They never get enough; you learn that after ten or twenty years. You can brew your potions and chant your spells for them; you can fill empty bellies and empty full ones; you can spend yourself from dawn till dusk for them, but they never stop coming to your door.
They loved me once, when I said yes to every supplicant who came knocking. They called me “goodwife” and brought me gifts and praised my wisdom. They listened eagerly to my words, until I told them I was tired. I told them my spirit was being drained off to sustain them. I asked for a week, even a day, free from their demands, and to that they did not listen.
I became the witch the first time I said no. Suddenly all my powers were suspect. My skills and wisdom were deemed dangerous, now that they were no longer at the people’s disposal.
“No” was the only curse I needed to bestow, to earn their hatred. I did cast stronger curses later. They came to my door, loud with rage instead of with need, and I saw in their eyes that they would kill me if I did not make them afraid. So I put toads in their mouths and boils on their skin, hot coals under their feet and dark nightmares in their sleep.
They hate and fear me still, but at least they leave me alone.
Joan had never seen an orange before, and wanted to keep it to decorate her cabin. She hoarded bright things, magpie-like, whenever she could find them — bits of ribbon discarded from packages the wealthier passengers had bought, pieces of plastic that broke off the play areas of the ship, hazard stickers peeled off once the materials had been safely discarded. She had lived seven of her eight years on the ship, and had made her tiny gray cabin a strange colorful scrap heap. Her mother spoke often of how delighted she would be when they disembarked at last, and she saw the array of colors a planet could provide.
Today, however, was a special day, as a patron had sponsored a lightning shipment of fresh fruit. Everybody got something — whole baskets for the wealthy passengers, a single orange for the poorer families. It was a luxurious treat, if only Joan would let them eat it before it went bad. She only knew cheap shipboard food, and could not be persuaded that any flavor could possibly be worth cutting open that perfect bright sphere.
Her mother, desperate for a taste of the fruit, looked up how to dry and save an orange peel, promised Joan she could have it. Joan was still unmoved, and at last her mother resorted to a lie. She remembered, from her own childhood, finding an orange that had been forgotten at the toe of last year’s Christmas stocking, dried out and perfectly preserved. She did not tell Joan of this possibility, but said that if they let the fruit rot, it would grow black and shrunken. She tried never to lie to her child, but it had its effect. Joan permitted her to peel the fruit, watching with dubious and unhappy eyes as her mother’s fingers split and peeled the perfect skin. The fruit inside was intriguing to Joan, but she was still more concerned with the peel, laying it out above the heater with anxious care. Only when she was convinced that her treasure was safe would she return to try the half-moon of fruit her mother had set aside for her. She popped one plump segment into her mouth, and then her eyes widened, and tears rose at the explosion of bright sweetness.
The house had a memory. It had no sight, but it knew when feet pressed its floors, when movement or speech shifted the air in its rooms. It knew the tiny sharp scrabble of cat feet, the soft fast padding of small children, the slower impress of an adult with cares and burdens. It knew its people by their movements and the way they shaped the air, some rushing from room to room and pushing words rapidly from their mouths, some slower, making almost no disturbance but the falls of their feet. It knew as its people came and went, replaced by others. It knew the woman who had lived there longest, her light, ready steps growing slower over the years, until at last it felt her mostly in the two rhythmic lines of her rocking chair.
The house had a memory, and knew its people, so it knew when the bad man came. Instead of small pulses of laughter and chatter, there were long silences punctuated by rushing outbursts of fury. The children’s feet went slow and tentative through the rooms. The old woman’s rocking was uneven, stopping to listen every time the bad man moved from room to room.
The house had a memory, and knew its people, and the bad man was not welcome in its walls. Every door stuck at the touch of his heavy hand, and refused to open until a gentler touch came to let him out or in. Every faucet spluttered and spat when he wrenched open the taps. Cupboards swung closed as soon as he turned his back on them, and the lights always flickered in the room where he sat, no matter how often the bulbs were changed.
The outbursts of fury came more often, but the others in the house found that if they could close a door between themselves and the bad man, no effort of his would open it. In time, his heavy feet and his rages left and did not return, and the old woman’s chair rocked in peaceful rhythm.
A tiny white flower grew in a crack of a concrete stair – slender petals standing out like a seven-pointed star around a bright gold center. Mary greeted it as a friend every day on her way to the bus. She loved the small, stubbornly bright thing among all the grey and slate.
One day, giving the flower a tiny wave as usual, she thought she saw something flicker out of sight just as she looked at it. She peered closer, but saw nothing. The next day she saw it again, something that moved so quickly that all her eyes could register was that something had vanished. After that she tried to catch it out, approaching slowly or quickly, walking on the outside edge of the sidewalk or tiptoeing near. It did not seem to matter how she approached, or whether she turned her eyes to the flower the second it came in view, or waited until she was inches away from it. The little vanishing thing waited until her gaze landed on it, and then blinked away.
Mary’s grandmother had told her about fairies, with a casual seriousness more convincing than any wide-eyed dramatization. The dull city block seemed a very strange place for a fairy, but then it also seemed a strange place for a flower. Grandmother had died years ago, but Mary knew what she would say to do if she were here. For four days she told herself it was too foolish, but after one especially lonely and dreary day at work she decided there was no harm in a foolish gesture. She found an acorn cap in a park and slipped it into her pocket. The next morning she filled it with sugar-water and carried it carefully down the street toward the bus stop. She laid it gently on the step just above the flower, and then hurried on to the stop, not wanting it to seem like she was waiting for anything to happen.
She was kept late that day, and it was dark by the time she walked home. But the next morning, when she came to the concrete stairs, she laughed with delight. A second small stem had risen beside the white flower, and another bud was beginning to swell.