“Me?” I back away from the sticks as if they’ll come after me. “If you can’t do it, how am I supposed to?”
“I wish I knew, hon.” Marsalla looks at me sadly. “Mama was the original witch of this house; the lady everyone was scared of. She had a way of knowing things. She knew she would die facing the Cold One, she told me never to go there, and she knew about you.”
A clock chimes nine in the other room. “You better go home, I don’t want you to get in trouble and if you’re seen here, you’ll have a lot of trouble.” She lifts Rabbit up to her shoulder. “Can you take her home?”
“We’ll keep her out of sight.” Rabbit chirps.
“And keep close to her.” Frog pipes up from my shoulder.
“Yes.” Marsalla lowers Rabbit and lets her jump to the floor. “She’s gonna need you two.”
I pull my coat on in a daze. “If two witches couldn’t win, what can I do?”
Marsalla hands me my hat with a smile. “Like Mama always said; the answers will come when they’re ready. You just have to pay attention.”
This chapter is short not because I was late or had no ideas… It just seemed like a good place to build tension. XD
“Come to think of it, you do look familiar.” Marsalla says to me, turning a cup of tea in her hands. I dunno why but I expect more after I finish telling her my story. She scratched her nose, picked at her sweater, tucked a fussy curl behind her ear but that’s it. I expected something… Witchier.
Rabbit, after she stopped shacking, looks up from the warm nest she’s made for herself in Marsalla’s lap. “Looks just like the guy, right? And she can hear us.”
“And your Mother could talk to animals?” Marsalla scratches between Rabbit’s ears.
“That’s what Auntie told me.”
Marsalla stops scritching Rabbit’s ears and picks her up so she can stand. “C’mere, kid. I want you to look at something.”
I bring my cup with me and Frog balances on my shoulder as I follower her out of the cluttered living room into an equally cluttered library. It’s like a book store exploded in here with only one clear area left untouched; a wood stand with a glass case on top.
“Take a look, Boot.” Marsalla points her chin at the case and I step towards it. Inside are a bunch of scattered sticks.
I watch them like she said. I take in the ceramic plate, the clean glass, the knots on every twig but nothing happens. “Am I supposed to see something?”
“Not unless you’re a witch with training in divination.” Marsalla smiles. “My mother cast those sticks. It’s the last reading she did before she died. She knew the winter would come and it’s because that guy is stuck in the lake.” Marsalla looks sadly down at the case, her eyes watering. “She tried to stop it but the Cold One was too powerful. It killed her.”
“I’m sorry.” I whisper, missing my mother, too.
Marsalla shrugs, blinking more than normal. “Thanks but that’s not important.” Her hand goes back to Rabbit, who flattens her ears in happiness. “My mother told me the reason for the endless winter is the Cold One put that man in the lake. To free him and end the winter, the Cold One has to be defeated.” She looks down at me. “And it has something to do with you.”
The trip down the tunnel is a blur of sound; Rabbit struggling and Frog squirming in my pocket. The way I’m being dragged, my coat is bunched up, trapping Frog in the folds. My hat id pushed halfway down my eyes so I don’t get the full force of the light when we reach it but when we do, the hard grip loosens and I tumble to the floor. Frog hops out and lands on my knee and Rabbit runs for the nearest hiding place.
“What were you doing outside my house?” I can hardly make out the words with so many scarves over the mouth in the shadowed face above me.
“You’re scaring her!” Frog scolds from my knee. “At lease take your head gear off when you talk, Marsalla.”
The shadow starts pulling off clothes till a face is finally revealed from under a hood, a hat, and two scarves. The olive colored skin still blushes form the cold. I expected Marsalla to be a scary old lady from the way people talk and how she was hunched over. But the pumps on her back where the overlap of the scarves and the packages strapped under her coats. Her face is round and she looks younger than Auntie.
“Why were you out in front of my house in the middle of the night?”
I notice adults use the phrase “middle of the night” to mean “any time after when a kid should be out of my way.” “Frog told me you know about the man in the river.”
A smile makes her cheeks round and Marsalla tosses her coat on top of a growing pile of outerwear. “Well, any friend of Frog’s and blah, blah, blah.” Marsalla rolls her shoulder so her bag slips off, a long fingered hand catching it before it can hit the floor. Her teeth are small, straight, and very human, smooth skin and hat hair all say normal lady just come back from the cold. How is she a witch?
“You might wanna get up off the floor and get comfortable. You’re already sweating.” Marsalla reaches out to me, short nails so clean, they look like ivory, and takes my hand so I cans get up. “Sorry about the drama. I got tired of kids busting windows since before the winter came.”
“Go on, Boot. You’re safe.” Frog whispers before jumping down to the carpet. “You come out too, Rabbit!”
Marsalla’s blue eyes light up. “Rabbit?” She darts off to where Frog is shouting and snatches up Rabbit with a quickness I didn’t think a woman of her size could do. Auntie is all bones and can’t move that fast but Marsalla is all curves and moves like lightening.
Rabbit only has time for one squeak before she’s pressed against Marsalla’s chest. “I haven’t seen a rabbit in years! And so adorable! Aren’t you, sweetie?”
Some of her baby talk is muffled as I pull off my coat and look around. Books and picture frames and mirrors are everywhere, the only bare spots on any flat surface clean from a fresh dusting.. The carpet stops in front of the kitchen and a wide circle around a fireplace as big as Auntie’s dogs. Once my coat is off, I notice how warm it is; my heart stops pounding and I notice the room smells like soft incense.
“Marsalla, you’re smothering her with your mammal parts.” Frog teases and I giggle when I see Rabbit’s baffled expression as she’s snuggled ruthlessly into the front of the woman’s sweater.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I disobey every rule about staring at people, my mouth open in disbelief.
“You lookin’ for the witch who lives in this big, scary house?” Marsalla says.
“Then you’re in the right place.” Marsalla puts Rabbit down on the floor gently before planting her hands on her cocked hips. “And who are you?”
It shouldn’t be so much fun to keep a secret. Auntie always said I should be grateful for everything she’s given me; clothes, food, a home. She tells me she doesn’t have to share her life with me and it’s a gift and a privilege for me not to be in an orphanage where I would have to share everything. But the secret is all mine. I found it and I don’t have to share it, ever. If Auntie knew I was going to see Marsalla… I can’t imagine how she would punish me.
I have to try really hard to do my chores at my normal pace so Auntie doesn’t suspect I’m trying to sneak away. I’m nearly bouncing by the time she gets to bed and I make sure the dogs are so full, they can barely watch me walk towards the back door. When I step out the back steps and don’t see Frog and Rabbit waiting for me, I panic. Did they forget? Did they go without me? Did Auntie find them after all and I’ll never see then again?
“Pssst!” I hear from the front porch. “What is it with you and the back door?” Rabbit peeks around a snow drift twice her size the wind piled up on one corner of our porch.
“Her Aunt’s room is the front.” Frog scolds, hopping from her back. “Ready?” He says to me.
I tug my mittens tighter on my wrists and nod. Frog jumps right into my pocket and shouts in a relieved voice, “Follow my directions. Rabbit’s never been there.”
“With good reason!” She squeaks. “I’m sure the witch would love a new pelt to keep warm.”
Yeah, everyone calls Marsalla a witch. Her house is always lit with odd colors and different ones in very window. She never foes out, even for food, fuel, or firewood, yet her greenhouse is dark with plants. Neither kids nor adults dare to try and steal anything from her even if they were brave enough to go near the metal fence and cross the evergreen snarls in her yard to face the hunched figure whose shadow is seen in the windows. The old woman must live all alone because not a single sound comes from her walls.
Marsalla lives in the tallest house in town so following Frog’s directions isn’t necessary several blocks from her home. My footsteps slow and more than just cold makes me shiver.
“Go on, Boot.” Frog says, peeking up from my pocket.
“Sure. ‘Go on’ he says.” Rabbit cowers by my foot as I stare at the house from the street. “Marsalla doesn’t eat frogs or little girls.”
I shouldn’t feel so relieved when I find out I won’t be on the menu. My shoulders drop and I relax until a shadow looms behind me.
“What are you doing here?” A scratchy voice muffled by wool demands from all three of us.
Rabbit goes to run but the shadow is too fast, snatching her up in one hand and my collar with the other to drag us both to the lightless side of Marsalla’s home. There’s nobody on the roads to hear me scream for help but as the reflection of the street lights on snow fades into black, I hope Rabbit was right about not getting eaten.
“Your mother would bore me to tears with such nonsense. Don’t you mention it again.” She was so mad, I thought she would hit me. But she hasn’t done that in years. I’m a really good girl now. Except that I talk to animals. Who talk back.
Even if Auntie hates it, I promise myself I’ll look for Rabbit and Frog again today. If my Mother could do this, too, she’s given me a great gift.
When I bring scraps out this time, they’re waiting for me, Frog on Rabbit’s back on top of the frozen snow. I try to bring something that’s still warm but the toast crusts and stew veggies are nearly cold by the time I reach them.
“I saw someone who looked like you.” Frog said, leaning forward on Rabbit’s head. “Over in the lake.”
“IN the lake?”
“If you got time, kid, we’ll show you.” Rabbit flicks her ears to shake Frog off as she bites into some carrots.
I look back at the door, shut tight in front of the dogs. I can see them bounding in the window for me to come back. “Auntie is already mad at me because I can talk to you.”
“So let her be mad.” Frog smiles at me and it’s a little scary with no teeth. He’s right. Auntie is always mad.
The lake isn’t too far and Auntie went to bed hours ago. The dogs would never scratch at the door loud enough to wake her, the fires are all down, and all the food is put away. I’ve got on plenty of warm clothes so I won’t freeze and I know to be careful around the lake. It’s frozen real firm but I could still fall and break a bone. If I hurry, I could see this someone and be back before Auntie ever knew.
“Ok. But let’s go fast. I don’t want Auntie to catch me.”
Rabbit looks at me with one ear flopped down to her cheek. “You humans have names. What’s yours.”
Frog laughs so hard, he nearly falls into the snow. “Well those sure are important these days! Bet you’re just as important as they are!”
“You hush yourself and hold on tight.” Rabbit turns towards the front yard. “I hope you can run fast, kid.”
I keep up pretty good with two huge Huskies, so I point to the furry heads bounding in the window. “If I can follow them, I can follow you.”
Following a rabbit with a frog on her back is much harder than two high-strung dogs. Auntie’s dogs couldn’t hide in the snow if their lives depended on it, insisting on bounding though the drifts like they were wrecking balls. Fur and snow would fly everywhere, telegraphing where they are. Rabbit may be brown but she slips smoothly into the piles of snow and I can’t find where she’s gone till she pops back up again. It’s like a game of whack a mole. Only no whacking.
Just like the game, it’s fun to watch. Rabbit dives into the icy powder with an energetic puff and comes up with a burst of glittering flakes. Each time, I’m able to catch up a few steps. All those walks with the dogs prove to be good practice in keeping sure feet on the slippery snow.
The twisted, frost covered trees come into view first, frozen in stasis by a motionless river. The only life here is myself, a frog, and an impatient rabbit tapping on the riverbank. The fish either froze or escaped to warmer waters.
“Over here, Boot!” Frog calls to me, hopping off of Rabbit’s back and pointing down into the ice. When I reach him, I pick Frog up and cup him between my mittens to keep him warm. “He’s down there.”
“Ok.” I put Frog in my pocket where he’ll be safe and crawl to where he pointed. The ice is solid, not making a single creek, but I’m more worried about slipping on it than falling through it.
The snow sticks to my mittens as I brush the ice clean and I see the face of a man. His skin isn’t blue like you’d expect a frozen man to be. Even with the ice reflecting blue all around him, his face is bright and healthy under the motionless water. I expect him to blink up at me and tell me little girls shouldn’t play on the ice just like any other adult.
And he’s got my face. Just like Frog said.
Rabbit pads carefully to my side. “Boot, do you know this man?”
I squint like it could remove the layers of ice between me and him. It doesn’t bring him any closer or spark any recognition of him in my life. “No. How’d he get in there?”
“Marsalla might know. None of the animals can remember; even the ones who remember Summer.” Frog croaked from my pocket.
Rabbit’s ears fly up, her brown eyes wide and looking to the riverbank. “No time for Marsalla. You should get back home before your aunt notices you’re gone.”
“Yeah!” Frog leaps from my pocket and right onto Rabbit’s back. “We’ll lead you back so you don’t get lost. He’ll keep till tomorrow.”
I nod and crawl to land before I stand up. I feel colder now and run fast to warm myself up. All I can think of is how to get to this Marsalla without Auntie knowing about it.
In a shameless attempt to whore out my writing talents and sell more books, I will be starting some side stories and posting them for free, one chapter at a time, every Friday. Eventually, they will be collected to post on my website and in print when they are all completed and pretty like.
I will start this with a story I’ve been kicking around for years now called “Winter Boot.” Believe it or not, it’s a children’s story. This is shocking for those who know how much erotica and other completely unsuitable for general audiences material I tend to work on.
On that note, here’s chapter one. 😉
Winter Boot: A Fanciful Fable – Chapter One
It was warm the day my father died. It’s been winter ever since.
I knew Daddy had magic. He chased away the monsters under my bed, flipped pancakes, and reached high shelves to get treats for me. But I didn’t think he held back the snow.
“Boot!” That’s not the name Mama gave me. Auntie just calls me that. I don’t remember my real name anymore, the one Mama gave me when she gave me her life. “Have you finished your chores?”
I haven’t done anything amazing with the life she gave me. I shovel snow, feed the dogs, fetch wood for the stove (so we can save on gas, you see). So I don’t blame Auntie for being mad all the time. If my sister died for something, I’d want it to be amazing. I should be as amazing as the stories I hear about people going outside with sun dresses instead of snow shoes, bonnets instead of heavy fur hoods, and even swimming! The lake is frozen now. And ice fishing is not amazing.
“Yes, Auntie. The dogs are fed, the porch is clear, and the woodpile is covered for the next storm.” She works hard at the local bank, making all the money for the house. She’s not as strong as I am, she tells me all the time. “Your back is only 8 years old! You can take some of the work from my 56 year old legs!” She said. I don’t mind. House chores keep me warm and the dogs are so big, they walk me.
“Good. Now go get yourself fed and bathed. No time for me to help you since I’ve been on my feet all day.” She says on her way up to her bed. All I see is a flash of nightgown as I get up from the floor, close my book, and head into the kitchen.
There are dishes in the sink. Auntie already ate while I was out with the dogs, I guess. I reach the cabinets I can, finding some crackers and bread. I make a nice sandwich with some of the turkey in the fridge with cheese and crackers. It’s not so bad, eating with nothing but the wind outside. I think I used to eat with Daddy, helping him stir his famous sauce and watching his hands as he chopped vegetables. The scraps always went outside for the rabbits. Auntie hates the rabbits. I sneak them anything I can.
After I clean the kitchen, I take all the food scraps to the pile in the back yard. It’s not easy for the animals ever since the sun went away. At school, they tell us we should share so they survive. But it’s more so we can eat them. I just like to see the flashes of color against the white and gray of the snow and cold. The dogs sneak some, dancing around me when I head out the door, but I shoo them inside. They are spoiled to pieces, warm and cozy and fed scraps from the meal before it’s even done. The wild ones get the rest. It’s only fair.
I see a brown shape bounding through the leafless bushes against the back fence once I’m sure the dogs will stay inside. Little dark eyes watch me step off the back steps and walk to the back of the yard.
I only watch it out of the corner of my eye, because rabbits run if they can tell you’re looking. I’d run, too, especially since we make stew out of so many. It looks at me like I’m a hunter as I plod in my winter boots across the frost covered grass to leave the scraps as far from the door as I can. When I turn to leave, I make sure my back is to the rabbit so it sees there’s nothing to fear.
“Many thanks, lady.” A voice calls out to me and I can’t help but spin so fast, I land right on my tush. Auntie smacked me a good one for saying “butt” just once before I learned my lesson.
“Be careful there!” Another little voice yells. “You’ll crack your head right open like that, kid.”
I blink snow out of my eyes and sure enough, a brown and white hare is staring at me. On his back is the tiniest frog I’ve ever seen, clinging to the rabbit’s fur with strong, webbed fingers. “How can you… I mean you’re not supposed to-”
“Talk? It’s not supposed to snow year round, either.” Frog says to me. He’s right. And I’ve pretended tons of other things before so this isn’t so bad.
“Most don’t listen.” Rabbit says. “But I didn’t expect my thanks to knock you on your keister.”
“You’re welcome.” I whisper, getting up on my feet again. “It must be hard to find food now.”
“Well, Rabbit here keeps my feet warm and lets me eat whatever bugs manage to get in his fur.” Frog leans over to inspect the scraps. “And he gives me shelter since the lake froze up. Lotsa us water folk ran off after that.”
“And you always leave the best stuff. And I can see why now that I look at you. You’re thin as the branches on the ground. All coat and mittens.”
“I don’t need much. Auntie gives the dogs so much of her food, they’re spoiled. I can share with you guys.” A nasty wind cuts right through me and I shiver hard, almost biting my tongue as I try to talk.
“Go on inside, skinny. You’ll freeze.” Frog scolds me, leaning in close to Rabbit’s fur. Her voice shivers like mine but she’s got no teeth to chatter.
Nodding, I race into the house, waving to my figments as I go. “I’ll leave more tomorrow!” I call to them as I push back the dogs and go back inside. It’s fun to have friends, even if they aren’t real. I’m usually too busy with chores for Auntie to let me go play. I giggle to myself at the thought Frog on Rabbit’s back bounding though the snow. What a pair they make!