Witch Hands, Part 4

When I reached the cellar I found myself surrounded by bags of flour and barrels of apples.  I turned in circles looking for the hole in the wall, thinking it would be the size of a doorway.  But the only hole I saw, after a couple turns around, was near the floor and skinny.  I would have to slither on my belly like a snake to get through.

With a heavy sigh I got down on my knees and peered through the hole.  I couldn’t see much.  But I flattened myself, glad that the blue light kept near my shoulder, and crawled under the wall on my forearms.  After a foot or so the tunnel opened up, and as I slid out I could stand again.  The walls were narrow on each side but the ceiling was about three feet above my head.

I followed the cave path for a long time, it seemed, till I saw a light up ahead.  It was blue, like my shoulder light, but much bigger.  Shafts of blue undulated on the walls, like the source of the glow was constantly moving.  Whatever it was, it came from around the corner up ahead.

I came to the end of the hallway and turned to the right.  It opened up into a large room, a vast room, an endless room.  Stars twinkled for as far as I could see.  I could see no floor, I stood at the edge of an abyss of night sky.  Yet, ahead of me I saw a man, the Jester, sitting alone on a cushion that seemed to float like a cloud.  I couldn’t tell how far he was, in the field of black and stars he could have been a few yards or a few miles.  I saw that he wore a hat, like any jester’s hat, and his face was white and deeply sad.

“He-hello,” I said, not daring to set one foot further, and fall into infinity.  “I’m Tobi.  Are you Hans?”

The Jester had been staring away at points unknown, but at my timid voice he turned a little to look at me sidelong.  “Does it matter who I am?” he asked, gloomily.  “Does identity matter?  Does any man matter?”

“I, ehm . . . will take that as a yes.”

“If you must.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“You are full of questions.”  He said this with a note of resignation, and I took it as permission.

“How are you floating in the air?  And why is there outer space in the witch’s basement?”

“I’m a jester, not an astronomer,” he sighed.  “How should I know such things?  If you are afraid of falling, though, you needn’t be.  If you step on the stars.”

I looked down, not entirely convinced.  But I saw one star that I might be able to balance one foot on, while still standing on solid rock with the other.  So I thought I might as well test it.  I held onto the wall with one hand and reached my right foot out, tentative, towards the star.  My foot touched it; it felt like a stone.  I put a little weight on it, and gave slightly, as if it was lodged in a sponge, but it did not fall.

“This is encouraging,” I said aloud, to myself.  I lifted my left foot and put it down on another star, and let go of the wall.  I stood for a moment, on two stars, marveling at how steady I felt.  I picked out a path of stars to the jester’s cushion, which wasn’t very far after all.

“I was wondering,” I begain—

“Endlessly,” Hans sighed, deeply,

“The witch who lives upstairs told me that a jester’s hat is as good as witch hands.  Is that true, and would you possibly want to sell your hat?”

Now that I was closer I could see that instead of bells at the ends of his hat, there were tiny little hands.  In answer to my question, the hat began to move, each arm lifting and stretching.  One hand touched my face, another played with my hair, and another reached out into the vast unknown, plucked a star from the sky, and handed it to me.

“In ways, in ways,” sighed Hans cryptically.  “But does it bring joy?”

I took the little star and held it in my hand; it was like a diamond that glowed pale blue from the inside, and was warm to the touch.  “It’s very pretty,” I said.

“You may have it, but you can’t have my hat. What is a jester without his hat?  A sorry sight, a very sorry sight.  It makes me sad just thinking about it.”  A slow dark tear slid from his eye and made its way down his ghostly face.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I thought it would make you sad.  Please, you’re too kind, I shouldn’t take one of your stars.”

I held it out to him, but he ignored it.  “I have many,” he sighed, “many stars, but only one hat.  One star can buy you many things, a whole chest of witch hands.  But you must promise not to tell where you got the star.  I can’t have everyone and their pet marching down here begging a star.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said solemnly.  “I haven’t done anything to deserve this star, though.  Truth to tell I didn’t even know what I might offer you in exchange for the hat.”

“You have a serious face,” he said.  “I like it.”  The one hat-hand still touched my cheek, and now it stroked my face a little.

“Oh,” I said.  “Um.  Thanks.”

“I get so tired of laughing faces, baring teeth in grins, eyes glinting like knife blades.  What is so funny about life, hmm?”

I smiled nervously, not very convincingly I suspect, and took a step back, forgetting that I was perched on stars.  My foot met nothingness and I lost my balance, falling quickly through the black.  But more quickly yet, the jester’s hat reached down and caught me, lifting me up cradled in each long arm.

Hans set me down next to him on his cushion.  “Are you in a hurry to leave?” he asked, looking wounded.

“Um . . . ” I hesitated, the witch’s warning ringing in my ears.  And still a little breathless from my sudden fall.  “Well yes, you see, I would love to stay and talk with you but my wicked step-mother may wake up any moment now and she’ll be furious to find that I’ve gone missing with her witch hands.  So I really must get going if I’m to find another pair to buy and get home before she finds out.”

“Very well, off you run then,” Hans sighed.  “But come back again sometime when you have more time, yes?  I have some poems I’ve written but no one to hear them . . . .”

“I’ll be sure to stop by and listen sometime,” I lied.  I got up and stepped carefully from star to star, toward the ledge.  I thought I heard gentle weeping noises behind me, but I didn’t dare look back, and simply threw a wave over my shoulder.  I felt a little guilty taking the star so ungratefully, but only a little.

I followed the hall back to the cellar wall and crawled under the hole, noticing that my shoulder light had gone.  But the star more than compensated. 

I climbed the stairs to the witch’s pantry, holding star and snowglobe, pausing when I heard voices.  The witch was conversing politely with someone, and I wondered who.  I peeked around the corner, and saw my step-mother.

Lian and the witch sat across from each other at the witch’s table, pies spread out between them.  Augusta and Juliet slept in their double stroller near Lian’s chair, and December lay underneath, gently twitching his tail.  I gaped silently, but they knew I was there anyway, and turned in unison to look at me.  “Well,” said Lian, “here she is, at last.  October Helmi, I am very much looking forward to hearing your explanation for what you have done.”

December padded out from under the table and jumped on Lian’s shoulder, giving me a smug and catty look that said he very much looked forward to my punishment; perhaps cleaning out his litter box every day for the rest of my life.  I just looked helplessly from witch to step-mother, noticing how very alike they looked, like mirror images though one had an inch of air between upper arms and lower.

“I . . . got you a star,” I said, holding it out.  The glow was dimmed in the brightly lit cottage, but the blue still reached Lian’s face.  “You can get a new pair of witch hands.”

The witch spoke up, “I certainly hope not.  What would Mother say if she knew you were supporting such a barbaric practice?”

Lian shrugged.  “She knows what twin daughters can be like.”

“Then perhaps I’ll mention it to her . . . .”

“You most certainly will not,” Lian said, but there was a twinge of nervousness I’d never seen in her before.  I seem to have been forgotten, and I just stood there with a silly look on my face, holding out the star.  “I knew they were your hands anyway and I meant to give them back to you as soon as the twins were a bit older.”

The witch just snorted, and her arms crossed themselves.

“Oh dear, look at the time,” said Lian, “we’ll have to be leaving if we’re to catch the late bus.” She looked at me again.  “As for you, you’ll be spending the night in your room; no television.”

“That’s a soft punishment,” remarked the witch, amused.  “If we’d misbehaved like that, our mother would have turned us into a frog and let us flop around the pond for a week.”

“Yes,” Lian nodded.  “Do you remember the time I cast a love spell on Louise’s boyfriend, to steal him away?”

“Oh yes.  It was night of the Midsummer’s Eve Dance.  You begged her to still let you go with him . . . .”

“And she did, only I had to go as a donkey.”  Lian shuddered at the memory.

I gulped.  The witch laughed.  “It wasn’t even a very good love spell,” she said.  “He kept calling you Louise.  The whole dance.”

Lian sniffed, defensively.  “But he thought I made a very pretty donkey,” she said, quite serious.  This only made the witch laugh more.

“Tobi,” the witch said, “you’d better watch her, make sure she isn’t slipping your dad a love potion with his dinner.”

“I haven’t needed love potions since I was fifteen,” Lian said with another sniff.  She was, I thought, quite beautiful even when appearing insulted, and I doubted my dad was under a spell because his eyes never seemed glazed.  That was the first sign that a person was under a spell, in the movies.

In the end, we left the witch’s house with an apple pie for dad and a jar of applesauce for the twins.  Lian was not as upset with me as she might have been; she could hardly get very strict with me when she’d been using her sister’s hands for chores, and I thought all in all I’d gotten off very lightly.

“Lea was always such a goody-goody,” she told me as I pushed the twins’ stroller down the dim forest path.  “Quite the model daughter, never getting into mischief.  Even these days whenever I see Mother it’s always, ‘Why couldn’t you have married a nice warlock or become a respectable hermit like your sister?’  Hmpf.”

“But you like being the wicked one,” I observed, and her lips curve into a smile as she shrugged, unable to deny it.

We walked back to the crossroads at the edge of the forest, and I didn’t see any sign of the snake (besides the empty pie plate outside Lea the Witch’s door).  It was twilight by the time the bus arrived to pick us up.  I looked wistfully back at Webblewood before the doors closed shut and all I could see out the windows was starry night.  “We can visit Lea sometimes, can’t we?” I asked.  “I could take the twins there sometimes.”

“Maybe,” said Lian, “but you’re not to go by that Jester again.  Sit through one of his dreary poems and a decade passes.  Trust me that was a shock the time it happened to me.”  She shuddered.

I nodded obediently, but smiled inside, for that was as good as a “yes.”

“Are you going to buy another pair of witch hands from the market?”

“Heavens, no,” Lian said with a laugh.  “I’ve already decided to hire a family of faeries to help ’round the house.  They eat starlight and that one star is enough to pay them for a year.  Of course they can be a bit wicked, not towards us but they might get into the neighbors’ yard or harass the postman, things like that.  But they’ll be quite docile towards their employer.”

She paused, thoughtfully, for a moment, then added; “Faeries aren’t likely to run off in search of witches, anyway.”

the end

next: »