‘Forty-two!’ The woman holding the piece of pink paper turned it over and squinted. ‘Janet?’
Janet’s heart thumped. They’d been raising money for the school and, well, you bought raffle tickets, didn’t you? She hadn’t expected to win and have everyone stare at her.
Limping slightly thanks to her dodgy hip, she approached the table which, at this late stage, held a golf voucher, a hand-painted mug, and a bottle of red wine that would probably strip paint. Janet grabbed the mug, plucked out another ticket and headed for the door before something awful happened. She had paid for more than one ticket, after all.
She washed her prize when she got home. It was made of heavy white ceramic and decorated with frogs: the bulbous, glossy kind with wide mouths and yellow, flat-pupilled eyes. The creatures hopped and sat both on and in the walls. The bottom of the mug had been painted to look like water, with rocks so realistic that Janet almost expected them to feel rough under her finger when she put her hand inside.
‘Shame,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Put tea or coffee in this and you’d not see it.’
She turned on the tap, letting fresh water rinse out the last of the bubbles. Afternoon sunlight rippled the water with gold.
There was a soft croaking sound. Janet froze. Half-full of clear water the pond-like effect was uncanny. And… she was sure one of the frogs had just moved.
She put the mug down carefully.
It shivered, rattling against the worktop.
‘I’m losing me marbles,’ whispered Janet.
Long, viridescent fingers curled over the rim. Janet’s hand flew to her mouth, and she took a step back. The fingers were followed by a tiny head, covered in messy, turquoise hair. It had black eyes, a flat nose and a very wide mouth.
‘You’re not Zambini,’ it said.
The creature balanced itself gracefully on the rim of the mug. Its legs were oddly-jointed, and ended in long, webbed toes. It looked around curiously.
‘Where is this?’
‘Three Bakehouse Lane,’ said Janet, uncertainly.
‘I don’t know anyone called Zambini. I won you — your mug, I mean — in a raffle. I had no clue it weren’t just a mug!’
‘Oh,’ said the creature. ‘What’s a raffle?’
‘You buy bits of paper with numbers on,’ said Janet stuttering to a halt halfway through an in-depth explanation of the niceties of school raffles. ‘Er. What’s your name?’
Janet had always been one to keep herself to herself, but Shellra — who explained she was a water sprite — was a surprisingly good conversationalist. The situation was unbelievable yet, somehow, it wasn’t long before the old woman had made herself tea, in an ordinary mug, and they were chatting like old friends.
‘Just scooped me out of the pond she did,’ said the sprite, in between licking aphids from the sickly-looking orchid on Janet’s sunny windowsill. ‘In this cup, which she spelled herself. But I liked her. Goody Clamtrip her name was. She used to say it was funny, because it was a coincidence, really, but Clamtrip sounds like cantrip, which was just about right, for a witch.’
Janet, who had never heard of a cantrip, nodded.
‘She used me for fortune telling and minor healing magic. That was all. I didn’t really mind. She had a nice big water barrel out the back of her house that she let me swim in. Anyway, she lived a long time, but she was basically human, you know.’
‘Mm,’ acknowledged the old woman, rubbing her hip.
‘There was a gap, after that, because when there’s no water in the cup I sort of… disappear.’
Janet stared. ‘That don’t sound nice.’
Shellra shrugged, her skin glittering in the light. ‘It’s all right, I don’t know anything about it. I’m there, and then I’m not, and then I am.’ She blinked up at Janet. ‘Anyway, next thing I know, I’m in the Great Zambini’s back room. Well, that’s what he called himself. His name was Geoff, really. He… wasn’t cruel, but he wasn’t particularly kind, either. Let me out to do things, put me away afterwards.’
‘Like a… like a tool? A thing?’
‘I suppose,’ said Shellra, chewing on an aphid. ‘He didn’t want people to know about me. He wanted them to believe in the power of the Great Zambini.’ These last few words she said with a theatrical flourish and a bow. ‘I’m not quite sure what happened, in the end. He got older. I suppose he died without telling anyone about me, and the mug’s been stored somewhere.’
‘Until someone gave it to Chellmarsh Primary School, an’ it ended up in the school raffle.’ Janet reached for a biscuit and chewed slowly. ‘You can see the future?’
‘A bit,’ said Shellra. ‘It’s not always specific, but a lot of the time it’s close enough. Zambini did all right. He was always busy. Sometimes he just made stuff up, mind you. And like I said, he wasn’t cruel. If I did see something… difficult, he didn’t usually mention it.’
Janet looked thoughtful. ‘Maybe best not to know.’
‘That’s true.’ The sprite studied Janet’s face. ‘You’d make a good fortune-teller.’
Janet had a brief vision of herself, head wrapped in a scarf, pretending to stare into a crystal ball. Having to meet and talk to an endless stream of people. ‘No! I don’t think I want to be doing that.’
‘I could show you things. You could win more than raffles.’
Janet looked around her kitchen. The walls needed repainting, and the kettle was old and spotted with limescale and could probably do with replacing. But the room was quiet and warm and safe. She sipped her tea and smiled. ‘I reckon I’ve got what I need.’
The sprite looked sad. ‘Then I suppose you’ll empty my mug out again, and I’ll disappear.’
The sun was just beginning to set as Janet walked away from the stream that ran through her village, an empty mug in her hand.
‘You promise you’ll come and visit? For a chat?’ Shellra had asked.
‘Course I will.’
‘All right. Drink the water in the mug,’ she’d said with a wink, before jumping into the clear water. Finally free.
Janet had. Her hip was, she realised as she strode, completely pain-free for the first time in years. She began to whistle.
The sunset lit up the sky with pink and gold as she let herself into her cosy kitchen, where an extremely healthy orchid sat on her windowsill.
Something I wrote ages ago for a writing prompt involving a cup with a fish pattern. Dug out of storage, tweaked a bit and… finally free.