To celebrate 50 chapters, here’s a bonus short story!
They say that the old crone on the hill is a witch, and hides her devil’s bite under her hair. They say that she steals life from the town and sickens the fields with her evil. They say that the reason there’s no gate in her fence is because it’s not a fence for her house; it’s a fence of holly wood with silver nails, built to keep her in. And they say that if you cross that fence uninvited, you don’t come back out – or at least, not all of you does. In payment of your trespass, you leave something behind.
“I heard,” my friend Samael whispered to me as we picked the midsummer apples, “that she steals babies’ hair and spins it into thread that takes away their life force. Then she trades the thread to rich foreigners for food and luxuries. You’d better keep an eye on your sister.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I sniffed. “Somebody’s been making a fool of you.”
“No, really! How else would she stay alive, up there all alone? She can’t be growing enough food for herself, and what about when she gets sick, or needs firewood? She never comes to town!”
“If she never comes to town,” Marcus pointed out, “how would she get the babies’ hair? Think, Samael. Everyone knows she curses the town with the smoke from her chimney, and the curses will get you if you don’t say your prayers to protect yourself.”
“You’re both wrong,” I said. “I heard that she sneaks into town in the dead of night and trades secrets for her goods, because the holy sunlight burns her during the day.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” Samael said. “If sunlight burns her, why has her house got windows? Huh? And who’s selling to her? She’s not buying tools off my dad!”
“She’s an old woman! How often would she need to buy tools?”
“Hey, you two?” Marcus held out an apple. “Look at this.” He split it with his hands, and we stared.
The entire core was a black, slimy mess. Once it was opened, the smell of rot was unmistakeable.
I split the apple in my hands. Rotten.
“Get your papa,” I told Marcus.
An inspection was called. Three quarters of the harvest was infected. The rest looked clean, but there could be no chances taken with the rot. There would be no apples this year.
The apples were an important part of our food supply, especially with most of last year’s wheat harvest taken by the beetles, but we had enough stores to last until the new wheat came in. We were a very resilient town, and had always taken care to store well.
It would be a lean year, though.
It was decided that we children would finish harvesting the apples, then in autumn compost them on the wheat fields over the river, where they could not re-infect the orchard while they broke down. The next year, the apple blossoms would be trimmed before they could develop – two years without apples – and that should remove the blight’s hold. Chasing thoughts of fresh apple pie from my mind, I returned to the harvest.
“She did this,” Samael grumbled. “Beetles, then apple blight? That’s not normal bad luck.”
“I have an idea,” Marcus said.
And that’s how the three of us ended up lugging sacks of rotten apples up the hill at sunset.
“Are you sure this is safe?” I asked.
“The holly and silver fence will hold her in,” Samael said.
“No, she can get out at night,” Marcus insisted. “She comes into town when the sun’s down to – ”
“This was your idea, Marcus!”
“I know. I’m just saying.”
The sacks were heavy. It was fully dark by the time we made it to the crone’s hut. Moonlight gleamed off the ungated fence, the clay roof, the overgrown garden.
Marcus reached into his sack, grabbed an apple, and hurled it at the hut. It splattered against the wall, smearing foul-smelling rot everywhere. Samael’s apple followed, smacking onto the roof. I pulled one out of my bag and took aim.
“Why hello, children.”
A shape I’d taken to be a particularly sickly tree in the woman’s garden stepped forward. The two boys screamed and bolted. I tried to follow, but I couldn’t move. Why couldn’t I move? I stood there, willing myself to back away from the witch coming closer, but every muscle was stiff as death. She came right up to the fence.
“Oh, how kind! You’ve brought me some old apples to fertilise my garden? It’s lovely when people think to help each other. I certainly have some vegetables that could use a bit of fertiliser. Do lift the bags over the fence, would you? I’m afraid my old bones just aren’t up to the task any more.”
Come on. I could run away. It shouldn’t be hard. The buys had managed it! Just turn and run!
“Oh, is it too heavy for you too, dear? Never mind; I have just the thing for that.” She picked up a long plank of wood and laid it over the fence, one end sticking up like a seesaw. “Do you know how to use a lever and fulcrum, dear? It’s very simple. Just put one of the sacks on the end there, would you?”
I found myself obeying. Was she doing something to me? Making me obey her with her evil magic?
“Now, the real secret of leverage is this – you have to put in as much effort as you’re going to get out.” She leaned down on her side of the plank, lifting my side (with the sack) up high. When it was low enough, she stood on her end, and reached to drag the sack down the plank towards her. “You get out what you put in, the trick is to direct it properly. See? Now the second bag.”
Soon, we had all three bags over the fence, and nothing horrible had happened to me. The old woman grinned. “Do come in for a cup of tea, dear.”
Finally, my legs let me back away. “It’s, uh, late. I should get going.”
“But you came all this way, bringing such a nice gift! It’s hardly going to get darker than it is already. Do come in and rest yourself and warm up a little.”
I knew the stories – cross the fence uninvited, and you don’t come out. But I was invited, wasn’t I? That meant it was safe, right?
Inside the cottage, the floors were swept and the table wiped, but cobwebs hung thick across the ceiling and a rat glowered at me from the corner. Things a frail old lady would have difficulty keeping up with, living on her own.
She put the kettle on and I found a broom to clear the cobwebs. The broom was old and falling apart; the table and chairs wobbled with loose joints. The only well-maintained item in the house was a spinning wheel in the corner, and its distaff, loaded with flax.
The tea was well steeped, but a little sour. The kettle needed cleaning.
The next day, after we finished harvesting the first of three apple orchards, I went to visit the crone with fresh nails for the chairs and vinegar for the kettle. She span flax in the corner, humming quietly to herself, and then we went outside together to dig rotten apples into the starving soil of the vegetable garden.
“Where do you get the flax?” I asked her as we worked.
“I buy it, like anybody else.”
“Where? You never come to the marketplace.”
The crone laughed. “There are many different types of trade in this world, my dear.”
The next day, I brought poison for the rats, and the crone span straw (she’d run out of flax) while I scrubbed the floor. I didn’t know that straw could even be spun, but under her fingers it twisted into a fine, supple cord. She caught me staring and wove the thread into a short length of ribbon, which she pressed into my hands. “A gift,” she said.
I thought of the old stories of princesses who wove straw into gold. I thought of the hour it had taken her to painstakingly weave the ribbon with stiff hands.
“I can’t,” I said.
So she tied it into her own hair and sent me home with vegetable stew for my mother, that she might make good milk for my baby sister, who had a fever.
“You should be careful,” Marcus warned me as we started on the second orchard. “I bet she poisoned that stew.”
“Why would she poison anyone?”
“She’s right,” Samael said, “witches don’t need to use poison. They can curse people with sickness, just like she did to these apples.”
“She’s not a witch! She’s just an old lady with no one to help her. Maybe if you actually talked to her instead of spreading gossip, you’d learn something.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?”
Like what herbs to add to a mother’s tea to protect her child from fever, which the crone showed me the next day. Like which cobwebs to leave undisturbed, because some spiders protected the house from other pests. Like how to grow enormous turnips, and how a frail old lady could use leverage to move quite heavy furniture.
“You have to put in the energy you want to get out,” she explained again as she used a wooden post to easily lift a heavy oak cabinet and sweep under it. “It’s all about directing that energy.”
The next day, she made a mistake in directing that energy. I arrived at the cottage to find her cradling a badly sprained wrist.
“You’re lucky it’s not broken,” I chided her as I wrapped it up. “At your age you need to be careful.”
“What a waste of luck,” was her rueful reply.
“You can’t waste luck.”
“My dear, when you get to my age, every breath you draw is lucky. You tend to get quite stingy with it.”
I put the kettle on and cleaned out the larder while the crone rested her hand. I missed the sound of her humming melody and the whirr of her spinning wheel that normally accompanied my indoor work.
The herbs worked on my sister. She grew strong and healthy and the days grew long and dry, and we finished the apple harvest and the men brought in the wheat, and the crone’s cottage was clean and in good repair. Her wrist healed, and soon I was pickling vegetables to the whir of her wheel and her melody.
And my sister fell ill again that very day.
Through the night, her little lungs coughed weakly and rasped as she breathed. And the rasp entered my dreams as the whirr of a spinning wheel.
“She’s going to kill your sister,” Samael told me.
“No,” I said. “We all get sick. And we all survive.”
We did. We were a resilient people; illness and misfortune had plagued our town for a hundred years, but we were strong and prepared and we always pulled through. My sister was strong, too. She would survive her cold. We would survive the lack of apples and the rapidly drying town. And a old woman taking to her spinning wheel being blamed for such misfortunes… well, that was just a story made up by silly children.
Still, I stopped visiting the crone. I was too busy, caring for my sister, and my mother who had caught her cold, and helping bring in the last of the wheat, and spinning new thread for my mother’s loom. Watching the crone had taught me to spin faster, smoother thread than ever before, and I caught myself humming her melody as I worked. I kept myself busy, and I told myself that that was why I stayed away. Until the morning I smelled the smoke.
The winds were hot and dry; the wildfire was distant, but moving quickly. While everyone got to work protecting the town, Marcus and Samael and I climbed the hill.
“It’s her spinning wheel,” I explained. “She calls misfortune down by spinning.”
“Then we destroy it,” Marcus said, drawing his father’s hammer from his belt.
The boy’s hesitated at the fence – they say that if you go in uninvited, you don’t come out – but I leapt over it, and they followed, not wanting to show more fear than a girl. I could hear her humming and spinning as the smell of smoke became stronger. I pushed through the door.
The house was once again cobwebbed and dusty in places difficult for an old woman to reach. But it was hard to see that, under the balls of thread littered about the floor. Every surface was piled in thread of every thickness and colour and material, from fine dark wool to rough bark. The crone stood from behind her wheel, and tossed a ball to me.
“Good. You’re here. Grab as much as you can, and take it down to the town. Boys, you look strong; I’m sure you can carry a lot.” She tossed a ball to Marcus, who dropped the hammer to catch it.
“Your thread?” I asked, baffled.
“Not mine. The town’s. I just wind it up and keep it safe.” She wound a length of freshly spun cord around my wrist, again and again. “”But now it is needed, and you must take it. Go!”
“What is – ”
“No time! Go!”
We scooped up armloads of thread and raced back down the hill, letting gravity and the weight of our loads speed us along. The smoke was thick enough to be visible, now, a haze on the horizon, and I felt the thread around my wrist burn, leaking something into me, as my feet missed every stick and stone and stumbling block and found the quickest path down the hill. Marcus stopped to toss balls of thread over trees and storage sheds where it hung like ropey cobwebs; Samael and I split up, heading for opposite ends of town.
The wind was the strongest I’d ever experienced. It snatched string from my arms, and I knew there was no time to stop to pick it up. I dashed to the river. At the edge of the nearly dry bed, most of the village stood, clubs and water buckets at the ready to try to stop the fire from spreading to the fields on the other side. Behind them, mothers lay their children in the shallow muddy stream that still flowed, a last-ditch effort if the fire couldn’t be held back.
“Take it!” I shouted, throwing balls of thread at them. “Take this, and hold onto it! Wind it around yourselves! It’ll protect you!”
It was a ridiculous claim. But the thread around my wrist burned, and they heard the urgency and certainty in my voice, and people took the string, handed it to each other, wound it around themselves and their children and their clubs, and behind me the wind picked up even more and pushed me over.
I took a club and took up a position on the line, but we all knew it was hopeless already. The scent of smoke carried a story; I smelled not just wood, but meat and grease and lanolin and a hint of alcohol… the stores, the sheep, perhaps even my friends… and then the hot air was burning my eyes and embers were raining down and the fierce flames were in front of us and there was no choice but to retreat, sprinting for the muddy water and flinging ourselves down.
I threw myself over my sister, holding her tiny face just above the water and using my body to shield her from the fire and debris raining over us. Something burned my arm; not the fire, but the cord wrapped around it, glowing brightly and disintegrating to dust and leaving the arm underneath unmarked despite the pain. The wool coccooning my sister glowed too, as bright as the fire; I had to look away, up into the sky, and saw burning leaves carry clear over the river to land on the other side among the wheat fields, where it burned through unharvested straw. And then it was gone, and as one, we stood, brushing away ash that had once been string. I checked my sister for injuries – none. We walked back to town, putting out little fires with our clubs on the way.
The town was in surprisingly good shape. There was damage, of course, but the wind had pulled the fire through too fast to destroy everything. A lot of thatching needed repair, and we’d lost some of our stores, but enough had survived. The town would survive.
Everyone started cleaning up, and I climbed the hill to the old crone’s hut.
Most of the hut itself was intact, although the garden had been badly damaged. Part of the fence had burned away entirely, leaving a space just wide enough, perhaps, to install a gate.
Inside the house, not a ball of thread remained. Everything was coated in that strange ash, and I walked past the crone, sitting at her table, to fetch the broom. She didn’t look up at me. She didn’t move at all.
“Hey. Are you okay?”
She did not move. Did not breathe.
I closed her eyelids, took her hands to cross them over her chest. Something dropped into my hand from hers; a short length of ribbon. One I’d watched her weave months ago from straw. It looked a lot shorter now.
I tied it into my hair, and once again tallied my tasks. I would have to sit with her for the three nights’ vigil, because nobody else would. I would have to sell something to get two coppers for the gravedigger, because nobody else would. And I would have to help repair the town, help the wounded, tally our stores, do all of those little things that would tide us over between this disaster and the next. Resilient people like us have to be careful where we direct our energy. Today had been very lucky, and now we had little luck to spare; but it would not be long before the town would need to be lucky again. There was always another disaster.
The ribbon felt hot in my hair. It burned against my head, like something was boring into my skull. I ignored it.
I sat at the wheel, and started to spin.