ZINNIA • by Linda McMullen

When Father died, Mama and I inherited a crumbling castle in a distant forest, and nothing else. But thither we went — the rest of Father’s fortune went to a male relation, who turned us out of our town house before our tears dried.

It soon became apparent that we could neither sell, nor mortgage, nor lease a ruin. “What shall we do?” Mama asked. “Hunt squirrels and pick berries?”

As it transpired, that was exactly what we did, though neither of us relished it — and winter would come.

One late August day, Mama was making dinner out of a squirrel and wild greens — rapunzel and dandelions — while I sorted through an ancient wardrobe in the tower. Happily one rug was salvageable; I draped it over the window-ledge to air, when a male voice called, “Fair maid!”

I am fair enough, viewed from fifty feet below.

“Canst thou not descend to me?”

His errant gallantry turned up the corners of my mouth. “Nay, good sir, the crone below hath ensorcelled me!”

Mama, with impeccable timing, emerged, apron dotted with squirrel remnants — at which point our hero fairly screamed and ran away.

“Did I hear you call me a crone?” Mama demanded.

To her credit, she laughed. Young Sir returned the next day, with a retinue. Seeing that they really believed me enchanted, and that they meant to do Mama harm, I cried out… but she was faster.

“Stop!” she cried, with maleficent bravura. The men watched, uneasily. “Yon damsel will not thank you for striking me down! I have cast a dread spell; injury or death to me will result in her permanent captivity!”

The valiant troops groaned lustily, and retreated.

“Well done, Mama.”

“It was not difficult to anticipate them.”

The following day, Young Sir had a new idea.

“O Wise Lady,” said he, addressing Mama, “Wouldst thou accept a gift for release of yon damsel?”

She considered. “Nay, I shan’t part with her.”

“Wait, thou witch!” I cried. “I would fain bargain with thee.”

Mama and I met on the stairs. She grinned, and descended to yon blockhead.

“For a gift of meat or game, I shall withdraw, and thou mayest converse with the maid, for ten minutes.”

He returned promptly, with a chicken.

As Young Sir and I had shouted up and down, my throat got rather sore; Mama made me tea. “Ask for a wheel of cheese next time,” I rasped.

“I am far ahead of you, daughter.”

She offered the chicken to passing traders, in exchange for spreading rumors.

Stories of my beauty (propagated by the bedazzled and nearsighted) spread far and wide; so did tales of the vicious crone imprisoning me. The chivalrous paid increasingly steep prices for a few precious moments of my company. Mama and I learned to make preserves and sausages; our stores were half full.

“So…what shall we do when the men finally realize you’re not bewitched?” Mama asked.

“Move on to credulous women. How do you fancy a turn as the Oracle of the Forest?”

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, and diplomat. She has been previously published or pieces are forthcoming in Burningword, Typishly, Panoply, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, Allegory, Enzo Publications, The Write Launch, Palaver, and Curating Alexandria; other pieces are forthcoming in Five:2:One, Coffin Bell Journal, and Dragon Poet Review.

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