Most witches discern a client’s need before accepting payment. Mea, most witches agreed, lived dangerously. She was young, in her prime, with many successes behind her and, as she’d said many times over when her elders had scolded her, what kind of witch would she be if didn’t brew a little trouble now and then?
It began with Ulthe, a daughter of Old, the village on the other side of the dunes. Grown up from the seabed, the village was, out of hewn rock and later trees from the inland forest. It was peopled with strong fishermen with ruddy wives who rose before dawn and tucked their children tightly in bed at night. In the past, Old had burned its witches. Afterwards, when plague had struck the village, witches had been welcomed when no one else could stay death’s greedy hand. That was long before Ulthe had been born.
Ulthe lived with her father in a ramshackle house on the far edge of the village. He was a drunkard whose wife had died shortly after the witch Mirce healed her of brutal wounds. Ulthe’s father said it was a fast fever what took his wife—too fast for any witch to cure it. The witches knew better, but they left well enough alone and, for all that tragedy had clouded her young life, Ulthe grew into a fine, untroubled young woman, or so it seemed.
It was a bright, autumn day. The gulls were calling on the shore and the air was chill. Ulthe held out a basket of baked chicken, apples, and fresh cheese.
“I need something,” Ulthe said.
Mea took the offering, sniffed the cheese, tasted the chicken, and bit into the apple. Juice ran down her chin. All the while she inspected Ulthe. Long, straight hair tied back with a piece of twine. Thin face. Wide hips and worn hands. She was no more than fifteen. This intrigued Mea. Old wives came to visit, or women close to birthing time. Occasionally, a man concerned with a certain lack in his own performance would bow his head at her threshold, but no village youth had ever crossed the dunes.
“What is it, child?” Mea said.
“My father says I must marry a man ten times my age. I won’t do it! Give me something to make him go away.”
“Your father, or this man?” Mea’s laughter was not a pretty sound.
Mea turned her back on Ulthe. Her feet pressed into grooves worn in the floor by countless witches before her. It was they who had engineered the ancient jetty, butting it against the seawall. It was they who had built the house on piles, who had backed it against the dunes, protecting it from water and wind. The piles held firm through winter’s storms. Ulthe was there, right behind her, as Mea shut the door.
Bundles of sea grass, dried kelp, dead man’s fingers, dulse, and moss hung from the drafty ceiling. The cupboards were full of venom: stonefish, sea snake, and wasp. Mea pulled a bottle down.
“Are you certain?”
“Yes,” Ulthe said. “I am.”
“How far away do you want him?”
“All the way.”
Mea poured three drops into a smaller bottle and stoppered it carefully. She glanced at Ulthe then, meaningfully, deliberately, as though the two shared a sweet secret. “Put this in his drink.”
Thank you, Ulthe began to say, but Mea put a finger to Ulthe’s lips. Mea, seeing goose bumps rise on Ulthe’s skin, was pleased.
Mea laughed again and lit her pipe after Ulthe left, and settled herself into a chair. Witches were more than herbalists and midwives, here to cure an autumn sneeze, there to oversee a birth—something the villagers had forgotten. Ulthe would know better, now that Mea’s cold, salt-stained finger had touched her tender mouth.
Three days later, Ulthe reappeared with a live hen.
“It didn’t work,” Ulthe said.
Mea looked into Ulthe’s eyes. They were clear as glass. “What do you mean?” She did not take the gift, not even when Ulthe expectantly held the cage forward.
“I mean, I put what you gave me in his soup and yet he still…” A hand fluttered to her neck. “He still lives.”
Mea grabbed Ulthe by the arm and pulled her roughly into the house. “Do you take us for murderers?”
The chicken clucked unconcernedly in its cage.
“But you…” Ulthe said, wide-eyed.
“What?” Mea said slyly. “What did I do?”
“You…” Ulthe said, and then she spat on the floor. “You know what you did,” Ulthe’s face reddened and her hand clenched into a fist, “but if you won’t kill him, then I will.”
For the first time, a small tendril of fear wrapped itself around Mea’s spine.
Gossip traveled fast in the village; everyone would already know of Ulthe’s visit to a witch’s home. Now, no matter who stopped the man’s heart, the witch would take the blame. If Ulthe did this thing, Old’s witches would burn again.
“Leave the bird and return here in two days. Do nothing in the meantime.” Cage in hand, Mea motioned for Ulthe to leave.
Before Ulthe’s head had disappeared behind the dunes, Mea was out the door, carrying the chicken with her. It squawked as the cage banged against the frame, and then settled, lulled by Mea’s long strides in the sand. It was said witches could fly—how else did they move so swiftly across a terrain that mired the feet of mere mortals? Villagers preferred to deal in fantasies rather than watch for themselves how the witches walked, toe to heel and toe again, springing over the beach where others could barely shuffle—a gait learned from centuries on the dunes.
Mea did not have far to go. From her door she turned right and followed the same path Ulthe had taken. Where it branched, she chose the way that led to the sea. She walked where the waves met the shore; the hem of her long dress became damp, and the added weight slowed her pace. Once her own house was out of sight, another appeared.
Sister Alda was old, older than the dunes themselves, the villagers said, though age had not dimmed her sight or her hearing, or her prescience.
“I thought you might come,” Alda said.
“Indeed.” Mea offered her the chicken. “I will prepare it for you if you like.”
“It is a fat one, is it not? No, I think I will keep it as is.” Alda opened the cage. The hen began to peck at the crumbs on the floor. “Tell me everything,” she said, as though she didn’t already know.
“Ulthe came to me expecting a killing.”
“Did she now,” Alda said. “And what did you give her?”
“Something for his drink, to frighten him off with nightmares. Now she threatens to kill him herself, and I will be blamed.”
“Ulthe has made a fool of you.” Alda’s eyes never blinked and never wavered from Mea’s face. “You knew what she expected and you allowed her to think it was done. Now the villagers will say Mea has turned against them. You must not let this happen.”
This was not the first time Mea had been told to mind her manners. A dangerous witch: that is what the others said. Mea took risks; she helped the villagers but at a cost that had nothing to do with cheeses, or breads, or even chickens, tasty as they were. Mea meddled where a witch should not, and now Ulthe had come along and turned the tables.
Alda shook her head. “Your pride will be the end of you, Mea. It will be the end of us. You must learn your place. We are no better than them and you would do well to remember it. You must stop pretending to power you do not possess.”
A fierce wind came off the sea as Mea returned home. She closed the shutters against the storm, stoked the fire, and put some aromatic herbs in the kettle. She had to find a way to save both her pride and her sister witches, but the crashing waves and pelting rain washed her thoughts away. The piling groaned, the floor shook, and the house swayed as though it was a ship fighting against anchor. Mea wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and sat all night in front of the fire. As the sun rose, she finally slept.
The house survived the storm. It always did. A witch’s home was built to move with the weather, not to stand against it. The banging on the door was another matter. Mea jumped out of a deep dream and, dragging the blanket behind her, threw the door open before whoever was knocking tore it off its hinges.
“What is it?” Mea shouted at the villager who stood, hat in hand, hair disheveled, on the other side of the threshold.
“You must come, there has been a terrible accident!” the man cried with no care for courtesy.
Imagine telling a witch what she must do!
Mea, disgruntled as she was, took heed of the urgency and decided to overlook the man’s manner. She did not recognize him, but that was no cause for concern. The villagers bred and generations changed. She could not be expected to put a name to every face that came along. “One moment,” she said. She did not invite him in.
Mea expected a broken limb, or a concussion, as had happened two storms ago when a roof tile hit Master Baker on his head. She gathered up the essences, potions, roots, and skins she would need and stuffed them in a leather satchel. As an afterthought, she grabbed a piece of stale bread off the table to nibble at on the way.
In the village, chaos reigned. Several houses had lost their roofs, while others had their shutters blown off. Mother Weaver’s loom had been blown into her neighbor’s garden, where it lay in bits among a patch of saxifrage. Mea nodded to two of her sister witches as they scurried from house to house. This confused her—if there had been such a terrible accident, why waste time coming for her when witches were already present?
“Here,” the man said as he stopped before a large house that fortunately hadn’t suffered any damage. “Only, Ulthe asked for you in particular.”
Ulthe. What had she done?
Mea straightened her spine and entered. The house had two floors. Mea could hear a woman wailing in an upper room. She ducked her head beneath the beam at the foot of the stairs and went up, listening for other voices. She heard none.
There were two rooms on the second floor, one at the front of the house and one at the back. The front room was empty, but as Mea passed she caught the scent of some perfume. A woman’s room, then, a woman of some means. Mea cast her mind back through months of gossip and news shared between her sisters. She could not recall any word of new arrivals, and yet the people who lived in this house were wealthier than any of the locals.
The door to the back room was shut. Mea turned the handle; it swung open easily. On a large double bed lay a young man with unnaturally pale skin. Kneeling beside him, in her bedclothes, was a woman with streaks of gray in her dark hair. Mother and son, Mea thought. She cleared her throat.
The woman rushed at Mea in a whirlwind of hair and white linen. Mea stood her ground. She was no stranger to the excitement of the grieved. The woman’s eyes widened when she saw Mea.
“Who asked a witch here?” she shrieked. “It was your kind did this to my boy! Be gone! Get out of my house!”
Mea staggered backwards and fled down the stairs. Ulthe.
She hurried through the cluttered village center. She imagined suspicion in every face she passed. Mea’s fist had hardly struck Ulthe’s door when it opened. There Ulthe stood, clear-eyed as ever. She motioned Mea in.
“What have you done?” Mea said.
“What do you mean?”
“A young man is dead and his mother thinks a witch killed him. It is the man you were meant to marry.”
“And so it was,” Ulthe said coyly. “I simply did what you would not.”
“I told you I would deal with this.”
“I know how you witches deal with things,” Ulthe had spat. “You thought I was too young to notice, but I saw that old witch come and heal my mother. The next thing we knew she was dead. That witch poisoned my mother. I was there. I saw her do it.”
“You little fool,” Mea hissed. “Mirce did heal your mother, after your father almost beat her to death. It was your father that killed your mother, and hid her face so no one would guess.”
“You are wrong! My father is a good man. You witches think you know everything, but you are wrong and I’m going to make you pay for it.”
Mea saw it then, how Ulthe had fooled all of Old’s witches. Her eyes may have been clear, but in her heart she’d kept a spark of anger hidden. And Mea, with her knowing glance, had fanned it to flame.
There was not a witch in sight on the village green. Instead, a group of men had gathered in front of the two-story house—angry men, some waving scythes and others brandishing irons from the smithy. Mea ducked behind a shed before they saw her and then ran, as fast as her feet could take her, back to the dunes. She ran all the way to Alda’s house without stopping once to catch her breath.
All six of Old’s other witches were present. When Mea appeared, they turned as one. Each had a bulging satchel at her waist. The hen was back in her cage.
“Old has had enough of witches,” Alda said without condemnation. “We will find other villages, other dunes. Will you come?”
The village was full of angry men and women intent on seeing witches burn, and Mea was at the heart of the trouble. Yet there were her sisters’ eyes, full of welcome. At that moment, Mea understood what a witch was, and became one.
“I will not,” Mea said. “Bless your feet as they walk.”
“Bless yours as they stay,” her sisters said in return, and then they filed out of Alda’s house one by one.
Mea knew the villagers would come for her. She went home, and there she waited. She was waiting still when she smelled the smoke. She was waiting when the sun set, and she was waiting when it rose. Confused and hungry, she decided to walk out and meet her fate. She returned to the village and found it silent and seemingly empty. With nothing left to lose but a life already forfeit, she began knocking on doors. At the fifth door, an old man answered.
“Go away. There’s nothing you can do,” he said before shutting the door in Mea’s face.
She put her hand out and stopped it. “What has happened here?”
“The plague come. Brought by the storm. We found the first boil last night. This morning, seven are dead. My wife has it. I’ll have it before sundown. We all will. Get out while you can.”
There had been no warning symptoms, nothing to signal the onset of the disease. How had it come to Old? Unless… unless it had traveled with the new arrivals, the mother and son. Mea tried to clear her thoughts. How didn’t matter. What mattered was that her village was dying. Her village. She could not stand by and do nothing.
She went back to her house and pulled down every medicine she had. She filled her satchel to brimming and ran back to the village. She stayed for days, tending the sick and holding them when they died. Mea knew hunger and thirst, she knew aches and pains, she begged the plague to take her instead, but it did not. And then, one long month later, the plague passed. No new boils or rashes appeared, and the few remaining survivors crept outside. Mea watched them pack their carts, salvage what livestock they could, and empty their stores of food and linen. There were so few—only four families, and those depleted of sons, fathers, daughters, and mothers. Ulthe had perished, as had her father, and the mother of the boy Ulthe was to marry. The baker, the weaver, the smith, the woodworker, all gone.
Mea stood in the center of the village as the last cart was loaded. She watched as the villagers weakly gathered and helped each other board. She watched as the wheels turned on the sandy road. “Old is cursed,” they said as they trundled away. “Old has been cursed by its witches. We will not return.”
And none ever did, except Mea, who year by long year watched the dunes reclaim the village. Her village.
It began, and it ended, with Ulthe. When Mea grew lonely, it was to Ulthe’s house she went. Sometimes she even talked to Ulthe’s ghost. After so much time one would expect reconciliation, but Ulthe still can’t say why she defended a monster, and Mea still doesn’t know how she became one.
[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]