WOLF’S BANE • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Her face was dark and strange, unwarmed by the firelight. I’m her heart’s whole world and even I felt chilled by it. That man was every way a fool to make my Nan so angry.

If I grow up half so wise, there’ll be none to say boo! to me. She sorts real from flimflam and truth from lies; knows the bright side and the tricky side of everything that grows.

I help her at the weaving though I don’t yet have her hand. You’d swear it’s silk and not wool that she works so fine. My friends love to tease I dress too bold for a cottager’s girl — too much a taste for crimson. But they’d all wear the same if they could.

Some of her craft’s done quietly, for mercy’s sake only. “Just come to me early,” she says; “can’t help if you come to me late.”

And they do come, trembling up the path as it bends itself to our gate, right where the woods grow thick; frantic that Nan can’t loose them from the snare they’ve got caught in. Mostly she can help, and with little grief to it, and with kindness. With luck only the kindness will follow them after.

It’s hard work, leading up to market day, but we like it more than a festival. Better to fill your pockets than empty them! The treat’s in catching up with townfolk, catching a glimpse of city folk.

It was Alter the wool merchant Nan always liked meeting; he ranged further than we folk can; at the end of the day he’d buy her a coffee and a bit of chocolate for me, and tell us of the world. When he got too old to range from his own fireside, it was his nephew-in-law Herr Luder took his place. A kind man, Herr Alter, but a sad judge of character.

Herr Luder was soft, but not as you’d mean tender. Like an overboiled dumpling coming apart at the edges. It surprised you to see such bright sharp eyes slanting out of a face like that.

Every time he did his little dancing step to come closer to me in the midst of the High Street clamor, Nan was between us. Like a fencing match that nobody saw but me. That was the season’s first market day.

The next had weather just right for lingering. The stalls were crowded; Herr Luder drew plenty of flushed cheeks around him. Country girls love a city man’s banter.

We marked out the fly sinking in honey. A bit of gold on a man’s finger works like ginger in a cake — tempts you to keep nibbling when you’d best leave off. Sharp little Marta was playing with someone sharper.

I’m younger than Marta; sharper, but I don’t show my edges.

Nan looked at her warningly, but she was so busy cat-smiling at Herr Luder she paid no mind to us. It’s the clever ones like Marta end up crying in Nan’s kitchen for a tea that will cure their ills.

And wasn’t it six weeks later she was tapping on our door?

“That one tries to sink his teeth into every milk-white lamb, you ninny,” said Nan while Marta sat there shaking. “The ones he catches drop lambs of their own where his own little ewe won’t find ’em.”

Marta turned all kinds of colors while she gulped down her tea.

Market day after that, Herr Luder was wanting to pinch every succulent joint in the giggling flock around him.

“Herr Luder!” said Nan, and her voice was honey with a kick in it, “Herr Alter always came by for a mug of my summer ale. You won’t break the tradition?”

“Why,” he said, answering her but looking at me, “I love tradition as much as any man!”

“Come by, then,” said my Nan, “and take some ease before tomorrow’s journey. A man away from home likes a bit of cosseting.”

“Oh, he does,” said Herr Luder, “glad of any comfort he’s offered.”

***

“Don’t you play to him,” said Nan, cutting sausage and bread, grating horseradish to mix in her own special way. “If he thinks I’m serving up pigeon, that’s one more mistake he’s making.”

The ale was special too. We’d put up a small jugful he could carry away with him, for a man gets thirsty in the course of his travels.

Nan’s smile hadn’t much sun in it, when she opened the door to Herr Luder. But it wasn’t her face he looked at.

I helped to serve at table, though I kept well out of his reach, and he slowed as the afternoon faded. Nan kept refilling his plate.

“Well, Herr Luder,” she said at last, “such a pity to lose you, but surely you’d better be off. You’ve an early start tomorrow!”

His eyes were dulling in a red sweating face, as she gave him his cloak and walking stick.

“A jugful for your journey,” said Nan, “to remember my table!”

He hauled himself up and took his leave. I was behind Nan and he couldn’t push past her to kiss my hand.

“What if he shares it?” I asked her, after we’d watched he got on to the High Street safe enough.

“That kind doesn’t,” said my Nan. “He’ll be panting from his big breakfast and thinking of his noontime meal. Blowing like a whale when he steps into the coach, no shock if he can’t step out.”

***

And on the market day after that, a stranger was setting up in Herr Luder’s stall. Spiky hair above a bright little hedgehoggy face. That sort’s no harm if you handle him smartly.

“Apoplexy!” he said, spreading his news, and he hardly looked regretful. “Herr Luder’ll want to get rechristened if he intends to linger!”

“Why, what’s his name, then?” asked my Nan, though of course she knew it.

“Wolfgang,” he said, grinning.


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.


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