul and Kevin came out to stop her, only to find that she had taken their father’s lighter, and was holding it cocked against the dry straw of the hut platform. Now, fire is something you never joke about if you live on a platform in a tree. It can destroy you in minutes, and so a naked flame was never allowed in the house.
“What are you doing, Jill? Come back at once!” said Paul, in his customary petulant, exasperated tone (by now Melanie and her mother had come out as well – nor was it simply to see the fun, because neither was smiling).
“No,” said Jill quietly, as she eased herself down the first few rungs of the ladder.
“What’s wrong, Jill?” asked Melanie, leaning out to look into the upturned face of her sister.
“You should know, of all people. You were the one they always chose to do the solos in ballet class – you were the one who was excused dish-washing because your hands had to be kept smooth … Well, I’ve had it. I’m off.”
“Don’t be stupid, you little cunt. You won’t get half a mile,” shouted Kevin, the meaner of the two brothers.
“Oh yes, I will. I didn’t start planning this yesterday, you know. But before I do go, I have to tell you some things. The first is, I’m queer. I don’t like boys. I doubt you’ll understand what I’m talking about, but maybe you do, Mel.”
The older sister blushed.
“The second thing is, I’m a witch. I speak to the dead, to dead people. They tell me things. Not always things I want to know, but useful things sometimes.”