by Lara Bujold Clouden
The recipe wasn’t working. She’d been to the market earlier to purchase the freshest herbs, and yesterday the apothecary had surreptitiously sold her dragon scales and lizard eyes from the back of his shop. The dragon scales were dusty, but he’d assured her that he’d obtained them from a reputable supplier. Still, each time she stirred the pot, breathing in the noxious fumes, she was only transported away for a moment. A cool breeze, a whiff of fern and loamy earth, the rush of a small creek tantalizing her through the vapor…but then the hazy vision quickly faded and the woman was back in her dark damp cabin.
Perhaps it wasn’t the ingredients, but the order. The book simply showed a series of symbols. It wasn’t clear if she should combine them in order from left to right or top to bottom. Or right to left, for that matter, she thought, remembering the traveler who’d passed through the village the previous summer with his foreign books that opened from the right. Sighing, she dumped the useless potion into her slop trough and began again.
This time, she spoke each ingredient aloud as she tossed it into the brew. “Waters of the earth and sky,” she murmured, versing a kettle of water into the pot. “Pennyroyal.” She sprinkled in a dash of green sprigs. “Eucalyptus, clove, spearmint, St John’s Wort,” she continued.
This was getting expensive. No dinner tonight, she thought. She continued incanting and mixing until the last bit of bat guano was gone. Then she let it boil as she lit a candle from the fire, set it on the table and centered her thoughts on the flickering flame. The light was mesmerizing to watch.
This time, when she turned back to her potion, she focused all her concentration until the vapor turned a vivid green. The forest she was after became visible through the steam. She dragged a chair across the moldering rug and with great care, while cursing herself for choosing the rocking chair, held herself steady as she placed her bare foot into the fumes that rose from the bubbling kettle. Just as her foot brushed a fern and she was about to step into the cool glade, the door to the cabin swung open. Startled, she looked up. The image above the cauldron disappeared and she scalded her foot in the brew.
“Ach!” she shouted, snatching her foot out of the liquid. “Who in—”
She looked over her shoulder, balancing on one leg and leaning on the mantle, to see who it was.
“Oh, for the love of Pete, what are you doing here? I nearly burned my foot off and now you’ve made me waste my last bat dropping.”
“Hello, Rodney! How was your voyage? I’m so glad to see you!” a tall booted figure standing outside in the blinding sunlight said in a mocking voice, and then after stepping through the door, he boomed in response to himself, “I’m doing very well, Mother. Thank you for your concern.”
“Well, yes of course, I’m glad you’re back but—”
“Good,” he interrupted. “That’s settled. What are you doing on the furniture, then? And where’s dinner? That smells vile.”
“Dinner is cancelled today,” she said, stepping down from the chair.
He clutched at his chest. “Do not plague me with such nightmares, dear lady. There is a time and a place for jests, neither of which occur around the dinner table.” He pointed at his protruding belly. “See how it shudders! It’s all aquiver with fear.”
They both inspected his stomach, which did indeed seem to tremble.
“Hmm,” she said. “I see you’ve suffered no deprivations during your travels.”
“Only the worst kind,” he bellowed, wrapping her in an embrace. “For what is life without my dearest?”
“I’m glad you’re safe,” she said, extricating herself. “Now go and see if you can scare an egg or two out of the chickens while I find something to fry.”
His stomach growled. “Both myself and my stomach are in your debt.” He beamed and trudged out the door, singing one of the soldiers’ marching tunes. In the ensuing silence she looked back at the pot over the fire. A teasing odor of juniper lingered, but the steam was pure white. Sighing, she took the brew off the fire and set it aside.
Soon enough, they were sitting down over their simple meal.
“So you’re all out of the guano?” he asked. “Good. You’re likely to catch rabies, playing around with that crap.”
“Language,” she said sternly.
“Mother, that’s what it is.”
“Remember who you are Rod,” she straightened her back primly.
“I am the Lord, thy Rod, I keep forgetting.” He rolled his eyes.
“You know what I mean. Just because we live modestly now doesn’t mean we give up—”
“Yes, Mother, I’m well aware of my noblesse oblige. But I shan’t call a pig a princess, and I will call guano—”
“Speaking of princesses, did you meet anyone during the voyage?” she asked.
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Pillaging is a terrific opportunity for making new friends. You know, when you have something in common, you like the same things—”
“Rodney.” She set her fork down with a firm clink. “You know what I mean.”
“Yes, Mother dear, I know what you mean.” He sighed. “In fact I spent a lot of time on board the ship with a very interesting girl. A bit of tomboy though. Short hair.” He pulled one of his own curls to emphasize.
“Hair’s not everything,” she said mildly.
He raised an eyebrow at her and they chuckled.
“Oh, it’s good to have you home, boy. Everyone here is afraid of me now. I haven’t smiled in weeks.”
“Well, I do understand you, Mother dear.” He shifted his great bulk to reach into his pocket and pull out a burlap satchel. “In fact, knowing your heart’s desire as I do, I brought you a little present. Don’t handle it!” He stopped her from looking inside. “I know how you love your bat droppings, and I didn’t want you going up to the cave on your own, so I collected them m’self.”
“Ew,” she said. “What did you put them in? You haven’t got a collection kit!”
“I picked up a bladder from the apothecary in Quirk, and I washed my hands well after the deal.” He paused, and then quietly asked, “Why are you doing this, Mother? It’s not going to bring father back.”
“I know that. Why would you even ask that?” She flushed with irritation. “That’s done. His time is over. This is something else that doesn’t concern you.”
“Oh come on.” He laid his meaty hand on hers. “Please? Just tell me. You know you want to.”
“No.” She wiped her mouth and then plastered on a smile, holding up the sack. “Thank you for the supplies, dear.”
After he left for his own quarters in the village, she sat by the fire thinking and smoking her long pipe. She went to the now cool cauldron and gazed at the oily surface. The multitude of colors was mesmerizing. Slowly, she took the spoon and began to stir. Images formed and dispersed. She realized with a start what she’d left out. The taper was still on the desk. She took it and tipped the wick downward. Flames leaped up and danced merrily in the pot. The odor of the forest returned full strength. She reached into the flame, grabbed a branch and pulled.
She was surrounded by cool pines. Moonlight was visible up ahead and she followed it until she came to a stone wall. It was still easy to climb, and of course unguarded, as no one would dare to scale it. From the top, she looked down upon rows of lettuce. Her mouth watered.
“Hello you,” she said to the plants. “You deserve your fancy name in your cloak of moonlight. Hello Rapunzel.”
She clambered over the top and dropped down to the other side. A solitary tower loomed over the garden. A menacing spike, it was utterly dark, save a shiny coil of golden braid catching the moonlight next to the window far up at the top.
Her interest was quickly drawn back to the garden. She stooped to break off a leaf from one of the lettuce plants at her feet. The snap made her salivate, filling her with the memory of the first time she’d bitten into a stem, and then, all the times afterword, when the anticipation had still been part of the draw. She remembered the joy of being transported from her dreary, lonely existence to sun-drenched bliss, where nothing existed, no memories, no thoughts, no loss, no yearning. Complete fulfillment, and all from a single swallow of this simple leafy green.
The craving within her was strong now. Her knees suddenly gave way and she was on the ground. She gave in to her animal instincts, pouncing on the roots of her intoxicating addiction. The lettuce was all she’d thought about for years, and yet she found she was still surprised by the bitterness of the stem. The grit clinging to the leaves hardly mattered as she pursued pure satisfaction. She swallowed, and all was as before. The tension in her body released, gripping her since her widowhood. She felt at peace. The moonlight glowed yellow. Everything was warm and blameless inside. She went to take another bite.
A bony hand pinched her shoulder, sending a shock through her body. She thrashed around, trying to get away, but without success, finally looking up to see the witch of her earliest nightmares towering over her.
“Hello,” said the witch in a chilling placidity. “You’re just like your mother. I knew you’d be back for a taste.” Then the crone spat out scornfully, “I suppose you think you can come and go as you please?”
“I don’t see why not,” the woman said. “Haven’t I paid my debt?”
The witch pondered this for but a moment. “I see you’ve left your hair short.”
“It never grew back,” the woman said. “I suppose you kept it.”
“I…,” began the witch. “I burned it.”
“Hmm. I’d say I was glad, if I didn’t see it hanging from the tower.”
Stung, the witch taunted back, “And where is your prince?”
“He’s in the next world,” said the woman. “But we had many years of happiness together.”
“And how did you get here?” asked the witch.
“I’ve learned a trick or two from you.”
“Ah, well done you. Alright then, Rapunzel. Help yourself to some of your namesake, and then be off with you.”
It was devastating to find herself so prone before her old enemy. Yet she was distracted by the lettuce in her hand. She wanted nothing more than to to eat it.
“What have you done to make it so potent?” she asked.
The witch raised her eyebrows, pleased by Rapunzel’s failure to resist the temptation. “Funny thing that. I don’t do anything. It’s the soil that’s enchanted. I grow rapunzel and it gathers its irresistible properties naturally.”
“But I remember you casting spells over the plants.”
“The soil, as I said.” The witch casually indicated the extent of the garden. “And a few small tricks to get the plants to grow faster.” She paused, a cruel smile rising on one side of her mouth. “I had an avid consumer.”
Shame welled up in Rapunzel. She pushed it down.
“I guess you have it all to yourself now,” she said.
“Oh, I never touch the stuff. It’s highly addictive.”
Rapunzel threw the plant away before she knew what she was doing. It landed on the witch’s shoulder and fell into her apron pocket. The witch ignored it.
“I have an idea,” she said. “You took your time in coming. I suppose you used some backwoods spell to find me here.”
“I have time on my hands, and friends who help me,” Rapunzel said.
“Hmm, yes, I can imagine. Still, I could make it easier for you to get here, if you wanted.”
“Why would you do that? What do you want?” She reflected a moment. “My first born is long grown now. You can’t have him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I’m out of the baby business. They smell, and besides, they take too long.”
Rapunzel did not want to know the meaning behind that remark. She remained silent and narrowed her eyes skeptically.
“There is something you can give me, though, in return for my invitation.” The witch’s face softened a little. “I don’t get many visitors.” She paused to acknowledge Rapunzel’s snort at this revelation. “It gets dull. I’d like a story to occupy my mind.”
This was not what Rapunzel was expecting and it caught her off guard.
“You mean, like a fairy tale?”
“No, I mean your story. I want to know what happened to you after you left. What happened to your man?” She said the word with a familiar disdain.
Rapunzel eyed her suspiciously. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing! It’s all very innocent.” The witch attempted to appear guileless. “I have all this lettuce. I can provide you with it. Here, take this stone.” She reached in her apron and brought out a gray pebble the size and shape of a flat egg. “Squeeze it in your hand, then touch your other hand to your forehead and you will be transported here.” She squatted down to bring her face closer to Rapunzel. “But mark my words, if you don’t accept my bargain, you will never return here.”
“You’re saying, if I tell you my story, you’ll provide rapunzel at will?” Rapunzel scanned her memories of this witch, who had never made a bargain that didn’t cost the other dearly. There was an element she hadn’t uncovered. Then the realization came. “What happens to the story after I tell it?”
The witch let out a rusty cackle. “Nothing. It’s mine. Are you worried I will reveal it to someone else?”
“It’s yours.” Rapunzel thought this through. “So, not mine.” She sat back as it dawned on her. ”Will I remember it once I’ve told it to you?”
“Possibly,” the witch said. “Parts of it, I suppose. But won’t that be a relief? You won’t be tormented by memories of your dead husband.” She spoke in earnest now, her eyes gleaming.
“You’re asking me to give up my happiest memories, all I have left of him, in exchange for this—these weeds?” She gestured loosely to the rows of plants, although both of them knew she was pretending not to care.
“Think it over.” The witch conjured up a chair and sat down, picking dirt from under her claw-like nails.
Rapunzel looked at the pebble in her hand, thought about Rodney, a grown man now, ready to start his own family soon. She thought of her beloved—how his lips had parted and his eyes glistened when she’d told him she was pregnant, the ticklish spot in the small of his back, his yip of surprise when she snuck up behind him and poked it, the delicious punishment he wrought on her for that mischief. She recalled his brave stoicism the day he’d taken down his old armor, insisting he wouldn’t allow Rodney to ride into battle alone. She looked at the witch, who had taken her childhood, tried to kill her beloved, and introduced her to this addiction. She looked at the lettuce, some much within her grasp on the ground.
“Once upon a time…” she began.