Straight to the heart of the wood she brought me, where oak and beech grow thick — but it was under a rowan tree she set the basket down.
“Mushrooms enough for the king’s army, if you stir yourself to look. Don’t gobble your bread all at once, you’ll be hungry before I come back.” She bent to kiss me goodbye.
“A kiss is a pledge, isn’t it, mother?”
“Aye, it is.”
“Kiss me twice, then, for surety,” and I pulled her back again. Lips to lips, warm as sunlight.
She gave me a sharp wondering look before she turned away. I knew her thinking — waited overlong to push me from the nest — big bold fledgling who’ll spoil her game.
I was coming up too fast for her to play tender young widow much longer. The boy won’t hinder her. But those seeing her and me together would think this: apples and cherries growing round on the tree, and her smelling like day-old bread.
She’d tucked the loaf-end and some cheese loving-like in a worked cloth. But nothing to spark a fire — and the trees already changing their dress.
She’ll wait a week — til it’s sure I won’t draggle back, famished and near-enough-perished with cold — and then run crying to strong ready-waiting arms — ready for the little one, too, who’ll not remember anyone before him.
She was gone when I looked for her, she’ll swear, raw-voiced; barely made it home myself with the dark fallen and the candle in my lantern burned down. I was so late giving suck to my little one, he was near-dead with screaming… And her hand will stray unconscious-like to those two warm plump doves fluttering beneath her bodice. What man wouldn’t want to cup them in his hands?
God’s truth, I thought, we know each other this well — she’s not coming back and I’m not waiting.
My time is coming, and no man will paw me who I don’t full desire, myself.
Let me first find my way out of this dark place.
I broke a handful of rowan twigs for my pockets and wove some into the basket for good measure. No knife, no flint — but maybe magic is stronger.
I walked a long time, til chimney-smoke led me to a tiny clearing conjured from the bowels of the wood. And a cottage with a garden planted.
There in the garden was a witch.
She had a strong hard face, and hair so equally gold and silver that none could guess her age.
“I bring you good luck, auntie,” I called, very hearty.
“How so?” she asked, looking up.
“Come to help you, alone in these woods!”
That showed we were both on the same footing.
“Help me — a shabby lost thing like you!”
I said, “Far too soon you make up your mind to that.”
“Well put,” she answered, and bade me sit on the step til she was ready to pause from her work.
On the porch was her cat. But this one was cloud-color, and it took me so fair — a patch of mist sunning itself like that — my eyes were wet with the mirth of it.
The witch brought a cup of warm milk, to hearten me, she said.
I didn’t like her eyes, seeing what was mine to hide. That’s dangerous magic and hard to counter. I fingered the rowan in my pocket while I drank.
Then she was shaking my shoulder though I hadn’t slept, and she told me to tidy myself and come inside.
She’d made porridge thick with dried apples and berries and hazelnuts, swimming in hot milk and smelling like Christmas cake.
A dead stick would fatten on porridge like that. I squeezed the rowan twigs to thwart her intent, and ate the bowlful.
“Why should I take you on?” she asked.
“I’m young and strong,” I said, “and you’re one old woman alone in the wood’s heart.” That proved I had no fear of her.
“Well,” she said, “then you’ve come at the right time indeed. The dough has had its first rising. Knead it.”
Even after the first rising it was a thick strong dough; I leaned my whole weight into it but could hardly fold one part onto the other.
She poured herself a mug of strong dark tea.
“Best take your own true measure before judging anybody else’s,” she said.
With all my dignity I thanked her for her courtesy, and wished her a good morning.
“What’s jumping all about in your pocket?”
I held the twigs up like a standard blazing my colors. “Those who’d harm me will rue it,” I said.
“Aye indeed,” she said; “there’s great use to rowan.”
And — then I saw — the bowls and spoons and walking stick and even her spinning wheel, all were of rowan wood.
“So we both know its value,” I said calmly, though I had to press my legs together, dying for the privy.
She laughed. “How came you so far astray, child?”
“Seeking a witch of great power to teach me great things.”
“Wonderful words! What’s the real story?”
I told her.
“Couldn’t you find your way back to the town road, a sharp bright thing like you?
“How long would I last there? A forest’s better than a gutter — or a lout’s bed. If wolves are to rend me, let them have four legs, and do it cleanly.”
“Hold that thought, when you squirm in the wolf’s jaws. But perhaps you aren’t a fool,” she said, “some sense has been bred in the bone. If you’ve brawn enough left to lift the kettle, pour yourself some tea while I consider what to do with you.”
“Eh! What’s got your eyes so bright?”
“Going hunting, mother!”
“Two-legged beast, or four?”
“Don’t you know?”
“And if the prey take the hunter?”
“One and the same, mother! But this is home, always!”
“Pretty words! Do you pledge them?”
So I pledged with a daughter’s kiss, lips to lips, warm as sunlight.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)
This story is sponsored by
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