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Summer Stories: ‘A Fairer House than Prose’

July 24, 2022 Updated Sun., July 24, 2022 at 1:30 p.m.

By Sharma Shields

By Sharma Shields

The witch buys a cottage in the remotest part of the forest, hoping to be left alone. She’s spent her long life ministering to the villagers, but they’ve turned on her anyway, mostly out of boredom, having stoned to death their previous scapegoat, the miller. Despite relying on her potions and spells for decades, and despite their previous gratitude for her reversal of their woes – an illness, a grief, an unwanted pregnancy – rumors spread about the witch’s deviance and unholiness, her unnatural proclivities and devices. Though almost nothing startles the witch, the villagers’ shift in tone disturbs her, the friendly faces hardened into knots of accusation and rage. She notes the way her neighbors refill their baskets with sharp stones. The witch owes them nothing. She quietly shutters her house near the village, purchases the woodland cottage sight unseen, and moves away before the stones fall again.

The first night in her new home goes poorly. The witch doubts her choices. Her rush to leave the village caused her to overlook the cottage’s structural issues; the chicken legs in place of a solid foundation, the candy-coated exterior that melts into a sticky mess in the rain, the mushrooms popping up willy-nilly along the floorboards. It’s the worst sleep of the witch’s long life. Owls, nesting in the chimney, disgorge their impressive pellets throughout the night, the sound of retching followed by a firm thud. Frogs sing from the saturated mess of the sideboard, enchanted by some past sorcerer who was sick of washing dishes and decided to hell with it, might as well turn this whole counter space into a swamp. A demon goat bleats its curses at her from the backyard, and when she makes feeble attempts to befriend him, he brandishes his mean horns. Moths thicken the air, bumping against the witch’s eyelids as she struggles to sleep. The cottage is a caterwaul of noise and fecundity and life, devoid of the peace and solitude the witch so deeply desires. She phones the real estate agent the following morning only to be told that there is no hope for her; the market, as we all know, is terrible. There is a tree well available to the south, the real estate agent suggests, but it has a muskrat problem. To the north is a dank cave, but she would have to share it with enchanted bats who tell knock-knock jokes nonstop.

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

No thanks, the witch says.

The witch hangs up the phone, pulling a pillow over her head just as an owl hocks up a fresh pellet. It trips down the chimney and lands on the floor with a clatter. The room is so full of pellets now that when the witch rises to brew her tea she floats on top of a carpet of fur and bones.

Home ownership is the worst, the witch broods that whole next day. She mutters to no one, I hate this cottage.

As if in response, the cottage abruptly rises on its chicken legs and begins to rambunctiously jog in place. The witch clutches the unlit stove for balance but still manages to bash her head into the sideboard.

All right, the witch bellows. You win. I surrender. There is nothing to do, she realizes, but make the best of it.

The house, appeased, relaxes, tucking its chicken legs into a seated position. It purrs around her, the walls and floorboards vibrating. Humbled, the witch murmurs her gratitude.

Over the next few weeks the witch’s industriousness returns. She decides to clean the entire 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 out the mass of owl pellets, begins to appreciate as she washes the floors what a wealth of medicine, food, spells, and transport the house has gifted her. She can farm the mushrooms and herbs from its interior. In a rotting, leaf-strewn cabinet, the witch discovers silk worms, plump and white like mounds of snow. They provide her with thread. She boils the cocoons only after the silk moths hatch. The demon goat calms when she offers it sugar cubes molded from the cottage’s exterior candy melt: Now she has milk and butter and cheese. The house, itself, is a moving vehicle, and she finds if she regains her manners and speaks to it lovingly, it will take her wherever she needs to go.

Sometimes, the witch thinks, I forget the bounty around me. If I open up, some of what seems wretched becomes musical instead.

Now the moths tremble against her eyelids and relax her into sleep. From the swamp of the sink, the frogs sing to her. The owl pellets land and the noise no longer irritates her but encourages the philosophical: She considers the artifact, the life that has fed another life, our vitality versus what remains after the mortal breath scatters. The witch muses and dozes. She is lucky, she knows, to have such a home. She is lucky to have a home at all.

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

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

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

Without the witch there, the health of women and others have suffered. The town librarian has been 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 raven who caws only math facts and mantras of church and state. Moreover, the girl, herself, is in a bad way, and desperately needs the witch’s help.

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

I hear you, the witch says, hushing the child. We’ll take care of it shortly. But first, you must rest.

The witch nurses the child back to health. She prepares a strong potion, a quick and mostly painless concoction that will return the child’s autonomy and future to herself. Grateful, the girl chooses to stay, helping the witch with the chores, reading dusty books that line a small bookshelf, cooing to the owls in the chimney, petting the frogs. The witch is firm with the girl, almost bossy, but there grows between them a dense swarm of affection. The witch, startled, realizes that she loves the girl as a daughter. She twirls this unexpected discovery through her mind one night, marveling at her great luck. Family is home, she sees now, home is family. The girl lies on her pellet-filled mattress nearby, snoring blissfully. The witch, overcome with gratitude, weeps.

But there is more, too. There is duty. There is work to be done. There is community, a community the witch, out of bitterness, has almost let herself forget. The house is a fortress, but it’s also a vehicle. She sees now what she must do. There are others like the girl, trapped without choice. The witch puts her hand on the wall of her life-brimming cottage. She murmurs to it: Travel.

The cottage has been expecting this. It rises on its chicken legs, aims its firm shoulders at a pathway through the trees. It glides smoothly through the forest to attend to village after village, a traveling clinic. The demon goat trots along after them, snorting and bleating. The girl and the witch, engrossed in their work, forget again and again – or merely accept – that they are risking their very lives. The cottage bolsters them, filled with love, acceptance, health, and choice, as all good homes are.

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