Chapter 9 - The Witch and the Fool
After the emergency room and the dead-weight leg, I made a promise to myself: no more reading Evander’s book outside my apartment. I told myself I could only read it right before I went to bed, so then I started the part called The Witch and the Fool on Thursday night.
Serissa lived in a glade in the woods. The trees arched around the clearing that was her home and provided shade as well as a cover for her thatched roof and timber walls. It looked exactly like the home of a runaway princess in a fairy tale. Though Serissa’s story was not a happy chronicle, because of one unmistakable element: the house was surrounded by a labyrinth of twisted lengths of thorny red roses. There was a small windmill erected next to the house that acted as a watchtower, where anyone who stepped into the prickly maze could easily be spied upon from the safety of the yard. In the woods, the windmill was purely decorative since the trees shielded the area from any possible breeze. Its purpose became known when poor travelers became lost in the paths of thorns, for getting to the house was almost impossible. When such an occasion arose, Serissa or her mother would sit on top of the windmill by the motionless blades and guide the person safely off their land by shouting to them which way to go.
Serissa’s mother had been a witch and not just any witch, but one branded with a title from the high king of the land—King Author. She was known as the Red Thorn Witch. The story was told that the King thought she needed rescuing back when he was a lowly knight and had sought to free her from her prison… only to be lost in the maze and guided out by the tiny witch laughing herself sick from atop the windmill. In his humiliation, he dubbed her the Red Thorn Witch.
In fact, Serissa’s mother’s real name was Surrey and she wasn’t the least bit terrifying. The roses were there for their protection. Surrey was a powerful witch because she had been able to coax even the weakest stems to grow thick with deep perseverance.
As her daughter and protege, Serissa was an utter failure. Surrey schooled her and trained her, but Serissa seemed incapable in every form of magic she tried. She could cook, but even if her bread rose to perfection, her potions were about as effective as water. Her thumbs were black instead of green and the rose bushes meant to protect her hated her (sometimes secretly, sometimes openly). The future was a dim fog to her. When she tried to divine anything, the only answer she got from the tea leaves was, “Wait and see.” Pathetic! Surrey encouraged her to try stargazing, but that was a dismal road for Serissa to walk. The stars didn’t look like two-headed goats or unicorns with elephant feet. They just looked like stars.
In the end, when Surrey’s life had almost wasted away, she decided not to trust her rose bushes to protect her daughter. They were losing their life-force as quickly as she was. In her desperation, she tried a different kind of magic on her child. She made her ugly.
In the weeks that followed Surrey’s burial, Serissa waited. First, she waited for the rose bushes to die, and second, she waited for someone to come who would inevitably take her away.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found myself sitting outside, but I was. The weather in Edmonton had been dreary because winter was coming, but suddenly I was sitting in the shade of a tree taking refuge from the hot summer sun. I smiled. I was going to enjoy the story. It was going to be like going on a vacation to Mexico during one of the worst parts of the year.
Wait… except if I was playing the part of the daughter, wasn’t I supposed to be ugly? The girl in the story’s name was Serissa and I was sitting in a small yard surrounded by a little wooden fence. On the other side, there were rose bushes. I was undoubtedly Serissa, but how was I ugly?
Since I couldn’t see myself, I got up and went into the house, which was only marginally better than an old shed in Emi’s yard used for sheltering tools. Well, the introduction I read made it sound like I wouldn’t be staying in the hut for very long. I went in. There was a washbasin on a stand, a hammock strung across the room, and another one lying idly by the wall. There was a chest, which I opened only to find it full of books, quilts, and hideous clothes—not unlike the nun-like pinafore I was wearing. There was a cupboard in the corner that was full of pots for stewing and hooks and knives I assumed were either for cooking or for trimming back the rose bushes. In another corner, there was a barrel full of cornmeal and another one full of oats. Other than those things, the place was practically empty. How had anyone managed to live in such a place? I didn’t know how to cook straight cornmeal.
I couldn’t find a mirror. I went back outside.
The yard was a relatively simple affair. There was the windmill mentioned in the introduction, a small vegetable garden with a huge raspberry bush taking over everything close to the roses, the house, and a well. I supposed that was the closest thing I was going to get to a mirror. I picked up the bucket and dropped it in.
As I pulled up the bucket, I wondered why I never realized drawing water would be hard work. Wooden buckets were heavy. Water was heavy, too. One would think I hadn’t hauled four-liter jugs of milk up three flights of stairs all my life.
I set the water down and waited for it to settle. When it finally did, I was shocked to see what Evander meant by ugly. For starters, every scrap of my flaming red hair was tied up in the most hideous knots ever devised. Secondly, my face was covered in warts. Touching my face, I squished one between my fingers to see what it was like. It went flat and I could feel it detaching from my skin. Nervously, I pulled it off. It was clear and it felt like jelly. I tried to stick it back on my face and it stuck. Then I realized that there were a few down my neck also. Ew! But not uncomfortable. If I didn’t touch myself, I couldn’t even feel they were there. I moved my face and made all kinds of strange contortions, but the warts just moved and did whatever my face did.
In the end, I left them alone. They were obviously part of my character in the story and I didn’t want to ruin it.
I looked down at my nun habit. It was clearly another part of the plan to make me ugly. No curves could be seen through the thick black pinafore hanging over my front and my back. What a pity! I had such pretty dresses in the last story.
It was then that I heard a sound—loud and long—coming from the midst of the rosebush labyrinth. It wasn’t exactly a scream. It sounded more like a groan with a heavy dose of pain in it.
Rather than run into the bushes, I did what the introduction said Surrey did and climbed up the windmill. From that somewhat precarious vantage point, I could see someone struggling through the passages throughout the rose bushes.
“Want me to guide you out?” I called.
“I’m quite all right,” a low voice replied cheerfully.
I could see thrashing within an overgrown part of the path and little bits of underbrush flying into the air. The man had cleared that hedge and was in an open passage. Looking at the distance he had to go, I could see he had a pretty good chance of actually making into the yard, unlike the old king. As I looked out, I was confused. Why did Surrey even make a path for anyone to enter into the yard? Wouldn’t it have been easier to leave the prisoners of the maze hunting through it forever with no way in?
A second later, the young man looked upwards and I saw why he needed to be able to get in. It was Evander... with a few subtle changes. His hair was not tied back at all. It was ash brown and fell straight to a blunt cut that was slightly shorter in the back than in the front. He had sideburns that went all the way to his jaw. A swell of happiness rose inside me at the sight of him, but then I realized he wasn’t properly equipped to take on the maze. For starters, he didn’t have any shoes on. He was wearing a pair of heavily worn, roughly-woven trousers. They were rolled up to just below the knee and he wore a plain cotton shirt that was probably once white but turned gray through wear. The fastenings were done up to his collarbone. I looked closer and saw that he didn’t just have scratches on his feet, but up his legs and arms. On his neck, there was a cut that had bled onto his shirt.
But even with all that, he grinned broadly at me as I climbed down the windmill and approached him.
“How did you get in?” I asked.
“I’m a magician,” he explained, suddenly showering himself with a handful of gold dust. The dust fell on his nose, in his hair and eyebrows. It clung to the moisture around his lips and the sweat on his face. “So I know how to do things like that.”
“Get through a labyrinth?” I asked as I tried to stop laughing. He looked adorable.
“It’s easy. Whenever you come to a cross-way, you always go left.”
I dropped my shoulders. I should have known that.
“I’m Kalavan,” he said, suddenly stepping forward and taking my hand.
“And I’m Serissa,” I volunteered as I invariably stepped backward. He was staring at me. The warts were probably repulsive and my face was turning red under his scrutiny.
He didn’t miss a beat. “You’re a witch? I came because I was told a witch lives here and I want to know if you have any wares or spells you can sell me.”
Since it was Evander and it was his story I’d trust him with anything. If the story was going to be another romance, I wanted to take any shortcut to fall in love with him. Giving in to his query seemed like the quickest way to winning him over. I thought about the books in the shed… house. “I suppose you can have a look through my mother’s spell books.”
He looked around edgily. “Will she mind? Is she easily angered?”
“She’s dead,” I said blankly.
He gawked. “The Red Thorn is dead? Pity,” he said sadly. Then he brightened. “And you’re going to let me look at her spell books? Wonderful!”
I took him into the broken down, old house, but I didn’t feel as self-conscious as when I had him tour my apartment back home. After all, he had created the house, and he obviously thought that it was nothing to be ashamed of. He wasn’t the snob I imagined him to be.
I opened the trunk for him and observed him thumbing through the books. I turned my back to him for one minute and by the time I had turned back he was lying in my hammock reading one of the books.
“Do you understand any of this?” he asked, showing me a page.
“No,” I said, glancing at the foreign writing. “Do you?”
“Your roses are wilting,” he said suddenly.
“Are you telling me to go tend them?”
“Yes. Your walking around the room is making me nervous. I can’t concentrate.”
My mouth fell open. We had only been in the house a total of two and a half minutes and already he’d made himself at home and told me—the shack… homeowner—to get lost. Not only that, but I’d walked the length of the room once. Once.
I set my mouth in an ugly line, picked up one of the books, and got into the other hammock, which was surprisingly comfortable. Then I stuck my tongue out at Kalavan and hid my head in the book.
I tried to look just as engrossed in the volume as he did, but it was arduous. Looking at the words and the illustrations, I had no idea what the book was about. One would think that pictures would be a universal language, but the pictures didn’t look like anything. I turned the book upside down and then to either side, but I couldn’t see anything.
“That’s a good idea,” he said, copying me.
“It didn’t do me any good.”
“No? Me neither.”
“Do you even know what your book is about?” I asked cautiously.
“It’s hard to say.”
“You’re funny. Nihilism is not hard to pronounce. I say it all the time,” he frowned. At that second, his face was exactly like Tremor’s. Was that Evander’s true self? Kalavan dropped the book on the floor, exasperated, and turned on his side to look at me. “This book is boring. You’re a far more fascinating piece of magic. Those bumps on your face are truly remarkable. When I first saw you, I thought they were real.”
“And you still wanted to talk to me?” I exclaimed.
“It only took me a minute to figure out their falsehood. I’m good at seeing through glamor. It’s my specialty. The substance that makes those warts is so thin it’s transparent and if the light hits one just right, you can see an almost yellow liquid oozing around inside like it’s ready to pop.”
“That can’t happen,” I snapped, covering my face with the book. “And don’t talk to me about things oozing. I’m gonna puke.” When he didn’t say anything I got up the courage to ask from behind the pages, “Am I really ugly then?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “But you shouldn’t let that get you down. I can almost see through it.”
“’Almost’?” I repeated in anguish lifting the book off my face. “I don’t want to be ugly.”
He looked at me speculatively. “And what happens when everyone realizes you’re not?”
For some reason, I couldn’t think within the confines of the story. Instead, I could only think of what it would be like to be ugly, so ugly in real life you were practically deformed and that was how I answered him. What would it be like to be beautiful? “People would treat me like I was special.”
He scoffed, “’Like you were special? Wake up! You are special. And you would make everyone realize it if you had the courage to be yourself completely without relying on a pretty face.”
“I don’t care about what the whole world thinks of me,” I groaned. “I only want the attention of the person I like.”
“And he might have thirty beauties to choose from. What would set you apart from them?”
I sighed. “So I can’t win?”
A moment passed and then another… and then another. Finally, he said, “You can only win if your heart is more beautiful than your face. That doesn’t just include qualities like kindness or sympathy. It’s more than that. You have to be courageous, fearless, with a clear compass pointing which way you’re going.”
My nasal cavities were filling up. I was going to cry in a second. My poor self-esteem was exposed. What he said made me feel hopeless, because even though he made a list of attributes, I didn’t know how to make myself beautiful on the inside.
He graciously pretended to ignore my little crying fit, and when I was finished he casually said, “I don’t think I can read any of this without my crystal ball, which I didn’t bring with me. Will you sell me a few of these?”
I bit my lip. What would happen in the story if I sold him a few books and let him leave? The introduction Evander wrote seemed to imply that someone, an unknown entity, was coming to lead me out into the world. Obviously, that was Kalavan, but it didn’t sound like he had any intention of inviting me anywhere.
“How many would you need to take me with you?” I asked quietly.
“Take you where?” he mocked.
“Wherever you’re going.”
“Wherever I’m going? Well, in that case, I should tell you that I’m going to the capital.”
“Where is that?”
He took a deep breath and sighed. “You’ve never been there? You don’t know anything about it?”
I shook my head.
“Well, it’s a kingdom that was a dukedom until about twelve years ago. Until then they were under the reign of King Author to the south. Contact broke and the Duke Pevinore crowned himself King Pevinore. Now it’s called Chellot and it’s a wild place lacking the sort of enlightenment a person like you requires.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that they kill witches and burn them at the stake—all the time.”
“Are you just saying that so you can leave me behind?” I asked skeptically.
“No,” he said, lifting another volume with the tips of his fingers. “I’m quite serious. You wouldn’t be safe there.”
“What about you? You’re a magic-user. Why haven’t you been burned?”
He didn’t answer me and instead inspected the cover with a pleasant expression like he didn’t hear me.
“I can’t do any magic.” I continued trying to convince him. “The Red Thorn tried and tried, but I can’t do anything right. I can’t do star readings, I can’t do divination, make potions or even cultivate the rose bushes. I’m useless. If I can’t actually do any magic then I should be safe from suspicion. Right?”
“One would think, but those aren’t the only forms of magic. I told you—I’m an expert in glamor. You liked me as soon as you saw me, didn’t you?”
I was hesitant to say.
“It’s all right. You can admit it. It’s because of that gold dust. It’s not made of anything special. It’s just something that sparkles in sunlight or candlelight, but it makes every woman take an instant liking to me. Something that simple may not seem like much, but it’s a kind of magic.” He paused and looked at my face. “Don’t feel like a fool because you fell for it. Everyone does.”
I straightened my back and rebelled. “I don’t feel like a fool. I would have liked you without the dust.”
“If you say so,” he said sardonically, still maintaining that unconcerned expression.
Maybe he wasn’t being unreasonable, but I didn’t care. “I won’t let you have any of the books if you don’t take me with you.”
He groaned. “Then don’t.”
The moon rose high in the sky that night and Kalavan stretched out in the hammock next to me. It was enthralling to think of Evander with all these different personality traits. Kalavan didn’t feel very much like Tremor. Tremor was not cheerful, or particularly playful. Kalavan was very entertaining. Come to think of it, I had never seen Evander show himself to be entertaining either. Yet, there had to be some part of him that was.
The moon was very full. I could see it through a break in the roof—a spot intended to be used as a chimney. The bright orb shone a heady white light onto my face. Women were always supposed to look beautiful in the moonlight. I looked like the plague.
Quietly, I whispered, “Is there some other reason you don’t want me to come with you?”
I wasn’t sure if he heard me. In truth, I didn’t really care if he did. Even if I looked ugly and he was holding it against me, I still just liked being with him.
However, he did hear me and he answered. “Do you think I want to leave you behind because you’re ugly?” he asked, revealing his insight. “Truthfully, I would feel better about taking you with me if I knew what you were under that disguise. I have no idea what kind of enchantment you are held by. The types of magic you listed before are only a few. You’re forgetting all about necromancy, elemental magic, simple trickery, summoning… The list is endless. And right now I don’t have the time to put your puzzle together. I have to leave tomorrow. I’m only allowed so many days away from the castle and even if I start back first thing tomorrow, it’ll be cutting it. Forget about coming with me.”
“Don’t you want my books?”
“More than anything and I have no doubt I’d be able to read them with my crystal ball.”
“I’d like to read them, too. But tell me, what’s so special about a crystal ball? It doesn’t change the form and shape of what you’re looking at.”
“Not normally,” he agreed, “but mine is different. It’s got three great flaws that branch out from the center, almost like a flower with three petals. Each one has its own angle and when you look at something through it; it joins lines on paper that didn’t meet before. There are different ways to hold it and different ways to drag it across the page. Figuring out the right angles would take forever, but it would be well worth it.”
“Could you teach me?”
“Because I’m not taking you or your books with me.”
After that, he was silent again, and something inside me said he wouldn’t speak again that night. I was right.
I fell asleep listening to the sound of Kalavan breathing. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but maybe he had sprinkled some weird dust on me when it was time for annoying, talkative girls to pass out. In any case, I slept like a log—a warm, happy log.
Author’s Notes: Thanks for reading! I’ve been working on my website lately, if you want to take a look. https://tigrix1.wixsite.com/stephanievanorman