Authors: Alex Flinn
To George Nicholson
If you read fairy tales, and who doesn’t, you might believe there are witches all over the place—witches baking children into gingerbread, making princesses sleep hundreds of years, even turning normal teenage boys into hideous beasts to teach them a lesson. But, actually, there are only a few of us. The reason it doesn’t seem like that is because we’re pretty long-lived. We live hundreds of years, as long as we don’t find ourselves fueling a bonfire.
Which leads us to another quality of witches: We move around a lot. It’s easy for us to get into trouble, and sometimes, we need to beat a hasty retreat (in the dead of night or on the business end of a pitchfork) to another town or another country. So that explains the existence of many tales from different times and places, many of which involve the same witch.
In quite a few cases, that witch was me. My name is Kendra, and I’m a witch.
Here’s my story—well, some of it. It involves romance, drama, even death.
It started in England, many years ago; 1666 to be exact. When I was a teenager, the first time.
When Mr. Howe called from the street to ask if I had any dead for him to bury, I told him I did. The chore did not tax me, not physically, though I was but four and ten and small for my age. Little Lizzie, my youngest sister, weighed barely more than a sack of flour even before the plague ravaged her body and our village. After months of hardship, she weighed even less. I hated to give her over to the gravedigger, but what choice did I have? I had no parents left. I had next to no one.
“Are ye alone now, Kendra?” Mr. Howe asked me.
I shook my head. “No. There is still Charlie. And Charlie will be well.”
He seemed doubtful but only said, “I am sorry.”
I nodded and did not wait for him to take her. I could not. I was accustomed to death now, accustomed enough to know not to dwell upon it. It was the only way to survive.
The first to leave had been Sadie, my older sister. How we had wept and regretted, not merely because Sadie was kind and good, but also because she was only a month from marriage to Henry, the dairyman’s son, who would have kept our large family supplied with sorely needed milk. Young Henry had not even come to Sadie’s funeral. Too scared was he of catching the dread disease himself. He caught it anyway, though, and was gone in two months’ time, too long to blame Sadie. People in our town were all looking for someone to blame for what happened.
The reverend had told us to have the funerals out of doors, that we should not spread the disease, but it had not helped. The reverend also told us to stay in the village, so as not to spread the plague abroad, but those with means had left nonetheless. Those with means did as they wished. The reverend lived still, but his wife was gone.
Next was my youngest brother, John, a mere babe and barely known to us. Still, we said a few words over him. Babies dying was sad business, but not unusual.
By the time Mother died, there was no funeral, no time for prayers for the dead, only prayers for the living—that they might stay that way.
They did not. The month past had been a whirl of vomiting, fever, complaints of painful limbs and swelling blisters on arms and legs, cracked lips begging for water and death, so much death. One by one, all who I loved were ripped from this earth as I stopped being a child and became a woman, a sad one. By the end of it, Father and another brother and sister were lost to me, their bodies dragged out between checking to see if the hen had laid and tending the cow.
Two days ago should have been a particular blow, for it was James whose body Mr. Howe took from me, James, my twin, whose shadow I had been even before we were born. But I had no thought for James or any of them. Had I thought of anything besides how to get food, had I thought of why I, alone, was given the dubious gift of health, I would have lain down beside those once-loved bodies and succumbed myself. Yet the good Lord, if good he was, did not see fit to have me die. He saw fit to have me find scant milk from the cow and no eggs from the chicken and to care for my sick brother—my now only brother—Charlie, age eight, in the luxury of a house that had once held nine but now needed room for only two.
Human beings, I had learned, could become used to anything.
This morning, when I went out to collect our one egg, I found, instead, that the hen had died. Then, all the losses I had suffered came down to this one loss. I sat in the sparse hay, buried my head in my hands, and sobbed.
And then, I plucked that stupid chicken and cut and boiled it for, at least, if Charlie was going to die too, he could die with a good, hot chicken soup in his belly.
But Charlie was too sick to eat, and as I turned away from him, I knew I must try Lucinda.
Lucinda Baker was our town’s healer, a woman who knew how to use herbs to cure illness. Once, she had been my friend, but when the plague struck us, Mother had warned me away from her. There were those, Mother told me, who said Lucinda was a witch and that witches were the ones who had started this plague. She worried that, were I too much in Lucinda’s company, suspicion might fall on me by association, particularly because I had always been thought strange due to the odd bright green color of my eyes and a moody nature that differed from the other village girls. Perhaps Mother knew that Lucinda had begun to instruct me in the use of herbs. Lucinda told me that she saw the gift in me and believed I could someday be a healer like her.
Were healer and witch one and the same? Perhaps. It mattered not now. If a witch was what my brother Charlie required, then a witch was what I needed. There was no mother to caution me otherwise. There was no one but me now, and I would risk all to save Charlie, even being seen in the company of a known witch.
Thus, I made my sad way through the town, a town which had once been a bustling village of over three hundred, now so empty and silent that I could hear the wind in the trees, even at midday. I passed one, maybe two others, trudging as wearily as I did, but there was no talk, no laughter, no wagon wheels, nothing to drown out the wind.
My step quickened as I came to Lucinda’s house, and for the first time in weeks, something other than despair gripped my heart. Hope held my hand and tugged me closer. Lucinda could help Charlie. I was sure of it. I only wished I had come sooner.
The cottage, made of brown bricks, neatly laid, was strangely silent. Only one black crow perched on the eaves, staring down at me. I approached the doorstep with a fawn’s cautious steps and gave an almost silent knock.