Lizzie heaved the trunk onto the makeshift sledge behind the mule. She could feel curious eyes on her— suspicious ones, too. The buzz of words was barely held back by the gates of their teeth. Still, she jumped when one of them spoke to her.
“Where are you going, Widow Borden?”
She spun round and bit back the words that longed to jump out like a smack. I am not ‘Widow Borden’— that was my mother, rest her pitiful soul. No, none of that was appropriate or helpful. It would neither stop the villagers from their whisperings or, more achingly, bring back her recently buried mother from the dead. But she hated it— hated being a widow, being a title. She had vented her spleen on one of the Catesly girls when she came to deliver cheese, and the ill-guarded truth that she had not actually been married in a Christian ceremony had spread quickly and done nothing to ease her transition back to her old life.
“Miss?” The child, a girl of six named Clara (for her clear, green-blue eyes, her sinless white brow) watched Lizzie. Lizzie rubbed her forehead, which seemed perpetually bunched into scowls or wrinkles. (She had heard the biddies comment on that, too— how unlikely it was that a face like that would win her a second husband.) Lizzie struggled to stay in the present.
“I asked, where are you going?” She glanced backward, and Lizzie knew that innocent Clara Hayes had, not for the first time, been sent to gather information that the grown-ups were too polite to ask about directly.
“But, where will you go?” Clara lowered her voice in what would have been an endearing and conspiratorial whisper were it not for all the ears waiting for her report. “Will you go back to that place?”
That place. The castle that was now a weed-riddled rubble. Lizzie hadn’t been back since her triumphant return to the village in May. Her mind drifted back.
She had walked, hitched rides when she could, asked directions when she’d needed to, though the lace map worked as well for finding the village as for finding one of the gates of hell. The villagers— people she had known her entire life— had stumbled out and stared at her. Her steps had slowed and finally, finally! someone had said the terrible news about her mother, the real Widow Borden.
After that, Lizzie had tended her mother, tried to nurse her off her deathbed. So she hadn’t heard the whispers, the doubts, the comments on her virtue or where she might have really been. These saved up and spilled over after the burial. Still, this was her home. She mended the curtains, planted a garden, coaxed eggs out of the chickens again. But when she purchased a mule to pull the plow and a little milk goat… well, gold always made gossip go faster. Where had the money come from? How had she come by it? Who was this dead husband no one knew anything of?
And now enough was enough, and she was moving.
“But where are you going?” Clara was waiting, a smile beginning to curve her lips.
Lizzie bent down and whispered in a hiss, “Little girl, you should keep asking questions, don’t let me tell you to stop. You should try keys and open doors and always satisfy your own curiosity. But right now… right now I do not wish to be bothered!”
Clara stared at her, unsure if the strange young-old woman with no husband was joking. No other grown-up had ever talked to her like Widow Borden did, and it made her bolder than the biddies had told her to be.
“Will you go… will you go with the other witches?”
“What?” Lizzie straightened up, back stiff as a board, thin face tight and pinched.
Clara tried a smile, but something wasn’t right. “They say—“
“They say I’m a witch?” She faced the crowd who’s brooms and carving knives and market-bound feet were still. “I would be lucky to be called a witch. You people don’t know anything! Have you ever met a witch? No! You’re too small-minded to dare to! Well, I have!” (Here the crowd gasped, and this only pushed Lizzie on). “You think it’s all about curses and evil eyes and bad luck. You have no idea! A witch. If I was, do you think I’d still be here?” She stared wild-eyed at them. Then she began to laugh. A small, still part of her was aware that this would not help their memory of her, that she was only making a bigger tangle and would have more work to undo it if she ever did try to come back. But a person who has recently learned to stop being Good and Well-Behaved cannot so gracefully navigate the murk and confusion of where society and self meet— not at first, and Lizzie was no exception.
She tugged on the rope that secured her trunk and vaulted onto the mule, causing gasps as she straddled it, a leg on either side. She turned him in a circle. “Fine— I’m a witch! I’m a witch, I’m a witch, I’m a witch! I’ll be in the woods— if anyone is brave enough to look for me.”
And Lizzie, the Widow Witch-Woman rode out of her home without a backwards glance.
She muttered to herself for so long that finally the mule stopped and laid back his ears. But it was a relief to experience a real reaction, an honest and unveiled response to her strangeness.
“I am strange. I am. She told me it would all be different, but I didn’t believe her.” She was Baba Yaga, Mother of All Witches and Lizzie’s unlikely aide in defeating her murderous husband, Bluebeard. Lizzie sat still on the mule’s back; she had been cowed out of buying a saddle— what would the neighbors say if she rode a mule?— and now she wished she had one. She slid off his back and grabbed the reins, and stood, stroking his fuzzy nose as long as he would allow it. He was persnickety; Snick, or Snicket, she called him (another strike of oddness against her). Eventually he lost interest and turned instead to the long grass by her feet, nudging her aside to get to the clover.
“I am strange,” she said again. “It’s better to say it. Maybe I am a witch. I am in comparison to them!” She tugged on the leather and Snicket obeyed, but with his ears back and without enthusiasm. “I’ve been to Hell! The Underworld— the Below! I faced a Golem, a Chimera!” She had whispered these words to herself in her straw sack bed many nights, a reverse rosary to remind herself that she had seen and done things. That she wasn’t just a peasant girl anymore. Except she was— she was both.
“I’m a girl and I’m a woman. I’m a mother but I have no child. I’m young enough to be called a maid, yet I’m a widow. And nobody believes me!” That was it, the thing that aggravated her, that itched, that kept her from rest like a flea in the ticking. She yanked on the reigns and Snicket brayed at her and stubbornly sank his hooves into the dirt. She threw up her hands and stalked about.
“I don’t know who I’m supposed to be! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do! I got rid of him, I helped everybody— all the other wives, all the servants. But I couldn’t help Mother. And I can’t just hoe potatoes anymore. I certainly can’t go courting, have a husband and a family…”
She looked at the mule who had gone back to his grazing. If he was not sympathetic, at least he didn’t interrupt. “I’m a mule. I’m not one thing or the other. And what’s a mule good for?”
Snicket had apparently been listening, and either a coincidental horse fly or a slight of his pride made him bolt.
“Hey! Snicket! Come back! Hey— you have all my things!” Lizzie raced after him, winding up and down, through brambles, only trying to keep the mule in sight.
When at last he stopped and she held the reigns again, it took her more than a full minute to catch her breath. She gripped the pain in her side and felt the uncomfortable prickle of sweat on her ribs. “You— stupid— creature. If I were a witch I’d curse you…”
She looked up. This time, when she dropped the reigns the mule set to grazing, perfectly at home.
She stood in the overgrown yard of an abandoned cottage. She had only been here once since childhood, but she knew the place well. It was the Witch’s Cottage.
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