Witch Hands, Part 1

There once was a girl who lived alone with her handsome widowed father. Then, one day, her father brought home a new bride, a wicked step-mother for the little girl. That girl was me, October Helmi. I was born the 1st of October, and that is how I got my name.  Everyone calls me Tobi.

My step-mother’s name is Lian. The first time I met her I asked her if she was wicked, and she said that she most definitely was. I knew we would get along then. She was very young, with black hair and a black cat named December. I asked her if he had been born in December and she she said, “No, May.”

Besides December my step-mother brought several ghosts with her; she kept them in a sewing box with a pair of knitting needles. “I collect ghosts,” she told me. “I’m going to knit them together someday to make a cloak.” But when I asked her how many she had, and how many she needed, she said she didn’t know.

A couple years later Lian had two babies, twin girls, my sisters Augusta and Juliet. Two babies are a lot to handle, so one day last week Lian announced that we were going to the market to get some help. Every now and then Lian goes off to “the market” and brings back odd things. Sometimes she adds a new ghost to her box. The last time she went to market she brought back a candle that sings when it’s lit and a potted tree which eats flies and bears tiny purple starflowers every night. I never got to go to market with her until last week, but she needed my help with the twins this time.

It was the day before my twelfth birthday and Lian said she would buy me a special present at the market. Just going was present enough for me, but I didn’t turn down the offer. We tucked Augusta and Juliet into their double stroller and Lian got out her shopping bag, which she had knit from ghosts when she was my age. She told me it had taken her all twelve years of her life to collect enough ghosts for the bag, but she had been working on collecting ghosts for the cloak for twice that long.

We walked to the end of our street and Lian whistled three quick times, “to call the market bus.” After a moment or two a small yellow bus pulled up to the curb. The doors opened just wide enough to push the double stroller through, and a ramp slid out to meet us. The bus driver was a short little man in a fur coat; he couldn’t have been more than a foot tall, and he sat on a tall, wobbly stack of phone books. Lian fished around in her purse for a second before pulling out a scorpion (it was still alive) and offering it to the driver. He promptly popped it into his mouth, and I pushed the twins down the aisle, trying not to gape at him as I passed.

The bus was empty except for one person, a tall, thin old lady with violet hair. She looked down at the twins and I with a little sniff of disdain and turned back to the window. When I looked out the windows I didn’t see our neighborhood, but a swirl of stars against the black of a night sky. We sat all the way in the back because the stroller blocked the aisle, but for the rest of the ride no one else got on.

Augusta and Juliet didn’t enjoy the bus ride, even though it was smooth and quiet they cried the whole way. They were fussy, wicked babies, which was why we were going to market to get some help in the first place. The violet haired old lady sniffed and sat very upright the whole time, and sometimes she turned a little to look at us as though she wanted to say something. But she never did. When we got to the market she rose to her feet in one fluid, regal motion, and gave us one last disapproving look before disembarking. I don’t know if it was noise or children in general she disapproved of. Either way, Lian didn’t seem to notice or care.

We exited the bus and I saw that we were somewhere in the countryside, on an intersection of dirt lanes, and as the bus rolled away I read the road marker. To the north was Webblewood, to the west, Yaxley, to the south, Arguyl, and to the east, The Market. I’d never heard of any of those places, save for the market.

“Come along then,” said Lian, turning eastwards.

“Have you ever been to those other places?” I asked, trying to steer the stroller along after her without getting it stuck in the road.

“Lots of times,” Lian answered. “I grew up in Arguyl. Lived in Yaxley for a while.”

“What about Webblewood?”

“It’s an awful place. A dark forest full of dangerous, wild things.”

I instantly wanted to go there, but I didn’t say so. Augusta and Juliet wailed loudly. Lian strode off towards The Market and we followed.

For a while the road wended through an open countryside, but soon we crested a hill to see tents and booths and tables spread with a myriad of goods looming before us. The market lined either side of the road as far as my eyes could see. There were people pacing back and forth down the road, filling it up, sometimes stopping to barter and buy. Lian marched down the hill purposefully, as if the sight held no wonder for her. I lingered a little while to take it all in, before hurrying after, twins crying and fussing as I pushed them along.

I saw many things that day which made my head spin and my mouth gape. Things you wouldn’t believe if I told you about them. Things you might not even want to believe exist. There wasn’t time to look at everything, and Lian told me to choose my birthday gift wisely, so I tried to keep myself from being completely bowled over. I gawked and squinted and cast sideways glances at everything around me, wondering, what one thing did I really want?

While I was still deciding, Lian found exactly what she was looking for. I followed her to a booth arrayed with an unsettling display of severed limbs. She began to poke through a rack of hands and forearms, and I dared to ask, “What are those?”

“Witch hands,” she answered quite matter-of-factly. “Very expensive but very, very useful.”

I gazed thoughtfully at the hands, noticing they all were cuffed together. “Do they . . . come to life?” I tried to sound unbothered by the idea.

“Yes,” Lian said, picking up a pair and examining the fingers. “When you uncuff them they can work for you for several hours, before the magic runs out, then you need to recharge them. The magic, you see, is in the cuffs, not the hands.”

“So they didn’t really belong to witches?”

“Not most of them,” Lian shook her head. “But if you get a pair that really were a witch’s, well then you have a very powerful pair indeed, though you must be very careful of them.” She paused in her shopping to look at me. “Real witch hands have a mind of their own, you see.”

“Oh.” I did see, and the sight was unsettling, to say the least. “Are you looking for real ones?”

“Yes. I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, but for the price I’m paying, I want the very best.”

I looked around the booth for price tags or signs, but didn’t see anything. “How much will they cost?”

“Tobi, will you please stop asking questions? I’m trying to concentrate.”

I fell silent, rebuked. Lian usually kept on answering my questions without complaint, though sometimes her answers were so vague and mysterious they didn’t seem like answers at all. I watched her as she fingered each set of hands. Sometimes she patted them, or pinched them, or stroked them, and every now and then she would sniff them. She spent a lot of time at it, digging to the back of the rack, till at last she made a little snort of triumph.

“Here we are,” she said, holding a pair of lifeless arms out to me. The hands at the ends dangled limply towards me, and I tried not to recoil.

I wanted to ask how she could tell they were real witch hands, but didn’t want to be told again not to ask so many questions. Instead I just smiled and nodded.

“Have you found something you liked?” asked a greasy little man, sidling up to us. He eyed the hands and purred, “Ooooooh yessss, madam, excellent choice. You will be buying these, yes?”

“Yes. What’s your price?” Lian said, almost carelessly.

The man had dark bulbous little eyes, like raspberries, and they roved over the lot of us for an unsettling moment. He looked a little too interestedly at my hands, and then raised an eyebrow hopefully at the twins. Lian cleared her throat as if in warning, and the man turned to her with a slimy little chuckle. “The box,” he said, and I wondered for a moment what he was talking about.

Lian’s face twitched, which made me more alarmed than anything before, because I never saw Lian lose her composure before. Not even when the twins were screaming in tandem at two in the morning. “Very well,” she said, and reached into her shopping bag. She drew out the sewing box, which had all her ghosts in it, and I gasped.

The man chuckled again and held out graspy little hands. “Yes, yesss, very good. The hands are yours, madam, enjoy them, treasure them, use them well.” Thus saying, he snatched the sewing box from Lian’s hands and scurried around the edge of the booth, before she could change her mind.

Lian tucked the hands into her bag and drew it shut. “Well, Tobi, that’s all my shopping for today. Have you seen something you liked?”

“But . . . but it’ll take you years to rebuild your collection!” I protested.

“Yes, yes it will. But considering the usual price for a pair of witch hands, I’d say this was a bargain,” Lian told me.

I dared not ask what the usual price was, remembering the man’s appraising look at me and the twins. “But do we really need them? I can help more with the twins, really, I—”

Lian waived one hand dismissively. “Nonsense. Everyone can use an extra pair of hands, and who needs a ghost cloak anyway? Now it’s getting late, you should choose your gift now so we can get back in time for dinner. You know how helpless your father is at getting his own dinner.”

Truth be told I had no idea what I wanted, and I was now terrified of choosing something with too high a price. I cast my eyes about quickly and saw a booth filled with snowglobes. Snowglobes were safe and ordinary, so I walked over and picked one up. When I looked inside I saw a little stream running by the edge of a forest, and when I shook it birds flitted about in the air. “This,” I said.

“Hm,” was all Lian had to say about it, but she went up to the lady tending the booth and offered her a pair of lizards from the bag. Then the snowglobe was mine, and I carried it home in the crook of my arm.

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