Summer stories: “A house fairer than prose”

By Sharma Shields

JThe witch buys a cabin in the remotest part of the forest, hoping to be left alone. She spent her long life serving the villagers, but they still turned on her, mostly out of boredom, after she stoned their former scapegoat, the miller, to death. Although she had relied on her potions and spells for decades, and despite their earlier gratitude for her reversing their misfortunes – illness, heartache, unwanted pregnancy – rumors spread of deviance and the witch’s impiety, her unnatural inclinations and devices. Although almost nothing surprises the witch, the change in tone of the villagers disturbs her, the friendly faces harden into knots of accusation and rage. She notes how her neighbors fill their baskets with sharp stones. The witch owes them nothing. She quietly closes her house near the village, blindly buys the house in the woods and moves away before the stones fall.

The first night in his new house goes badly. The witch doubts her choices. Her rush to leave the village led her to overlook the structural problems of the cottage; the chicken thighs instead of a solid base, the candy-covered exterior melting into a sticky mess in the rain, the mushrooms popping willy-nilly along the planks. It is the worst sleep of the witch’s long life. The owls, nestled in the chimney, disgorge their impressive dumplings throughout the night, the sound of vomiting followed by a thud and firm sound. The frogs sing in the saturated mess of the sideboard, enchanted by an ancient wizard who got tired of washing dishes and decided to do the dishes to hell, might as well turn that whole counter into a swamp. A demon goat bleats his curses from the backyard, and when she makes feeble attempts to befriend him, he brandishes his evil horns. Butterflies thicken the air, bumping against the witch’s eyelids as she struggles to sleep. The cottage is a caterpillar of noise, fruitfulness and life, devoid of the peace and solitude the witch so deeply desires. She phones the realtor the next morning to be told there is no hope for her; the market, as we all know, is terrible. There’s a well-available tree to the south, the realtor suggests, but it has a muskrat problem. To the north is a damp cave, but it should share it with enchanted bats that tell knock-knock jokes nonstop.

Perhaps, suggests the real estate agent, the witch would prefer to return to the village?

No thank you, said the witch.

The witch hangs up the phone, pulling a pillow over her head, just as an owl hangs up a cool lozenge. He stumbles into the fireplace and lands on the floor with a bang. The room is now so full of dumplings that when the witch gets up to make her tea, she floats on a carpet of fur and bone.

Home ownership is the worst, the witch smolders all day after. She mutters to no one, I hate this cottage.

As if in response, the chalet suddenly rears up on its chicken thighs and begins to run tumultuously in place. The witch clutches the unlit stove for balance but still manages to bang her head against the sideboard.

Alright, yells the witch. You win. I surrender. There’s nothing you can do, she realizes, but make the most of it.

The house, appeased, relaxes, folding its chicken thighs into a seated position. It hums around her, the walls and the floor vibrate. Humiliated, the witch murmurs her gratitude.

Over the next few weeks, the witch’s attendance returns. She decides to clean the whole house from top to bottom, but with care, so that even the smallest lives – the mouse, the mushroom, the moth, even the wayward earwig climbing on her old cauldron – are valued. The witch opens the windows and doors, sweeps away the mass of owl dumplings, begins to appreciate while washing the floors the wealth of medicine, food, spells and means of transport that the house has given her. She can grow mushrooms and herbs from her interior. In a rotting cupboard strewn with leaves, the witch discovers silkworms, plump and white as mounds of snow. They provide him with yarn. She only boils the cocoons after the silk moths hatch. The demonic goat calms down when she offers him sugar cubes molded from the cabin’s outdoor candy melt: now he has milk, butter and cheese. The house, itself, is a moving vehicle, and she finds that if she finds her ways and speaks to it lovingly, it will take her wherever she needs to go.

Sometimes, thinks the witch, I forget the generosity that surrounds me. If I open up, some of what seems miserable becomes musical instead.

Now the butterflies quiver against her eyelids and relax her into sleep. From the swamp of the sink, the frogs sing for her. The owl alights and the noise no longer irritates it but encourages it to philosophy: it considers the artefact, the life that nourished another life, our vitality in relation to what remains after the dispersion of the deadly breath. The witch thinks and dozes off. She is lucky, she knows, to have such a home. She is lucky to have a home.

The weeks pass in relative comfort. The witch relaxes into her new routines. If loneliness comes to mind, she pushes it away with the same lightness of touch that she uses with moths. If she remembers a friendly face in the village, someone she might start to miss, she quickly turns her thoughts to the work that needs to be done.

Nevertheless, when a village girl of only 14 shows up at the creek bed as the witch fills a bucket with clear, cool water, the witch’s first response is an exclamation of joy.

The girl is less cheerful, torn and shredded by her travels. She collapses from exhaustion at the witch’s feet. When she recovers, the witch administering her hot broth and bites of a buttery frittata, made from eggs the house laid itself, she tells the witch gruesome stories from the village.

Without the witch there, the health of women and others suffered. The town librarian was stoned to death. The bookseller – attempting to give children books about all sorts of identities, beliefs, cultures – rots in a rat-infested prison. Even the humanities-loving schoolteacher has been banished, replaced by a crow that caws only mathematical facts and mantras of church and state. Moreover, the girl, herself, is in a bad way and desperately needs the help of the witch.

Please, said the girl. For my future. Help me.

I hear you, said the witch, silencing the child. We’ll take care of that shortly. But first you need to rest.

The witch nurses the child back to health. She prepares a strong potion, a quick and above all painless concoction that will restore the child’s autonomy and future to itself. Grateful, the girl chooses to stay, helping the witch with chores, reading dusty books lining a small shelf, cooing owls in the fireplace, petting frogs. The witch is firm with the girl, almost authoritarian, but a dense swarm of affection develops between them. The witch, surprised, realizes that she loves the girl like a girl. She swirls this unexpected discovery around in her mind one night, marveling at how lucky she is. Family is home, she sees now, home is family. The girl is lying on her nearby pellet-filled mattress, snoring happily. The witch, overwhelmed with gratitude, cries.

But there is more too. There is duty. There is work to do. There is a community, a community that the witch, out of bitterness, has almost allowed herself to forget. The house is a fortress, but it is also a vehicle. She now sees what she must do. There are others like the girl, trapped with no choice. The witch puts her hand on the wall of her cottage full of life. She whispers to him: Travel.

The chalet expected it. He rears up on his chicken thighs, points his firm shoulders toward a path through the trees. He glides gently through the forest to take care, village after village, of a traveling clinic. The evil goat trots after them, sniffling and bleating. The girl and the witch, absorbed in their work, again and again forget – or simply accept – that they are risking their lives. The cottage supports them, filled with love, acceptance, health and choice, as all good homes are.

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