LOVE'S PHILOSOPHY (POEM):
ON A DATE WITH JANE AUSTEN:
USA Today bestselling author Jean Rabe has penned about a hundred short stories and thirty-seven novels. When she isn’t writing, she tosses tennis balls to her assortment of dogs, visits museums, slays goblins and trolls in her basement, and works on her ever-growing stack of to-be-read books. She lives in an itty bitty town in central Illinois, surrounded by train tracks and cornfields. She is currently working on a romantic mystery set in Italy. Jean is a member of LadyKillers and Sisters in Crime, and this is her second appearance in Heart’s Kiss. Visit her at: jeanrabe.com.
MISERY AND WOE
by Jean Rabe
Willum tried his best to look around the kitchen, glancing first at a pot dangling over the fire and simmering with something sweet, next at a cluttered shelf midway up a smooth earthen wall.
The shelf was brimful with stones and feathers. There were also a few unlit tapers on it, along with some odd-looking objects he didn’t take time to register. He knew that the shelf served as the witch’s altar to some goddess she’d mentioned on his first visit, and whose name he’d subsequently forgotten. Besides, there was nothing interesting enough up there to hold his attention.
Then he tried to study his fingernails, a scar on his thumb, the whorls in the kitchen tabletop he flattened his palms against—all of it just to be polite. He was seated at the table, one he gave the witch last week as payment for a month’s worth of mixtures of sage, ginger, and nettles to cure a cold, a sore throat, and other assorted ailments he didn’t have. The village’s carpenter, he moments ago promised her two matching chairs as payment for his next several sessions and for whatever additional herbs he could coax from her today.
“Elspeth,” he said, his gaze finally leaving the table and meeting her ice blue eyes. He put on a doleful, pained expression. “I’m still feeling a bit untoward. My stomach gives me fits and keeps me up at night. Do you have something to quiet it and set me aright? So I can get some proper sleep?”
Before she could answer, his gaze dropped to her considerable bosom.
Elspeth Linn of Skarnhold Shire was more than well-endowed.
And try as Willum might to look at her unblemished face or her beautiful hair or to glance about her immaculate kitchen, he couldn’t long keep his eyes away from her cleavage. None of the men in the village could. Some professed love to her, offered marriage…even the ones already wed. Willum was a frequent visitor to her home.
She sat opposite Willum at the narrow table, the surface of which gleamed in the sunlight that came through the window. Studying him, she tried to determine if he truly had a malady and thereby decide what mixtures and poultices might best treat him.
“Is there a sharp pain, Willum?” Elspeth’s voice showed her concern. “This pain in your stomach? Or is it a dull ache?”
He didn’t answer, just continued to stare, his eyes widening.
“Does the pain spread up toward your neck? How long does a bout linger? Is it every night? Or just after evenings that end with big meals? After certain foods?”
It seemed he hadn’t heard her.
Perturbed by her visitor’s fixation with her chest, she sucked in so deep an irate breath that she threatened the seams of her bodice. As a result, Willum’s eyes grew wider still and a thin line of drool spilled over his lower lip.
“Or is it nothing at all that bothers you Willum Smithson? Nothing but what rumbles ’round in your empty head each time you visit? Like always, you look as healthy as the village ox.”
Again no answer.
“Willum.” She repeated his name louder, then louder still. “Willum!”
“Huh?” He didn’t lift his eyes. “So do you have something to ease my stomach, Elspeth?”
He didn’t see her lips stretch into a threadlike line and her icy eyes narrow tetchily.
She rose and retreated to a cupboard at the back of the kitchen, one he had made for her, rummaging around amid the jars and pouches, measuring something into her hand and putting it in a small clay cup.
“Charcoal powder,” she pronounced. “Just in case you really are feeling untoward. If you’re not ill, neither will this bother you.” She put some dried parsley into a small cloth packet and returned with both to the table. “The parsley should help settle you.”
He looked up, his eyes not quite able to reach her face. “Charcoal?” He forced the word out through a mouth that had somehow gone dry. “I should eat charcoal?”
“Put it in something,” she instructed. “Pudding, tea, soup. It will chase the toxins right out of your system and thereby ease your stomach problems so you can get proper sleep at night.” And in the process likely get the scours, she added to herself.
She thrust the cup and packet at him and he shook his head to clear his senses.
“Thank you, Elspeth. Thank you mightily.” He reluctantly got up and turned to leave. “If I have any other troubles, I can come to see you again? Next week?”
The witch opened her door each week on the middle day for the villagers to visit and seek her counsel and remedies. She made no exceptions to this rule and did her best to avoid them all other days, keeping to her garden and herself.
She halfheartedly nodded. “Of course, Willum. Next week on the middle day. And you’ll bring those chairs?”
She was quick to close the door behind him.
Elspeth sighed. She had hoped this village would be different than the last one, and the one before that. She had hoped that the folks here would come to her for honest ailments and problems. Not just to…to…look.
“By the goddess!”
Oh, some did come to her when they were truthfully feeling ill, and for this she was grateful and quick to help. But most of the men who visited—and it was mostly men who did come to her door—were only interested in ogling her. She knew Willum only came to stare, and she knew she should turn him out. But he was a good carpenter, and she needed the chairs and another cabinet. And there was always the possibility he was ailing, and therefore her oath demanded she aid him.
A slight possibility. Very slight.
“By the goddess!” Elspeth hissed.
She wasn’t a young woman anymore. It had been worse when she was, all the attention she got then from men of all ages, even boys. She turned the head of any man in her young years—when she was in the waxing time in the first aspect of the threefold goddess’s energies. And she turned down one offer of marriage—or companionship—after another and another and another. She’d turned down well more than a hundred requests, not finding love behind any of their words. Perhaps when she was old true affection would be hers.
But she wasn’t an old woman yet. Not yet. She was a good stretch of time from that, she told herself. Matronly, she decided, on the lean edge of her middle years, only a few strands of gray weaving their way into her auburn mass of curls. No real wrinkles yet, just a sprinkling of faint lines around the edges of her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. And no one seemed to notice those imperfections, or had spied the one brown spot on the back of her left hand. Folks were always looking at her other…features.
“Maybe when I am an old woman and I sag. Maybe when I’m flat, then they’ll pay more attention to what I say and brew and will look elsewhere about me. And maybe in the meantime I should look elsewhere for another home.” She’d been in this village called Skarnhold Shire only a year. The place had caught her eye because it was nestled comfortably at the mouth of a low valley, the farmland spreading rich and away from it, a thick stream close and musical. All of it lovely. “Or maybe this time I’ll stay for a long while and the ogling be damned. Stay until I’m old and flat. Be buried where I plant my herbs.”
It was the nicest home she’d made for herself so far, occupying a cottage that had been abandoned when the old man who owned it died, buying it from the village in exchange for helping with their crops last spring. Last fall’s harvest was impressive, and they begged her stay to help again this year. It was a good feeling to be wanted.
Elspeth took in her kitchen. It was tidy and simple, with the table Willum had fashioned and two old chairs that matched an old table since turned into kindling. There were three large cupboards, one filled with dishes and pots, the others with herbs, roots, and various things she’d gathered for brews and infusions. And there was a high counter on which was neatly arranged her athame, or spirit blade, the knife she used to prepare not only her magical and medicinal concoctions but her meals as well. There was a grinder for powdering roots, and a strainer for teas. And there was a soapstone mortar and pestle that she hoped to replace with a marble one when a traveling merchant who sold such things came through. Marble would serve better for crushing and bruising herbs. Her possessions were few enough that they could be carried on the back of a donkey or in a small cart—in the event she could no longer stomach the ogling.
But she was adding to her possessions each month. The carpenter, blacksmith, cobbler, and chandler were among the villagers trading her goods for spiritual sessions and medicines.
A light woolen blanket, festooned with an embroidered leafy design and used as payment from the village weaver, hung in a doorway that led to a small bedroom—where there was a heavier woolen blanket from the weaver and soft pillows from a man who kept fowl. Propped up against either side of the doorframe were twin brooms she’d fashioned herself. A lovely village and a lovely home. Lovely people—for the most part. Even Willum was tolerable, she decided.
“Wouldn’t hurt to sweep again, I suppose.” Elspeth started toward the brooms, but was stopped by a firm knock on her door.
“Elder Kendal.” She greeted him with a smile.
He tipped his hat and nodded, stepping past her on bowed legs, clumsily striding to the table and sitting down.
“What can I do for you this afternoon, Elder? Does your wife know you’re here? You know she disapproves of….”
He thrummed his fingers and made a show of settling in more comfortably.
“I’ve only come to you a handful of times since you moved into the village,” he began. “’Cause of my wife’s wishes. And ’cause the other elders think I’m being a fool consulting a kitchen witch. Not that they haven’t consulted you themselves. Renald comes here often enough.”
“I prefer hearth witch,” Elspeth said as she took her place across from him. “Or hedge witch if you must.”
“Kitchen witch,” he repeated, taking a quick look around her kitchen before resting his eyes on her bosom. At least Elder Kendal occasionally raised his gaze to meet hers.
She crossed her arms in front of her, which only served to deepen the crease between her breasts and cause Elder Kendal to sharply suck in a breath. “All right, yes, I am considered a kitchen witch, as you say. The kitchen is, perhaps, the most basic approach to the craft.”
Elder Kendal raised an eyebrow, perhaps out of interest in her talk.
Elspeth continued, happy for a chance to discuss her profession. “Food supports the circle of life, you see. A meal brings families together and nurtures them. Festivals are filled with food. Praying in advance of a meal is honoring the goddess. And in turn a rich harvest is seen as a gift from the goddess. In preparing food and spices, I work in rituals and direct positive energy. Community, health, food, these are things I devote my magic to.”
“So, witch, can you tell me the future?” Elder Kendal met her gaze, then returned to his staring. “I’m getting up in the years, and I was wondering the other day just how long I might have left. Only curious, you understand.”
She shook her head, a mix of disappointment and amusement flashing across her face. “You call me a kitchen witch, Elder Kendal, and then you ask me to look into your future? How can you possibly think that….”
“A witch is a witch, ain’t it? ’Sides, I ain’t got no ailments today, kitchen witch. Wife ain’t sick neither.” He looked into her eyes again, but only briefly. “Corn and beans are in, and no weeds are showing yet. So I ain’t got no other reason to come see you ’cept to ask about my future, how much of it I have left. An’ I know well enough that you’ll be more than busy when the sun starts going down. The fellas done with their work and coming by here for herbs and the like and a look at you before going home. So I figured I’d best ask about my future now before you get busy.”
Elspeth noticed his breathing was in time with hers, and that his head bobbed slightly with the rise and fall of her chest. “Elder Kendal….”
“I give you beans come harvest, you know that from last year. Corn if you want it.”
The air hissed between her teeth as she edged away from the table and went to her altar-shelf. She selected two tapers and some incense, a small dish, and a polished piece of granite.
“A hearth witch isn’t the sort of witch who stirs cauldrons and casts spells, Elder Kendal. I use my brooms for sweeping, not riding through the night sky.” She returned to the table and arranged the incense on the dish in a star-shaped pattern, set the granite in front of her and lit the two tapers. “I focus on the kitchen and home. I do not perform banishments or cast shielding spells. I have been known to brew love potions, as that relates to family. But I cannot divine your future.”
He pointed a callused finger at the candles. “What do you use those for?”
“Candle magic and color magic combined,” Elspeth replied. She scowled to note he hadn’t looked her in the eyes for a few minutes. “The white candle symbolizes purity and healing.”
“Said I ain’t sick.”
“And the blue is water, peace, and tranquility.”
“So what do I need with peace and tranquility? I got me enough of those things.”
“Elder Kendal, I thought that since you are here, and since no one else has yet come to my door, I might try to sooth you. Chase your worries away, so to speak.”
“Ain’t got any worries,” he said. “Got my corn and beans planted, I say. Left my nagging wife to her cleaning. Just was wondering about the future.”
“I can’t help you there.”
“Some witch you are.” He shook his head, his eyes only leaving her bosom for a moment, and that to give her a stern look. “A witch is a witch, or should be. Well, I suppose I’ll come back next week and see if you can tell me the future then.” He sat there for several moments, still staring, not saying anything else.
“Next week then,” she said finally, sucking in another perturbed breath and again menacing her seams.
“Next week.” He was slow to rise and slower to the door. A tip of the hat and a nod. “You think about my future in the meantime. All right?”
Elspeth didn’t quite get the door closed behind him before there was another rapping. This time insistent and soft. She stepped back to admit her next visitor.
“You…you…witch!” The retort came from a comely young woman in a well-worn skirt and peasant blouse. She and her clothes were clean and smelled of lilacs, and there was a hint of rouge on her cheeks. A spot of flour on her arm and a trace of cinnamon indicated she’d been baking. Her dark eyes danced angrily. “Witch!”
Elspeth opened her mouth to say, Yes, I am a witch, and you well know that. But thought better of it. She simply regarded the young woman, breathing quickly in her ire, balled fists set against her narrow hips.
“Witch. Witch. Witch.”
“Anna….” Elspeth slid to the side and opened the door all the way. She gestured to her table. “Would you like to come in and talk about what is troubling you?”
The red spread from Anna’s cheeks to the rest of her face. “You’re what’s troubling me, witch. Troubling me and Dela and Huberta and even Isamu. Poor Dela, I know her Willum was here a little while ago. I saw him coming out your door.”
“I don’t understand what you’re upset about. Anna….”
“Upset? Yes, I’m upset. You’re what’s troubling us—me and Huberta and Isamu, Dela especially. Look at that table Willum made you! You’re troubling us fiercely. Have been for some months now. You and the twins.”
Anna thrust a finger at Elspeth’s bosom. “The twins.”
Elspeth looked down. Rising above the edge of her bodice, she had to admit her large breasts resembled the bald heads of infants suckling.
“The twins,” Anna repeated, pointing with her finger again at each one. “Misery and Woe I call ’em. The twins. Misery and Woe.” She made a huffing sound and tossed her head, her dark eyes wide and wild. “Our men visit you almost every week, getting potions and whatnots, claiming to feel sick, claiming we’re sick and needing your herbs. But what they’re really doing is just getting a look.” Another huff, this one so loud it sounded like dry leaves shushing across the ground. “When you go to the market, they stare at you. When you tend your garden, they just happen to stroll by. It’s not that the rest of us don’t have what you have, witch. We just don’t have near as much of it.”
Elspeth stared slack-jawed at Anna’s tirade. “I’m no threat to you.”
“Threat? Misery and Woe there certainly are threatening our happy homes.” She slammed her fists against her hips. Spittle flew from her mouth. “I’ve stayed quiet until now, just talking with Dela and Huberta and Isamu, cursing you. I’ve kept my tongue all these months. But last night my man was chattering in his sleep. I heard him say your name quite plainly.”
“I’m sorry, Anna. I mean no….”
“I thought you kitchen witches were supposed to help families, not tear them apart. I thought….”
It was Elspeth’s turn to be angry. “I’ve caused no trouble here. I’ve nurtured the fields with my spells. I’ve healed the sick. I’ve….”
“Drawn the attention of our men, who bring you the bread we bake and who make furniture for you, who repair your roof…who come by to get a good close look at Misery and Woe.” Anna made another huffing sound. She balled her fists so tight her knuckles turned white. “You and the twins aren’t welcome here. Not welcome by me or Dela or Isamu or Huberta. Not welcome by other women either, I’m certain. You threaten our homes. You and the twins threaten this entire village, you…you…witch! And you haven’t heard the last from me.”
With that, Anna spun and nearly bumped into the chandler, who was striding up the walk, bundle of candles in hand.
“No,” Anna said, as she stomped off. “You and the twins haven’t heard the last.”
For an instant, Elspeth considered packing up and leaving this very day. But only for an instant. To give in when she’d done nothing wrong would not be honoring her craft. This village was lovely. Her home was lovely. The candles Ordney was thrusting at her were lovely and scented with vanilla. She liked it here.
Witches were persecuted elsewhere, Elspeth knew. It seemed to be part of their lot in life. People were suspicious and fearful of them, wary of the magic, and hounding them because they were not of the same cloth as a commoner. Persecution was rife. But she suspected few were victimized because of being so well-endowed.
“And what can I do for you today, Ordney?” Elspeth accepted the candles and gestured to her table. “Oh!” Her breath caught when she noticed the still-burning tapers. The white was burning properly, little of the wax had melted, and the candle was straight. But the blue had burned down far more than it should have in the scant time, and it was bent and twisted like a gnarled tree branch.
“Looks like you needed these new candles,” Ordney said. “Never seen one of ’em burn quite like that. Odd.
“Indeed,” Elspeth hushed.
That night she studied the remains of the twisted, blue candle. It was an omen of some sort, she decided. Water, peace, tranquility—that’s what blue stood for. And candle magic? In general to Elspeth it represented the power of fire. A candle could burn away bad influences and could release positive energy. The chandler used beeswax, the finest kind.
“A bad omen to be certain,” she pronounced. “Perhaps Anna’s tirade shattered the tranquility and so ruined the candle.”
Elspeth selected the broom to the right of the doorframe. It wasn’t used for sweeping dust and catching spider webs. The other broom served that purpose. This broom was blessed during its making, and she used it to sweep out the negative energy that collected in her kitchen. And there was always some trace of negative energy on the middle day of the week when the villagers came to call. The residue of their problems—when they actually had problems—gathered under her table and settled in. She swept them out.
Tonight she swept the floor again and again, getting into every corner and into every crack. Then she swept one more time, her arms heavy and tired from the task.
“Perhaps it was Anna,” she mused, as she climbed into bed and pulled up the cover. Her head relaxed into a thick goose-down pillow. “Perhaps she brought so much dreadful energy to my home that she indeed ruined the candle and disturbed my peace.”
In the morning, Elspeth lit another blue candle and watched it burn. Next to it she lit a green one, for luck, and again a white one for healing and harmony and protection. Within moments the blue candle twisted.
“By the goddess!”
She added a yellow taper that symbolized clairvoyance. And as the blue continued to burn uneven, she stared at the yellow’s flame. Perhaps she could look into the future as Elder Kendal intimated. Other witches could, and in her earliest days in the craft she’d studied under a matron who had such ability and tried to teach Elspeth the same. But at the time Elspeth was interested in other things and was determined to specialize in hearth magic.
The flame grew brighter as she placed her thumbs against the base of the taper.
“Does something threaten the peace and tranquility of this village? A force other than jealous Anna Clayborn?” She edged closer to the candle until her face became warm. A trickle of sweat rolled down her cheek. But she saw only the fire and felt only the increasing warmth.
The blue candle she lit the following day also warped. And another yellow taper provided no clue that she could discern.
Twice more before spring ended Anna came on the middle day to complain about the twins and to spout her wrath. Perhaps in response Elspeth worked in her gardens in the early morning, wearing filmy skirts and blouses with skimpy bodices, bent over in her weeding so she was facing Anna’s house. On more than one morning Elspeth caught the young woman staring angrily at her. Elspeth offered a friendly wave.
In the spring afternoons, save on the middle days when she accepted villagers into her kitchen, she strolled through the market in her finest clothes, hair tied up with ribbons to show off her neck. Sometimes she saw Anna and Isamu there, glaring at her. The men never glared. Stared, yes, and with either smiles on their careworn faces or mouths hanging open in appreciation. She talked to none of them, save the few vendors she dealt with.
There’d been little rain throughout the spring, and so early evenings found Elspeth and her handcart at the creek, filling ceramic bowls and jugs so she could water her herbs. Some of the farmers also gathered water, and most of these did so at the same time of day as Elspeth. Ogling her as they toiled. But the majority of the village farmers had fields too large to be helped by a few jugs of water.
Elspeth’s herbs were growing, though not as vibrantly as the previous year.
It was the beginning of summer and the days were hot, almost fiery so.
When was the last time it had rained? she wondered. The herbs weren’t getting enough water. The water she drew up from the stream wasn’t sufficient. The farmers’ crops were doing no better, and the men were coming to her on the middle days seeking remedies while still seeking to stare at her cleavage.
Water, Elspeth thought.
The blue candle represented water. The tapers had twisted months ago trying to tell her something, to show her a future with no rain and a dying stream. Elspeth’s eyes flew wide. When she was at the stream last night she noticed how it had been shrinking away from its banks. It was no longer the thick creek that made music. It was struggling. Like the crops were struggling.
“Blind,” she cursed at herself. “The candle was trying to tell me something months ago. Warn me. Elder Kendal asking about the future…the goddess was speaking through him, trying to warn me of the dry weather to come.”
She paced in the kitchen, her long skirt sweeping the floor. “I could have advised the farmers to plant differently, to draw water from the stream and hold it in barrels for the drought. To conserve their food, to pray to the goddess for rain. I could have done things differently. I should have….”
There was a knocking on her door. It wasn’t the middle day, but Elspeth answered it nonetheless.
“He talked about you in his sleep again last night.” The young woman thrust her finger at Elspeth’s bosom. “You and the twins aren’t welcome here, I say. Misery and Woe and….”
Elspeth brushed by her and hurried down the walk, heading straight toward Elder Kendal’s. “There’s still time to conserve,” she said. “If we all work together we can save the crops and get through this. We can….”
“How dare you ignore me!” Anna sputtered. She caught up to Elspeth and shook her finger wildly. “How rude!”
Elspeth sped up, leaving the younger woman puffing behind her and taunting the “twins.”
“There’s time, I know it,” Elspeth told herself. “We’ll take from the stream now, before it completely goes. Fill every container we have. Take mud from the bank and set it around the melon mounds and around the carrots. We can meet this challenge.”
She vaguely registered the men staring at her as she went, eyes fixed on what they usually were fixed on, smiles on the faces of some, mouths hanging open on others. Her breath came ragged, and she was jeopardizing the lace on her bodice. She gleamed with a thin layer of sweat by the time she reached Kendal’s.
He’d been smoothing at a rail on his porch and had seen her coming, strode forward on his bowed legs to keep her in the yard—where his wife wasn’t. He beamed at her.
“Kitchen witch! So good to see you. And what a surprise. It’s not a middle day. I don’t think you’ve ever….”
“I need to talk to you, Elder.”
He looked into her eyes for a moment before dropping his gaze. His breathing matched hers, and his head gently bobbed up and down in time with her heaving breasts.
“Elder, you asked me to look into the future.”
“That was months ago.” There was a trace of drool at the corner of his mouth. “Thought you said you weren’t a diviner. Thought you said a witch wasn’t a witch.”
She tried to calm herself and slow her breathing. Elder Kendal’s head bobbed slower in response.
“I am a….”
“Kitchen witch. Yeah, I know. Glad you came for a visit. Want to sit on the porch?”
She shook her head. “This weather.”
“Hot ain’t it? Burning my beans. I ain’t faulting you for it. You can’t make it rain.”
“No,” she admitted. “But about the future.”
He raised an eyebrow, perhaps a reaction to her comment.
“It seems I can tell enough of the future to know that this drought is going to continue for some time. The stream is going to dry up. It’s just a matter of days perhaps. We need to take water from it, while it’s still running. We need to….” Her words trailed off. “Elder Kendal, are you listening to me?”
He nodded, eyes still fixed, drool more noticeable.
“You need to speak with the rest of the elders, and all the farmers in the village. Hold a meeting. I’ll be happy to talk and explain what we must do.”
“So you’ll set up this meeting?”
Elder Kendal stroked his chin. “Don’t see where’s we need one. Sometimes this happens, kitchen witch, this lack of rain. It’s the valley, you know. The mountains stop the wind and rain on either side. Sometimes. We’ll get past it. We always do. Nothing for you to worry about. Hey, maybe you need to light one of those blue candles for yourself, get you some peace and tranquility.”
Elspeth drew in a deep breath, preparing to repeat her request.
Elder Kendal’s eyes swelled.
“Jon! Jon Kendal you come inside this very minute!” This came from Elder Kendal’s wife, who was standing in the frame of the front door, nearly filling the space. Her eyes were daggers aimed at Elspeth. “Jon! You get away from that witch. It’s not a middle day, and you’ve chores to tend to. D’ya hear me? You get away from that witch and the….”
Twins, Elspeth knew she was going to say. Misery and Woe. So Anna’s wagging tongue had made its way around the entire village.
Elder Kendal took a last look at Elspeth, before shrugging and turning toward his wife. His shoulders stooped as he shuffled toward the cottage.
“Think about a village meeting. Please,” Elspeth said. Her voice was thick with urgency, but she doubted it registered on Elder Kendal.
Then he was swallowed by the shadows in the cottage, and his wife firmly closed the door behind him.
Elspeth visited the other village elders, and Willum and the chandler. At each stop she explained that the drought would continue—perhaps throughout Lammas, or Lughnassadh, the witch festival of the First Fruits, the First of the Three Harvests.
“There might not be a harvest,” she told Willum, who couldn’t seem to raise his head high enough to look her in the eyes. “This drought could wipe everything out and seriously cripple this village.” This lovely village in this lovely valley.
Willum mumbled that he’d be sure to tell his farmer friends. And would she like another shelf in her kitchen…in exchange for some herbs to help his achy joints?
The chandler and weaver paid her insufficient heed, though both were elated by her visit. The fowl tender offered her a goose-down quilt come the fall, as trade for some oils for his hands and a potion or two. It seemed he “didn’t quite catch” what she was trying to say about this unforgiving summer.
At last she stopped by Anna Clayborn’s cottage. She hoped to find both Anna and her husband at home. But there was only irate finger-pointing Anna.
“So the witch and her twins have come to pay me a visit. You’ve been stepping up on the stoops of everyone else, why should I be left out, eh? Well, I’ll not invite you in. Misery and Woe have no place in my home, I say!”
Elspeth squared her shoulders, inadvertently better displaying her chest and causing something worse than anger to scud across Anna’s face. “I need your help, Anna Clayborn.” Before Anna could offer a retort, Elspeth continued. “This summer is fierce and will get no better. The stream is dying and there is no rain. This village needs its crops, and they are withering in the fields. I need your help. People listen to you. The goddess knows you have every woman in town referring to my….”
“Twins,” Anna hissed.
“Misery and Woe.”
“They listen to you, Anna, the people of this village. They hang on your wagging tongue, it seems. We need to gather water. We need to take the mud on the banks. We need….”
“You need to leave my property, witch. Misery and Woe have no place here.”
The summer grew hotter and the grass around the village cottages became dry and brittle. Elspeth’s herb garden was barely surviving, and yet it was faring better than the crops in the fields. The witch had gathered water, as she’d begged the townsfolk to do…and as she repeatedly told each man to do who came to visit her on the middle day.
It was past the time of the first harvest. Lammas had passed and there were no crops to cull. There were only stumpy dry cornstalks and withered bean shoots. The villagers were living by slaughtering the sheep and cows. All the geese were gone, their meat dried and spiced to serve in the coming desperate months.
Elspeth feared there might not be enough meat to take them through the winter. She would manage all right, as she started putting things aside when she realized the drought would continue. But the others were only now starting to plan ahead. And it could well be too late.
“Misery and Woe you’ve brought upon us,” Anna told her again one day. “The men cared only about watching you, mouths all agape. They didn’t pay enough attention to the weather and the fields. It’s ’cause of you we’re suffering so!”
That night, the thatched roof of Elspeth’s cottage caught fire.
In her heart, the witch knew it was Anna’s doing, the young woman’s desire so strong to drive her out of the village. But there’d been no wisdom in the gesture, only anger. And like the flame of Elspeth’s red candle, the one that by its color symbolized fire and energy, the blaze grew.
Everything so dry, the fire spread down the walls and leapt to the quilts and blankets the weaver and fowl keeper had given her. Elspeth managed to grab her mortar and pestle, a change of clothes and a few jars of herbs. These and a lone blue taper she threw these in her handcart and started away from the village.
This lovely village, she thought. This lovely valley.
The fire spread from her cottage, an angry red beast racing across the brittle grass to the next cottage and the next. The flames danced up barns and across fences. And from a distance Elspeth watched. There was no water to put it out, and a breeze had picked up to aid the conflagration.
“Misery and Woe you brought upon yourselves,” she said, as she finally glanced away and looked to the south. There would be another village where she could make her home. And then another and another after that, where the men would continue to ogle her bosom and offer leering glances, desire, but never true love.
She’d settle for good in some village eventually, she decided, “when I am old and flat.” She breathed deep, threatening the threads in her tight blouse. The air was hot and filled with the smells of Skarnhold Shire. “When I am flat, then they will listen.”
2005 by Jean Rabe.
Heart's Kiss Magazine
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