Having a wonderful time in E. California. It’s so different from the forest – the rocks are the colour of cinnamon and chocolate and the sky is clear and bright, like peppermints. Tomorrow I’m going to visit the local “Nut and Candy Store”. I’m sure I’ll find some lovely knick-knacks to bring back. Maybe something pretty for the gables. I hope there’s air-conditioning. The heat here is ferocious. They say that if you crack an egg into a pan and leave it in the sun, it will cook. I can believe it – the ground is so hot it’s like a stovetop. It’s tough on my old bones! Thanks again for spending some of your windfall on little me – it’s been the trip of a lifetime,
Baba Rosina x
Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley
P.S. Look after the cottage, darlings, don’t eat me out of house and home!
This piece came from this idea: What if Hansel and Gretel didn’t so much as push the witch into an oven, as send her away to one? All the places mentioned – the Nut and Candy store, Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley – are real locations. The witch’s name is an amalgam of the old “Baba Yaga” myths and Rosina Leckermaul, from the Engelbert Humperdink opera.
Jem let the heat of the shop wrap around her like a blanket. She stared at the rows of bright packets. Saliva filled her mouth.
“Have a nice evening!” The door swished as the customer left. Jem’s fingers caressed warm metal in the pocket of her jeans.
Coins. But not enough.
She headed for the door. Claws of cold air reached out to claim her as it opened.
“Did you forget something?”
Fingers gripped her arm, pulled her round.
Three packets of fig rolls fell from underneath her jacket, thudding softly as they landed, one after the other, on the linoleum.
“Cat got your tongue, eh? God, I’m so sick of you lot. Bloody freeloaders, think you can come here and just help yourself to everything.”
Jem kept her eyes down, letting the words wash over her head, like a wave. Hold your breath. Stay calm.
“I’m calling the police.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his phone.
“No,” she looked up. “Please.” Not that. “I’m– I’m sorry.” She looked up, pleading.
“Oh, so you speak English, eh? Well that’s something!” The shopkeeper peered at her. “Here, how old’re you?”
Jem didn’t answer. His mouth was hidden by a huge, ginger beard, but his eyes had a touch of kindness around the edges. She was short, and skinny, and it was a long time since her face had seen makeup. With luck…
“Oh for chrissakes. When’d you last eat?” He shook his head. “I’m too soft, that’s my problem. Here,” he picked up one of the packets and thrust it at her. “They’ll be damaged, anyway. Now get out of my shop.”
“Thanks,” mumbled Jem, blinking. She stepped into the night before he could change his mind.
“Haha, lookit this guy, Jem.” Her friend, Kev, rubbed his hands together, more out of habit than of any hope of generating warmth.
Jem squinted across the road where a bearded man was running, huffing and puffing. A yellow light blinked in the distance.
“E’s missed that cab,” said Kev. “He’ll be lucky now, this time of day.”
“Yeah,” muttered Jem, watching as the man leant against a lamppost and reached into his back pocket for his phone.
“What a muppet! Now he’s dropped his mobile!”
Instinct had her legs moving before her brain registered what was happening. The man was lying on the pavement by the time she got there.
“Shit, he’s had a heart attack. Kev, call an ambulance!” Jem thrust the dropped phone at Kev as she started chest compressions. A black chuckle bubbled up as she remembered her army instructor’s advice: ‘Use Another One Bites The Dust by Queen for the right rhythm. Keep it in your head, though.’
“Why’d you care? He’s probably a gonner. As if he’d give a fig for one of us.”
“JUST DO IT!”
She heard Kev mutter something, but then, a few seconds later, she also heard him say ‘ambulance’.
“He did give a fig,” she muttered, between presses.
A story inspired by Aesop’s Fable of The Lion and the Mouse. It also seems appropriate, given current events, to remember the importance of a little compassion.
Pagett gazed sadly into the mirror on the back wall. On the store dummy the pink suit had looked bright and trendy. On her, after a long day, creases and bulges had appeared. Combined with her naturally shiny skin and the hot, metallic-scented air of the lift she felt uncomfortably like partly-cooked sausage.
She turned as the doors opened. A woman stalked in, dressed a dark suit so sharp you could use it to perform surgery. She smiled, glossy red lips peeling back from white teeth.
“Pagett! Just the person I was hoping to run into,” said the newcomer as the doors closed.
Pagett took a deep breath and smiled weakly. “Am I, Wilfreda?”
“Absolutely, darling.” She examined a perfectly-manicured nail. “I was chatting to that friend of yours earlier. What’s his name. Oh yes, Shay.”
“I was. And, you know, I was saying I need something good this month. Something to really blow through my targets. And, funny thing, I happened to remember hearing something, oh, I’m not sure where from now, about Shay’s previous experience.”
Pagett nodded slowly, looking at the blue numbers above the door. It took a while to get down from the seventieth floor.
“And, I can’t think what came over me, but I just happened to suggest that it would be a terrible shame if Anderson were to find out that Shay’s last job was less executive assistant more, shall we say, shop assistant.”
“It was?” said Pagett, eyes widening.
“It seems so,” murmured Wilfreda, “because when I said that, he immediately told me that interest rates are going up. I thought he might just be clutching at straws, you know, but no – apparently he’s seen the paperwork.”
“Gosh, he shouldn’t…“ Pagett tailed off as the lift slowed.
Both women looked out as the doors slid open. The corridor was empty. Wilfreda casually tapped the toe of her glossy, black stiletto shoe. “Anyway,” she continued, as the doors closed again, “after that, would you believe it, I just happened to run into Rick. You know Rick as well, don’t you?”
“Er,” said Pagett, brushing some imaginary dust off her jacket, “a bit… we’ve chatted a few times.”
“Yes, I thought so. I happened to mention in passing a few bits and pieces I’d heard about last year’s Christmas party, and would you believe it, little Ricky immediately up and told me that Birch and Billet are about to announce a loss.”
Pagett chewed on a nail and said nothing. The lift stopped again but, once more, there was no one there.
“Here’s the thing, Paggy,” said Wilfreda, turning to fix her gaze on the other woman. Her eyes were a brilliant shade of grey that reminded Pagett of the sun behind clouds. “None of that is very juicy, is it? Interests rates, huh. And everyone already knew B&B were up the swanny. I need something else. Something really good.”
Pagett’s eyes widened again. “But… Wilfreda, you know I can’t.”
“Pish. Of course you can. Who will know?”
“That’s not the point.” Pagett looked at the descending numbers over the lift door.
Wilfreda narrowed her eyes. “I may have nothing on you, little goody-two-shoes Paggy, always working hard, never partying, never speaking out of turn,” she growled, “but you know what? It doesn’t matter. I’ll make something up. Something suitably… illegal. No smoke without fire, everyone will say. She had the means, they’ll say. Poor Paggy, I expect she wanted some extra cash to buy a decent suit, they’ll say.”
Pagett chewed her lip.
Wilfreda continued to stare at her. It felt as though she was trying to suck all the air out of the small space.
“All right,” said Pagett eventually, “but if I tell you this, you have to promise to leave Shay and Ricky alone from now on, okay?”
Wilfreda looked away and waved a hand. “Whatever.”
“Okay,” said Pagett, staring intently at the numbers which were finally ticking down into single digits. “Terracube Limited. They’re about to announce the result of their oil exploration.” She lowered her voice, even though they were alone. “They found a huge field.”
“Really?” Wilfreda’s eyes glinted.
Pagett nodded, and stared as the display finally flicked from 1 to G.
Wilfreda stepped out without looking back, high-heels clicking on the marble floor of the foyer. Pagett didn’t leave. Instead, she leant against the lift wall, letting her heartbeat return to normal. Then she pressed a button. The doors slid shut and the lift started to move upwards.
She straightened up, took a deep breath, and smiled. At school she’d always been the one with her head in a book, reading, learning, writing notes. But, funnily enough, she’d always liked drama lessons. It was fun, pretending.
After Ricky and Shay had been to see her this morning she’d spent her entire lunchtime staring into the mirror, practising her nervy, anxious look. And it looked like the hard work had paid off – Wilfreda had believed every word.
In fact, Terracube were about to announce that the oil field was a bare as a wheat field after harvest. With a bit of luck, thought Pagett as the lift doors opened again, Wilfie will blow so much money on the deal that she ends up fired.
The first version of this story was written for a competition which specified the lift (elevator, for my American friends) setting. I tried a few things, but they all seemed very predictable or boringly bleak (hospital lift, sigh, someone leaving an office party, yawn) so I decided to have mess about with it instead and threw together a spin on the classic fairy tale: The Three Little Pigs. I wasn’t completely happy with my effort, but the deadline was looming so I entered it anyway. It didn’t win, but it did get highly-commended, which just goes to show that you can’t always predict how things will be received. Still, I’ve since re-written it fairly substantially to make more of the ‘hard work pays off in the end’ theme of the original fairy tale. I hope you enjoyed it!
“A-ha ha ha ha ha!” I cackled, as the beautiful princess nicked her finger on the golden scissors.
“Oh blast,” she said, “my mother warned me about th–” her voice cut off as, with a final desperate look at her lady-in-waiting, she fell asleep.
“You fiend!” said the lady-in-waiting, “what have you done?”
I didn’t need to answer; she’d just about got the last word out when the spell caught up with her and she crumpled to the floor.
One, two, three, four…
There was a clattering from outside the door.
Better get a move on, I thought, as it was followed by the distant rustling of fast-growing thorn bushes. I stepped over the fallen guard and dashed out of the castle, murmuring the spell to remove my disguise on the way.
I’m a witch, you see, and I happen to think the old routines are the best. My mother was a witch, and her mother before her, and you can’t beat a good castle-cursing. After all, something interesting has to happen to princesses. Embroidery and sitting by windows brushing unnecessarily long hair really doesn’t make a good story on its own. Make no mistake, stories matter. People round here just don’t respect a ruler who hasn’t suffered at least one bit of misadventure.
Still, much as I appreciate tradition, I’ve never gone in for the whole pointy hat, warty nose and straggly hair thing. Quite apart from the fact that it rather gives the game away, a girl’s got to have standards. There’s no excuse for tatty clothes and ugly boots. I don’t care what anyone says, I like a bit of lipstick, and green isn’t my colour.
I kept an eye on the castle. The bushes almost completely concealed it and I knew everyone inside would be all right – I’ve been casting basic send-em-all-to-sleep spells for decades – but I still like to make sure the boundary’s secure. There was that time with the bear and, well, let’s just say that one didn’t end happily ever after.
I was doing my rounds two weeks later when a white charger, draped in an extravagant blue and gold caparison and bearing an armour-clad rider, appeared.
That was quick.
He dismounted and started hacking at the braches near the castle entrance with his sword. Honestly, they never think to bring an axe. I sidled up behind him.
“Hello, kind sir,” I said.
He jumped, then peered at me through his visor. “Hello, good woman. Do you live hereabouts?”
“I do. I was just chopping some wood for the winter. Would you like to borrow my axe?”
“You’re not dressed for woodcutting,” he said, suspiciously.
Smarter than the average prince then; that was promising.
I smoothed down my red dress, murmured something and held out the sharp-bladed tool. He shrugged, took it, and swung at the bushes. It went through the vines like a hot knife through frog’s brains. Very handy for spells, frog brains.
Ten minutes later he’d run up to the tower and was crouching by the princess. I followed.
“Is she alive?” he asked.
“Oh yes, just asleep. It’s a standard ‘true love’s kiss’ deal. Er, I imagine,” I added.
“Oh dear, really?” he asked, taking off his helmet. I was surprised. He had to be sixty if he was a day. A handsome man, certainly, but in a rather well-worn way.
“You’re older than the average prince,” I said.
He sighed. “I know. It’s not my fault, I come from a very long-lived family. My father’s been king forever. I heard there might be a spot of bother and so I popped over the border to check up on the old place.” He glanced at the sleeping princess. “She looks rather like my granddaughter.”
I looked him up and down. He really was rather good-looking, with deep brown eyes and thick, if grey-streaked, hair. He was in good shape, too. Ah, what the hell. Not all stories have to end the same way. I muttered a few words under my breath.
“Perhaps a kiss on the hand?” I suggested. “I’ve heard that sometimes works.”
“Do you think so?” he asked with relief, gently picking up the long white fingers and touching them to his lips. I muttered another word. The princess woke up with a start.
“Who are you?” she asked the prince.
“Prince Gerald of Boscovia, Your Highness.”
“You’re very old. I’m not going to have to marry you, am I?” asked the princess.
“Ah, no, Your Highness. I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“Thank goodness. No offence.”
“None taken, Your Highness.”
“Jolly good.” The princess looked fondly at her pretty lady-in-waiting, who was just beginning to stir. “I don’t have much time for princes anyway.”
Gosh, I thought. Different times.
“Who’s she?” asked the lady-in-waiting, waking up and looking at me with piercing blue eyes. Surely she hadn’t recognised me without my earlier disguise?
“Just a local peasant who lent the prince an axe,” I said, staring hard at the floor.
“Hm,” said the lady-in-waiting. “You’re wearing very nice shoes for a peasant.”
“Is that the time? I must be going,” I said, backing away.
I waited by the prince’s horse. He reappeared more quickly than I’d expected.
“They’ve got a lot of tidying up to do,” he explained. “I thought I’d leave them to it. The king suggested we work out some kind of trade agreement next month.”
I nodded. It seemed more practical than the usual ‘hand of the princess’ deal in this case. You can’t keep on giving half your kingdom away every time something dramatic happens.
“So,” I said, looking again at the handsome prince. He looked about my age, come to think of it. “You said you had a granddaughter. Are you married, Your Highness?”
He looked sad. “I was, briefly, a long time ago. There was a terrible incident with a bear.”
I thought about it. I was almost sure that was nothing to do with me. “In that case, Gerald – may I call you Gerald? – perhaps you’d like to come to my cottage for dinner?”
I wrote this for a bit of fun, but it’s turned out to be one of my favourite stories. One of these days I might write more about this witch. I rather like her.