The Witch and the Fool

by Emily Swaim

You’re a fool.

I know it the moment I take you out of your mother. Most infants on this island know what I’m pulling them into. They fight every inch, then screech when I’ve won. But you don’t make a sound. Instead you wear a cross-eyed grin, like getting born is something to be happy about.

“This one’s a farmer,” I tell your pa. He doesn’t listen. He’s a clerk, and his pa is a clerk. He thinks it’s natural you should be too.

There is nothing natural about being a clerk. You are a child of the Earth. Your arithmetic is game on a spit. Your poetry is deer musk in the wind. You have no use for words.

Your parents don’t understand. They think you are lazy. They bribe you with honey cakes, threaten you with belts. Nothing works.

I cannot cure you, no matter how sweetly you beg. There are lines even witches should not cross. Instead I tell you to go west. Buy seeds. Work the land. But you don’t believe me. You say you can’t make it on your own. 

So you do not grow into a man. After your parents die, you live on the kindness of neighbors. The baker gives you treats, your cousin mends your clothes, and I let you sleep in my cellar. You spend your free time watching clouds. It is a simple but happy life. 

I assume you are happy. That is my mistake.

It is the winter festival, a time of dancing and drunkenness. You have failed the first labor but mastered the second. It is midnight, and you are sprawled on my porch like a dog. I refuse your proffered cup of your backwashed cider. You ask why I live on Apple Island if I hate the taste of its fruit. 

“In case Zora comes down from the mountain,” I tell you.

You don’t recognize the name.  Of course you don’t – she left the village before you were born. Before your parents were born too. I am the only one who remembers my sister.

She was stunning. Not beautiful – beauty can be resisted. Her charm was more dangerous. What she asked for, the village gave. What she said, they believed. I told them this was witch’s work, but they didn’t care. She was a flower and I was a weed. 

I broke her spell, but even after her true face was revealed, the villagers loved her. So I chased her out of town. The villagers mourned the loss of their princess, but they didn’t get involved. They knew better than to interfere in witches’ feuds.

Zora escaped to Lovers’ Peak and had her golems build her a fortress. She lives there to this day. Her face looks young, but her soul is older than mine. I’m sure she will die first.

That night, Zora takes ahold of your dreams. You ask your neighbors about her, and they each tell you a different lie. She is lovely. She is kind. She is lonely.

“Is it true,” you ask me one misty afternoon, “that your sister will marry any man who can make her happy?”

“She’s said as much. But it’s an impossible quest. Her heart is like your mind.” I tap you on the head. “Empty.”

“But would she marry that man?”

I realize you are in love. Love! With a witch whose only virtue is a beauty you’ve never seen. 

“Don’t go courting such a woman,” I tell you. “If the earth won’t take her, she’s not worth having.”

You don’t listen. When the last frost thaws, you leave. Your cousin gives you a map. The baker packs your bags with bread, and the priest gives you his blessing. Your boots leave a trail of crushed grass, a brush stroke on the mountain. I do not wake until you are gone.

Scoundrels. Miscreants. Selfish wretches. Sending a lamb into a lion’s den.

I cannot follow you. My bones are too brittle for such a climb. But a witch has other tricks. I grab my seer’s bowl and fill it with moonwater. Dip my face inside. My mind floats up the mountainside. I find you near the top.

Her castle is gaudier than I remember. Its walls are a mosaic of pearl bricks. The windows are lined with gold, and the towers are tipped with diamonds. A tasteless display, especially for a witch.

But you aren’t admiring the castle. You are wandering the edges of her lawn, smelling her garden.

It is a good garden, I will give you that. Zora has every flower in the world up here. You pluck yourself a fire lily, and I can smell it with you, a deep, spicy aroma that makes your nose tingle.

Take the flower and leave, fool. I can grow you a garden back home. 

You can’t hear me, so you don’t listen. You keep picking flowers. I dip my hands into the bowl. I tell the rainclouds to fly your way. Perhaps a cold shower will wash some sense in your ears.

You finish your bouquet and knock on the castle door. I urge the clouds on, but the winds are too slow to save you. Zora appears.

She is ugly to me. Her skin is waxy and her hair hangs like a spider’s web. The only human part of her is the muddied hazel in her eyes.

You kneel before Zora and compare her to the moon. Then you hand her your flowers, the same flowers you picked from her garden. She hands the bouquet back. “Go home, boy. I have no use for the love of a peasant.”

Yes. Come home.  She has plenty of servants. She doesn’t need you.

You are dejected but smile anyway. “As you wish, milady. May I take a flower to remember you by?”

“A flower?” She is intrigued. “Which of these flowers reminds you of me?”

You pick a sprig of tea olive – a puny plant with wisps of white flowers. “This one. It smells like a summer morning.”

I expect her to punish you for your insolence. Instead she takes the sprig. “Does it now?”

“You disagree?”

“I wouldn’t know. My sense of smell was stolen years ago.”

“How horrible! If your nose doesn’t work, please take mine!”

You poor, precious fool. Where else but a witch’s castle would such a gift make sense?

She agrees to trade your nose for her flower. She takes you through the garden and makes you describe the scent of each blossom. Your descriptions are more poetry than fact, but she doesn’t know that.

She places her finger on your nose. She recites her spell in the old tongue. I know the words, but I cannot stop her. I can only watch and suffer with you.

She takes the smell of your mother first. Then parchment, wet grass, and cinnamon. Everything you ever smelled flows out of your nose and into her finger. The smells pour faster and faster. Your nose is close to bursting. Then she stops chanting, and your nose is dead.

Zora sniffs the tea olive. “You were right. It smells like morning.” She hands the flower to you. Of course you can’t enjoy it now. What a cruel woman.

She takes you on a second walk through the garden. She sniffs every flower, making sure she’s gotten all the right smells. You overlook her selfishness, admiring the flowers’ colors and the chirping of the birds. You think yourself lucky, which is all the more infuriating.

You are almost done with your tour. She is about release you when my clouds, those stupid clouds, roll over the peaks. They dump their icy rain over the garden. Zora, witch she may be, has enough manners to invite you inside.

She takes you into her dining room. Red velvet lines the walls, and a large window overlooks the garden. She sits at the table – you sit at a tea tray.

Her servants come in with dinner. They’re eight feet tall, shaped more like trolls than men. Their bodies are a shell of rocks that clack as they move.

My clouds spit out some lightning. Pay attention, fool. Look between the cracks of that one’s shell. You can see the fire of the demon inside. 

You can see it. I feel you looking. But your eyes are distracted by the tray set before you. Her servants have prepared a swordfish. I can tell from the sweet tang of the sauce- it’s the best meal you’ve ever had.

“This tuna is delicious, milady.”

“Is that right?” She dabs her lips with a napkin. “That’s a relief. It’s been a while since I’ve served a guest. I wasn’t sure my servants remembered how to cook.”

You notice Zora has nothing but a bowl of broth before her. She takes a sip, and her sleeves fall down. Her wrists bulge, and you can see a web of veins under her paper-thin skin. She has not enjoyed a full meal in a while.

“You don’t eat their food?”

“My taste was stolen as well.”

I didn’t steal her sense of taste. It broke when I erased her spell.

“How awful!”

“Meals are often a chore,” she admits. “But drinking tea with company has been…pleasant.”

“Then you should do it more often.”

She sets down her spoon. “Exactly what are you proposing?”

Now, of all times, you become shy. “Milady, is it true you will marry any man who can bring you happiness?”

She smirks. “I will admit, boy, you are amusing. But you’ll need more than a nose to buy my kingdom.”

You finish your dinner. “I am told that a good meal can often lift one’s spirits.”

“If you wish to try, I won’t stop you.”

No fool. Don’t do it.

You kneel before her. She places her finger on your tongue. The tastes wash through you, from the sweetest honey to my bitterest medicine. She recognizes that last taste, a remedy I make for fevers. She stares but says nothing. 

The servants bring in cake. It is delicious, I’m sure, all cream and chocolate. But I won’t let her have it. I throw a stroke of lightning outside her window. Thunder shakes the room. The servants flinch. The cake plops on the carpet.

I’ve scared her now. Zora asks if you called the lightning. You shake your head – you hate storms. She asks if you apprentice to anyone. You tell her you run errands for the baker. Your innocence puts her at ease. You beg her to have the servants make another cake. But Zora is no longer hungry. She asks if you would like to dance instead.

You can say no. It’s not too late to escape.

But of course you say yes. She takes you into a large, round dome. Colors sift through the walls like a rainbow through clouds. Her golem monstrosities play timid melodies on their violins. She takes you onto the dance floor, spinning you around like a top. Watch your feet, fool, she moves quickly.

You watch your reflection in the floor. The marble reflects every grain of dust on your face. You feel nervous for all the wrong reasons.

“Have my looks become so dull in the last hour that you’d rather gaze on the floor than me?”

“No milady. I was simply admiring the way the floor catches the light. It’s like we’re dancing across a rainbow in the night sky.”

“Does it now?” Zora asks. “I wouldn’t know. I cannot see colors.”

The two of you dance across the floor’s abyss. For once you keep your mouth shut.

“Boy, I would like to see colors.”

“But milady, without my eyes, I won’t be able to behold your beautiful face.”

“Didn’t you want to be my king?”

“With all my heart!”

“Then shouldn’t you be grateful for this chance to give me happiness?”

Don’t be grateful. Be afraid.

You kneel. She touches your eyes and chants. Pictures of your life pour out your eyes, faster and faster until they’re a storm of images. Put the colors to memory, fool. I won’t be able to get them back for you.

“The world is so beautiful,” she murmurs. “I had forgotten.”

Your eyes burn. The world is a patchwork of grey blurs. You can’t tell where the wall ends and Zora begins.

“Have I made you happy, milady?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

Her soft hands pull you up. She guides your hands around her waist. The music starts up again. She still expects you to dance?

My poor fool, you try your best. But your feet move out of time, and you can’t tell where to turn. You inevitably step on her toes. Zora hisses in pain. “Perhaps you are done dancing for the night.”

“Perhaps.” You are too humiliated to ask for a second chance.

She leads you to the front door. The rain falls down in thundering sheets.  To you, it’s nothing more than a shimmering wall of grey. You hold out your hand – it feels like dipping your arm in ice.

“Milady, could I at least stay until the rain stops?”

She slips the tea olive into your shirt. “Come back another time. I’ll let you try again.”

A servant grabs an umbrella. It takes you by the arm and leads you out of the garden. You can barely walk without slipping. Zora glides beside you, admiring the greens and blues of my storm clouds.

I can’t save you, but I can hurt her. If I focus my energies, time it just right…Now.

I throw a piece of lightning her way. It almost hits, but the golem throws itself in front of her. The world turns white, and the demon inside screams. The impact throws you and Zora into the mud.

Zora is unharmed. You are scratched up, but you’ll live. The golem has been charred into a statue. The demon is gone, freed from its cage.

Zora carries you inside and slams the door. “Was that lighting your attempt to intimidate me?”

“That flash was lightning?”

She throws you against the wall. “Did I not give you your flower? Invite you into my castle? I gave you everything we agreed upon and more. You don’t have any right to be angry.”

“Why would I be angry?”

“Don’t play games with me, boy. That strike was aimed.”

“Milady, I’m blind.”

“If you love your senses so much, why did you give them away?”

“Because I love you more.”

Your eyes are clouded over from her spell. She leans closer, though I’m not sure what she’s seeing-

“Ariella.”

Me. She sees me. 

I let the thunder roll. If I’ve been discovered, then I might as well make a show of it. Let her know you’re under my protection.

“I change my mind, boy. You should wait out the storm here.”

You are confused but happy, like a puppy that’s gotten a treat for piddling on the floor. “Really?”

She nods. “You’ll spend the night in my old room.”

She leads you up a long flight of stairs. At the top is bedroom full of lace and dust. She sits you down on a large feather bed.  You look up at her. Your eyes have recovered enough to see the curl of her mouth.

“Milady…you’re smiling.”

“Yes.”

“Does that mean I’ve made you happy?”

She sits next to you. “As happy as a witch can get without a heart.”

Her words chill your bones. You laugh and pretend to misunderstand. “What do you mean, without a heart?”

“I mean what I mean.” Zora pats you dry with a blanket. “Didn’t I explain this to you in the garden?”

“You have no use for love.” You stand up. Stumble towards the door.

Zora realizes her mistake. “But I am happy.” Her breath flutters against your ear. “Happy enough to reconsider your marriage offer.”

“I can’t marry you.”

“If I can turn stones into servants, I can make a peasant king.”

You back away.  She grabs your hand.  “Did you not hear me, boy? I said I’d make you king. You can rule, have all the riches in the world.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

She pauses. “What else could you possibly want?”

“Your love.”

Your words strike her dumb. I don’t blame her. Witches look under the surface of words. We skim our conversations for motives and machinations. But she has not lived with humans for many years. She has forgotten how simple you all can be.

“You won’t marry me unless I love you back.”

“Staying here would be too painful otherwise.” You open the door. “I should go back home.”

Yes. Come home. There will be no pain here, I promise.

Zora slams the door shut. “Give me your heart.”

“What?”

“A heart’s an organ like all the others. Give it to me and I’ll be able to love you back.”

She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Zora hates me, true, but she would never take on something so cumbersome.

“But milady, if you take my heart, I won’t be able to love you back.”

“I won’t mind.” She smiles – gods I hate that smile. “It’s your choice: would you rather love or be loved?”

That’s not a choice, it’s a trap. Come home, fool. You can have both with me.

You kneel. “Will you marry me?”

“In the morning, boy. First I need your gift.”

I won’t allow it. I know you love her. I know it’s your choice. I don’t care.

I roll up a spear of lightning and hurl it. The floor shudders. You fall at her feet.

“Milady, what was that?”

She lifts you up. “You should lie down. I need you still for this.”

My clouds throw more lightning bolts. Zora guides you across the trembling floor and into the bed. My strikes bounce off the bricks, crackling to the ground below.

Zora peels off your shirt. She places an ice-cold finger in the notch of your sternum. “This spell will be different from the others.”

The walls are too thick for me to reach you.

“I’m going to need you to relax.”

You have to save yourself, fool.

“Empty your mind.”

You have to run, now.

“And think of the happiest thought you know.”

May the gods raze the world- the first thing you think of is me.

#

My spell breaks. How could it not? There’s nothing left of you to hold onto.

I do not wake for many hours. When I open my eyes, it is late, much too late. I hear cheering outside. Something’s wrong.

The afternoon sun blazes down. I see you in the village square, surrounded by your now-adoring neighbors. Your crown is too big for your head.

Your eyes glaze over the crowd. They don’t see me. They don’t see much of anything. Your mouth stretches into a rictus grin. It chills me because it fails to scare anyone else.

Zora stands beside you, waving to the crowd. She strokes your shoulder and frowns when you ignore her. Her love is as true as yours was – desperate and shallow.

She stands tall. Her eyes meet mine, and she grins. She’s won. 

I turn to the woods and start walking. I do not say goodbye. I do not collect my things. I am a gray, wasted woman, and I have finally grown weary of this island of fools.

more Complex Fairy Tales

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